Bookplanet: Two reviews of “Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint” by Donald Spoto
1. Raiders of the Lost Arc
Is Joan of Arc the prototype for modern celebrity?
By Jessica Winter/Slate
Popular biographers, along with social-studies teachers, often have the unenviable task of making historical figures "relevant" or "modern," hoping to gain the attention of a fickle audience by casting the subject as a mere supporting player in our own transitory moment. In the slender but solid Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint , Donald Spoto largely rejects this instinct, focusing on what he calls "a realistic picture of her rather than one that merely reflects our own bias or fantasy." He stresses, for example, that long before she was an era-defying cultural vessel, Joan of Arc was the product of a time "when faith was a fact of life," making the point not from some kind of pious nostalgia but as part of a pragmatic argument about just how Joan could convince so many to follow her. Spoto is also frustrated with modern medicine's various explanations of Joan's prophetic voices and visions (epilepsy, an inner-ear infection, tuberculosis of the brain), not only because the historical record shows varying support for them, but because they sometimes betray a lack of acquaintance with the devout medieval mind and imagination, which drew no line between the natural and supernatural. A line from George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan is instructive: The imagination, says the heroine, "is how the messages of God come to us." (Spoto borrows the line for his epigraph.)
In lieu of once again adapting the ageless, mutable Joan for our time and place, Spoto asks that we acclimatize ourselves to hers. This might not seem like such a tall order, except that one of the prerequisites of lasting fame is adaptability: The icon by her very nature is the vehicle for "bias or fantasy"‚Äîshe is its projection screen. It's especially difficult with Joan of Arc, who defines and fulfills every single condition of immortal renown: the improbable rise from obscurity, the busting of stereotypes, the tragic, early death. At the medieval newsstand, the Maid of Orleans would have been queen of the tabloids, glossies, and serious broadsheets alike.
As befits a legend, Joan of Arc died young in 1431, burned at the stake at age 19. She was the illiterate child of a tenant farmer, yet she convinced royalty to do her bidding, served as the midwife of French nationhood, and during her trial for heresy, consistently outmatched her erudite inquisitors in debate. (Spoto fills in all the excruciating details of her lengthy imprisonment.) She was a woman, a girl , who became a military and political hero. She was an innocent rebel who rejected an arranged marriage, made the heretical claim that God spoke to her through inner voices, and dressed as a man. It was the clothes, in fact, that got her killed: The judges couldn't pin Joan down on her state of grace, but Deuteronomy forbids drag. (In Joan , Spoto relies on his own, new translations of Joan's trial for heresy and the "nullification trial" that reversed the guilty verdict after her death.)
In her afterlife, Joan has thrived as a versatile political brand and muse of Verdi, Schiller, Twain, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Spoto counts 82 French plays about Joan during the 19 th century alone; entering the 20 th , she was en route to canonization and movie stardom, ranging from the weeping plaster idol in Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to the crazed action babe of Luc Besson's The Messenger (1999). At times, the Joan narrative of martyrdom has molded itself to the actress playing her, as Joan Acocella suggests in her essay "Burned Again." (The piece is included in Acocella's new collection, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints .) For the movie adaptation of Saint Joan , neophyte Jean Seberg was anointed as the Maid, hyped to the heavens before the film's release, and then eviscerated for her gawky performance. Ingrid Bergman, subject of Spoto's biography Notorious , donned Joan's armor the year before her out-of-wedlock pregnancy made her persona non grata in the United States.
For both subject and actress, the script is Christlike: the venerable‚Äîor just attention-grabbing‚Äîlife, the agony and/or death, and the renewal and redemption, all played out on a public stage. (Bergman had packed in all three cycles a quarter-century before her death.) If Joan has been so attractive to us in the 20 th century, it is because in some important respect this young medieval woman established our prototype for fame. It is also why Spoto is a surprisingly apt biographer for her: Not only is he a lettered theologian who spent six years as a monk, he is the celebrity biographer of icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Princess Diana: secular saints beatified by fame and famous suffering. Centuries after her death, Joan of Arc still epitomizes our culture's notion of celebrity‚Äîone that is remarkably unchanged in its outlines and yet utterly transformed in its substance. It is easy to imagine, then, that Spoto was drawn to modern stardom as his m√©tier precisely because it still takes its shape from the Christian tradition of fame.
The Christians tailored the pagan form of celebrity as a means to glorify God, and inevitably added both the self-mortification and the solipsism that are associated with religious ecstasy. Beyond Joan's psychological travails, her tortured internment, and her awful death, it's even been suggested‚Äînotably in Marina Warner's 1981 biography‚Äîthat this famous ascetic also suffered from anorexia. Drawing a line from the painful austerity and martyrdom of the medieval devotee to a modern, arguably media-driven syndrome may seem glib. But the connection is implicitly strengthened by Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown , where he writes that "the purity of being celebrated for being oneself" is an ambition that "restates the close relation fame has always had to both death and transfiguration: the desire to find a place where one may live untarnished and uncorrupted throughout the ages." When fame is sought solely for itself, rather than for God or for a secular higher calling, then the anguished prelude to transfiguration can become an ugly vestige of the earlier religious incarnation of celebrity, lacking meaning except as spectacle.
Indeed, as anyone familiar with the pages of Star or People can tell you, celebrity pursued for its own sake is the makings for a photogenic train wreck. But if we look upon modern celebrity as a hollowed-out, mummified version of Christian fame, we suddenly have a context for the ghoulishness of so much contemporary stardom, the sheer number of sordid off-ramps in celebrity Babylon‚Äîespecially, it seems, for young women: Their endlessly repeated passions of self-starvation, zombie debauchery, drug-scrambled neurons, kamikaze recklessness, and penitent public rituals are displayed for our delectation on countless celebrity Web sites, with relics available on eBay.
Ubiquitous yet enigmatic, Joan of Arc provides a flexible template for today's passion of the starlet. But that's a trial that gets more than enough coverage elsewhere, so it's refreshing that even a consummate stargazer such as Spoto might pursue the flesh-and-blood person at the expense of the chameleon spanning centuries. The effort is worthy, if finally quixotic: Spoto roots Joan in her time and place, but, of course, she won't stay there, and we can't get there. The biographer must enter the dense thicket of extrapolation, psychoanalysis, reliance on secondhand sources, and educated telepathy that is also the province of the devoted fan and the Us Weekly reporter. Regardless of bias or fantasy, we're all, like Joan, beholden to our imaginations.
2. On Her Own Terms -- by Rachel Hartigan Shea/Washington Post
What is a modern reader to make of the story of Joan of Arc? A country girl hears voices she says are from God, persuades an uncrowned king to put her at the head of his army, wins a crucial battle and changes the course of history. She seems pure myth and yet is a historical fact. Modern minds shy away from the myth and try to explain away the fact by casting her as "a cunning charlatan, a deluded patriot, a sexually confused peasant . . . or a pitiable psychotic," writes Donald Spoto in "Joan," his slim but compelling paean to the virgin who saved France.
But Joan must be understood on her own terms, argues Spoto, a theologian whose books include biographies of Jesus, Saint Francis of Assisi, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Tennessee Williams. Born in 1411 or 1412 in the tiny French village of Domr?my in the midst of the Hundred Years' War, Joan lived at a time when "the language of faith was like a common country in which all people lived." That God would choose to speak to a young girl in her father's garden would surprise her contemporaries, perhaps, but not shock them.
Nor does it shock Spoto, who approaches his subject with the sophistication of a historian and the admiration of a true believer. "I believe that her spiritual experiences were profoundly valid," writes Spoto, "and that they convey something of the truth." According to him, any theory that strips religion away from Joan's visions in favor of some psychological or medical root cause -- an ear infection producing strange sounds, say, or an eye condition causing light sensitivity -- must ignore her demonstrated sanity and physical health. If the visions "came from the mind of a religious fanatic," he argues, "or a romantic, neurasthenic adolescent, or if they were the specters of an inflamed mind or the deliberately concocted tales of a self-deluded egotist, then we would expect to find -- would have to find -- an accompanying pattern of delusion in her life."
Instead, Spoto discovers that she was "energetic, witty, courageous, and intelligent beyond all expectation." Uncowed by authority, she declared upon meeting Charles VII, "my most eminent lord Dauphin, I have come, sent by God to bring help to you and to the kingdom." The demoralized dauphin, whose kingdom was so racked with civil war and English invaders that he had not yet been crowned king, glowed "radiant" at her words and sent her to lift the English siege of Orleans.
Joan's strength was not her military might -- her sword remained unblooded -- but her piousness, which heartened the French soldiers. She had persuaded them of the "grander purpose of their battle: to save France, which was sacred to them and, they believed, to God." When the French prevailed at Orl?ans, after a horrific battle in which hundreds of English drowned in the Loire River from the weight of their armor, "British hegemony in France had been broken, and the survival of France was no longer a dim hope but a distinct probability."
But Joan's moment of great victory led, inexorably, to her downfall. She had succeeded where French military men had not, and she based that success upon direct contact with God, no priestly intercession required. She was a "transforming presence in a world of male warriors, male royalty, and male clergy," writes Spoto. Naturally, men, both French and English, moved to be rid of her. The king, guided by jealous advisers, stopped providing her with sufficient troops. The English set aside special forces to capture her with the aim of trying her for heresy. And captured she was, by a French noble who sold her off to the English.
The trial, held on French soil with a French judge but very much under English control, had only one possible outcome: to burn Joan as a heretic. What else to do with a woman who "is schismatic, sacrilegious, idolatrous, apostate, evil-speaking and evil-doing, blasphemous, scandalous, seditious, a destroyer of peace, a warmonger who thirsts for human blood and urges others to spill it," as one of the charging documents spluttered. Twenty-five years later, when French officials acquitted Joan in a posthumous retrial, it was clear that evidence had been falsified and that she had been tricked into wearing men's clothing one last time, the charge that ultimately sent her to the stake at the age of 19. A minor infraction, it would seem, but, Spoto explains, "to claim male prerogatives was . . . abominable."
As archaic as Joan's life and terrible end appear, Spoto argues for her relevance today: "If Joan was right in her insistence that the unwarranted takeover of one country by another is repugnant, then she is more than a historical curiosity: she remains a prophetic witness for every generation." Yet he goes no further with this political claim, leaving the reader to wonder whether this is an oblique criticism of U.S. foreign adventures or something else entirely. More convincing, even to a nonbeliever, is his contention that Joan saw, or truly believed she saw, visions from God. "The entire Jewish-Christian faith tradition," writes Spoto, "is based on the belief that God once summoned ordinary people and through them worked extraordinary deeds for His own purpose."
On the morning before Joan died, she asked a priest, "Where shall I be tonight?" Spoto, for one, believes he knows the answer.