The Road to Rousseau
"Chambéry had been blandly pleasant – the first graffiti less town I’d visited, sharp air, even a bit of history in Coryate’s revelation that it was once home to the Turin shroud.”
Continental Drifter, Tim Moore.
Chambéry is French, but could at a squint be Italian. It houses a palace to the Dukes of Savoy, the original Dukes of Hazard, so often was this region sacked. Bandits ruled the mountain passes that took Lyon silks to Italy, where the ancestors of Georgio Armani got cracking. Lyon was Dufy’s home for a long while; the artist working on textiles. There is much, in a different life, to write about the trade links between France and Italy – and the Alps played a central part.
So Savoy is, perhaps, an archetype of “betwixtness”. Nowadays Chambéry is a busy university town, with a business park full of start-ups working in the environmental/ecological fields. And this betwixtness is manifest in the contrasts, and little smokes and mirrors, around.
The Cathedral where I first met “Davide”, the spiritual troubadour, is one such example: Patrick has recommended I visit because of its tricks. For almost the entire internal experience is based on trompe l’oueil, painted columns, buttresses, adornments. The effect is spiritual – and with a hint of mischief. In praying here the mis-en-scène is about being fooled. Amiens cathedral this is not.
But it is a half an hour walk from the centre that this betwixt quality reveals itself most fully. For here the philosopher of nature; the original “romantic”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, came in exile from Geneva. He lived in Les Charmettes with one of his many patrons, a woman this time, and he walked. He walked and he thought.
“In 1749, as Rousseau walked to Vincennes to visit Diderot in prison, he read in the Mercure de France of an essay competition sponsored by the Académie de Dijon, asking whether the development of the arts and sciences had been morally beneficial. Rousseau claimed that this question caused him to have a moment of sudden inspiration by the roadside, during which he perceived the principle of the natural goodness of humanity on which all his later philosophical works were based.”
He walked and he thought and he wrote. And what he wrote changed the way we see things. The mountains had long been thought of as pagan hubs of evil, an Axis of Ices, as it were. It is Rousseau, rather than the much later Wordsworth or Caspar Friedrich David, who finds contentment and deep spirituality in walking these paths high into the mountains. The view from his garden is enough to encourage a landscape painter to emigrate here. And yet, for all the beauty, there is always a bust trade-route town half an hour down the hill. A balance, smaller and more perfect, less Rabelesian, than Lyon, but a fine betwixtness all the same. Rousseau – in the why we travel stakes – is important not just in terms of political development, human psychology, and aesthetic sense, but also in shifting the “vision” of the world. As did Favre, whose face appears on one of those “Lyon” style trompe l’oueil building paintings. Favre was a grammarian, got the French language into shape, before Voltaire buffed it further. It is one of those ironies of being “betwixt” that Chambéry has within its haunting a man who opened up the GPS of aesthetics to us, and another who closed down the vagaries of the French Language.
“Rousseau saw a fundamental divide between society and human nature. Rousseau contended that man was good by nature, when in the state of nature (the state of all other animals, and the condition humankind was in before the creation of civilization and society), but is corrupted by society.” For a primer on his life, of which this part is a small affair, there is always the “wiki”.Or here.
In beginning the process of shift towards nature as expression of God, as pantheistic principle in which man can find himself, Rousseau created a kind of tourism. These days the summer sees hundreds of thousands of people coming to walk these same walks. Perhaps, as with the Englishmen I met in Lansleburg, they come armed with GPS; mountain rescue men are laden with portable defibrillators, hooked up by cell-phone to the hospitals of the region, but they come and they experience nature – without the aid of skis or boards. They are the heirs of Rousseau, even if they don’t think about quite so much.
Catherine has been walking these hills since she was a little girl, it is part of her ritual now. She’s 31, and says she’ll keep exploring, “til she drops.”
In Turin now, debating whether to see the Cathedral “with” the Turin shroud – which was for a time housed in Chambéry, for Turin was the court of the Dukes of Savoy – I realize I’m very betwixt today. I’m missing the calm of the mountains, and the peace of the painterly landscapes. Turin is a Fiat-football city, striving for “tourist” status, but with quite a long way to go. Considerations of the Rouseau-ian kind are light years away here. Instead: a museum: “Ferrari and the Cinema”, that’s the sort of thing Cities should do, not confuse us about textiles (probably from Lyon).
Film with Betty Blue Girl and the Theatre Dullin reflected. Sunday Morning
The one thing Chambéry isn’t is “bland”. It is one of those liminal, “nodal” points, that pushes us onwards up the mountains and towards new ways of seeing. And these days that means seeing that the Environment around these parts, is in serious trouble. Petrol guzzling Rolls Royces don’t help, of course.