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
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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