Double Take: Joan of Arc in a World of Endless War
Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Book of Joan is a stunning example of dystopian sci-fi
“Double Take” is a literary criticism series wherein a book goes toe-to-toe with two authors as they pick apart and discuss its innermost themes, its successes and failings, trappings and surprises. In this edition, Liz von Klemperer and T.A. Stanley go in-depth with the dystopian sci-fi masterpiece, The Book of Joan, by the bestselling author of The Chronology of Water and The Small Backs of Children, Lidia Yuknavitch. An incredible reimagining of the myth of Joan of Arc, the novel transports the reader into a world of endless war. World wars have turned earth into a battleground. The violence therein has affected humanity itself, humans are now sexless, hairless, creatures of isolation where they write stories on their skin. This is the world as readers begin the book, and you bet Liz von Klemperer and T.A. Stanley dig deep into the multi-faceted layers of this complex and timely narrative.
Liz von Klemperer: The Book of Joan is directly based on the story of Joan of Arc. In the original tale, Joan of Arc heard God from a young age and was inspired to lead an army to help France defeat England. Joan was ultimately captured and burned at the stake, and thus became a saint. Joan of Arc is often called “the virgin warrior.” Yuknavitch seems to be satirizing this story in multiple ways. Instead of Joan communicating with God, Yuknavitch’s Joan has a mysterious blue light lodged in her temple and a song continuously playing in her head. Joan’s power comes not from her connection to God but from the fact that she is fundamentally connected to the earth, as the light connects her to the earth’s electrical current. In addition, instead of wanting to save her country, Joan ultimately destroys the entire world as an act of compassion as the world is being ravaged by wars staged by selfish, power-hungry leaders.
There’s also a lot to discuss from within a queer theory lens, particularly Joan’s relationship with Leone, her beloved longtime companion, and occasional lover. The concept of self-sacrifice and martyrdom ring true throughout the book, as Joan is fiercely committed to foiling Jean de Man, an evil warlord.
Yuknavitch mentions multiple times throughout the book that hers is a godless reality, and her characters have given up on the past notions of religion. I can’t help but think, however, that Yuknavitch is proposing a different kind of religion, one that is radically different from current earthly theology. I’m curious to hear about what you thought of how the narrative simultaneously plays into the classic tale while subverting it.
TA Stanley: I enjoyed the ways in which Yuknavitch played with the story of Joan of Arc. Before starting the novel, I contemplated my preconceived ideas regarding Joan of Arc and I thought it was interesting that she has a sort of historical yet mythological place in my mind.
While I know she was a real person, her story rests in a murky, mythological space in my consciousness, which is also something I think Yuknavitch was playing with, especially in the first part of the novel before we directly interact with Joan. There is a lot of emphasis on story and storytelling throughout the novel via the practice of skin-grafting.
Christine’s way of passing along the story of Joan in the first section seems to be riddled with history and yet a mythic force which somehow is part of keeping the story alive. Joan is not just a true figure in the narrative — who she is and what she can do is somehow beyond history. She is part of a story that Christine grafts onto her body. It’s as if the myth and possibility of Joan is more important than the physical reality of her historical being, but over the course of the novel I think this notion is changed. It is exactly her physical being that is the most important aspect of her. Where Joan of Arc remains in this mythical history and the story of her body is insignificant (was she hearing God or was she crazy?), Joan’s body is the site of her power and it cannot be erased or made into myth.
I definitely think this feeds into your idea of the new religion that Yuknavitch is proposing throughout the novel. I think Joan is canonized as a saint of this new religion the way Joan of Arc was of Christianity, but this Joan’s religion is a dedication to earth and the material reality of the body.
There is a lot we could read into this in terms of a warning of global warming and other ways in which humans destroy earth and the miracle of their own lives through war. Joan spends a lot of time contemplating humanity’s desire to look up for answers, i.e. the desire to believe in a cosmic force such as God, who operates from the heavens. She asks at one point —
“What if everything that mattered was always down?”
It seems to be a call for humans to care as much about the soil, the “worms and shit and beetles,” beneath our feet as about the large cosmic “Other” who is so vast and unknowable. How Yuknavitch describes the earth and the human body shows a certain amount of religious reverence. If there is a new religion being proposed, it is one that seeks for mankind to care about the earth and the body as much as it does (or more so) about the grand proposals of life after death and capital “R” Religion.
If we don’t care, we will no longer have an earth to care about or even a species that evolutionary cares to reproduce itself. “There is only being,” Joan writes in her letter to Leone. If one thinks on Christianity, it is the “Tree of Knowledge” that leads to the downfall of man, and I think Joan would agree. The pursuit of philosophical knowledge and seeking God in this way only promotes the life of the mind separate from relationship to life itself and all the alive things on this earth. It leads to destruction because we are not present to being on this planet.
There is so much here and I’m very curious about your thoughts on the skin-grafting and what it says about the role of the storyteller in this narrative and how you felt it spoke to you as a writer. But also in terms of queer theory, what is the role of queerness in a narrative where many of the characters are sexless?
I think the erotic and loving force of the relationship between Joan and Leone is significant, especially in that it is between two women. I think the powerful companionship that can occur between two women is often more significant of a story than that between a man and woman, especially because it removes the implication that their relationship is a simple biological metaphor for the creation of life. I think there is something else at stake in their relationship — in their commitment to one another — that plays a role in how Yuknavitch sees human relationships in this new religion which worships “being,” the earth, and the body, and I am curious on your thoughts.
Why is this relationship so central? And what about the relationship between Christine and Trinculo? I felt a real softness for their companionship and commitment to finding sexual joy in bodies that didn’t really allow for it. I was curious about Yuknavitch’s discussion of sex and sexuality, so hopefully we’ll get into that too at some point.
Liz von Klemperer: Yes, I also noticed Yuknavitch playing with the distinction between Christine’s admiration for Joan as resistance fighter and the predominant fear-based idolatry of Jean de Man. There’s a passage where Christine chillingly evokes our current political situation, saying that Jean de Man is —
“A figure who takes power from our weak desires…[he is] some strange combination of a military dictator and spiritual charlatan. A war-hungry mountebank…yet another case of something shiny that entertained us and then devoured us. We consume and become exactly what we create. In all times.”
That’s pretty Trumpian, if you ask me. Christine is attuned to the danger of viewing Joan in the same warped light. Christine thus vows —
“Body to body, then, I join Joan in rejecting the teachings of a pseudo messiah figure. I join Joan in rejecting messiahs altogether. The story born of her actual body will be burned into mind not to mythologize her or raise her above anyone or anything, but to radically resist that impulse.”
The body, not the idea of the body, is paramount. Joan is referred to as Joan of Dirt, and it’s ironic that her temporal and physicality is her ultimate power. Jean de Man, on the other hand, represents human desire severed from our inherent connection with the earth.
I don’t think we can talk about the queer theory aspect of this book without mentioning Jean de Man’s obsession with repopulating the human race despite the fact that humans are devolving into sexless, translucent creatures. Jean de Man goes so far as to sew penises and cut vaginas into his citizens, but to no avail. This hunger for human dominance is drastically different from Christine’s philosophy behind skin-grafting, in which she, “married Eros with Thanatos and began re-creating the story of our bodies, not as procreative species aiming for survival, but rather, as desiring abysses, creation and destruction in endless and perpetual motion. Like space.”
Here she’s comparing the act of skin-grafting, the dystopian version of writing, to non-reproductive queer love, specifically the love she and Trinculo share. In it, there is no desire for self-advancement. These acts of writing and loving are means to their own ends. As both a queer person and a writer, this concept is so affirming.
I agree that Joan and Leone’s relationship completely negate the archetype of romantic love as an ultimately reproductive, life giving force. For example, Leone helps Joan commit suicide immediately after they finally have sex. Instead of biologically reproduction, the result of their consummation is that Joan’s body returns to the earth through decomposition.
You asked me why I thought the relationships between Joan and Leone and Christine and Trinculo are so central. I think it’s because they illustrate one of Yuknavitch’s main points: reproduction serves no purpose in Yuknavitch’s dystopia, as the earth is no longer a hospitable place to live. In this reality queer love becomes the only viable option, and regeneration through bodily decomposition becomes the alternative to reproduction.
Jumping off your comment on sex and sexuality, what do you think of the scene in Jean de Man is stripped, and a body is exposed? I’m still muddling over what the significance of this reveal is. It seems like a plot twist/turning point. If that discussion point doesn’t tickle your fancy.
What do you think The Book of Joan’s significance is today, right now in the world we live in? It feels very pertinent to both our political and ecological realities.
TA Stanley: Oh there are some definitely eerie Trumpian passages. Even just a page before where you cited, I found this way too creepily exact:
“His [Jean de Men’s] is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshiped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger. What was left? When the Wars broke out, his transformation to sadistic military leader came as no surprise.”
I almost wonder if some of these lines were added in after the Trump election because they seem to prescient, but that is neither here nor there. The novel has an undeniable sense of foreboding within the context of our time, Trump or no Trump. We are part of a militaristic, power hungry, capitalistic nation that is part of a globalized militaristic world. And part of what has gone hand in hand with the militarism and capitalism of our global economy is a pillaging of resources and an utter disregard for the well-being of our planet and the living things that inhabit it, including much of humanity. There is always a Trump, there is always a Jean de Men.
These sorts of characters in novels end up feeling like prescient, direct parallels to characters we see in real life, but I think that’s ultimately because they are inevitable somehow due to the current paradigms we use to run our world. Under a new religion that worships the material reality and beauty of the body and the earth, but refuses the idolatry of the individual, would such characters as Jean de Men be possible? There is hope that they would not. Hope that this proclivity of such men is not part of basic human instinct, but part of a corrupt system that fosters a hunger for power.
I absolutely love what you are saying about Christine’s description of skin-grafting. This act of loving and of writing for simply what they are is so beautiful, which is why I was so strongly pulled into the narrative of Christine’s skin-grafting as well as her descriptions of Trinculo and their attempts to have sex with their stunted sex organs.
There was such pure joy in these scenes, and though I do not identify as queer, I felt a wonderful connection to this celebration of love as a thing without the (as you so beautifully put it) self-advancement of reproduction. Sometimes the idea of having sex simply to make little facsimiles of yourself is so off-putting, to be honest.
I loved this celebration of the body and the marriage of writing and the body through the art of skin-grafting. “Words and my body the site of resistance,” Christine narrates at one point. This radiated so much in my own body. The body as a site of resistance, the body as a story, story as resistance.
It’s all connected.
You beautifully put the ways in which these two love stories cement the affirmation and necessity of queer love in Yuknavitch’s world (and in our own). It is so powerful and life-affirming, in that we can affirm life for the sake of itself, not to a biological end of sexual reproduction. And through Yuknavitch’s conclusion we are bound directly to the earth, to that which is below us and that which “we have ignored and taken for granted.” We need to acknowledge the life generating forces of the earth and give what we can of ourselves to help foster these natural cycles. In turn, we should focus less on the power mechanisms that are at play when we enter into the patriarchal dynamics of sexual reproduction and all the destructive “isms” that follows in its path (colonialism, militarism, capitalism,etc).
I guess this would be my answer to your second question: What is The Book of Joan’s significance today? I think it’s a call to look less at how to further our individual selves and familial units and instead focus on healing our social structures and our planet before it’s too late. I think it acts as a guide for how to turn our attention to our reality, to not always look up for escape out of it. Rather, to look at how we can give of ourselves to fix it and how we can foster loving companionships that are not self-contained, but rather are part of a whole organism — this planet. “Dust to dust,” came to my mind a lot in reading this.
There were clear parallels to this common phrasing of the cycle of life and death throughout the novel, but I think with a bit more of a positive outlook on it. It’s not just meaning something along the lines of “when you die, you return to the dirt and that’s it.” Instead it means you have the opportunity through your life and death and return to the dirt to give back and create new life from the earth itself. And that should be our goal. It is a system of care, not just for humanity (although for us as well), but for the whole of the organism of the planet earth.
As for the reveal of Jean de Men, I am intrigued be what this means for this larger narrative we’ve constructed as well. I won’t say I have an answer. It seems to be such a big reveal that Jean de Men’s body appears to have been originally female, that it is revealed twice, once from the point-of-view of Christine and then from the point-of-view of Joan. But we also see that he has “worse, several dangling attempts at half-formed penises, sewn and abandoned, distended and limp.”
From this, I gather that Jean de Men attempted some of his experiments regarding sex organs on himself. The scene in which “children begin to materialize from nothingness and rise” at de Men’s feet after he has been “ravaged” by our main characters seems to simply fulfill part of the Greek creation myth that Yuknavitch is playing with throughout the course of the novel, namely the part in which Cronus vomits up the children (the Greek gods) he had previously swallowed in an attempt to avoid the prophesy of his son (Zeus) dethroning him as a ruler of the gods. There are many parallels to the Greek myths (Nyx, I just learned, is part of Greek mythology too), but I’m still puzzled over what, if anything this means for the themes we have constructed around queer theory and this new religion. How do these parallels to Greek myth benefit Yuknavitch’s story and message?
Liz von Klemperer: I think you’re onto something when you say the classic “dust to dust” ideology is an oversimplification of Yuknavitch’s message. Death conventionally represents passivity or defeat, but her characters transform death into an act of intention and power. Joan, for example, chooses to die twice, once when she is burned alive and finally when she asks Leone to assist in her suicide. Trinculo is also tortured to the brink of death after he commits an act of political dissidence. I had to put the book down for a bit after reading the scene where Trinculo anticipates becoming a victim of “The Blood Eagle” technique of execution. I’ll just say its on page 188 if anyone is interested. My point is, for Trinculo, death is not an indication of defeat but a radical choice. Finally, the fact that Christine’s nickname is Christ is another blatant reference to martyrdom, and how Christ’s death through public torture is said to have saved humanity.
I was so absorbed by the allusions to Christianity (what can I say, Catholic school did a number on me) that I hadn’t even noticed the references to Greek mythology! Christine describes CIEL as “an obscene techno-burlesque of ancient Greece,” which certainly speaks to your comment about the Greek creation myth.
I think the allusions to Greek mythology act to fortify Yuknavitch’s idea that action summons its own antithesis. In other words, the force of the universe is yin and yang. For example, Nyx is the goddess of the night, and was the child of Khaos, the god of chaos, and Erebos, the god of darkness. Nyx then produced Aither, god of light, and Hermera, god of day. You can’t have dark without light, and you can’t have obscurity without clarity. Similarly, the acts of living and dying are interconnected and feed into each other.
Christine indicates that, in this godless world, human leaders become stand-ins for deities. With that in mind, the allusions to Greek myth highlight the irony of Jean de Man’s deluded quest for power. You mentioned Zeus’s father, Cronus. Jean de Man is another kind of father, as Christine says “in our fear and despair, we’ll take any father, even if his furor is dangerous…perhaps especially then, we mistake heroic agency for its dark other.”
Both Cronus and Jean de Man are power hungry father figures, but they have opposite methods of preserving their power. The citizens of CIEL have chosen their father, their god, for better or for worse. Jean de Man is followed because of his false pomp, and instead of creating, he dismembers. Cronus, on the other hand, is a legitimate creator, as he is the titan of the harvest. They are similar, however, in that they both desperately want to evade death. Cronus fears one of his children will kill him, and so he eats them all. Conversely, Jean de Man works to maintain power by perpetuating the devolving race on CIEL. Ultimately, Cronus cannot thwart the inevitable and is killed by Zeus. Jean de Man is literally cut to pieces by our hero’s, and it is ironically through his own mutilation that children emerge from the earth. Both are powerful, but their ultimate, lasting power comes from their ability to relinquish their control to those they create and rule. Only through their own destruction do the fruits of their dominance prosper.
Jean de Man also acts as a foil to the Christian God the Father, who allows Christ to die. While being crucified, Jesus cries out: “God, why have you forsaken me?” Of course, Jesus rises from the grave three days later, and his ultimate accentuation to heaven is the most significant event in the Christian religion. By allowing creation to die, humanity is saved.
Ok, this was a lot! Phew. Theresa, is there anything you think we’ve missed/anything more you’d like to hash out?
Did you have a favorite passage that spoke to you?
TA Stanley: Liz, this has been amazing. I loved your discussion of the Greek mythology allusions and this idea of the father figure, represented in Jean de Men versus Cronus versus the Christian God. It is interesting that only through the death of these figures is creation and salvation possible. I want to make it a simple parallel to the death of patriarchy that allows us to create a new world, but I’m sure it’s not that easy.
There is a lot to unpack in this book, and I feel confident that we got through a good amount of it. I think if I were to mention anything else it would be that this book, while containing all of these deep culturally impactful themes and theories is also a thoroughly enjoyable and vividly drawn out sci-fi book. It fits in well with the best of the dystopian novels out there.
It’s a sci-fi dystopia for our era — addressing both political and environmental concerns of today. I was hooked by the premise immediately and Yuknavitch’s writing never let up and never felt heavy handed, the dialogue never stilted the way it can in sci-fi. It was truly a beautiful architecture of story, character, theme and imagination.
So many lines and passages punched me in the gut while reading this, but I was most dazzled by the imagery of skin-grafting, so I’ll quote this passage from Christine early on in the book —
“What gave my literary challenge epic impact? What added epic weight to the literary representation, was skin. The medium itself was the human body. Not sacred scrolls. Not military ideologies or debatable intellectual theories. Just the only thing we had left, and thus the gap between representation and living, collapsed. In the beginning was the word, and the word became our bodies.”
The reverence Yuknavitch has for the material world and for the body is perfectly summed up here. She is literally replacing the word “God” with “our bodies” and it feels right and it feels spiritual. We don’t need to shame the body and its functions and we certainly shouldn’t be destroying the material world simply because there is or may be another world in the hereafter. The spiritual and the material don’t need to be separated. Our bodies and their biological functions are transcendentally spiritual, our earth is a heaven. We need to learn how to worship these things properly and care more substantially for all living things, not just those in our immediate circle of care. And we should do this not for some celestial being’s or father figure’s approval, but simply for the beauty of the world itself. Who wants to join in on this new religion?
Liz? I’m in.
Liz von Klemperer: I’m all about this new religion, but I don’t know if I have what it takes! There’s something so extreme yet simple about this ideology. Adherents must be willing to extinguish themselves for the greater good of the whole. It requires a significant loss of ego, and yet it merely requires letting go and allowing yourself to be consumed. I can’t say I’m quite there yet, but I think applying a dose of this philosophy to daily life is healthy.
If I had to choose a description for my overall experience of reading this book, I’d also go with “gut-punching.” The graphic scenes of torture, severed bodies and charred skin were emotionally exhausting. This aspect stalled the readability of the book for me, but the plot was so engaging and suspenseful that I never wanted to put it down for good.
My second takeaway is the sheer abundance of allusions in this book. For example, we didn’t get to the significance of Trinculo’s name, which I read as a double meaning. Trinculo is the name of the fool in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as well as a retrograde irregular satellite of Uranus, which was discovered by astronomers in 2001.
This means it’s a moon moving in the opposite direction of Uranus’s orbit, and in varying, inconsistent paths. Both of these allusions fit Yuknavitch’s Trinculo: He acts simultaneously as comic relief and as a persistent force that counters Jean de Man’s regime. This allusion also foreshadows what Trinculo becomes at the end of the book: matter returning and merging with space. I think this technique is meant to drum up our nostalgia for planet earth. We may destroy the planet through greed and violence, but stories of the Greek, Christian and literary gods bring to mind what humans have done to create meaning. It could all so easily vanish, perhaps for the best.
I love the quote you shared, and I think it’s a great note to end on. What a self reflexive nod to her own work as well as to her readers about the dire necessity of words and language. At the end of the world, our ability to recount stories is our only form of agency and protest. On that note, I’d like to end with the two images that frame The Book of Joan.
The novel begins with Christine grafting her skin. It’s a visceral affirmation of the living body, as Yuknavitch describes the smell of burning skin, and flesh quickly rising, puffing and stinging. The novel ends ends with the image of Joan decomposing, her cells slowly descending into soil. The final clip of text in the book is a letter written by Joan to Leone on the last piece of paper on earth. What Christine and Joan are communicating is absolutely essential, as they both know it’s the last message they’ll ever write. This union between two women writing on the only surfaces they have left both greets and leaves the reader with urgency and power.