knig's Reviews > Memoirs of Hadrian

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
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Sep 24, 12

bookshelves: 2012, favourites
Read in August, 2012

‘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 to La Sylphide.

This then is the Weltanschauung Yourcenar pays encomium to, panegyrically oded in Memoirs, yet tempered with subdued ‘pragnanz’: Hadrian’s bios is nothing if not temporal Dukkha extrapolated through the measured cadence of a praxeological study of human actions and their consequences, a teological affirmation of the cause-effect modality which seems to have informed Hadrian’s ethos.

One of the ‘Five Good Emperors’, (Machiavelli, 1503, who noted all five succeeded as ‘adopted’ sons and seemed to rule more wisely and judiciously than those of ‘royal blood’), Hadrian was a ‘humanist’ and philhellene, interested more in art, architecture, public governance and jurisprudence rather than war, despite his formidable military campaigning. Of his twenty years as emperor, he barely engaged in military battle, and spent scarcely five in Rome: the rest were travelling throughout the empire, mostly overseeing construction and consolidation projects, collecting art and writing poetry.

Fertile grounds indeed for Yourcenar’s indomitable quest to search out the humanist-philosopher, who endaimonologically refines and consolidates the qualia of Rome’s greatest cultural achievements to pinnacled Greco-Roman heights.

‘Rome....was needed for the full realisation of what was for Greece only an admirable idea. Plato had written the Republic and glorified the Just, but we were the ones who were striving to make the State a machine fit to serve man....The word philanthropy was Greek,but we are the ones who are working to change the wretched conditions of the slave’.

A beautiful acclamation of Rome significant as ‘doer’ whereas Greece was Rodin’s ‘thinker’: and if Hadrian did not serve in terms of philosophical originality and advancement, surely his contribution, of making concrete the ‘ideal’, was no less an achievement. For what is a strategist without his tactician?

I wonder if the intervening years of relative peace devoted to the pursuit of public works did not open up a lacunae for Hadrian, allowing him to indulge the personal to an extraordinary extent. Who doesn’t know of his eromenos Antinous, a boy of twelve who becomes, effectively 50 year old Hadrian’s consort . His (debated) suicide at nineteen at the river Nile sparks Hadrian into occult and vainglorious endeavours to deify the boy, thus breaching some unspoken protocol about keeping the personal ‘private’ when you are emperor. Yourcenar handles this episode magnificently. At a moment in between Gods, when Hadrian conceptualises he is divine himself, as any other man might be, the issues of personal responsibility become acute and forefrontal. If human qualia takes on divine proportion, and if that qualia is underpinned by reveration of youth specifically, then its understandable if at nineteen Atinous conceives his currency as spent: by sacrificing himself in full bloom of youth he thus ensures his perpetuality ad infinitum: and perhaps it was this notion which spurred Hadrian into ‘conceptually’ immortalising him. Wise, is Yourcenar.

Not too long ago VS Naipaul made a big hue and cry about how women authors haven’t got it in them to write anything more scopic than domestic dramas and fluffy bunny romcoms:

I need to find that man and smack him over the head with this book.
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Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by MJ (new)

MJ Nicholls Er, are you back or not?

knig No. Just taking a break from taking a break. off on an adventure in two days time.

message 3: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia I was about to say that your vocabulary would shame Will Self... then noticed the link and final sentence. :D

message 4: by knig (last edited Aug 28, 2012 10:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

knig Antonomasia wrote: "I was about to say that your vocabulary would shame Will Self... then noticed the link and final sentence. :D"

Yeah, I caught myself school marmishing and tried to come back down to earth

P.S. I love Will Self

message 5: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia Knig-o-lass wrote: P.S. I love Will Self "

The publishing world still seems to take Naipaul's ossified attitudes much too seriously. Why does he have a platform for this rubbish at somewhere like the Royal Geographic Society? He'd be better treated as literature's Prince Philip.

knig Agreed. Hes outrageous.

Sarah (Presto agitato) Not too long ago VS Naipaul made a big hue and cry about how women authors haven’t got it in them to write anything more scopic than domestic dramas and fluffy bunny romcoms:

From your link: "[Naipaul] added: 'My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don't mean this in any unkind way.'"

Wow, he's hard to take.

message 8: by Steve (new) - added it

Steve Sckenda I like the contrast between the writing style exhibited in your first sentence (the nuanced-philosophical) and the last (the direct-martial). A review worthy of a Roman emperor.

knig Its such an amazing book, Steve. Sarah, he is hard to take, yeah.

Jeffrey Keeten I have an old hardback from 1955 published by Farrar, Strauss and Young, before Young was replaced by Giroux. Anyway I need to go blow the dust off this book and actually read it. I have been hauling this book around with me for at least twenty years and never read it. How do these things happen? Anyway nice snap on VS at the end he is, in general, an insufferable ass.

message 11: by PGR (last edited Oct 31, 2012 04:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

PGR Nair So glad to know that u have read this one. `Memoirs of Hadrian`, is a marvellous novel. I read it in 2010. I was astonished at the research she did to write this one, a rare feat of historical imagination. Yourcenar virtually becomes Hadrian in order to gives us a tour through the life
of this Caesar. Surely, one of the most perfect literary creations of the century. The only thing is that being a mature classic novel, reader needs patience as one can read it only slowly (surely savouring passages of great intensity and beauty) . There are plenty of passages of rare beauty and insight in this novel ( Right from the first page, ' Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.')

message 12: by Tuck (new)

Tuck it kinda sounds like hadrian would make a good leader today, but wouldn't think about running, and wouldn't get elected if he did. i want to read this now too, thanks.

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