The Passage from Now to Then: Examining Historical Literature Through Marguerite Yourcenar's "Memoirs of Hadrian"
When considering historical literature that is based upon people who once lived, readers often ask where the details are taken directly from historical accounts, and where they differ. This is a perfectly valid lens through which to view the work, but one should not attach too much importance to faithful adherence to historical accuracy. A novel like Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian undeniably transports the reader back to the time of Hadrian, but it does not relate the progress of his life exactly the way it was. It cannot, because Yourcenar was not a Roman scribe; in this case she was a novelist and historian. As such, her account was affected by the changes that, over centuries, take place in historical accounts. If a moment in history were an object frozen in time, then it would remain the same, but it is the record of the moment, and not the moment itself, that is generally the source for the historical writer – and the record is subject to the same changes as any other object. Moreover, any record of an event, whether historical or recent, is strongly influenced by perspective, and very rarely truly objective. With this in mind, we might recognize that in some cases it may never be possible to achieve historical accuracy.
Many people regard history as a static, unchanging set of information. They think of events of the past as though they were long ago set in stone, failing to recognize that such works of stone are further worked upon by the passage of time. In speaking of the statues and sculptures that remain from centuries ago, Marguerite Yourcenar’s essay “That Mighty Sculptor, Time” insightfully notes just how different the original work was from what we see. No one would claim that a statue “lives” the way a human does, but like a human body the supposedly inert creation changes with each moment that goes by. “Everything, including the atmospheric conditions of the museums in which they are today imprisoned, leaves its mark on their bodies of metal or stone” (Mighty Sculptor, 58). Even the change over generations in how people view the object alters what future generations will see; “Of all the changes caused by time, none affects statues more than the shifts of taste in their admirers” (Mighty Sculptor, 61).
It is much the same with history as with these statues. The metaphor is quite clever, because statues have a connotation of indestructibility. The stone and metal Yourcenar talks of are hard substances, not easily decomposed, which would be able to last for centuries; if one can view the statues she discusses as standing in for history, then history must also be indestructible and able to survive through the ages. Yet if the reader considers more carefully, they will see that Yourcenar acknowledges this survival, but claims that what survives today is far removed from the time that produced it. While the historical accounts we now read resemble the first accounts, which only resembled the actual events, they are not the same. Years that have crept by, revisions for clarity or illumination, or in other instances multiple translations, have served to separate newer versions of historical resources from their generators. This applies most when discussing historical subjects like the Roman Empire, the records of which are necessarily translated and interpreted.
In “That Mighty Sculptor, Time,” Marguerite Yourcenar writes of “statues so thoroughly shattered that out of the debris a new work of art is born” (Mighty Sculptor, 58). Although not the same situation, Yourcenar’s writing of Memoirs of Hadrian shares features with that process. She gathered the pieces left over from Hadrian’s life, “thoroughly shattered” in the sense that she had to draw upon multiple historical books and records to pull out the full picture that Memoirs presents. She recreated Hadrian’s life with several pieces in a different place than they had previously occupied, and added a few new pieces where she deemed necessary. This type of reconstruction is unavoidable in a work like Memoirs of Hadrian, which, despite the historical records left to the world, takes place in a time far removed from the age in which Yourcenar lived. Such reconstruction is not limited to literary works; even the author of a supposedly objective textbook on Hadrian would be required to go through the same process of gathering and fitting pieces of his life together.
The distance between the older periods of history and modern times can create perspective problems for the author, such as Marguerite Yourcenar recounts in regard to finding the right voice for Hadrian. In her notes on Memoirs of Hadrian she states that she envisioned the work in a dialogic mode, but claims that she could not find the voice of Hadrian in the midst of all the other characters (Hadrian, 320). It seems that there is another reason that dialogue did not work: there is no dialogue in the writings of the time, and therefore nothing to on which to base “an exchange about serious or urgent, subtle or complex matters, a conversation between Hadrian and [others … ] Nothing, or virtually nothing, is left us of those inflections, those quarter tones, those articulated half smiles which yet can change everything” (Mighty Sculptor, 31). Without the remnants of interacting voices from the time, she would have most likely created a markedly contemporary set of dialogues.
It is from Hadrian’s voice in the texts of his time that Yourcenar built her novel’s voice; “In an attempt to rediscover that voice […] I used the little – but the diverse little – that is left from Hadrian himself” (Mighty Sculptor, 33). “Hadrian himself” is an important distinction – she went directly to the source, of which she could find only a few wisps, to find the voice that she felt would fit the man. Following this, in the same essay, she notes the same link between historical records and statues that this essay draws when she describes this pool of information as “bits of voice out of which to reconstitute an entire tone or timbre of voice, the way others reconstitute a broken statue out of fragments of marble” (Mighty Sculptor, 35).
Yourcenar also demonstrates in “Tone and Language in the Historical Novel” the extent of the difficulty of “rediscovering” a voice from so long ago. Between the beginning and completion of Memoirs of Hadrian, approximately two decades passed. In this case, the passage of time worked to Yourcenar’s benefit, for she tells us, “it took me years to learn how to calculate exactly the distances between the emperor and myself” (Hadrian, 322). This could easily refer to the voice of the emperor that she worked so hard to reconstruct. If these imagined memoirs were to be plausible, they must appear to be written by a long-dead Roman emperor, and not a European woman of the twentieth century. She managed to find the line between his voice and hers perhaps better than others would have, but in looking back over her writing she admits, “I don’t flatter myself that I always succeeded” (Mighty Sculptor, 35). While one unsuccessful passage may only be insufficient in evoking Hadrian (“I no longer believe that he would have recounted himself in that fashion“ (35)), another’s trouble lies in the use of modern language. In this vein, Yourcenar says of the passage following the death of Antinous, “I caused him to speak the French of my day” (36). While her treatment of this is more of an observation than a criticism, it shows how the stretch of centuries can affect the accurate or, to use Yourcenar’s word, “authentic” portrayal of history.
History refers not to events themselves, but to the relating of those events – to the records and documents, and thus it changes like the statues in Yourcenar’s “That Mighty Sculptor, Time,” gaining “the accumulation of dirt and the true or false patina” (58). As one looks at Yourcenar’s beautiful expression of how simply existing in the world ages the statues, so to speak, it is possible to see how the same process applies to history. As Yourcenar puts it, “We do not possess a single Greek statue in the state in which its contemporaries knew it” (Mighty Sculptor, 57). In the same way, we cannot see the events of the past the way someone living at the time did; however, just as we can infer what the statue looked like in its original finished state, we can speculate on what history looked like to those for whom it was the present. Trying to recount history in a perfect, unchanged state is impossible; thus an unbending loyalty to exactness of detail is energy wasted. Yourcenar followed the details in “authentic” historical records concerning Hadrian rather closely, but it was a path she chose, and not an end goal. Of greater concern was finding the correct essence of Hadrian’s life and the events in it; as the author herself says, “With [historical] truth […] one errs more or less“ (Hadrian, 330), and it is of greater importance that “the impression, if not the expression, seems authentic” (Mighty Sculptor, 36).
That is not to say that the details supported by historical texts are not important, because they certainly are. This should be clear in the discussion of Memoirs of Hadrian, a book that is well-grounded in research and documents of the time. The importance of historical records, however, is shaded by the fact that history does not remain as an intact entity. Instead, it creates more of a hunt-and-peck situation, and in compiling a complete picture of any historical event, a certain amount of guesswork is involved. As mentioned before, this is most applicable in relation to events of centuries before the present day. The more time that passes between the moment of occurrence and the moment of retrospect, the more chances appear for pieces of the records to be changed or lost.
Those “lost” moments can be reconstructed as well as any other aspect of history, although it is far more difficult to prove. Yourcenar’s words confirm this: “Each wound helps us to reconstruct a crime and sometimes even to discover its causes” (Mighty Sculptor, 59). The space left by the missing information is evidence in itself. Because any theories on what that information might be can only be deemed “accurate” as far as the evidence allows, it would be beneficial to follow Yourcenar’s advice and “let inexactitude play its part” (Mighty Sculptor, 36). This is just what she has done in writing Memoirs of Hadrian. The acknowledgement that such speculations are speculations is necessary; so, too, is the recognition that the distance between the dweller of the present day and the events of the past prevent them from coming any closer to the precise details of those events. Allowances of inaccuracy are essential as long as we lack the vehicle to cover that distance.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. Transl. Grace Frick. New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1974.
Yourcenar, Marguerite. That Mighty Sculptor, Time. Transl. Walter Kaiser. New York. The Noonday Press: 1993.