Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

'Chevalerie Du Neant' ("the Knighthood of Nothingness"): Henry De Montherlant and the Olympic Games Movement

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

'Chevalerie Du Neant' ("the Knighthood of Nothingness"): Henry De Montherlant and the Olympic Games Movement

Article excerpt

In both word and deed, Henry de Montherlant personified the man of letters as the man of action. Heralded as one of the three or four great moralistes of French literature, (2) and even at one time as "France's greatest writer," the writer of today who "will be the most read in the year 2000," (3) Montherlant also delighted in the world of sport. He played soccer, ran track, and developed an abiding passion for tauromachy. Sport provided Montherlant with an alternative source of the virile masculinity and martial camaraderie that he experienced in war, and he delighted in his body "during the brief autumn of its integrity." (4)

While other French intellectuals of his generation wrote about sport, including Jean Prevost, Andre Obey, Dominique Braga, and Joseph Jolinson, Montherlant was the most renowned in terms of athletic achievement and literary reputation. He was also a part of a larger cohort of high profile, internationally recognized literati who embraced the cult of the physical and l'ordre male as the repudiation of passivity and femininity; like Gumilyov, Montherlant celebrated militarism--what Gumilyov called "the majestic business of war;" (5) like Marinetti and Junger, he found an almost mystical rapture in the blood sport of combat; like Roosevelt, he was drawn to the kill as the full awakening of sensuality; and like Hemmingway, he found in the corrida the ultimate reaffirmation of manliness and self-awareness. Akin to Hemmingway's admiration for the Etruscans, Montherlant venerated the ideals of virtu he discovered in the solar mythology of Mithraism, the violent official religion of the 3rd century Emperors that "intoxicated the Roman legions." (6) The moral climate of Rome in fact served as the wellspring of his young life: "My intellectual growth, my ideas, my sensibility, my imagination, indeed even my temperament, are the work of paganism," he once acknowledged. (7) Both Monther lant's fictional as well as his lived world was to a great extent the world of men, of martial camaraderie, and the angst-ridden challenge of decisive action, the world of war and bullfighting, an antiChristian Nietzschean world in which the values of power, conflict and force were enacted and confronted, a world in which the taste for blood and the proximity to death helped define the athlete as the personification of manliness. It was his glorification of both war and sport as well as his admiration for the German values of courage, hard work, discipline and militarism, that caused Montherlant's athletic philosophy to be informed by what Frese Witt calls an "aesthetic fascism" (8) and Montherlant himself to be condemned for his political sympathies with Nazism. (9)

But, to use Poe's immortal words, even though Montherlant preferred "the grandeur that was Rome" rather than "the glory that was Greece," (10) he was enough of an antiquarian to find value in the Greek model of sport and he developed more than a passing interest in the Olympic Games, not only because of his love of sport but also because he found much to admire in Coubertin's ideology of Olympism with its attendant moralism, athletic aestheticism, and philosophical integration of the intellectual and the physical, and like Coubertin, Montherlant divined an almost mystical theology in the ascetic of sport. Not himself an Olympic athlete--although a sprinter who once ran the 100 meters in 11.8 seconds, not an unreasonable time considering that Charles Paddock won the 100 meters at the 1920 Antwerp Games in only 10.8 seconds--Montherlant was an Olympic aesthete, a participant in the 1924 Paris Fine Arts Competitions. Coubertin's athlete though was born of a romantic, idealistic inclination, and represented the consummation of a life based on a commitment to the highest virtues of nobility, unselfishness and community. For Montherlant on the other hand, the athlete became the personification of an atheistic nihilism, the expression of a life of "service inutile," (11) a self-centered ideal that posited that the only choice individuals have to create any sense of a meaningful existence is to commit to a purpose, a cause, knowing at the same time that any purpose or cause is merely a chimera. …

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