by Gautam Pemmaraju
In Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrain, a “valediction to a world that has pleased him” written as a letter to the 17 year old Marcus Aurelius, the dying Roman emperor imagines parts of his life to be like “dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety”. The corporeal body, its passions and strengths, its appetites and tempers, diminish with time, the sage old man reflects in this fine and complex survey of the ‘landscape’ of his days, and as fevers and fatigues take over, he begins “to discern the profile of my death”,
Like a traveler sailing the archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore…
The emperor, in the “meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories”, is no more than “a sorry mixture of blood and lymph”; he is laid bare before his learned physician Hermogenes, who concernedly, and devotedly, administers herbs, mineral salts and reassurances. His body has ‘served him well’, Hadrian informs his young ward, and it occurs to him that although it has been his “faithful companion and friend”, more steadfast than his own soul, it may well be “only a sly beast who will end up devouring his master”.
All men’s days are numbered; such is the nature of things. When, where and under what circumstances is entirely another matter but it is immutable that one must go, be it by disease, “a dagger thrust in the heart” or “a fall from a horse”. Hadrian confronts his imminent demise with great wisdom, reflecting on his accomplishments and failures, his friendships and loves, his excesses and his abstentions alike. In hoary, “marmoreal” prose (see here; see also Mavis Gallant’s Limpid Pessimist, NYRB 1985), Yourcenar invests the emperor with generous, layered thoughtfulness, a pansophy, wherein the unraveling of a successful life is richly intertwined with fine, dexterous observation. It is such an exercise that affords Hadrian “the advantage for the mind (and also the dangers) of different forms of abstinence….when the body, partly lightened of ballast, enters into a world for which it is not made, and which affords it a foretaste of the cold and emptiness of death”.