29 April, 2007

Joan of Arc and Mark Twain

In my spare moments, I've been reading Samuel Clemens'(Mark Twain's) Joan of Arc (among other things). Clemens' portrayal of St. Joan rather surprised me. It is unequivocally positive; in fact, it's practically gushing. He praises the saint as one of the only figures in history who was "stainlessly pure, in mind and heart, in speech and deed and spirit."

This was so surprising because Samuel Clemens was very anti-establishment in his religious views - the prototypical Bible-belt sects are attacked in Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer; A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court takes many shots at the Catholic Church. In these cases, the books are "saved" (i.e. - it's still possible for me to read them without steam escaping from my ears) by the fact that it's very plausible to interpret such attacks as aimed only against hypocrites in any religion. (I always like to look at the meaning of the book from my own perspective the second reading around, taking little notice of what the author thinks he means. I don't know how valid that method is...) However, if the hypocrisy was what he disliked, it's hardly possible to deny that Clemens thought hypocrisy the defining characteristic of organized religion - which makes a big difference in his personal life, but as I like to think, very little in his literary portrayals.

Despite all his personal anti-religious furor, Clemens is enthusiastic in his approval of Joan. And to my even greater astonishment, he was very fair in his portrayal of the Church's role in her life and death. His profound respect for the saint seems to have caused him to respect the Church, at least in this book, for her sake. He stresses the fact that the Council at Poitiers was generous in its support for Joan, and states firmly that the "Church" tribunal which condemned her was no true representation of Church opinion, but a mock trial run by puppets of the vile Bishop of Beauvais.

Samuel Clemens spent 12 years researching this book, travelling all the way to France's National Archives to read the account of the trial. He published it under a pseudonym, for fear that his reputation as a humorist would cause the book to be taken less than seriously.

"I like Joan of Arc best of all my books; and it is the best; I know it perfectly well. And besides, it furnished me seven times the pleasure afforded me by any of the others; twelve years of preparation, and two years of writing. The others need no preparation and got none." – Samuel Clemens

3 comments:

Faraway said...

I think I've read somewhere that Mark Twain's daughter recalled that her father cried as he read this book to her.
I loved the book.
Arseniy Tarkovsky wrote a beautiful poem devoted to St.Jeanne - I wish I could translate it for you.
There's a little statue of Jeanne d'Arc in St.Louis church in Moscow (it's a French church).

Mum said...

I, too, was moved by this book. Love you much.

Anonymous said...

Mark Twain's biography about Joan of Arc is wonderful and you can read it online at Maid of Heaven.com

http://www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_mark_twain.asp