Part Three: Myths. Chapter 2, Part I. Montherlant or the Bread of Disgust (221-36)
[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]
One problem (for me) with Chapter 2 is that of the five writers SdB analyses (Montherlant, D.H. Lawrence, Claudel, Breton, Stendhal), I’ve only read two (Lawrence and Stendhal), and even then, only a couple of works from each. Never mind. (And, as it will turn out, I probably wouldn’t want to expose myself to such concentrated woman hating anyway.) Her goal here is to confirm her analysis, in Chapter 1, “of the feminine myth, as it is collectively presented” by looking at the forms it takes on “in certain writers”. (221)
I: Montherlant or the Bread of Disgust
First off, here’s a link to the online Britannica entry on Henry de Montherlant, (and if you read French, here’s a bio page, from which the image at left was borrowed) in case, like me, you know essentially zip about him. But, oy, even old Britannica makes clear he was a misogynistic jerk. Interesting to note he was around until 1972, so for a couple of decades after The Second Sex was out. As a Montherlant-apologist Atlantic writer suggested, given women are the main readers of novels, sales of his books probably tanked in de Beauvoir’s wake. So where to start with this guy? Essentially, it seems everything about woman is either useless (benign) or catastrophically bad — for him, women “have nothing to give man and can only harm him”, SdB says. Per my rude observations in the last entry about men having tanties because they can’t bear the fact that they’re not gods, apparently Montherlant is pretty sure he is one. SdB: “He thinks he is God; he wants to be God; because he is male, because he is a ‘superior man’, because he is Montherlant.” (222)
It starts with mothers, who cut their child’s wings, keep their sons locked up, pull them back from the heights to which they aspire. But the lover is just as bad. She wants to reduce her man so she can take him over. Here’s a quote from Montherlant, quoted by SdB, about the promenading women of Ranelagh (presumably the rue de Ranelagh in Paris): women ‘hanging on their lovers’ arms like beings without backbones, like big disguised slugs’. (222) He uses the ‘slugs’ description elsewhere, too. Hmmmm.
After more of this kind of foaming at the mouth, SdB raises the question that can’t help but spring to mind when reading such rants about the dangers and horrors of women:
“How does she have so much power since she is only lack, poverty and negativity and her magic is illusory? Montherlant does not explain it. He simply and proudly says that ‘the lion rightly fears the mosquito’.” (223)
Apparently the only justifiable reason for women to exist is for man’s pleasure. Oy, what a heavy price he must pay for the opportunity to get his end away! “What is irritating in women is their claim to reason; if they exaggerate their animality, they border on the superhuman,” he wrote. (225) “Oh! To desire what one disdains: what a tragedy! … to have to attract and repel in virtually the same gesture, to light and quickly put out as one does with a match, such is the tragedy of our relations with women” (229) to which SdB replies (God she can be funny) “In truth, the only tragedy is from the match’s point of view…”
SdB refers a lot to M’s four-volume work Les Jeunes Filles, (The Girls) so if you don’t know who the “hero”, Costals, is etc. etc. and what the story is about (Costals trying to avoid marriage, apparently) it may not mean a whole lot. But, boy, her blood is up, and the reader can’t but enjoy her biting and pointed eviscerations.
And it’s not just women for whom Montherlant has disgust, but members of other ‘inferior’” groups. According to SdB, he had a sympathy for Nazi ideology, “the cult of the hero…” etc. (231) Yet he never wants to face down another man (his ‘equal’). SdB writes: “His hero always rises up alone facing animals, children, women, landscapes.” (232)
“He learns from Nietzsche that ‘woman is the hero’s amusement’ and he thinks that it is enough to get pleasure from women to be anointed hero.’” (236)
And that’s about it for Montherlant. I’m wondering, though, if misogyny is somehow necessary to nihilism, since SdB points to some nihilist tendencies here. (e.g. “since nothing is worth anything, everything is equal”, 233.) I hope not. I have some nihilist tendencies of my own. Meaning of life? Bah humbug!
My take-away: I think she’s, first, pointing out that Montherlant has a position that makes no sense, in both loathing and in some ways fearing something (woman) he at the same time considers so weak and ineffectual (not to mention, as a “rational” male, being so non-rational about it all); and, second, (I’m much less sure about this) getting us to think about how this fits in with the woman as ‘Other’, particularly the master-slave dialectic (in which the self-conscious creatures needs another self-conscious creature in order that it can even exist). Montherlant falls into a vicious cycle, wanting her, scorning her as something unworthy of being wanted, then putting himself through myriad twists and turns in an effort to have it make sense, which as a “rational” man, he simply must succeed in doing. Even though, in the end, he doesn’t at all.