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.

 

Advertisements

November 14, 2015

Aux Armes, Citoyens! — A blog post off the topic of the South (though Marseilles is in the South of France and Wrote the Marseillaise)

You will notice, chers lecteurs, mes semblables, mes freres  (dear readers, those who resemble me, my brethren), that there is a ball-point pen above the text of all  my blog entries for The Carpetbagger’s Journal.  I thought about the importance of this symbol when less than a year ago, the world adopted the symbol of the pencil in its mourning after the attack on the rather silly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.  The idea that people got gunned down because someone drew a crude cartoon of a figure representing the prophet of Islam — that kind of hit home for me, because as I say some silly things about the South, I am as serious as a heart attack when I talk about Southern racism, and I have gotten the occasional Klan death threat.  I take this in stride; after all, fighting racism is a noble cause whose opponents must be thugs by definition.  It is a moral duty to stand up against injustice, I believe.  I am willing to risk myself, and even the childish and crude cartoons of Charlie Hebdo are part of a truly glorious tradition of Western Civilization, that of opposition rhetoric in a democratic society.  We all said at that time, brandishing a pencil (or in my case, that ball-point pen at the top of the screen) and declared, “Je suis Charlie.”  And as evidenced by the continued presence of the pen motif that the hosting site of this blog, Word Press, has begged me to change for a newer look, I have maintained my penmanship, my eloquent luddite implement symbol because not only was I Charlie a year ago, but I remain Charlie.  Je demeure toujours Charlie.

It is more lovely than this photo allows. Turn a corner in Paris, and see another reason to be glad you are alive.

It is more lovely than this photo allows. Turn a corner in Paris, and see another reason to be glad you are alive.

I used to live in Paris, not Paris, Texas, but the actual tree-lined avenue-boasting, perennially chic yet avant-garde city of light.  I lived there for about three years in my youth.  I read my English poetry at Shakespeare & Co with much older expatriate writers for whom I was something of a mascot.  I had a job translating at a French cooking school for American tourists and professional chefs.  I studied at the University of Paris for a year, then stayed for two more, as I was intoxicated by the city.  I was on the VIP list of most of the better dance clubs in town, and I went out dancing three nights a week.  I wrote.  I had foolish relationships.  I wore revealing clothing.  I debated in cafes.  I signed petitions.  I protested with leftists.  I kissed under bridges, under mirrored balls, in front of paintings in the Louvre, along the Seine, in shadowy corners, in doorways.  I kissed a lot of frogs.  I know Paris the way a young woman who is just barely good-looking enough to get in the supermodel party (I was definitely the funny one with the slight but adorable accent, not the gorgeous one) knows Paris.  It’s my oyster, or at least back then it was.  I left because my father asked me to return to the United States.  It’s a long story, but he thought I was dying of AIDS, the way over a dozen of my gay male friends were.  In fact, I was neither seropositive nor AIDS-afflicted.  I thought he wanted to build a better relationship with me, but he didn’t.  He wanted to get me home before he would need to wrestle with authorities in a language he didn’t speak to get my corpse shipped back home.  The irony of this misunderstanding is positively French, cruel and poignant. But like Edith Piaf, in whose old neighborhood I used to live, je ne regrette rien.  In leaving Paris, I ended up finding Jesus, and my atheist father, well, he didn’t speak to me for the last ten years of his life.  Non, rien de rien. Non, je ne regrette rien.

So when yesterday, I saw that domestic terrorists egged on by ISIS attacked The Bataclan, a club I was too cool for back in the day, a Cambodian-French restaurant, and the Stade de France, I felt regret, actual regret.  I had lived through a season of such attacks in Paris, bombs not bullets, and it is horrible that plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.(The more things change, the more they stay the same).  But this IS different.  This isn’t an attack with specific demands.  This is an attack on Parisian life itself.  I am regretful.  I am horrified.  My pen, which ought to be mightier than the sword, is pointed.  My trigger finger is itchy.  Enough!  I say enough!

France values ideas, art, and has built a society that accepts individuals without regard to race who are willing to participate in its secular culture. Paris remains the best place in the world for a good meal, a kiss, a gallery visit, a fashion show, a walk in the park, and a philosophical conversation. To attack France, to attack Paris, is to attack the best things about Western Civilization itself. The Nazis knew that when Hitler danced a jig under the Arc de Triomphe. Jihadists have attacked Paris before because it represents the best hopes of our European ancestors. In shooting metal fans at a rock club, they aim at Voltaire, at Sartre, at Chanel, at Colette. In shooting people in a Cambodian restaurant, they shoot at liberal and tolerant immigration policies that have welcomed Muslim people from all over the world, provided opportunities for healthcare, education, and work and have asked that they learn to live peacefully with those of other world views by adopting some of the customs of Europeans. In attacking a stadium, they have declared that their targets are not elitists, not even satirists, like the targets at Charlie Hebdo, but just average French people, working class, middle class, just anybody, that they hate everybody equally for just being part of this established secular culture.

Everybody of every faith or philosophical persuasion ought to be at war with ISIS, a fascism that uses words associated with Islam but which is not a religion. The spirit of Paris and the spirit of Nazism are forever at war. We must choose sides; there is no compromise. We are either standing near the bouquiniste on the Left Bank, flipping through old volumes between kisses with someone who might not be entirely right for us, wearing an outfit which is cute but a bit too revealing, or we are covered in long black robes, a heavy gun hanging from our shoulders, looking for unsuspecting people to shoot, praying five times a day but torturing dissenters nearly as often.

It's not the moment for another debate in another cafe. It is time for action, not just ideas.

It’s not the moment for another debate in another cafe. It is time for action, not just ideas.

In other hours, it is possible to argue about whether the President of France should have a mistress, whether that man kissing the nape of her neck at the bouquiniste is a bad boyfriend, whether women should walk around in skirts that short, whether the book they are looking at contains shocking ideas. In other hours, it is possible to extol the value of prayer, five times a day or more, the responsibilities of gun ownership, the differences between cultures in standards of modesty. This is not that hour. Those are the kinds of conversations one has at a cafe table in the Sixth Arrondisement with a small cup and a small spoon near one’s gesturing hand. This is not that hour. It’s time to get up from the cafe table and stop theorizing for a while. It’s time to materially and practically defend who we are and what we stand for. What happens to Paris happens to the best part of our culture. What happens to Paris happens to romance, beauty, and freedom. What happens to Paris happens to all enlightened thinkers everywhere.

Back when I first moved to Paris, still a teenager, I met the French Resistance poet Jean-Pierre Rosnay, who ran a place called Club des Poetes, sort of a pre-slam cabaret poetry show with red wine and folk singers in abundance, though everyone who read was either middle-aged or older.  Rosnay had started writing while hiding out in the sewers of Paris, shooting at Nazis in the French Resistance.  Rosnay had devolved by then into an alcoholic skirt-chaser.  I had gone to him in hopes we might talk, as he did with many young male poets, about my work as a poet in English, but instead, looking at me, he saw a groupie he wanted to bang.  He made a drunken and embarrassing pass at me in front of his long-suffering wife, whom he condescendingly referred to as his “muse,” and it was just awful.  Who at 19 wants to be groped by a drunk man in his seventies, Hugh Hefner notwithstanding?

I had sought out the young Rosnay, a young man tough enough to fight Nazis and awesome enough in the Parisian way of things to write a poem like this one, which I will translate here:

NON by Jean-Pierre Rosnay

Nous valons parfois mieux que d’être des hommes
J’ai vu des gestes que je suis bien incapable de rapporter
J’ai connu des femmes qui parfumaient la rivière rien que d’y avoir baigné leur ombre

Ce n’est pas nous qui défilons au quatorze juillet
Ce n’est pas nous qui assistons au défilé du quatorze juillet

Ce n’est pas nous qui jouons au bridge
tandis que l’épidémie de faim de misère et de napalm ravage le monde sur les écrans de nos téléviseurs

Nous valons mieux parfois que d’être qui nous sommes

My translation:

NO

We are worth more sometimes than mere men

I have seen deeds that I am just unable to report

I have known women that managed to perfume the river just by casting their shadows on it

It is not we who parade on Bastille Day

It is not we who attend Bastille Day

It is not we who play bridge

while the epidemic of hunger of poverty and of Napalm ravages the world on our television screens

We are worth more sometimes than merely who we are

It is in the spirit of the young poet, not the old and lecherous poet who groped me against my will in the dark during a poetry reading, that I call on free thinkers everywhere to stand up against the forces of cultural fascism, where cartoonists who draw things in poor taste get gunned down, where fans of bands of questionable talent get gunned down, where people, just mere men, just the attendees at some random Bastille Day parade get hurt by attackers who claim the name of a false god as they maim and hurt and assassinate nameless masses.

I call upon you as DeGaulle called upon resisters.  I may be, like DeGaulle, overseas as I radio this in, but the threat is pervasive, and the forces of censorship and violence abide in every era.  We are not called to sit silently or to merely host a conversation about the problem, no.  I say, like Rosnay said, I say NO.  We are supposed to do, to materially do something about it.

We are worth more than just who we are.  We are representatives of a culture worth fighting for.  We are the cavalry we are waiting for who will save the day.  There is only us.  We are it.  We need to stand up against oppressors everywhere, and where they fight us, we fight back.  I said we fight back.  I mean we FIGHT BACK.

Aux Armes, Citoyens!  To arms, citizens of our culture!  Defend freedom!  Either this stops with us, or we become its victims.

Long live Paris.  Vive la France!  Long live the idea of Paris and of France as it imagines itself, as it aspires to be!  We are all Charlie.  We are all Jean-Pierre.  We are all Edith Piaf.  We are all Parisians today.

Blog at WordPress.com.