*Montherlant, Henry de
Montherlant, Henry de
Henry de Montherlant is best known as a playwright and novelist, one of the finest that 20th-century France has produced. Mirroring the themes of the major fictional and dramatic works, his essays, though couched in the same precise, formal French and like them mediated through a style characterized by sustained eloquence and austere elegance, are more in the nature of occasional writings.
They divide into two broad periods of production. The first category comprises the essays written in response to World War I, and the second group consists of writings inspired by the approach of, and subsequent responses to, the outbreak of World War II.
In neither category, however, do we find essays which might be called “political,” either in a general way, or in the narrower sense of being devoted to the propagation of a particular program. Montherlant’s approach is always that of the aloof commentator, an attitude described in a famous 1915 essay by one of his mentors, Romain Rolland, as a stance “au-dessus de la mêlée” (above the hurly-burly).
Montherlant began his career as an essayist with La Relève du matin (The morning relief), completed in 1918 but not published until two years later. It consisted mainly of reflections on his schooldays at a single-sex Roman Catholic private collège or high school. As a result it was hailed as a Catholic work, but Montherlant was all his life an agnostic for whom (in the plays especially) Catholicism was a source of inspiration rather
than a matter of personal belief. What Montherlant admired about his school was its cult of physical strength and of what, rather grandiloquently, he termed “virile brotherhood.”
The same theme recurs in Chant funèbre pour les morts de Verdun (1924; Dirge for the Verdun dead), consisting mainly of newspaper articles he wrote in his capacity as secretary of the fund to build an ossuary on the site of the Douaumont fortress, where so many soldiers fell in the defense of France during World War I. In this book, and in a companion volume Mors et vita (1932.; Death and life), he celebrated courage and selfsacrifice, seeking in the cult of sport in general and of competitive games in particular to recapture the atmosphere of exalted activity and virile comradeship that he had seen manifested in war.
Most critics agree that the lead article in Aux fontaines du désir (1927; At the fountains of desire), an essay entitled “Syncrétisme et alternance” (Syncretism and alternation), sums up Montherlant’s thinking and indeed the whole of his work in this genre. The absurdity which, in common with many French writers of his generation, he sees at the root of the human condition is for him a natural state of affairs, a fact of life, neither to be luxuriated in nor to be deplored. Humankind is at once capable of great evil and selfdestruction (hence the necessity to build a charnel house at Douaumont in order to preserve the human remains exhumed from the battlefield) and of great courage and sacrifice (as demonstrated in the patriotic willingness, despite the enormous cost, to stand and fight at Verdun). Wisdom for Montherlant lies in accepting these extremes; a healthy balance must be struck between Angel and Beast, the empire of the senses and the world of the mind. Only mediocrity is to be eschewed at all costs. The writer must embrace all facets of human life and not stand on the sidelines as a mere observer: Montherlant was, after all, a near-contemporary of those soldier-writers par excellence, Ernest Hemingway and André Malraux. This period of Montherlant’s essay output closes with the publication of a collection of writings devoted mainly to the extensive travels he undertook between the wars, Un voyageur solitaire est un diable (A lone traveler is a
devil), completed earlier but not published until 1945.
The second period opens with Service inutile (1935; Useless service), a more overtly political collection—with the reservation mentioned above—than the preceding books.
This was followed by L’Équinoxe de septembre (1938; The September equinox), Le Solstice de juin (1941; The June solstice), and Textes sous une occupation (1953; Texts under an occupation). These essays got Montherlant into trouble after the war, since they were felt to have exalted the swastika and denigrated French defense efforts.
Montherlant’s fastidious, ironic manner was partly to blame; after all, to argue, as he did, that purely out of self-respect one must serve a cause even though one knows it to be useless (“idealism requires service; realism exposes its pointlessness”), was hardly likely to endear him to the Resistance. As Lucille Becker (1970) explains, his actions cut him off from the mainspring of French life: “Montherlant’s generation had hailed him principally as a moralist, but the postwar generation, unable to accept his overwhelming pessimism and nihilism, turned to writers like André Malraux, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus, who had been actively engaged in the struggle for freedom.” When young people threw in their lot with the Resistance, she says, Montherlant was conspicuous by his absence.
Like all French moralists since Montaigne, Montherlant used the essay to explore his own developing ideas, for instance his thinking on suicide, “the last act by which a man can show that he dominates life and is not dominated by it”; it therefore comes as no surprise that he carefully chose the moment of his own death, shooting himself when it was clear to him that he was going blind. He had first contemplated suicide in 1935, so it can hardly be considered an impulsive act on his part.
Montherlant’s philosophy, as expounded over the years in successive volumes of essays with striking consistency and continuity, can be summed up as follows. In a world where all is confusion and incoherence, and where nothing makes sense, human beings have no great task to perform but rather a single injunction to obey: that of extracting maximum physical pleasure from life. The instruments that enable humankind to do this are intelligence, lucidity, and a calm, unshakable agnosticism. Wisdom consists in annulling reasons for suffering. Since the world cannot be changed, it is we humans who must adapt to it: the intelligence contemplates the world and its occupants in order to plot a safer passage through it.
Far from being depressing, Montherlant’s thought is marked by a kind of stoical cheerfulness. Not only did he foresee death at his own hand, he also anticipated, and was not perturbed by, the eventual eclipse of his writings. He knew that they were the product of a particular time (the early 20th century) and of a specific place (intellectual Paris). He did not flatter himself that they would survive in the same way as had the work of his admired Greeks and Romans. On the contrary, he endorsed Paul Valéry’s sobering pronouncement: “nous autres civilisations, nous savons maintenant que nous sommes mortelles” (we civilizations now know that we are mortal).
Henry Marie Joseph Millon de Montherlant. Born 21April 1896 in Paris. Studied at the Collège Sainte-Croix, Neuilly-sur-Seine, 1910–12: expelled; baccalauréat in philosophy, 1913; law at the Institut Catholique, Paris, 1912–13; failed law examinations. Served in the French army, 1916–18: wounded; interpreter for the American forces, 1918–19.
Worked to build ossuary at Douaumont, 1920–24. Traveled several times to North Africa, from 1926, and lived there, 1931–32. War correspondent with French infantry, 1939–40; war correspondent, Marianne weekly, c. 1941; worked for the Red Cross, 1942–45. Began gradually to go blind, from 1959. Elected to the French Academy, 1960.
Awards: Northcliffe Prize (England), for novel, 1934; French Academy Grand Prize for Literature, for novel, 1934; Grand Prize for Colonial Literature (refused), 1934.
Died (suicide by gunshot) in Paris, 21 September 1972.
Essays and Related Prose
La Relève du matin, 1920; revised edition, 1933
Les Olympiques (includes essays, poems, and short stories on sports), 2 vols., 1924
Chant funèbre pour les morts de Verdun, 1924
Aux fontaines du dèsir, 1927
Troisième Olympique, 1929
La Petite Infante de Castille, 1929
Pour une vierge noire, 1930
Mors et vita, 1932
Service inutile, 1935; revised edition, 1952
Flèche du sud, 1937
L’Équinoxe de septembre, 1938
La Possession de soi-même, 1938
Le Solstice de juin, 1941
La Paix dans la guerre, 1941
Sur les femmes, 1942
Croire aux âmes, 1944
Un voyageur solitaire est un diable, 1945
L’Art et la vie, 1947
Notes sur mon thêâtre, 1950
España sagrada, 1951
Textes sous une occupation (1940–1944), 1953
Carnets (1930–1944), 1957
Selected Essays, edited by Peter Quennell, translated by John Weightman, 1960
Essais (Pléiade Edition), 1963
Discours de réception de M.Henry de Montherlant à l’Académie Française, 1963
Va jouer avec cette poussière: Carnets, 1958–1964, 1966
Le Treizième César, 1970
Tous feux éteints (carnets), 1975
Other writings: nine novels (including Les Célibataires [The Bachelors], 1934; Les Jeunes Filles [The Girls] tetralogy, 1936–39), many plays (including La Reine morte [Queen After Death], 1942.; Malatesta, 1946; Le Maître de Santiago [The Master of Santiago], 1947; Port-Royal, 1954), and several volumes of diaries.
Becker, Lucille, Henry de Montherlant: A Critical Biography, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970
Cruickshank, John, Montherlant, Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1964
Johnson, Robert B., Henry de Montherlant, New York: Twayne, 1968
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