A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
A stone village like St. Martin de Castillon, where I live in southern France, was squeezed together long ago by vanished defensive walls. Only a few turrets remain at different corners, to remind you there were armed guards once who asked who knocked on the stout wooden door after dark. History in this region runs with blood; if the religious wars of our time seem gory and inhumane, they were a bit less brutal than the massacres of the 17th century, when troops marched up and down the Rhone looking for heretics and dissenters, who were killed by the hundreds in a single afternoon of smoking swords. Under the streets are a maze of tunnels leading up the hill to safety, while the invaders stormed the walls and burned down the houses. People had little advance warning, but enough time to gather up the kids and throw some food into a sack before escaping.
The villages are perched on hilltops along the river valleys, where smoke signals could warn other villages to run for safety. Armies were on foot, dragging huge carts full of weapons and camp gear; they moved slowly, with scouts running up ahead on sturdy ponies to determine the next target of attack. The real enemy to these villages was not the pope in Rome, but the cardinals in Paris, men who had vested interests in destroying any sign of disloyalty to the king. If you were a Cathar, say, it could mean you were no longer obliged to obey the rules of church authorities; you believed they had corrupted your faith. Hence, Richelieu’s destruction of all those castles where the Troubadour poets sung their love songs to a noblewoman and pitched woo to the ladies of the court. Pagan love was just as bad as Catholic puritanism. Hence, the battering rams, the scaling ladders, the torches, the gutters running with blood.
Today, it all seems like a distant, ivy-covered dream, hardly a tatter of reality left of its nightmare past. But spirits haunt the land, and at night, especially, the wind seems to talk in the chimneys and the rattling shutters. Old women still arrange a few stones on their windowsill or doorstep to ward off evil. Sometimes I marvel at a pile of dressed stone in a field of poppies and hollyhocks — thinking this old farmstead collapsed when the last boy wandered off to work in the city. But if you look closely, the rock is broken here and there, the handiwork of some industrious cadre of murderers who pulled down the house for sport, or for whatever dim hope there might have been of a sack of gold buried under the hearth.
It’s odd that we think of Provence as this garden of surviving innocence in Europe. Some of the towns, like LaGrasse to the west, seem to have sprung from the pages of a Charles Dickens novel. Old gas lights on the corners, tilting walls, half-timbered house fronts, wells whose sides were notched by a thousand ropes pulling up a bucket of water. Postcard towns, I call them. The tourists love them. The cobblestones are carefully replaced, and the little shops offer you local delicacies from the farms. But the tunnels still roam around under the streets, and converge in the woods above the church, and the horrors of that past are not erased.
Nostalgia is a curious emotion, a powerful one on which great fortunes have been made. Walter Scott served up an imaginary past to forlorn Scottish readers eager to remember a time of valor and heroics. Walt Disney had the brilliant idea that all Americans saw their past in terms of these medieval towns, each with a castle with turrets and flying pennants. The word nostalgia is coined from the Greek roots for “homecoming” and “pain,” the pain of being away from home. A medical student had noticed the melancholy of 17th century Swiss mercenaries pining for home, imagining its innocent removal from violence, from war, from the tedium of the present. Whoever made this word, he discovered one of the principles of reality ever since, the loss of some nurturing sense of childhood, once everyone was driven into cities where families crumbled and parents were no longer thought to be the source of nurture and guidance.
The Industrial Age, as Arnold Toynbee called it, was all about commerce and mechanization; girls coming in from the farms soon found their options to be limited to prostitution or domestic work in 18th century townhouses. Life wasn’t all that good back home, with incestuous fathers and embittered mothers, poverty and disease tormenting peasants year to year. Their story of leaving for the city has been told from Moll Flanders all the way to Dreiser’s Sister Carrie at the edge of the 20th century. But once in the city, you looked back and felt some curious transformation of memory as the farm became this sweet, fertile, slow-paced garden of innocence where you could grow up gradually, marry the boy in the next farm, raise kids, milk the cows, bake with your mom, and take the old straw broom to the dust in the sitting room. The past got sweeter as it decayed; the reality of the past vanished in these reveries. Nostalgia is viewing the past shorn of all its pain and jagged edges. Its history turned into candy, into vague forms of love and romance, a world of bright colors and eternal summers.
The more the present seems to rot around us, the more we build these fantasies of a golden age lost behind us. Movies grind out one fairy tale after the other, with the good knight winning the hand of the king’s daughter in the end. Even the Lucas films are thinly disguised plots taken from children’s stories, and children are the first to turn history into magic. Spielberg’s films all turn on magical reversals of one kind or another, winning back the missing wholeness of childhood. It’s opium for the working poor, an anodyne form of entertainment that leaves every ticket-buyer seduced and disarmed upon squinting at the daylight once again.
Tourism is France’s biggest source of income. Millions of tourists flood the streets of Paris all year long and the braver ones come down south to be guided in buses to the best of the medieval towns. After a longing look at Notre Dame and its winding backstreets, and a walk through the Marais and the Latin Quarter, an American is filled with a perfumed sense of time. Viollet le Duc, the great 19th century French architect who restored many of the major landmarks of medieval France, from the walls of Avignon to the whole city of Carcassonne, frequently let his imagination loose. What the ruins couldn’t provide as models, he made up in his studio. And it was this wizardry at recreating medieval life that would make France rich in the 20th century. Euro-Disney took le Duc a step further — why not build a wood and plastic replica of the past and provide just as much of a nostalgia high as the real thing? It worked, just as Rockefeller’s replica of Williamsburg in Virginia works. It works in Vermont and Connecticut where white thin-steepled churches and lush green village commons provide the necessary magic — tourists flock to them, photograph them, try to eat them with their eyes, to swallow the elixir of the past before heading home to a drab modern world.
So here I am, sitting in my living room, observing the tourists coming down the street taking photos of the little quaint houses, purring like cats. Happy in their souls that some figment of the past, some fragile straw of an innocent world, can still be pulled from the crannies. They do not know why they feel dissatisfied with my village or with any such semblance of medieval life, but they know they are. It’s not enough. They can’t slip inside the stone or wear the roof like a hat, or pretend to speak old French and pass some mug of rough wine to a friend at the crude table, and wipe one’s mouth with the edge of a sleeve. You can’t have the past, so carefully cultivated and manicured as this; some of us get to live in these houses, but we don’t have the past either. We have the shell of stone and the old ceilings, the oil lamp on the sill, but beyond that, we have the modern world filling our souls with longing and regret. We also suffer from that curious sense of nostalgia, a pain and an ache to go home again, where there is no such home. Only a painted door and a window with a box of geraniums to comfort the weary.
Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen