Sunday, July 14, 2013

Fortnightly Book, July 14

I will be moving the next couple of weeks (it's a slow move, and within the same city -- actually just down the road a few miles), so I considered doing something very, very light. But I decided eventually, since I just did a classic work on St. Bernadette Soubirous written by a Jewish author, that I would do another classic work on a teenaged female saint written by a non-Catholic, indeed, by a famous anti-Catholic: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, by the Sieur Louis de Conte, by Mark Twain. It's an interesting work: Twain despised the French and hated Catholicism; but he was an ardent fan of the Catholic Church's most thoroughly French saint.

Personal Recollections was a serialized in Harper's Magazine in 1895. Twain insisted on its serial publication being anonymous, not because he did not want to be associated with the work (he said he wrote it for love, and at one point called it his best work, and the work he liked best) but because he did not want the work to be associated with him. The name Mark Twain, then as now, was associated with humor and frivolous mockery, and he wanted to rule out the possibility that this work, at least, would be interpreted in that light, at least in its initial entry into the world. The book was published under his name, and Twain's tactic seems to have worked; it was very positively regarded as Twain being serious and dignified for once. Interestingly enough, it has been hated, absolutely hated, by a large number of critics. Also interestingly, I have never seen them back this up with an argument that made any sense. The fact of the matter seems to be that Twain's book on Joan shows the author to be more complicated than many of his fans; it presents a vision of the world that does not seem to fit with the reasons many people become fascinated with Twain in the first place.

Joan herself, of course, needs no introduction, although it's perhaps worth pointing that the "of Arc" is not a correct translation, sanctioned by long custom though it may be; we should just call her Joan d'Arc; the "d'Arc" is much closer to being a family name than to being a descriptive one. The Maid, La Pucelle, lived in the fifteenth century and is one of the first historical figures of whom we have a truly extraordinary amount of information, since we have the ordinary historical traces plus the archives of two extensive investigations into her life. Twain's depiction of her is historical romance, based on very close, but also non-slavish, regard for evidence. She was not known as St. Joan when Twain wrote his book, but as Venerable Joan, having received the designation just shortly before in 1894. From her death she was widely regarded as a martyr, but official process did not really get going, at least with any effect, until the nineteenth century, when historians began to look more closely at her life, stirring up interest across a wide segment of the population of the Western world, Catholic or not. She was beatified in 1909, a year before Twain's death. She was canonized in 1920. Twain would not have been impressed; prior to writing the work, he had dismissed the whole canonization process for Joan as an insult to her good name and memory.

One of the interesting features of Twain's version of Joan is that she's not a tomboy. Twain deliberately depicts her as very 'girly'; I've talked about this before, and will quote from that discussion:

But precisely what Twain is showing in this work -- and it is a strength -- is that Joan is very much a girl. She is a teenaged girl, with a teenaged girl's focus, a teenaged girl's generosity, and, when exasperated or sure that she's right and everyone else is wrong, a teenaged girl's saucy impudence, and what Twain draws out is that these are part of what makes Joan rise above everything. Twain's Joan does not go out and fight wars, throw back the English, raise French morale, and face her death bravely because she is masculine or butch; she does it because she's a girl. She's courageous, undaunted, and resolute, and she is all these things because she is a girl. She is uncorrupted by the world, unafraid of men, and does what needs to be done regardless of danger; and Twain's whole point is that every single one of these is connected with Joan's girlishness. In Twain's world a girl, even a very girly girl, a girl as girlish as she can be, can, given the right circumstances and the right cause, put grown men to shame on their own field.

There is plenty of evidence that this picture of Joan is precisely what drew Twain to her in the first place; he has some very disparaging comments about pictures of Joan that try to fit her into her armor, so to speak, by making her a blocky woman with big arms. Twain avoids this assiduously. What Joan looked like we can hardly say, since the only direct portrait that we know existed has not survived. But there is a sketch of Joan in the protocols of the Parliament of Paris, from 1429, that says something about how people imagined her at the time:

Joan parliament of paris

Clément de Fauquembergue, who sketched it on hearing of her victory at Orleans, almost certainly had never actually seen her. But it does seem to show at least that when people of Joan's own day heard of La Pucelle, the Maid, they imagined a slip of a teenage girl, even if she went forth with sword and banner.

In any case, since I ended my previous introductory post with Jennifer Warnes singing a song co-written with Leonard Cohen about St. Bernadette, it would seem somewhat fitting to end this introductory post with Jennifer Warnes singing a song written by Leonard Cohen about St. Joan. But, while very beautifully done, the song itself seems an incomplete capture of St. Joan's martyrdom. So here's a supplement to it. While it was never big in the U.S., here is a very famous New Wave song about St. Joan: "Maid of Orleans" (sometimes "Joan of Arc", although this usually designates another, rather different version) by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or OMD. No, the sound is not broken; that's how the song begins -- it was the early 80s. But starting about 40 seconds, it stops being quite so 80s-ish and settles down to an appropriately martial heartbeat and the actual song.

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