Baroque fictions: Revisioning the classical in Marguerite Yourcenar

Date of Completion

January 2004


Literature, Modern|Literature, Romance




Marguerite Yourcenar's election to the prestigious, tradition-bound French Academy in 1981 as its first female “immortal” cemented her already well-established niche as a neoclassical author of the modern French canon. A self-taught classicist and historian with a polished, “classical” style and a penchant for using myth and universal themes such as death, sacrifice, time, and human suffering, which in the tradition of ancient and modern classical moralists seem to transcend the limitations of time and place and speak to the ages, Yourcenar often situates her fictions, including her two most internationally acclaimed works Mémoires d'Hadrien and L'œuvre au Noir, in distant historical settings, re-creating the past with uncanny insight and precision. ^ While these factors viewed as a whole have justifiably earned Yourcenar the neoclassical label by which she is most recognized, I argue in a close reading of four fictional works that they fail to account for her writings' opacity and subversive resistance to closure, rejection of stable interpretations, and her deconstruction of what postmodernists call grand Narratives. The classical balance between form and substance is frequently upset in her fictions, aesthetic virtuosity serving as a substitute for the inefficacy and limitations of human knowledge and western epistemologies in general. Not only do these qualities demand that we reassess the cultural biases restricting Yourcenar's oeuvre to the neoclassical pantheon; they also strongly suggest that her fictions model certain characteristics of what in the latter half of the twentieth century was identified as the neobaroque: an aesthetic which favors artistic play, instability, opacity, and infinite multiplicity. Neobaroque “logic” in turn emphasizes the absence of theoretical assurances and the limitations of reason. The author's drive for aesthetic perfection suggests a nostalgic attempt to overcome the void of meaning and achieve some form of mystic transcendence. The coincidence of the new millennium—which in many ways reflects Yourcenar's disquieting vision—and her centenary offers us, instead of an excuse to discard her neoclassical label, the obligation to reassess it. ^