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347 pages, Paperback
First published January 1, 1951
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 that long series of veritable ills, death, old age and incurable sickness, love unrequited and friendship rejected or betrayed, the mediocrity of a life less vast than our projects and duller than our dreams; in short, all the woes caused by the divine nature of things.Being a dying person and still feeling a sense of tremendous responsibility towards the mankind is a mark of a true leader. Hadrian while on his death bed bequeathed a small package of valuable reflections in the form of a lovely letter to young Marcus Aurelius but behind the salutation of ‘Dear Mark’ one can imagine their own name being addressed. These are the most beautiful and honest thoughts I have ever laid my eyes on. This is how Yourcenar has given us a memorable trip to a glorious world which was and where Hadrian still is. She hasn’t presented her hero in the shining bright light of perfection and righteousness. Hadrian was fallible but he knew how to strike that difficult balance between the different philosophies of life. If his conquests had humility, his losses contained prudent lessons. If he had immense love for his empire, he had deep respect for other cultures. If he cultivated virtues of his men, he mitigated his own vices too. He was not God, but he was Godlike.
“But books lie, even those that are most sincere.”
“I have come to speak of myself, at times, in the past tense.”
Comme le voyageur qui navigue entre les îles de l'Archipel voit la buée lumineuse se lever vers le soir, et découvre peu à peu la ligne du rivage, je commence à apercevoir le profil de ma mort.
[As the traveller navigating between the islands of the Archipelago sees the luminous mist rise towards the evening, and discovers, little by little, the line of the shore, so I begin to notice the contours of my death.]
Ces murs que j'étaie sont encore chauds du contact de corps disparus; des mains qui n'existent pas encore caresseront ces fûts de colonnes.
[These walls that I prop up are still warm from contact with bodies that have disappeared; hands which do not yet exist will caress the trunks of these columns.]
Loin de voir dans ces marques d'adoration un danger de folie ou de prépotence pour l'homme qui les accepte, j'y découvrais un frein, l'obligation de se dessiner d'après quelque modèle éternel, d'associer à la puissance humaine une part de suprème sapience. Être dieu oblige en somme à plus de vertus qu'être empereur.
[Far from seeing in these signs of adoration a risk of madness or authoritarianism for the man who accepts them, I found them to be a restraint – the obligation to model oneself on some eternal prototype, to link human power to an element of supreme wisdom. Being a god, in short, calls for more virtues than being an emperor.]
Mais le poids de l'amour, comme celui d'un bras tendrement posé au travers d'une poitrine, devenait peu à peu lourd à porter.
[But the weight of love, like an arm draped tenderly across one's chest, became little by little heavy to bear.]
Cette mort serait vaine si je n'avais pas le courage de la regarder en face, de m'attacher à ces réalités du froid, du silence, du sang coagulé, des membres inertes, que l'homme recouvre si vite de terre [...].
[This death would be in vain if I did not have the courage to look at it head-on, to concentrate on these realities of cold, of silence, of coagulated blood, of inert limbs, that man recovers so quickly from the earth.]
I have sometimes thought of constructing a theory of human knowledge which would be based on eroticism, a theory of contact wherein the mysterious value of each being is to offer us just that point of perspective which another world affords. In such a philosophy pleasure would be a more complete but also more specialized approach to the Other, one more technique for getting to know what is not ourselves.
Thus from each art practiced in its time I derive a knowledge which compensates me in part for pleasures lost. I have supposed, and in my better moments think so still, that it would be possible in this manner to participate in the existence of everyone; such sympathy would be one of the least revocable kinds of immortality. There have been moments when that comprehension tried to go beyond human experience, passing from the swimmer to the wave. But in such a realm, since there is nothing exact left to guide me, I verge upon the world of dream and metamorphosis.