‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ by Marguerite Yourcenar, translated by Dori Katz in collaboration with the author

Collected in Fires, a series of dramatic monologues retelling ancient Greek stories or myths, Marguerite Yourcenar’s ‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ came to her while studying St. John the Evangelist’s fiancée, as depicted in The Golden Legend (a.k.a. Legenda sanctorum: Readings of the Saints), an illuminated hagiographical manuscript authored by Jacobus de Varagine around 1260 C.E.

The problem with passion is greed: it desires too much. It craves the epiphanic, the heroic, the eternal. Like a god, the hero lavishes the salvific on his admirers. Rescue is the stallion’s white horse, but the price of salvation is possession. Yourcenar’s iconography of ancient thought-crimes is interspersed with italicized, lyrical notes that depict a personal fire in the author’s life. Each note resembles a Station of the Cross. Each is marked with a small torch at the top, as if to suggest that the author’s personal confessions occupy an illuminated space: “Burned with more fires… a hot whip lashes my back. I rediscovered the true meaning of the poetic metaphors. I wake up each night with my own blood ablaze.”

Mary Magdalene is the scripture’s most captivating character. Kneeling to wash a man’s feet with her hair is eros stripped bare; the act partakes of ecstasy’s shamelessness. Yourcenar uses hagiographic form for ‘Mary Magdalene; or Salvation’ to paint eros as the insatiable desire to be consumed by an unknowable Otherness. In first-person, Mary tells us how she rejected the Roman centurion’s proposition after falling in love with Saint John the Evangelist. “Loving his innocence was my first sin,” Mary admits. They become a couple. Temptation divides them when John is lured away by “the Ravishing One,” the man named Christ, the “Seducer who makes renunciation as sweet as sin.” Ultimately, John’s impotence damns the consummation of their marriage. It seems that unrevolutionary carnal love has nothing on God’s kinky neon.

John is gone. Mary is ostracized. She sleeps with the Roman centurion (among others). Eventually, she finds this man named Christ, John’s passion. “Placed in front of the Passion, I forgot love,” Mary says. “I accepted purity, like a worse perversion.” Conceptualizing purity as perversion in the Aristotelian sense, as a destruction of the mean, Yourcenar suggests salvation fails to redeem. What draws Mary to the Savior is their shared lack of fidelity: “Like me, he agreed to the terrible lot of belonging to all,” Mary says of Christ. “All we ever do is change enslavements: at the exact moment the devils left me, I became possessed by God.” Belonging to Him is the ultimate ecstasy. But the Passion doesn’t alter eternity. The crucifixion only teaches men that they can “get rid of God.”

After witnessing the resurrection, Mary finally understands “the full meaning of God’s atrocity”: the bride of Christ must share her husband with the entire world. Despite this abandonment, Mary regrets nothing. The Lord did not save her from her crimes, her sins, her death—it is “through them that one is saved.” The wrong we have done liberates us. Suffering continues. Salvation is freedom from loving John. As for the Messiah, Mary says, “He saved me from happiness.”

First published in French in Feux, 1936. Published in translation in Fires, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1981

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