Memoirs of Hadrian: a great book, even greater on the second read

“A human life,” wrote Marguerite Yourcenar, author of Memoirs of Hadrian, when reflecting on the composition of her book, “cannot be graphed, whatever people might say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging.” Her book about Hadrian is composed of those three curving lines.

She had the idea for the book in 1927 when she read this sentence by Flaubert: “Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” Hadrian lived in that time, a time like our own in its godlessness (at least for many of us).

From a version in 1934, Yourcenar retained only one sentence: “I begin to discern the profile of my death.” She knew then that she would write her story of Hadrian in the first person in a letter written to Marcus Aurelius, his grandson whom he knew would become emperor, as he was dying. His letter would be a mixture of reflection on his life, observations on the nature of life, and advice (not much) to the future emperor.

In 1948, at the age of 45, she finally began to write the book, a mixture of scholarship and the magic arts. The essence of the book is given in the final sentence: “Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.” Hadrian, a man who was *almost wise” is trying. We should all try.

I first read this book some 15 years ago. I remember it as a fine book, one of the very best. I was not disappointed by rereading the book Indeed, I could start again right now and get more from the book. As always, I remembered more a flavour than a plot, and this is a book in large part about love and death, the central subjects of most writing. (An interesting sideline for doctors is his reflection on our arts: he’s not much impressed.)

Antinous

Antinous by Antonianos of Aphrodisias

Hadrian loved Antinous, a beautiful youth, with great passion.  They were together from when Antinous was 15 and Hadrian perhaps 50. I find it hard to understand how a 50 year old person, particularly a wise one, could love so strongly a 15 year old. Hadrian had a rich experience of physical love but had loved deeply before only once—and that didn’t last. Antinous and Hadrian were not together for long because Antinous drowned himself when 20. The whole memoir is tinged with the grief he felt then and which continued throughout his life. He had the compensations that he could make Antinous a god and build a city where he died as a memorial. But these were little compensation.

The version of the book I read this time (ordered through Abebooks; the book is not in print or available on Kindle, a sad state of affairs) has an appendix in which Yourcenar reflects on the composition of the book—a complex process that stretched over 20 years. I can’t remember having read anywhere else such a compelling or convincing account of how a book, in this case a classic, comes to be written.

As is my want, I’ve selected and copied out quotes, including from the appendix on how the book was written, and they are below.

 

 

It is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as a man.

A man does not practice medicine for more than 30 years without some falsehood.

Of all our games, love is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is the only one in which the payer has to abandon himself to the body’s ecstasy. To put reason aside is not indispensable for a drinker, but the lover who leaves reason in control does not follow his god to the end.

Sleep heals us by the most radical of means in arranging that we cease temporarily to exist.

This narrow confine of humanity which is myself.

The written meditation of a sick man who holds audience with his memories.

Almost everything that we know about anyone else is second hand.

When I seek deep within me for knowledge of myself, what I find is obscure, internal, unformulated, and as secret as any complicity.

The mass of my wishes, my desires, and even my projects remains nebulous and fleeting as a phantom; the remainder, the palpable part, more or less authenticated by facts, is barely more distinct, and the sequence of events is as confused as that of dreams.

I am not sure that the discovery of love is necessarily more exquisite than the discovery of poetry.

Almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek.

The medical profession would have been congenial to me; its principles and methods are essentially the same as those by which I’ve tried to fulfil my function as an emperor. I developed a passion for this science, which is too close to man ever to be absolute, but which, though subject to fad and error, is constantly corrected by its contact with the immediate and the nude.

A man who reads, reflects, and plans belongs to his species rather than to his sex; in his best moments he rises even above the human.

[Greece is] the only culture which has once for all separated itself from the monstrous, the shapeless, and the inert, the only one to have invented a definition of methods, a system of politics, and a theory of beauty.

Their [the dead] fortune is safe from all reverses, and even their defeats acquire the splendour of victories.

When useless servitude has been alleviated as far as possible, and unnecessary misfortune avoided, there will still remain as a test of man’s fortitude the long series of veritable ills, death, old age, and incurable sickness, love unrequited and friendship rejected or betrayed, the mediocrity of life less vast than our projects and duller than our dreams; in short all the woes caused by the divine nature of things.

And who speaks of death speaks also of the mysterious world to which, perhaps, we gain access by death.

In any combat between fanaticism and common sense the latter rarely has the upper hand.

I could see the return of barbaric codes, implacable gods, of unquestioned despotism of savage chieftains, a world broken up into enemy states and eternally prey to insecurity.

We have understood nothing about illness so long as we have recognised its odd resemblance to war and to love, its compromises, its feints, its exactions, that strange and unique amalgam produced by the mixture of a temperament and a malady.

A world so prone to forget.

I gave way to nostalgia, that melancholy which is born of desire.

The strange mixture of good and evil, that mass of minute and odd particulars which make up a person, deserves continuation.

The possibility of discarding the mask in every respect is one of the rare advantages I find in growing old.

One marries for one’s family’s sake and not for oneself, and so weighty a contract ill accords with the carefree play of love.

Bonds of blood are truly slight (despite assertions to the contrary) when they are not reinforced by affection.

I sometimes wonder on what reef wisdom will founder, for one always founders; will it be wife or a son too greatly loved, one of those illegitimate snares (to sum it up in a word) where overscrupulous hearts are caught? Or will it be more simply age, illness, fatigue, or the disillusion that says to us that if all is in vain, then virtue is too.

There is more than one kind of wisdom, and all are essential to the world.

He offers me a gift which I need if I am to die in peace; he sends me a picture of my life as I would have wished it to be….he knows that the passing of time only adds more bewilderment to grief. As seen by him the adventure of my existence takes on meaning and achieves a form, as in a poem; that unique affection frees itself from remorse, impatience, and vain obsessions as from so much smoke, or so much dust; sorrow is decanted and despair runs pure.

I did not know then that death can become an object of blind ardour, of a hunger like that of love.

That the possibility of suicide was ever present helped me to bear life with less impatience. Just as a sedative within a hand’s reach serves to calm a man afflicted with insomnia.

The tranquil joys of friendship are no more for me; men adore and venerate me far too much to love me.

I have ceased to quarrel with physicians; their foolish remedies have killed me, but their presumption and hypocritical pedantry are work of our making: if we were not so afraid of pain they would tell us fewer lies.

Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes.

 

Reflections on the composition of Memoirs of Hadrian

“Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone.” Flaubert

From the version of 1934 only one sentence had been retained: “I begin to discern the profile of my death.” I had at last found a point from which to view the book

There are books which one should not attempt before having passed the age of forty.

One foot in scholarship, one in magic arts

We lose track of everything, and of everyone, even ourselves…Whatever is left but crumbled walls, masses of shade?

He who seeks passionately for truth, or at least for accuracy, is requently the one best able to perceive, like Pilate, that truth is not absolute or pure.

A human life cannot be graphed, whatever people might say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging.

Do the best one can. Do it over again. Then still improve, if ever so slightly, those retouches. *It is myself that I remake,* said the poet Yeats in speaking of his revisions.

 

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3 thoughts on “Memoirs of Hadrian: a great book, even greater on the second read

  1. Pingback: Cicero on Donald Trump | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

  2. Pingback: Inside the head of Dmitri Shostakovich | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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