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    The Art of Living of the Emperor Hadrian
    in Marguerite Yourcenar's 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 (1)
    Our fascination with the imperial destiny Marguerite Yourcenar played out for us in the Memoirs of Hadrian has not diminished with the passage of time. This work, cut from one of the richest fabrics ever woven by a French author "with an almost maddening fictional authenticity that is based, by the by, on tremendously solid scholarship(2) and situated at the frontier between history and legend — or rather at the fringes of myth — holds us in thrall through its verbal alchemy and the profound significance of Hadrian's singular destiny.

    Marguerite Yourcenar's great art has concealed her own self behind Hadrian's to such an extent that this long epistle the emperor writes to the young Marcus Aurelius can just as easily be addressed to Hadrian's long-ago successor as to the sensitive reader of today who sees no contradiction between the exercise of power and the practice of philosophy. In fact, one of the exploits of the Memoirs is to establish with great deftness our own identification with a Roman living in the second century. Hadrian's ageless voice, with its highly personal inflexions and reflections, reaches the reader quite clearly as if, through a prodigious feat of ventriloquism, the voice were resonating within one's very self. The explanation lies in the fact there is nothing at all anachronistic in Hadrian's proposals for his princely nephew's education: when Hadrian's "holds audience with his memories"(3) stripped bare of illusions, he sets forth an art of living wherein the two dimensions, the human and the relative, are perfectly and timelessly matched.

    How can any man, even an emperor, achieve this delicate balance? After all, the art of living is no different from any other art and must take the same paths: its mastery is attained only after a long and difficult ascesis. Interwoven therein are the strands of both the intellect and the imagination, success and failure, truth and falsehood, and a plethora of other threads, all different, all measureless. More importantly, in the presence of wisdom that has matured longer than those "improbable vineyards"(4) Saint-John Perse mentions, it behoves one to reckon with the slow stream of the days and the lessons they bring; they are, of necessity, fecund in life's lessons for the person conscious of the flow of life which, for a brief and privileged moment, is coursing through his veins. There is no doubt that the priceless knowledge Hadrian passes on to "his dear Mark" is quite in keeping with these premises: on one hand, his advice does not stem from "preconceived ideas and.., mere abstract principles,"(5) but from sound empirical experience and the constant confronting of ideas with the touchstone of facts; on the other hand, his counsel also comes from a man who "begins to discern the profile of his death"(6). Hadrian intends to experience his own death with wide-open eyes; indeed, all the wider since he has, in his life, seldom closed his eyes on both the glories and the iniquities allotted to every man. Thus, the teachings of Hadrian are certainly based on precepts but the emperor is also a man about to die who has lived life to the full.

    The discipline submitted to years before by this sexagenarian, now short of breath and unsteady on his swollen legs, was based first on knowledge of one's self. It is by exploring the "narrow confine of humanity"(7) each man carries within himself that we learn how to live. From the very outset, when Hadrian was young and dynamic but already a traveller on the path to wisdom, he understood even then that the universal is never better attained — and perhaps contained — than by studying the individual. And so Hadrian drank from every spring but never in excess; he occupied one position then its extreme opposite but never settled down in either; "tried once for all each mode of life"(8) but was careful not to adhere too closely to any system. The point is to live one's contradictions and not to diminish them by being false to oneself; make a careful selection of what is possible and avoid wasting energy in hopeless pursuits; in short, to possess and not be possessed.

    And so the young man, to whom one night his grandfather — who was something of a sorcerer — had promised dominion over the world, would "throw himself into the sport"(9) of hunting but venerate books which were to be his "first homelands"(10); he would thrill to riding his favorite horse at full gallop but love Greek "because almost everything that men have said best has been said in Greek"(11); he would indulge in debauchery but eat frugally, avoiding any "display of asceticism(12); he would be deeply affected by the austerity of military discipline but momentarily attracted to the effete delights of Rome. Living each of these experiences to the full, even sporadically and alternately, can be fraught with dangers. Many a man would have been caught in the trap, but Hadrian found his salvation in these perilous pursuits. Like a Latin Ulysses, Hadrian did not stop his ears to the myriad voices of the world, more dangerous even than that of the Siren's song; he did not succumb to their wiles: he gave of himself but never entirely.

    In these conditions the acquisition of self-knowledge is a risky venture but it is only a first step. If Hadrian, in many respects, had successfully closed the distance separating him from himself, he still had to close the distance separating him from power; only then, in Malherbe's words, would" the fruit fulfill the promise of the bud". And so he turned his attention to governing men with the same energy he had expended in getting to know himself, and with the same discipline. His long rise to power, from a tribune to the governor of Syria, was accomplished with constancy, even consistency, and was largely due to the inestimable advantage the mastery of self conferred upon him at an age when most men have not yet found themselves. Assiduously, conscientiously and occasionally subject to the "honourable temptations to meticulousness and scrupule(13)," Hadrian first carried out minor responsibilities, then increasingly prestigious ones as his leadership qualities emerged; each task was a temporary but necessary step forward as he became acquainted with the intricate workings of the Roman empire, that blind colossus who must use the emperor's eyes to see. And so Marullinus' grandson, with an admirable grasp of persons and events, rose gradually to the supreme power "he desired... that he might put his own plans into effect, try his remedies, and restore peace" and "especially in order to become his full self before he died(14)." During his long apprenticeship — some twenty years — Hadrian proceeded "to transform experience that was as broad as possible into consciousness(15).” His actions gradually but surely informed the living clay of the man who was soon to be emperor.

    Once Hadrian had become emperor through his own actions and those of Plotina — whose collusion should not be scrutinized too closely — he did not change. Or if change there was, it was merely one of status: the apprentice became master of his craft. The reins of supreme power in Hadrian's hands did not alter in any way the art of living the highly personal lessons of the years of apprenticeship had taught him. What emerged, very simply, was an art of living whose glorious expression was made possible by the freedom power allows: for the emperor, possession of the world was simply the shadow cast by that possession of self which Hadrian valued above all things. Here, Rimbaud's formula becomes "I is not another." Whatever had been incomplete in Hadrian's singular destiny, because of a certain lack of perspective, now came to fruition: the individual rose to eminence; daily happenings became history. The warrior's dreams of peace, the dreams of the reformer, the legislator, the esthete — even the voluptuary — took shape: negotiations resulted in stable treaties; social iniquities and flagrant injustices were wiped out; art was restored to its function as memory, and from a host of ephemeral erotic encounters Antinous emerged. Dreams became destinies. And it was the emperor who shaped them.
    The Emperor Hadrian's art of living, a carefully considered blend of asceticism and hedonism rooted in action, was ultimately the art of living of a man who was "almost wise(16)." A substantial part of the enormous fascination of this man — half historical, half fictional — lies in these two words: wise but humanly wise. Fascinating too is the extraordinary freedom Hadrian enjoyed and the power and pomp of an empire at its zenith. There is enough of the will to power dormant in all of us to let our imaginations roam the landscape of an innocent dream as long as History, with its fondness for conquerors, does not change the dream into nightmare. And in every man there is also, because of human reason, a taste for measure and harmony which Hadrian possessed to such an ideal extent that indifference to him is hardly possible.

    Nothing more superb, more apt to shore up confidence in human reason than the gaze — for Hadrian is much more of a gaze than he is a voice — that encompasses and judges both the world and himself simultaneously. And accomplished with stark lucidity, for the moralist here is no moralizer. With his profound sense of the human and thus of the relative, which marks the ephemeral whenever it aspires to the eternal while never forgetting the fundamental nothingness of all things, Hadrian teaches through the story of his life that ultimately the only art of living is that of life itself. The quest for wisdom in the tomes of those who profess wisdom is a vain pursuit: wisdom comes from action, but not activism; from reflection as well, when thought does not confine itself solely to the contemplation of its own processes. In the final analysis, wisdom is more a matter of attuning than choosing. And perhaps preference should go to man rather than to God, one of his dreams, because all is to be found in man, "even what is eternal(17)”.

    Yvon Bernier
    Collège Mérici (Québec)

    Translated by Daniel Sloate
    Université de Montréal

    (1) Quoted by Marguerite Yourcenar in the "Reflections on the Composition of Memoirs of Hadrian" that follow Memoirs of Hadrian, translated by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, 1963), pp. 319-320. First published under the title of "Notebooks on Memoirs of Hadrian" in The Anchor Review, no. 2, 1957, pp. 161-178, these "Reflections" were included in most of the English editions of Memoirs of Hadrian from 1963 on. All the quotations in this article either from the "Reflections" or the Memoirs are taken from the above Farrar, Straus & Giroux edition.
    (2) Letters of Thomas Mann 1889-1955, translated by Clara and Richard Winston, Secker & Warburg (London, 1970), volume II 1942-1955, p. 660.
    (3) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 20.
    (4) Saint-John Perse, Oeuvres complètes, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Paris, Gallimard, 1972, p. 105.
    (5) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 21.
    (6) Ibid., p. 5.
    (7) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 18.
    (8) Ibid., p. 10.
    (9) Ibid., p. 5.
    (10) Ibid., p. 33.
    (11) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 35.
    (12) Ibid., p. 11.
    (13) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 31.
    (14) Ibid., p. 85.
    (15) Quoted by Gaëtan Picon in Malraux par lui-même, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1959, p. 7.
    (16) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 327.
    (17) Memoirs of Hadrian, p. 131.
    Date de création : 2012-04-01 | Date de modification : 2012-04-01

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