“Joan of Arc, a mere child in years, ignorant, unlettered, a poor village girl unknown and without influence, found a great nation lying in chains, helpless and hopeless under an alien domination, its treasury bankrupt, its soldiers disheartened and dispersed, all spirit torpid, all courage dead in the hearts of the people through long years of foreign and domestic outrage and oppression, their King cowed, resigned to its fate, and preparing to fly the country; and she laid her hand upon this nation, this corpse, and it rose and followed her.” (546)
What moved me while reading Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was how much Joan’s dilemma and challenge parallels the challenges of today’s young. Joan grew up in a France that was defeated and in decline, but more seriously lacking a vision for itself. And then, after saving France she is made to suffer for her deeds. We have yet to see the second half of this story play out in our world (we hope it will not), but the first part seems quite true to life. Whether it is crushing debt, an increasingly vapid democracy, an unprecedented ecological catastrophe, growing inequality, a perverted image of socialism, or a dying culture, our children are being left quiet a mess to clean up. The argument we should get from Twain’s quite brilliant history Joan of Arc is that those of us old in body or mind, should step aside.
I have touched on the theme of generations before. Philip K. Dick had an intense fear of the gerontocracy (something I am exploring in the book I am working on). The almost always pessimistic Hawthorne, seemed to think that creative energy and transgressive potential existed in children. Mark Twain clearly believed the same or else he would not have created so many examples of creative and courageous children alongside odious and cowardly adults. Perhaps this tension must exist in the literature of a young revolutionary nation.
I do not want to let my feelings on the old be misunderstood. While I do think we must blame them for most of the mess younger people were left with, we should not ignore the challenges that they overcame. They were left with a mess of their own to clean up. They were faced with the central challenges of the twentieth century: unrestricted capitalism and political tyranny. But they also left us a political and economic system that is in need of a massive recreation. Resolving these problems require that that generation step aside. They control the wealth (we can look at generational income and wealth inequality), they remain in charge of the political system, and in many ways they still control the terms of the debate. One major concern of mine, is that with life-extending technology and declining birth rates, the young of the world will be spending most of their time laboring to keep alive a wealthy and increasingly delusion class of elders. Yes, grandpa, maybe you are living too long.
Now, of course, the solution to this problem is not the repression of elders, but rather the empowerment of youth. And one of the largest hurdles to this is that disgusting idea of adolescence. I do not think it is wise to take physically and (but for public education and a mind-numbing culture) mentally adults and give them an arbitrary label as adolescence. I do not know much of the history of this, but I suspect it began either with industrialization or with public education. And now, unfortunately, adolescence is being extended by sending millions to collages, straddling them with unpayable debts, and forestalling the responsibilities of adulthood into the distant future. This was not a problem in Joan of Arc’s time, when you were either a child or an adult and that transition came with sexual and physical maturity. Joan of Arc was young, but an adult. She proved it in her actions, the sharpness of her rhetoric, her courage, and her ability to inspire others. In this way, she is a grander version of Huck Finn, who triumphed over the greatest moral question of his life, and of his age.
Onto the novel (historical fiction certainly, but heavily researched in archives). The first half covers Joan’s upbringing in Domremy to her emergence as a victorious general of the French armies at the battle of Orleans, where a major English position was maintained, including her rallying of the French king and the nobility and populace of France for the war effort. As for that history-making victory, Twain wrote: “No other girl in all of history has ever reached such a summit of glory as Joan of Arc reached that day. And do you think it turned her head, and that she sat up to enjoy that delicious music of homage and applause? No; another girl would have done that, but not this one. That was the greatest heart and the simplest that ever beat.” (742) As you can see, Twain believed that Joan of Arc was the most impressive person in human history. Often his praise comes off as exaggerated, but we have no reason to believe Twain was not authentic in his praise, even if we may not share his reading of the past.
Twain started the novel with some discussion of the children of Domremy, the world that created Joan. These children were already cultivating a religious culture distinct from that of adults. Joan plays a role in connected the intellectual courage of children with the piety of mature religion. “All the children pleaded for the fairies, and said they were their good friends and dear to them and never did them any harm, but the priest would not listen, and said it was a sin and shame to have such friends.” (563) Joan’s first moment of courage came in her confrontation with the theology of the priest class. She remains an impressive person in local history, but it was the sight of a dead and mutilated man that spurs her to adulthood and action. “It was a bloody and dreadful sight. Hardly any of us young people had ever seen a man before who had lost his life by violence; so this cadaver had an awful fascination for us; we could not take our eyes from it. I mean, it has that sort of fascination for all of us but one. That one was Joan.” (589) She turns from the horror not to flee but to action, although she would first need to undergo a religious and then a political transformation.
A significant role of Joan of Arc was in the conquest of cynicism and defeat. One could argue that she got this strength from religious delusion. Twain is less interested in the origin of the courage than in the amazing fact that such courage was possible in a young person. (Perhaps not so amazing for himself who eager gave his young characters this moral courage.)
No less significant for Twain is Joan’s triumph over narrow human expectations about the source of one’s value. She faced much ridicule early in her campaign. “Human nature is the same everywhere; it deifies success, it has nothing but scorn for defeat. The village considered that Joan had disgraced it with her grotesque performance and its ridiculous failure; so all the tongues were busy; insomuch that if the tongues had been teeth she would not have survived her persecutions.” (610) How often has such ridicule stopped people from speaking and creating?
I have not given much thought to Joan of Arc before reading this novel, but now I find her a useful model for the challenges of our day and an argument for the empowerment of youth, a group that needs to be much freer and take much more seriously for the role they can play in historical change.