Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, October 27, 2017


At the end of Part 2 of this series, I said:

In Part 3 of this new series, I'll explore some of the ramifications involved when a subcombative work aligns itself with themes most often seen in combative works.
This comment grew out of my reading of a particular subcombative work, Mark Twain's PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS OF JOAN OF ARC. The ideal expressed in Twain's work is one I find uncharacteristic of most subcombative works. I take this snippet from Chapter 17:

She was great in battle—we all know that; great in foresight; great in loyalty and patriotism; great in persuading discontented chiefs and reconciling conflicting interests and passions; great in the ability to discover merit and genius wherever it lay hidden; great in picturesque and eloquent speech; supremely great in the gift of firing the hearts of hopeless men and noble enthusiasms, the gift of turning hares into heroes, slaves and skulkers into battalions that march to death with songs on their lips. But all these are exalting activities; they keep hand and heart and brain keyed up to their work; there is the joy of achievement, the inspiration of stir and movement, the applause which hails success; the soul is overflowing with life and energy, the faculties are at white heat; weariness, despondency, inertia—these do not exist.

Now the thematic reason that Twain writes eloquently of "the soul-- overflowing with life and energy" is to serve a greater purpose, to make clear what values Joan incarnates, the better to serve the book's theme, to show readers what was lost when she was destroyed by vicious and small-minded persecution. In the terms I've appropriated from Theodore Gaster, Twain's JOAN OF ARC most closely aligns with the *purgative* mode:

First the rites of mortification, symbolizing the temporary eclipse of the community. Next the rites of purgation, by which all noxious elements that might impair the community's future welfare are eliminated. Then the rites of invigoration, aimed at stimulating the growth of crops, the fecundity of humans and beasts, and the supply of needed sunshine and rainfall throughout the year. Finally, when the new lease is assured, come the rites of jubilation; there is a communal meal at which the members of the community recement their bonds of kinship by breaking bread together, and at which their gods are present.

Still, I find it interesting that, in the section printed above, Twain frames Joan's virtues in terms that I consider more linked to the mode of invigoration. This is a very different approach from, say, George Bernard Shaw's SAINT JOAN, where the author is more concerned with seeing Joan not in terms of her immediate impact on France's fortunes on the battlefield, but in terms of intellectual history:

“A Frenchman! Where did you pick up that expression? Are these Burgundians and Bretons and Picards and Gascons beginning to call themselves Frenchmen, just as our fellows are beginning to call themselves Englishmen? They actually talk of France and England as their countries. Theirs, if you please! What is to become of me and you if that way of thinking comes into fashion?” 

Shaw's SAINT JOAN is much more unified in terms of its mode, which I would consider that of *mortification,* which I've lined up with the Fryean mythos of irony. Twain, however, returns me to the concept of "subdominant elements" as expressed in this 2011 essay:

“Subdominant” indicates that a given narrative makes extensive use of the elements of one mythos even though the narrative as a whole fits another mythos better.
Now, although Twain's JOAN OF ARC is still a drama in the *purgative* mode, the author also makes a subdominant invocation of the *invigorative* mode. This means that it aligns itself, like such classic works as THE ILIAD, with my "narrative rule of excess," as glossed by Nietzsche.

 "To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."-- ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS.
What's fascinating is that while THE ILIAD is concerned with its heroes, who display this "thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph," Twain's work is concerned with an inspirational figure who encourages Frenchmen to fight and overcome their English enemies. At the same time, her ability to inspire warriors in the field does not extend to the legalists and religionists of her own nascent nation, and this is the "Achilles heel" that dooms her. Still, Twain's perception of "the rule of excess"-- obviously, through his own distinct cultural lens-- arguably makes his JOAN OF ARC a deeper and more artistic accomplishment than, say, SAINT JOAN.

No comments: