Book Review: “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” by Mark Twain

Title: Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc

Author: Mark Twain

Genre: Biographical fiction

Year of Publication: 1896

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (5 stars)

“With Joan of Arc love of country was more than a sentiment–it was a passion. She was the Genius of Patriotism–she was Patriotism embodied, concreted, made flesh, and palpable to the touch and visible to the eye.”

— The Sieur Louis de Conte

Today, I wrapped up my reading of “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” by Mark Twain. My aim was to see myself through 100 pages maximum, but Twain’s narration was like a magnetic field that kept me fixed till I completed the whole book.

Never have I before seen such a perfect concoction of pathos, inspiration and life lessons betwixt book covers.

Here, Twain, an anti-Catholic and a Francophobe, shockingly fashions out of himself a page and constructs a fact-based faux biography as a tribute to one of history’s most significant figures.

His haunting prose was one thing, but the real attraction was the characterization of  La Pucelle d’Orléans. Instead of a calculated academic approach or a neutral historical depiction, he showed that prodigious child to the world as a human being – an extraordinary one, it goes sans saying – through the lens of an almost inconspicuous, but an observant childhood friend and man-at-arms, the Sieur Louis de Conte.

His extensive, exhaustive research on his subject is crystallized in his pages. Every figure of speech, every word, every punctuation does justice to Joan of Arc’s wit, worth and while.

Personal Recollections, when you’re done, will feel like a reliving and not merely a retelling. One is bound to feel this way because of the many parallels that can be drawn between her life and that of anyone who has experienced exploitation on account of innocence, ignorance, piety and steadfastness.

The best part about the book is its simultaneous appeal to contrasting emotions. When you’re on the verge of tears, pondering the patheticness of Joan’s punic trial and imprisonment, you find your lips curling upward when you read her witty retorts that retained their oomph even when death stared her in the face.

Also deserving of special mention is his treatment of the Catholic Church and the figures that dominated it during Joan of Arc’s time. He rebuts the “religious” and their acts, while according respect to the religion and its theological framework through his narrator.

Although highly subjective where the titular character is concerned, Twain does not fail to leave an indelible idea of faith, inspiration, loyalty, humanity and courage.

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Fallen From Grace

Being an Indian should evoke an indomitable sense of pride in every citizen, but I dare to say that my every ounce of liking for my native soil has evaporated into thin air. After the devastating desecration of one too many churches, the vandals fueled the fire of rage amongst Christians far and wide.

In my opinion, reacting would be a problem, but acting wisely would be the solution. Words speak louder than actions in this case scenario and this was the response that was elicited from me on a social networking platform:

Dearest Government of ‪‎India‬ (yet again),
The Pledge and the Constitution have been reduced to mere jokes, and I say that seriously. I didn’t think I’d have to write a sophomore stanza expressing my utter shock and dismay over the manner in which our churches are being desecrated and our people are being exploited. It stuns me that this idol-worshipping country maintains cricket stadiums but vandalizes churches, takes major issue over a trivial jibe targeted at a politicians as dirty as the ghetto streets, but remains tight-lipped and indifferent when a religion and its flock are at stake. Are you barbarians, by all these deeds, trying to criminalize our very existence? But know this: you have all fanned the flames of our fury to a fever pitch, yet, we will not avenge. We will not thumb our noses at the founding commandments of our faith that teach us to love and forgive our foes. Our God never retaliated when he was crucified and jeered at. To everyone who has orchestrated or executed such loutish acts, remember that you will have one bloody banquet in Hades waiting for you. You might have broken our churches, but you can never break our Christian spirit.

After all, what would the economic stats, the political ambitions and the education matter when brothers and sisters cannot coexist peacefully in their own home?

India’s Internal Tussle

“Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” — Ayaan Hirsi Ali

There’s something special about the Indian Constitution. It’s the longest handwritten one in the world and the highlight, you ask? Its postulates are hardly ever adhered to.

An excerpt from the pledge is as follows:

“India is my country. All Indians are my BROTHERS and SISTERS… I LOVE MY COUNTRY… I shall give my parents, teachers and all elders RESPECT and treat everyone with COURTESY…”

Keeping that in mind, let’s visualize the happenings in New Delhi. Christians are protesting against vandalism and the police round them all up and pack them off to the cellars- like stray dogs causing a nuisance- to a shelter.

The texts prescribed for high school education gasconade the country’s policies of secularism, brotherly love and, above it all, tolerance.

Hyperbolized is the fact that this country has never waged a single external war in the history of its existence. That is just a veneer camouflaging the internal war that is highly alarming.

The soil of this country once ran red with the blood of the myriad martyrs who vowed and slogged for independence, coalescing peaceable people from every nook and cranny of the nation for a sole, selfless purpose. They freed India from the oppressive regency of the British, but we are yet to free this country from the tyranny of our very own. Ironical, isn’t it?

A country’s true glory lies not in being an economic superpower, a technology giant or a contender in the global market. Glory in its untainted form can be tasted only when the citizens of the country start loving and living as one though many.

So, dearest Indians, don’t just recite the pledge. Live up to it. And don’t just let people hear the words. Let them see you putting them into befitting actions.

Don’t bask in the glory of the past while not maintaining its standards in the present and hope for a radiant future.

Demolishing Human Dignity

“How can it be that a species capable of such wonder, such beauty and such love, can also be so easily enticed by hatred?” — Nev Schulman (Host of MTV’s “Catfish”)

The quote I embodied was part of an emotional response delivered by Nev Schulman, a Jewish personality, who was not very long ago, the target of a number of odious tweets. The focal point of the harassment? Religion.

And news recently surfaced about activist, Raif Badawi, being subjected to macabre lashings in full public view just because he expressed his views in writing that were considered dishonorable to religion by a certain party.

Something that persistently baffles me is this: why do knowledgeable, educated and intelligent people lack wisdom? Why does the populace demean the values of compassion and forgiveness that each and every religion stands for?

The doctrines of every religion speak of punishment and justice (that are in the hands of God), but underscore forgiveness. Love is the centre of gravity of every religion and every community that is striving towards a harmonious and an exemplary existence.

Intolerance, like a weed among the desired crop of acceptance, is not being rooted out, but is allowed to thrive with the desirable crop until it weakens, withers and wilts.

The Bible exhorts the faithful to treat our brethren “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2)

By publicly meting out a bestial penalty, insisting that the law of religion and country demand it be executed, what are we trying to imbibe in the minds of the seers, the hearers and the readers? That their freedom of speech and expression comes with a price? That a person can be convicted of a crime just because his thoughts in words were indigestible to some factions? That violence is the solution to establishing order?

The Qur’an urges thus, “The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with Allah…” (Qur’an 42:40)

It is grievous error to state falsely that the will of God is being fulfilled, when in actuality, the selfish wants of people are being catered to in a most appalling manner.

We are now citizens of a world where the response to a mildly offensive deed is hatred. The misdeeds of an individual result in the entire community being pigeonholed.

Hinduism elucidates true bravery as such, “If you want to see the brave, look at those who can forgive. If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can return love for hatred.” (Krishna Dharma)

Modern approaches have greatly contorted the notion of bravery and heroism. Religion does not associate bravery with the act of holding up a rifle or combating a defenseless person. It does not characterize a hero by what he does to gain temporal favor, but rather by what he does to gain spiritual favor; not someone who can assert his dominance by overseeing brutality being executed by his subordinates.

“It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous,” says Rabbi Yannai in Chapter 4, Mishna 19.

Songs have been sung, poems have been penned, books of great magnitude have been written with the sole view of acquiring global concord, but to little or no avail.

But, there is as much beauty in this world as there is ugliness. There are hearts that contain love capable of quenching the fire of hatred. We are all creatures with the craving to receive love and the capacity to give love. No matter the religion we profess, no matter the zone we hail from or the hue of our exterior, our hearts beat as one.

Says the Buddha, “He who experiences the unity of life sees his own self in all beings, and all beings in his own self, and looks on everything with an impartial eye.”

Igniting the candle of hope against the currents of disillusionment, I sign off.