Sympathy for the Devil: The Problem of Montherlant and the Medieval

Article excerpt

It is difficult to untangle the puzzle of Henry de Montherlant. He has borne conflicting political and personal labels over the years, from rake to misogynist, from radically patriotic veteran to despicable traitor. His writings have known the same fate, falling from the phenomenal popularity of his tetralogy Les jeunes filles in the 1930s into a certain brand of disfavor after the war. The theater-going public received his plays enthusiastically, and not even his severest critics could deny the power of his prose, but Montherlant's activities during the war earned him the distrust and contempt of the powerful and vocal left-leaning French intelligentsia. Even today, feelings run high in Montherlantian criticism about his identity, his politics, his sexuality, and the various meanings that can be attributed to his many novels, plays, and essays.

It seems natural, therefore, that the same confusion should exist with regard to Montherlant's use of medieval imagery in the essays he wrote during the Second World War. Many French authors--among them Camus, Gracq, and Aragon--used the medieval trope during World War II to express their literary-political opinions, and it is worth noting that the trope was indeed flexible enough to lend itself to such a great diversity of opinion. The Middle Ages provided a rich set of images, well known to the reading public, that readily evoked a sense of national history and culture without requiring any factual knowledge about that time. Works set in the Middle Ages were handily unthreatening to German censors, who believed that the modern world was degenerate, but under the veneer of the medieval, these works could contain any sort of political or philosophical subtext: collaborationist, resistant, surrealist, Marxist. During the war, the Middle Ages was not valuable in and of itself, but rather as a comforting cover story, the metaphor for what really needed to be said in a deeper way.

Henry de Montherlant was no medievalist. His use of the medieval trope fits this pattern of cover and code, except that because of the secret of his sexuality--after his death, Montherlant was revealed to have been a pederast--the things he wrote about under cover of the medieval are even more deeply encrypted than those written by active Resistance agents. For this reason, reception of the medieval imagery he used during the war--imagery he used at no other time--has been mixed at best. It appeared to his critics to be evidence of his collaboration with the Germans because of its remarkable correspondence with both German and Vichy philosophy. To his supporters, however, it appeared merely to be evidence of his masculine and independent spirit. In the end, the evidence suggests that the congruence between German and Vichy political use of medieval imagery and Montherlant's own was more a concatenation of circumstances than a premeditated act of collaboration--a confluence of social pressures, political beliefs, and sexual desire.

The crux of all of this perplexity about Montherlant resides in his actions and literary work during the Second World War. Was he a collaborationist? A political opportunist? An untamable independent, a humanitarian, a nihilist? His politics, such as they were, were expressed particularly clearly in his volumes of essays, collected just before the war in L'equinoxe de septembre (1939) and in the midst of the Occupation in Le solstice de juin (1941). Yet despite the apparent candor in these essays, those who analyze and criticize Montherlant's political stances seem unable to agree even upon what those stances were. Such analysis always seems to resolve to a paradox. He never participated in any overtly political act: for instance, he did not attend the 1941 Weimar conference for authors, as did such major collaborationist authors as Drieu La Rochelle, Robert Brasillach, and Abel Bonnard. Yet Drieu, in an issue of the 1941 NRF, placed Montherlant alongside collaborationist authors as he wondered,

Who will write the critique of the great natural writers, the great stylists who are the honor of our generation: Bernanos, Celine, Giono, Montherlant? …