Tuesday, February 22, 2011

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

Like all death songs, de Conte's tale of Joan of Arc is a mix of disaffection, alienation, and disappointment.  The insanity of the coming night prevents reconciliation.  There is no spiritual reclamation, there is no joy.  His story is not a celebration of Joan of Arc, it is a blast at human kind and (similarly, I think, to Hank Morgan's autobiography) a record of the gradual realization of possibilities lost:

                        ...at bottom they were still under the spell of timorousness
                        born of generations of unsuccess, and a lack of confidence in the
                        way of treacheries of all sorts -- for their kings had been
                        treacherous to their great vassals and to their generals, and
                        these in turn were treacherous to the head of the state and
                        to each other.  The soldiery found that they could depend
                        utterly on Joan, and upon her alone.  With her gone, everything
                        was gone.  She was the sun that melted the frozen torrents
                        and set them boiling; with that sun removed, they froze again,
                        and the army and all France became what they had been before,
                        mere dead corpses -- that and nothing more; incapable of
                        thought, hope, ambition, or motion. (322)

This is all very much like A Connecticut Yankee:  a walk in the killing field that is daily life, a last look back.  De Conte's narrative is a walk in the company of ghosts that is ultimately a preparation for his own death.  It is an old soldier's tale -- one that is seasoned with momentary claims to humor and the distraction of short-lived, victories.  Ultimately it is a story of individual disappointments -- Joan's certainly (even her death is not what she wished it to be), but de Conte's especially.

Clearly, de Conte is displaced in time.  As he moves away from the victories and the comradeship that united Joan, her friends, and her circle of advizors, his comments become more infused with sentiment and with a sense of lost youth:  "How foolish we were; but we were young, you know, and youth hopeth all things, believeth all things" (426); "Our imagination was on fire; we were delirious with pride and joy.  For we were very young, as I have said" (439).  At 82 when he puts his memories to paper, de Conte can only look back at what he has lost with little sense of how history will judge his experiences or whether the work, the experience, the love that so defined his life will have been in vain.  He lives with his memories, but those memories are (literally) in ashes.  "We are so strangely made," he writes, "the memories that could make us happy pass away; it is the memories that break our hearts that abide" (439).

Like the crazed and obsessed narrator of Poe's "Ligeia," Louis de Conte is left with the piercing memory of Joan's eyes.  The story may be read as his growing restiveness under her gaze, his evolving sense of the purity in eyes destined to see God.  And, it seems, destined to smite de Conte in his tracks:

                        There was never but that one pair, there will never be
                        another.  Joan's eyes were deep and rich and wonderful
                        beyond anything merely earthly.  They spoke all the
                        languages -- they had no need of words.  They produced all
                        effects -- and just by a glance:  a glance that could convict
                        a liar in his lie and make him confess it; that could bring
                        down a proud man's pride and make him humble; that
                        could put courage into a coward and strike dead the courage of
                        the bravest; that could appease resentments and real hatreds;
                        that could speak peace to storms and passion and be obeyed;
                        that could make the doubter believe and the hopeless hope again;
                        that could purify the impure mind; that could persuade -- ah,
                        there it is -- persuasion!  (160).

And later:

                        And her eyes -- ah, you should have seen them and broken your
                        hearts....How capable they were, and how wonderful!  Yes, at
                        all times and in all circumstances they could express as by
                        print every sahe of the wide range of her moods.  In them were
                        hidden floods of gay sunshine, the softest and peacefulest twilights,
                        and devastating storms and lightenings.  Not in this world have
                        there been others that were comparable to them. (343)

Certainly, Joan gains strength from her voices, but what does she see with those eyes.  And now, looking back some 60 years, what does De Conte see.  Joan saw a direct and unchallengeable vision of unity through war.  It's a frightening image of wounds and assaults, all undertaken for the greater glory.  De Conte sees a child's death.  And he sees his own role in that death, and he is unable to reconcile the loss when so little was gained.  His loss is personal.  Not national.  Not religious.  He sees a childhood friend he loved engulfed -- one way or the other -- in the flames of political and religious zealotry.  And he is tired.  And he wants to die.

And in a way, De Conte plays a dual role as both Kurt Vonnegut and Mary O'Hare.  In the opening pages of Slaughterhouse 5, Mary O'Hare takes after Vonnegut with a passion that lays him flat.  She is angry about war and about the way men talk of war:  "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be playing in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men.   And war will just look wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them.  And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs"  (14). Her outburst ends with her subtitling the book -- "The Children's Crusade."  What better description for the work of Joan of Arc.

Many readers are much more sophisticated and worldly and deeply wounded than we care to admit as we make facile and droll remarks about ideology and then feel that we have opened a new vista on literature.  What opens that new vista is the emotional impact of reading and the ache of recognition readers nurse after reading.

Relatively early in the story De Conte comments on the notion of the need for honor, "...for when a man's soul is starving, what does he care for meat and roof so he can get that nobler hunger fed?" (73).  Mary O'Hare, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Mark Twain, I suspect, would laugh.  And maybe, by the end of his book, so does Louis De Conte.  Vonnegut's chapter ends with words that likely could have been penned by Twain as he looked back at Joan:  "People aren't supposed to look back.  I'm certainly not going to do it anymore.  I've finished my war book now.  The next one I write is going to be fun.  This one is a failure, and it had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt" (22).  After Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Mark Twain added at least (depending on how you count) 12 additional books to his list.  Some of them were fun.  So it goes.

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