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Life high in the mountains, primitivism & simple living

In 1905, a 24-year-old artist who had decided to leave Barcelona for Paris at the turn of the century in a quest for authentic self-expression, Pablo Ruiz Picasso, visited a remote town in the Catalan Pyrenees with his partner at the time, Fernande Olivier.

There, in Gósol, known for its smugglers, Picasso made acquaintances with local contrabandists who explained to him their life among legendary peaks such as the Pedraforca and those from Cadí and Moixeró. All of a sudden, life seemed simple, devoid of the superfluous glittering of the big city. Conversations were straightforward and lacked coveted interests. Appreciation for simple gestures was also genuine.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps (1812), oil on canvas by J.M.W. Turner

Picasso also found a 12th-Century wooden sculpture of the Virgin, an expressive Madonna with big, painted eyes. Perspective didn’t exist in the Romanesque period, and representations were schematic, relying on symbols to integrate other meanings: expressive eyes, fire, fish. Picasso discovered an intensity new to him that naturalism lacked.

10 transformative weeks in the mountains

It was the moment that transformed the painter and eventually modern painting. As one of the marginalized jesters he had already painted, young Picasso decided to explore new ways no matter the reaction. Picasso produced seven large paintings, a dozen medium-size ones, drawings, watercolors, and carvings during his stay. The stay set him to create the most transformative painting of the twentieth century, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, so radical in its “fractured glass” style that nobody seemed to be ready for… until everybody was.

Picasso was trying to fulfill his first important commission in Paris thanks to the American siblings Leo and Gertrude Stein, based in Paris and aware and educated both in the French (based on a theory of “taste”) and German art (more tolerant to particularities and new developments) traditions.

His situation was still fragile. As an insider-outsider, he saw himself in the Sisyphean task of those contrabandists from the desolate peaks of the Catalan Pyrenees. He found meaning in their local codes and pantheistic ways with culture and religion, and how they perceived honorability, which didn’t depend on the sanction of the high spheres of any remote State or Church, but on their ability to survive in such a dramatic locality.

Picasso never forgot the experience and began a lifetime exploration of Christian primitivists. For years after the stay in Gósol, Picasso would visit the Iberian Romanic sacred art sculptures to establish with them an organic bond as profound as that he had acquired with Velázquez, Goya, or El Greco (the formation years in which his father, drawing professor in A Coruña and later in Barcelona, recognized his son’s abilities to the point of abandoning his own endeavors.)

Apollinaire’s friend

Knowing his appreciation of Romanesque primitive art, from sculptures to some frescoes surviving in the Pyrenees, one of his friends, young Guillaume Apollinaire (like Picasso, a perceived “métèque” in Paris, as bohemian-intellectual with no clear national denomination, and therefore a potential anarchist,) introduced him to an acquaintance that was selling a primitive sacred sculpture that Picasso ended up buying.

Le Porte-balle (1851) by French illustrator Karl Girardet

A little later, the Gioconda disappeared from the Louvre. It turned out —Apollinaire and Picasso would find out— that the seller of the sculpture had stolen it from the Louvre as well. For some time, the two incipient and dirt-poor artists feared both keeping their secret or going to the police and losing their residence. Apollinaire would fight in the Great War partly to acquire the French nationality and thus end his stateless situation as an illegitimate son of Italians raised in France.

The naïve and pure attitude of young Picasso and Apollinaire towards creation would become legendary, though Apollinaire would die after the war from the so-called Spanish flu. As Romantics in a time of industrial-scale horror and the urge of standardization established by the inertia of modern bureaucracy (called the “iron cage” by sociologist Max Weber, another victim of the Spanish flu,) they would forever change artistic expression.

We all have Romantic tendencies in us, an adventurous self-trying to find out how profound the depths of human nature are by climbing to the highest peaks and, from there, overseeing slopes descending into valleys and deep gorges.

The sublime then and now

Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog is a painting that belongs to pop culture, often becoming a meme as people replace the mountaineer’s cane, which he gently holds with his right arm as he stands upon a precipice with his back to us, with contemporary objects, among them the object of our time, the smartphone.

There’s no bigger contradiction than trying to climb among valleys and fog to remain attached to the digital world we all seem to have ended to work for as if this effort to escape civilization and grasp the sublime momentarily had to be posted on our social profile. Sometimes, risky selfies atop high precipices, buildings, bridges, or monuments, end in tragedy.

La Vie (1903), oil on canvas from Pablo Picasso’s blue period

Yet hiking through the Alpine landscape continues to inspire the musings of some wanderers that, like Nietzsche in Sils Maria, follow their own shadow, or those who, like Naphta and Settembrini in Thomas Mann The Magic Mountain, try to resolve the eternal quarrel between humanism and faith.

As we recently traveled through the Alps, I couldn’t help but relate my mood to that of an author associated with the American landscape, Mark Twain, who nonetheless conceded something about the European mountain range in the core of European civilization:

“there’s probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp, but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.”

The shortest way is from peak to peak

Decoding our inner wanderings among the high peaks of landscapes such as the Southwestern Alps between France and Italy can bring us to appreciate some of the inner motivations that make any attempt to wander amid legendary peaks an experience in which Nature blends to personal revelation, Spinoza’s “Deus sive natura” (God, or Nature).

In late October, the seasonal advance transforms the way light penetrates tree corridors or nearby mountain faces, as deciduous trees change their color and, through chromatic oxidation, allow more light to get in.

Solitary mountain ranges such as the meridional Alps are never too distant from once-thriving rural communities that learned to cope with long winters and pathways closed for months at a time.

There, we seem to understand the riddles and parables of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as he departs from old gospels by the Sisyphean task of writing a new gospel “with blood,” with the attitude and will to accept risk, privation, or poverty if they are ways to advance in one’s quest about the meaning of life:

“Once spirit was God, then it became man, and now it even becometh populace. He that writeth in blood and proverbs doth not want to be read, but learned by heart.

“In the mountains, the shortest way is from peak to peak, but for that route, thou must have long legs. Proverbs should be peaks, and those spoken to should be big and tall.

“The atmosphere rare and pure, danger near and the spirit full of a joyful wickedness: thus are things well matched.

“I want to have goblins about me, for I am courageous. The courage which scareth away ghosts, createth for itself goblins–it wanteth to laugh.”

Walking across high mountain passes

Crossing the Alps is not a small task. Ötzi the Iceman tried to do so over 5 millennia ago, injured and with little food, and a storm may have accelerated his demise in the Ötztal Alps. Today, the legendary Alpine passes are only used by skilled mountaineers or their contemporary extreme sports incarnation.

It wasn’t a small endeavor to Hannibal during the second Punic War either, nor to all the incursions from the Barbarian invasions of Rome. We also imagine solitary knights and men of church descending into the Italian peninsula to reach Rome and continue their trip into the Holy land and beyond.

How about the Alps crossing by fictional characters such as the Franciscan Friar William of Baskerville traveling to a Benedictine monastery to attend a theological disputation in the year 1327?

Real or fictional, they all traverse the Alpine valleys into Northern Italy both physically and spiritually.

A summer chalet in the Waldensian Valley, image taken in 1895 (unknown author)

Such valleys have always kept a local character despite heavy romanization. Like animal and plant varieties adapted to the altitude and harsh, long winters, pagan and Christian traditions intermingle in areas that became cul-de-sacs of ancient transalpine routes.

The border between France and Italy around the southwestern part of the Alps, the Cottian Alps, was blurry until late modernity. Before modern States, modern communications, bureaucratic centralization, and development transformed the isolated valleys on the French and Italian side of the Cottian Alps; a local, self-sufficient economy had provided the area with the essentials to carry on during winter.

The role of colporteurs in isolated Alpine valleys

Before the telephone, modern roads, and easy traveling, the valleys in the Southwestern Alps kept their connection with the outside world by selling dairy, animals, and produce in the markets supplying the Po valley region. Such events and interchanges survive as contemporary scraps of almanacs referencing, under the Christian saints and denominations of the sanctorale, yearly events going back to pre-Roman and Roman times.

Before late modernity, the area was rough, and life was not easy. As soon as the snow started melting, even the more remote towns and hamlets (“borgos”) saw the arrival of itinerant sellers and colporteurs carrying religious prints, almanacs, feuilletons explaining evergreen and relatively recent news from nearby cities and afar, as well as little presents for any age.

Colporteurs combined troubadour-like skills to connect orality with the popular texts, simple prints, and symbolic objects they would carry around, such as bijous, rosaries, soap and perfume, shaving razors, knives, embroideries, and little luxuries locals would be willing to buy or interchange for locally produced goods.

They were also testimonies of the small feats and tragedies in every valley, becoming performers of embellished everyday anecdotes, as well as echoes of the great forces governing cities, countries, and entire continents: aware of one distant king or another to which the Duchy of Savoy or the Marquisate of Saluzzo had to pay respect to, could mean peace or ruin, even if little would change upstream of the small tributaries of the Po, to the East, and the Rhône to the West.

In 1796, a young meridional with a pronounced accent was appointed as commander of the invading French army into Italy. In the name of the French Revolution, the Corsican general wanted to force other European powers out of Sardinia and Austria out of the Italian peninsula. First, Napoleon had contradicted any advice to avoid an invasion through the Alps; according to his advisers, glaciers and precipices made impossible any transportation of heavy equipment.

When the old ways are gone

Legend quotes Napoleon stating: “There shall be no Alps!” According to him, “impossible is a word found only in the dictionary of fools.” And thus, this way, modernity stepped into the profound Alpine valleys of Savoy and Saluzzo. He ended up conquering Italy for the French Revolution in 1799, and his imprint in Italy would inspire antiheroes such as Stendhal’s young Fabrice del Dongo, the idealist young protagonist of The Charterhouse of Parma.

But legendary portraits of his campaigns in Italy, in 1796 as General and later in 1800 as First Consul of France, such as the triumphant crossing of the bridge of Lodi (1796) and the overwhelming modern victory against the Austrian forces in the battle of Marengo (1800), didn’t erase the reserve of “mountain people” towards an army that was promising the universalization of the French Revolution. Among all, the transformation meant —they feared— the vanishing of old ways and particularities.

The Charterhouse of Parma is a story of a world of nobility and cultivated spirits. It omits the sentiments and effects of such fights between the Ancient Regime and the emissaries of Enlightenment among country people. The latter belong to the scenery and lack the right of clinging to their sense of life, morality, organization, production, self-reliance.

Perspective and insignificance

Stendhal’s novel begins with the advance of the French army through Lombardy to control the Po valley, and soon jumps into young Fabrice’s struggle to fight along with Napoleon at Waterloo; the writer, himself a veteran survivor of legendary Napoleonic battles, will famously describe Waterloo from the point of view of the protagonist: there’s no apparent order, no actual front nor vanguard, no strategy that can be seen or understood from within, only a sway of seemingly anarchic movements he does not understand.

When writing War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy will seek the authenticity of his accounts of the French campaign in Russia from sources such as Stendhal’s depiction of Waterloo. From within, war is not a predictable strategy affair where armies follow the dictates of powerful men but a combination of different events where confusion, horror, and fight for survival prevail.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), oil on canvas by Jacques-Louis David

The inhabitants of the Alpine valleys of French and Italian Savoy will perceive modernity as no less chaotic process than a Napoleonic battle seen from within. Yet Napoleon’s dismissal of the Alps as a stronghold keeping invading armies at bay and shaping the character and self-reliance of ancient communities in isolated valleys marks the beginning of a long process of decline of such communities.

Leo Tolstoy, like Victor Hugo, will take into deep consideration the peasantry and populace, the “petit français” and the “moujik,” respectively, and they will personify the tensions between old and new ways, eluding the simplification of good and evil, progress and reaction against it.

Enter the priest Bienvenu de Miollis

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables opens with the fortuitous encounter of a country priest from the mountains of the Midi (not far from the Cottian Alps, in the old Savoy), the old priest Monseigneur Bienvenu de Miollis, with the young General Napoleon in Paris.

The General won’t forget the impression the Catholic priest makes in him and will appoint him as bishop of Digne, in Southeastern France. There he will encounter the ex-convict Jean Valjean and change his attitude forever, but first, Bienvenu will go visit in the desolate mountains nearby an old revolutionary hermit retreated after the fall of the revolutionary Convention after the Revolution.

The dying pariah commanded a solitary, Spartan life among nature, but he was known for his refusal of religious ideas. To the people of Digne, the man was no less than somebody lost to society:

“The narrow world of Digne spoke of the former deputy with a sort of horror. A revolutionary Conventionist, think of it! That was in the time when people thee-and-thoued one another and called everyone’ Citizen.’ This man was practically a monster.”

A Conventionist alone in the mountains

Yet all Monseigneur Bienvenu sees is a solitary soul who may need some company. They will meet each other and talk, standing on their convictions: Bienvenu will mention the excesses of the Revolution because the consequences of “good intentions” can bring horror and excess in the name of progress, and the Conventionist will recognize those excesses, to affirm the light the Revolution has shed among the repressed of the world that will inspire generations to come.

As death approaches the Conventionist, the visiting priest knows he cannot practice a Christian liturgy nobody demanded. Yet, he is open to recognizing the force and dignity of the dying mystic character facing him:

“After a moment’s silence, the old man raised a finger to the sky and said: ‘Infinity is. It is there. If infinity had no self, the self would be its limit; it would not be infinite. In other words, it would not be. But it is. So it has a self. This self of infinity is God.’

“The dying man had uttered those words in a loud voice and with a shudder of ecstasy as though he could see someone. When he finished speaking, his eyes closed. The effort had exhausted him. It was clear that he had just lived the few hours remaining to him on one moment. What he had just said had brought him closer to the one who stands at death’s door. The final moment was coming.”

But the Conventionist had still energy to explain that he had lived with decency and accordance with his convictions, even defending the clergy against the excesses of revolutionaries; he had held a high administrative position he had never used to enrich himself. His last years had passed as people looked at him with contempt, and now he had a question to the bishop:

“‘What have you come to ask of me?’

“When the bishop raised his head again, the face of the Conventionist had become august. He had died.

“The bishop returned home deeply absorbed in we not know what thoughts.

“He spent the whole night in prayer. The next day, a few brave nosy parkers tried to talk to him about the Conventionist, G—-. All he did was point to the sky. From that moment, he became more gentle and fraternal than ever toward the little children and the suffering.”Leo

Tolstoy’s personal struggle

To Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel, the monseigneur appointed bishop of Digne by Napoleon, all churches of revelation had a chance to find common ground in the name of love and hope, even though his apparent naïveté concealed a humanist profoundly committed to his work of bringing goodness and light to those around him beyond Catholicism.

Such metaphysical musings by Victor Hugo at the beginning of The Misérables set the ground for the transformation of Jean Valjean from the petty nihilism that breeds in material and spiritual deprivation to the moral integrity and sincere kindness of people enlightened by ideas we cannot fully grasp and are common to what Leo Tolstoy calls a fundamental question we all share: why do we live?

This is, at least, the question that tormented young Leo Tolstoy, when he thought recurrently about suicide, not finding an effective response to this existential question. His reasoning, explains Tolstoy in Confession, included inquiry and regarded all rational and spiritual angles he, an educated man of a privileged position, could think of.

Oil on canvas of an itinerant colporteur (17th century)

His existential doubts increased as his inconsistent quest to cope with his appetite was praised by his entourage —he was even considered a man of principles and integrity. The death of illness of his role model, his older brother Nikolai at the age of thirty-seven, increased his anxieties. Four years before, his brother Dmitri had died of the same illness at twenty-eight. Both would inspire —along with himself— his most legendary characters, such as Konstantin Levin (Anna Karenina) and Pierre Bezukhov (War and Peace).

Tolstoy and the vanity of Ecclesiastes

Angst receded a bit when he married and had children, dedicating his aim to raising children and writing. But again, he soon found himself lost in superficial tribulations and opinions of his day conformed by the little intrigues among notable intellectuals and notables:

“In my search for answers to the question of life, I felt exactly as a man who is lost in a forest.”

And so, at around fifty, and despite having already written War and Peace, becoming a celebrated writer around the world, he consumed himself thinking about the meaning of life:

“What will come of what I do today and tomorrow? What will come of my entire life? Expressed differently, the question may be: Why should I live? Why should I wish for anything or do anything? Or to put it still differently: Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?”

Tolstoy had not found convincing answers in experimental science (and its reductionistic version, positivism and the “cult of progress”), nor did he in speculative philosophy and its extreme end, metaphysics. All he could come of was the senseless “will to live,” the inertial drive of evolution to prevail, just like Schopenhauer.

His readings of Schopenhauer, Eastern philosophy, and the Bible came with the same conclusion repeated in the Ecclesiastes (attributed to King Solomon, but probably written much later, at around 300 BC): all is vanity.

Attitude towards life

Science didn’t answer the only question he was interested in but gave him deep knowledge regarding “questions I had not asked.” With philosophy, things didn’t go better. As Schopenhauer, he thought “serious” philosophy was obsessed with giving new names to things and little else:

“wherever philosophy does not turn away from the essential question, the answer is always the same as the one given by Socrates, Schopenhauer, Solomon, and the Buddha.”

Man propelling himself to death was, to Tolstoy at the peak of his crisis, an acceleration towards nothingness —pure nihilism, as stated by Schopenhauer. As doubts increased, Tolstoy turned himself to personal integrity and hard work at his property along with peasants while he kept studying and writing. But Solomon’s “vanity of vanities” kept filling him with nihilism.

He saw people around him just getting by with strategies he found limited or ridiculous, such as choosing ignorance; enjoying the moment (epicureanism); getting out of the way (Tolstoy recognizes he thought of suicide constantly); or the weakness of “drag out of a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it.”

Yet, something unexpected finally came to him. He started to work closer with moujiks and “simple” people while abandoning the petty relations of the “notables” around him, for the emptiness of the leisure class entered in contradiction with what he wanted to be.


He soon discovered some of his new friends were more aligned to his character and, as by instinct and despite having harsh lives, were able to give meaning to their existence and celebrate life. How did they do it:

“I returned to the conviction that the single most important purpose in my life was to be better, to live according to this will. I returned to the conviction that I could find the expression of this will in something long hidden from me, something that all of humanity had worked out for its own guidance; in short, I returned to a belief in God, in moral perfection, and in a tradition that instills life with meaning.”

Simple living and a faith based on the essentials, those essentials Victor Hugo had shown interest in by having his Jean Valjean meet his protector Bienvenu de Miollis, bishop of Digne, had returned Tolstoy to a path of palpable existential joy and “meaning.” This meaning could not be destroyed by “death” as long as one believed so with conviction and humility.

Bishop Myriel, also known as Monseigneur Bienvenu (1862), by illustrator Gustave Brion

But Tolstoy soon found one issue: dogmatic teachings within the church he belonged to. He embraced the rituals he had considered ridiculous to show himself he was willing even to embrace those symbols so they could have a meaning in him. But every time he tried to come to terms with the fact that he wanted the essentials but not the denominations, some interlocutor would explain to him why it was so difficult to bring all Christians together or to even come with ways of building universal bridges among religions and even with secular pantheists such as the old Conventionist G—-, the character from The Miserables whose thought reminds us of Spinoza’s.

Tolstoy’s belief in a primitive, bare Christianism became conflictual with the Orthodox church. To him, some Catholics, Raskolniks, Protestants, Old Believers, Molokans, and others, had the highest moral character, and he wanted to be a brother of them. His Confession was also a way to explain he had overcome all difficulties to find faith, even though his was more interested in the fallibility of the Bible and its teachings, in their never-ending wisdom and perspectivism than in dogma.

Leaving behind an Alpine valley

As Tolstoy grew closer to thinkers such as a Kierkegaard of action, his investigation of dogmatic theology was never published. He had found life and didn’t want to go back to a cult of death.

In the Alpine Pellice valley, as I talked about philosophy and theology with a Catholic priest, a fine scholar of Aristotle, and a doctor in theology, these musings of Tolstoy came to me. I realized I could enjoy a deeper relationship with the ways of the mountains, and maybe reconnect somehow with my old rustic roots.

Not far from where our conversation with our friend theologian took place (more to come in a video some weeks from now,) the Waldensians, a proto-protestant church tradition that had started as an ascetic movement to reconnect with the essential teachings of the gospel, had lasted for generations.

The movement had spread along the valleys of the Cottian Alps of France and Italy. Then, subjected to persecution and declared heretical, they were killed or forced to leave. Their convictions (serving the marginalized, promoting social justice, fostering inter-religious work, and advocating for freedom of conscience) would have interested both Victor Hugo and Leo Tolstoy.

As we left the mountains above the Pellice Valley that night, I could not help but think in the conviction of those who refuse inauthenticity and prefer to give definite meaning to their existence while genuinely helping others if they get the chance.