Cordwainter Smith wrote The Dead Lady of Clown Town almost 50 years ago, about a year before he died. In a preface to a collection of his stories he said it was a retelling of the story of Joan of Ark, but it’s obvious that it’s much more than that.
He writes about the far future when humans have colonized many other worlds and are collectively ruled by a benevolent authority called the Instrumentality of Mankind. Religion has been driven underground as a danger provoking fanaticism, so that most people haven’t even heard the word god.
With the suppression of religion is also suppressed the good things religion does, but this is not unusual. Conventional religion often suppresses these things for the sake of order and policy, because the power of religion can shake the most stable society, even when fanaticism is not involved.
In this future universe humans have many servants. Besides more or less ordinary machines there are robots and underpeople. Underpeople are made from animals and put into a human shape. They’re made to do the dirty menial jobs that humans don’t want, and their wishes and welfare are not considered. If they get sick, they’re killed, since it’s easy to make more underpeople.
As those of us who were born in the last century might suspect, this becomes a problem. Most of Smith’s stories are set in this future world, and the problem of the underpeople is addressed piecemeal in many of them. In this one a prophecy long prepared for is enacted in mysterious ways.
The story begins with Elaine, a human being created by mistake to be a healer who would find her proper place on a frontier world, but is sent to a civilized world instead, where she is unable to find her purpose. She doesn’t actually do much in the story, but seems to be a sort of catalyst that enables certain things, analogous to chemical reactions, to take place.
She walks through a city semiconsciously looking for the work with which she can fulfill her purpose, and not finding it, but then comes to a door she’s never noticed, and goes through it. On the other side of the wall she finds and information booth in which there is a machine imprinted with personality of a woman now dead who used to be very important. This is the dead lady of the story’s title, and Clown Town, nearby, is where underpeople live illegally.
The dead lady tells Elaine she must enter Clown Town because her destiny is there. After some protest Elaine does son, and meets underpeople for the first time. Of course she’s seen some all her life, but has been conditioned not to notice them, since they’re not human. Ironically, these are exactly the people she could help, since many of them are sick, except she has been specifically conditioned not to help THEM.
They, at first, are frightened of her, because when underpeople are discovered living illegally, some robot is deliberately contaminated and sent into their refuge to unwittingly poison them. They think she’s such a person. Even if she’s not, they are in danger, because if she leaves the police will read her mind, know about the underpeople living there, and kill them. She’s in a trap, but also at the beginning of a destiny long prophesied in which she must play a part.
Her part is to make love with a man called the Hunter, and then have both her and his personality imprinted on a five year old girl named D’joan. This one has been imprinted with many other personalities too, extending back for many centuries. She is called D’joan because she’s made from a dog. This is customary for underpeople.
After some further preparations the underpeople march out of their home into the streets of the human city, proclaiming their love to everyone they meet. Those they meet are often frightened and perplexed. Robots sent to restore order when told they are loved destroy themselves instead. A great drama is being enacted that few can understand.
The Lords of the Instrumentality for that planet intervene, and at least one wants to kill the underpeople out of hand, but another insists on a trial, and that is what is done, but not for all. The underpeople whose testimony is not needed are simply killed by soldiers, but go to death rejoicing and repeating that they love their killers.
A rat woman holds up her seven babies for asoldier to kill. He knocks her down, stomps the babies to death, then clubs the mother and breaks her neck, while she calls out to him that he can’t kill her love.
And the soldier weeps, like a child who can’t understand what has happened to him. “He had started to do his duty, and his duty had gone wrong, all wrong.”
Here we begin to understand the Nazi soldiers called upon to massacre Jews, how it affected them, and why the Nazis began building the facilities where many people could be gassed together at a distance from the soldeirs whose humanity tortured them for what they were ordered to do.
This part of the story is written from an historical perspective, in which all the things that happened on the surface of the historical world are clear, but all the dimensions of it are not.
We see the danger of living religion which can light a fire that overturns all the social questions that people will answer in different ways.
The decision made, D’joan, or perhaps now simply Joan, is burned at the stake. A young soldier, overwhelmed by her message, jumps into the fire with her. What has happened on the surface is clear, having been recorded. The roots of it and the impact caused are a mystery, and so we can see what else Smith was writing about.
The death of Jesus, as portrayed in the Bible, is also an immense drama. To say that he was the Son of God is only to approximate the meaning. After all, in that time and place there had been many sons of gods, many of whom had died for the betterment of their people. It was an old mold to pour a new molten experience into.
And we also remember, perhaps especially those of us who lived at that time, what was going on when Smith wrote this story. We might characterize it as a reenactment of what happened on Calvary, when a people used disciplined nonviolent disobedience to assert that they WERE people, and the people who considered them enemies reacted with fear, rage, and violence. They still are, unable to accept the truths that many of them have claimed to believe. They, many of them, rejected living faith, because it was too frightening, and did their best to deny freedom to those they knew, but denied, to also be people.
Was it wild and foolish for those people to march, as lovingly as they could, into what could have been the jaws of death for all, and was for some?
“Perhaps the death they had chosen was better. Joan DID say, ‘It’s the mission of life always to look for something better than itself, and then to try to trade life itself for meaning.'”
A friend told me of Victor Frankl, who survived the Nazi deathcamps, and subequently created what he called “logotheraphy”. He said that the usual translation of “logos” from the Greek is “word”, but that’s incorrect. The correct translation of it is “meaning”, which puts the beginning of the Gospel of Saint John in a different perspective.
“The Meaning was with God, and the Meaning WAS God.”
That is what living religion and this story are about.