Darkness and Light in Avignon

by M. D. Aeschliman
Though shaded by modernity, classical-Christian civilization in Provence still sheds its light.

Provence is famous for its light, which at least since the time of van Gogh has attracted painters and others hungering for a harmonious, illuminated landscape. Like Tuscany, it has retained noble features of a classical-Christian, preindustrial civilization in a visible, almost tangible way. While the Mediterranean coast — the Côte des Maures and the Côte d’Azur — is more famous, glamorous, and heavily populated, especially in the summer, the old inland cities of Aix-en-Provence and Avignon have retained much of their seemingly ageless charm.

What this sunny, summery, tourist picture of Provence lacks is the realization that for much of the autumn, winter, and spring a fierce, constant wind — the “Mistral,” or master-wind — blows rain down the Rhône valley from the north. So strong is the Mistral that many buildings — especially the “Mas,” the traditional Provençal farmhouse — do not have windows on the north side. Gusts of the Mistral are strong enough to blow an adult man off his feet, perhaps into one of the many canals that irrigate this fruitful area, drawing on the mighty Rhône River and tributaries such as the Durance, south of Avignon.

One foreign family’s love of Provence in the summer led it to relocate to Avignon for a year, partly so that the three children could enroll in a good French Catholic school to strengthen and, ideally, perfect their French. But little went as planned, despite much kind help from a longtime Avignonais friend, who had found a house in a village south of Avignon just where the fruit orchards begin and not far from the picturesque St.-Rémy-de-Provence, where van Gogh painted, drank, and despaired before returning to the north and killing himself.

The wind blew and it rained constantly for weeks, the nearby Durance River overflowed its banks and only sandbags saved its bridge, and the high-ceilinged house was nearly impossible to heat owing to the Mistral blowing down its chimney. The one male child was intermittently afflicted with severe bronchitis in a drafty upstairs room in the cold house and missed much school, falling depressingly behind the two girls. The French-speaking mother nobly tutored the children in French before and after school and kept them happy and busy. The intellectual husband made little progress on a book, failed to get at a nearby university the one-year lectureship that he had expected, and often succumbed to wine and wanhope with the thought of how little beneficial effect he had had on the American “culture wars” in the university from which he had resigned. There was sometimes sun, but more often rain, and always wind, unnervingly constant and mournful.

On the gloomy day that his appointment at the local university fell through, the man put a friend on the train in Avignon station and then browsed a newsstand. How shocked at the content of most modern newsstands would be the great partisans of “literacy as light,” such as D’Alembert, Jefferson, and John Stuart Mill! Consumerist, brainless, or pornographic, the exceptions being a few decent newspapers, left-wing satirical journals, and, here in the south, the right-wing Action Française Hebdo, redolent of a tragic chapter of modern French history. A pornographic magazine called “Le Grapouillet” graphically promoted “intergenerational” male homosexuality (i.e., pederasty) on its cover. 

It was a dark and rainy day, but gradually clearing, and the man took a walk into the old city of Avignon before going home with the bad news of the lost teaching appointment. Immediately inside the gate of the old papal city, he was accosted by an African prostitute; warding her off, he was accosted by a French one. Gloom descended. Petrarch had complained 600 years earlier that the strategic commercial river city — containing the Pont d’Avignon, the first main east-west bridge north of the vast Rhône delta — was “an abode of sorrows, the shame of mankind, a sink of vice.”

But as the seat of the popes in the 14th century, and thereafter a papal city until the French Revolution, Avignon had also protected Jews, and as the man passed the synagogue (first built in 1221), he caught light coming out its open doorway and a glimpse of several old men singing, accompanied by the sound of their liturgy, before the door was closed. Though he was not a Jew, his spirits were lifted.

The intellectual’s writing projects sometimes seemed fruitless, and he drank too much of the numerous, wonderful, cheap, local varieties of Côtes du Rhone. French cultural libertinism, fountain and origin of so much evil in the West, had never seduced or amused him and he hated its current instrument, television, but friendly neighbors met in church went out of their way to make the foreign family feel welcome. Yet the Mistral blew, the rains lashed and pelted, and the modest village, charming in the sunlight, was unutterably dreary in the more frequent rain, wind, cold, and darkness.

Reluctantly, the family braved the driving April rains on the religious holiday to celebrate Sainte Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes at the large stone crucifix at the center of town, with a vague promise that the next day would be clear for the annual procession for the saint, with its promised “tableaux vivants.” The next day came, still initially cold and wet, and the family reluctantly and with some embarrassment joined the local procession through the dreary town, most of its small houses normally shuttered for warmth and privacy even during the day. Yet as the weather cleared, a remarkable sight appeared to the pilgrims: Each of the normally shut-up little car garages or shuttered gardens adjacent to the drab houses opened up to reveal a lovingly prepared scene of Mary and Bernadette, modeled in utter, visionary stillness by young women standing or kneeling amid scenes of local flora, woodcraft, and papier-mâché.

We were reminded of the history of the “Santons” — small Christmas-crèche figures, lovingly fashioned out of wood and colored cloth or painted terra cotta, representing traditional Provençal types — gendarme, knife grinder, wine seller, shepherd, as well as the Holy Family — still objects of devotion, decoration, pride, craftsmanship, and commerce in Provence to this day. During the Jacobin persecution of the Church in the 1790s, when religious observance was prohibited, peasants and craftsmen continued to produce the Santons (especially the holy figurines) to aid the devout in secretly observing Christmas and maintaining a focus of piety in their homes.

The pious “living scenes” in the temporarily open garages and gardens revealed, like the Santons, “une France profonde,” washed over by all the phosphorescent acids of modernity and largely polluted and corrupted like the rest of the profane West, but still retaining a hold on the affections and habits of many people. The dark and dreary village shone forth an unearthly, heavenly, human light — a hopeful, pious light — in an ironic, darkened age, itself the ingenious product of “globalization” and “enlightenment” at the lowest conceivable cultural level.

Vincent van Gogh spent most of his last months a few miles farther south, in the beautiful olive groves and vineyards south of St.-Rémy-de-Provence, only paces from Glanum, the oldest Roman ruins in the south of France. The mental institution where he was confined just prior to his suicide in 1890 is the former Priory of St.-Paul-de-Mausole, with its Romanesque cloister; his former cell is now hung with reproductions of his paintings. He had come to the south of France in search of light and respite from the hideous, irreligious, dehumanizing darkness of the coalfields of Picardy and Belgium, and from the growing urbanization and industrialization of Europe that were simultaneously tormenting his eloquent English contemporary John Ruskin farther north. The same fatal year, 1890, the critic Aurier gave the first positive, prominent appreciation of van Gogh’s painting in the Mercure de France. Van Gogh’s heartrending, now-classic letters were written mostly to his nobly supportive brother Theo, who died six months after him and is buried next to him in Auvers. A disappointed, heartbroken Protestant evangelist in the coalfields of the north, van Gogh succeeded posthumously in bringing to many others the beautiful light of Provence in paint while not finding succor in it himself. There is a poignant contrast to the unwearying sanity, industry, and productivity of his nearby Provençal contemporary Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence. “The truth is that all this country round Aix,” Archibald Lyall writes, “whitish chalky soil and light-green dusty trees, relieved here and there by a red-tiled roof or a bluish-white cliff, is so saturated with Cézanne that it is almost impossible to see it except through the painter’s eyes.”

The ambiguous genius Aldous Huxley suffered a year of blindness as a youth and subsequently had vision problems throughout his life. Before seeking the sun of southern California, he sought light by living in both Tuscany and Provence (at Sanary, on the coast near Toulon) in the 1920s. At the end of the 1920s he also turned from cynicism to religious idealism, from absurdist darkness to hopeful light. Though he remained an ambiguous “dark angel,” hovering between good and evil, light and darkness, for the rest of his life, he had permanently valuable insights about the source of light: “A totally unmystical world,” he wrote in that tragically dark year 1941, “would be a world totally blind and insane.” As Socrates saw and said, God is light.

In every age, that lucid French savant Pascal wrote, there is enough light to see the light, and enough darkness to remain in obscurity. But in the glorious summer sunshine, the towns and landscapes of old Provence — olive, vine, almond, lavender, and limestone —  evoke a sense of profound harmony, a solace for the restless human spirit, so often vexed by savage winds and cold darkness, outside or within. And sometimes the human figure — painting, Santon, or “tableau vivant,” wife, child, or friend — shows forth the light we need, which “never was on sea or land.”

M. D. Aeschliman is professor of Anglophone culture at the University of Italian Switzerland. His most recent book is a new critical edition of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities (Ignatius Press).