Guernica Magazine

John Fanning: Questioning is Political

The writer on resistance history in French Occitanie, dropping out to drop in, and cultivating spiritual presence as an artist. The post John Fanning: Questioning is Political appeared first on Guernica.
Photo: Kerry Eielson.

Since 2001, the village of Labastide Esparbairenque in the remote Black Mountain region of southern France, has been home to La Muse artists’ and writers’ retreat and, more recently, an independent press, La Muse Books. The retreat draws artists and writers from different parts of the world (with different levels of acclaim) to live and work alongside each other in a stone manor house with a large terrace cut into a valley, with views to the mountains across it. The bells chime every half hour, and a freshwater spring carries water to the village, where Occitan is still spoken among the elders. The village is a cluster of stone buildings and ruins. Its population numbers around eighty people including those in far-flung hamlets and farms.

This tranquil setting of waterfalls, mountain streams, wind-farms and vineyards, belies the region’s violent history as a center of resistance to totalitarianism and genocide at two very different moments in French history. In the 13th century, it was home to the Cathars, a proto-Lutheran religious order whose dualist outlook led to surprisingly progressive social politics (for the period): tolerance of homosexuality—though they considered procreation ill advised, as it perpetuated the constraint of the spirit in a “tunic” of flesh—greater flexibility of gender roles, and a spiritual life outside the dictates of the Catholic Church. The aim of the Albigensian Crusade was the systematic murder of Cathars, though certain sects continued to practice in secret in the mountain villages of the Midi-Pyrénées. Then, in the 1940’s, the region harbored French resistance fighters, or Maquis, who partnered with the allies against the Vichy government who then controlled the region.

, who runs La Muse with his wife, Kerry Eielson, knew little about the region or its history when he and Kerry left their jobs in New York City—reporter at and editor at respectively—to found La Muse, a risk that seemed utterly quixotic at the time. But over the last 20 years, La Muse has supported artists by creating, among other things, a space for questioning—not just the plot arcs of

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