Category Archives: Greece

25th Discussion: Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian (20 Oct)

We all found the book dry although Aaron claimed that the day after he read the book, it hit him and he had an unexplainable fondness for it.

Roy provided us with some historical background: The Greeks were comfortable with pederastic behavior while Romans despised it and bottoms were especially looked down upon. Antinous, Hadrian’s lover,  was a slave from Turkey, and being a slave made it ok for Hadrian to fuck him – it appears that power play was more important than sex play. The apotheosis of Antinous’s death by Hadrian was meant to bridge the conflict between Romans and Greeks.

1. Characters:

a. Antinous: Roy asked how Antinous dies in the novel, as the death was ambiguous historically. Aaron misread the book, thinking that Antinous is jealous of Lucius. Timmy explicated the matter: Antinous sacrifices his life for Hadrian as an oracle has predicted Hadrian’s early demise if there isn’t a sacrifice.

(It is perhaps significant that not one, but two people commit suicide for for Hadrian. When Hadrian is utterly depressed with Antinous’ passing and wants death, a young doctor promises him a poison but goes back to the apothecary to consume the poison himself so that he doesn’t need to return to Hadrian. What significance is the theme of suicide? We didn’t discuss.)

b. Hadrian: Alex and Aaron argued that Antinous’ death could be avoided if Hadrian could give himself freely and completely to Antinous. Hadrian is trapped by conventions and customs–or is just emotionally scarred–and has to divide his attention between Antinous whom he truly loves and Lucius whom he sees as a frivolous, decadent youth.

Alex liked Hadrian because he was wilderness-fit, as opposed to gym-fit.

c. Lucius: Timmy said that if Lucius were alive today, he’d be a materialistic metrosexual. Aaron claimed that obviously Yourcenar is fictionalizing history to a certain extent because it seems that Lucius is punished for his ambition to be Emperor: once Lucius starts to work seriously, his illness begins and culminates in his death.

d. Characterization:  Overall, we as a group felt that the characters don’t have much psychological depth.

2. Themes:

a. Homosexuality: Roy and Timmy noted that Hadrian’s emotions are not one bit invested in his wife and it is a marriage of convenience. In many ways, homosexuality is portrayed positively.

b. Gender: Roy told us that historically, Hadrian’s wife slept around but this fact isn’t mentioned in the book. The reason why is tied to the character of Plotina. As Timmy, the champion and supporter of strong women, noted, Plotina is all-knowing and wise and she is the one who plots to get Hadrian to the throne. Hence, Yourcenar’s portrayal of Hadrian’s chaste wife and Plotina as a strong woman bring her gender-equality point across.

c. Religion: Roy related Hadrian’s war on the Jews because he doesn’t like circumcision of boys, a brutal act according to Hadrian. Aaron said that what Hadrian dislikes is the notion of a monotheistic religion which doesn’t allow the existence of other religions. Hadrian believes in diversity, even in religions.

Other themes include family, love, and war, we didn’t discuss in detail but we thought Yourcenar’s technique of “Tell, not Show,” as opposed to the usual literary technique “Show, not Tell,” means that these themes are self-explanatory and can be found directly in passages of the novel.

Style: Besides the “Tell, not Show” technique, Timmy and Alex noted that the scenes which could have been dramatic were toned down and glossed over.

Why choose the form of a memoir when a different form could have been more sensational and exciting? Alex said that it was just Yourcenar’s way of showing off: “Look how erudite I am.” Aaron, on the other hand, claimed that Yourcenar is very intelligent to pick a form to show her strengths–the research and the beauty of her lines–and cover her flaws (lousy characterization and, in turn, inability to capture a person’s voice, ie, dialogue). Roy, however, had a more favorable explanation: the fictionalized memoir was and still is (to a certain extent) an experimental, innovative and original genre.

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Filed under Bisexuality, Class, Classics, Family, France, Gay, Greece, Love, Marguerite Yourcenar, Politics, Religion, War

3rd Discussion: Jeffrey Eugenides’s Middlesex (19 Nov 2009)

Before the minutes, Timmy would like me to shout “WE HAD FUN!”

1. Isaac liked the novel best because of the humor and writing but he thought that the narrative is too deterministic in the sense that the characters are determined by their culture, nationality, sex, and gender, although Timmy noted that it may be because the novel is influenced by the structure of Greek tragedies.

2. Timmy was on the fence on this novel although he really liked the minor gay character, Ben. Timmy also pointed out that of the representation of plethora of sexualities in this book.

3. Aaron disliked the novel intensely and wished Yusa were around to defend it. Aaron hated it because:

a. of the homophobia. Aaron understood that the author intends to be liberal but the essentialism—that the hormonally male character has to be straight, instead of bisexual—in the novel is revolting. Besides, the lesbian Aunt Lina is eradicated from the novel, from the family history, once she finds her lover.

b. of the racism that Asians are the “last pit-stop” for closet gay men and how Julie has no options other than Cal. Aaron felt that it is worse being a liberal but possessing the wrong ideas about sexuality and race than being a bigot, especially when the book is a best-selling award winner, read by millions of people.

c. of the writing. The trio liked the part which mimics the language of camera but ambivalent Aaron thought that the author is a sell-out, already directing the film.

d. of the narrative. It seemed to Aaron that the author tries to force the narrative to fit into American history, making the narrative unrealistic. Isaac claimed that fiction doesn’t need to be realistic—true—and Eugenides is trying to write an American epic and so has to go through different eras. Timmy said that because of the scope of the novel, the themes are lightly skimmed over, hence we could hardly talk about the themes.

f. of the characters. Aaron felt that there is no psychological depth to the characters, which is the reason why no one in the group could name their favourite or least favourite character. Isaac argued that the reason may be because the characters belong to stock characters, which is part of Greek traditional storytelling.

4. At the end, Isaac felt an emptiness because when he asked us to say something nice about the book, we could only say it’s well-written.

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Filed under Coming of Age, Greece, Intersex, Jeffrey Eugenides, Queer, USA, War