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“Royaume de ce monde” by Henry de Montherlant (1938)

While his status as godfather of sports-themed French literature is based on his writings about bullfighting, various forms of running and (European) football, Henry de Montherlant (1895-1972) was also interested in boxing and wrote several pieces on the subject.[1] While none mentions Carpentier specifically, he seems to have served as an inspiration.

In an essay on boxing, entitled “Royaume de ce monde,” included in his collection Olympiques (first published in 1924).  In it, he describes a Sunday afternoon at the amateur fights in a neighborhood boxing gym at some point soon after World War I, focusing on the anticipation of the crowd before the fights begin.  He emphasizes the fact that he is writing about young amateur, neighborhood boxers, who during the week work as apprentice to the various trades and who only box on Sunday afternoons, before an audience composed of their buddies, girlfriends, big sisters, little kids and other neighborhoods types. The essay culminates in a description of a moment that transcends the banal and the local, the moment when the crowd first sees the first boxer, dressed and gloved for his fight.  Suddenly the joking stops, suddenly the crowd realizes that they are about to accede to a “higher world” by way of watching this young man fight.

Such a description cannot but evoke Carpentier. The dramatic moment when the body of a young fighter first comes into view and the profound emotion experience by the crowd is a classic trope of the Carpentier myth, a fact of which Montherlant, writing in the early 1920’s, was surely aware:

War, Nietzsche tells us, “brings all manner of joking to a stop.”  This young torso also brings all joking to a stop.  Until now, in this room, we are in the realm of amusement, of triviality—let’s go ahead and say it, of mediocrity.  But this, this is another world.  A miracle has taken place and I am not alone in sensing it.  Eyes are raised, words become fewer and farther between.  Without a doubt, this boxer in his gear is the sign that the awaited pleasure is coming right up.  But it’s not just that. (173)[2]

One might assume that Montherlant is alluding here to the gravity and “other worldliness” of boxing in a general sense, regardless of time and place. He immediately puts things in a more specific context, however, explaining that for the French, in the period after World War I, being carried away into an idealized world of strength and heroism has a particular resonance:

For these Frenchmen of the post-war period, so enslaved to the everyday, so bogged down in pettiness, so closed to any ideal, this first bare chest—strange, in the heaven of the room, like an angel or a demon painted by a Florentine hand in the upper part of the canvas—is a door suddenly opening into a higher world, accompanied by a wave of solemnity. (173)

The appearance of the young boxer is nothing less than an apparition, the sudden arrival of a god.  And yet at the same time, he is one of them, at once an working-class boy and a superior being:

A higher world and it belongs to them.  Oh men!  This form, so moving to behold, is not an unreal form, it is not the ghost of a paradise of lies: it’s the Guillet boy, the plumber’s son, the one who is always taking apart his bike and putting it back together.  He is their son, he is their brother, he is them.  The man with the bowed head lifts his head and sees God.  And he sees that  he is himself God. (173-174)

A more apt and lyrical description of the French cult of Carpentier in the years immediately following the Great War is hard to imagine.  As Montherlant says, the French, brutalized by war and hardship, both physical and psychological, needed a god to worship. No god could have satisfied that need better than a young man who epitomized beauty and strength, grace and power, who was both ordinary and other-worldly. Montherlant may not have mentioned the great French champion by name but, either consciously or unconsciously, he was writing about Carpentier.[3]

[1] In 1919, Montherlant offered to write a regular column about the sport in the famous literary journal La Nouvelle Revue Française.  André Gide, editor of the journal, accepted the offer but specified hat it needed to be about sports in general, not exclusively about boxing.  They mutually agreed to drop the project after Montherlant’s first column, deciding that a discussion of sport necessarily entailed a level of technical detail that was likely to be of little interest to the esthetes who were the  regular readers of the NRF.  See Jean-Paul Besse, Les Boxeurs et les dieux: l’esprit du ring dans l’art et la littérature (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998), 62. Return to text

[2] Montherlant, “Royaume de ce monde,” in Olympiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1954), 170-174. Return to text

[3] Les Olympiques, 140-147, also includes a poem about a boxing match, “Critérium des Novices Amateurs,” in which one of the fighters may have been inspired by Carpentier’s image: “the man-god,” “[…] the vertebrae of the wet spine/white, smooth-cheeked, et shining like pure Caesarian ivory.”  Return to text