The Phaedo and Joan of Arc

A few reflections on narrative distance:
“Were you with Socrates yourself, Phaedo, on the day when he drank the poison in person, or did you hear about it from someone else?” So begins Plato’s Phaedo or at least so begins Fowler’s LCL translation of Plato’s Phaedo. Echecrates asks the question. But after a brief conversation, Phaedo tells of the events of that fateful day with but little interaction from Echecrates. The bulk of what Phaedo recounts is a dialog between Socrates and two other interlocutors, Celes and Simmias. That nested dialog is largely devoted to the immortality of the soul. By the use of this literary device, Plato places Phaedo between himself and the events and conversations that he, Plato, narrates. But he also places time and distance between himself and those events. In addition, the literary device gives Plato distance from the arguments for the immortality of the soul. He no doubt believed in the immortality of the soul but he likely realized that the arguments for it were extremely weak when not completely fallacious. Notice that Plato adds additional distance between himself and Socrates’ “usual” argument for the immortality of the soul by putting the argument from recollection on the lips of Cebes rather than Socrates’ lips.
“This is the year 1492. I am eighty-two years old. The things I am going to tell you are things which I saw myself as a child and as a youth.” So begins the account of Sieur Louis de Conte in Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. With a device in someways similar to that used by Plato, Twain places distance between himself and his subject. The fictional Sieur Louis de Conte (note his initials, SLC) stands between Twain and Joan and in so doing also places narrative time and distance between them. Twain makes this distance very great indeed. He presents the story as a free translation from the “ancient French” of a previously “unpublished manuscript in the National Archive of France” that contained de Conte’s account. He even gives the name of the supposed translator and provides a “translator’s preface,” two of them to be more exact. In addition, Twain published the first version anonymously or rather under the name of Jean François Alden, the supposed translator. Twain saw Joan as the rarest of individuals, someone who rose above her self-interest narrowing defined. As such, he seems to have needed to place considerable distance between himself as the reader’s representative and his depiction of Joan. This whole apparatus places an even greater distance between Twain and his subject than Plato placed between himself and Socrates’ death scene. In both cases, these distancing devices add the appearance of authority to an account while separating the actual author from that account.
Reflecting on these kinds of narrative devices leads me to question how we should interpret the role of virtual narrators in texts like Ludlul. Of course, the detail of what motivates the desire for narrative distance varies from case to case.
“He called to Moses and YHWH spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying: ‘Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them: . . .'”
“Call me Ishmael.”