Translation - De Montherlant: A Portrait of an Author by Alain de Benoist

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This is a translation of the first part of an essay by de Benoist on Henry de Montherlant. I will post the second part once I have finished. The essay appeared in the German Journal Sezession . Apologies for all errors and I hope it is of some interest.

De Montherlant: A Portrait of an Author by Alain de Benoist

Novels, novellas, essays, short stories, poetry, notes, and plays: there is hardly a literary genre untouched by Montherlant. And, he always found the greatest inspiration in his own life, not in a shallow, narcissistic way as so many contemporary authors, but by attaching a greater importance to firsthand experiences.

Henry (Millon) de Montherland was born on 20th April 1895; though he’d sometimes give his birthday as 21st April, so that it fell on the traditional anniversary of the founding of Rome. His father descended from a noble Picardian family and his mother was of Catalonian origin. After the premature death of his father, his education and upbringing were left up to his mother, who imparted to him a love of literature at a young age. Henryk Sienkiewicz’s historical tome “Quo Vadis?” left on him not only a lifelong impression, but also awoke his interest in roman antiquity, when heathens and Christians constantly confronted each other. Already present in this book are the topoi he would claim to set out in his own work: ancient Rome, bulls, friendship and suicide. He would later say of his childhood, “I was as obsessed with my Romans as Don Quixote with his chivalrous heroes.”

His expulsion from Collège Sainte-Croix in Neuilly-sur-Seine provided him the material for two works, the play La ville dont le prince est un enfant (1951) and the book Les garcons (1969), in which he intertwines the themes of religious education / upbringing and “special friendships” between boys, aged 14 to 16. “All friendships recorded in history”, he wrote, “had their origin the school or the battlefield.” In the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Maurice Barrès , with which he quenched his youthful thirst for reading, Montherlant found an ideal of bravery and an initiation into the ethics of honour. During the First World War he was, in 1916, first sent into the reserves and then active service. The wound he suffered made its way into his early 1914 work L’exil and his 1922 debut novel Le songe. After the war he became secretary of the Association OEuvre de l’Ossuaire de Douaumon and published a noteworthy hymn to the dead: Chant funèbre pour les morts de Verdun(reprinted 1932 in Mors et vita). The text is a lengthy meditation on death, in which Montherlant quotes en passant Fritz von Unruh and Goethe. “Everything that constitutes man, shows itself more fully in three months of war than in a lifetime of peace”, he said elsewhere. Though he was careful not to glorify the war: “If one wants to do away with war, one must offer courageous men, especially young men, something of equal worth… One must inspire the virtues of war in times of peace… I call for a peace in which we systematically conjure up events in order to display courage and self-sacrifice.” Invariably one feels reminded of Ernst Jünger.

In the 1920s Montherlant’s interest turned to sport, especially athletics and football, which he placed under the banner of “The God of Friendship”. In the stadiums he believed he rediscovered the “brotherhood of the trenches”. In Les Olympiques he celebrated the virtues of the naked body, sporting prowess, manliness and the beauty of feminine faces “spread out like the sea”. In bullfighting too, by which he had long been fascinated, he saw something similar to a religious offering. Thus he took up the fight against the toros of the arena himself. As an admirer of the Mediterranean civilisations – naturally the Roman, but also the Spanish and Arabian – he embarked on numerous journeys there. His first literary success Les Bestiarires was written in Seville. After Morocco and Tunisia, he spent several years in colonial Algeria, where in the 1930s he got to know André Gide in the capital. There, his love of boys, the posthumous revelation of which would cause scandal, was indulged in freely. But he also wrote a weighty “anticolonial” novel, La rose de sable , in whose hero, a young French army officer, he imprinted the excesses of colonialism. Fragments of the work would appear, but it was not published as a whole until 1968. It was Montherlant himself who shied away from publication, fearing that it would “harm the interests of a weakened France.” His criticism of colonialism was expressed in his correspondence with the army officer Paul Oudinot, who was himself an open opponent of colonialism. Montherlant had to bear the costs of publishing his first works, after they were rejected by publishers. He would though quickly achieve fame when Les célibataires w as awarded with the Grand Prix of the Académie française . The four volumes of the cycle Jeunes filles sold more than 1.5 million copies and brought him to global fame. These works earned him – unjustly – the enduring title of a woman hater. In truth his interest was in firstly giving a psychological analysis of the female nature and how it differed from that of the male. He was in no way a misogynist (any way, for the rest of his life he had numerous female admirers, and would thank his success to the female readers of Jeunes filles ), but far more represented the view that men and women belong, in certain ways, to different species and that marriage was a prison; into which the hero of the novels, Pierre Costals, refuses to tread. In this he resembles Montherlant himself, who in 1934 broke off his engagement.

Montherlant was a patriot without ever being a nationalist. He loved France as Cato the elder loved his fatherland, and without ever being politically engaged. Nevertheless he expressed himself critically against National Socialist Germany in certain of his essays of the 1930s, and spoke explicitly against the Munich agreement. Under the German occupation, his 1936 book L’équinoxe de septembre appeared on the index of banned works. However, another work, Le solstice de juin , whose title alludes to the previous book, which dealt with the war in France in May and June 1940, brought him the odour of collaboration. Here he described the swastika as the new avatar of the “sun rune” and celebrates the heroism of the individual, which only permits us to “escape those things which aren’t dependent upon us”. During the occupation he held himself back from politics. He refused to take part in a 1941/ 42 writers’ congress in Weimar, but actively participated in literary life and cultivated close relationships with certain members of the “German Institute”. Heinz-Dieter Bremer, who in 1943 died on the eastern front, translated several of Montherlant’s books. Thus he fell into disrepute after the liberation.

From the war’s end de Montherlant wrote increasingly for the theatre. After the tremendous success of Reine morte ( 1942 ), he used pieces such as Malatesta (1946), Le maître de Santiago (1947), Port-Royal (1954), Brocéliande (1956), Don Juan (1956,), Le cardinal d’Espagne (1960, which was, on 21st April 1967 at the time of Adenauer’s funeral, shown on German television) and La guerre civile, in order to portray an arrogant morality, and whose protagonists, driven by their passions, are at the end betrayed or destroyed. He tackled serious questions emphatically. He brought the conflict between mysticism and politics to the stage, the tragedy of mercy and those who rule. He showed how noble values are punished in a society that only calls for the development of that which satisfies the majority. As he said himself, he was better able to describe man’s faults as he had already explored his own.

In March 1960 he was elected to the Académie française, without having so requested as convention demanded. At this time his life and work were already the subject of numerous books and many of his own works had appeared in luxury editions, illustrated by contemporary artists (Cocteau, Mariette Lydis, Pierre Yves Trémois among others). In addition, translations in many languages, especially German, had been produced.

After partially losing his eyesight and fearing complete blindness, Henry de Montherland decided upon suicide, which he had always viewed as honourable. Entrusting nothing to chance, he carefully chose his death day. On 21st September, when day and night are equally long, the moment when all things – shadow and light – are in balance, he shot himself in the head in his Parisian apartment amidst his antique busts. He died in accordance with the Roman principles he had always revered. Those who had long reproached him for living behind a mask could no longer deny that he remained true to himself. As Julien Green wrote, “He had invented a character of bravura and fire and he would be faithful to him to the last.” In accordance with his wishes, the executor of his will, Jean-Claude Barat and his friend Gabriel Matzneff scattered his ashes over the Roman Forum, halfway between the Temple of Vesta and the Temple of Portunus.

Niccolo and Donkey
President Camacho
This is a good point, and one of the reasons why I don't agree with internet spergs who see athletics as a wholly detrimental distraction. High school football for example is not the same as Spartan military training, but sports are one of the only permissible outlets for building toughness, discipline, and other masculine virtues in the modern world.

Of course an unhealthy passion for sport as spectator-- manifesting itself to the extent that men neglect their political duties-- is another issue and is a real cause of concern.

What was Juenger's take on sport, by the way?
I should briefly note that the quote should read "under the banner of “The God of Friendship”." (A problem with not proofreading)

I have never read anything by Juenger on the topic of sport, but would be interested should anybody have a reference. Though I would doubt that Juenger had quite the aesthetic interest in it that Montherlant had.
Part 2

Without a doubt Montherlant belongs to the greatest French writers of the twentieth century. One need merely open any page of one of his books in order to be immediately thrilled by the richness and beauty of a classical language, which he mastered better than any other writer.

His life followed the great and ever misunderstood principles of syncretism and disconnected contemplation of change and the total difference of opposites. This Heraclitan view was borrowed from the play of nature, “Nature changes between day and night, between hot and cold, between rain and drought, between the tranquil sky and the storm.” He would be criticised by some authors of leading a “double life” or for the most part masking his being. Acctualy he took his starting point from the thought that opposites bound with each other and were equal to each other: life and death, war and peace, heroism and hedonism, Christian and ancient morality, earthly luck and spiritual blessing, fervour and sensuality, violence and benevolence, the love of creation and destruction ( aedificabo ad destruam ), yes and no, Catholicism and Paganism, Tiber and Orontes, courage and carpe diem. In Mors et vita it already states , “Without light there would be no shadows and the light affects the shadows.” “Two opposite doctrines” he explained in L’équinoxe de septembre , “are simply variations of the same truth.” Thus he maintains to both approve and disapprove of Christianity at the same time, after firstly having been captivated by Stoicism and Jansenism. There was something Prussian about this man, who so loved the Mediterranean, and he, who venerated strength and purity, found so much pleasure in indulgence. One says that man only believes in feelings to which he alone is sensitive, and Montherlant was sensitive to all. First and foremost he was a moralist, though in a peculiar fashion. In his work, be it novels from the early period like Les Bestiaires and Les célibataires through La rose de sable, to Le chaos et la nuit (1963) and Un assassin est mon maître (1971); notes such as Va jouer avec cette poussière (1966) and La marée du soir (1972); essays or plays, he never preached what Nietzsche had designated “moral indignation/ self-righteousness” . What he despised most – and treated with contempt in his work – were banality, lies, sentimentality, delight in utility, stinginess and above all meanness. Never be mean, but aspire to arrogance!

In “Letter from a Father to a Son” it says, “The essential is arrogance. For you it will be a substitute for everything else. By this I also mean indifference, because how can one be arrogant without first attaining indifference? When arrogance is fatherland enough for you you’ll have no other. He’ll replace the fatherland on the day the other fails you.” The most famous lines of La reine morte read, “Into the prison! Into the prison of moderation !” La vie en forme de proue is the name of one of his books: “Life at the Bow”; another is La possession de soi-même : “Possess yourself”. To possess oneself, to master oneself, is the idea of dignity that a man gets from himself. It means to breath at loftier heights. It means to master ones being amidst the temptations which come to us from the external world.

Next to La relève du matin (1920) and Les Olympiques (1924), Mors et vita (1932) and Service inutile (1935) are surely his most important essays. In Mors et vita there is a short text from 1929, which is titled “An Address to German Students”. Though the address was never given in this form, it contains sentences, which, according to Montherlant, he would have spoken had he travelled to Germany (where he had been invited repeatedly). “Patriotism”, it says, “is respect for enemies, because patriotism knows the meaning of a fatherland, and knows that it is held in the same regard by both sides.” It states further, “We must admit, gentlemen, that one day it could once again be our duty, to kill each other. Such a thing must be faced with composure: there are worse things than to die.” In Homer, Achilles says to Lycaon, “Alla philos. – Die, friend!”

The book title Service inutile is already illustrative. The desire for service refers to an idealism: the conviction that service is useless to realism. Strongest though is the thought that it is necessary to serve, not in spite of, but because it is useless: a critique of utilitarianism and an apology for striving in vain. Among other things this work contains noteworthy “Letter from a Father to a Son”: “The Virtues, that you must cultivate above all others, are courage, civic duty, pride, integrity, contempt, selflessness, politeness, gratitude and everything that one understands by generosity.” Montherlant explains that pride is the opposite of vanity and that contempt belongs to respect: “One is capable of contempt, when one is capable of respect.” It states further, “There is no serious hatred without contempt. For example I don’t hate the Germans, because I don’t hold them in contempt. It is a sign of France’s downfall that it is incompetent in contempt.” And, “It is hardly meaningful, whether you love your neighbours or not. But do not put any effort into your love. For one, because those to whom you give your love will take your freedom. And, because the effort, to please another, is the quickest way to the gutters.”

In Montherlant, elements of Goethe, Alfred de Vigny, Ernst Jünger, Gabriele d’Annunzio, Hans Blüher and Pasolini mix themselves. As with many authors of the “right” he inclines to a world view that brings together ethics and aesthetics, and in which the former often descends into the latter. He liked to quote the maxim: “We serve honour and desire pleasure, not profit.” As honour and pleasure can accompany pride, whilst the pursuit of profit inevitably resembles baseness.

He said, “One recognises a free man in that he is attacked either at the same time, or one after the other, by opposite sides.” And, in La guerre civile the chorus announces, “Honesty is the fatherland of those who want nothing more and this fatherland is in exile.” Montherlant considered himself to be in lifelong exile, just because he was trying to protect himself.

“Ten years after my death, everybody will have forgotten me”, he prophesised and he wasn’t completely wrong. Here and there his plays are still performed, but they are unfamiliar to younger generations. The feelings that he wrote into his characters appear simply incomprehensible to contemporary audiences. Those who retake his books from the shelf feel themselves transplanted into another world. “Everything that isn’t literature or pleasure is wasted time” Montherlant said. He neither lost nor wasted his in providing us with his impressions.
Bob Dylan Roof

I would have to read his works to comment more but judging from the review, Montherlant seems like an extreme romantic who was less preoccupied with the future than other Nietzscheans like Juenger.

Regarding Juenger and sport, Juenger disagreed with Nietzsche that "the Last Man lives longest" and maintained that beneath the veneer of comfort and progress lies a cold, collective nihilism undermining individuality and subjecting individuals to greater levels of pain and stress. He wrote about a new relationship to pain discernible in various aspects of modern life, from our casual acceptance of infanticide (abortion) to the dehumanization of the worker, the mechanization of education, and the general hardening of individuals through the pursuit of greater efficiency. While I've never seen anything about sport in his writings, I'm sure he would evaluate the great advances in kinestheology, PEDs, the proffesionalization of sport etc. as indicative of the trend he identifies in On Pain . He'd probably locate the ascetic self-punishment of the marathon-running professional class in the same category.

From what I have read, both by and about Montherlant, I think he very much embodies the ideas of the Nietzsche of “The Birth of Tragedy”. That is, he sees life justified as an aesthetic phenomenon. As de Benoist suggests, this tendency leads to ethics etc. being subsumed by this aesthetic imagination. The protagonist of Montherlant’s “Chaos and Night” is a former anarchist, but in one passage Montherlant reveals his anarchism to be nothing more than his individualism – he was just as likely to kill communist allies as the fascist enemy. The only guiding principle was his aesthetic caprice.
Bob Dylan Roof

I've only read Benoist on specific topics like Schmitt and Juenger where he adopts the tone of the disinterested scholar, similar to the essay you've translated. Do you think Benoist secretly harbors a purely aesthetic worldview?

I rather doubt that. I did once come across some conjecture that de Benoist hoped he would be the Robert Brasillach of his generation and die for his writings, but I would not take that seriously.
Niccolo and Donkey