Twain’s Joan III

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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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Twain’s Joan II

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Everytime I read this passage, I am profoundly moved. . . profoundly. Ah, chivalry!

In the train of wains laden with supplies a man lay on top of the goods. He was stretched out on his back, and his hands were tied together with ropes, and also his ankles. Joan signed to the officer in charge of that division of the train to come to her, and he rode up and saluted.‘What is he that is bound, there?’ she asked.

‘A prisoner, General.’

‘What is his offence?’

‘He is a deserter.’

‘What is to be done with him?’

‘He will be hanged, but it was not convenient on the march, and there was no hurry.’

‘Tell me about him.’

‘He is a good soldier, but he asked leave to go and see his wife who was dying, he said, but it could not be granted; so he went without leave. Meanwhile the march began, and he only overtook us yesterday evening.’

‘Overtook you? Did he come of his own will?’

‘Yes it was of his own will.’

‘He a deserter! Name of God! Bring him to me.’

The officer rode forward and loosed the man’s feet and brought him back with his hands still tied. What a figure he was – a good seven feet high, and built for business! He had a strong face; he had an unkempt shock of black hair which showed up in a striking way when the officer removed his morion for him; for weapon he had a big axe in his broad leathern belt. Standing by Joan’s horse, he made Joan look littler than ever, for his head was about on a level with her own. His face was profoundly melancholy; all interest in life seemed to be dead in the man. Joan said –

‘Hold up your hands.’

The man’s head was down. He lifted it when he heard that soft friendly voice, and there was a wistful something in his face which made one think that there had been music in it for him and that he would like to hear it again. When he raised his hands Joan laid her sword to his bonds, but the officer said with apprehension-

‘Ah, madam – my General!’

‘What is it?’ she said.

‘He is under sentence!’

‘Yes, I know. I am responsible for him,’ and she cut the bonds. They had lacerated his wrists, and they were bleeding. ‘Ah, pitiful!’ she said; ‘blood – I do not like it’; and she shrank from the sight. But only for a moment. ‘Give me something, somebody, to bandage his wrists with.’ Continue reading

Twain’s Joan

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To follow up my comments on historical fiction and how they apply to the story of St. Joan of Arc, I thought I might commend Mark Twain, on his stupendous effort to translate the true history of the Maid of Orleans into a very readable and enjoyable novel.

Twain, as always, is full of invention and literary genius in this work, but not only does he avoid adulterating the true character of the saint, he actually enhances our appreciation for her character by the choices he makes as he integrates his own invention with the facts.

Mark Twain considered his Sieur Louis de Conte: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to be his greatest work, and assiduously researched the subject before he set to work. He had a strong personal devotion to the Maid, despite his decided lack of faith and his abundance of cynicism. He found St. Joan to be an exception to his general rule that “the noblest man’s meat is inferior to pork” (More Maxims of Mark). Twain was a determinist, that is, he believed that man was inherently and helplessly selfish. Here are serveral other of his cynical gems:

All I care to know is that a man is a human being–that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse. I can get right down and grovel with him.
– Mark Twain’s notebook #42

I am the only man living who understands human nature; God has put me in charge of this branch office; when I retire there will be no-one to take my place. I shall keep on doing my duty, for when I get over on the other side, I shall use my influence to have the human race drowned again, and this time drowned good, no omissions, no Ark.
– quoted in Mark Twain, J. Macy, (Doubleday, Page & co., 1913)

Twain loved St. Joan, because he thought she was different. Why he didn’t think anyone else to be different, I cannot say, but at least in regard to the Maid he was a believer.

I will in this and the next post excerpt at length from the online edition of Twain’s Joan of Arc. This first excerpt (excerpts of chapters 36 and 37, plus the whole of chapter 38) is one of my favorite passages, because it integrates historical knowledge with his own literary invention, a marvelous invention, I might add. His creative genius stays true the the real Joan, I think, and illustrates a really important part of her character, namely, that she was an ordinary girl, given extraordinary gifts. As a peasant girl she was feminine and unambitious, happy to be with her family. But in the execution of her duty as General of the armies of France, she was self-assured, deliberate and unbending. This is true to history and Twain drives this home with an exquisite literary sense.

In this passage we find St. Joan of Arc with her family after the crowning of the Charles at Rheims. As she sees it, she has accomplished her principle task and is dreaming of returning home with her family, who, for their part are surprised to hear her express a desire to leave her military career and return to the humdrum of life in Doremy. (It should go without saying that this passage is full of *SPOILERS*): Continue reading