Marguerite Yourcenar: Japan, and the Cult of the Aging Body


Marguerite Yourcenar’s reputation was built on philologically founded novels on heroes of the Western thought, such as the emperor Hadrian in "Mémories d’Hadrien" and the partly invented figure of Zénon Ligre in "L’oeuvre au noir." Less known was her interest in Japanese culture, one that far from being limited to her late travels, Yourcenar cultivated from an early age through readings of all genres of Japanese literature. However, not only are her “Japanese writings” understudied, but they are normally slighted by scholars as just another example of Yourcenar’s universalism. Indeed, when perusing the existing scholarship on Yourcenar, short stories such as “Le dernier amour du Prince Genghi,” in "Nouvelles Orientales," as well as “Basho sur la route,” in "Le tour de La prison," are often read as validation of her literary inclination to the philosophical aloofness of the old age. Contrary to this interpretation, I will argue that Yourcenar’s passion for Japanese culture was propelled by her desire to expand her epistemological schemes beyond European boundaries. In other words, Yourcenar was not only describing cultural differences but she was also incorporating Eastern ideas on beauty and death. I will therefore demonstrate that Yourcenar drew from Japanese literature a vision of the body that would be antagonistic to the one prevailing in France. More specifically, by rejecting a representation of aging as the moment of transition from a sensorial to a more intellectual understanding of life, Yourcenar saw old age as the ultimate celebration of the body.

Author Information
Alessandro Giardino, Saint Lawrence University, United States

Paper Information
Conference: ACAH2018
Stream: Humanities - Literature/Literary Studies*

This paper is part of the ACAH2018 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon