Break on through to the other side: A certain drawbridge in Arles.
by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2021 Paul Ben-Itzak
In case you don’t have the pleasure of waking up to or dining with the French public radio news, here’s what it’s typically sounded like for the past year:
“Covid covid covid vaccine vaccine vaccine Macron covid covid vaccine vaccine Islamism covid covid covid confinement confinement confinement vaccine vaccine climate covid covid incest vaccine vaccine.”
So invested are they in this constrained universe, that when the government announced last week (in very frank terms with absolutely no attempt at dissimulation) what sounded a lot like a quarantine of 16 of the country’s 100 departments or counties where you-know-what cases have been rising alarmingly the past two months (we had more than 65,000 new cases in the 24 hours ending yesterday at 8 a.m. EST, with 10 percent of the public having received at least one shot), the public radio journalists still insisted on calling it a confinement (or lockdown). Never mind the number of times they’ve cited Albert Camus’s “La Peste” (The Plague) over the past year or the number of times they’ve referenced the novelist-journalist-philosopher’s warning about the danger of ‘mal-nomming’ things, these journalists still can’t recognize a quarantine when they see one. (If it walks like a quarantine, talks like a quarantine, and unlike a duck can’t fly beyond a 10K radius, it’s probably a quarantine.)
What a breath of fresh air it was last night, then, when a freedom-loving bull broke through the covid covid vaccine vaccine confinement confinement school of journalism that has constituted much of French public radio reporting for the past year with an adventure worthy of inspiring anyone in need of a break from the reigning and anxiety-fueling media ambiance. And not just any bull. A black bull from the magical, eccentric, quaintly quirky, and very southern city of Arles.
If you’re not familiar with Arles, this is the city where the brutal meridional Sun burnt a hole through Vincent Van Gogh’s scalp as he was hauling around and stationing his easel in the unshielded surrounding fields, frying his brain to the point where he succumbed to an urge to cut his ear off and was promptly hounded out of town by the locals, their progeny hurling stones at his heels all the way to the asylum.
It’s also the city to which that famous bull-fighting fanatic Pablo Picasso repaired whenever he felt the need to indulge his passion for and sketch scenes of “Tauromaquia,” many of them originating in or on the narrow alleys surrounding the same 2,000-year-old arena from whose periphery the bull in question and two cohorts escaped Tuesday from an ill-advised photo-op. It’s also a city that’s part of a region, the Camargue, where the animals, no doubt taking after the artists, the gitans, and even the rural guards (as described by Alphonse Daudet in “Letters from my Windmill”) tend to have their own ornery characters. (They — the animals — even have their own gallery.)
Town, Gallo-Roman remnants, and irrascible Arlesien.n.e characters were enough to inspire Henry James to make the city part of his itinerary for the 1883 travelogue “French voyages,” in which he described the arena as follows (I’m back-translating from Robert Laffont’s French edition of “Voyage en France”):
“For all its grandiose scale, the Arles Arena is less complete than its sister in Nimes; it’s suffered more from the assaults of time and its children, and has been less thoroughly restored. Practically all the seats are gone, but the outside walls, with the exception of the top floor of the arcades, form a rough and complete mass; as for the arched hallways, they seem as solid as the day they were built. As a whole its proportions are superbly ample and of a monumental character as far as a place of diversion (what we call today ‘entertainment’) goes, as only the Roman spirit was able to bestow on this type of establishment. The podium is much more elevated than that of Nimes and a good number of the large slabs facing it have been found and put back in place. The proconsular lodge has more or less been reconstructed, and the grandiose access points which lead to it are still clearly visible and produce a majestic effect; so much so that sitting there, in the magical immobility of the moon, my elbows leaning against the dilapidated parapet of the arena, I could practically hear the murmurs and shudders and the hardy voices of the circus of which the last echoes stretch back 1,500 years.”
That circus was apparently nothing compared to the diversion provided by the black bull which succeeded in breaking away from the outskirts of this very same arena on Tuesday, an escapade which no doubt produced its own shudders (and at least one casualty) among the onlookers privileged to witness the jailbreak.
To fully appreciate the taureau’s accomplishment — specifically, his bold escape from an ill-advised group photo and subsequent navigation of the narrow and labyrinthine cobblestone streets of the old city down to the Rhone river — here’s how James described his own painful attempts to negotiate the same terrain vers 1883:
“I recall with tenderness the torturous alleys… which evoked those of a village, paved with treacherous acierated little stones that transformed all exercise into a penitence. This reminded me of an excruciating promenade that I’d made the night I arrived, with the intention of retrieving a particular view of the Rhone. I’d already been to Arles years before, and I remembered discovering on the quays a sort of tableau. It seemed to me that, on the evening I’m thinking of, a drenched moon gave the impression of trying to illuminate the past as much as the present. But I found no painting and I almost didn’t find the Rhone at all. I got lost, without a creature in sight from whom to ask directions. Nothing could be more provincial than Arles at 10 at night. I ended up by arriving at a type of quay, where I saw the great muddy mass of water gliding in the dark silence. It started to rain, the moon had vanished to who knows where, and the spot was hardly gay. It wasn’t what I’d come looking for; I’d been searching for a past that was impossible to retrieve.”
Animals being more inclined towards living in the present than humans, the search of the black bull who escaped a selfie-op outside the Arles arena (along with the two co-conspirators who were quickly apprehended) Tuesday was a lot more basic, his goal perhaps to ‘retrieve’ his brethren in the marshes of the nearby Camargue, where they can often be seen gamboling among flamingos and white horses.
After making his way a lot more successfully than James down those same cobblestone streets (and without losing nary an ear) to the quays of the Rhone and finding himself surrounded by the gendarmes, the bull took the only course any freedom-loving bovine (or other of God’s creatures) could take and dived horns-long into the river, swimming across the glittering blue water to the other side, where he promptly accosted (or so the radio news alleges) an unfortunate 70-year-old woman out for her own promenade (since hospitalized, with no mortal wounds) before he was finally subdued.
Ferdinand, meanwhile, is no doubt still grazing somewhere in the neighboring wheat-fields so lyrically depicted by another free spirit.
Born free: Bulls in the Camargue department or county that includes Arles.