FunCultural"Memories of Hadrian" or the strategy for peace

"Memories of Hadrian" or the strategy for peace

Memories of Hadrian , like many other of Yourcenar’s works, has features of various literary genres; it is traversed, like all his writing, by history, poetry and philosophical meditations. Yourcenar rejects the label of “historical novel” because of the freedoms that this genre has taken, since its inception, with history and recognizes that it is more of a “historical essay”.

Around the age of sixteen, Marguerite Antoinette Jeanne Marie Ghislaine Cleenewerck de Crayencour, had a vision: in the gardens of Tibur -the imperial residence near Rome-, Antinous, a young adolescent whose origins were mixed Greece and Asia, immobilized by the artist who sculpted it, “In the candor of dazzling marble, / He slowly climbs the steps of the porch, / He lays his bare feet on the red sand, / He comes to life for an instant and stretches out in the sun.” This first “Apparition” – such is the title of the poem written by the young Marguerite – will be Ariadna’s thread that will guide her in that great existential and literary journey that will last more than thirty years and which will culminate, in 1951, with the publication of Memories of Adriano .

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One of the hallmarks of Marguerite Yourcenar’s writing is the precocious foreboding and long gestation of her works: in 1921, at the age of eighteen, she already wrote what would become the palimpsest of the Dutch cycle Opus nigrum (1968), A Dark Man and A beautiful morning (1982), and the first two volumes of the autobiographical triptych El laberinto del mundo (Recordatorios, 1974 and North Archives, 1977). Now, the birth of those texts that accompany her in this long maturation does not occur by chance; they wait patiently in the twilight of the history of the twentieth century, the advent of a crisis – political, economic, ecological – to explode into the light. An example is Opus nigrum , the story about the political and moral repression exercised by the Spanish Inquisition in Bruges during the 16th century, published in France, in May 1968, when another crisis, also moral, political -and let’s add, gender- it explodes within the student body and the working class in France.

Memories of Adriano does not escape this rule. This work, like many others by Yourcenar, has features of various literary genres: autobiography, travel diary, training novel; it is traversed, like all his writing, by history, poetry and philosophical meditations. Yourcenar rejects the label of “historical novel” because of the freedoms that this genre has taken, since its inception, with history and recognizes that it is more of a “historical essay”. When he composes the life of the emperor, he does so “with one foot on erudition, the other on magic, or more exactly and without metaphor, on that sympathetic magic that consists of mentally transporting oneself to the interior of the other.” Something curious that takes place in Yourcenar during the process of literary creation, is the fact that it evokes some magical and evanescent states, typical of the contemplative meditation of mystics, in which fragments of dreams intervene, the transition towards the state of wakefulness, involuntary memory and lived experience. He calls these imaginative visions ntasis – as opposed to the outer rapture of ecstasy. Yourcenar’s relentless rationality often looms in the luminous shadow of the temptation of the irrational.

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The visit to Villa Adriana, in 1924, triggered in Yourcenar the desire to want to write the life of the Roman emperor. Several attempts at composition followed that would soon be abandoned; From a new redaction undertaken in 1934, only one sentence remains that constitutes the point of view of this imaginary biography: “As the traveler sailing between the islands of the Archipelago sees the luminous mist rise at dusk and gradually discovers the line of the coast, thus I begin to perceive the profile of my death ”. Fifteen years later, Yourcenar will comment on this phrase in the “Notebooks” of Adriano’s Memories : “Like a painter installed in front of the horizon and constantly moving his easel left and right, I finally found the point of view of the book ”.

In 1939, at the invitation of Grace Frick, the American friend who would later become her life partner, secretary and translator of her works into English, Marguerite Yourcenar traveled to New York at the time of the outbreak of World War II. He envisaged a stay of six months that turned into eleven years. Adaptation is not easy; Having no diploma to certify her studies, the first woman to be accepted by the misogynistic campus of the French Academy of Letters in 1982, did not easily get a job at that time; she makes a living as a French literature teacher at a suburban New York college; Despite not being a profession that he is passionate about, it constitutes a livelihood. Let us add that, except for a few short plays, the future academic cannot find the way to continue her literary creation. Sometimes he tries to take up Adriano’s writing project, but he does so “always with great discouragement, almost indifferently, as if it had been something impossible”, as stated in the “Notebook”. And he concludes: “Sinking in despair of a writer who does not write.” He then settled with Grace on the American island of the Desert Mountains, where he would reside until the moment of his death, which occurred in 1987.

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At the end of 1948, he received on the island several suitcases that he had left in Lausanne long ago. Among the papers that are saved from the fire, he finds a letter whose heading reads: “Dear Marco.” Which Marco are you referring to? He quickly realizes that it is Marcus Aurelius, the seventeen-year-old successor adopted by Emperor Hadrian, who would become the last Imperial Stoic. That letter is the beginning of some pages that made part of the third edition of Adriano’s Memories , the last attempt dating from the years 1937-1938. She has finally finished that long “night of the soul”, as the author herself indicates, and decides, “whatever it will cost”, to carry out the writing of the book. The writing will last three years.

What had happened in the meantime? What storm had finally precipitated the fruit’s ripening? At the beginning of Hadrian’s project, Yourcenar had perceived the emperor’s passion for Greek art and culture, as well as his dimension as a lover – the tragic passion for the ephebe Antinous. Now that chance returned the project to him in 1948, he clearly perceived the statesman; it glimpsed the political testament of the clearest of the emperors who had stabilized a world exhausted by long wars and had forged the Pax Romana in the second century of our era, in the territory that now occupied Europe.

Curiously, and due to a relentless return of things, this project took on a great topicality: it dragged with it the warlike conflagration, in the middle of the 20th century, of a Second World War, the Spanish Civil War and that insidious, slow and deadly rise, of fascism already announced by Mussolini’s march on Rome in 1922, and of which Yourcenar had witnessed. Hadrian had also inherited from the warlike and expansionist Trajan, in the year 117, an empire on fire. Publius Aelius Hadrianus, suggested to Yourcenar to imagine “a genius conjurer who was capable of restoring peace for fifty years, a Pax Americana or a Europeana. We didn’t have it, ”says the author. However, the model for the establishment of peace – or any peace process – was suggested by Adriano under the pen of Yourcenar.

The emperor was convinced that the vast pacification enterprise, in which the war had been a means and not an end, had to obey a set of measures that would restore reconciliation and harmony, not only political but also economic and cultural. His motto, “Humanity, Happiness, Freedom”, inscribed on the coins of his reign, reflect the humanistic purposes of the pacified world that he intends to establish. Convinced that the scourge of war brings nothing but poverty and destruction, he first pacts with his enemies to establish economic ties, revalues the currency, carries out fiscal reforms, fights against merchant speculation and restores the provinces to themselves. , without compromising Roman unity.

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At the same time, it undertakes major (re) construction works: improving and widening the roads, raising fortifications, building ports. Regarding public health, he affirms that “the development of our techniques facilitated the hygiene of the cities and the prosperity of the towns”, which leads him to prevent diseases through the renovation of aqueducts. Convinced that the urban landscape must associate beauty and utility, he designs “cities watered by clear waters”, and does not omit actions that organically unite his purposes: “to sweep and illuminate the streets, to oppose disorder, carelessness, fear, injustice, and reasonably reinterpret the laws ”.

It is noteworthy that this rearrangement is also associated with a reconciliation between nature and culture: “No one has the right to treat the land as the miser treats his piggy bank full of gold”, referring to the undue exploitation of the land for the sake of enriching some few and to the detriment of entire populations. Regarding the agrarian reforms, it grants the farmer the possession of the lands on which he has worked and which have not been cultivated by their owners for five years. It also implements new policies on mining extraction, based on a fair distribution and wise exploitation of the soil.

On the other hand, it carries out reforms for slaves and women, united by the common denominator of subjugation: with respect to the former, it opposes their bodies being “marred by the marks of misery or servitude”. As far as women are concerned, it improves their legal conditions: greater freedom in the administration of their assets, it grants them the right to make wills and inherit; they can now accept or reject the spouse they want to impose on them and thus avoid “legal violation.”

With regard to culture, the Emperor of Yourcenarian operates a true renaissance of Greek humanism and art – without which, during the 15th and 16th centuries, that other great Renaissance would not have taken place, which would again turn towards the Greco-Latin world. It also stimulates the development of science and the arts, since in “a well-ordered world, philosophers must have their place and so must dancers.” He founded libraries, considered “public granaries” and “hospitals of the soul. Vela, so that through education, Greek culture is spread, which “has invented a definition of the method, a theory of politics and beauty.”

With regard to military reforms, Adriano sees the need to have an army that guarantees the security of the State and thus saves the enormous expenses of offensive strategies; as for the children of soldiers and women of the “barbarian” regions, it declares them legitimate; it also overrides the privileges accorded to senior officers and establishes the support of veterans.

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It is also noteworthy that Hadrian goes to meet the Other, from an intercultural perspective avant la lettre, since twelve years of his reign – which would last twenty years – passed outside Rome. He participates in various ritual initiations of the so-called barbarian peoples: the cult of Mitra (during the expedition against the Parthians), whose attributes are discipline, serenity and intelligence – virtues also characteristic of the Stoics; the Eleusinian Mysteries, in Greece, which grant immortality, since it is about life that is constantly renewed through the fertility of the earth; and finally, in Egypt, the descent into the regions of death and resurrection through the cult of Osiris.

In this sense, a fundamental aspect is the need, according to Adriano, to “decant the religions of all intransigence”, since he perceives in them foci of fanaticism and its corollary, violence. Yourcenar notes that religion is often an impediment for those who aspire to a mystical fusion with the universe. Around 1927 – he was twenty-four years old at the time – he finds this phrase in Flaubert’s correspondence: “When the gods no longer existed and Christ had not yet appeared, there was a unique moment, from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius, in which there was only the man”. And Yourcenar adds, in 1951: “Much of my life would pass in the attempt to define, after portraying, that man alone and at the same time linked to everything.”

Adriano’s lucidity makes him foresee that peace is never lasting and that it will always be alternated by periods of violence: “Our feeble efforts to improve the human condition would be pursued without much enthusiasm by our successors; the seed of error and ruin, contained even in the good, would grow monstrously throughout the centuries … Like the initiate in the cult of Mithras, the human race perhaps needs the bloodbath and the periodic passage through the burial pit. He saw the return of the savage codes, the implacable gods, the uncontested despotism of the barbarian princes, the world fragmented into enemy nations, eternally insecure … The stupid, obscene and cruel game would continue, and the species, aged, would undoubtedly incorporate new refinements of horror”.

Let’s stop for a moment and look around us; An inexorable law of the return of things accounts for the visionary Adriano and that Cassandra who was Marguerite Yourcenar and whose cries no one hears anymore. But peace, and strategies to achieve reconciliation are possible. This is demonstrated by history, the lessons of which we intend to ignore.

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