Twain’s Joan III

TwainJoan1905-2

There’s an illustration, gentlemen – a real illustration,” he said. “I studied that girl, Joan of Arc, for twelve years, and it never seemed to me that the artists and the writers gave us a true picture of her. They drew a picture of a peasant. Her dress was that of a peasant. But they always missed the face – the divine soul, the pure character, the supreme woman, the wonderful girl. She was only 18 years old, but put into a breast like hers a heart like hers and I think, gentlemen, you would have a girl – like that.”

The humorist looked toward the door, and there was absolute silence – puzzled silence – for many did not know whether it was time to laugh, disrespectful to giggle, or discourteous to keep solemn. The humorist realized the situation. Turning to his audience he came out of the clouds and said solemnly:

“But the artists always paint her with a face – like a ham.”

This quote of Mark Twain is taken from an article published in the December 31, 1905 edition of The New York Times, Pictorial Section, which covered a dinner at the Aldine Association, sponsored  by the Society of Illustrators which Mark Twain had been the guest of honor. Knowing as they did, the great respect  which he bore toward the Maid of Orleans the men of the society had prearranged to have a model dressed in the garb of the saint, including armor to enter and approach Mark Twain at the head table.  The article says it looked as though he had seen a ghost; but I wonder if it would be more proper to say, especially given his remarks above, that he looked as though he had seen a vision.

The Times article is reprinted in a recent post at News for Growing Christians by Stephen K. Ryan, entitled “What the Atheists don’t want you to know about Mark Twain’s secret.” I have written on this subject before (see “Twain’s Joan” I & II); however, I was not aware of the incident recorded by the Times, nor of the 1904 essay Twain wrote, singing the St. Joan’s praises to the heavens in which he did not believe.  In the Maid, he was a believer:

Taking into account, as I have suggested before, all the circumstances — her origin, youth, sex, illiteracy, early environment, and the obstructing conditions under which she exploited her high gifts and made her conquests in the field and before the courts that tried her for her life, — she is easily and by far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.

Stranger yet is the fact that what we might presume to be the case, given his well known dispositions, is in fact not true,  namely, that his interest  in the girl was purely due to the fact that she did not fit his determinist ideology and that somehow nature had been kinder to her than to the rest of us.  There is not even a hint of the secularist sneer in the following words of praise:

She was deeply religious, and believed that she had daily speech with angels; that she saw them face to face, and that they counselled her, comforted and heartened her, and brought commands to her direct from God. She had a childlike faith in the heavenly origin of her apparitions and her Voices, and not any threat of any form of death was able to frighten it out of her loyal heart. She was a beautiful and simple and lovable character. In the records of the Trials this comes out in clear and shining detail. She was gentle and winning and affectionate, she loved her home and friends and her village life; she was miserable in the presence of pain and suffering; she was full of compassion: on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words; in an age when it was common to slaughter prisoners she stood dauntless between hers and harm, and saved them alive; she was forgiving, generous, unselfish, magnanimous; she was pure from all spot or stain of baseness. And always she was a girl; and dear and worshipful, as is meet for that estate: when she fell wounded, the first time, she was frightened, and cried when she saw her blood gushing from her breast; but she was Joan of Arc! and when presently she found that her generals were sounding the retreat, she staggered to her feet and led the assault again and took that place by storm.

Twain is a good example of the skeptical age.  It’s full of contradictions.  I would have to believe that the Maid came to his defense as she did even to the enemies of France:  “on the field of her most splendid victory she forgot her triumphs to hold in her lap the head of a dying enemy and comfort his passing spirit with pitying words.” One may hope.

But no man can afford these kind of contradictions.  The Maid could not abide them.  France was not England.  She would have none of the hand-wringing vascilation or refined duplicity of her age, and I am sure she would have none of the cynicism of ours. We shouldn’t either.

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