A Crisis of Mysticism
an essay by Kanyinsola Anifowoshe
The Water Bearer, Lorna Simpson, 1986
Entendez les Merveilles! from the Searching for Jehanne series by Susan Aurinko
"She was therefore right to always trust in her apparitions; for in truth Joan was liberated, as they promised, from the prison of the body by martyrdom and a great victory of patience."
- Inquisitor-General Jean Bréhal, June 1456
Sometimes I feel through the shadows for the truth, and sometimes, before I even know it, I walk right into it. In these moments I do not question; I am free of my second-guessing. My intuition terrified me for a long time, because the black girl is either an unreliable narrator, or not a narrator at all: she has no story to tell. But recently, I’ve been walking the path to find my way back to myself, largely thanks to Joan of Arc-- that archetype of intuition-- who showed me that the truth I hold is more than enough to face the world with.
Amid English invasion of France in the Hundred Years’ War, Joan, a devoutly Christian farm girl from the village of Domrémy begins to experience visions. It is 1424, and Joan is around twelve or thirteen years old when she hears voices that seem to come from God. According to her later accounts, she’s told to do good, go to church, and repeatedly, to her confusion, to liberate the city of Orléans from British siege. Her response is that she is a “poor girl who knew neither how to ride [a horse] nor lead in war.”* Despite her lack of military training, and in the face of constant disbelief of the validity of her visions, she manages to eventually convince the crown prince to give her an army to lead into Orléans, where she emerges victorious, and crowns a new king to the French throne. Joan’s ability to inspire an otherwise defeated army made her a threat to the opposition-English forces, and they captured Joan and tried her, eventually burning her at the stake for heresy.
Joan’s trial is the centerpiece of Jean Anouilh’s play The Lark, following a then-seventeen year old who was under constant attack for the notion of the truth that had guided her actions for the past four years. When I read it for the first time, I had just turned 15, and couldn’t imagine being firm enough in my understanding of the world to walk so boldly in any direction. My visions for the future of the world or of my own life, whether or not I had the right to take up space or could demand to be heard, whether my ideas were worth pursuing-- all were subject to constant questioning and a need for external approval.
For Joan it seemed that the questions came packed with answers: she looked within and saw the truth for what it was. In Bryant Park: A Memoir, (written in the aftermath of the 2016 US election, which itself asserted the power of the gatekeepers to define their reality), Hillary Mantel writes, “We are oblivious of information until we are ready for it. One day, we feel a resonance from the soles of the feet to the cranium. Without mediation, without apology, we read ourselves, and know what we know.” To me, the need to mediate felt reflexive, the truth a thread that I could never fully unravel. How could I find a way to trust myself?
Speaking to the voices, Joan says, “I was only born the day you first spoke to me. My life only began on the day you told me what I must do, my sword in hand.” I longed to know, like she did; to have my life begin anew. My fear and doubt aren’t unique-- they are basically some of the most universal human experiences-- but they are amplified for marginalized people, for whom our very knowledge of the truth and our lived experiences is always waiting to be disputed.
Violence against marginalized people comes in many shapes and forms, but can always be found in a set of two: there is the violence itself (personal, or structural; burning for years, or happening in an instant) and then, the attempt to erase the sense of the self known to have experienced the violence. This too can be personal: the lilting, piercing, “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” that seeks to minimize the violence; and structural: for example, legal institutions that deny credibility to survivors of police violence or domestic violence. The erasure begins in response to specific acts of violence, but continues until the entire question of truth is suspended mid-air. In a response to a survey by the National Domestic Violence Hotline1, over 70% of survivors of domestic violence report feeling that their partner or ex-partner did things to make them feeling like they were “losing their mind.”
Throughout the trial, Joan must justify her own ability to bear witness; she must find a way to prove that she saw what she says she saw. Speaking of one of her encounters with an angel, she says, "It was Saint Michael, who I saw before my eyes… I saw them with my bodily eyes, as well as I am seeing you.”* As I read this assertion of the truth held by vision, (by the body), I couldn’t help thinking about body cameras and police reform. The camera is meant to present images of reality and innocence, while the lived experience of black and brown bodies (whether one body or hundreds) is always simultaneously lacking in objectivity and guilty of something.
The undertone of Joan’s trial is that it was all imagined-- the psyche run wild. Moving through spaces of wealth and power, black folks feel and see the pricks of eyes on our skin. At the same time, we are reminded that we are probably imagining it, creating narratives of prejudice to satisfy our own sense of inferiority. Or something like that, right? Joan’s interrogators do not hesitate to remind her: “There are many young visionaries. Girls frequently experience a crisis of mysticism. It passes.” I think of Joan’s mysticism as an intimacy with the truth-- one that is meant to be ignored, if not destroyed.
It is possible to trace Joan’s path upon hearing the voices according to Rebecca Solnit’s catalogue of silence, which, “has its concentric circles.” The first level of this torment is the self-doubt: Joan’s initial reaction to the voices is disbelief and confusion. As Anouilh writes, she says, “I am Joan, an ignorant girl, my father’s daughter-- I can’t save France.” The argument against what she fears to be true is built on self-deprecation and denial. The next of Solnit’s circles is the attempt to maintain the silence through humiliation. When Joan first tells her father about the voices, he says, “Why would the Saints speak to you… I am your father, why don’t they speak to me? If they had anything to say they’d talk to me.” The truth still exists, it simply belongs to someone else. The monopoly over truth is manifested in the final circle: the act of (in this case, violently), discrediting the speaker. Once Joan speaks the truth, and reveals it to others, she is made a heretic, and executed. Marginalized folks know this experience: the power that comes with facing the truth, but also the violence threatened with speaking it. Whether they are being used as tools against us, or whether we are reclaiming them, truth and power are bonded together.
Joan’s ultimate fate is cemented after her condemnation. In the play, she first signs a false confession, but later turns back, deciding to stand by her truth in the face of certain death. Joan describes this as when “at the very last minute, I gave myself back to myself.” As her body goes up in flames, those who led the charges against her watch in pain as her head remains high. In real life, Joan was posthumously exonerated and eventually canonized as a saint. In the religious metaphor, she is eternally saved by this act of giving herself back to herself. This is our task: reclaiming our ownership of the truth so that we can find some measure of freedom. In Chicago, former police commander Jon Burge used torture (“suffocation, electric shock, and even Russian Roulette”) to coerce the false confessions of hundreds (mostly African-American men). The Fraternal Order of Police describes the increased media attention to the torture as the “Burge mythology,” and warns that “some wrongful conviction claims are false and some may even be fraudulent.” 2 Despite attempts to discredit and silence the survivors, activists worked for years to force the public to acknowledge the reality of what happened, eventually winning $5.5 million in reparations from the city, in addition to a mandated school curriculum on police torture.
We also must find ways to support one another in this journey, looking for and amplifying the truths of those who would otherwise be gaslighted and ignored. There’s a scene in The Lark where Joan, trying to convince a member of the French nobility of the reality of her visions, says to Baudricourt, “When I say the truth, say it with me.” How we understand the memory of the past and the knowledge of the present is subject to many factors. But one of the only things we can call a capital-T Truth is what our own lived experiences tell us, and we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge this. When I say the truth, say it with me.
*For quotes regarding Joan’s life and trial, those with an asterisk are from Le Procès de Condamnation de Jeanne d’Arc, while others are from The Lark.
Gorner, Jeremy. “CPS to Teach 8th, 10th Graders about Jon Burge Legacy as Part of Reparations.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 28 Aug. 2017, www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-cps-burge-curriculum-20170828-story.html.
Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things To Me. Haymarket Books, 2015.
Warshaw, Carole, et al. Report from the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline. National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma, and Mental Health, 2014, Report from the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health and the National Domestic Violence Hotline, www.nationalcenterdvtraumamh.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/NCDVTMH_NDVH_MHSUCoercionSurveyReport_2014-2.pdf.
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