One of a series of Cultural Bridgebuilding articles by Rene Wadlow.
Jean Giono was born and died in Manosque, a town in the mountains above Aix-en-Provence in the south of France. Although he lived all his life in Manosque (except for his military service in World War I) he was a bridge builder to the world of the spirit of the classic Greek gods. He is often considered a regionalist writer, but, in fact, he uses the background of the region to deal with broader, cosmic issues.
Giono’s family name comes from a north Italian grandfather whom he never knew. The grandfather was a carbonaro, a member of a secret society that worked against the rich landholders and the different authorities in Italy prior to the 1860 unification of Italy. The grandfather, accused of murder, had crossed the mountains into an isolated part of France where people by tradition were against authorities and seldom asked questions about a person’s background.
Giono’s father was a shoemaker who carried on his father’s anti-authoritarian tradition. He became a Protestant in an area where there were no Protestants and left an interest in the Bible to his son. Giono’s father, whom he describes in his book of early experiences Jean le bleu, died when Giono was only 15. Giono left school to help his family. He is thus basically an autodidact, influenced by his father’s reading of the Bible and The Odyssey of Homer. Homer was his basic teacher, a writer he would continue to read all his life. The Odyssey also provides the key theme of all of Giono’s novels: the long voyage home — an experience through which one grows in awareness and understanding.
Influenced by Homer to look for the activity of the gods behind human activity and influenced by the open mountain area where he lived, Giono saw Pan at work, a Pan who followed in the procession of Dionysus. However Dionysus was too powerful a god to be dealing with the small farmers of the area. Pan was more appropriate, and Pan is the basic protagonist of the first three novels of Giono — novels which were designed to be a trilogy before he started to write them. Giono’s first, and I think best work called Colline (Hill) in French but is published in English as Pan: Hill of Destiny.
Giono believed in what are now often called ley lines — the energy currents of the earth that are more powerful or closer to the surface in certain areas than in others. On these outcroppings, the gods and the nature spirits are present and so interact with humans more directly.
Pan, however, is not a gentle nature fairy, and those who follow him are also in danger. Nature for Giono can also be the sudden storm, the rock slide on the mountain side, the wild stampede of the sheep. The south of France is not all sun and light. In this, Giono differed from Marcel Pagnol who used only the human side of Giono for his films drawn from Giono’s writings Regain and La Femme du Boulanger without the Panic element always in the background of the books.
If the energies of the earth are to be used for creativity, war is the opposite, the withdrawal of natural energy leading to the withering of man and so to death. Giono had been a soldier at the endless and military-stalemated battle of Verdun. He returned from the war knowing that war was destructive of all the values that he saw as “natural life.”
As the clouds of war started to gather in the 1930s, first in Italy which had always interested Giono, and then Germany, Giono started to gather around him people who were opposed to war and who wanted a “return to nature”, to a rural, simpler life. They started to meet each summer in a small village higher in the Lure mountains than Manosque, Contadour, and then published their considerations in a journal Les Cahiers de Contadour. Giono’s Contadour writings have been collected in the Ecrits pacifists (Paris: Idees/Gallimard, 1978) and made explicit in his book Les Vraies richesses (1936)
Giono’s pacifist writings led to his arrest for “anti-military activities” in 1939. He was released without a trial after two months as the French became more involved in fighting, and there had been no massive refusal to fight on the part of French troops —at least not as a result of having read Giono’s writings.
Ironically, Giono was re-arrested in 1944 probably to protect him from the savage revenge killings that followed the liberation of France, but officially for having been one of the ideological “fathers” of Vichy France. In effect, the Vichy government had used many of the themes of Giono’s writings, some administrators because they had read him, others because the themes were also part of traditional Catholic thought which influenced Vichy: the return to the land, the vision of the small farmer as honest and satisfied by the simple life, a hostility to the cities where there lived Jews, trade unionists and Socialists, a sense of solidarity among small farmers and their emphasis on “family values.”
Giono was again not brought to trial because in effect he had had no direct influence on the propaganda administrators of Vichy. However the image of a pro-Vichy writer lasted until the early 1950s when there was a general consensus in France to “forget” the war and the Vichy government. Giono left the active political-ideological scene. He concentrated his later novels on the period of his grandfather when Italian activists took refuge in France.
A less political Giono was re-discovered in France after May 1968 and the strong Gaia—spirituality of the earth current of thought. With Le Serpent d’Etoiles, thoughts looking at the Big Dipper, and especially Chant du Monde Pan is replaced by Dionysus as the chief god motivating action and the cycle of the seasons. Dionysus is the god of Nature beyond the control of humans but who is always present in action with them. Giono is a bridge builder to the world behind the nature we see, a bridge to a world still filled with the energies of the earth.