In the cult of Antinoüs respected in private at the Villa, Yourcenar’s Hadrian is for extended periods unable to escape from the unsettling vision of repeated doubles and elusive essences: the statues at Hadrian’s Villa were cold simulacra, repetitive images, ghostly white figures. Hadrian has been entranced by the images in his search for Antinoüs and he struggles to control them: ‘I had cast a spell over stones which, in their turn, had spellbound me; nevermore would I escape from their cold and silence, henceforth closer to me than the warmth and voices of the living’ (230).
Unsatisfied, he orders another statue that is a better likeness. As it was in the sculpted life of Antinoüs, so it is in the statues commemorating him. In search of the essential form of Antinoüs, Hadrian is comparable to Michelangelo in Yourcenar’s 1931 text ‘Sistine’. The artist ponders his statue of a dead friend: ‘His beauty, which so many thoughts and gestures had, while he lived, fragmented into expressions or movements became more intact, absolute, eternal: one would have said that he had composed his body before leaving it’. In the practice of his private cult of worship for Antinoüs, Hadrian is caught by the cold gaze from the repetitive representations. This repetition, according to Lacan, belies any attempted mastery and instead reveals the radical vacillation of the subject. Hadrian’s criticisms of colossal Egyptian statues can be read an ironic parallel to his own encouragement of colossal statues of Antinous, in the passage cited in the Henry Moore Institute exhibition catalogue: ‘I wanted those images to be enormous, like a face seen at close range, tall and solemn figures, like visions and apparitions in a terrifying dream, and as overwhelming as the memory itself has remained’ (132).
In both its public and its private expressions Hadrian’s mourning is imprisoned by his desire to fix an image of Antinoüs in the context of a set of myths, a set of rituals and civic memories, and a series of unsatisfying statues. In the final part of Memoirs of Hadrian we see how the experience of mourning brings about a less fixed translation of these dreams and visions. In the chapels and temples dedicated to Antinoüs, Hadrian provides a space in which to allow his mourning to occur. There is no pre-established cult for others to worship, nor a manipulation of myth. Memory and stone now combine differently in these places of visitation and meditation: ‘The chapels of Antinoüs and his temples were magic chambers, commemorating a mysterious passage between life and death; these shrines to an overpowering joy and grief were places of prayer and evocation of the dead ; there I gave myself over to my sorrow’ (…) Each building-stone was the strange concretion of a will, a memory, and sometimes a challenge. Each structure was the chart of a dream’ (127-8). Hadrian equates Antinoüs with the gods of the passage between this world and the next and fuses his thoughts for Antinoüs with his own impending death. Thus, although he relies on repeating the invocation several times over and on the knowledge that the worship is also being conducted elsewhere, the association with Hermes and Bacchus is personalised in the context of how Hadrian now remembers Antinoüs: ‘At Delphi the youth has become the Hermes who guards the threshold, master of the dark passages leading to the shades. Eleusis (...) now makes of him the young Bacchus of the Mysteries, prince of those border regions which lie between the senses and the soul’ (286).