The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

January 10, 2017

Joan of Arc as Inkblot — What She Symbolizes Today and Where She Symbolizes It

On March 22, 1429, Joan of Arc wrote to the head of English occupying forces in the city of Orleans and told him that God was giving him exactly one chance to surrender the city to her, a fourteen year-old girl dressed in armor, the equivalent of drag king attire at the time, as women were not trained to be soldiers. “Faites raison au Roi du ciel, rendez à la Pucelle qui est envoyée ici par Dieu, le Roi du ciel, les clés de toutes les bonnes villes que vous avez prises et violées en France. Elle est ici venue de par Dieu pour réclamer le sang royal.” — Do right by the King of Heaven. Give back to the Maiden who is sent by God, the keys of all the good cities that you have taken and raped in France. She is come here by God to defend royal blood.. The English general in command laughed at the letter, though she said he would surrender Orleans peacefully to her that day or after bloodshed the next day.

The next day, to his astonishment, he surrendered Orleans to Joan.

joan-of-arc

The real Joan of Arc was a distorted fun-house mirror for the politics of the fifteenth century. She hasn’t changed a bit in that regard today.

For the people of the Late Middle Ages, Joan was either a great saint or a horrible witch, a nasty woman. Though within a generation of her execution Joan was exonerated of all charges and her inquisitor charged with heresy for ever bothering her, at the time of her death, they burned her at the stake for daring to dress like a man. The heresy charges couldn’t stick; Joan’s theology was conventional if eccentric in the extreme. The only policing that could kill her under rule of law was the fashion police. She wore armor, and the sentence for that was death.

Today, I submit to you that she remains a political figure who operates something like an ink blot. What is in the heart of the beholder reflects the interpretation, even the reenactment, of Joan’s unusual story.

joan-of-arc-nola

For the people of New Orleans, Joan of Arc is a symbol of French heritage and the traditions of an inclusive and costume-loving city. Her arrival right after epiphany marks the beginning of carnival season.

In New Orleans, rather than old Orleans, Joan remains a powerful symbol.  As the commander of the battle of Orleans and its hero, as well as the patron saint of France, it is easy to understand her potent symbolism for a town named for the place of her victory. She is an old French symbol for what one man I met called the capitol of a nation that never came into being, a new France on the Gulf of Mexico. This past weekend was the annual Joan of Arc parade, a parade to mark the official beginning of carnival season in New Orleans (yes, it’s a whole season down here, not a day, not even a week). People disguised in medieval costumes parade through the French Quarter, where they share a vin d’honneur toast with the head of the French consul, a priest from the Saint Louis cathedral blesses the crowd’s paper machie swords, and a general party in the carnival style. This is odd, really, as Joan of Arc was not what Bakhtin called “carnevalesque.” She was anti-libidinous, a virgin who remained so in order to retain the purity of her angel voices. Then again, she got killed for being in drag, and there are a lot of people in this town who might sympathize.  She was an uppity woman of the first order, and people here like women who know their own minds and aren’t afraid of much. So while she might not have invented Mardi Gras and would never have taken her top off if someone threw her some beads, she fits right in here.

Here, Joan is a symbol of French heritage of the city but not of a fierce French nationalism. While the occasion of a blessing at the cathedral, she is nevertheless ecumenical. The people who put on this annual parade are a social club, not a religious sisterhood. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc claim their mission includes people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds and attempts to encourage artistry and revelry. They are interested in fun, not fundamentalism, as is in fact all of New Orleans. This is, after all, a city with pirate heritage, not just French heritage, and if a gal shows up in the Vieux Carre with a kind of butch haircut dressed as a guy, one hardly notices. As all of New Orleans revelries, the Joan of Arc parade is inclusive and frolicking. Joan symbolizes the old French ways of the city in the hands of the gender-complicated, a place of liberation from oppression not so much from the English as the Anglo-Saxon stiff upper lip.

jeanne-darc-marine-le-pen

For the National Front, the rough equivalent of Trump and the Alt-Right in France, Joan of Arc (depicted here as a gold statue behind party leader Marine le Pen) has been appropriated as a symbol of white nationalism, as Joan fought invading foreigners. Rather than chase away the English, Marine le Pen wants to chase away Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East.

There is another group this year that has embedded Joan into their mission, though they do so with far less revelry and fun, although they are known in France as “le FN.” The menacing alt-right has been growing in France, just as it has been here.  The National Front is the party of Marine Le Pen, whose mission it is with other white people to deport all the immigrants, all of them, particularly those of North African and Middle Eastern descent.In the 1980s, the party was an ugly joke, run by Jean-Marie LePen, Marine’s father, who said disgusting things to scare people like immigrants were bringing AIDS to France and that it could be spread by mosquito bites. Marine LePen is less crude and less confrontational than her father, but the party is capitalizing on France’s recent terrorist attacks to suggest that only white people should be considered French and that all others, regardless of place of birth, ought to be deported.

For the National Front, Joan is the scourge of the foreign incursion, a saint of France, a pure French girl who could be the vessel of a pure French white bloodline. She is a call to return to traditions long since considered too narrow in France by most people. The party is overtly racist, and they see Joan as a purifier of the race, giving that royal blood Joan mentioned in her letter by extension to all those whose families have been in France for centuries. She is often evoked at their rallies, and she is a call for exclusion by any means necessary.  Their Joan says surrender the city, you foreigners, today, or pay for your residency with your own blood tomorrow.

So what are we to do with Joan, a prisoner of our divergent political ideologies? Is she a saint of white nationalism, or is she the patron saint now of a town that values individual expression and racial and gender diversity? Is she a witch or a saint? A better question for us to ask is who we are. Are we a community of a liberated city celebrating its victory over hegemony, or are we a bunch of fascists who so distrust other people’s customs that we would shove them out of our midst? If we are white, is this the source of our purity, or is our purity a purity of heart, of goodwill toward all? Are our swords a costume accessory or a way of life? I submit our parade route has hit a fork in the road.  Either we dance toward a welcoming cathedral that would offer blessings, toward a balcony for a celebratory drink, or we are headed into a battle where either way, win or lose, the things that are really pure in us get burned alive. Who will we be during this carnival season? Who will you be, my reader, in this hour of occupation by those most of us have not chosen? How will you stay pure, my maidens? I say don’t put down your swords. We are going into battle. In all things, do right by the King of Heaven. We are sent by God here for this very hour. Know what is right and do it, whatever it may cost you.

 

June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

January 12, 2016

Arrived in New Orleans – and already bucking for Sainthood

saint louis cathedral

This cathedral is named after a crusader king who became a saint. These days, there are multiple New Orleans Saints, and they wear helmets, too.

Dearly beloved, I am sleeping in a rented bed on the West Bank of the Mississippi River in New Orleans while my husband and I wait for the delivery of our belongings into our house by the moving company.  The house we have rented has a narrow front porch, a faux fireplace with a white wrought iron grille. Our dog has already barked at the neighbor dogs and marked his territory in our shallow back yard with an oak tree and a brick patio. The neighbors are busy, multicultural and middle-class.  I see dogs but almost no children. From my front porch, I hear the bell of a church tower, a church named something like “Our Lady of Perpetual Virginity,” that chimes the hours during daylight, and I am charmed.

The neighborhood has many Catholic churches in it and a Catholic college as well.  As televangelist from nearby Destrehan, Jesse DuPlantis, often remarks, “Everyone in Louisiana has been Catholic at one time or another,” and one senses this to be so.  The rhythm of the neighborhood seems to comply with the traditional daily cycle of matins, compline and evensong.

I have no idea whether my neighbors confess sins to a priest (except a middle-aged Vietnamese-American man who lives around the corner with me who has repeatedly invited me and my husband to church with him and who seems baffled I have no children). But the city, like many Catholic communities, is socially permissive of public forms of decadence (which at least at one point were) absolved in small booths in towered buildings smelling of candle wax.  While Mississippi, for instance, a traditionally protestant state, taxes booze and controls its distribution as an unfortunate concession to a baser nature that religion ought to make one rise above, Louisiana has no such scruples. Louisiana allows the sale of liquor at grocery stores and gas stations.  Gambling happens at rest stops along Interstate 10 with no finger-wagging from the State Capitol or the swamps.

While in Mississippi a great deal of lip service is paid to the way one ought to act, to abstinence, and to fidelity, even the so-called family values gubernatorial candidate in the last election Louisiana held was caught in whore houses.  It’s not that people are less moral in Louisiana; that’s not true at all.  It’s that the State doesn’t see itself traditionally in quite the same role as the morality police that state governments do in surrounding areas. Except for my Irish ancestors and some others from that cold-water island, who hoped their children would have nothing to confess to the priest, Catholicism’s confessional is often a pressure valve for the explosive gases of human experience.  Internalized moral fiber is for Calvinists, not papists, who admit the virtuous among them are exceptional enough to deserve statues and annual processions. Louisiana is marvelous, but it makes no attempt to appear genuinely good.  The beads thrown at Mardi Gras are made of plastic, not gold, and the topless women who dive for them are not perpetual virgins.

I surmise this difference in local Southern cultures has deep Hurricane-Katrina-resistant roots in the Middle Ages. Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian philosopher, observed that pre-modern societies dominated by the Catholic Church had rigid rules but used what he termed “the carnevalesque” as an inversion of the rigid social order at least a couple of times a year.  The discourse of the church of the Middle Ages could be self-flagellating, but certain works of art in churches depict lewd scenes.  The festival of Ash Wednesday, one where the recipient of ashes to mourn his or her own sinfulness hears, “you are dust, and to dust you will return,” as a call to penitence, is preceded by a hangover-inducing bacchanal the day before.  It’s not that the Church was ever sex-positive.  They to this day consider sex of all kinds, including within marriage, inherently sinful unless the sole desire of the participants is to produce legitimate offspring.  But the Catholic Church has been sex-acknowledging in that it concedes that people mess around on the DL and produced both rigid rules and periodic catharses to let off steam. Louisiana is anti-choice, often teaches abstinence-only sex education, and claims to hold conservative values about all sorts of social issues, but in New Orleans, drag queens have paraded around for at least a century and a half,  vaudou (voodoo) has cursed many for about four hundred years, the greatest genius ever born here – jazz inventor and legend Louis Armstrong – was born in a whorehouse, and the carnevalesque constitutes its greatest tourist attraction.  What happens on Bourbon Street does not stay on Bourbon Street, as one says about debauchery in secularized Vegas, but what happens on Bourbon Street has the potential to be forgiven a few blocks away at any of the churches in the French Quarter.  And to get absolved takes less resolve than a willingness to restitute and conform to ritual.  There is no altar call in the Catholic Church, a protestant tradition where penitence happens in the heart first and one gets saved.  There is an altar at the Catholic church, and one faces it and recites liturgy, stands, kneels, stands again, crosses one’s self, and one admits one was wrong but without a total life commitment for permanent change.  Penitence on the Rue Saint Charles doubtless consists of more regret than permanent resolve in most cases.

As I wait for my furniture to trek through the bayoux down here, I resolve not to give up my Irish primness such as I ever possessed it.  I intend to keep my shirt on no matter who offers to throw plastic beads my way next month. I intend to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling, as Paul admonishes us to do in one epistle, rather than to rely on others to make the sign of the cross in my direction.  It’s not in my own power to act right, of course, but it is my responsibility to seek out forgiveness from God and to avoid purchasing an excess of vodka at the local gas station, to avoid lewdness, even if the engraving in the cathedral shows a tree growing genitalia (yes, that really exists in one European medieval church).  I am going to try to do what God would have me do here, whatever that might look like.

For Protestants like me, the Saints are all those who make it to Heaven, not just those whose coffins smell like roses and where prayers offered for them to intercede are answered by miracles.  Goodness is a personal responsibility for all of us who answer altar calls, though none of us, not even saints with statues, manage to be perfectly good.  I would like to smell like a rose instead of a corpse, but I notice that on a hot day, all of New Orleans smells at once deliciously floral and rather putrefied at once.  I think perhaps this is why I feel so at home here already.

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