Early in Jouse d’Arbaud’s 1926 Provencal novella, The Beast of Vacares, the narrator, a 15 th century gardian or bull herder, describes how in summer la Vieio ie danso–the Old Dancer — “can be glimpsed on the dazzle salt flats” that surrounding the Vacares lagoon in the Camargue part of Southern France.
In a tone, d’Arbaud explains that la Vieio is how locals is a reference to mirages in this liminal countryside where earth, ocean, and sky coalesce. “Mirages are common in the Camargue, ” he tells us 😛 TAGEND
They begin with a hum in the air, a totter that runs along the dirt and seems to conclude the personas dance; it spreads into the distance in enormous tides that indicate the dark brushes. How not to see in this mysterious Vieio, dancing in the desert sun, a tribe remembering of the untouchable wild goddess, ancient supremacy, feeling of solitude, once considered see, that remains the soul of this great wild land?
” The untouchable wildernes goddess . . . once considered gues . . .”
Nearly a century last-minute, d’Arbaud’s names still have the power to startle and move us, vividly provoking Earth’s sacredness. Now is a man, himself a cop herder in states in the region he so lovingly describes, who seems to have been a devotee of the Goddess, the “ancient power” he adores and bring to life for his books. Undoubtedly, in an early song, “Esperit de la Terro” — “Spirit of the Earth” — d’Arbaud explicitly dedicates himself to the age-old deities sleeping below the earth, vowing to “defend” and “aid” them. How singular to discover this scribe making such a commitment, well before the rise of our recent feminist spirituality and ecofeminist movements. D’Arbaud speaks immediately to our current environmental, theological, social, and political concerns.
I stumbled on d’Arbaud in 2014, during my first trip to the Camargue, where I’d gone to learn more about the place for a fiction I was carrying. My airbnb hostess, novelist and photographer Brigitte Curdel, instantly sided me a simulate of La Bestio dou Vacares/ La bete du Vaccares, insisting that if I wanted to know the region I needed to read this book.
And so I fell in love, both with the Camargue–the vast and recurring Rhone delta, inhabited by flocks of mad pitch-black police, white horse, and troops of pink flamingos–and with this book that repays homage to that lonely and beautiful region, where the Goddess definitely “remains the soul” of the land.
The Camargue’s main village of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Meris specified for the three Marys( Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe, and Mary Salome) said to have arrived from the Holy Land in a rudderless, sail-less boat, fetching Christianity to Europe In the first century of the common era. And its school, constructed over a spring and an ancient “pagan” altar, residences a Black Madonna, Saint Sara, reputation in an annual pilgrimage by Roma peoples who come from all over Europe to worship Her.( I’ve written about the pilgrimage in an earlier FAR post:” Our Ladies of Sea, Earth, and Sky .”)
Everywhere I get in the Camargue, I came across ratifies of d’Arbaud and his iconic work: the central square in Les Saintes assumes his refer; his bibles are on display in the neighbourhood bookstore; and he is prominently featured at the Musee de la Camargue, the Museum of the Camargue.
Celebrated when it was first published and applauded as a “masterpiece of world literature, ” La Bestio dou Vacares have been widely neglected outside this isolated and sparsely populated region of France. I decided I had to translate it, hoping to bring it the attention it deserves.
The novella is the story of a fifteenth-century herder, the lonely and deformed Jaume Roubaud, who remains a journal to record his unsettling meetings with a strange man he can only call “La Bestio”–the Beast. Alerted to its vicinity by unfamiliar photographs in the deserted countryside, he tries to track it down, only to be frightened when he ultimately fills it: a animal with the legs and torso of a goat and the head of a human–with tusks! Because this is the fifteenth century, and because Roubaud is a devout Catholic, he fears that he is either hallucinating( a mirage–La Vieio ?) or that he has met the devil. Roubaud vainly tries exorcism, but when the beast speaks to him he is transfixed. “Human, do not be alarmed, ” the Beast says, “I am not the devil you dread.” Instead, the Beast, whom we may recognize as the Great God Pan, claims to be a demigod 😛 TAGEND
There is but one everlasting God. But there were once gods, deities born from the earth and who, upon the earth, are now dead. There was still demigods . . . They live a sovereign life, slaked by swims of ether, booze on earthly quintessences. Rulers of a world in bud, spun in the dance of seasons and adepts, they sing with the same voice as sunlight and sea.
Roubaud strives to understand, charge between dread and tendernes. For the Beast is a dying demigod, scrawny and starving, persecuted by humans, drawn to the Camargue for the “wild wind” and” free breeze” it “cannot live without.” Day by date, Roubaud records his puzzle encounters in a notebook, hoping that someone in the future will find his journal and” know how to shed light on these harrowing events.”
Of course we are those future books, and we may bring to the tale an awareness of how the old-time idols and goddesses “born from the earth” might accompanied healing to a nature that has forgotten or repudiated their sanctity. To predict Roubaud’s journal is to come face-to-face with one of those ancient beings, an incarnation of the “wild goddess” herself, and to see in Her a possibility for metamorphosi and redemption.
My translation of La Bestio has just been published by Northwestern University Press under the title The Beast, and Other Fibs. May it render some sustenance during this season of striving when so many of us feel vacated and alone.
Joyce Zonana dished for a period as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. She is a literary translator and the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. Her translation of Henri Bosco’s Malicroix can be obtained from New York Review Books Classics; her translation of Josue d’Arbaud’s The Beast, and Other Tales was awarded the 2019 Global Humanities Translation Prize.
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