Candide

I thought Candide was funny at first. It is an easy mistake to make in the first chapter where we meet Candide and his beloved Cunegonde:

On her way back to the castle she met Candide. She blushed, and so did he. She greeted him in a faltering voice, and he spoke to her without knowing what he was saying. The next day, as they were leaving the table after dinner, Cunegonde and Candide found themselves behind a screen. She dropped her handkerchief, he picked it up; she innocently took his hand, and he innocently kissed hers with extraordinary animation, ardor, and grace; their lips met, their eyes flashed, their knees trembled, their hands wandered. Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh happened to pass by the screen; seeing this cause and effect, he drove Candide from the castle with vigorous kicks in the backside. Cunegonde fainted. The baroness slapped her as soon as she revived, and consternation reigned in the most beautiful and agreeable of all possible castles.

I guess anything can be funny if human suffering doesn’t bother you, or if you have a good enough sense of humor, or if you can’t tell the difference between the two.

There is a lot of casual rape in Candide, and equally casual disembowelment, hanging, flogging, and castration. Voltaire must have been a pisser at parties. Not so much for the disembowelments as for being a physician who takes the pulse of a sick world and doesn’t sugar-coat his diagnosis for the sake of the patient.

As Will Durant put it:

Italy had a Renaissance, and Germany had a Reformation, but France had Voltaire; he was for his country both Renaissance and Reformation, and half the Revolution. He was first and best in his time in his conception and writing of history, in the grace of his poetry, in the charm and wit of his prose, in the range of his thought and his influence. His spirit moved like a flame over the continent and the century, and stirs a million souls in every generation.

No matter how interesting analysis is, there is no substitute for letting the authors words speak for themselves. In this passage, Voltaire betrays the beast that lurks behind such a well-developed sense of humor, hiding his insight within the character of Pope Urban X’s bastard daughter:

I’ve wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but I still love life. That ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our most pernicious inclinations. What could be more stupid than to persist in carrying a burden that we constantly want to cast off, to hold our existence in horror, yet cling to it nonetheless, to fondle the serpent that devours us, until it has eaten our hearts.

There is a story, probably a lie, definitely a joke, that on his deathbed Voltaire was asked by a priest if he would renounce Satan.

He answered, “This is no time to be making new enemies.”

voltaire_by_jean-antoine_houdon_(1778)_-_stierch
Francois-Marie Arouet (a/k/a Voltaire) by Jean-Antoine Houdon

 

 

 

 

If Beale Street Could Talk

Yesterday morning there was a man in the lobby of my office building talking into his phone at an obscene volume. As we rode up in the elevator together – four or five of us – it became obvious that he was not like the rest of us and did not want to be. He yelled into his phone, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and lock up some of the bastards running this city.” As he got off he grunted something disparaging about “civilians” and as the doors closed behind him the woman in the elevator with me could only say “Wow.” 
Maybe he was off his meds.
But on my way to work I was reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it wasn’t hard to see the loud-talking non-civilian in the elevator as the villain lurking behind a passage like this:
“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free county. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”
Some of us are sickened by the daily news reports of the takeover of our government by white supremacists but others might take it as a hopeful sign that we are finally waking up to a situation that has been festering in this country since colonial times.

“Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have gotto be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
There are people – Virginia Woolf is one, so is James Joyce – whose work makes me feel like they did me a personal favor by becoming writers. James Baldwin is another.

I’m not good at retaining novels. Certain scenes and characters make an impression but most of them fade from my memory soon after I read them. I sink into the dream that is a good book and turning the last page of one is like opening my eyes after a long night’s sleep, grasping at dreams that I can’t keep from evaporating.

So I fold back the corners of pages that I want to re-read even after I’ve re-read them. So I can type up the words and let them skip across the keyboard and my fingertips, so I can feel what it’s like to write this kind of passage:


“I thought of Fonny’s touch, of Fonny, in my arms, his breath, his touch, his odor, his weight, that terrible and beautiful presence riding into me and his breath being snarled, as if by a golden thread, deeper and deeper in his throat as he rode – as he rode deeper and deeper not so much into me as into a kingdom which lay just behind his eyes. He worked on wood that way. He worked on stone that way. If I had never seen him work, I might never have known he loved me.

It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”

The Fire Next Time


Anger has its uses. It can be a spur to confronting injustice or a vent for righteous frustration. Anger is like lust: it’s an honest emotion. There’s no time to overthink the impulse. The best you can do is control it and try to deny how insanely good it feels to let it off the leash. But for the most part anger sucks. In my experience it is a spur to self-indulgence and a vent for self-loathing. I felt a lot of anger reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. What kind of monster doesn’t feel anger at lines like these:

I was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
My anger isn’t focused on Baldwin’s experiences from the 1930s. It feeds on the knowledge of what hasn’t changed, on how black parents still need to warn their children about the dangers of police officers, and on how my contribution to confronting this injustice consists of voting for people who will try to do something and in scribbling these pathetic words. Reading Baldwin’s more considered words help steer me from anger toward something more useful and long-lasting.
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.

I sometimes wonder why every black man who sees me doesn’t walk up and punch me in the face. I wonder why a woman I pass on the sidewalk offers me a sweet smile instead of running in fear from a potential sexual predator. That absence of punching and running gives me one of the only know cures for anger: hope. It also offers a chance to learn and to realize that my knowledge is different from others. Mine keeps me from believing that my position in society was achieved by my own merits. Maybe theirs keeps them from believing I am their enemy.

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.

A large and fascinating section of The Fire Next Time concerns a dinner party that Baldwin attends at the invitation of Elijah Muhammad, founder of The Nation of Islam. Muhammad witnessed three lynchings before turning 20. That’s the kind of thing that can make you believe white people are devils.
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning – and neither can this be overstated – a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not realize what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him – for that is what it is – is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black peo
ple married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.

I don’t know if other white Americans share my experience that something changed with the election of Barack Obama. In ordinary interactions with strangers who are black – passing on the sidewalk, holding a door, asking directions – I felt a more relaxed communication, more like what I would experience with strangers who are white. I can only hope that the tragedy of Trump’s election hasn’t caused too much harm to our common humanity until we can again find a president who represents the better angels of our nature.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and we know we cannot live within.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Like all of Baldwin’s writing The Fire Next Time transcends the beauty and genius of his words, to share his unique insight into our common hopes, fears, and mortal lives.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earnone’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

Utopia For Realists


It is almost impossible to believe this in the age of Trump but human society, in spite of glaring setbacks, is getting better. There is a way forward that seems the logical culmination of centuries of progress toward freedom, equality, and enlightenment. Rutger Bregman’s engaging book Utopia For Realists is as a good roadmap as I’ve seen for that path.
Bregman supplements his lively prose with charts and statistics demonstrating how far we have already travelled down the road to a better world: “Where 84% of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%. The share of the world population that survives on fewer than 2,000 calories a day has dropped from 51% in 1965 to 3% in 2005.”

This video by Swedish academic Hans Rosling is a great visual representation of the past two centuries’ progress:

While the progress we’ve made over the last couple of centuries is impressive, it is just the foundation for a Utopia that is coming within our grasp. There are three basic concepts behind Bregman’s vision:
1. Universal Basic Income
There are any number of pernicious ideas that serve as roadblocks on the path to a better world but one of the most damaging is the one that proudly hung over the entrance to Auschwitz:

Arbeit Macht Frei
Work sets you free
As Bregman writes, “If we want this century to be one in which all of us get richer, then we’ll need to free ourselves of the dogma that all work is meaningful. And, while we’re at it, let’s also get rid of the fallacy that a higher salary is automatically a reflection of societal value. The scenario of radical inequality that is taking shape in the U.S. is not our only option. The alternative is that at some point during this century, we reject the dogma that you have to work for a living. The richer we as a society become, the less effectively the labor market will be at distributing prosperity. If we want to hold onto the blessings of technology, ultimately there’s only one choice left, and that’s redistribution. Massive redistribution.  Redistribution of money (basic income), of time (a shorter work week), of taxation (on capital instead of labor), and, of course, of robots.”

In numerous studies conducted in the past, and ones currently undertaken by Canada and the Netherlands among other nations, it is obvious that it is cheaper and more successful to give every citizen an guaranteed basic income without work requirements than to continue with our failed experiments with welfare and mass incarceration. One of the book’s most interesting stories involved Richard Nixon’s attempt to establish a universal basic income in the US.

“A small group of artists and writers (‘all those whom society despises while they are alive and honors when they are dead’ – Bertrand Russell) may actually stop doing paid work. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that the great majority of people, regardless of what grants they would receive, want to work. Unemployment makes us very unhappy.”

We don’t have to wait until gambling with other people’s money is no longer profitable; until sanitation workers, police agents, and nurses earn a decent wage; and until math whizzes once again start dreaming of building colonies on Mars instead of starting their own hedge fund.”

2. Fifteen-Hour Workweek
John Maynard Keynes

Every job I have ever held has been a bullshit job. The job I had that was most beneficial to society was my first: paperboy. In the days before the internet, I was able to disseminate detailed analyses of the day’s events to create a better-informed populace. After that I spent years working in factories and warehou
ses, on assembly lines and loading trucks, which felt somewhat useful but did not pay well. Since then I’ve mostly been counting beans.

“Clearly, our modern Land of Plenty still features plenty of badly paid, crummy jobs. And the jobs that do pay well are often viewed as not being particularly useful. Yet the object here is not to plead for the end to the workweek. Quite the reverse. It’s time that women, the poor, and seniors got the chance to do more, not less, good work. Stable and meaningful work plays a crucial part in every life well lived. By the same token, forced leisure – getting fired – is a catastrophe. Psychologists have demonstrated that protracted unemployment has a greater impact on well-being than divorce or the loss of a love one. The harsh truth is that an increasing number of people do jobs that we can do just fine without. Were they to suddenly stop working the world wouldn’t get any poorer, uglier, or in any way worse. Take the slick Wall Street traders who line their pockets at the expense of another retirement fund. If Ivy League grads once went on to jobs in science, public service, and education, these days they’re far more likely to opt for banking, law, or ad proliferators like Google and Facebook. Stop for a moment to ponder the billions of tax dollars being pumped into training society’s best brains, all so they can learn how to exploit other people as efficiently as possible, and it makes your head spin. Imagine how different things might be if our generation’s best and brightest were to double down on the greatest challenges of our times. Climate change, for example, and the aging population, and inequality.
 
In [anthropologist David] Graeber’s analysis, innumerable people spend their entire working lives doing jobs they consider to be pointless, jobs like telemarketer, HR manager, social media strategist, PR advisor, and a whole host of administrative positions at hospitals, universities, and government offices. “Bullshit jobs,” Graeber calls them. They’re the jobs that even the people doing them admit are, in essence, superfluous. In a survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance,” and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission. Another recent poll revealed that as many as 37% of British workers think they have a bullshit job. By no means are all these new service sector jobs pointless – far from it. Look at healthcare, education, fire services, and the police and you’ll find lots of people who go home every day knowing, despite their modest paychecks, they’ve made the world a better place. “It’s as if they’re being told,” Graeber writes, “You get to have real jobs! And on top of that you have the nerve to also expect middle-class pensions and health care?”

3. Open Borders

One of Donald Trump’s biggest issues on the campaign trail, and one of the hallmarks of his administration has been demonization of immigrants. His solution – border walls and deportations – is as counterproductive to society as it is immoral. Most of the American Southwest was settled by hunter-gatherers 11,000 years ago and was home to the Pueblo, Hohokam, and Mogollon people for thousands of years as they developed into “Indian” tribes – Apache, Navajo, Ute, and Hopi, among others. The first Europeans came from Spain and claimed the area for the Spanish Empire before it became part of Mexico. Texas became part of the United States in 1846 beginning the conquest of that land that would end with the statehood of New Mexico and Arizona in 1912. Barely a century later, Mexicans and others who come from south of the border are less entitled to live and work on that land than transplants from New Jersey or Iowa.
In Bregman’s review of border history, “On the eve of World War I, borders existed mostly as lines on paper. Passports were rare and the countries that did issue them (like Russia and the Ottoman Empire) were seen as uncivilized. Besides, that wonder of nineteenth-century technology, the train, was poised to erase borders for good. Borders are the single biggest cause of discrimination in all of world history. Inequality gaps between people living in the same country are nothing in comparison to those between separated global citizenries.”
One of the issues Bregman touches on is the unequal distribution of power in relation to all three of his overriding issues – open borders, guaranteed income, and bullshit jobs. The roots of so many problems we face: sexual abuse, racism, stagnant wages, immigration – economic and physical brutalities – grow in soil fertilized by power that is concentrated in too few hands. 

“Today, the riches 8% earn half of all the world’s income, and the richest 1% own more than half of all wealth. The poorest billion people account for just 1% of all consumption; the richest billion, 72%.”
The Neanderthal concepts and policies pushed by the party of Trump and their comrades in Russia – denigration of a free press and immigrants, support for brutality and contempt for compassion – are the last gasps of an ideology that is one of the final obstacles holding back the human race. The generation growing up today may be the first one to taste the fruits of the better world that so many have sacrificed so much to create.
The way forward – the inevitable path to a better world – is to make power as diffuse as possible and for each individual to use their power to support the values cherished by the majority, the ones that have earned capitalization: Truth, Freedom, Justice, Equality, and the pursuit of a happiness that include them all.
Rutger Bregman by J Hiraku

Strong is the New Pretty

 
I ran across this book in Grand Central Terminal. The image through the window of bookstore caught my eye. I haven’t read Kate T.  Parker’s book and take no issue with a celebration of girls being themselves. But…

I miss the old pretty. Strength and beauty each have their purpose but of the two it is beauty that has the higher value. Strength is often useful but there is such a thing as being too strong, of not knowing your own strength. Beauty is never out of place. Like kindness it has permanent worth. As Keats would be happy to tell you, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.”

 
Keats

I’m not saying girls shouldn’t be taught the value of strength but girls and boys should both be taught the superior value of beauty. We want our daughters to be as confident as our sons but we should be careful not to be creating the type of assholes that more men than women have become, drunk on power and ignorant of the sanctity of beauty. And let’s never tell anyone there’s something wrong with being pretty.

Collossus



In 1939, as the followers of Hitler and Mussolini were spreading their cancer across Europe, Henry Miller left his adopted home of Paris to visit a friend in Greece. He wrote The Colosssus of Maroussi in an attempt to translate his Greek experiences into words.
Tonic

Reading Henry Miller is a tonic for everything that makes me sick. It cleanses my mind and spirit the way cayenne tea washes the accumulated waste from my intestines and intoxicating liquor cleans out the accumulated drudgery of quotidian life. In a way that only a committed drunk can understand, Miller understands:

“He had drunk a lot of rezina in his time: he said it was good for one, good for the kidneys, good for the liver, good for the lungs, good for the bowels and for the mind, good for everything. Everything he took into his system was good, whether it was poison or ambrosia. He didn’t believe in moderation nor good sense nor anything that was inhibitory. He believed in going the whole hog and then taking your punishment. There were a lot of things he couldn’t do anymore – the war had bunged him up a bit. But despite the bad arm, the dislocated knee, the damaged eye, the disorganized liver, the rheumatic twinges, the arthritic disturbances, the migraine, the dizziness and God knows what, what was left of the catastrophe was alive and flourishing like a smoking dung-heap. He could galvanize the dead with his talk.”
 
Like a flash of lighting, Miller’s writing illuminates the world as far as my eye can see, but only for an instant. I re-read lines but they’re never as clarifying as they were on initial impact. The second read is like looking at a photo of a painting.
This book is loaded with transcendent insights, candles fighting the darkness like Japanese lanterns floating on water into the land of the dead. One precarious road to the salvation of our hopelessly mortal species winds its path over the paving stones of words like these:
The Colossus of Rhodes

“When you’re right with yourself if doesn’t matter what flag is flying over your head or who owns what or whether you speak English or Monongahela. The absence of newspapers, the absence of news about what men are doing in different parts of the world to make life more livable or unlivable is the greatest single boon. If we could just eliminate newspapers a great advance would be made, I am sure of it. Newspapers engender lies, hatred, greed, envy, suspicion, fear, malice. We don’t need the truth as it is dished up to us in the daily papers. We need peace and solitude and idleness. If we could all go on strike and honestly disavow all interest in what our neighbor is doing we might get a new lease of life. We might learn to do without telephones and radios and newspapers, without machines of any kind, without factories, without mills, without mines, without explosives, without battleships, without politicians, without lawyers, without canned goods, without gadgets, without razor blades even or cellophane or cigarettes or money. This is a pipe dream, I know. People only go on strike for better working conditions, better wages, better opportunities to become something other than they are.”

Like a lot of great writers, Miller’s books blur into each other and an isolated passage in one could have come from any of them. His numerous stories are pieces of one transcendent tale: his attempt to make sense of a confounding world. For those of us who are just as confused but nowhere near as eloquent it is a great relief to find words capable of expressing both our bewilderment and our belief in a better way forward.
 “We must abandon the hard-fought trenches we have dug ourselves into and come out into the open, surrender our arms, our possessions, our rights as individuals, classes, nations, peoples. A billion men seeking peace cannot be enslaved. We have enslaved ourselves, by our own petty, circumscribed view of life.”
It’s hard to imagine the sensation of the undertow that pulled the human race into the second world war but I sometimes get the feeling I’m living in a time that is becoming so primitive that if I engage too closely with it I risk being sucked backwards – toward violence, toward anger and hate, toward the caveman – and every minute I spend on things like working a meaningless job to pay a pile of worthless bills is an obstruction, a hurdle to overcome that stands between me and reality.
“There is every reason to be sad at this moment: all the premonitions which I have had for ten years are coming true. This is one of the lowest moments in the history of the human race. There is no sign of hope on the horizon. The whole world is involved in slaughter and bloodshed.”
Murdered carcasses


“Such was Europe before the present debacle. Such is America to-day. And such will it be to-morrow when the smoke has cleared away. And as long as human beings can sit and watch with hands folded while their fellow men are tortured and butchered so long will civilization be a hollow mockery, a wordy phantom suspended like a mirage above a swelling sea of murdered carcasses.”

“The present way of life, which is America’s, is doomed as surely as is that of Europe. No nation on earth can possibly give birth to a new order of life until a world view is established. We have learned through bitter mistakes that all the peoples of the earth are vitally connected, but we have not made use of that knowledge in an intelligent way.”
Henry Miller found something in Greece that he carried around with him everywhere he travelled, the way a lover carries his yearning. The war that was roiling the world as he wrote Collussus came to an end as all wars do. If the vision of Miller, and the others who share his dream, is ever realized, one fortunate generation will see the end not of a war but of war.
“No people in the world are as in need of what Greece has to offer as the American people. Greece is not merely the antithesis of America, but more, the solution to the ills which plague us. Economically it may seem unimportant, but spiritually Greece is still the mother of nations, the fountainhead of wisdom and inspiration.”
 

Peace is not the opposite of war

“Peace is not the opposite of war any more than death is the opposite of life. The poverty of language, which is to say the poverty of man’s imagination or the poverty of his inner life, has created an ambivalence which is absolutely false. I am talking of course of the peace which passeth all understanding. There is no other kind. The peace which most of us know is merely a cessation of hostilities, a truce, an interregnum, a lull, a respite, which is negative. The peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection. It just is. If it is a victory it is a peculiar one because it is based on surrender, a voluntary surrender, to be sure.”

“To be free, as I then knew myself to be, is to realize that all conquest is in vain, even the conquest of self, which is the last act of egotism. To be joyous is to carry the ego to its last summit and to delivery it triumphantly. To know peace is total: it is the moment after, when the surrender is complete, when there is no longer even the consciousness of surrender. Peace is at the center and when it is attained the voice issues forth in praise and benediction. Then the voice carries far and wide, to the outermost limits of the universe. Then it heals, because it brings light and the warmth of compassion.”

Mark Twain’s Joan of Arc

 “By far the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
Mark Twain on Joan of Arc

When Mark Twain wrote Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in 1896 he was 61 years old and madly in love with his teenage heroine. While reading this book more than a century later, it’s hard not to share his enthusiasm.

It was the last novel published in his lifetime and he considered it his best. The reasons are obvious: the maturity and detail born of more than a decade’s research show the expert hand of a master of his craft. But what makes this book his favorite is his love for its subject. It’s hard to imagine Twain loving any of his characters more than he loved Joan of Arc.

“She was sixteen now, shapely and graceful, and of a beauty so extraordinary that I might allow myself any extravagance of language in describing it and yet have no fear of going beyond the truth.There was in her face a sweetness and serenity and purity that justly reflected her spiritual nature.”

George Bernard Shaw, in the preface to his play Saint Joan, writes of Joan and Twain, “She makes her creator ridiculous, and yet, being the work of a man of genius, remains a credible human goodygoody in spite of her creator’s infatuation. Mark Twain writes his biography frankly in the form of a romance.”

The artist and his muse

Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc was originally serialized in Harper’s Magazine under the name of the Sieur Louis de Conte, the story’s narrator, because Twain was worried that his reputation as a humorist would prejudice the audience against the seriousness of the story. Genius is a hard thing to hide though and it was recognized as his work almost immediately. Although not as well regarded in his time or ours as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, there is no lack of genius is this book. It is genius inspired by adoration. As a man who had publicly repudiated religion, he was able to find a nearly-religious devotion to The Maid.

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain formed a club for girls aged 10 to 16 with whom he corresponded and hosted at the manor he named Innocence At Home in honor of his “Angelfish.” He wrote that the club was his “life’s chief delight.” It might seem creepy for an old man to find comfort in the company of girls but that’s an attitude retroactively applied from an age that has sexualized childhood. I believe Twain’s delight came from something much simpler: memory.

“As, she was so beautiful, and oh, so sweet! I had loved her the first day I ever saw her, and from that day forth she was sacred to me. I have carried her image in my heart for sixty-three years – all lonely there, yes, solitary, for it never has had company – and I am grown so old, so old; but it, oh, it is as fresh and young and merry and mischievous and lovely and sweet and pure and witching and divine as it was when it crept in there, bringing benediction and peace to its habitation so long ago, so long ago – for it has not aged a day!”