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

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.