Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Marguerite Yourcenar, pseudonym for Marguerite Cleenewerck de Crayencour

Belgian-born French Novelist and Essayist

"All happiness is innocence."

"Everything turns out to be valuable that one does for one’s self without thought of profit."

"Our great mistake is to try to exact from each person virtues which he does not possess, and to neglect the cultivation of those which he has."

"The technique of a great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved. The desire to count up exactly the riches which each new love brings us, and to see it change, and perhaps watch it grow old, accords ill with multiplicity of conquests."

"The future of the world no longer disturbs me; I do not try still to calculate, with anguish, how long or how short a time the Roman peace will endure; I leave that to the Gods. Not that I have acquired more confidence in their justice, which is not our justice, or more faith in human wisdom; the contrary is true. Life is atrocious, we know. But precisely because I expect little of the human condition, man's periods of felicity, his partial progress, his efforts to begin over again and to continue, all seem to me like so many prodigies which nearly compensate for monstrous mass of ills and defeats, of indifference and error. Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time. Peace will again establish itself between two periods and there regain the meaning which we have tried to give them. Not all our books will perish, nor our statues, if broken, lie unrepaired; other domes and pediments will rise from our domes and pediments; some few men will think and work and feel as we have done, and I venture to count upon such continuators, placed irregularly throughout the centuries, and upon this kind of intermittent immortality."

"A being afire with life cannot foresee death; in fact, by each of his deeds he denies that death exists."

"A young musician plays scales in his room and only bores his family. A beginning writer, on the other hand, sometimes has the misfortune of getting into print."

"A human life cannot be graphed whatever people may say, by two virtual perpendiculars, representing what a man believed himself to be and what he wished to be, plus a flat horizontal for what he actually was; rather, the diagram has to be composed of three curving lines, extended to infinity, ever meeting and ever diverging."

"Any law too often subject to infraction is bad; it is the duty of the legislator to repeal or change it."

"Beyond this village, other villages; beyond this abbey, other abbeys; and after the fortress, more fortresses still. And each of these castles of stone and each wooden hut has its structure of fixed ideas or flimsy, ill-based opinions superposed above it within which fools stay immured, but the wise find apertures for escape."

"Any truth creates a scandal."

"A touch of madness is, I think, almost always necessary for constructing a destiny."

"A book may lie dormant for fifty years or for two thousand years in a forgotten corner of a library, only to reveal, upon being opened, the marvels or the abysses that it contains, or the line that seems to have been written for me alone. In this respect the writer is not different from any other human being: whatever we say or do can have far-reaching consequences."

"All would have transformed us if we had the courage to be what we are."

"But even the longest dedication is too short and too commonplace to honor a friendship so uncommon. When I try to define this asset which has been mine now for years, I tell myself that such a privilege, however rare it may be, is surely not unique; that in the whole adventure of bringing a book successfully to its conclusion, or even in the entire life of some fortunate writers, there must have been sometimes, in the background, perhaps, someone who will not let pass the weak or inaccurate sentence which we ourselves would retain, out of fatigue; someone who would re-read with us for the twentieth time, if need be, a questionable page; someone who takes down for us from the library shelves the heavy tomes in which we may find a helpful suggestion, and who persists in continuing to peruse them long after weariness has made us give up; someone who bolsters our courage and approves, or sometimes disputes, our ideas; who shares with us, and with equal fervor, the joys of art and of living, the endless work which both require, never easy but never dull; someone who is neither our shadow nor our reflection, nor even our complement, but simply himself; someone who leaves us ideally free, but who nevertheless obliges us to be fully what we are. Hospes Comesque."

"And nevertheless I have loved certain of my masters, and those strangely intimate though elusive relations existing between student and teacher, and the Sirens singing somewhere within the cracked voice of him who is first to reveal a new idea. The greatest seducer was not Alcibiades, afterall, it was Socrates."

"Do not mistake me. I am not yet weak enough to yield to fearful imaginings, which are almost as absurd as illusions of hope, and are certainly harder to bear. If I must deceive myself, I should prefer to stay on the side of confidence, for I shall lose no more there and shall suffer less."

"Few bipeds, from Adam's time down, have been worthy of the name of man."

"Every silence is composed of nothing but unspoken words. Perhaps that is why I became a musician. Someone had to express this silence, make it render up all the sadness it contained, make it sing as it were. Someone had to use not words, which are always too precise not to be cruel, but simply music."

"Every bliss achieved is a masterpiece: the slightest error turns it awry, and it alters with one touch of doubt; any heaviness detracts from its charm, the least stupidity renders it dull."

"He had come to that time in his life (it varies for every man) when a human being gives himself over to his demon or to his genius, according to a mysterious law which orders him either to destroy or to surpass himself."

"Every invalid is a prisoner."

"He had reached that moment in life, different for each one of us, when a man abandons himself to his demon or to his genius, following a mysterious law which bids him either to destroy or outdo himself."

"He didn?t feel himself to be, as so many people do, a man as opposed to beasts and trees; rather, a brother of one and a distant cousin of the other. Nor did he particularly consider himself male in contrast with the gentler order of women; he had passionately possessed certain women, but, out of bed, his cares, his needs, his constraints of money, sickness, and the daily tasks one performs to live hadn?t seemed to him so different from theirs. He had, rarely it is true, known the carnal brotherhood other men had shared with him; he didn?t feel less a man for that. People falsify everything, it seemed to him, in taking such little account of the flexibility and resources of the human being, so like the plant, which seeks out the sun or water and nourishes itself fairly well from whatever earth and wind has sown it in. Custom more than nature seemed to him to dictate the differences we set up between classes of men, the habits and knowledge acquired from infancy, or the various ways of praying to what is called God. Ages, sexes, or even species seemed to him closer one to another than each generally assumed about the other: child or old man, man or woman, animal or biped who speaks the works with his hands, all come together in the misery and sweetness of existence."

"I have given you, O Adam, no fixed abode, and no visage of your own, nor any special gift, in order that whatever place or aspect or talents you yourself will have desired, you may have and possess them wholly in accord with your desire and your own decision. Other species are confined to a prescribed nature, under laws of my making. No limits have been imposed upon you, however; you determine your nature by you own free will, in the hands of which I have placed you. I have placed you at the world?s very center, that you may the better behold from this point whatever is in the world. And I have made you neither celestial nor terrestrial, neither mortal nor immortal, so that, like a free and able sculptor and painter of yourself, you may mold yourself wholly in the form of your choice"

"I have come to think that great men are characterized precisely by the extreme position which they take, and that their heroism consists in holding to that extremity throughout their lives."

"Human beings betray their worst failings when they marvel to find that a world ruler is neither foolishly indolent, presumptuous, nor cruel."

"I have no desire to mention here a small fact that is supposedly obscene, but what follows corroborates in advance the opinion I hold today on that so highly controversial subject of the awakening of the senses, our future tyrants. Lying that night in Yolande?s narrow bed, the only one available to us, an instinct, a premonition of intermittent desires experienced and satisfied later in the course of my life, allowed me to discover right away the posture and the movements needed by two women who love one another. Proust talked about the heart?s intermittencies. Who will talk about those of the senses, particularly about those desires that the ignorant assume to be either so thoroughly against nature as to be always artificially acquired or else, on the contrary, inscribed in the flesh of certain persons like a nefarious and permanent fate? My own would not really awaken until years later, then in turn, and for years at a time, disappear to the point of being forgotten. Though a bit callous, Yolande admonished me kindly: I?ve been told it was bad to do those things. Really? I said. And turning away without protest, I stretched out and fell asleep on the edge of the bed"

"In alchemical treatises, the formula L'Oeuvre au Noir, designates what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist's process, the separation and dissolution of substance. It is still not clear whether the term applied to daring experiments on matter itself, or whether it was understood to symbolize trials of the mind in discarding all forms of routine and prejudice. Doubtless it signified one or the other meaning alternately, or perhaps both at the same time."

"If you love life you also love the past, because it is the present as it has survived in memory."

"I have never seasoned a truth with the sauce of a lie in order to digest it more easily."

"I knew that good like bad becomes a routine, that the temporary tends to endure, that what is external permeates to the inside, and that the mask, given time, comes to be the face itself."

"Leisure moments: each life well regulated has some such intervals, and he who cannot make way for them does not know how to live."

"Leaving behind books is even more beautiful ? there are far too many children."

"Meditation upon death does not teach one how to die; it does not make the departure more easy, but ease is not what I seek. Beloved boy, so willful and brooding, your sacrifice will have enriched not my life but my death? Centuries as yet unborn within the dark womb of time would pass by thousands over that tomb without restoring life to him, but likewise without adding to his death, and without changing the fact that he had been."

"Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. But one moment still, let us gaze together on these familiar shores, on these objects which doubtless we shall not see again... Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes."

"It is not difficult to nourish admirable thoughts when the stars are present."

"Nathana‰l is one of those people who think almost without the mediation of words. That is to say, he is practically devoid of that vocabulary which is both customary and exhausted, as worn down as overused coins, with which we exchange what we take to be ideas, what we think we believe and what we believe we think."

"Men who care passionately for women attach themselves at least as much to the temple and to the accessories of the cult as to their goddess herself."

"Nothing is slower than the true birth of a man."

"Of all our games, love's play is the only one which threatens to unsettle the soul, and is also the only one in which the player has to abandon himself to the body's ecstasy."

"More sincere than most men, I can freely admit the secret causes of this felicity: that calm so propitious for work and for discipline of the mind seems to me one the richest results of love. An it puzzles me that these joys, so precarious at best, and so rarely perfect in the course of human life, however we may have sought or received them, should be regarded with such mistrust by the so-called wise, who denounce the danger of habit and excess in sensuous delight, instead of fearing its absence or its loss"

"One must not fear the words anymore when one consented to the things."

"One night (I was eleven years old at the time) he came and shook me from my sleep and announced, with the same grumbling laconism that he would have employed to predict a good harvest to his tenants, that I should rule the world."

"Passion satisfied has its innocence, almost as fragile as any other."

"The memory of most men is an abandoned cemetery where lie, unsung and un-honored, the dead whom they have ceased to cherish. Any lasting grief is reproof to their forgetfulness."

"Our civil laws will never be supple enough to fit the immense and changing variety of facts. Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom."

"The skirmishes with the theologians had had their charm, but he knew well that no lasting accord exists between those who seek, ponder, and dissect and pride themselves on being capable of thinking tomorrow other than they do today, and those who accept the Faith, or declare that they do, and oblige their fellow men to do the same, on pain of death."

"Passion such as hers is all consent, asking little in return. I had merely to enter a room where she was to see her face take on that peaceful expression of one who is resting in bed. If I touched her, I had the impression that all the blood in her veins was turning to honey."

"Our defects are sometimes the better adversaries when we oppose our vices."