Mark Twain: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc,” Part Two

“Joan crowned the King at Rheims. For reward he allowed her to be hunted to her death without making one effort to save her. During the next twenty-three years he remained indifferent to her memory; indifferent to the fact that her good name was under a damning blot put there by the priests because of the deeds which she had done in saving him and his scepter; indifferent to the fact that France was ashamed, and longed to have the Deliverer’s fair fame restored. Indifferent all the time.” (968)

Continued from the last post, in which I tried to show that we can, along with Mark Twain, be inspired by Joan of Arc as an example of a young person being given massive challenges and creating the new values required for the age. In Twain’s account, Joan of Arc transformed cynicism into optimism, shallow symbolic religion for religious passion, while also destroying the existing political and social status quo. In a sense, Joan of Arc is a larger and historically significant example of Huck Finn, who also successfully faced the most profound challenges of the day. I also argued that perhaps the best thing that elders can do is understand that their values are decrepit (which does not mean they did not have their value at one time) and step aside, in the process liberating the creative power of young people. Most importantly we should stop educating them in our fashion, in our institutions.

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, covers her military campaign after the victory at Orleans and her martyrdom at the hands of the conservatives in her own ranks and the English. Mark Twain argues that her victories emerged from her vernacular knowledge, her peasant background. The nobility could not save France because they simply did not understand France. “How did she know it? It is simple: she was a peasant. That tells the whole story. She was of the people and knew the people; those others moved into a loftier sphere and knew nothing much about them. We make little account of that vague formless, inert mass, that mighty underlying force which we call ‘the people’—an epithet which carried contempt with it. It is a strange attitude; for at bottom we know that the throne which the people support, stands, and that when that support is removed, nothing in this world can save it.” (790) This is perhaps not a justification for monarchy in the end, but to the degree that one of Joan’s successes was the coronation of the King and the solidification of the political force that would win the war against the English, she at least moved that monarchy into a democratic direction. Unfortunately there are too few rectifications of the people with the rulers (revolutions, they are typically called).

Whatever brief united Joan created between the state and the people fell away immediately. Joan—and in Twain’s mind the people of France—wanted to march on Paris and finish the campaign with another great victory. The King ended Joan’s plans. A truce was arrived at that did not result in the total victory Joan promise and predicted. “Joan had Paris and France in her grip, and the Hundred Years’ War under her heel, and the King made her open her fist and take away her foot.” (834) This betrayal was followed by her capture by the English, which led not to the expected ransom demands, but rather her trial as a heretic. What shocks the narrator is that the King takes no effort to mobilize the people for the rescue of Joan. With her youthful, revolutionary power gone the army fell back into the hands of the decadent, defeatist leaders who had brought France to ruin. The entire spirit of Joan’s moment passes with her imprisonment. “We could not realize the change which had come upon the country. We seemed able to choose our own route and go wherever we pleased, unchallenged and unmolested. When Joan of Arc was in the field, there was a sort of panic of fear everywhere, but now that she was out of the way, fear had vanished. Nobody was troubled abut you or afraid of you . . . everybody was indifferent.” (847–848)

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Mark Twain presents the trial of Joan of Arc as yet another of her triumphs due to her ability to out-maneuver her accusers. The claims of heretical transgression centered on a handful of issues: her apparent direct contact with God (he took messages from “The Voice”) and her cross-dressing and her preference of wearing men’s clothing and armor. Under the surface are claims that she was misusing the French people for her own aims, lying to them to achieve victory or using some form of witchcraft to achieve unnatural victories. According to the narrator, the real reason for the trial was purely political and strategic. The English simply wanted to remove an obstacle to their war effort. By the narrator’s account the trials ended with Jean victorious, especially when she demanded a trial under the direct supervision of the Pope, rejecting the arbitrary local law for a more universal concept of justice. There is much in this trial that reminds us of Anne Hutchinson’s trial in this regard.

It is likely for this reason that Joan of Arc’s religious delusions do not seem to bother the normally skeptical Twain. Twain himself was a heterodox who preferred to go directly to the source and took liberties of interpretation when it moved him, not binding himself to any institutional religious claim. In the claim that damned her as a heretic Joan said: “I believe [the Church] cannot err; but for those deeds and words of mine which were done and uttered by command of God, I will answer to him alone.” (921)

After Joan of Arc is executed, she becomes a commodity to be used by others for political advantage. Until France was finally liberated from the English, the King ignored her. With victory he worked to “rehabilitate” her image so as not to be accused of earning his crown through the efforts of a women in league with the devil.

So, the second part of this tale is not without its victories for Jean, but these victories are in the broader context of betrayal. Perhaps this was inevitable. For all of Jean’s amazing achievements, she chose to work within and respect the political and religious systems of her time. Her revolution was a half-measure. She temporarily reconnected the French people with the crown. She oversaw the rise of a more vernacular and popular peasant Christianity. But since she never challenged those institutions, she was left vulnerable to betrayal. Institutions privilege self-preservation over justice, honor, and progress.

Around the time this book was published, Samuel Clemens’ daughter Susy died. I cannot help but wonder if he saw some of Joan of Arc in his daughter.

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Eudora Welty, “The Ponder Heart” (1954)

While Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding was set in a rather odd subculture of an elite Southern family, the Fairchilds, and seemed to function by its own absurd and sociopathic rules, the much shorter The Ponder Heart actually exists within social institutions.  The Ponders are no less wealthy than the Fairchilds, but the story exists on a larger canvas despite its smaller size.  The plot covers Daniel Ponder’s attempt to give away all of the family’s wealth and the resistance to these acts by the Ponder’s family.  In order to struggle against Daniel Ponder’s spendthrift ways, the Ponder’s rely on social institutions, most notably the asylum, marriage and the courts.  We can thus read this novel in a pretty straightforward fashion as a discourse on the use of these social institutions by those of power to maintain their wealth.  The novel is a brief comedic sketch of the various failures of these efforts, but the reality of elite use and misuse of such institutions is not at all funny.

 

The narrator is Edna Earle Ponder, who is one of the people trying to restrain Daniel’s good heart so it is not clear what motivated Daniel’s generosity.  From the perspective of the narrator, Daniel is a simpleton, insane, or simply incapable of restraint.  He is however, presented as a good person.  “Still the sweetest, most unspoiled thing in the world.  He has the nicest, politest manners — he’s good as gold.” (341)  Essentially, she sees him as a child. Only a child would make such foolish choices with the family fortune.  Daniel seems to have progressed in the opposite direction from a corporate kleptomaniac.  While the contemporary thief may start small (thieving wages from employees, sneaking money from the tip jar) before moving onto the bolder plans that involve hostile takeovers and government bailouts, Daniel started by giving away small things.  What worried his family was that he started to become interested in giving away big things, “property.”  “Grandpa was getting plenty old, and he had a funny feeling that once property started going, next might go the Ponder place itself, and the land and the crop around it, and everything right out rom under Uncle Daniel’s feet, for all you could predict, once Grandpa wasn’t there to stop him.” (343)  It is likely that his desire to give away his wealth was a product of his intense sociability.  This is Edna’s first observation about her uncle Daniel.

Daniel is, however, wealthy.  He can give away money without concerns for the consequences because he has plenty more to surrender to friends and acquaintances.  Charity, generosity, and the social power they provide for philanthropists are themselves products of income inequality.

When private means of securing wealth fail, the Ponders turned to the typical institutions of control for help.  The successive failure of these efforts is the comic material at the heart of the novel.  The asylum picks up the wrong Ponder.  The attempt to marry Daniel Ponder to a widow (who will presumably help keep an eye on the family’s wealth) fails because Daniel instead marries Bonnie Dee Peacock, “a little thing with yellow, fluffy hair.”  (352)  By putting Daniel on an allowance, the banks are able to prevent him from exercising too much generosity.  Still, this marriage finally kills off Sam Ponder (Grandpa).  The final attempt to confine Daniel’s generosity comes after the unexpected death of Bonnie Dee.  The trial ends with an acquittal and Daniel gives away all the money.

Welty clearly sees these social restraints as ineffectual as they are systematically defeated – not trough Daniel’s skill as it seems to be witless – by their own incompetence.  Daniel bumbles his way to victory because of the more epic failures of those around him.  While this is a bit too optimistic in my view.  Courts, asylums, banks, marriage and other human institutions have done a very good job of sustaining an inequality in wealth and preventing just the very thing that Welty imagines (a wealthy person of conscious and generosity).

 

Philip K. Dick “The Cosmic Puppets” (1957): “All That Is Solid Melts into Air”

The Cosmic Puppets is one of Philip K. Dick’s early novels exploring the theme of fungible or alternative realities.  Actually, the opening chapters present a common enough problem.  Ted Barton is taking a trip with his wife to his hometown, Millgate Virginia.  He finds his hometown unrecognizable.  Barton’s experience is extreme as any recognizable characteristic in Millgate is dramatically changed.  Yet, this is something that is not uncommon in a liquid world, where the pace of change makes use feel that we do not have a firm setting to anyplace and that changes occur faster than we can process them.  The important people in our lives change year to year.  New construction or decaying communities make our idyllic memories of our youth cruel abstractions, which we cannot quite prove occurred.  Pictures present only dubious, partial suggestions of how things were.  Our memories, collective and individual, are not to be trusted.  If there is one thing surprising in the early chapters of The Comic Puppets, it is that Barton is so immediately sure that Millgate has changed.  Most of us experience the constant plasticity of our worlds with a bit more caution.  “Wasn’t there a building here?  Was that always there?  I seem to recall a parking lot in this district?  What happened to Mr. Zemke?”

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Barton is sure that Millgate has changed and despite the resistance of his wife (who spends most of the novel either in a hotel or on the phone with a divorce lawyer – Dick, in real life and in fiction did not mind breaking up marriages), begins to investigate.  He finds that he was supposed to have died at nine, the very age that he left the down. There is even a record of his death due to scarlet fever.  There are two types of people in the community.  Some, indeed most, have been changed along with the town and have no memory of the past structure.  A few others, Wanderers and a gentleman named Christopher, have an awareness that things have changed and formed a bit of resistance to the forces that have transformed the town.  After recovering a park to its original state through the application of his untainted memory.  Barton also meets Dr. Meade

Two children, Peter and Mary, are in constant conflict using proxies (golems, bees, spiders, snakes).  Peter turns out to be an avatar of Ormazd, a Zoroastrian deity.  Mary is Armaiti, the daughter of Ahriman, who has taken the avatar of Dr. Meade.  The battle between these forces leaves Millgate and enters the cosmos, never ending, but leaving Barton’s town in peace.

So, the transformations Barton and the townspeople experienced was not simply a loss of memory but a directed plot by malevolent forces.  In this way, Dick is again describing the world we live in, the world of late capitalism.  Our displacement, mobility, and liquidity are not inevitable realities but the direct result of the institutions that in fact control our lives and our memories.

The possibility of resistance to these realities is not clear.  The Wanderers and Christopher attempt to change things back, but their memories are incomplete and untrustworthy.  Indeed, they seem to be how most of us experience these changes.  In a comical scene, Barton and the Wanderers attempt to reconstruct the town but can only come to the conclusion that Barton’s precision is proof that he is a double-agent for the malevolent forces responsible for the change.  Internally, they can only struggle to come to terms with the liquidity.  Barton has a pure memory because he was led from the town at the age of nine by Mary and allowed to return, despite an artificial quarantine established by Ormazd.  He is a secret weapon because of his pure memory.  Nevertheless, the institutions of late modernity are all powerful, like the Zoroastrian gods Dick conjures to make his point.  Memory is a powerful antidote to plenty of institutional lies.  (No, you do not need a cell phone or iPad or automobile.  Yes, there was a time when salaries kept up with productivity.  We used to get by without millions in the prison-industrial system.)  Historians, however useless most of them are, still have an important role in establishing a collective memory of alternatives to the existing reality.  As the pace of change quickens and “all that is solid melts into air” their role will become more important.  That is, as long as historians do not fall into the ideological constructs of global modernity – which is essentially what so-called “World History” does when it praises the accomplishments of explorers, conquerors, global capitalists, empire builders, and religious leaders.

Here is Zygmunt Bauman on “Liquid Modernity”: