Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Voltaire spares a thought for the poultry! Dialogue du Chapon et de la Poularde

Anne Vallayer-Coster, Still life: cock and hen. c.1787.  Musée de Tessé. LeMans.
Another one for the festive season -  Voltaire's dialogue of 1763 between a capon and a fattened hen.  In the Dialogue the two birds confide to one another that they have both been neutered; the capon informs his naive companion that they will soon be killed,  cooked and eaten.  In the end the sous-chef arrives and the hapless birds say their farewells. Their laments provide Voltaire with a convenient pretext to denounce the cruelty of human beings, their injustices and hypocrisies.


THE CAPON:  Dear God, my sweet Hen, why are you so miserable?

THE HEN: My dear friend, you ought to ask instead why I am not more miserable!  An accursed servant took me over her knees, stuck a long needle into my backside, seized my womb,  twirled it around the needle, ripped it out and gave it to her cat to eat.  Now I cannot receive the favours of the Cockerel, nor lay any eggs.

THE CAPON: Alas! my good Hen, I have lost more than you.  The operation they did on me was doubly cruel.  Neither you nor I will find consolation any more in this world: we have been made into a poularde and, in my case, a capon.  The only idea that sweetens my deplorable state, is that I heard two Italian abbés talking near my hen-house  who had suffered the same outrage so that they could sing in a clearer voice before the pope.  They said that men had begun by circumcising their kind and finished up by castrating them; they cursed their fate, and the human race.

THE HEN: Are they going to eat us?  The monsters!

It is their custom.  They put us in prison for several days, force us to swallow a pâté of a secret recipe, gouge out our eyes so that we are not distracted;  finally, when the fete day arrives, they pull out our feathers, cut our throats and roast us.  They bring us in before them on a large silver platter;  each one says what he thinks of us; they give our funeral oration: one says that we taste of hazelnut, another notes our succulent flesh; they praise our thighs, our wings, our posterior, and that's our time in this world finished for good.

THE HEN: What abominable wretches!  I am ready to faint. What!  Snatch out my eyes!  Cut my throat!  I'm going to be roasted and eaten! Do these scoundrels have no remorse?

THE CAPON:  No, my friend.  The two abbés that I told you about said that men never feel remorse about things that they are accustomed to do by habit.

THE HEN: What a detestable breed!  I bet they  continue to laugh and tell amusing stories as they eat us, as though nothing has happened.

La cuisine bourgeoise by Jean-Baptiste Lallemand.
THE CAPON: You've guessed it.  But you should know, for your consolation (if such is possible), that these animals - who are bipeds like us, and are very inferior to us because they lack feathers - have often treated their own kind just as badly.

My two abbés said that the Greek Christian emperors never failed to gouge out the eyes of their brothers and cousins.  In the country where we are now, there was a certain Débonnaire who put out the eyes of his nephew Bernard.  As to roasting each other, nothing is more common among this species.   My two abbés said that more than twenty thousand men had been roasted for opinions which it would be difficult for a capon to explain, and which I care very little about.

THE HEN: So are they roasted to be eaten?

THE CAPON: I can't tell you that for certain; but I remember clearly having heard that there were countries - among them that of the Jews - where men have sometimes eaten one another.

THE HEN: Let's leave it at that.  It is proper that the representatives of such a perverse species should devour one another, and that the earth should be purged of that race.  But what about me?  I am peaceable and have never done any wrong; I have even nourished these monsters by giving them my eggs.  Why should I be castrated, blinded, beheaded and roasted?!  Do they treat us like that in the rest of the world?

THE CAPON: The two abbés say no.  They confirm that in a country called India, which is much larger, more beautiful and fertile than ours, men have had for thousands of years a sacred law which forbids them to eat us.  A certain Pythagoras, who traveled among these just peoples, brought this humane law back to Europe where it was followed by his disciples.  The good abbés read Porphyry the Pythagorian, who wrote a fine book against meat-eating.

Oh great man!  Oh divine Porphyry!  With wisdom, force and tender respect for the Divinity, he proved that we are the allies and relatives of men. God has given us the same organs, the same feelings, the same memory, the same seed of understanding, developed in us to a point determined by eternal laws.  In short, my dear Hen, it is an outrage against God to say that we have senses but do not feel and a brain but do not think. These imaginings, of a fool named Descartes, are the height of ridiculousness and an empty excuse for barbarity.

Thus the greatest philosophers of Antiquity never had us spit-roasted. They tried to learn our language and to understand our behaviour, which is so superior to that of the human race.  We were safe with them as in a Golden Age.  Sages do not kill animals, said Porphyry; it is only barbarians and priests that kill and eat them.  He wrote his admirable book to convert one of his disciples who had become a Christian through gluttony.

THE HEN: Well, then. Do they put up altars to this great man who taught virtue to the human race, and saved the lives of animals?

THE CAPON: No. He is regarded with horror by Christians who eat us, and who still detest his memory today; they say that he was impious, that his virtues were false, because he was a pagan.

THE HEN:  Gourmandise creates terrible prejudices.  The other day I hear a man addressing other men in the big building near our hen-house.  He announced that "God has made a pact with us and with those other animals called men; that God has forbidden them to eat our blood and flesh."  How can they reconcile this prohibition with devouring our boiled and roasted limbs?  When they cut our throats, it is impossible to leave no blood in our veins; this blood mingles with our flesh; they are evidently disobeying God by eating us.  Besides isn't it a sacrilege to kill and devour people with whom God has made a pact? It would be a strange agreement where the only clause is to deliver us to death.   Either the Creator did not made a pact with us, or it is a crime to kill and cook us;  there is no middle ground.

THE CAPON: That isn't the only contradiction to be found among these monsters, our eternal enemies.   They have long been reproached because they cannot agree among themselves on anything.  They make laws only to violate them; and what is worse they violate them in conscience.  They have invented a hundred subterfuges, a hundred sophisms, to justify their transgressions.  They use reason only to justify injustice and words only to disguise their thoughts. Consider:  in the little country where we live, it is forbidden to eat us on two days of the week. They have found a way to evade this law. Indeed, this law, which seems favourable to you, is actually very barbarous;  it requires that on these days they eat instead the inhabitants of the water; they go and find their victims in the depths of seas and rivers.  They consume creatures where a single fillet often costs more than a hundred capons;  they call this fasting, doing penance.  In short, I don't believe it would be possible to imagine a species more ridiculous and at the same time more abominable, extravagant and bloodthirsty.

Colour plate from Jules Gouffé, Livre de cuisine (1867)
THE HEN:  Oh, my God!  Can't you see  - the villainous sous-chef is about to arrive with his great knife?

THE CAPON: We are done for, my Friend, our final hour has come! Let us commend our souls to God.

THE HEN:  I hope  I give the rogue who eats me an indigestion so bad that he wretches. But little people always try to avenge themselves on the powerful with useless wishes and the powerful just laugh at them.

THE CAPON:   Agh! I am being seized by the neck.  Let us forgive our enemies

THE HEN:  I am no more.  They have grabbed me, they are carrying me off.

THE CAPON:  Goodbye, for all eternity, my dear little Hen.


In France the dialogue is on the Baccalaureate syllabus; there are many different versions in French on the internet and a nice critical edition: Voltaire, Dialogue du chapon et de la poularde, Manucius, 2014, 9782845784352, collection «Littéra».  No English versions though. There is a discussion of the dialogue in Carlo Ginzburg, Threads and traces: true, false, fictive (2010) p.109-111. 

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