Popular biographers, along with social-studies teachers, often have the unenviable task of making historical figures “relevant” or “modern,” hoping to gain the attention of a fickle audience by casting the subject as a mere supporting player in our own transitory moment. In the slender but solid Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint, Donald Spoto largely rejects this instinct, focusing on what he calls “a realistic picture of her rather than one that merely reflects our own bias or fantasy.” He stresses, for example, that long before she was an era-defying cultural vessel, Joan of Arc was the product of a time “when faith was a fact of life,” making the point not from some kind of pious nostalgia but as part of a pragmatic argument about just how Joan could convince so many to follow her. Spoto is also frustrated with modern medicine’s various explanations of Joan’s prophetic voices and visions (epilepsy, an inner-ear infection, tuberculosis of the brain), not only because the historical record shows varying support for them, but because they sometimes betray a lack of acquaintance with the devout medieval mind and imagination, which drew no line between the natural and supernatural. A line from George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan is instructive: The imagination, says the heroine, “is how the messages of God come to us.” (Spoto borrows the line for his epigraph.)
In lieu of once again adapting the ageless, mutable Joan for our time and place, Spoto asks that we acclimatize ourselves to hers. This might not seem like such a tall order, except that one of the prerequisites of lasting fame is adaptability: The icon by her very nature is the vehicle for “bias or fantasy”—she is its projection screen. It’s especially difficult with Joan of Arc, who defines and fulfills every single condition of immortal renown: the improbable rise from obscurity, the busting of stereotypes, the tragic, early death. At the medieval newsstand, the Maid of Orleans would have been queen of the tabloids, glossies, and serious broadsheets alike.
As befits a legend, Joan of Arc died young in 1431, burned at the stake at age 19. She was the illiterate child of a tenant farmer, yet she convinced royalty to do her bidding, served as the midwife of French nationhood, and during her trial for heresy, consistently outmatched her erudite inquisitors in debate. (Spoto fills in all the excruciating details of her lengthy imprisonment.) She was a woman, a girl, who became a military and political hero. She was an innocent rebel who rejected an arranged marriage, made the heretical claim that God spoke to her through inner voices, and dressed as a man. It was the clothes, in fact, that got her killed: The judges couldn’t pin Joan down on her state of grace, but Deuteronomy forbids drag. (In Joan, Spoto relies on his own, new translations of Joan’s trial for heresy and the “nullification trial” that reversed the guilty verdict after her death.)
In her afterlife, Joan has thrived as a versatile political brand and muse of Verdi, Schiller, Twain, and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. Spoto counts 82 French plays about Joan during the 19th century alone; entering the 20th, she was en route to canonization and movie stardom, ranging from the weeping plaster idol in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to the crazed action babe of Luc Besson’s The Messenger (1999). At times, the Joan narrative of martyrdom has molded itself to the actress playing her, as Joan Acocella suggests in her essay “Burned Again.” (The piece is included in Acocella’s new collection, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints.) For the movie adaptation of Saint Joan, neophyte Jean Seberg was anointed as the Maid, hyped to the heavens before the film’s release, and then eviscerated for her gawky performance. Ingrid Bergman, subject of Spoto’s biography Notorious, donned Joan’s armor the year before her out-of-wedlock pregnancy made her persona non grata in the United States.
For both subject and actress, the script is Christlike: the venerable—or just attention-grabbing—life, the agony and/or death, and the renewal and redemption, all played out on a public stage. (Bergman had packed in all three cycles a quarter-century before her death.) If Joan has been so attractive to us in the 20th century, it is because in some important respect this young medieval woman established our prototype for fame. It is also why Spotois a surprisingly apt biographer for her: Not only is he a letteredtheologian who spent six years as a monk, he is the celebrity biographer of icons such as Marilyn Monroe, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Princess Diana: secular saints beatified by fame and famous suffering. Centuries after her death, Joan of Arc still epitomizes our culture’s notion of celebrity—one that is remarkably unchanged in its outlines and yet utterly transformed in its substance. It is easy to imagine, then, that Spoto was drawn to modern stardom as his métier precisely because it still takes its shape from the Christian tradition of fame.
The Christians tailored the pagan form of celebrity as a means to glorify God, and inevitably added both the self-mortification and the solipsism that are associated with religious ecstasy. Beyond Joan’s psychological travails, her tortured internment, and her awful death, it’s even been suggested—notably in Marina Warner’s 1981 biography—that this famous ascetic also suffered from anorexia. Drawing a line from the painful austerity and martyrdom of the medieval devotee to a modern, arguably media-driven syndrome may seem glib. But the connection is implicitly strengthened by Leo Braudy in The Frenzy of Renown, where he writes that “the purity of being celebrated for being oneself” is an ambition that “restates the close relation fame has always had to both death and transfiguration: the desire to find a place where one may live untarnished and uncorrupted throughout the ages.” When fame is sought solely for itself, rather than for God or for a secular higher calling, then the anguished prelude to transfiguration can become an ugly vestige of the earlier religious incarnation of celebrity, lacking meaning except as spectacle.
Indeed, as anyone familiar with the pages of Star or People can tell you, celebrity pursued for its own sake is the makings for a photogenic train wreck. But if we look upon modern celebrity as a hollowed-out, mummified version of Christian fame, we suddenly have a context for the ghoulishness of so much contemporary stardom, the sheer number of sordid off-ramps in celebrity Babylon—especially, it seems, for young women: Their endlessly repeated passions of self-starvation, zombie debauchery, drug-scrambled neurons, kamikaze recklessness, and penitent public rituals are displayed for our delectation on countless celebrity Web sites, with relics available on eBay.
Ubiquitous yet enigmatic, Joan of Arc provides a flexible template for today’s passion of the starlet. But that’s a trial that gets more than enough coverage elsewhere, so it’s refreshing that even a consummate stargazer such as Spoto might pursue the flesh-and-blood person at the expense of the chameleon spanning centuries. The effort is worthy, if finally quixotic: Spoto roots Joan in her time and place, but, of course, she won’t stay there, and we can’t get there. The biographer must enter the dense thicket of extrapolation, psychoanalysis, reliance on secondhand sources, and educated telepathy that is also the province of the devoted fan and the Us Weekly reporter. Regardless of bias or fantasy, we’re all, like Joan, beholden to our imaginations.