Tag Archives: Joan of Arc

Emily and Jeanne

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany and the 599th birthday of our patron Saint Jeanne d’Arc.  Epiphany babies often have an aura of destiny about them.  As a birth placement, this day can be almost literally brilliant.  According to the Christ myth, today the light of the world appears to those who have been seeking it.  Those who might believe in it.  I’m going to celebrate this evening with the Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc which will parade through the Vieux Carre and end at the golden statue of the Maid of Orleans near the Market.  I’ll give you a full report tomorrow.  Maybe.  If I’m not carried away by some errant tide of joy.  That could happen.  You never know.

In honor of her soul sister Jeanne, Emily sent this note from the dark.

#1323, ca. 1874

I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,

Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,

Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead

I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
Deliberately face —

There is so much in this poem that I can’t hold it all at once. I’ll try to swim a straight line through it. My first response is to observe the similarities between Jeanne d’Arc and Emily Dickinson. They were both precocious, neurasthenic young girls with talents far exceeding their society’s ability to appreciate. Both were caught in a time that could not comprehend a woman of any age who possessed the power that each wielded in her own way.

Both, I’d argue here, were “afflicted” with consciousness. By that I mean that these two were both missing a layer or two of the usual protection (that “bandage”) that most of us carry around with us. The layers that shield us from a too intimate knowledge of ourselves or our consciousness. These two could not escape or ignore the experience of awareness. Most mortals can’t survive without ignoring their own consciousness. Em alludes to this protection in the line: “Too mighty for the Daily Mind”. A lesser sort born with Emily’s raw openness to the eternity within would fall into that “Madness.” No one sinks into the darkness behind her own eyes with any real willingness. It’s usually a forced step. Emily is the one with the curiosity and the courage to go there as a regular practice. And then write about it. Maybe that writing spared her from the madness. She was angling slant-wise toward this when she wrote “The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind —” The fact of conscious existence, our ability to be aware of our awareness, is too excruciating to dwell on in any direct or lengthy manner. For Emily, the most excruciating part, is her ability to hold awareness of life beyond death.

I’ll warrant that Jeanne wondered if she was going mad, as well. Both of these extraordinary girls were shocked, dazzled, and then finally drunk like madwomen on their own talent. Their power to “see”. Both had the sight or visions, which of course, according to the contractual terms of magical power, comes with a big responsibility. The difference between them is that Jeanne left the safe anonymity of her family and went out into the world to become a warrior of enormous political influence. While our little brown sparrow, Emily stayed home and drove herself deeper inward. Her vision bored infinitely into that mustard seed, her kingdom of Heaven.

Emily’s power exploded onto the page in private. “My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —” She knew what she was sitting on—an atomic bomb of awareness, her own consciousness. Maybe it was out of compassion for her society that she withheld herself from public view. If she had unleashed her vision, she might have brought a nation to its knees (like Jeanne), and she might have been torn to pieces for her crime of greatness (like Jeanne). So a little of both. Pity for the ignorant society she was given at birth. And a healthy dose of self-preservation.

Who can say what was the better path?  Jeanne changed the tide of history and died in agony before her 20th birthday.  No one got to see Emily’s iconoclastic poems in her life time, but she was granted a long career, made good use of her time, and died as quietly as she lived.  I guess we need both of them.

The gift I receive from Emily is a trapdoor and an invitation. She lifts the cover from the opening and points into the darkness. Readers like me may descend, floating on a dark wave, comfortable, room temperature. There limits melt and open toward the infinite unfolding that lies just outside our peripheral vision. Emily shows us how to turn and see deeply behind our own eyes. That loss of solid space/time boundaries might scare us back toward front and center. But no. It’s okay to follow Emily’s directive. She’s gone there first. We don’t have to be afraid.

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Curious Wine

So I spent the actual night of Twelfth Night with a dilemma. There were two events I wanted to attend. The first was a parade for Joan of Arc, whose birthday is January 6th. (Interesting side note: Her decisive victory at Orleans took place on June 18th, my birthday.) The second event was the meeting of a group that will gather regularly for the next few months to read Plato’s Symposium or the “Dialogues on Love.” So hard to choose: Plato or Joan of Arc? Sitting in the Latter Library, reading and talking about ancient Greek philosophies of love? Or a torch-lit, medieval tambourine parade through the French Quarter, following a woman wearing gilded armor and riding horseback? Yeah, just another Wednesday night in New Orleans. In the end, the frigid weather drove me to the library and the Platonic ideal of Eros. My spirit follows Joan always. She’ll just have to be content with my moral support this year.

There was a lot for my brain to chew on last night, but the portion I’ll relay here is the opening scene of the Symposium. Socrates and Aristodemus walk to the party at Agathon’s house. Aristodemus turns around to look for Socrates and finds that the “truth-loving eccentric” has wandered off by himself and appears to have fallen into a trance. Socrates is listening to his “daemon”, the inner voice that spoke his own genius to him, the voice that Socrates placed as an authority higher (to him) than the gods. It was Socrates’ faith in his own daemon that eventually got him condemned to death for heresy.

This is Joan of Arc’s story as well. Her steadfast allegiance to the voices that came to her from St. Michael, St. Catherine and St. Margaret, and her refusal to allow the priests to be her intermediary in an apprehension of the divine . . . all this was the evidence the Catholic Church used to convict her of witchcraft and burn her to death.

Emily too, placed her own spiritual authority above all others. She kept her mouth shut about it, though. And kept her skin. Was she afraid? Or was she simply content to know herself without being “public — like a Frog —/ To tell one’s name — the livelong June —/ To an admiring Bog!” She certainly refused any exposure to scrutiny and had nothing approaching the public life of Joan or Socrates. Maybe she was being smart and self-contained. Maybe she knew she was holding onto a few thousand pounds of dynamite.

Makes me think again more deeply about the advice I received long ago: “Don’t be afraid to know what you know.” More than anything else this fear of knowing what you know is the thing that stops a person from hearing herself. That’s all it takes: First, a focused, intentional stillness—stop, put away the world, be still. Then a sincere willingness to listen. Allow what wishes to be spoken to have its say.

Emily has this to say today:

#579, c. 1862

I had been hungry, all the Years —
My Noon had come — to dine —
I trembling drew the Table near —
And touched the Curious Wine —

‘Twas this on Tables I had seen —
When turning, hungry, Home
I looked in Windows, for the Wealth
I could not hope — for Mine —

I did not know the ample Bread —
‘Twas so unlike the Crumb
The Birds and I, had often shared
In Nature’s — Dining Room —

The Plenty hurt me — ’twas so new —
Myself felt ill — and odd —
As Berry — of a Mountain Bush —
Transplanted — to the Road —

Nor was I hungry — so I found
That Hunger — was a way
Of Persons outside Windows —
The Entering — takes away —

This bread and wine stand on the communion table. Emily hungers for that bond through spiritual awakening. She offers a meditation on what is holy in the company of like-minded others. It’s lonely knowing what you know. The pilgrim seeks other pilgrims. The phrase I love the most here is “curious wine”. This is the wine that makes you more curious as you drink it. The wine that whets your palate for more, a deeper plunge into that embrace. The hunger for home, wherever or whoever that may be.

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