Darkness and Light in Avignon
Though shaded by modernity, classical-Christian civilization in Provence still sheds its light.

Le Pont d’Avignon


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.