Like Ice, Like Fire
(Addressing The Night in ‘Visions of Johanna’)

by J. R. Stokes


Part 13. Enter The Maid of Orléans

Now here comes the tricky part: making some sense out of all those spidery notes scribbled on scraps of paper, on pages of books and on every other surface that will, when prompted, accept a spidery note. Just like a rainbow represents a mixture of sun and rain, so those spidery notes represent my thought dreams on ‘Visions of Johanna'; and just like the elements of sun and rain oppose and divide, so those thought dreams have clashed with an orderly existence, a straight forward middle aged, middle classed life style that would, if it wasn’t for those thought dreams that give rise to those spidery notes, be a state of permanent bliss. So what’s a sweetheart like me doing in a situation like this? Woof, woof, bark, bark. Is that a black eyed dog I see before me? Oh ye terrible beast! Ye bane of my life! How long can a man be shackled to you?

Actually, I have to say, before you do, that my thought dreams on ‘Visions of Johanna' may seem quite mad. The main complaint levelled against me in the 200 plus articles I have written about and concerning the art of Bob Dylan is that I have tried to squeeze out of Dylan’s work some kind of meaning to fit a preconceived picture of what I want it to be: that I create my own my own image first and then distort Dylan’s work to fit my image. I have got myself into very deep water in many Dylan magazines over this but, and you will just have to believe me on this, I do not work that way. First and foremost is Dylan’s work, secondly are my ears and thirdly is the black eyed dog. Preposterous, crackpot, insane ideas ensue that come from God knows where but are genuine, honest thoughts that are always, finally, at rest with me in explaining TO ME what the work means, for I cannot accept that art has no meaning.

I take my cue in the matter of madness from my hero William Blake: that poet, philosopher and artist who lived the majority of his life in the 18th Century and who was, during his life time, regarded as being absolutely potty for his views on, well, almost everything. Blake was unperturbed, he carried on regardless but he had his own black eyed dog. Regarding one of his multi-verse poems that was received by his minor public with utter confusion, Blake wrote to his friend Thomas Butts in 1803:

‘I have written this poem from immediate dictation, 12 or sometimes 20 or 30 lines at a time, without premeditation and against my will…….’ and later ‘ I dare not to be any other than the Secretary, the Authors are in Eternity’.

Working on the basis that Dylan himself, whether he knew it or not, may have been in a similar situation when he downloaded the five verses of ‘Visions of Johanna’ I can feel at ease if I treat the song, not as his alone, but open to all who have shared his time and space. Dylan is, however, the unfortunate transport of delight and it is thus right that he should append his name to the composition although, from the time of publication, the song becomes ours and we have as much right to it as Dylan, in an interpretative sense. What it means to him will be different to what it means to you and different again from what it means to me. But all those opinions, if honestly held and believed, are equally valid no matter how they differ. Returning to William Blake: in 1789 he began work on a piece of utmost crankiness which he titled ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ and for which he was awarded first prize in the ‘nutter with no hair’ stakes for he tried to turn the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ on their heads by suggesting that ‘good’ is actually bad and that ‘evil’ is actually good. Adopting a precedent from the 20th book of The Old Testament, Blake sets out his own Proverbs which he calls the ‘Proverbs of Hell’. One of my favourites from this chapter of Proverbs is:

‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’

But the Proverb that is most relevant to the matter of interpretation is Proverb number 8:

‘A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees’

There is a lot of irony in Blake and the irony in this Proverb relates to the circumstance that when he was a child Blake famously witnessed visions of angels in the branches of trees. The confession of those visions almost got him a life time achievement award in the aforesaid nutter stakes but with this proverb Blake is turning things on their head again: HE is the fool, declared as such by his peers, for seeing things in such a different way; and to Blake, because of the wise man’s lack of vision, the ‘wise man’ may not be such a wise man after all. They both see the same tree but Blake sees angels and the wise man sees wood. For his visions Blake is treated as a fool - and the wise man? Well, we all have to sit up and take notice don’t we when the wise man speaks?

So what do I see in ‘Visions of Johanna’? And, in my interpretation, will I be treated as a wise man or a fool? The latter I think because, in a Blakean manner, I am going to turn the song on its head, I am going to tear it apart, deconstruct its language, pixellate it, blur its edges and pull it out of shape. Sorry, but I have no apology to make for such irreverency. Hopefully there will be enough said that will cause that wisest of all wise men of the Dylan world, Michael Gray, to accuse me again (by footnote) of being ‘ludicrously reductive’. You want reductive Mr. Gray? Look out of your library window and focus upon that diseased oak Then tell me what you see….of course……a diseased oak.

Enough, enough. Let me, with the aid of my spidery scribblings, start my interpretation by saying what and who I see in ‘Visions of Johanna'. Actually, no, I do not have to refer to my various notes to see my main character who stands before me as large as life itself. She will of course come first. . My scribblings will assist when I come to set down all the other characters that have helped my interpretation along the way for I have a cast of many who have supported my thought dreams. I will name them all and say how they have confirmed to me that I am true to myself in my interpretation. I suppose that I am trying to paint a picture of the song where characters are my brush strokes, circumstances are the colours that I use and one young lady, not much more than a girl, is my canvas. Enter the first witness in the prostitution:

1. Joan of Arc (aka ‘Saint Joan’ ‘The Maid Of Orléans’ ‘La Purcelle’ ‘Jehanne’)

There is so much I would like to say about Joan of Arc in order to firstly explain her significance as an icon in the western consciousness and also as an important character in the literature of the 20th Century but I will let others speak for me. This, from the novelist and Professor of English at Barnard College in New York, Mary Gordon:

‘….Joan stands on a bare plain, unresembled. She has neither forbears nor descendants. She may be the one person born before 1800, with the exception of Jesus Christ, that the average Westerner can name. The man on the street can even create an image of her: the girl in armour. He can say that she is French, that she died young. He knows she wore mens clothing. Try to name anyone else in history about whom the popular imagination calls up three facts. Nero? Napoleon? There are local Gods – Lincoln, Garibaldi – but could a Spanish child, or a Danish one, identify their faces in a line up? An Indian friend has told me that as a child Indira Ghandi played at being Joan of Arc. What other historical character creates a force field so extensive and so wide?

Her rivals are the characters of myth. Robin Hood, King Arthur. But Joan lives in history, and most of what the popular mind knows about her can be verified in trial testimony. Unlike other historical figures, we need not invent stories to flesh her out (there is no chopped down cherry tree). We need to create nothing; our need is, rather, to suppress.

For we need in her an image of singularity and singlemindedness. A girl, her foot shod in metal ending in a sharp point, digging its way forever into one piece of earth. In fact she was erratic and self contradictory, and her real fascination lies in the way that these contradictions did not end in the stillness and silence of her death’(85)

On the subject of the importance of Joan as a character in literature of the 20th Century, Gordon writes:

‘She has been re-created by more writers who can readily be called great that any other figure: Shakespeare, Voltaire, Schiller, De Quincey, Twain, Brecht, Shaw. This list excludes the merely good, among whom I would place Anatole France. Many mediocre films have been made about her and one great one. Even Jesus has not fared as well; perhaps only Napoleon has come close…….That masterpieces have been created with Joan as their subject is undeniable; that none of them has presented her in her radical contradictions is undeniable as well. But artists’ choices are based on what suits their gifts and their convictions about what is important in the world….In the end, however, it doesn’t matter how much of the historical Joan gets into the play, the poem, the film. It succeeds or fails on the basis of whether or not its language creates vivid images.’(86)

Joan has also appeared in songs written by artists who are Dylan’s contemporaries and whose work has certainly been likened to his, but more (much more) of them later. Let me, in the meantime, set down how Mary Gordon completes the introduction to her book about Joan of Arc’:

‘In writing what I think of as a biographical meditation, I do homage to her instability. I involve myself in the task, unfinishable, of contemplating the mystery of a girl who came from nowhere, supported an equivocal cause, triumphed for a few months only, failed as a soldier, saw visions, abjured the primacy of her vision, then recanted her abjuration, died in agony, a saint whom the Church refused canonisation for five hundred years, yet who stands in our imagination for the single-minded triumph of the she – and it must be a she - who feared nothing, knew herself right and fully able and chosen of the Lord.’(87)

The critic and historian Marina Warner supports the view of Joan as an important 20th century icon:

‘…….she has an almost unique standing: she is a universal figure who is female, but is neither a queen, nor a courtesan, nor a beauty, nor a mother, nor an artist of one kind or another, nor – until the extremely recent date of 1920 when she was canonised - a saint. She eludes the categories in which women have normally achieved a higher status that gives them immortality, and yet she gained it. She is one of the few historical personalities who, like Henry V111, Florence Nightingale, Robin Hood and Davy Crockett, is immediately known to every child. In England, she is one of the very few foreigners who is a household familiar - with the exception of another great enemy, Napeloeon. She is literally a cypher. Just as the feather in the cap, green doublet and hose and a merry gallantry signify the figure of Robin Hood, so Joan is instantly present in the minds eye: a boyish stance, cropped hair, medievalised clothes, armour, and air of spiritual exaltation mixed with physical courage’(88)

So where is all this complimentary furore concerning Joan of Arc leading? One thing that I want to make clear now and I wish to remain a constant throughout the next few thousand words is that I am not saying that ‘Visions of Johanna' is about Joan of Arc. She is the background, or the canvass, on which I wish to draw out my interpretation, an interpretation which may be as complex and surreal as the song itself. And without wishing to abrogate my responsibility for making my explanations appear perfectly logical if I wish to be believed and understood, I would have to say that not only is it down to me to express myself clearly, but it is down to my readers to be able think other than in a straight line. But, more of Joan of Arc, in fact a little biographical information which is important to the foundation of my interpretation. For the teachers and scholars among you, here cometh a brief history lesson.

Joan was born in Domremy, a hamlet in the Meuse valley of North Eastern France in January 1412. She was born into a poor peasant family whose main purpose in life it seems was to tend sheep and gather harvests. There was however a major problem for all families that lived in France in the middle ages and that problem was the English. Since 1337 France had been at war with England, a dispute that arose from a contested line of heritage between Kings and Queens and the sons and daughters of supposed Kings and Queens. Like all wars however it was probably more to do with ownership of land and money. Whatever the cause, the war lasted for 100 years and has thus become known, in history, as The Hundred Years War.

At the time that Joan was born, the English had conquered on every front and, indeed,following various murders, victories and other dastardly deeds, Henry V1 of England wasproclaimed King of France in Paris and in London in 1412. The English were pressingforward, attaching to their kingdom extensive parts of France during the course of whichnot only landscapes but the women who inhabited those landscapes were being raped. There was nothing to hold the English back.

Joan spent her childhood with the noise of war and the humiliation of defeat all around her as she trained in the traditional female skills and tended sheep. The innocence of her childhood drastically changed however as, in about 1424 when she was 12 years old, she started to experience visions. She saw long dead Saints and began hearing sacred voices that had two main messages for her: firstly that she should preserve her virginity for the salvation of her soul and secondly, and indeed a task that would be far more difficult: that she must personally take up arms in the prevailing war and that she must save France from the English by seeing to it that the deposed Charles V11 is crowned King of France.

Joan became totally obsessed with her visions which were appearing to her on an increasingly regular basis and eventually she persuaded a local Lord to present her to the deposed Charles. With some sceptisism Charles agreed to let Joan have a crack at the enemy and accordingly, and somewhat famously, Joan became a Knight at Arms, she wore the armour of war and the cloak of battle. Her demeanour totally changed and from that point on Joan only wore male clothing and she had her hair cropped short to resemble a young boy. She was just 17 years old.

Joan’s enthusiasm for battle was infectious and, with her as a knight leading the French army she soon scored some spectacular triumphs which ultimately lead to the realisation of her visions namely the crowning of Charles V11 as King of France. Thereafter the tides turned for Joan, perhaps because she just became too important for both sides, and eventually, following under the counter deals between the warring factions, Joan was captured and sold to the English. In an endeavour to tie things up quite neatly and see the end of this troublesome teenager it was agreed that Joan should be ‘properly’ tried by the French Ecclesiastical Courts. She was accordingly charged with the offences of being a heretic, an apostate, a sorceress, an idolater and a cross-dresser. Mary Gordon provides further information with regard to the most important charge, that of idolatry, for, in the witch hunting middle ages, this offence, if proved, would see the end of Joan:

‘Joan was accused of idolatry in connection with two of her most characteristic acts: her relationship to her voices and her wearing of men’s clothes. The insistent demand for physical details about the saints to whom she spoke was a way of trying to get her to overphysicalize her saints and turn then from spirits to demons. Or idols. If Joan could be made to say that she experienced her voices not only aurally but by touching and smelling them, she would be committing the sin of idolatory, a deliberate mistake in categorisation. She would have failed to allow her voices to return to their proper realm of impalpable orality. She would have made a fetish of them rather than allowing them to become air.

The charge of idolatrous transvestism appears more than thirty times in the trial’s text. One charge accuses her not only of wearing male dress but of cutting her hair ‘like a young fop’, pointing out that her doublet was fastened by twenty points and that she wore long leggings laced on the outside, a short mantel reaching to her knees, a close-cut cap, tight-fitting boots, and buskins. She was taking the place not only of a man but of a knight…….In connecting Joan’s cross-dressing to the sin of idolatory, the judges were accusing Joan of making an idol of herself……’(89)

A lengthy trial on all of the aforesaid charges was conducted, during the course of which at one stage Joan, who was illiterate yet signed, in the name ‘Jehanne’, denied her visions. She subsequently withdrew that denial was ultimately found guilty of all charges and was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. This form of execution was particularly cruel for Joan in view of the constancy of her visions relating to her virginity. Mary Gordon again:

‘…Her virginity was one of the most important ways that she knew herself. …The integrity of her body was of primary importance to her, an integrity for which virginity was a metonymic part, if not the whole story. Her horror at being burned arose because it was , for her, an unclean death. One of her last statements was a cry of outrage about the manner of her death: ‘Alas! Am I so horribly and cruelly used that my clean body, never yet defiled, must this day be burnt and turned to ashes! Ha! Ha! I would rather be beheaded seven times than suffer burning’. It is not the painfulness of the death that appalls her but its uncleanness, its ‘defilement’, as if the consumption by flames that would be the mode of her death had, for her, a sexual component. She would be devoured, and above all, she had wished to be intact: recognisable as a whole.’(90)

Despite her protestations, Joan was painfully burned at the stake on the 30th May 1431 when she was just 19 years old. An Ice Maiden consumed by fire. But the story does not end there: following further deals and counter-deals after her death, France was soon given back to France by the English and, within 6 years, the Hundred Years war was ended. The memory of Joan however was certainly not at an end and after continuous investigations and all manner of Enquiries, Joan was declared Venerable in 1903, was beatified in 1909 and made a saint in 1920. It is not because of the holy orders bestowed upon her however why Joan of Arc has become such an icon of the 20th century: it is because of her undying faithfulness to her visions and, as has been previously said, the single minded triumph of the ‘she’, who feared nothing and knew herself right and fully able and the chosen of the Lord. And where exactly does Bob Dylan of 1965 and ‘Visions of Johanna' come into all this?

To be continued...

(85) ‘Joan of Arc’ by Mary Gordon. Published in 2000 by Weidenfield & Nicholson. Introduction page 18.
(86) ibid page 140.
(87) ibid introduction page 22.
(88) Joan of Arc – The Image of Female Heroism. By Marina Warner. First published by Weidenfield & Nicholson in 1981. Page 6.
(89) ‘Joan of Arc’ by Mary Gordon. page 106.
(90) ibid page 129.