Saturday, October 23, 2010

Vive Jeanne D'Arc!

Perhaps the greatest heroine in history ...

If you think you're familiar with the story of Joan of Arc, you might want to revisit the history of this remarkable woman. You could read George Bernard Shaw's play, Saint Joan, or do as I did and download a copy of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by none other than Mark Twain.

This may seem an odd subject for the author of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, and most of us have never heard of it. But besides being his last novel Twain considered it his finest:

"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none."

Critics have never agreed with him, and even Mr. Clemens himself must have recognized that it was a departure from the bulk of his work since he first published it under a different pseudonym. Even so, it's an eminently readable tale told with his familiar gusto and killing insight into the depths of human nature. Often his lack of reverence for royalty recalls the "Duck" (duke) floating down the Mississippi on that immortal raft.

The book purports to be a translation of a French manuscript by Joan's page and secretary -- and childhood friend -- as he writes his memoirs late in life. This gives him a narrative vantage point from which to describe her history from country youth to unlikely soldier and liberator of her country, and finally to martyrdom.

Twain was accused of being "infatuated" with the subject of this history, and it's true that through his narrator he allows himself to gush with emotion over her. But in the context of fictional memoir this doesn't seem out of place, but rather in character: an emotional old man recalling a tragedy from his youth.

Through the amazement and enthusiasm of the narrator we are led to an understanding of the magnitude of what Joan accomplished. How is it possible that an illiterant country bumpkin, a slip of a girl just seventeen who had never been outside her own village, was able to inspire the confidence of her king and countrymen and to route occupying armies that had been entrenched for decades?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is to make the story believable as it expands from the dreams and visions of a young girl to sweeping military engagements. Step by step, time and again, young Joan's implacable confidence in her "Voices" and faith in the strength of her Creator overcome all obstacles, however improbable it may seem. And whenever we might be threatened to doubt what happened, we are reminded of the meticulous historical record of the facts.

Much of that record, of course, is due to the trials (it took six of them!) that were arranged by the English to convict Joan of heresy. That she was burned at the stake is an historical fact as iconic as any that has ever been recorded. But in many ways what she accomplished in the course of the trials was her most impressive victory.

She was forced to endure endless questioning by as many as 62 judges arrayed before her, while allowed no legal counsel of her own, and living in chains and darkness during the rest of her days. In spite of this, her testimony is a sustained example of speaking truth to power that exceeds the confrontation of Jesus with Pontius Pilate. Day after day, week after week, month after month, she never admitted to any wrongdoing, never repudiated her faith and belief, avoided every legal trap devised by the opposition, dared to call them on every count of deviousness and blatant disregard of their own laws as they tried to convict her by her own admission.

For example, she was asked if she knew she was in God's grace. Answering Yes would have admitted heresy, because Church doctrine stated that no one could know if they were in a state of grace. Answering No would have admitted that she was guilty of her crimes, since she was not in a state of grace. It was the original Catch 22! Joan's reply?

"If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me."

What makes the story truly tragic is that she was ultimately punished for all the same qualities that made her remarkable, and that her devotion to the simple truth prevented her from making any compromises that might have saved her life. It is a life that was immortalized by being ended so soon. Joan was just nineteen when she was publically incinerated. That was almost 600 years ago, but the flame still burns.

[You can see a contemporary artist's take on Joan 
at Geddes Levenson's "Officially An Artist."]