Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mark Twain and the Ghost of Joan of Arc -- part one

I first read Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in a graduate seminar in Mark Twain during the spring of 1981.  I wasn't sure what to make of it then. Why is Mark Twain obsessed with Joan?  There IS something about a woman in armor.  But what happens when that woman hears voices?  Why does he insist on telling this story?  Whose story is it anyway?  And how does all of that affect both our understanding of Mark Twain and our notion of ourselves as interpreters of his life.   

I was taught in 1981 that it was a failed book, a self-absorbed and misguided attempt by an author who, insecure and disappointed in his reputation as a humorist, felt driven to kindle some aesthetic sensibility within himself by turning to the serious topics of patriotism, martyrdom, and religious zeal.  I now look back and see how that course was dominated by the interpretive guns of Van Wyck Brooks, one of the first to look not only for a way to categorize Mark Twain but to split the writer Sam Clemens into pieces that when put back together didn't quite create a whole personality (we are all still struggling with that misguided approach).  Recollections of Joan of Arc was flawed; its narrator, Sieur Louis De Conte was a symbol of the ruined storyteller.  The attempt was a failure -- both aesthetically and humorously.  The book became the signpost of Mark Twain's creative impotence.  Such a splendid failure, however, cannot simply be ignored.  Joan of Arc is not at its best as a representation of aesthetic value.  It is stilted and uneven and reductive and derivative.  It is, however, an open valve to the voice of alienation, a complex tale of a disappointing life told in a muffled, raspy, aged, disappointed voice.  

Joan was reprinted as volume seventeen of the Oxford Mark Twain (1996; note the heavy irony -- Joan is seventeen when she dons her battle gear and marches out of Domremy with God's light in her eyes).  But the question is in those years between my first reading of the novel and that reprint, have we critics gotten any more sophisticated in our reading and interpretation of the story.  Do we, perhaps after the interpretive arguments and shifting paradigms of the last decades, have any new thoughts.   In his introduction of the Oxford Mark Twain volume, Justin Kaplan begins with this judgment:

                        Joan of Arc...deserves respect, but for me, and I would guess
                        for most contemporary readers, that respect comes with a
                        certain degree of consternation.  Joan of Arc is of less interest
                        for its intrinsic literary quality than as a biographical crux,
                        an event that illuminates the later life of a major American
                        writer while not adding to his stature.  It is the work of a
                        deeply conflicted, intermittently fulfilled man and artist,
                        a temporary resolution of the many disunities and identities
                        of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain (XXXI).

Kaplan here returns to the formula of the split personalities that have dominated much of Twain studies since the publication of his Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1969).  I keep hearing echoes of Brooks' indictment in Kaplan's words -- "a temporary resolution of the many disunities and identities of Samuel Clemens and Mark Twain."  Kaplan had something there for a minute, but he lost by oversimplifying the conflict in a resurgence of the SLC/MT dichotomy.   

In the Oxford edition, to complete the cycle of comment on Twain's imminent failure, Kaplan's 1970 voice is book-ended with Susan Harris' afterword.  Harris offers a somewhat less stodgy reading that focuses on the relationship between Twain's ideological stance and the broad construction of his symbiotic intersection with pre-modern late nineteenth and early twentieth century culture.  In Harris' words:

                        Coming to attention during the latter part of the nineteenth
                        century, the figure who could have been a symbol of the New
                        Woman was as often co-opted by the conservative forces as by
                        the liberal, becoming an anomaly used to highlight women's
                        "essential" femininity and, most significantly, to support
                        traditional sexual roles.....At heart a nineteenth-century
                        "True" woman rather than a twentieth-century "New" one,
                        Joan could be heralded as a leader whose heroism lay,
                        paradoxically in her femininity, especially her feminine
                        sacrifice of self for her country, her God, and her king.

And, Harris concludes, "Certainly this ideology informs Mark Twain's text" (5).  Yes, it does.  But does this enhance both our understanding and appreciation of the story, especially in whether or how it illuminates what we know we think about Mark Twain or what we know we think about ourselves.  

That's where an element of stodginess erupts.  A twist on the academic disease -- a prizing of analytical distance over emotional strife.  We can be so hypnotized by the trill and warble of cultural ideologies that we miss the record of and potential for individual pain.  The specters of literary characters (of literary figures) oppose theory:  theories are either easily forgotten or remain fixed -- we can't read them any differently from one time to the next; characters, however, live, die, are resurrected, become ghosts.  We gain intimacy not with ideology but with characters and through the link they offer to our own suffering.  Culture is not family; ideology is neither gain nor loss of lover or friend.  Or enemy.  If every story is about the clash of ideologies, where does the human heart sleep.

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