Mar 20, 2007

The medieval Paris Hilton

In a too clever by half review of The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint by Donald Spoto Jessica Winter likens Joan of Arc to the tabloid fodder of today.

Winter says Spoto fails in his mission to put St. Joan in context by showing her as a product of her time. Instead she seizes on the saint's purported anorexia, her cross-dressing and the fact of her gender to put Joan of Arc in Britney Spears territory.
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.

There have always been people famous for being famous. Lady Diana Cooper was the it girl of her day. Before she turned to fat, Lady Diana was considered the most beautiful woman in England. She was the subject of numerous newspaper articles and served as inspiration for works by Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. Now she's nothing but a footnote.

But there are the people who go beyond famous. They made history, but they can't be contained within the pages of history books. People like St. Joan or Caesar and Cleopatra transcend their time and place.

How does a human being become a legend? Some combination of their actions, the contradictions of their character and a life cut short.

Caesar was known for his clemency to his political enemies, yet he crucified a band of pirates who took him for ransom. He put himself on coins, had himself dubbed "the unconquerable god" and yet refused to be named king. A few days after that refusal, Caesar was assassinated. Cleopatra, allegedly no great beauty, seduced the most powerful men of her day and committed suicide. St. Joan's story is no less compelling.
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.

That's just it: How does a girl achieve what Joan of Arc achieved? How did a common girl inspire a king? We know about her exploits, but we don't know what makes her tick. Not really. So there's a mystery about St. Joan that has kept artists and writers busy for more than five centuries.

The same can't be said about our tabloid girls. We know everything about them. We've seen them looking fabulous at award shows and looking skanky in nightclubs. We've even seen them having sex. What's left to feed our imagination?

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