I gave up long ago thinking in terms of national culture, and I’ve never had any confidence in what has been called the « progress » of history. I think rather in terms of focal points, energy sources, scattered across place and time, like islands, islets, in an archipelago. One of the most interesting of those focal points in Europe and the world developed in Provence between say, the end of the tenth and the middle of the fourteenth century, between the creation of the poem on Boethius (Lo Poema de Boecis) and the foundation, at Toulouse, in 1323, of the Consistory of Joyous Knowledge (Consistori del Gai Saber). What I want to do here is explore the original energies of this focal point, examine its constitution and its extension, consider possible prolongations of its teachings. As with all such explorations in my work, my interest in Provençal culture is not only retrospective, it is projective.
There was a time, going back maybe a century or more, when Provence and in particular its coast (called the Riviera or the Côte d’Azur) was considered more as a sanatorium than as a source of poetic, intellectual, cultural energy. Those were the days when doctors would send off to the coast those of their patients, mostly tubercular, who could afford the cost of the stay, there to benefit from superb surroundings and a seductive climate. The result was that with the presence of so many sick people, not necessarily moribund, but certainly not very sturdy, the Riviera began to look more and more like the shores of death.
It was on to those deathbed shores that Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in 1873, at the age of twenty-three, an invalid among invalids.
He gazes on the green olive groves and the indigo-coloured sea, he examines the lines of the naked Alps and the charming contour of the bays (the picturesque mingles with the erotic), but nothing deeply moves him. His perception of that beauty remains coldly cerebral, very far from the kind of pleasure that invades the whole of being. He feels incapable of feeling in resonance with the landscape, between the world and himself all charm is broken. His body is no longer agile and sensitive as it once was, but flegmatic, apathetic. He’s seeing things through a veil, touching them as if he was wearing gloves.
His initial movement is one of reaction. It’s all due to the circumstances and the atmosphere. The southern air isn’t stimulating, the elements lack vivacity. He’d be better off in the harshness of a Scottish winter.
Then spring returns.
What Stevenson experiences then is a phenomenon frequent in the body’s economy: illness can be a stage on the path to a more subtle type of health. Lazing like a lizard in the sun, taking long walks along the coast or in the back country, he feels that his nerves have a more acute sensitivity than is the norm, that his sensations go from nuance to nuance, that his most fugitive ephemeral impressions have an unusual force and intensity. On a beach of pebbles, he sees a group of washerwomen dressed in bright colours, and it’s a living picture, a completely satisfying image. Taking a more contemplative look at the olive trees, he notes the infinite variety of their colouring and the changes it goes through: now green, now grey, now blue. He sees the first violet of the year and wonders what alchemy could cause to emerge from cold soil and wet air such rich colour, such exquisite perfume.
The place is transfigured. He feels he is living not only in the very homeland of beauty, but in the splendour of the real. He's’s no longer a patient in a sanatorium, he’s a dweller and traveller in what another author dear to his heart (and mine), Laurence Sterne, calls « the sensorium of nature ».
In the midst of all this splendid sensation, Stevenson tries to think it out, tries to understand what has happened to him, why he has suddenly become so sensitive to the « picture » of nature. He advances a few hypotheses, begins to work out a theory. In order to understand that « intelligible whole » that alone merits the name of picture or landscape, various factors have to come together: the intensity of the perception, the depth of enjoyment goes back ultimately to various physical elements such as the quickness of the nervous system or « some exquisite refinement in the architecture of the brain ». And he puts the question to himself: can such sensations, such experiences, be more than ephemeral, is it possible to nurture them, make them last?
My proposition is that what makes for such nurture and lastingness is a culture.
In a civilisation without culture in this deep sense of the world, individuals will feel the need of such a life-space, without being able even to name it, far less have a complete conception of it.
The young Scottish writer walking in those places, asking himself those questions, knew nothing of the culture that had existed there.
Another convalescent of the times, who had known sensation and experience similar to those of Stevenson, on the plateau of the Engadine in Switzerland and along the shores of the Riviera, did know about it. This was Friedrich Nietzsche, philologist and philosopher. In his lightning autobiography, Ecce Homo, you find this: « The Provençal concept of gaya scienza is that union of poet and free-spirit which distinguishes the culture of the Provençals from all ambiguous cultures. » And in another book that bears as title that notion of Gaya Scienza, he has this: « You have to know how to wait, prepare yourself, let the light, the radiance, the mystery of a southern sky spread over you. »
All the clients of the coast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries didn’t have the sensitivity and intelligence of Stevenson and Nietzsche, far from it. To the sick people with their wretched misery were added, more and more, the wealthy with their jaded boredom. Those latter had to be amused, hence a string of casinos from Monte Carlo on. Later, along came the showbiz people, vulgar and ostentatious, who were going to add to the already existent accumulations of nonentity their own brand of canned entertainment. Later still, to complete the congestion, came mass tourism, that turned the coast into a superurbanised ribbon of noise and pollution. What was left of the original Provençal culture was reduced to folkloric festivals.
This fast presentation of a context now more or less exclusively mercantile is enough, because the place, from Monte Carlo up or down, has become fabulously notorious. It was essential simply to open perspectives, do a little culture-analysis, in order to maintain some sense of real values.
Let’s come back to the convalescents.
Aren’t we all, deep down, convalescents, emerging, slowly, from the nightmare of history and the long sickness of humanity, trying to renew contact with the earth, gather in elements of deep culture?
It was in the Ardèche, in the mountain country of the Cévennes, a region that in those times was part of what was called « the French desert » (devoid of industry and metropolitanism) that I initiated myself into the culture of Provence.
I’m using Provence in a large sense, both geographically and culturally, as did the early troubadours, for whom the term covered all of the linguistic area that was later to be called Occitania, the country of the oc language of the South (oc meaning « yes ») as distinguished from the language of the North, where « yes » was oïl before it became oui.
In early times, Provence (from provincia) was that part of Gaul first colonised by the Romans. In ethnic terms, it was a fusion of races: Gauls, Celto-Iberians, Ligurians, Greeks, Romans, Jews and Arabs. It was never a nation: nationalist ideology was never part of its culture. Politically, it followed several jurisdictions: that of the Holy Romano-Germanic Empire, that of the Count of Toulouse, that of the Duke of Aquitainia, that of the King of Aragon. It took them as they came, its own deep tendency being towards a kind of anarchistic federalism. When, in 1481, it joined with France, on principle the transaction was one neither of annexation or of absorption, but of a free union. In linguistic terms, on the basis of vulgar Latin, it developed across the whole region Provençal (in the strict sense), Gascon, Catalan, the standard being a classical Occitan employed by most of the poets.
Those poets were « troubadours ». The term trobador may come from the medieval Latin tropator, based on the verb tropare, meaning to compose tropes, word schemes, to accompany the hallelujah in ecclesiastical ceremonies. But the simple sense of « finding » (trouver, as, more obviously, in the northern form of troubadour, trouvère) is probably not to be neglected. They were in love with language, eager for linguistic finds, subtle combinations, complex rhythms. All of this could go from the limpid to the complicated, from the trobar leu (light and easy-flowing) to the trobar clus (closed, condensed), passing through the trobar ric (rich with resonant sounds). To name these poets is a pleasure in itself: Guillaume d’Aquitaine, Bernart de Ventadour, Arnaut Daniel, Peire Vidal, Jaufré Rudel, Raimbaut d’Orange, Arnaut de Mareuil, Guillem de Cabestany, Peire d’Alvergne, Raimbaut de Vaqueiras, Bertrand de Born. They moved around a lot, all over the region and farther afield, as indicated by the name of one of them, Cercamon (« circles the world »), who was Gascon.
They composed « dawn songs » (alba), they sang of love distilled to a fineness (fin’amor), of distant love (amor lontana), and of a joyous playfulness (joi), of cortesia, which is much more than mere courtesy or playing court, but a free intercourse between evolved and developed individuals endowed with largesa: generosity, openness of mind.
Theirs was a cult of fine pleasure – pleasure in the things of nature, pleasure in the play of language, pleasure in unencumbered living. All of this vastly different both from the heavy routines of feudalism and the rigid moralism plus otherworld spirituality of the church.
Rarely in the history of human culture was there such a complete combination of eros, logos and cosmos, such a perfect fusion of sensitivity and intelligence.
Here’s Guillaume d’Aquitaine:
Here’s Bernart de Ventadour:
Here’s Arnaut de Mareuil:
Here’s Raimbaut d’Orange:
And here, to complete my little anthology of the South, this from Peire Vidal, a phrase that embraces with delectation the whole territory:
« Ah, to feel in my nostrils the breeze that comes to me from Provence. The finest land in the world is the one that stretches from the Rhône to Vence, from the sea to the Durance. Nowhere is there such perfect joyance. »
There’s no fertile field of culture without influences.
In the case of Provence, the influences were many. In the first place, there was Latin culture – notably the poetry of Ovid (mainly the Amores and the Metamorphoses and texts such as the De consolatione philosophiae by Boethius, which gave rise to the first long provençal poem we know. Then there was the diffuse presence of Celtic myth and poetry, in particular the figure of Tristan. To that store must be added a gnostic influence coming from catharism and the spiritual movement of the twelfth century. Antipaulist if not absolutely antichristian, this current brought in a conception of body and eros that was exactly opposite to the theses admitted in the church. On the one hand, the body considered as an obstacle to the salvation of the soul, good only for procreation, family life, all subordinated to the worship of the Lord, the God of the Law. On the other, a psycho-sensual synthesis making for an enhanced individual existence and, in the place of Jehovah, the cult of Sophia, a body of wisdom with supple lines, a slim silhouette and suave features. Impossible also not to take into account a semitic influence stemming from the Jewish communities, but, mostly, from the Arab culture of muslim Spain. I’ve got an Arab poem of the twelfth century in my library, Nazm as-suluk (« The poem of the way »), written in Cairo by Al-Farid. In a text that combines eroticism, mysticism and erudition, the poet recalls with ecstatic pleasure the pilgrimage he made to the sacred places of Arabia. We find there all the elements of high Provençal poetry: the discovery of a « land of light », the experience of unity (erotic and/or sophic), gnostic silence, the penetration into deep reality, the inner circle of meditation, and on its edge the presence of deformers marked by jealousy and ignorance. This « poem of the way » goes far. We hear in it of « the white light that shattered Mt Sinaï », and come across this precept: « Be as you were before you were at all », which is close to the « original face » of extreme Buddhism.
I know of no Provençal poem that goes quite so far as that. This is at least partly because Provençal culture was simply not allowed the time to gather in all these influences and push the movement to its more distant shores. Yet it did have time to exercise its own influence. We find traces of it in Italy, at Ferrara, Mantua, Florence and Venice, with Sordello, Francis of Assisi (I’m thinking in particular of his Cantic del Sol) and Dante, among others. It can be found in fact all over Europe, where elements are picked up by searchers in other fields, many of whom never heard of Arnaut Daniel, but caught a whiff of the Provençal atmosphere, captured a cadence, tuned in to echoes.
I said the space of Provençal culture was deprived of the time necessary for full development. It was too beautiful, too subtle, too foreign to be accepted by thick minds. History took its toll, brutally, as so often. The Church of the Inquisition bore down on the Cathar communities, condemning them as immoral, antisocial, anarchistic. Under the cover of religion, landgrabbing crusaders came barging in, setting up a bulwark of nationalist politics. The fine flower of Provençal was crushed under the wheels of a conquering, murderous civilisation. It was at that moment Bernart de Marvejols raised this cry, and it was like a swan song:
From my home base at Gourgounel (« the house of sources ») in the Ardèche, I moved a lot for years around the South. Of all the influences that enriched Provençal culture, I’ve reserved one for a final appraisal: the land itself, the landscape. It is primordial. And it’s perhaps above all from there that a new beginning can take place.
A question of geography, but more than geography.
In a text, « Provence », included in the volume Eau vive, Jean Giono has this:
What I have to say about Provence might be entitled: « A Short Treatise on the Knowledge of Things ». It’s impossible to know a country by means of the science of geography alone. I’d even say that it’s impossible to know anything by science pure and simple. It’s an instrument that is too hard, and too cutting. The world has a thousand delicate nuances that need connivence to be understood before you can know what they represent all together. Geographic certainty is like anatomic certainty. You can ascertain exactly where a river starts, where it ends, and in what direction it flows. Just as you can define with precision how blood flows from the heart, the body parts it passes through and irrigates. But the real power of the river, what it represents exactly in the world, its mission with regard to us, its inner light, its play of reflections, its sentimental load of memory, the magic bed it hollows out in one’s soul, and the delta that constitutes its final movement, the imponderable load of precious clay it deposits in the oceans of human conscience – that, science cannot teach you, no more than anatomy can teach a surgeon the mystery of human passion. An autopsy has nothing to say about the nobility of some heart lying there blatantly on a table under brutal light beside the incisive exploratory instruments of science. Like human beings, countries can have a nobleness that you can only get in touch with by means of a friendly approach and long frequentation. And the best means of approach and frequentation is walking, simple walking.
I’d avoid for my part theological, teleological terms such as « mission », likewise facile vocabulary such as « magic ». But I can concur with the general trend of this text. Seeing in it an embryonic stage of geopoetics.
As for walking, the use of one’s body as an instrument of knowledge, that’s exactly what I practised to the full in the region of Beaucaire and Tarascon, Martigues, Aubagne and Arles, « where the Rhône stagnates », as Dante says, with, in my head, not only Cercamon and the other travelling poets, but also those tireless walkers in eternity, the Cathar bosoms (bonshommes – « good fellows »), their brains blazing with strange ideas.
Further on still, I see again the plain of the Crau, that desert of stone with its scattered clumps of thyme, rosemary and thistles. I see once more Carcassonne and Narbonne (« an old Celtic town », says the Greek geographer Hecate of Milet, and Strabo goes so far as to say that the very term « celt » comes from a tribe resident in the Narbonne country). I can still see clearly, feel strongly, the tough, colourful landscape of the Corbières.
Here, among a hundred others like it, is a little text on the Camargue which I included in the book Travels in the Drifting Dawn:
That Spring, I was wandering about in the South, around Arles, on the Plaine de la Crau, in Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and in the Camargue. Of all the places I’d been through, it was the Camargue that had attracted me most and left me tense with expectation. A kind of pools and marshes. Of wind, solitude and silence. A land of light, where water becomes light, where the flow becomes an essence. A nakedness, an austerity, a monotony, an abstraction. A clump of reeds shaken in the wind; an angry blue squall of rain rushing across the sun; white sand rivuletted by wind and water; a snake slithering over the mud; the carcass of a bird half eaten away by the salt, for the salt is everywhere, the earth is impregnated with it. The Camargue is the hieroglyph of a stump of branch projecting above the surface of a mash, or the ideogram of a shell encrusted in sand.
Down there at Gourgounel, I was re-creating a basis.
Without such a basis, there can be no real culture. There will, of course, be cultural productions, cultural exhibitions, cultural manifestations, as part of the scene, but all more and more hollow, more and more inept.
Not so long ago, there was a sociocultural manifestation on the Var coast. To celebrate the sea, to re-affirm a contact between Europe and America (the year was 1992), the idea was for bands of children to unleash into the air hundreds, maybe thousands, of balloons bearing messages. A magnificent initiative, no? Convivial, oozing goodwill, ideologically impeccable – but so stupid, so totally stupid. Not only were those balloons, when they fell into the sea, be a mess of ugly trash, they would be deadly traps for birds and fish.
In short, good intentions aren’t enough, the sociocultural hell is paved with them.
A real culture needs other foundations, contains, implicitly, a much more complex thinking.
What I’ve called the culture of place, of which I’m taking Provence as an example, is rarely present in sociocultural localism.
Real attempts have been made to recover, re-found, a Provençal culture. I’m thinking of the Félibrige idea and movement put forward by Frédéric Mistral. I could sympathize with this revolt against the uniformization of society (« the people of Provence, more and more alienated, exposed to all kinds of outrage »), I could take at least some passing interest in its poetico-political utopia, the Empire of the Sun (precedents to which one can find in Ramon Lull’s Blanquerna and in the Catalan Joan Martorell’s Tirant le Blanch), I could share in Mistral’s love of the Provençal territory, I could appreciate certain aspects of his poetics, but I could scarcely stomach the sentimental bucolics of Mireille and the Armana provençau, I’d have liked to see his Poem of the Rhône bereft of its mithraic mythology, and I had no shift with the ideology of certain texts such as his Ode à la race latine, which in no way corresponded to the multi-ethnic milieu and the complex materials of high Provençal culture.
After the Félibrige came revolutionary regionalism. Once again, I could share in its motivations. In my hermitage at Gourgounel, I was aware of the social struggle at Decazeville and the efforts of the South to maintain its textile industry. I know well, down there in the Ardèche, that I was living among the last vestiges of an autonomous peasantry, subsisting economically on a little of this, a little of that, according to the old system of polyculture. I was not ignorant of the fact that the Army had its eye on the vast stretches of the Causses, and that, in the name of tourism, leisure and culture, hordes of promoters were ready to get their hands on the coastal region for building projects of all types and sizes, anything that would make easy money. And the « California model » that some futurologists wanted to plant on the Alpes-Côte d’Azur region was already ominously in the air. If the pagnolization of Provence was a homely caricature, its Disneyland-cum-Silicon Valley plan would be a hideous catastrophe. So, I could have fellow-feelings with those who were out against such « progress ». But I wasn’t deeply in tune with their political perspectives, their ideas on culture seemed to me all too simple, and their protest songs bored me.
My own aim, not obvious I’ll admit, in living and working down there, in addition to basic work on myself, was to bring together the scattered elements of Provençal culture, project them into an empty, dynamic, blazing space, and so re-create a focal point of energy, a centre of radiancy.
As I said at the beginning of this essay, the opening of a new culture-field is no facile matter. It’s not enough to sing commonplaces in the local language or promote its general use. To be able to say « Fill her up » in Occitan won’t get anybody very far. Better to try and become acquainted and impregnated with the deep energy of a culture, better defend the basic ground, that of the hills, that of the coast, against all kinds of short-sighted incursions.
I’m not saying that what I’ve been getting at, what I propose, will change the world, especially overnight (but who knows?). What I do say is that for individuals, and later, associations, to move in this direction is not only necessary, it’s in working within the context of this field that lies the deepest, rarest, most lasting pleasure.