Montherlant, Henri de (Vol. 19)
Montherlant, Henri de 1896–1972
A French novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist, Montherlant extolled Spartan virtue, virility, and stoicism in his writings. Viewed by many as a "right-wing" novelist and falsely accused of collaborating with the Germans, Montherlant suffered a diminished literary reputation as a result. Interesting parallels exist between Montherlant and Hemingway. Both writers have been called egotists and both appear to exalt violence. Furthermore, both wrote about bullfighting: Montherlant quite authentically, since he actually had experience in the ring. Finally, both men shot themselves—Hemingway because he was physically ill and because he feared going insane, Montherlant because he was threatened by blindness. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
M. de Montherlant's novel ["The Bullfighters"] is the first I know to raise bullfighting beyond either mere spectacle or mere study, and to put it in an absolute world of its own, with its own sensations of beauty and mysticism, terror and strength…. [To] read "The Bullfighters" is to drop out of life, to become bullfighter and bull and nothing else, to see Time drop away and immemorial ceremonies dominate and fire the blood. Here is not only the face of the bull and the mind of the bullfighter; here is the soul of bullfighting….
Having lived throughout the book in a merely technical and professional world of bullfighting, one suddenly sees into the soul of the spectacle, into the history of the ceremony, with all its beauty, its passion, its terror, its symbolism of the life force. There remains nothing of the "national sport of Spain" about these ceremonies; Spain fades out of them and they go back to ancient worlds, to Persia, to Greece, to Rome.
What gives emotional uniqueness and narrative piquancy to the book is, of course, the nature of the hero…. [Alban] is an imaginative young boy, intelligent as well as emotional, who sees the poetry behind the action. And the narrative is all the more piquant because of M. de Montherlant's variety of talents; his sophisticated style, which never succumbs to the dithyrambic or turgid, as so easily it might, but which tells this tale of a vital passion with all the...
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In France, where the intelligent novel goes far, these books about women (women in love) [Montherlant's Les Jeunes Filles] have been widely enough read to rouse excitement and anger. Montherlant has been, I understand, accused of indecency on a rather subtle plane. He gets nearer the nerve of a matter—in fact, "our women"—than people, even in France, like. Now that translation is to widen his English public, what, I wonder, will be the reactions to him here? Very mixed: in some quarters, possibly, hostile. He is likely to displease women, to unnerve men. He has a ruthless touch on a good many illusions. But his drive, his clarity, his magnetic style are unlikely to be forgotten….
Les Jeunes Filles is a miracle of construction. Letters from and to women, an extract from a matrimonial gazette, leaves from notebooks, a cutting from one of Costals' articles are assembled to make the novel—apparently at random. Straight narrative only starts towards the end….
This method—random assemblage—is for Montherlant's purpose brilliantly chosen. No fact appears without its effect of almost painful relevance. Statements are to be taken at their personal value. Emotion is progressive, cumulative, not checked or deflected by outside scenes. So much speed has each character gathered in its solitary course that each of the few encounters become collisions. Crisis is self-explanatory. Each of the three women...
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SIMONE de BEAUVOIR
Montherlant belongs to the long tradition of males who have adopted as their own the proud Manichaeism of Pythagoras. Following Nietzsche, he holds that only epochs marked by weakness have exalted the Eternal Feminine and that the hero should rise in revolt against the Magna Mater. A specialist in heroism, he undertakes to dethrone her. Woman—she is night, disorder, immanence…. According to him, it is the stupidity and the baseness of the men of today that have lent an air of positive worth to feminine deficiencies: we hear about women's instinct, their intuition, their divination, when it is in order to denounce their lack of logic, their obstinate ignorance, their inability to grasp reality. They are in fact neither observers nor psychologists; they can neither see things nor understand living beings; their mystery is a snare and a delusion, their unfathomable treasures have the depth of nothingness; they have nothing to give to man and can only do him injury. For Montherlant it is first of all the mother who is the great enemy…. (p. 199)
[His] complaints are not without foundation. But through the explicit reproaches Montherlant heaps upon the woman mother it is clearly seen that what he detests, in her, is the fact of his own birth. He believes he is God, he wants to be God; and this because he is male, because he is a "superior man," because he is Montherlant. A god is no engendered being; his body, if he has one, is a will...
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["The Bachelors"] has no plot, no content, little characterization, only style and avid irony. Montherlant's hatred for these members of his aristocratic class is not relieved by pity; but it moves the reader, for it only half disguises the author's hatred of himself. Behind his Stendhalian technique of intervening in his descriptions and in his narrative and of commenting upon his sad weaklings for the reader's sake, one detects Montherlant's fundamental isolation and shyness. These pathetic noblemen reduced to insignificance might have been members of his family, or what he would himself have become, a misogynist bachelor, if he had not been saved by vitality, by talent and by a boundless and arrogant faith in himself. (p. 1)
The themes [of another of Montherlant's works, "Selected Essays,"] are the traditional ones among French moralists since Montaigne and and La Rochefoucauld. First, interest in oneself as the most fascinating epitome of mankind. Second, pitiless scorn for mankind in general, for womankind more especially, and for one's countrymen even more particularly. The the denunciation of all illusions through which mortals endeavor to console themselves for living, or for not knowing how to live; belief in immortality, in the spirit as higher than the flesh, in female beauty, in universal stupidity being curable through education or through democracy. Finally, delight in paradox, in the contradictions that aphorisms favor,...
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Henry de Montherlant is a moralist, this is to say a writer whose principal concern is how man ought to live. His essays, plays, and novels serve this inquiry; they record and analyze Montherlant's observation of human behavior; they are dialectical and rhetorical exercises in support of an essentially psychological interpretation of life.
For Montherlant, men are isolated creatures, responding to psychological imperatives. These are often at variance with the patterns of behavior sanctioned by society, which is in itself no more than an uneasy collective of individual consciousnesses…. (p. 704)
According to Montherlant, it is man's nature to be attracted by opposites; it is his destiny always to be moving between polarities, between sensuality and chastity, for instance, between reason and unreason, between courage and cowardice.
The central fact of human existence is inconsistency…. (pp. 704-05)
[It] is easy to understand the puzzlement and strong feelings engendered both in his European and American readers by Montherlant's writings. Montherlant has raised inconsistency to a rhetorical method…. (p. 705)
More disturbing to his readers than his idiosyncrasy or contradictariness are Montherlant's powers of analysis and the devastating manner in which they are applied. What other modern writer practices more skillfully or—it would seem—more coldly the...
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Throughout Montherlant's dramatic production, there exists a striking similarity of thematic content. Virtually each play stresses the drive for self-realization and the resultant heroic stature achieved by the protagonist, as well as his final recognition that, as his destiny differs from that of common humanity, he is condemned to solitude and exile. Each dénouement reveals to the hero the vanity of all things, including his own achievements. In his anguish at the absurdity of man's existence. Montherlant's hero longs for death and oblivion.
This pessimism and nihilism in Montherlant's theatrical production are a logical outcome of his theory of alternation, a doctrine which has guided him throughout his life. In 1926, in the essay entitled "Syncrétisme et alternance," Montherlant first set forth this theory which asserted that, since everything in nature has its proper place and everything is justified, one must taste of every human experience in order to find happiness. Since simultaneous realization is impossible, it is necessary to alternate within oneself the Angel and the Beast, corporeal, carnal life and moral, intellectual life; for it is essential for a human being to realize that all experiences have their place in the order of things. Life, in all of its manifestations, is a force which does not have to be explained, just lived to the fullest.
However, in the essay entitled "Sans Remède," which...
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Chaos and Night is concerned with a relic of the war, a Spanish anarchist, now sixty-seven, who has been exiled in Paris for twenty years. The old anecdote tells us that, when a Frenchman was asked by his grandchild what he had done during the Revolution, he replied, "I survived." In effect, Montherlant examines this answer for his hero: to find out what survived and why and whether it was worth the effort. (p. 20)
Two themes run through this austere but rich novel, one explicit, one manifested through the book's shape and sum: the realities of political belief, and God's last laugh. As for the former, it becomes increasingly clear to Celestino that seemingly immutable principles are a matter of the moment in which they are acquired; they depend on environmental conditions, one's desires, one's very metabolism…. Unknown to Celestino and clear to us only at the end, God the matador plays with Celestino throughout, passing with his cape so that Celestino will charge with the illusion of power and control. Then, after seeing a corrida which leaves him with intimations of imminent death, Celestino trudges back to his hotel room where God closes in for the kill…. (pp. 20-1)
The book is not a heavy religious parable; it is a political novel by a religious man. One need not share Montherlant's faith, nor any faith, to see the scope of the cosmos defined by Celestino's reticent vainglory. The book has a...
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What interests Montherlant in Le Maître de Santiago is not the hero's struggle or relationship with God but the inner mechanism of the psychological phenomenon of faith, that phenomenon combined with intransigence, and the ambiguity of abnegation and pride…. [Montherlant] at no time treats the supernatural as such but describes an emotional and intellectual attitude toward it.
Another of Montherlant's concerns … is that of "the imitation of life." By that he means that no rule of composition, no pre-established principle of what a dramatic character must be, should turn the playwright away from the faithful reproduction of psychological flux, its surprises, even its incoherence…. For Montherlant man is essentially a psychological mechanism whose workings do not follow a logical development. He can be described in terms of classical psychological categories …; he is made up of contradictions; he surprises others and surprises himself. And the objective of theatre is to bring out the workings of the mechanism by means of exemplary anecdotes.
Such psychologism and fidelity to life might have led to a more or less naturalistic anecdotal theatre…. Yet the greater part of his dramatic works transcends the application of his two principles, and the return to man that he represents does not mean a pure and simple return to a form of theatre which has had its day.
There is no doubt that...
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Henry de Montherlant, that haughty aristocrat of French letters …, is at his best when he diverts psychological tension into a rather grand, sporty, occasionally risky farce. The hero of The Girls [Les Jeunes Filles] scores a point against the book's major villain (the villain is the institution of marriage) by making himself even more of a fool than he is. (p. 22)
There are many funny scenes in Montherlant's novel; I recommend it for its comedy. Unfortunately, The Girls … has a rather … banal thesis to push. Montherlant is—tirelessly, interminably—out to attack the myth of "the eternal feminine," the idealization of women and marriage, the "love-court" notion of relations between the sexes. The misogynous argument goes something like this. At best, what a man may naturally feel for a woman is a mixture of desire, tenderness, and esteem. But this is not enough for women. Physiologically, intellectually, and morally defective, and completely devoid of mystery, they have, in Western civilization, tried to compensate for their inferiority by imposing on men the monstrous, antinatural cult of "pure Love."…
Man's mistake is to pity women—an understandable, magnanimous mistake, since they need us to be happy and we need them only to satisfy a physical need. But enough pity! The Girls "documents" the havoc wrought by compassion and by the idiotic obstinacy with which women try to...
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Many have seen Montherlant's first play, L'Exil, as the key to his following theatrical works. It is true that Montherlant's tragic heroes are continually in a state of exile, but it is Pasiphaë who best illustrates the exile they must endure. Because of their desire they are in exile from others, from nature, and often from the deepest part of themselves. Like Pasiphaë his tragic heroes are constantly thirsting, though the waters that will fulfill their desire are always beyond this world. And thus like Pasiphaë they must affirm themselves in their exile as they affirm their desire…. Like Kierkegaard's Abraham, Pasiphaë can find no mediation through an ethical universal. For her the tragedy of eros is to be exiled to a realm of gratuitous desire that finds justification only because she is strong enough to will it.
Once desire is considered to be the key to Montherlant's tragic heroes, a play such as La Reine morte takes on new dimensions. The conflict between Ferrante and Inès is the struggle between desire and anti-desire; it is a conflict between infinite yearning and nature. (p. 530)
Confronting Inès, she who lives plenitude and fecundity, who is close to the earth and fertility, is Ferrante, the old King. He is tired, which, as is the case with all of Montherlant's heroes, is more of a metaphysical than a psychological condition. Fatigue is the certain prelude to the descent into...
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P. J. Norrish
Most of [Montherlant's] dramatic heroes aspire to act in ways that are above those usually found at the common level of humanity. They believe in cultivating what they regard as the better or deeper part of their beings. But they are usually supermen with a flaw, and Montherlant makes drama out of their struggles to promote their ideals in the face of opposition not only from others but from themselves.
For Montherlant, just as there are two kinds of men, the ordinary and the extraordinary, so there are two kinds of happiness, one for the majority and the other for the minority élite. Happiness for most people is again love, the happiness of one individual in love with another and allowed to be with that other person in peace. If Malatesta (1948) is anything to go by, the pleasures of love-making are not to be denied, but the notion of 'love' as a sentiment tends to be dismissed by the majority of [Montherlant's] heroes as mere sentimentality, and certainly as inferior to duty to God or to country or one's 'better part'. In fact, the love sentiment of ordinary people tends to get in the way of the devotion to duty and self-fulfillment practised by the heroes, and this conflict provides a large part of the drama.
What, then, is the 'bonheur' of the minority? They do not care for the term, but fulfilment of their desires does in fact consist sometimes of satisfying a sense of duty, and more often it involves...
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