Representing Alterity in a World of Vorhabe and Translation: Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
Morris, Christopher D., Papers on Language & Literature
Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895) has always been something of an embarrassment: Twain called it "the best of all my books," but his critics see it as an aberrational paean to innocence in the aging writer's trajectory from skepticism to pessimism. (1) That such an odd consensus arises from critics of a wide variety of hermeneutic persuasions may not be surprising, after all, since the majority more or less identify the author's views with those of Joan's hagiographer, Sieur Louis de Conte, also the novel's narrator, whose initials duplicate those of the "real" person behind the famous pseudonym. Such haste to attribute, especially on the basis of a playful and imprecise association, exposes the open critical wound of what properly does belong to Clemens or to Twain, the perennial bane of his critics, which surfaced in James Cox's mid-eighties frustration that we still don't know the difference between them (160). (2) Two decades of criticism steeped in cultural studies has produced little healing--readers must now imagine a Clemens who is also a pious Twain, a capitalist Twain, a racist Twain, and an anarchic Twain. (3) A deconstructive approach to Joan of Arc can't remove that impasse, though it can offer a different way of defining it. Instead of refiecting the views of a real Clemens who is Twain, the novel can be read as a denial of that assumption, as a parable of the impossibility of representing the other in a world of what Heidegger called Vorhabe--the fate of a Dasein condemned to an endless, unrecognized hermeneutic circle. (4)
The difficulty of escaping such a prison-house--luminously revealed to August Feldner by Number 44 at the end of The Mysterious Stranger--is compounded in a world of translation that is, in Derrida's phrase, commanded but forbidden. (5) Linguistic diversity can imply but never disclose the presence of an "untranslatable," Derrida's figure for the tout autre, for whose arrival we can only stoically wait. (6) From the perspective of such a bleakness, Twain's novel is also readable as a de Manian allegory of reading, dramatizing the blindness or disingenuousness of its writer, de Conte, whose apparent hagiography may just as easily conceal deep duplicity. Behind this fioundering we may catch a glimpse of the futility of all writers' dreams of representing the other--whether that alterity is understood as the mind of another person or as the sacred. In any case, Joan of Arc' s complex narrative technique has far-reaching implications for reading the Bible and for the discourses of patriotism that Twain is supposed to have endorsed vociferously. Nevertheless, there may also emerge from the novel's pervasive undecidability another possibility--that Joan may, after all, hold forth the prospect of embodying some ultimate Derridean tout autre; however, any such redemptive interpretation--one of several, including Joan's madness--may in the end prove more unsettling than the sturdier "innocence" for which she has hitherto won the praise of de Conte and Twain's critics.
The ambiguity of the word "of" in this book's title first raises the issue of alterity. Readers of the genitive, who may expect to hear Joan of Arc speaking of her own past, must quickly adjust to the second meaning of "of"--they will be reading personal recollections about Joan of Arc. The ambiguity is important because it dramatizes how the other's interior becomes in an instant sealed off and inaccessible. Nowhere in the book will we have unmediated access to Joan of Arc's "personal recollections." Joan's inability to write soon reminds us that unmediated access to the thoughts of any deceased illiterate is impossible. In Joan of Arc we will read only the recollections of Sieur Louis de Conte, Joan's page and secretary, writing at the age of eighty-two, sixty years after her death. De Conte's narrative tests whether the other can be truthfully represented. To explore the possibility of knowing history's non-writing others, Twain imagines a "best case"--an educated eyewitness to almost all of the important events of Joan's life, someone who had access to nearly everything she said, who helped transcribe the proceedings of her trial, who witnessed her execution and testified at the Process of Rehabilitation that restored her good name. …