"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, Part 2

You can read Part 1 of this series, here.  

You can also find the entire Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc by Mark Twain on line here.  

This post deals with thoughts concerning Book 1 of Twain’s novel.  I’ve divided the post into three parts: one concerning the Faëry tree of chapter two, one concerning some unusual tidbits concerning the narrator of the work, Sieur Louis de Conte, and one concerning Joan’s interaction with the Archangel Michael in chapter six.  If some of my language suggest I’m speaking to someone, it’s likely I am.  These comments were generated as part of my Goodreads book club discussion on the novel.

1. On Chapter 2:

Let me give my thoughts on this chapter 2, "The Faëry Tree of Domremy." It starts as a description of the little town, and moves to beyond the forest and river, and then Louis talks about dragons that spout fire that once lived there and perhaps one still do. He talks about "evidence" for the dragon and he uses the word "evidence" a number of times throughout the chapter. Now evidence is a loaded word when you project ahead in the story. Joan will face a trial and evidence will be presented and falsified to condemn her. That we know from the raw facts of her life. Louis makes a point that knights killed the dragons at one time, but more recently priests have exorcised them out. This has the sense of an allegory, but of what? Does the dragon represent Joan or her enemies? Unless you've completed the novel (and I haven't yet) I'm not sure we can tell what this is an allegory for.

The faery tree, this five hundred year old "majestic beech tree,' stood on high ground and children went there to play on summer days. Children play around this tree with wild flowers and the fairies drove away serpents and insects and other dangers. This is a very Romanticized image of an Edenic setting. A sense of innocence is emphasized. Even in death that innocence is maintained:

Now from time immemorial all children reared in Domremy were called the Children of the Tree; and they loved that name, for it carried with it a mystic privilege not granted to any others of the children of this world. Which was this: whenever one of these came to die, then beyond the vague and formless images drifting through his darkening mind rose soft and rich and fair a vision of the Tree-if all was well with his soul. That was what some said. Others said the vision came in two ways: once as a warning, one or two years in advance of death, when the soul was the captive of sin, and then the Tree appeared in its desolate winter aspect-then that soul was smitten with an awful fear. If repentance came, and purity of life, the vision came again, this time summer-clad and beautiful; but if it were otherwise with that soul the vision was withheld, and it passed from life knowing its doom. Still others said that the vision came but once, and then only to the sinless dying forlorn in distant lands and pitifully longing for some last dear reminder of their home. And what reminder of it could go to their hearts like the picture of the Tree that was the darling of their love and the comrade of their joys and comforter of their small griefs all through the divine days of their vanished youth?

In death, the children of the tree are granted a vision of this tree before they die, and there are two theories as to what the vision means: either as a warning for those with sin ("once as a warning...") for repentance or as a reminder for those sinless (Still others…") of their home, which embraces love, joy, and comfort. So the tree has a dual meaning, which could be a consolidation of the two trees in paradise. There is the Tree of Knowledge, from which Adam and Eve eat the apple, and there is the Tree of Life, a tree that leads to sin and a tree that brings redemption. I think Twain has consolidated the two. But he has Louis say he has personal experience to know the second to be true, that of the sinless children. Louis writes:

I know that when the Children of the Tree die in a far land, then-if they be at peace with God-they turn their longing eyes toward home, and there, far-shining, as through a rift in a cloud that curtains heaven, they see the soft picture of the Fairy Tree, clothed in a dream of golden light; and they see the bloomy mead sloping away to the river, and to their perishing nostrils is blown faint and sweet the fragrance of the flowers of home. And then the vision fades and passes-but they know, they know! and by their transfigured faces you know also, you who stand looking on; yes, you know the message that has come, and that it has come from heaven.

Well, who is he talking about either directly or indirectly of an innocent child dying in a far off land with a transfigured face and with a message from heaven? Joan, of course.

This is such a rich chapter. I'm glad whoever started the question on it brought it up. The Tree of Life in heaven, among other things, is supposed to prefigure the cross on which Christ is crucified. This ancient tree, I think, here prefigures Joan's innocent life, her trial, and her burning at the stake. This chapter is a consolidation of Joan's story in summary and allegory.

2. Tidbits Concerning the Narrator:

There are a couple of tidbits that I came across or noticed in the early chapters that others might find interesting. The first, the one I came across in a search, is probably not that significant, while the second is something that caught my eye may be significant, and I request some thoughts on it.

On the tidbit that's not significant, I came across that the initials of the supposed author, Sieur Louis de Conte, SLC, match that of Mark Twain's real name, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, or SLC. That is rather interesting, especially when one realizes the real Louis de Conte-who was Jaon's real life page-did not have a title. Twain gave him the title "Sieur," which he did presumably to have the initials match. I did not know this until now, "Sieur" is the French equivalent to the English title of "Sir" given to a knight. Fordham University's website on the novel makes this note:  

"Important Note: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc is a work of fiction by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (i.e. Mark Twain). The pseudonymous author's name - Sieur Louis de Conte [initials SLC] derives from Samuel Langhorne Clemens [initials SLC]. Joan of Arc did have a servant named Louis and the French word for "tale" is conte, hence the name adopted for this story by Clemens."

So the word "conte" has the fortunate translation of "tale," which must have made Twain smile.

The other tidbit that I think carries more significance is the Sieur de Conte's dedication at the beginning. Here are his first two sentences: "This is the year 1492. I am eighty-two years of age." Now Twain is very faithful to the historical facts of Joan's life, but given this is fiction he does take liberties with Louis de Conte. Obviously in that other tidbit above, he gave him a title, and he makes him a childhood friend of Joan. We can see why he does that. If he was to employ a first person narrator who is an eyewitness requires that narrator to be by Joan's side from the beginning until the end. From what I gathered, the real de Conte was not a childhood friend, and it's not clear to me if he was present at her trial and execution. But Twain employs this fiction and has Sieur Louis de Conte write this narrative many years later as an old man of eighty-two, in the year 1492, some sixty-one years after Joan was executed. Now he could have had de Conte write this narrative at any point in the sixty years, but Twain consciously chose 1492, a very curious year.

Why 1492? Of course that is the famous year of Columbus discovering the Americas. What significance could that have to this story? I open that up for everyone.

There are two thoughts that come to mind for me, but I can't say either are completely convincing. One is that it's a way to emphasize what I stated earlier, that Twain is not just speaking about Joan's era and country, but his own time and country. The "1492" detail isn't a strong connection to Twain's time, but perhaps loosely that's what he's suggesting.

The other thought is that 1492 is sometimes regarded as the year the medieval world ended, and the seed of the modern world started to germinate. Of course you have the discovery of the new world, shortly after you have the Protestant reformation, and within a short time you have the codification of national identities rather than more local identities. Is this what Twain is trying to highlight with this detail? Perhaps, but why so?

3.0 Scene with the Archangel

I loved that scene too with the Archangel. And a very important one. Let me just quote it and give you a couple of thoughts on it:

I was coming from over the ridge, one day-it was the 15th of May, '28-and when I got to the edge of the oak forest and was about to step out of it upon the turfy open space in which the haunted beech tree stood, I happened to cast a glance from cover, first-then I took a step backward, and stood in the shelter and concealment of the foliage. For I had caught sight of Joan, and thought I would devise some sort of playful surprise for her. Think of it-that trivial conceit was neighbor, with but a scarcely measurable interval of time between, to an event destined to endure forever in histories and songs.

The day was overcast, and all that grassy space wherein the Tree stood lay in a soft rich shadow. Joan sat on a natural seat formed by gnarled great roots of the Tree. Her hands lay loosely, one reposing in the other, in her lap. Her head was bent a little toward the ground, and her air was that of one who is lost to thought, steeped in dreams, and not conscious of herself or of the world. And now I saw a most strange thing, for I saw a white shadow come slowly gliding along the grass toward the Tree. It was of grand proportions-a robed form, with wings-and the whiteness of this shadow was not like any other whiteness that we know of, except it be the whiteness of lightnings, but even the lightnings are not so intense as it was, for one can look at them without hurt, whereas this brilliancy was so blinding that it pained my eyes and brought the water into them. I uncovered my head, perceiving that I was in the presence of something not of this world. My breath grew faint and difficult, because of the terror and the awe that possessed me.

Another strange thing. The wood had been silent-smitten with that deep stillness which comes when a storm-cloud darkens a forest, and the wild creatures lose heart and are afraid; but now all the birds burst forth into song, and the joy, the rapture, the ecstasy of it was beyond belief; and was so eloquent and so moving, withal, that it was plain it was an act of worship. With the first note of those birds Joan cast herself upon her knees, and bent her head low and crossed her hands upon her breast.

She had not seen the shadow yet. Had the song of the birds told her it was coming? It had that look to me. Then the like of this must have happened before. Yes, there might be no doubt of that.

The shadow approached Joan slowly; the extremity of it reached her, flowed over her, clothed her in its awful splendor. In that immortal light her face, only humanly beautiful before, became divine; flooded with that transforming glory her mean peasant habit was become like to the raiment of the sun-clothed children of God as we see them thronging the terraces of the Throne in our dreams and imaginings.

Presently she rose and stood, with her head still bowed a little, and with her arms down and the ends of her fingers lightly laced together in front of her; and standing so, all drenched with that wonderful light, and yet apparently not knowing it, she seemed to listen-but I heard nothing. After a little she raised her head, and looked up as one might look up toward the face of a giant, and then clasped her hands and lifted them high, imploringly, and began to plead. I heard some of the words. I heard her say-

"But I am so young! oh, so young to leave my mother and my home and go out into the strange world to undertake a thing so great! Ah, how can I talk with men, be comrade with men?-soldiers! It would give me over to insult, and rude usage, and contempt. How can I go to the great wars, and lead armies?-I a girl, and ignorant of such things, knowing nothing of arms, nor how to mount a horse, nor ride it… Yet-if it is commanded-"

Her voice sank a little, and was broken by sobs, and I made out no more of her words. Then I came to myself. I reflected that I had been intruding upon a mystery of God-and what might my punishment be? I was afraid, and went deeper into the wood. Then I carved a mark in the bark of a tree, saying to myself, it may be that I am dreaming and have not seen this vision at all. I will come again, when I know that I am awake and not dreaming, and see if this mark is still here; then I shall know.

 Notice how detailed it is. Louis states the actual date, the location in detail, the weather, the birds acting in unison with Joan. Twain is making sure that the visions and voices Joan hears are true. There is no ambiguity for at least two reason I can think of.

First, Twain is telling us the complete divinity of Joan's claims are true. A modern writer would probably couch her visions and voices in ambiguity because the secular modernist couldn't quite believe it. He has to attribute it to psychology or coincidence or misunderstood science, if not to outright lies. And those secular modernists were already there in Twain's time. But Twain is clearly separating himself from them here. For all of Twain's personal antipathy toward organized religion, he is clearly separating himself here from the secular enlightenment. He is saying that Joan of Arc really communicated with the divine.

Second, and perhaps more important to the logic of the novel, Twain is showing us the truth against the falsified evidence against Joan at her trial. When she goes on trial later in the novel, we will know the truth, and we will feel the villainy of her accusers. Not only will we know the truth of her visions, but we will have her endeared in our hearts because she is clearly acting on behalf of God.

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