A retrospective, secular prayer

May 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Against the scope of eternity & truth, the single worthy story of redemption & the common pursuit of knowledge, people still find the telling of their meager tales worthwhile. Biographies litter the shelves of all bookstores, ranging from the train-station to university variety; their authors too come in all varieties of intent, the serious & the light alike. Marguerite Yourcenar, consistently in her memoir, finds ways of reminding the reader that all the while “[d]uring this time, the earth revolved” (18) — a sentence that is unthinkable to the conventional biography as it undermines not only the subject but also the biographer’s profession.

Today, more than ever, the biography is an important genre for its fulfilment of the entrepreneurial apotheosis requisite to the myth of Capitalism. But what is its function? Why should the genre appeal to Yourcenar, who seems to be so well aware of the futility of life tales that she cannot help but draw attention to the greater scale that “beyond this gentleman & this lady enclosed in their nineteenth century [Yourcenar’s grandparents] are ranks of thousands of ancestors extending back to prehistory & then, losing all human resemblance, to the very origin of life on earth” (45)?

To call it a vanity project seems unfair. It is evident that most of the research was done at the time of writing, to compliment what was passed down orally in her childhood. She does not fancy that the slightly ambitious members of her family are deserving of fame. Indeed, as we will see, Yourcenar effectively denounces her relatives & heritage throughout. The Author’s Note is very clear: “We are dealing here with history of a very minor sort” (335). In Dear Departed the fact that the truth dealt with is “a truth that is multiple, unstable, evasive, sometimes saddening, & at first glance scandalous” (339) is never forgotten. Fact is contrasted against meaning so that the members of her family traverse into literary figures with unaccountable psychological records. This is the limit of biography. “Time & dates ricochet, just as the sun’s rays ricochet off the tidal pools & grains of sand” (239). The individual — the subject of any biography — is as much a product of the accidents of being as of such coincidences. After all, “it is not blood & sperm alone that make us what we are” (45). It is by the familial cast that the identity of the author is exhumed.

Such a project allows for a meditation on time & death — a true twilight occupation. To place them in a book must hold a perverse joy for her. “Nothing shows better the insignificance of our human individuality, which we prize so highly, than the rapidity with which those objects that support it & sometimes symbolize it are, in their turn, outmoded, outworn, or lost” (57). Certainly, her own tome is struggling to keep its head above the currents of time. [Only two of the three volumes comprising her memoirs have been translated. The first of these is the subject of our notes.]

The French title, Souvenirs Pieux, refers to the practice of death announcements on cards adorned with sacred quotations — the “pitiful arsenal of our consolations” (49). They were everyday objects in their time, to take the place of book markers & small wisdom. Dear Departed is the title chosen by Yourcenar herself for the English translation to mimic a modern invocation to the muses (one’s family, the necessary accident). Theirs are the myths to which we are born &, for Yourcenar, these most be told to describe oneself, to assume one’s character. As a result, nothing at all is said of Marguerite’s own life save her birth, which both opens & closes the volume to form a circular temporality that fascinated the author. She is attuned to the mysticism of such circularity almost too well that one quickly uncovers signs of struggle against it in the author’s life. For instance, she relishes being the last of a long lineage & cannot wait to put an end to the Crayencour name that her fame must fall on a nom de plume (although, I concede, it is one constructed of the very same letters as her birth name).

She is gently critical of the notion of inherited nobility & wealth, of the importance of the name, & even of intellectual inheritance. The “deficient” members of her family are discussed with most delight, her aunt Jeanne & uncle Gaston especially whose “misfortunes” are accounted as responsible for “the almost complete lack of social life at Suralée [the châteaux of her mother’s upbringing]” (251). Yourcenar takes herself as belonging to the same party as those that break away from society, that cause a quiet schism like her Alexis or the two Octaves of the Drion line. The family tree is imagined lopped, its members usually seen from the perspective Yourcenar knew them best, their graves. She “did not succeed in establishing a rapport between those people lying there & [her]self” (44).

There is almost a sense of pride in the fact that her mother, Fernande, died only eight days after bearing her — she seeks a more perfect obliteration still, burning the manuscript of her mother’s sole novel, selling or resetting the inherited jewellery. There is only pity for Fernande who was forced to take umbrage in the arms of a husband (296). “Her life is an empty measure. At the same time, the immense longing that fills her heart transforms her in her own eyes, makes her like the heroine of a novel whose pale cheeks & sad eyes she admires when she looks in her mirror” (292). This is the very gift Yourcenar is able to offer in the form of a retrospective, secular prayer, achievable only by way of the liberties this type of imaginative biography allows.

Atheism excludes Yourcenar irreconcilably from the family also, especially the feminine circle which she associates with great piety. “To lose one’s faith is not merely a spiritual catastrophe but also a social crime, a perverse rebellion against the traditions instilled from the cradle” (163). Fernande, in her final hours, made the wish for her only child to devote its life to serving God. Yourcenar was to find a very different holy order, that of the literati, but attend to a life of devotion a little like the one Fernande must have imagined nonetheless.

Faith is the irrational concessions we make (in this thinking). Sacrifices are not foreign to it: Yourcenar evokes the sacrifice of animals in scientific research &, even more firmly, human sacrifices in the war games of conquer & defend (234). It is like a lesson she invents her parents learning on their honeymoon; having confused the precise site of a heretic occurrence, they are not embarrassed when corrected. They know, instead, “[t]hey will have to pack up their emotions & move them to another site, so to speak. They are seized with uncontrollable laughter. They felt then that when it comes to grand historical memories, as with all things, faith makes all the difference” (323). It is true of Dear Departed as well. We must follow the invention more faithfully, more truly, than the history & this is not merely to avoid dryness, but to tap into a higher order of realism.

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