Monday, July 4, 2011

I was born for this!

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Joan of Arc on Corronation of Charles VII in the Cathedral of Reims. 1854. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France.

Joan is most often pictured at the stake, when she should be pictured at the coronation, standing in armor near the Dauphin as he becomes King, thanks to her divinely inspired intervention.

It's a crime she is remembered only for her dying moment. We have modern day martyrs like Martin Luther King, Jr., and John F. Kennedy, Jr. and it's not as though people say, "oh that guy who was shot!" as the first reference to them.

However, with Joan, she's far too often known to the general person as that girl who got burnt at the stake rather that the girl who helped crown a King--and saved a country. (The French of course are more likely to know her first and foremost as precisely that...but...not the rest of us!)

I still can't believe that when I visited France shortly after college, I was determined to see where she died, and didn't bother to visit where she was born, and where she fought, where she travelled and succeeded...

I suppose, however, that's the initial appeal and introduction to Joan of Arc: her tragedy. While we all say we love a hero, we love a tragic hero more--some of us. Perhaps especially young women, who, as a high school French teacher told me last night at a Bastille Day party, "feel persecuted". She rolled her eyes--with compassion, if you can do that (she did, somehow)--as she said this, explaining that she always showed Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc to her students (she taught at an all-female high school). I was like, "Wow--that's intense!" Thinking "oh no, she's going to turn these poor young women off to Joan by showing her that artistically gorgeous but emotionally wrenching portrayal of madness"! But I forgot--that's precisely the appeal: she's passionate in the way only young women age 16-19 can be purely passionate. I'll never forget the nun who told me she would stand in her backyard waiting for the sun to light up the white birch tree in a way that made it seem it was aflame...she would stand in front of it and imitate Ingrid Bergman's Joan of Arc...this is a disturbing anecdote to an adult, but she giggled when she told me, and so did I. I get how a girl can romanticize something that horrific. It doesn't make sense to everyone, but to some of us, it's natural to want to reach a place of honor and goodness through suffering.

("Natural" or learned via Catholicism?)

Still, I'm glad to say that it was Shaw's Joan that first appealed to me, though--the fierce, proud, articulate girl Joan. I saw Dreyer's Joan later, and, admittedly, that sealed the deal...not only was she a fighter, but she was driven slightly mad by her desires...she was misunderstood, and punished for doing the right thing. This makes so much sense to teenagers that I'm convinced Joan of Arc could only have been a twenty or thirty or fortysomething woman could have pulled off what she did. This may be stating the obvious, but I mention it because it is worth deeper exploration. What is it about teenage girls that gives them such startling confidence at the same time as unbelievable self-loathing and self-consciousness? There's a fearlessness at that age that young men and women likely share, and certain teens just have a certainty about them that is both annoying and refreshing. Whenever I work with college interns I'm amazed at their level of confidence that is equally counterbalanced by their obvious lack of self. They are sure about a few personal things; beyond that, they have to fake it...and they do it terribly. This is what makes the young adults in our society so adorably sincere and what makes it necessary to encourage their voices at that very delicate, fevered, time. They see things more clearly than we can because, often, that's all they can see, due to lack of experience and narcissism. The purity, the cockiness, is born of innocence...and if utilized and directed, it can change history...

I say all this to say, ultimately, that it's important that we honor Joan as fervently on her anniversary of Charles VII's coronation at the cathedral of Reims, as we do on the anniversary of her death in Rouens. The Joan of Arc parade, held on her birthday in New Orleans on January 6th, is a radical departure from most Joan of Arc celebrations. Catholics acknowledge her and celebrate her on her Feast Day, when she died (May 30th), and the French celebrate her on her most notable battle success day, May 8, The Battle of Orleans anniversary.

I don't know of any celebrations of her on July 17th,when her King was crowned, but maybe it's just that it's so close to Bastille Day (and I supposed one might argue, if you are celebrating French independence, in a way, you are honoring Joan!) Still, she deserves her own celebration on that day. One deterrent in New Orleans is the terribly hot weather at that time of year, but all that means is we won't have a procession..we'll have an indoor party, just as the coronation was...

Now, the question is, do we have the party in a cathedral, or in a high school gym??

(I can hear the local suggestions: "It's Tales of the Cocktail time! Have a party for Joan at a bar or hotel, with a contest for a Joan-inspired drink...something hot!!!" But I can't do that when it comes to Joan. I feel she deserves more respect than that...which is the whole point of my ramblings above.)

Stay tuned. By next year we'll have put something together honoring Joan for her amazing accomplishment on July 17, 1429. We have to keep reminding people she was "all that"--not--just that.