The Dead Lady of Clown Town Revisited


I suggested a friend read The Dead Lady of Clown Town because I thought it inspiring and Christian in the best sense, and he’s a very strong Christian. I was rather surprised when he declined to read it because it was science fiction, so I suggested he read what I’d written about it. He didn’t seem to have a problem with what I’d written, but still disliked the story because it was based on Joan of Arc, but in this case the main character was a human being made out of a dog (the writer, Cordwainer Smith, had a number of characters in his stories made from animals, who were known as underpeople, and served a future society as slaves) and he thought this indicated that the writer was calling Joan of Arc a bitch.

I doubt this was the writer’s intention, but even if it was, I don’t think it was done to disparage the historical Joan of Arc. On reading the story it becomes clear that the story of Joan wasn’t the only thing the writer was talking about. In the future world of his stories humans take animals, make people of them and enslave them. In this country’s historical past one group of people took another group, enslaved them, and called them animals. Smith’s future world is almost an exact mirror image. Consider that the story was originally published in 1964, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, and at least part of what Smith was writing about becomes clear.

Great good coming from unlikely sources is also not unprecedented. I suspect that Mary and Joseph’s neighbors had a poor opinion of her for becoming pregnant before getting married. From their perspective, Jesus was a bastard, something much more stigmatized then than today. How could anything good come from a bastard?

In addition, the grownup Jesus (a descendent of King David) associated with people his social class were not supposed to know: prostitutes, Samaritans, tax collectors and radicals. For many Jews of that time and place he must have seemed a very suspect character.

The historical Joan of Arc herself, so far as I know, was an ordinary peasant girl before the accomplishments that made her famous. A good many people of her time and place wouldn’t have associated with her either. The historical Joan and the Joan of the story share the fate of the historical Jesus of having sacrificed themselves for the good of others. Having done that, why should it matter to them or anyone else if ignorant people called them nasty names?

Just a few years after this story was written Martin Luther King also sacrificed himself. He didn’t know when it was coming, but he never expected to have a long life because of the hazardous duty he had under-taken. He didn’t shirk that duty, as the above characters also did not. We know that a great many people hated King, considering him even worse than a bitch or bastard. Should we be offended that they called him bad names, or merely consider the source?

We could also question God’s intentions in arranging Jesus’ birth so that it would look as if he were illegitimate. Why would he do that? I’m inclined it was at least in part to make people think more deeply about how good things and people can come from circumstances that most people would disdain.

I think Smith’s intention (if it was conscious) was similar: since his Joan was made from a dog, you could call her a bitch, but he never portrays her as behaving that way in the story. He describes her as a child, though with future technology she has been imprinted with many other personalities, giving her knowledge, but not experience. She knows from the beginning that she will have to die to carry out the prophecy concerning her, but seems not to falter in following the path of the prophecy. And even Jesus is said to have had his moment of doubt in the garden of Gethsemane, according to the New Testament. If Smith did indeed purposely call her a bitch (which I doubt), I think it was only to show how unimportant such names are in the light of great accomplishment.

There are explanations of the Crucifiction’s significance, but without divine understanding we can’t know if they are anything like a complete description of what happened. We know that one event changed history, while hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands other crucifictions apparently did not.

It seems to me that one of the points not usually emphasized in the New Testament story of Jesus is that holiness can come from anywhere and can go anywhere. It can cause humans to behave as if they were more than human, if only for a short while. After Jesus’s death his apostles became more than they had been before. During the Civil Rights movement people were courageous apparently to the point of insanity according to the ordinary human perspective. They put themselves in great danger to make life better for their people and at least potentially for their persecutors. How they obtained the courage to behave that way I don’t know if it’s possible to explain, except to suspect that they were able to love their enemies, as Jesus had commanded, at least for awhile.

I think it’s pretty clear that’s what Cordwainer Smith was writing about, and if in the process he seemed to call Joan of Arc a bitch, that’s at best a side-issue.



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