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Yourcenar

MEMOIRS OF HADRIA

first pages

My dear Mark,
Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia. No food could be taken before the examination, so we had made the appointment for the early morning hours. I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch. I spare you details which would be as disagreeable to you as to me, the description of the body of a man who is growing old, and is about to die of a dropsical heart. Let us say only that I coughed, inhaled, and held my breath according to Hermogenes’ directions.

He was alarmed, in spite of himself, by the rapid progress of the disease, and was inclined to throw the blame on young iollas, who has attended me during his absence. It is difficult to remain an emperor in the presence of a physician, and difficult even to keep one’s essential quality as man. The professional eye saw in me only a mass of humours, a sorry mixture of blood and lymph. This morning it occurred to me for the first time that my body, my faithful companion and friend, truer and better known to me than my own soul, may be after all only a sly beast who will end by devouring his master. But enough I like my body; it has served me well, and in every way, and I do not begrudge it the care it now needs. I have no faith, however, as Hermogenes still claims to have. in the miraculous virtues of herbs, or the specific mixture of mineral salts which he went to the Orient to get. Subtle though he is, he has nevertheless offered me vague formulas of re- assurance too trite to deceive anyone; he knows how I hate this kind of pretence, but a man does not practise medicine for more than thirty years without some falsehood. I forgive this good servitor his endeavour to hide my death from me. Hermogenes is learned; he is even wise, and his integrity is well above that of the ordinary court physician. It will fall to my lot as a sick man to have the best of care. But no one can go beyond prescribed limits : my swollen limbs no longer sustain me through the long Roman ceremonies; I fight for breath; and I am now sixty. Do not mistake me; I am not yet weak enough to yield to fearful imaginings, which are almost as absurd as illusions of hope, and are certainly harder to bear.

If I must deceive myself, I should prefer to stay on the side of confidence, for I shall lose no more there and shall suffer less. This approach- ing end is not necessarily immediate; I still retire each night with hope to see the morning. Within those absolute limits of which I was just now speaking I ca 1 defend my position step by step, and even regain a few inches of lost ground. I have nevertheless, reached the age where life, for every man, is accepted defeat. To say that my days are numbered signifies nothing; they always were, and are so for us all. But uncer- tainty as to the place, the time, and the manner, which keeps us from distinguishing the goal toward which we continually advance, diminishes for me with the progress of my fatal malady. A man may die at any hour, but a sick man knows that he will no longer be alive in ten years’ time. My margin of doubt is a matter of months, not years. The chances of ending by a dagger thrust in the heart or by a fall from a horse are slight indeed; plague seems unlikely, and leprosy or cancer appear definitely left behind.

I no longer run the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parthians; storms and tempests have failed to seize the occasions offered, and the soothsayer who told me that I should not drown seems to have been right. I shall die fQr nbur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a mo- ’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth ? That is the only question. Like a traveller 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. Already certain portions of my life are like dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety. I can hunt no longer: if there were no one but me to disturb them in their ruminations and their play the deer in the Etrurian mountains would be at peace. With the Diana of the forests I have always maintained the swift-chang- ing and passionate relations which are those of a man with the object of his love: the boar hunt gave me my first chance, as a boy, for command and for encounter with danger; I fairly threw myself into the sport, a r.d my excesses in it brought reprimands from Trajan. The kill in a Spanish forest was my earliest acquaintance with death and with courage, with pity for living creatures and the tragic pleasure of seeing them suffer. Grown to manhood, I found in hunting release from many a secret struggle with adversaries too subtle or too stupid in turn, too weak or too strong for me; this evenly-matched battle between human intelligence and the wisdom of wild beasts seemed strangely clean compared to the snares set by men for men. My hunts in Tuscany have helped me as emperor to judge the courage or the resources of high officials; I have chosen or eliminated more than one statesman in this way.

In later years, in Bithynia and Cappadocia, I made the great drives for game a pretext for festival, a kind of autumnal triumph in the woods of Asia. But the companion of my last hunts died young, and my taste for these violent pleasures has greatly abated since his departure. Even here in Tibur, however, the sudden bark of a stag in the brush is enough to set trembling within me an impulse deeper than all the rest, by virtue, jf which I feel myself leopard as well as emperor. Who knows ? Possibly I have been so sparing of human blood only because I have shed so much of the blood of wild beasts, even if some- times, privately, I have preferred beasts to mankind. However that may be, they are more in my thoughts, and it is hard not to let myself go into interminable tales of the chase which would try the patience of my supper guests. Surely the recollection of the day of my adoption has its charm, but the memory of lions killed in Mauretania is not bad either.

To give up riding is a greater sacrifice still: a wild beast is first of all an adversary, but my horse was a friend. If the choice of my condition had been left to me I would have decided for that of centaur. Between Borysthenes and me relations were of almost mathematical precision; he obeyed me as if I were his own brain, not his master. Have I ever obtained as much from a man ? Such total authority comprises, as does any other power, its risk of error for the possessor, but the pleasure of attempting the impossible in jumping an obstacle was too strong for me to regret a dislocated shoulder or a broken rib. My horse knew me not by the thousand approximate notions of title, function, and name which complicate human friendship, but solely by my just weight as a man.

He shared my every impetus; he knew perfectly, and better perhaps than I, the point where my strength faltered under my will. But I no longer inflict upon Borysthenes’ successor the burden of an invalid whose muscles are flabby, and who is too weak to heave him self unassisted upon a horse’s back. My aide Celer is exercising him at this moment on the road to Praeneste; all my past experiments with swift motion help me now to share the pleasure both of horse and rider, and to judge the sensations of the man at full gallop on a day of sun and high wind. When Celer leaps down from his horse I too regain contact with the ground. It is the same with swimming: I have given it up, but I still share the swimmer’s delight in water’s caress. Running, even for the shortest distance, would today be as impossible for me as for a heavy statue, a Caesar of stone; but I recall my childhood races on the dry hills of Spain, and the game played with myself of pressing on to the last gasp, never doubting that the perfect heart and healthy lungs would re-establish their equilibrium; and with any athlete training for the stadium I have a common understanding which the intelligence alone would not have given me. Thus from each art practised 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 to guide me, I verge upon the world of dream and metamorphosis.

Overeating is a Roman vice, but moderation has always been my delight. Hermogenes has had to change nothing in my diet, except perhaps the impatience which made me devour the first thing served, no matter where or when, in order to satisfy the needs of hunger simply and at once. It is clear that a man of wealth, who has never known anything but voluntary priva- tion, or has experienced it only provisionally as one of the more or less exciting incidents of war or travel, would have but ill grace to boast of undereating. Stuffing themselves on certain feast days has always been the ambition, joy, and natural pride of the poor. At army festivities I liked the aroma of roasted meats and the noisy scraping of kettles, and it pleased me to see that the army banquets (or what passes for a banquet in camp) were just what they always should be, a gay and hearty contrast to the deprivations of working days. I could stand well enough the smell of fried foods in the public squares at the Saturnalia, but the banquets of Rome filled me with such repugnance and boredom that if at times I have expected to die in the course of an exploration or a military expedition I have said to myself, by way of consolation, that at least I should not have to live through another dinner ! Do not do me the injustice to take me for a mere ascetic; an operation which is performed two or three times a day, and the purpose of which is to sustain life, surely merits all our care. To eat a fruit is to welcome into oneself a fair living object, which is alien to us but is nourished and protected like us by the earth; it is to consume a sacrifice wherein we sustain ourselves at the expense of things. I have never bitten into a chunk of army bread without marvelling that this coarse and heavy concoction can transform itself into blood and warmth, and perhaps into courage. Alas, why does my mind, even on its best days, never possess but a particle of the assimilative powers of the body ?

It was in Rome, during the long official repasts, that I began to think of the relatively recent origins of our riches, and of this nation of thrifty farmers and frugal soldiers formerly fed upon garlic and barley now suddenly enabled by our conquests to luxuriate in the culinary arts of Asia, bolting down those complicated viands with the greed of hungry peasants. We Romans cram ourselves with ortolans, drown ourselves in sauces, and poison ourselves with spices. An Apicius glories in the succession of courses and the sequence of sweet or sour. heavy or dainty foods which make up the exquisite order of his banquets; these dishes would perhaps be tolerable if each were served separately, and consumed for its own sake, learn- edly savoured by an expert whose taste and appetite are both unspoiled. But presented pell-mell, in the midst of everyday vulgar profusion, they confound a man’s palate and confuse his stomach with a detestable mixture of flavours, odours, and substances in which the true values are lost and the unique qualities disappear. My poor Lucius used to amuse himself by concocting delicacies for me; his pheasant pasties with their skilful blending of ham and spice bore witness to an art which is as exacting as that of a musician or painter, but I could not help regretting the unadulterated flesh of the fine bird. Greece knew better about such things : her resin-steeped wine, her bread sprinkled with sesame seed, fish grilled at the very edge of the sea and unevenly blackened by the fire, or seasoned here and there by the grit of sand, all satisfied the appetite alone without surrounding by too many complications this simplest of our joys. In the merest hole of a place in Aegina or Phaleron I have tasted food so fresh that it remained divinely clean despite the dirty fingers of the tavern waiter; its quantity, though modest, was nevertheless so satisfying that it seemed to contain in the most reduced form possible some essence of immortality. Likewise meat cooked at night after a hunt had that same almost sacramental quality, taking us far back to the primitive origins of the races of men.

Wine initiates us into the volcanic mysteries of the soil and its hidden mineral riches; a cup of Samos drunk at noon in the heat of the sun or, on the contrary, absorbed of a winter evening when fatigue makes the warm current felt at once in the hollow of the diaphragm and the sure and burning dispersion spreads along our arteries, such a drink provides a sensation which is almost sacred, and is sometimes too strong for the human head. No feeling so pure comes from the vintage numbered cellars of Rome; the pedantry of great connoisseurs of wine wearies me. Water drunk more reverently still, from the hands or from the spring itself, diffuses within us the most secret salt of earth and the rain of heaven. But even water is a delight which, sick man that I am, I may now consume only with strict restraint. No matter: in death’s agony itself, and mingled with the bitterness of the last potions, I shall try still to taste on my lips its fresh simplicity.

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Translated from the French by Grace Frick