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When in Occitania: A Reflection

Admittedly, in writing a creative, informal essay, I did not really adhere to any strict methodology. I mainly just wanted to relate my changing attitudes towards the seminar, while also providing a lightly analytical critique of some of our readings. In comparison with some of the more directly analytical projects my peers have created, I was at first a little wary of taking such a free-form approach—after all, I still wanted to demonstrate how much I had learned. But it is also important to take into account many different kinds of learning, and the intellectual and personal growth I’ve experienced during the seminar certainly deserved some attention. Above all, I wanted to express that academic content is best assimilated and appreciated when taken alongside personal reflection. This essay attempts to emphasize the close relationship between subjective impressions and sentiments to the ostensibly objective treatment of academic subjects—a relationship that is often blurry and poorly defined. In selecting two of my favorite readings from the course—the Taruskin and Léglu selections—I attempted to ground this relationship in my own opinions towards the performance of trobar and the preservation of Occitan culture. There is, I believe, a balance to be struck between the unemotional analysis of cultural topics and the naturally emotional responses they evoke, and it is only in striking this balance that students can gain a full appreciation for the intellectual ramifications of what they are learning. It is a difficult task, to be sure, but one worthy of dedicated effort.   “I don’t really get it.”Speaking to me through the phone last April, my mother echoed the sentiments of countless other friends and family members who simply could not understand why I was traveling to France. I had, of course, explained the objectives of the course—to learn about the troubadours, to more fully appreciate Occitan culture, and to recognize the complicated political and bureaucratic frameworks through which that culture is expressed—but they just could not fathom why I, an English major without connections to or extensive knowledge of anything French, would want to spend time there. Frustrated, I told my mom what I told everyone else:“It’s a six hundred dollar trip, the country will be beautiful, and I’ll get a lot of good food.”Naturally, this retort did not work out well with her, and she scoffed and hung up the phone shortly after reprimanding me for my so-called “immaturity.” I thought it was an excellent defense, however, and I left the interaction with an enhanced view of both myself and my fateful decision to enroll in the seminar.Still, as time passed, and the seminar date approached, I began to mull over my mother’s criticism. It was certainly fair—after all, for all intents and purposes I had no real reason to go to France, and perhaps I could instead use the time to get an early start on my summer research. The troubadours didn’t bear much significance in my life, and though I certainly respected their poetry and deeply appreciated their impact on subsequent artists and literary movements, I could just as easily have stayed around San Francisco and studied the Beat Poets. Even Occitania—the obscure, mysterious region made familiar to me via Wikipedia—no longer held the same fascinating appeal now that I knew I was actually going to explore it. The seed of doubt had been planted, and given my propensity to overthink things, flourished until I stepped on the plane to take me overseas.At that point, I had expected my anxieties to dissipate and be replaced by the thrill of international travel. Perhaps I’d seen too many Eurotrip comedy movies, but I thought that I’d then meet up with some fellow 20-year-old college kids and we’d immediately get wrapped up in a series of misadventures together—a fanciful hope that completely disregarded the fact I was actually enrolled in a class. Rather unsurprisingly, however, when I considered the academic implications of what I’d gotten myself into, a whole new slew of anxieties arose. What if these subjects were truly so unknown to me that learning about them would be more difficult than I had initially imagined? What if the fact I could not perform or competently analyze music would preclude me from contributing anything insightful during discussion with my esteemed peers? Or what about the fact I couldn’t speak French, or Occitan, or whatever it was they spoke where I was going?Jumping ahead to my first night at the Centre International de Sejour Narbonne, these questions seemed only to have become more relevant. It had been a long flight, I was tired, and “Now You See Me” had not been the rip-rollicking cinematic adventure my naive younger self had expected. So when Prof. Galvez kindly informed the group that Gerard had arranged a musical welcome for us, I could not help but let out a low and hopefully inaudible sigh of exasperation. Occitania, so far, had not proven intellectually exciting.It was that first trobar performance, however, that really showed me how much I stood to gain from the seminar--and how much I had to learn. Hearing the dramatic drone of the hurdy-gurdy (a phrase I never expected to write in my lifetime), the high staccato of the tympanum, and most of all the passionately inflected singing, I realized trobar was not, as I had so incorrectly presumed, a dead art. Nor was it hopelessly foreign to me--sure, the sound was far unlike what most young people typically listen to nowadays, but despite the fact that the lyrics were in Occitan and the hurdy-gurdy’s operation absolutely baffled me, I still felt a very real emotional response. I could tell the love songs apart from the dance tunes and the triumphant odes, and could somehow beat my foot to each one regardless of how strange they were to my modern tastes. So, buoyed by a delicious meal of meat and cheese, I realized this seminar deserved my full attention. I knew very little about the region’s history and rich cultural legacy, but I figured that if I only kept my eyes and ears open during our many outings and lectures, I was bound to learn something. And learn, I certainly did—about the Cathars, the various themes central to troubadour poetry, and southern France’s earnestly debated cultural future. Coming from a wholly American perspective, without much awareness for the complicated social, religious, and artistic movements that shaped the area, I was ignorant to the vast majority of what I was being taught. At first, I thought my lack of knowledge was purely a weakness, something that could not in any way serve my educational experience. As we continued to go through readings and explore new sites, however, I actually came to make use of my open mind as a position from which I could potentially form unique opinions.While I was reading through the Taruskin essay, for example, I was struck first of all by the author’s intense argumentation and meticulously reasoned viewpoint. His opinion that historians and musicologists can not, no matter their efforts, properly simulate the sound of music as it was originally performed both intrigued and even insulted me. I understand, of course, that it may indeed be impossible to perfectly reproduce musical compositions that have undergone considerable adaptation over several centuries, or about which historians lack the evidence necessary to make definitive conclusions, but out of respect for history itself I thought it would be crucial to at least attempt a historically correct reproduction. Granted, I am no renowned scholar, and considering my point of view does not draw upon dozens of reputable academic sources like that of Taruskin’s, maybe I am in no place to argue against him. But also considering the great passion with which modern troubadours celebrate the poetic and musical skills of their forebears, I think it’s wise to at least humor the thought that with a traditional performance we may be hearing something that has persisted, incredibly, over the centuries and whose purpose--to tell stories of love and sadness, war and peace--remains unchanged.This opinion comes mainly from my experiences listening to live troubadour performances, so I truly think there is something to be said solely about the way music makes one feel, without a scholarly lens to detract from its emotional impact. Nonetheless, on the other hand, I do still acknowledge that there is immense value in documenting and trying to uncover the context within which the artist creates his or her art. Catherine Léglu, in writing about the troubadours’ place within the Albigensian Crusade, provides one such important analysis. Contrary to popular belief, she argues, rather than being Cathar sympathizers who universally pledged themselves to a separate Occitan culture, some troubadours railed against or were indifferent to the Cathar faith. As Léglu herself states, “There is little to no evidence that any of the troubadours included in the chansonniers were either aware of or sympathetic towards Catharism” (Léglu, 119). In providing this contrarian viewpoint, even if unrelated to troubadour performance, Léglu demonstrates that without extensive, thorough examination of the cultural and historical contexts informing the troubadours’ music, the true impact and scope of their art can never be fully appreciated. From my standpoint, and the standpoint of other casually interested laymen, maybe it is enough to just say the music is beautiful and worth preserving--but to scholars like Léglu and Taruskin, there is more than the music that needs to be taken into account. Though I may not always find it exciting, I do respect their attention to detail, and without their scholarly passion complementing the troubadours’ artistry, the art would undoubtedly lose some of the admiration it very much deserves. Now, as the seminar is coming to a close, I’m proud to say that I have gained enough knowledge about Occitan culture and the troubadours that I can form these fundamental opinions. No longer do I appreciate France solely for its exceptional cuisine--though my appreciation has certainly grown over the past couple of weeks--but I’ve now become familiar with a fascinating culture and art that merit far more widespread recognition. Until that recognition can be achieved though, it comforts me that Gerard and his friends have at least kept Occitan traditions alive, and I hope that by expressing interest in them, my peers and I have done our small part to keep them alive too.      

OSPGEN 77: The Other France: Troubadours and the Politics of Cultural Heritage
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