Why Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc still threatens the status quo
Mark Twain wrote, “No civilization can be perfect until exact equality between man and woman is included.” Not his most erudite aphorism, but certainly thought-provoking. Many feminists consider Twain a misogynist, yet Twain called his novel Joan of Arc his most important work, a novel he self-published at the height of his fame because no publisher would touch it. What were the publishers afraid of?
The novel depicts France in ruins at the beginning of the 15th century, the nation ruled by a corrupt Church and monarchy with much of the country occupied by foreign troops. There is seemingly no hope for France’s salvation, until a young woman rises from the lowest ranks of society to set the nation free.
To write this book, Twain learned French, went to France to retrace Joan’s life and studied the original transcripts of Joan’s heresy trial. In his novel, Twain depicts Joan as intuitively brilliant, mysteriously strong and endlessly resourceful. He attributes Joan’s phenomenal strength and wisdom to a deep and loving connection to the earth and her direct communications with God. Twain’s Joan has no interest in personal success. She is pragmatic, honest and wholly intent on making life better for all her countrymen.
The feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s addressed social, economic and sexual inequalities, with exact equality an ideal to be strived for. Little attention was paid to spiritual equality, and this, I think, was a disastrous oversight—not that there was a comprehensive plan guiding the movement. When I speak of spiritual equality, I am not referring to women struggling to become ministers and rabbis in patriarchal religious systems, but to an active recognition of our common humanity transcendent of gender.
Today, 50 years after the feminist movement burst into the mainstream, the corporate media—our contemporary version of the omnipresent Church of Joan’s time—is more pervasive than ever and uses every means imaginable to control our bodies and spirits, while the American economy is largely in ruins and our nation is ruled by an oligarchy of wealthy crooks. And I wonder why, with all the momentum of the feminist, gay- and civil-rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s, equality between men and women, let alone exact equality, has eluded us, and is, by many measures, regressing to the inequality that defined our society barely two generations ago?
Could this moral decline be intrinsically related to the feminist movement and the backlash (see Susan Faludi) reflected in the machinations of our government and media? I think so, and I think Twain’s Joan of Arc, in a roundabout way, posits a credible explanation for why this may be so.
Disclaimer: I grew up with brilliant older sisters, a brilliant mother and a not-so-brilliant but oppressive know-it-all father. I knew from an early age that women were easily equal, if not superior, to men in every way except brute strength, and I saw how their creativity and intelligence and sensitivity were threats to those men who were obviously inferior to such women. That is to say, my family reflected the greater reality of our male-dominated society.
Addendum to disclaimer: My novel Ruby & Spear, published in 1996, is full of powerful female characters. The publisher, one of the behemoth corporate agencies of cultural control, was aghast at the strength of my female characters and asked that I tone them down to make them “more acceptable to the reading public.”
The corporate publishers wouldn’t know what to do with Twain’s Joan of Arc, for she is so incredibly strong that by today’s standards she is a superhero, with one notable exception: Her feats were real and historically undeniable.
Twain’s Joan is not called by God to liberate women, but to liberate all people. Modern feminism, while justifiably excoriating the patriarchal systems underpinned by the world’s major religions, unfortunately made villains of men in general and thereby alienated a vast army of potential male allies. Millions of men who loved women as people and women were so often characterized as sexist pigs and worse that they either turned against their accusers or became indifferent to women’s liberation. And the real enemies of women (the ruling elite) shrewdly capitalized on this painful schism to hold our society back from an equality of the sexes that would have ushered in an age of world-changing social dynamism. The corporate media characterized women striving for equality as men haters, and these characterizations resounded in the collective unconscious.
Twain’s Joan of Arc does not misplace her enmity. She recognizes and connects with the souls of all people, men and women, and is thus able to rouse a severely wounded population to oust the foreign occupiers. And so threatening is Joan to the corrupt status quo that shortly after her miraculous military victories, the Church moves swiftly to convict her of an alliance with Satan. How else to explain the miraculous successes of a mere woman?
My favorite part of Twain’s novel is the trial of Joan of Arc, wherein despite terrible privation at the hands of her captors, Joan daily repulses the attacks of the most brilliant minds the Church can muster against her. Joan’s triumph is recorded for all time in the transcripts of her trial. Unable to surpass Joan’s astonishing grasp of the most esoteric aspects of religious law, her enemies resort to starving her, torturing her and forcing her to sign a false confession so they can burn her at the stake. She was 19 when the Catholic hierarchy killed her and shortly thereafter canonized her.
A wise woman once said, “So now we’ve got women’s retreats and men’s retreats, everybody getting in touch with their inner woman and their inner man, but as long as we define ourselves first as men or women, and only secondarily as human beings, we are too easily divided and conquered. We are all earthlings, not Americans or Germans or Iranians or Africans, but human.”
Exact equality between men and women may seem an impossible idea. Men and women cannot be exactly physically equal. Indeed, the latest research indicates men and women have very different operating systems in our cranial computers. I assume Twain was speaking of spiritual equality, and by exact equality meant that each of us is priceless. Until we reshape our social institutions and our personal behavior to support this very reasonable concept of exact equality, our civilization will never approach perfection.