Joans of Arc and Arcadia

I noticed on the almanac on January 6 that it was the birthday of Joan of Arc. It so happened that I had just watched an old episode of the TV series Joan of Arcadia. These synchronicities happen sometimes. They are not coincidences.

Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc (French: Jeanne d’Arc) was born in 1412 to peasant parents in Domrémy, France. Nicknamed “The Maid of Orléans” she is considered a heroine of France for her role in the Hundred Years’ War.

She began seeing visions when she was 13 and believed that Saints Michael, Catherine, and Margaret were urging her to defend France against the English.

Joan cut off her hair to pose as a boy and joined the troops of Prince Charles, eventually leading the troops to victory. She was at the prince’s side when he was crowned King.

Amber as Joan
Amber Tamblyn as Joan of Arcadia

The television Joan is an American teenager, played by Amber Tamblyn, who sees and speaks with God and performs tasks she is given by God. It ran for two seasons from 2003-2005. Joan Girardi and her family lives in the fictional city of Arcadia, Maryland.

Joan’s visions are quite real and God appears to her as people recurring in her world – a child, a student at her school, a guidance counselor, an old woman at the park, etc. God gives her assignments or tasks that initially seem silly or useless but ultimately have positive outcomes for her or other people. Each episode has a lesson.

The show had critical praise and won several awards including a nomination for an Emmy Award in its first season for Outstanding Drama Series.

At 18, Joan of Arc went into battle again but was captured by allies to the English. They put on trial for heresy. Her visions were at the core of their prosecution, though it was obvious that she was being tried for opposing the English in battle.

The prosecutors tried to trick her by asking her if she knew she was in God’s grace. Church doctrine said that no one could know that for certain, If she answered yes, she was guilty of heresy. If she answered no it would be taken as an admission of guilt. Her answer was a clever avoidance: “If I am not, may God put me there; and if I am, may God so keep me.”

Joan was found guilty. She had no legal counsel. There were forged court documents. Joan, who was illiterate, signed a confession that was presented to her as being something else.  She was burned at the stake in the market square in Rouen in 1431. She was 19.

Joan of Arc was declared a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV, who called her a “most brilliantly shining light of God.” Her story affects people in different ways – as a religious figure, feminist, a symbol of courage and faith and a victim of political powers.

Joan TV series

My wife and I watched Joan of Arcadia during its original run. Both of us used an episode in our classrooms (mine, an English class, hers, a French class). It is available on DVD but on this second viewing, we recorded the series on the DVR as it ran (in order) on the startTV channel. It is still on as I write this.

I  really loved the show during its original run and I dug into both Joans a bit deeper. For example, I discover that Joan Girardi’s middle name is Agnes. That made me check into St. Agnes, a virgin martyr. She is the patron saint of girls and chastity. A good choice for 21st century Joan a girl whose virginity was an issue in the series.

Joan of Arcadia was canceled after its second season. Despite great reviews, it lost a portion of its first-year viewing audience. I think it is partially because the show (and audience) was split between Joan’s stories and those of her family, especially her father.  I also felt that the second season got much darker in its themes.

The final episode (“Something Wicked This Way Comes”) had God telling Joan that her last two years were just practice. It set up for the intended third season when Joan would face off against a man who also talks to God, but seems to have an evil agenda. This perhaps-Devil is charming, wealthy and influential. He saves Joan’s boyfriend Adam and he works his way into her family who doesn’t see anything sinister about him.

I have read a half dozen books about Joan of Arc including one that I read as a teenager written by Mark Twain that probably inspired my interest in her life. Both Joans have things to teach us and I recommend reading and viewing them.

Religion has a tough time on TV.  “That’s what religions are: different ways to share the same truth,” God tells Joan in one episode.

Other people have written that the series (and ones like it) have a place on the air.

Jason Ritter, who played one of Joan’s brothers on the show, later did a similar series called Kevin (Probably) Saves the World. (which had formerly been known as The Gospel of Kevin). I watched that series too and enjoyed the big themes it took on.  Ritter played Kevin Finn, a man who survived a suicide attempt but loses his way in life, who ends up moving in with his twin sister Amy and her teenage daughter. He encounters an “angel” named Yvette who claims that God has tasked Kevin with saving the world. Yvette clearly has some otherworldly powers and does not appear to others and is there to guide and protect him. Kevin is an unlikely candidate for this task.

Kevin is told that in every generation, there are 36 righteous souls on Earth whose existence protects the word. Kevin, she tells him, is the last of them. This idea of 36 righteous people comes from an idea in the more mystical dimensions of Judaism that says that at all times there are 36 special people in the world and that if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end.

That series came to an end after only one season for probably the same reasons as Joan of Arcadia. I think the big themes and any hint of religion scares TV networks – and maybe viewers.

The latest series to take on similar themes certainly owes something to Joan of Arcadia. That is God Friended Me, now in its second season on CBS.  In this series,  Miles Finer is an atheist and podcaster, who gets a friend request on Facebook from an account named “God.” Skeptic that he is, when the account sends him other friend suggestions (so far people living near him in New York City) of people he discovers need assistance he follows up and investigates.  As with Joan, though initially, the friend suggestions don’t make sense, he does end up helping them.

Like Joan of Arcadia, the show also deals with Miles’ family (his father is a pastor of an Episcopal church) and his girlfriend which are subplots that often weave into the friend suggestions. Another plotline that runs throughout the series is attempts by Miles, his girlfriend Cara and his hacker friend Rakesh to find out who is behind the “God” account. All of them believe it is a person, not God.

Now that I have gotten into the series, I hope the jinx of Joan and Kevin doesn’t strike Miles.

 

Meteors Showering From Leo the Lion

meteor

The Leonid meteor shower is expected to peak in the predawn hours of Monday, November 18 this year. The Moon will be pretty bright and that will wash out some of any meteor streaks. This is not a “meteor storm” but a modest display of maybe 7-15 meteors per hour at peak. Still, for some of us – especially children – seeing even one meteor streak across the sky is miraculous.

Meteors appear to come from a radiant point in the sky. For the Leonid meteor shower, that is near the star Algieba in the constellation Leo the Lion. When darkness falls, the radiant point of the Leonid shower is below your horizon no matter where you are on Earth. But as the Earth turns, the constellation rises over your eastern horizon around midnight and climbs higher, reaching its highest point in the night sky just before dawn. That’s the best time to view, although you have a chance of seeing one any time after midnight.

The meteors will appear in all parts of the sky but, if you could trace their path backward, they seem to come from that radiant point in the constellation.

The Leonids are associated with the periodic comet Tempel-Tuttle, first discovered in 1865. This comet has a period of 33.2 years, so it last made a close approach to the sun in 1998.

After Tempel-Tuttle’s discovery, it was traced back to a comet that had been observed in 1366.

It was when astronomers realized that Tempel-Tuttle’s last close approach to the sun was in 1833 and that it coincided with one a huge meteor storm, they began to realize that meteors had their origins in comets.

In 1998, there were thousands of meteors per hour – a meteor storm – to observe when the Leonids’ parent comet, Temple-Tuttle, was nearby.  If you missed that one, hang around until November 2031 for the next time.

Burning Slaughterhouse-Five

book burning
Photo by Movidagrafica Barcelona from Pexels

On November 10, 1973, school officials in Drake, North Dakota, burned copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

If you haven’t read the novel – and you should – it is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing of Dresden. On February 13, 1945, allied aircraft dropped 4,500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary “firebombs” that devastated an area of around 13 square miles of that city.

Vonnegut enlisted in January 1943, three months after his mother’s suicide. He was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner in Dresden. He and some of his fellow POWs survived because they had been herded into an underground slaughterhouse meat locker called “Schlachthof-Funf.” Vonnegut called Dresden “possibly the world’s most beautiful city” and writing 20 years after the event he did not even try to describe the bombing because it was so horrific.

After the war, he went to graduate school (anthropology) worked as a publicist at General Electric, got married and had three kids and adopted three more, and tried writing novels. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t a well-known novelist but he had published five novels before Slaughterhouse-Five. He had received some recognition for two sci-fi satires, Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, but it was Slaughterhouse-Five that made him an internationally-known writer.

cover

The novel was a best-seller and received critical acclaim and eventually began to be taught in colleges and some high schools. It has also been banned many times, for being obscene, violent, and for what is sometimes seen as an unpatriotic description of the war.

In the North Dakota case, a young high school English teacher assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students. Most of them later said that they liked the book and some thought it was the best book they had read in school. When they were still reading and discussing the novel, one student complained to her mother about the obscene language. The parent went to the principal, who took the complaint up the chain of command. The school board voted that it should be not only confiscated from the students but also burned.

Some students didn’t want to give up their books, but officials searched lockers and confiscated all copies. A custodian at Drake’s combination elementary and high school put 32 paperback copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the furnace beneath the school gym.

The school board also reviewed the English department’s reading list and decided to burn Deliverance by James Dickey and a short-story anthology.

Vonnegut wrote a letter to one of the members of the Drake school board:

(excerpt)
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. […]
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. […]
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

I do recommend the novel. If you’re not a reader, there is a film version from 1972 directed by George Roy Hill. I wonder if any school board members had seen the film. I suspect they did not read the novel. And none of us can judge a novel by a film adaptation.

The film version of Slaughterhouse 5 does make clear the non-linear structure of the novel and the mixing in of science-fiction elements with the autobiographical WWII scenes. Billy Pilgrim lives segments of his life for a few minutes and sometimes gets unstuck in time and jumps years or decades into the past or future. Those jumps are not uncommon in films and in modern novels. Billy is a POW, then back to his work as an optometrist, then he is a plane crash survivor and then he’s a new father and even a UFO abductee. Vonnegut’s sci-fi is a big part of the novel as Billy is abducted by a race of fourth-dimensional beings called Tralfamadorians, who select him as an Earth specimen in their menagerie of lifeforms from across the universe.

But this is not a book review. This is the cautionary tale of censorship. A figurative firestorm hit Drake via the media in 1973. This little town of 650 people is still infamous for having burned those copies of what is more often considered to be a classic. The bannings of the novel continue.

Murmurations

I like this word murmuration which is defined as the utterance of low continuous sounds.  You find it used in different ways, such as the murmuration of crowds, the inarticulate murmuration of prayer. But the usage I find most intriguing is the murmuration of starlings.

Common starling Sturnus vulgaris
Common starling Sturnus vulgaris

Those speckled, iridescent-black birds flock in swooping, harmonious groups of thousands of birds called murmurations. I suppose they do this throughout the year, but in Paradelle I tend to notice this behavior in early autumn.

Starlings don’t have a great reputation. These European invaders were introduced to America by a group of well-meaning but ecologically-ignorant Shakespeare enthusiasts in 1880. They decided that all birds mentioned by William Shakespeare should be in North America. Starlings are mentioned in Henry IV, Part 1 and so 100 of them were released into New York’s Central Park.

They are now generally considered pests in this country that destroy crops.

But their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch. How do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Many scientists who don’t normally pay attention to birds – computer scientists and physicists – became interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied. The scientists might call this “scale-free correlation” but I call it awesome.

The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a “leader,” but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members.

But watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.

I don’t want to doubt the science but when one starling changes direction or speed, the idea that each of the other birds responds to the change simultaneously is remarkable. What a communication system! No wonder it is studied. Information moves across the flock very quickly, with nearly no degradation in what I would describe in one of my communication courses as a “high signal-to-noise ratio.” and “scale-free correlation” and “effective perceptive range.” The simple way of saying this is that a starling on one side of the flock can respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

And yet even the researchers admit, that how starlings achieve such a strong correlation remains a mystery. Maybe that is a good thing because nature’s beauty in its limitless forms should surprise, shock and inspire us.  synchrony, that seemingly perfect connection between each starling, also reminds us to value our connection to the world around us, for connection can be truly beautiful.

Murmurations remind us that nature’s beauty can take limitless forms, and can shock and inspire us. The synchrony, of the starlings or a school of fish, or bees communicating about food sources, is a reminder about the connections to the world around us that many of us have lost.


I wrote a bit more about the science side of murmurations on yet another blog.

The Bard On the Screen

There are lots of film versions of William Shakespeare’s plays, but lately, there have been a few versions of William himself on screens.

One film is All Is True, directed by Kenneth Branagh. Ben Elton wrote the screenplay for this film about Shakespeare’s final days. Elton also created and wrote a British sitcom that ran for three seasons called Upstart Crow about Shakespeare’s life and work. Branagh had a cameo role on the series, and Elton played Verges along with Dogberry (Michael Keaton) in Branagh’s 1993 film versions of Much Ado About Nothing.

I haven’t seen more than a few clips of the lowbrow Upstart Crow (I only found it available with a subscription to Amazon’s BritBox package) and it is interesting that the same writer was able to write these two very different approaches to Shakespeare the man.

“Upstart crow” comes from Robert Greene’s famous contemporary reference to Shakespeare as an “upstart crow…[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of.” The upstartedness of William was that he seems to have considered himself on par with the educated and more socially-graced  “Oxbridge posh boys” (like Christopher Marlowe or Ben Johnson) who were also writing plays at the time.

The serious All Is True is no sitcom. It begins with the Globe theater burning down during a performance of Henry VIII. This is taken as why Shakespeare decides to retire and return home to Stratford. He has been away from home for about 20 years. We don’t know if he occasionally visited home. In Upstart Crow, Will apparently often complains about the London to Stratford commute taking days. We really don’t know much for sure about the bard’s life, so writers and filmmakers have some license to fill in the blanks – and Elton and Branagh do so.

It might be that Shakespeare was writing in London, in Stratford and maybe even while journeying between places.  (I vote for London.) I also love that people are still digging into whatever they can find about Will. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has suggested that Shakespeare might have spent more time in Stratford than previously thought. Of course, the Trust is on the site of New Place, the second-largest house in Stratford that Shakespeare bought in 1597, so promoting the town may be a goal.

Many fans have been fascinated by Will’s relationship (or lack thereof) with his wife, Anne. The literal distance between them couldn’t have helped strengthen any love that had once existed. I read that Elton’s TV Will has a better relationship with Anne than most scholars have said existed.  The All Is True Will and Anne are more distant in all ways.

I always thought that the death of their son Hamnet affected Will and showed up in subtle ways in his later writing. Branagh’s version of Anne is angry that her husband did not really mourn their son’s death. This Will even goes off and writes next the comic Merry Wives of Windsor. Was he cold-hearted, or trying to escape grief? This film Shakespeare is more haunted by his only son’s death and back home he tries to fix the broken relationships with his wife and daughters.

The film’s Will is serious in looking back at some of his failings as a husband and as a father. Some of the “truths” of this story involve uncovering secrets and lies within the entire family.

All Is True as a title was an alternate title for henry VIII that was used during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is also a nice pun considering that this new film is at least partially examining the role of what is “true” in what we know about Shakespeare’s life. Scholarly types have already dug into and opined on whether or not Branagh has stuck to the facts that have been considered true in the past about Shakespeare’s play and life.

How About a Dallowday Party This Weekend?

In 1925, Virginia Woolf’ published her novel, Mrs Dalloway. It is about a woman, Clarissa Dalloway, who is hosting a June party in London. It doesn’t sound like much of a plot, but the novel was partially an experiment. She set the novel on a single day and used stream-of-consciousness storytelling.

Virginia Woolf was a big fan of James Joyce’s Ulysses which had been published earlier (1922). Ulysses is also set on a single day in June and is a early and powerful example of stream-of-consciousness storytelling techniques.

Mrs Dalloway marks a break from Woolf’s more traditional earlier writing. Clarissa’s thoughts and her impressions on that day are mixed with interior monologues of others.  Some her day parallels the life of Septimus Warren Smith who fall into a madness ending in suicide.

Woolf’s novel is not clear about the day we follow Clarissa. Using a 1923 calendar, some people have suggested that June 13 is the most likely date.

As far as I could find, the date of her party is only described a Wednesday “in the middle of June, ” so this year the 12th or 19th would have been appropriate.

Joyce set his novel on June 16, and that day has become knowns as Bloomsday. Fans of the novel have made that day a way to celebrate the book by trying to reenact the actions of Leopold Bloom in the plot. There are Bloomsday celebrations around the world and some that sound quite outrageous in the Dublin of the novel.

But people aren’t celebrating what might be called “Dallowday.” But why not? Why can’t at least London celebrate the day?

It is a great excuse for readings, exhibitions, maybe some performances and, of course, a party.

If London doesn’t want a party, I think it is up to you to get things started. This weekend is just fine.

Film version starring Vanessa Redgrave.

If you need some ideas and don’t want to read the novel (Honestly, I didn’t like the novel), there is a film version of Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway, starring Vanessa Redgrave.

There is also a film version that uses Woolf’s working title for her novel as its title – The Hours. That film is the story of how Woolf’s novel affects three generations of women. What they share is that they have all had to deal with suicide in their lives, and their lives connect to Mrs. Dalloway’s lfe and that June day.

The Hours is a novel by Michael Cunningham. He takes Virginia Woolf’s life and particularly her last days before her suicide and uses it. Her story particularly connects with the character Samuel, a famous poet in the shadow of his talented and troubled mother. He has a lifelong friend, Clarissa.

All of them and all of that can be at your party. Sure, someone gets to dress up as Clarissa.