These days especially, everyone ought to know the closing paragraphs of the opening essay, “Faces of History in the Historia Augusta” (1958), in Yourcenar’s collection The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays:
It is not for us, so myopic when it comes to evaluating our own civilization, its errors, its chances of survival, and the opinion of it the future will have, to be astonished that Romans of the third or fourth centuries were satisfied to the last by vague meditations on the vicissitudes of Fortune instead of interpreting more clearly the signs that their world was coming to an end. Nothing is more complex than the curve of a decadence. The incomplete graph the Historia Augusta furnishes is necessarily inconclusive: Hadrian’s reign is still a peak, that of the lamentable Carinus is not a conclusion. Each period of dizzying decline is followed by a halt, even by a subsequent recovery, however temporary, which was invariably supposed to be a lasting one; each savior seemed to suffice for all. In the period when the Historia Augusta ends, with Carinus, Diocletian is already present; the savior Diocletian will be succeeded by the savior Constantine, the savior Theodisus; a hundred and fifty years will still manage to jolt past before the long list of Roman emperors comes to an end, pathetically enough, with the child of a secretary of Attila, characteristically decked out with the pompous name of Romulus Augustulus. Meanwhile, inurement to catastrophes has replaced the refusal to anticipate or to forestall them; more rudimentary forms of political life replace the vast, now useless imperial machine, more or less as, in the villas of the last patricians of Ostia, hurriedly dug cisterns replace the complicated systems of pipes no longer fed by water from aqueducts and public fountains. The closing of the great spectacle which lasted so many centuries will soon pass virtually unnoticed.
Better still: it is just when realities vanish that man’s talent to satisfy himself with mere words functions at full tilt. Once Rome has vanished, its ghost will have a persistent life. The Greek empire of Byzantium having paradoxically inherited the title “Roman Empire,” a more or less fictive millennial extension is added in the East to this interminable history: in the volumes Gibbon devotes to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, the Historia Augusta furnishes substance for only the first few chapters; his work ends with Mohammed II’s entry into Constantinople in 1453. Elsewhere, in Western Europe, the Holy Roman Empire having assumed the inheritance of the Caesars, the ancient game is played out down through the centuries withs takes more or less similar to those of the past and a singular resemblance in the temperament of the players. It is scarcely an exaggeration to show–beyond the deeds and actions of the popes and the Guelph or Ghibelline emperors of the Middle Ages–the chaotic adventures of the Historia Augusta extending down to our own days, to Hitler waging his last battles in Sicily or in Benevento like a Holy Roman emperor of the Middle Ages, or to Mussolini slaughtered in his attempted flight, then strung up by the heels in a Milan garage, dying in the twentieth the death of a third-century emperor. A decadence which thus spreads over more than eighteen hundred years is something else than a pathological process: it is the human condition itself, the very notion of politics and of the state which the Historia Augusta calls into question, that deplorable mass of ill-learned lessons, of ill-conducted experiments, of often avoidable and never-avoided mistakes of which it offers, it is true, a particularly fine specimen but which, in one form or another, tragically fill all of history.
To men of the late nineteenth century, the Roman decadence appeared under the aspect of rose-garlanded patricians leaning on cushions or on lovely girls, or again, as Verlaine imagined them, composing indolent acrostics as they watched the great white barbarians parade past. We are better informed as to the way in which a civilization ultimately ends. It is not by abuses, by vices, or by crimes which are perennial, and nothing proves that Aurelian’s cruelty was any worse than Octavius’s, or that venality in the Rome of Didius Julianus was greater than in that of Sulla. The evils by which a civilization dies are more specific, more complex, more deliberate, sometimes more difficult to discover or to define. But we have learned to recognize that gigantism is merely the morbid mimetism of growth, that waste which makes a pretense of wealth in states already bankrupt, that plethora so quickly replaced by dearth at the first crisis, those entertainments for the people provided from the upper levels of the hierarchy, that atmosphere of inertia and panic, of authoritarianism and anarchy, those pompous reaffirmations of a great past amid present mediocrity and immediate disorder, those reforms which are merely palliatives and those outbursts of virtue which are manifested only by purges, that craving for sensation which ends in the triumph of a politics of violence, those unacknowledged men of genius lost in the crowd of unscrupulous gangsters, of violent lunatics, of honest men who are inept and wise men who are helpless…the modern reader is at home in the Historia Augusta.
I do not know enough of Yourcenar’s work–the critical prose is still a fresh discovery for me–to say much about what I find it to do so well: but she is “at home” in the past unlike any critic I’ve read, able, like one is at home, to move with familiar appreciation and also the censure of detail that familiarity affords. Her pessimism does not lead her, as it might some of the modernist critics of generations before she wrote, to a reactionary politics in response to the present or nostalgia for the politics of the past; but she does not affirm either that humans are permanently in one deplorable, hopeless condition. There are few writers whose prose can stomach the phrase, “human condition,” but hers does: the “human condition” she speaks of is a condition of living historically, so that decadence is a permanent possibility (though not a matter of Classical cycles from Republic to Tyranny in rounds), and with decadence a notion of politics and state that is open to skeptical doubt and questioning, consisting as it does of errors and failures to understand and improve.
Look at what she does (in translation, admittedly) to the oft-abused “plethora,” returning it to a sturdy self-sufficient abstraction, standing alone against “dearth.” It comes in a series of antitheses that are indebted to classical rhetoric, without losing limberness and rapidity, even as the clauses pile on, one after another burying us in the symptoms of lost civilization; but what would she persuade us of? That her immediate world too is failing? That her audience is no better and not far different from the Romans of the Empire’s end? Does her desire to satisfy herself and us with “mere words function at full tilt”? None of these quite seems to be an active suspicion: her intention is more palliative–assuring us that we at least better understand what kills us, that her words do not compensate for a vanished reality, but acknowledge it; her criticism urges the possibility that imagining the past allows us to better witness the present, which is perhaps why she is drawn to the creator as historian. There is no other alternative, and what might seem a dizzying regress–our imagining the past worlds of those creators who in turn have imagined the past worlds of others–is in fact enabled by what has been imagined before us, and which in turn enables us to see the world we inhabit. Maybe the only crowd in which the unacknowledged men and women of genius can be recognized, the value of their work redeemed, lies ahead of them, persistently in the future.