Inferiority masks itself as oppression.

from The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir nonfiction ~7 min read

Montherlant never wanted to assume the human condition; what he calls his pride is, from the beginning, a panicked flight from the risks contained in a freedom engaged in the world through flesh; he claims to affirm freedom but to refuse engagement; without ties, without roots, he dreams he is a subjectivity majestically withdrawn upon itself; the memory of his carnal origins disturbs this dream, and he resorts to a familiar process: instead of prevailing over it, he repudiates it.

...

I have already said that Montherlant has chosen a freedom without object; that is, he prefers an illusion of autonomy to an authentic freedom engaged in the world; it is this availability that he means to use against woman; she is heavy, she is a burden. “It was a harsh symbol that a man could not walk straight because the woman he loved was on his arm.”[1]

“I was burning, she puts out the fire. I was walking on water, she takes my arm, I sink.”[2]

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.”[3]

But the answer is obvious: it is easy to believe one is sovereign when alone, to believe oneself strong when carefully refusing to bear any burden. Montherlant has chosen ease; he claims to worship difficult values: but he seeks to attain them easily. “The crowns we give ourselves are the only ones worth being worn,” says the king in Pasiphaé. How easy. Montherlant overloaded his brow, draping it with purple, but an outsider’s look was enough to show that his diadems were papier-mâché and that, like Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor, he was naked. Walking on water in a dream was far less tiring than moving forward on earthly land in reality. And this is why Montherlant the lion avoided the feminine mosquito with terror: he is afraid to be tested by the real.

...

There is a claim to sovereignty in every consciousness: but it can only be confirmed by risking itself; no superiority is ever given since man is nothing when reduced to his subjectivity; hierarchies can only be established among men’s acts and works; merit must be ceaselessly won: Montherlant knows it himself. “One only has rights over what one is willing to risk.” But he never wants to risk himself amid his peers. And because he does not dare confront humanity, he abolishes it... Montherlant's works, like his life, recognize only one consciousness.

“With this, all feeling disappears from this universe; there can be no intersubjective relation if there is only one subject. Love is derisory; but it is not in the name of friendship that it is worthy of scorn, because “friendship lacks guts.”[4]

“And all human solidarity is haughtily rejected. The hero was not engendered; he is not limited by space and time: “I do not see any reasonable reason to be interested in exterior things that are of my time more than any others of any past year.”[5]

“Nothing that happens to others counts for him: “In truth events never counted for me. I only liked them for the rays they made in me by going through me … Let them be what they want to be.[6]

Action is impossible: “Having had passion, energy, and boldness and not being able to put them to any use through lack of faith in anything human!”[7]

That means that any transcendence is forbidden. Montherlant recognizes that. Love and friendship are twaddle, scorn prevents action; he does not believe in art for art’s sake, and he does not believe in God. All that is left is the immanence of pleasure. “My one ambition is to use my senses better than others,”[8] he writes in 1925. And again: “In fact, what do I want? To possess beings that please me in peace and poetry.”[9]

“And in 1941: “But I who accuse, what have I done with these twenty years? They have been a dream filled with my pleasure. I have lived high and wide, drunk on what I love: what a mouth-to-mouth with life!”[10] So be it... Montherlant’s inconsistencies are truly abominable. In the name of “alternation” he declares that since nothing is worth anything, everything is equal; he accepts everything, he wants to embrace everything, and it pleases him that mothers with children are frightened by his broad-mindedness; but he is the one who demanded an “inquisition” during the Occupation that would censure films and newspapers;[11] American girls’ thighs disgust him, the bull’s gleaming penis exalts him: to each his own; everyone re-creates his own “phantasm”; in the name of what values does this great orgiast spit with disgust on the orgies of others? Because they are not his own? So can all morality be reduced to being Montherlant?

He would obviously answer that pleasure is not everything: style matters. Pleasure should be the other side of renunciation; the voluptuary also has to feel he is made of the stuff of heroes and saints. But many women are expert in reconciling their pleasures with the high image they have of themselves. Why should we think that Montherlant’s narcissistic dreams are worth more than theirs?

Because, in truth, this is a question of dreams. Because he denies them any objective content, the words Montherlant juggles with—“grandeur,” “holiness,” and “heroism”—are merely eye-catchers. Montherlant is afraid of risking his own superiority among men; to be intoxicated on this exalting wine, he retreats into the clouds: the Unique is obviously supreme. He closes himself up in a museum of mirages: mirrors reflect his own image infinitely, and he thinks that he can thus populate the earth; but he is no more than a reclusive prisoner of himself. He thinks he is free; but he alienates his liberty in the interests of his ego; he models the Montherlant statue on postcard-imagery standards. Alban repelling Dominique because he sees a fool in the mirror illustrates this enslavement: it is in the eyes of others that one is a fool. The arrogant Alban subjects his heart to this collective consciousness that he despises. Montherlant’s liberty is an attitude, not a reality. Without an aim, action is impossible, so he consoles himself with gestures: it is mimicry. Women are convenient partners; they give him his lines, he takes the leading role, he crowns himself with laurels and drapes himself in purple: but everything takes place on his private stage; thrown onto the public square, in real light, under a real sky, the actor no longer sees clearly, cannot stand, staggers, and falls. In a moment of lucidity, Costals cries out: “Deep down, these ‘victories’ over women are some farce!”[12]

Yes. Montherlant’s values and exploits are a sad farce. The noble deeds that intoxicate him are also merely gestures, never undertakings: he is touched by Peregrinus’s suicide, Pasiphaé’s boldness, and the elegance of the Japanese who shelters his opponent under his umbrella before taking his life in a duel. But he declares that “the adversary’s specificity and the ideas he is supposedly representing are not all that important.[13]

...

Only by negations can negative mysticisms be affirmed. True surpassing is a positive step toward the future, toward humanity’s future. The false hero, to convince himself he goes far and flies high, always looks back, at his feet; he despises, he accuses, he oppresses, he persecutes, he tortures, he massacres. It is through the evil he does to his neighbor that he measures his superiority over him Such are Montherlant’s summits that he points out with an arrogant finger when he interrupts his “mouth-to-mouth with life.”

...

He preferred to take refuge in his own cult. Instead of giving himself to this world, which he did not know how to nourish, he settled for seeing himself in it; and he organized his life in the interest of this mirage visible to his eyes alone. “Princes are at ease in all situations, even in defeat,” he writes;[14] and because he delighted in defeat, he believes he is king. 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. The rest is the same. As Costals might say: “Deep down, what a farce!”


  1. The Girls. ↩︎

  2. Ibid. ↩︎

  3. Ibid. ↩︎

  4. At the Fountains of Desire. ↩︎

  5. La possession de soi-même (The Possession of Oneself). ↩︎

  6. June Solstice. ↩︎

  7. At the Fountains of Desire. ↩︎

  8. Ibid. ↩︎

  9. Ibid. ↩︎

  10. June Solstice. ↩︎

  11. “We ask for a body that would have discretionary power to stop anything it deems to be harmful to the essence of French human values. Some sort of an inquisition in the name of French human values” (ibid.) ↩︎

  12. The Girls. ↩︎

  13. June Solstice. ↩︎

  14. Ibid. ↩︎

—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. -1