This week, a chance encounter with a very familiar piece of music led me to what feels like the final conclusion of a long-running sub-plot of my life; a subconscious sticking-point that has under-layered the whole of my ‘life as a female’ to date, and one which remains something of a burning – if archaic – issue for many of us still, for all we are living in the twenty-first century.
Let me explain: on an evening when I had been feeling really unwell, rather hot-flushed and in a great deal more inflammation than usual (and I know it was no coincidence that the sun had delivered an X-flare from its biggest sunspot of 25 years that afternoon), I went off for a soak in an Epsom salt bath….and found myself unexpectedly pulling ‘Voices of Light’ from the CD shelf.
This piece of music, composed by Richard Einhorn, and I have had an entangled history. Released in 1994, I still so clearly recall the day that I bought it, though I can’t say the same about any other classical CD I ever purchased: it simply called out to me from the ‘classical charts’ display in Virgin Megastore one afternoon around that time and, suddenly, I was paying for it even before I knew why.
At once both darkly brooding and yet soul-stirring, this music became something of a soundtrack to those mid-1990’s years of my life; with me mostly attaching its association to the hours of endless editing and word-processing I used to do in my dark little back-bedroom ‘office’ of my then-house, during the equally dark times that saw my mother succumb to cancer and me throw myself into my own version of martyrdom, twentieth century fashion, by aiding and abetting the personal circumstances that made me miserable to the core. This music fit the mood of those times and it met its vibration in my heavy and isolated circumstances; being, you see, inspired by the story of Joan of Arc.
More particularly, it was inspired by the classic and much-revered 1928 silent film ‘La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, a still from which was happened upon by Richard Einhorne in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, leading to him watching a film that he found so affecting that he was soon composing ‘Voices of Light’ around his impressions of it. The music, like the film, concentrates on the imprisonment, interrogation and burning of Joan of Arc for ‘hearing voices’ believed to be those of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret and Saint Catharine. The story of how, having received the instruction that she must leave her humble life in a small village in north-east France and help rid her nation of its English invaders, she went on to lead an army to unlikely victory (more than once), dressed as a man and at the age of less than nineteen, is broadly documented and so I won’t go into all that here; the theme I am interested in is much broader than all that.
That night in the bath with my music was the first time I’d played ‘Voices of Light’ all the way through since that ‘dark’ era in the 1990s and it absorbed me utterly. The music is so powerful, without the need to understand the words, which are in Latin, Old and Middle French and Italian though, interestingly, for the substance of Joan’s words Eichhorn used the written and recorded words of a handful of medieval female mystics, including Joan herself, plus another old-favourite of mine from that same 1990s era, the twelfth century mystic Hildegard von Bingen. These make up a strung-together monologue that suggests something of the flavour of the direct ‘knowing’ that came through these women, the inner guidance and insight that was inherent to them and which conveyed to them a deep understanding of their own life purpose that made them determined and fearless in the face of terrible consequences.
For these were tremendously pious women and yet piety was not enough in a culture that demanded absolute conformity to the say-so of others and the fact that Joan refused to wear women’s clothing seems to have upset the powers that be as much as anything she did, according to the transcripts of Joan’s trial (which are readily available to scrutinise online). In daring to speak their inner voices outloud and abide by them, these women sent shockwaves of fear through the establishment – bypassing, as they did, an authority that was designed to come at people from outside of themselves, so denying them the right to ever ‘go direct’ with such deep inner knowing as to what was their purpose in life (the church having set itself up as the supreme intermediary). These women, almost invariably, did so at great personal cost and with incredible courage and so, through Joan, Einhorn plays with the commonly held medieval idea that enduring pain and torture was ‘good’ (“glorious wounds” is repeated several times) and led to realising your divinity via a rite of passage which involved being prepared to endure unimaginable suffering to get there. The cultural ghost of this idea has never quite dissipated and, as a result, has remained interwoven with so much of human experience, ever since; especially, it seems, where female experience is concerned. This is the very stuck-point that I now suspect that I too have been harbouring inside me all this time; believing, somewhere not all that deep down, that I need to go through suffering in order to get to my own light – but why?
Gripped by it until the very end, the music took me as though through the experience of it all in a complete and conclusive way that, I realised, I had not received from it before and this felt cathartic and delivered such a feeling of release from having to repeat its patterns any further ‘in life’. Travelling through it felt like experiencing the combined remembrance of a hundred martyrdoms, of being silenced a hundred times, of many chokings-back upon the attempt to articulate what the heart longs to express and an equal number of times of desperately fearing the outcome of that self-expression as soon as the courage to carry this through had been summoned; the concentration of all the combined pain of so very much mis-representation, endless betrayal, of many many times of not being heard fairly or at all…in short, the experience of all that has been our lot as women through all the seemingly endless, and repeating, years of ‘recent’ history. A quote came to mind – one that I had been reminded of just a couple of days earlier: “Anonymous was a woman”, and so I smiled as I was reminded that the ‘voice’ of Joan is delivered, on this recording, by the harmonised voices of the four-woman ensemble known as ‘Anonymous Four’. As with all great music or indeed any art, when these very personal kinds of dots come together through their prompting, it felt exactly as though ‘Voices of Light’ had been written just for me and for this moment of deeper clarity and understanding.
All my life, I have been conscious of a deep-rooted fear around the idea of execution, particularly by burning, and I was hugely affected by Ingrid Bergman’s depiction of Joan of Arc in the 1948 film, which I saw a handful of times amongst a great many ‘old’ films, as a child, and yet this one stayed with me far more profoundly than all the rest put together. A year or so ago I had something of a personal epiphany when I recalled how, as a 13 year old visiting the spot where Joan of Arc was burned, on a school trip to Rouen, my friend and I were surrounded by a group of boys who cat-called and shouted obscenities at us as we stood there; as though the very energies of abuse, of heckling and being shouted-down, put down and made small, for our gender and our self-belief, were all still held concentrated in this singular spot.
The morning after re-listening to its music, I settled down to read the CD booklet of ‘Voices of Light’ which, I strongly suspect, I had probably never read before. It told me the fascinating story of the 1928 film ‘Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ – which many film producers to this day consider to be a work of utter genius, revering it as ‘landmark cinema’ and even ‘the greatest film ever made’. I learned how it survived attempts to censor it and then how, twice, it was subjected to fire. The film’s original negative was destroyed in a studio fire and then, having gone to great lengths to patch together a new version using alternate takes from the cutting-room floor, this second version was also destroyed in a fire in 1929. Existing copies of either version became like the holy grail of the film world, with highly dubious prints bobbing up into circulation from time-to-time, but it was generally considered to be ‘lost’ and consigned to cinematic folklaw.
The miracle ending to this story is that another copy of the original version of ‘Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ turned up in a closet at a mental institution in Norway in 1981 and, being recognised for the value it might have, was sent on in unopened film cans to the Norwegian Film Institute and subsequently re-released – as a result of which Einhorn saw it and composed ‘Voices of Light’, one of those bizarre “if that hadn’t all happened that way” moments that altered everything. Just as all it is to be anonymous, belittled and silenced is a theme that has come back many times in this world, culminating in a similar ending many times over (which would seem to suggest there was no other ending), this film was also released and cut back and burned many times… only it DID come back, just when it was least expected and, this time, not through anyone’s hard efforts or ‘seeking it’ out but because it was time for this to happen – arriving in its most pristine, untarnished and original state and from the bizarrest of hiding places, found in the back of a cupboard!
In my own life, the metaphor of ‘finding myself in a cupboard’ deeply permeates my art-bio and has been written about many times over the years and so the very fact that this thing they searched so very hard for was in the one place they would never have expected it to be feels like an echo of that same theme and has provided me with a great deal of new food for thought, especially given where that cupboard was located. So often, the line between what we label ‘sane’ and ‘utter madness’ is a bizarre and somewhat blurry one; I often feel that I most ‘find myself’ in those parts of self that most readily shun social convention and acceptability and I am very mindful, here, of how Joan of Arc herself and, so very many women across time who have been targeted for their ‘witchcraft’ and independence of thought, have traditionally been labelled ‘mad’ and so the final twist in the film’s story seemed to amount to a most meaningful irony leaping out at me. For this coveted thing, this ‘work of genius’ to have been hidden away, out of sight, in a place regarded as the extreme fringe of society, for all these years, and to have come to light in this most marginalised of places, was a metaphor that amused me a great deal; ample reminder that, sometimes, it can feel as though the inmates have been running the asylum for all too long. It reminds me of that much overused (yet perpetually apt) quote from Einstein that says the very definition of madness is to keep doing the same things the same way, over and over again, and expecting different results. We are overdue for some very big changes in our world and I suspect that, as women and in order to be that change, its time to stop looking for answers outside of ourselves and also time to stop arriving here expecting to be burned, just because it has happened before. Time to let that one go now!
That afternoon, I settled down to watch the silent 1928 film of ‘Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc’ on YouTube and, I confess, the acting is startling and superb in its intensity combined with an incredibly modern use of close-ups, interesting camera angles and long pauses that give it an almost documentary quality. Some of the facial expressions and emotion elicited from its lead actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, by its director Dreyer (who, some contemporaries say, worked her in the most gruelling way and for hours to get just the right nuance of emotion) are really quite haunting and this film impacted me in ways I would struggle to describe except to say that I am glad I watched it and would recommend it (minus the dubious soundtrack that has been added…) to anyone.
The handful of days following all this have, inevitably, caused me to ponder even more into this whole expansive theme and I could go on and on about the treatment of so-called witches and about burnings and the long-running cultural scars carried by women; deep scars from so many miscarriages of justice that are still carried in our cells, even now, as well as being perpetuated in the form of more modern themes that continue to play out, as well as all the hows and whys of the fact we have found ourself stuck in this particular rut for so very long, culturally speaking…and yet I don’t feel inclined to include or rehash any of all that here. Suffice to say, it has been six of one and half a dozen of another across all of history and has all come down to basic FEAR of ourselves, fear of what we know intrinsically (without requiring the say-so of others to confirm this) and so a propensity to want to silence, attack and divert attention away from ourselves towards those who dare to speak directly from their own truth because such people shake a whole paradigm from its very foundation stones, behaviour which unnerves all those who find comfort or personal benefit in the status quo. To quote Marianne Williamson, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure”. And that’s it: there is no more story than that and so it feels like its time to let that particular story go, to cease all the mutual finger pointing and see what happens next as we get to meet each other afresh, without so much historic baggage; enough crying, enough burning, regardless of gender.
The very title ‘Voices of Light’ reminds me so much of ‘Scattering the Light’, nudging me to realise that my own purpose as the writer of my own truth is the continuance of a long tradition of so many women mystics and truth-sayers over time who have been burned and much maligned for publicly sharing far less of their intrinsic selves than I ever have. If we still carry the memory of so much fire in our cells (and we do) then we can choose to have that activate us into a state of appreciation of all we have come to learn along the way, rather than trigger us; newly seeing all that we have been through as the encoding put there by our future selves as a message to our NOW selves via the stories of the past. Those messages – which may be delivered to us as memory jolts via music or cinema or even the the state of our health – nudge us to see that its time to reach for the enlightenment that we always intended for ourselves, which is something that we get to step into just as soon as we drop all our judgement of the past…so stepping out of the flames and into the light.
- “Voices of Light” and its fascinating CD booklet – Richard Einhorn
- Transcript of Joan of Arc’s Trial – stjoan-center.com
- ‘Le Passion de Jeanne d’Arc” complete film
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