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Joan of Arc fever

Plug "Joan of Arc" into your Web browser and skip around the 100,000-plus threads that result. One thread likely leads to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's declaration that in a previous life he was Charles VII and "abandoned" Joan, another to the International Joan of Arc Society's repository of scholarly and pedagogic information. And certainly a few lead to reviews and synopses of the 1999 film The Messenger.

Why all the interest in a French peasant-girl-turned-soldier who lived and died more than 500 years ago? Françoise Meltzer, professor and chair of comparative literature with an appointment in the Divinity School, has a few ideas to offer.

At a late-afternoon lecture during the University's 21st annual Humanities Open House this fall, Meltzer noodled over Joan's magnetic appeal for turn-of-the-millennium Americans. The answer, she believes, lies in the uncertainty of the times in which we live. She also suspects that Joan has a charisma irresistible to scholars who, like herself, are seeking new ways to understand and define notions of gender and femininity. The presentation was drawn from For Fear of the Fire: The Limits of Subjectivity, Meltzer's book to be published next fall by the University of Chicago Press, in which Joan becomes the lens through which Meltzer examines present-day notions of femininity.

"Joan appears to be a symptom of millennial fever," Meltzer, illuminated from below by the podium lamp, tells the 40-odd people who have gathered in a Cobb Hall auditorium for her talk. She stands in a corner of the room, her face obscured by shadow and the flickering reflection of the lecture notes in her reading glasses as she glances up at her audience. Projected on the wall behind her is a riveting black-and-white, four-foot-square image of Joan from the 1928 silent film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The heroine is androgynous, her hair cropped short and the lines of her cheeks, nose, and jaws sharp and strong. Her head tilts back and her eyes are wide as she faces her accusers in court.

The year is 1431; three years earlier, at the age of 17, Joan had led the French army in a victory at Orléans against the English during the Hundred Years' War. She had first gotten her "orders" at age 13, when she heard voices telling her she was a daughter of God bound for great things. She heeded the voices, pledged to remain a virgin, and astride a steed and in the armor of a man she rode into battle. Captured a year later, Joan was burned by the English and their French collaborators as a heretic.

It's a plot thick with mystery and heroics. Today's millennial fever, Meltzer says, is characterized by a wistful nostalgia for such an epic time-an "imagined" time of "certainty," she says, when body and mind were intertwined in such a way that a poor peasant girl would pledge her very being for what she believed in. "A time when there was no division between the body and the mind," says Meltzer, "when martyrs like Joan had a conviction which they enacted through their bodies as if they were vessels for their beliefs."

Joan's body is an important consideration for Meltzer, who is fascinated by the various physical depictions of the saint. Meltzer began her talk with a series of Joan portraits. In before-and-after-the-big-campaign sculptures by Henri-Michel-Antoine Chapu, Joan changes from a demure little peasant girl into a very male-looking warrior. In the original illustrations of Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, she wears petticoats over her armor, and in a World War I poster she glows like a Hollywood starlet. The artists seem torn on how to portray a woman warrior; they emphasize her masculinity at the expense of her femininity, or they throw up their hands and offer asexual images.

"She was on a threshold, as [women] are now," Meltzer says. "Joan of Arc defeating every gender category feeds into the fear of what women are and what they're doing now, breaking out of categories. She blurred the boundaries between masculine and feminine, between obedience and incredible courage, and we live in a time when we're very interested in that."

In her book Meltzer will go so far as to argue (dates aside) that Joan was one of the first modern figures, because she embodies swirling contradictions and blurring boundaries. For Meltzer, Joan is a vehicle by which she can explore notions of femininity and the very idea of subjectivity-which she defines as being the subject or the "I" in a sentence or a situation, rather than the object or the "other," as women, gays and lesbians, and minority race and ethnic groups have for so long been classified. "Subjectivity," she says, "is an illusion grounded in a gendered pattern of self and other." Joan is fascinating to us, Meltzer says, because she bucks the role of object; she is the subject and the agent of her own destiny.

"For me Joan's brief mission and trial are a moment in the history of the West where gendered subjectivity was fleetingly put at risk," Meltzer concludes as she brings up the lights. "Perhaps that is why we continue to return to her story more and more as subjectivity is examined. As the certainty which has placed 'otherness' in the feminine begins to erode, Joan's story becomes one of the few places where we can see the limits and illusion of any sovereign subjectivity." - S.A.S.


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