Part I: Raising the political stakes with Jeanne d’Arc and Dr Ali Alizadeh

Part I: Raising the political stakes with Jeanne d’Arc and Dr Ali Alizadeh
Jeanne d'Arc, photo by Jasper Pitt-Alizadeh

Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc)'s controversial life and death are being depicted in a comprehensive new literary work by Dr Ali Alizadeh titled The Last Days of Jeanne D’Arc due out this year. We sat down with Dr Alizadeh to explore his decades-long research into the character of Jeanne d'Arc that brought up questions about political writing, the phenomena and ideology of real revolution, the question of war, and the revolutionary potential of Jeanne d'Arc in contemporary discourse, politics and concepts of universalism.

Jeanne D'Arc is quite an important but complex figure in European history. How did you first come across Jeanne?

Jeanne d'Arc, photo by Jasper Pitt-Alizadeh

Jeanne d'Arc, photo by Jasper Pitt-Alizadeh

I was aware of her when I was very little and I became interested right away.  I think that’s because when you're a child, you see her and you automatically realise that she was also a child. I think it happens to a lot of people, especially as children when you encounter her image in popular culture or church or wherever – they see a figure that they can relate to very quickly. They recognise her youth, her courage, her vulnerability, her desire to want to change the world. You see, in her, the original revolutionary figure.  

Which is very interesting when you contrast that with how she's been used politically in France, as this kind of figurehead, and part of an absolute counter-revolutionary, chauvinistic attempt to roll things back and return to the time of Christian, patriarchal and monarchical authority in France. There's still a group there that wants to bring monarchy back to France after 230 years and they see her as their mascot. And of course she's also the mascot of the Front National who’s likely to win the election, unfortunately. But recently I read a book by a French communist writer, Daniel Bensaid, who identified with Jeanne as he was growing up, in a way similar to me, so for a lot of us on the Left it's very weird to have this figure wrongly identified with a certain Rightist political movement.

She's a complex figure politically but for various reasons young people from very different cultural and political backgrounds have gravitated towards her and I think there is something in her image, there's something kind of mysterious in her image, that has radical promises embedded in it.

Radical promises – is this what you look into?

For me, the real question is the revolutionary potential. She's such a figure for revolution and change. How to reconcile that with a whole range of other things that are associated with her, such as patriotism, ultranationalism, and a very conservative take on Christianity. 

And then there's the question of war, which is a difficult one because she was a warrior, she wanted to become a warrior, she won battles. For me, when I started writing this 20 years ago, I had a certain politics – I was anti-war – but how can you be anti-war when you’re writing about her? Not very easy. But I've changed my own views a little bit. 

Something about her that’s really amazing and very timely now is her universality, as a symbol for universalism.

She decided to fight for a cause that affected the entire nation, and not just her region, not just the peasants in her village, not just a certain group of people, a certain religion, a particular gender, race, etc. Today, it would be inconceivable that any revolutionary would say, ‘I want to do something for everyone'. If they did that we would think they were a lying politician. But that’s actually what revolutionaries do, that's what a revolution is, a kind of transcending of particularity to the point of genuine true radical universality. 

I think that today in our post-modern condition which is obsessed with particularity and identity and our own individual struggles and so on, the best we can come up with is what we call inter-sectionality, where momentarily we might be allied if our little selfish concerns intersect, but tomorrow, in this capitalist culture, we could become sworn enemies again. That’s not radical at all, I mean the real radicalism of a figure like Jeanne or events like the French Revolution is about the promise and the real practice – very difficult, sometimes violent and disruptive practice – of what it means to be a member of the human race. And want to produce a real, collective universal solidarity for a political cause. 

And I think that's a really important thing to be reminded of today. Especially as today the figure of Jeanne is being hijacked by this and that interest group who want to use her as their mascot. She belongs to everyone and I think this is something she embodied in her own life. And she did that by negating or destroying publicly her own personal and individual identity, by saying: I will not appear as a woman, I will not appear as a man, I will put on an armour. She must have had a very deep intuition of what it is to become the hero for everybody. We need more leaders like that, but I think we need that kind of understanding of subjectivity in our personal lives as well.

How have other writers and artists depicted her character?

She's proved very difficult for a lot of writers. Of all the famous writers and artists who have written about her – Shakespeare, Friedrich Schiller, Mark Twain, and many very famous ones – I think they've all failed miserably. I don’t think anyone would defend Shakespeare's depiction of her in Henry VI. It is so amateurish Shakespeare scholars say it could only have been written by someone other than Shakespeare himself, or one of his assistants must have helped with that. But I think that’s because she's a very difficult character. 

Jeanne D'Arc

Jeanne D'Arc

But how do you write about someone who's so sincere, passionate, who wants to lead an army and is so brave and courageous, and at the same time is an introvert, a mystic, from a peasant background? It seems like it's a very difficult character to reconcile all these contradictory elements. I'm sure that if it were a fictional character the editor would say, ‘No no this character is not realistic, you can’t have a 17 year old girl convince a king to give her an army in late medieval Europe. That's absurd!' But that actually happened, so how do you make that believable as a writer?

In terms of what historians and novelists have done in the past, there's a brilliant movie from 1928, called The Passion of Joan of Arc. It's a black and white silent movie directed by Danish filmmaker Carl Dreyer and it's very moving, very affecting but it's only about one part – the trial – and how she felt while she was being interrogated. I don't think Dryer could tell the whole story, but he did capture a moment of her suffering and her passion. 

And there's a great play by George Bernard Shaw from around the same time. It's satirical, it mocks the perceptions of people who encountered her, but it has nothing to say of the person she was. 

I can go through a list, but there is not a single artwork, other than my own forthcoming novel, that I can hold up and say, this tells us something about who she really was as a full person or how we might be able to put together all of this body of information, everything we know about her, together. And I'm not saying that to be arrogant. When I did my PhD research I read so much, basically everything available in English, and to the best of my ability in other languages, and I just couldn't find a complete account of her subjectivity. There was nothing there that really convinced me, about which I could say: Yep, that nails it.

Some have ultimately resorted to conspiracy theories, that, for example, the Queen of France's mother was behind it all – that’s the latest trend especially coming out of liberal feminist American circles and scholarship. According to this theory, it was a socially important successful woman who created Jeanne; poor little peasant Jeanne was useless on her own. I strongly think that's a wrong view, and there's no historical proof for it. 

But there's other more bizarre conspiracy theories that say she wasn't a peasant after all. That she was the bastard sister of the King of France, that she didn't get burnt at the stake, that someone else got burnt and she went on to get married and have children. A couple of weeks ago there was a conference in the region in France where she's from, and a journalist who's made a living peddling these conspiracy theories was saying publicly again, ‘No no, you’ve been lied to, she’s she was the bastard daughter of the King of France, and she’d been trained from when she was born to ride a war horse and wear armour, and she never heard voices'. She’s a very difficult character to get your head around, and many people can’t.

Is it a question of evidence?

The interesting thing about her is that we know so much about her. She was the most famous person of her era. This was early to mid-15th century and there is so much documentation. When she first appears on the political scene, we immediately get records of her, chronicles that are being written, there is a very famous long poem written on her by the most famous poet of the period. Then of course there are all of her correspondences. Then when she is caught by her enemies, her enemies make sure the trial is absolutely legitimate, and they have it fully documented in old French and in Latin. All the minutes of the trial are transcribed thoroughly, the Latin is for the Pope. So we have these two very huge bodies of text available to us.

Jeanne D'Arc

Jeanne D'Arc

Then 20 to 25 years after her execution, once the French were winning the war against the English, they reopened the trial to prove she was not a heretic, to show that she was innocent. They brought all of these soldiers who had fought with her, her childhood friends from her village, countless people to give testimonies about what they knew about her, so then we get another huge body of documents. We know so much about her, some bizarre things – we know about her menstruation cycles, colour of hair, her diet, her not needing to go to the toilet so often because she had a strong bladder. These are the kinds of things that we don't know about famous people in our own time, yet we know all this about someone who lived almost 600 years ago. 

We have a lot of facts I guess. But putting them together is the challenge, the imaginative, conceptual challenge.

Perhaps the historical works and recent accounts are more of a reflection of the people then and what they were trying to find in her as opposed to about her?

That's a very good point. Even today, we’re nowhere nearer to having a better understanding of her. Scientists are interested in her as well so they come up with their own absurd theories. The latest scientific theory is that she had epilepsy, and they think they’ve solved her ‘problem'. But we know Jeanne never had seizures, so the scientists have come up with some very rare form of epilepsy which doesn’t cause seizures, that could also, conveniently, cause auditory or visual hallucinations. But what are the chances of somebody with such a ridiculously rare condition to also become a military genius?! Jeanne was someone who led armies to victories that they wouldn’t otherwise have won without her. I'm not biased against people who have epilepsy, I find it very difficult to reconcile this latest scientific proposal with what Jeanne did during her life.

I guess we have real limitations in the ways we try to approach such a figure and it's possible that she's a bit too complex anyway. But I think we're, generally speaking, determined to simplify things, to reduce things, to something we can understand. So theories about epilepsy and schizophrenia are supposed to provide us with an answer. I think that desire to have a conclusive answer is the problem, maybe. Her name has come up a bit in French politics and it's the same business – very simplistic ways of looking at very complex phenomena.

The ability to handle very complex phenomena – how do you think the Humanities enables this?

We're called ‘humanities' for a reason, because we value the human subjects in all of their aspects, and we do value emotions. I tell my students that how you feel about a novel or a book of poems will definitely determine whether or not you'll be able to write about it well. You can't write a great essay about a book you just don't enjoy reading. That's definitely one of the foundations of the humanities. I guess that’s why we're not called ‘the humanity sciences', no one’s come up with a term like that. There's the social sciences but terms like ‘literary sciences' or ‘creative sciences' don’t really work instead of ‘humanities', and it's partly because we do really value the human faculty, the mind, the subjective elements that we think are key in advancing the knowledge in our discipline.

Of course science is about creativity as well, but to take a very simplistic view of comparing science to art, we, in the humanities or arts, do really value what people are capable of doing when they use their imagination and emotions and philosophy. Things like that are important in science too but we do think that thought, reflection, ethics and politics come into our discipline a lot more.

I don't necessarily see a sort of opposition between art and science because ultimately truth is what we’re all interested in.

I think that one view of the humanities, something I don’t like, is moving too much in that fad in the 80s post-modernism, where truth is denounced in the name of culture, and I certainly don't agree with that because I think truth is something we, artists and scientists alike, are all interested in in different ways. My novel might propose a truth about what it means to be a revolutionary subject, and a scientist might propose a truth about the cause of global warming. So we're interested in truths in different ways. And I think there's a lot more we have in common than not.

Continue reading Part II of this interview exploring the search for truths, political writing in Australia and advice for those interested in undertaking a PhD…

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