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Amber Paulen

Memories of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

8 February 2008


This novel accosted me outright by its two stunning forms: the prose of the author and the stature of its character and/or the flesh-blood man. There is no hesitation, no differentiation: this book is a smoothly oiled machine. So smooth that I want to believe everything this woman says; I want to take this Hadrian she creates and say this was him. But like Simon says, this is a fictional tale, despite the basis on historical facts and figures, and I shouldn’t be taking it so literally. Why not? my mind whirls. The facts of fiction ring with an illuminated truth; the stories we weave dig deeper than many other searches do. From now on, Marguerite’s Hadrian is the Hadrian.

The prose is seamless. I can’t help but to wonder: who is this Marguerite Yourcenar who has banished herself from the pages? How much blood must she have spilled? Research, travels, an imagination that took her back almost 1900 years: these pages are wringing with her. But yet, it is only Hadrian’s voice that rings clear: a man on his death bed, reflective and sincere, sapped of nostalgia and regret, neither proud nor haughty of his career as imperatore of the Imperial nation. Hadrian faces his death forward with open eyes.

The landscape of my days seem to be composed, like mountainous regions, of varied materials heaped up pellmell. There I see my nature, itself composite, made up of equal parts of instinct and training. Here and there protrude the granite peaks of the inevitable, but all about is rubble from the landslips of chance. I strive to retrace my life to find in it some plan, following some vein of lead, or of gold, or the course of subterranean stream, but such devices are only tricks of perspective in the memory.

I find myself inadequate against Yourcenar to give any recount of this man. If you are at all curious you must read the book. Though there are certain things about this colossus that I can not brush over. The first being our need of men like him.

I desired the supreme power. I desired it so that I might put my own plans into effect, try my remedies, restore peace. I wanted it above all in order to become my full self before I died.

Rare is the man that allows himself maximum potential as the only choice. If an adoption by Trajan failed and Hadrian were not to succeed, he would have driven a knife through his marked heart: the emperorship or death. Hadrian’s ideas were nothing, himself nothing, if not put to use.

It was not only his systematic plans for peace, his towns built for veterans, his unusual fairness between rich and poor, his Hellenic side that provided a philosophic balance to the games of war and conquest, his travels, keeping him away from Rome more often than in it. And what a man to travel thus! With his caravan he crossed the desert. He spent much of his time in the East where he dallied in the occult, among other purposes and wanderings; where he met his favorite, his great love, the young and beautiful Antinous. This young boy, so quickly dead, still lines the statue halls. He was lifted as a god, deified by Hadrian himself. Whose curiosity isn’t struck by this pederastic love? A tradition of beauty instilled by the Greeks, for what is more beautiful than youth?

After Antinous’ death, the grief of the older man struck a sluice that freed this figure throughout the ancient world. It shames me some to have been ignorant of all this, for a definition gained brings stratification of meaning. Let’s take for example, the Roman Forum. The multiple times I shuffled through that dilapidated place I’ve not known one chunk of column from one temple from the rocks on the dirt path. Not that I want to know all that, it is slightly superfluous to me, but sometimes, for some chunk of marble, it’s enlightening.

Going out of a night or day in Rome there are many layers to pay heed to. Hadrian’s fine architecture throughout this city and without, lend ephemeral wisps of immortality through which this man’s life may be perceived.

Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and pediments; some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality.

There is first and foremost, the Pantheon. That imposing structure that seems to have been shimmied into Piazza Rotonda and its peripheries. The Pantheon’s mere nineteen centuries can no doubt withhold against any forthcoming barbaric invasions. It stands and it stands well.

Then there’s the Castel San’Angelo, that hefty mausoleum housing Hadrian’s dusty remains. What a surprise I had on a first adventure five years ago, turning a corner and WHAM! right in the gut. It knocked me over and senseless; it was before me, on top of me, that looming brick mass with it’s heaven bound angle. I walked towards it like a somnambulist drawn by magnetic force. . . across the river. . . carried staggering and drooling, until I placed myself on the Tevere’s stone wall where I could lose myself completely. Then again, the Temple of Venus and Rome, further away. If only the statues were still in place to admire the colossal ladies hitting their heads on the temple’s ceiling.

And so, with Hadrian burning a hole in my mind we went to Villa Adriana. The drive was horrendous: the claustrophobic one-way thoroughfare of via Tiburtina, Italian traffic to the max, cars cutting in like countries who obey rules would not believe. Obviously, no one else was trying to bring alive a picture of rolling green countryside or empty stillness all around. But inside the Villa’s gates the birds retain their domain; old world olives twine and re-twine, crack and separate their ratty khaki branches of silver brushed leaves.

Survival of the centuries. Ages wore down in wood and all that ochre brick. What skilled hands and interminable mortar! Domes and arches on hills buoy upward. Hadrian is alive! Mosaics and marble, statues stolen by the Vatican, riches unworldy for it may have been in another world. And columns! Who could manage such columns! Doric, elaborate Corinthian, some fluted, some smoothed, of great heights or of the heights of men, holding up etched porticoes, diffusing the definition between inside and outside. The airy freedom of form, walking from room to room, palace to palace, garden to garden, temple to temple, opening to mountains, to writhing olives, to sky.

There is the tendency to think ancient’s lives to be colorless, bland, compared to our own super-stimulation. That may be true, but we have sacrificed a pureness of color and form for better and faster. The marble laid as floor, geometrical or natural, swirled jade, deep maroon, mustard yellow; crimson slashed on the arched ceiling; minute stones of mosaics inlaid by men bent to their knees, trembling to place a tiny piece just right. The statues of gods and men and those of Antinous, without category between, of mythical beasts and those who truly roamed. Hadrian’s lust for beauty, figure, shape, color, flesh, the supernatural, the influences of Egypt and Greece. Villa Adriana is the divine play between the world of the natural and the world of men.

If via Tiburtina must stand as a gateway between these sweet ruins and our follied existence then we have the simple sum of the repetition of the ages.

Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man’s periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for the monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time.

Grazie Mille! to Kimberly and Ryan for sending me this book!



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