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Aletheia and the Body
“As an athlete in action, she was transfigured, and escaped into a form of human perfection.”
—Henry de Montherlant
In Henry de Montherlant’s essay, “Mademoiselle de Plémeur” the famed Parisian novelist writes an homage to the French female sprinter, Mlle de Plémeur. The essay is less biographical than it is a kind of testimony to his love for the female athlete. As one can imagine, the Montherlant straddles a precarious line throughout the text. At times he makes no secret of the fact that he finds an athletic woman sensuous, even beautiful. Their physiques are more attractive than what is often depicted in paintings, their soft skin unable to divulge the muscles hidden beneath. Montherlant dismisses men of his age who prefer women suffocating in corsets, their feet coercively bound in small shoes. But this is not because Montherlant wishes to undress them with his eyes, but observes something quite apart from the flesh. That, in the midst of training, of being caught up in sport, Montherlant acknowledges that the female athlete is able to transform her body into a higher order, one that is aesthetic as well as moral. It is in her activity that she unveils a hidden nature, a certain truth.
Montherlant discovers Mlle de Plémeur in, as he writes, “the autumn” of her age, that is, twenty-four. Such was France in 1923. For men, life after secondary school was the dawn of adulthood; a time of children and marriage, where interest in playing games and sports is abandoned. For women, the expectations were even more limited in scope. To be a female athlete in France at that time meant to become an unwitting rebel to conventional femininity. Montherlant tells us that even by the dint of her Breton blood, where “girls [go] into athletics, as their brothers engaged in Left-Wing politics” Mlle de Plémeur was seemingly uninterested in the norms of bourgeois society. What animates her at her ripe age of twenty-four, is beating the record in the women’s thousand-meter: three minutes and sixteen seconds. But in her more unguarded moments, does a somber look hang on her face, revealing, according to Montherlant, a glimpse of prosaic longing for a husband, or perhaps even family life. Her very appearance as an athlete seemed to suggest anything but maternal goals. The clothes she wore in training or competition stripped Mlle de Plémeur of her feminine mystique. “Her very straight-forwardness and accessibility had classed her, once and for all, as an eternal comrade, and no one, apparently, had ever expected her to be anything more.”
Emanating from Montherlant’s prose is an anxiety over the status of the male physique, one that became apparent by the end of the 19th century. Victorian Protestants balked at the flaccid and sickly bodies filling the pews on Sundays. Eugen Sandow, the father of bodybuilding, denounced the average male body as being misshapen. But it is in Montherlant’s observation of the athletic female body where a further important distinction is made, a shifting binary in which the lustful male gaze of the flesh is separated from the athletic body which exudes dynamism and power. But just as much as the body of an athlete elicits for onlookers a sense of wonder and awe, accompanying it is that of the athlete’s gnawing doubts and performative slippages.
One rainy day Mlle de Plémeur arrives at his front door soaked and crestfallen. Without prompt, Montherlant tells us, she cries:
“I gave it all up. I’m getting too old, aren’t I? I could see the fat coming back and my muscles getting stiffer. And then, a month ago…You know, the last spurt of flame just before the fire goes out…I can feel in my body that I’ve gotten my old form back; it’s unbelievable. Form is still a mystery to us; it comes and goes, like a snake or a will o’ the wisp.”
Mlle de Plémeur resolves that she will break the women’s record for the thousand-meter race. But there is something more profound operating than a come-back kid promise. It is a recognition that she feels herself disappearing into her own flesh. She decides to train her body back to its original form, as she puts it.
On the day of Mlle de Plémeur’s race, Montherlant becomes lost in a passionate display of spectatorship. His prose flickers wildly. In one moment, he depicts her silent, steely focus. In the next, he describes a sudden burst of energy as her body tears through the track. “She was running with a beauty there was no one to witness to accomplish an aim no one was interested in” Montherlant writes, “She was running perhaps for the last time, and surpassing herself for perhaps the last time; she was running in a state of sacred horror.”
Montherlant cannot help himself as he vacillates between hailing her as the second coming of Joan of Arc, while at the same time being overcome by a masculine urge to cradle her. “I have said, I have even proclaimed, that only victory could inspire me with love, and yet I love you more in your hour of distress than I did all your triumphs…” He says all of this, but agrees to himself to say nothing. Then, the fever of the race precipitously breaks. Mlle de Plémeur misses her record by eight seconds. Frenzied and winded, she falls to the muddy ground exasperated and begins to wail. She then picks herself up and heads to the changing room. But when she emerges from it, she is not only clean, but wearing a smile, laughing, and asking for a cigarette. “This gave me a glimpse of her internal collapse” Montherlant writes “and of the sad depths above which there was now nothing left to hold her.”
Her time as an athlete thus ends. What makes Mlle de Plémeur now appear so for Montherlant is that her athleticism has been suspended; her body will no longer prepare itself for competition. He is pointing towards an idea of the athletic body first and foremost as dynamic movement, a kinetic defiance of gravity made possible by trained muscles and honed technique. It also defies the sedimentation of female social mores—dresses, tight-fitting shoes, a demure way of carrying oneself around men—which weighs the body down into a gendered, cultural heaviness. Standing with the ancient Greeks, Montherlant would reject the notion of the body as simply an existence, but something which becomes.
The question is then, what does the body “become”? For as Mlle de Plémeur and other athletes will attest, the status of the body is fleeting. It is in a constant state of either becoming weaker or stronger. She therefore states unequivocally prior to her race, that her body is becoming unconditioned, fattened, stiff. But underneath these layers of expanding adipose tissue and de-trained musculature, Mlle de Plémeur speaks of a fire that exists deep within her, an animus which refuses to allow her to forget who she really is—an athlete. This unforgetting of her athletic body comes close to what the Greeks called aletheia. According to the contemporary German philosopher Martin Heidegger, aletheia is a process of “unconcealment” or “disclosure.” Aletheia, Heidegger writes in Being and Time is “taking [of] entities out of their hiddenness and letting them be seen in their unhidden-ness.” It is not the truth per se, but the unfolding of the layers which conceal it. The term has a similar meaning in John 17:17 of the New Testament, when Christ says that “God’s Word is the Aletheia.” In Koine Greek, the language of the Book of John, aletheia takes on an even more nuanced meaning. Aletheia here is also “unforgetting” but in the sense that connects the promise of God for His creation. That is, the duties man is obliged to follow, and what God has promised mankind. Thus, if the pagan Greeks understood aletheia as a series of preliminary acts of shedding layers of hiddenness of the truth, the early Christians saw the term as a sacred pact. Both underscore an activity that is conscientiously undertaken towards doing what is right and therefore, true.
For Mlle de Plémeur, it is sensing that something is off kelter in her body. This recognition pushes her to not only vocally identify the problem, but also state the truth of her body’s athleticism which she had let slip away in her carelessness, her inactivity. An inactive body is one that has begun to settle, but it is often not a conscious decision on the part of the individual, and as such, the “descent” as it were, is never a firmly-plotted course. The settling body is a heavy, dull thud of an anchor finally reaching the bottom of a deep harbor, enveloped in darkness, and summoned to the surface only when necessary. Mlle de Plémeur confides to Montherlant that she can feel her muscles lose their suppleness. She is no longer able to recognize herself in this cavernous, un-trained state of her own making. Aletheia is the antithesis of forgetting, of creeping dormancy—it is a conscious, declarative activity in which she once more must align her spirit and body in hopes to uncover her athleticism that was previously hidden.
It is no wonder that within the same essay, Montherlant admits that the vigorous, self-awakening produced through athleticism can rival the religious experience itself. Such a sentiment, however, had already found its expression in Pierre de Coubertin’s concept of religio athletae. Pierre de Coubertin, father of the modern Olympic Games, saw his re-established Olympism accompanied by its own form of spirituality, one that was distinct from traditional religious doctrines that were rapidly falling out of favor. Indeed, the gradual displacement of religion within Europe had already been diagnosed by the middle of the nineteenth century. The Protestant theologian, Soren Kierkegaard had observed a certain cooling-off within the faith, and claimed that the very fire stoking Christian belief—the “incendiarism” as he put it—was beginning to smolder in Europe, blanketing the continent in a thick air of malaise. As a result, the “Truth”, as Christians had initially aletheia, was losing its experience as an active covenant between what is holy and what ought to be. The wilting of the European male physique among the Victorian churchgoers was seen as a reflection of the equally flaccid state of man’s soul.
Upon Mlle de Plémeur’s return to the track, Montherlant recalls her saying nothing, acknowledging no one. She runs, and just like so many athletes before her time and long after, receives all of the cheers, accolades, and transfixed gazes. It is during that moment, all three minutes and twenty-four seconds—eight short of the record—where her form once more becomes revealed. Mlle de Plémeur had not forgotten herself.
 Henri de Montherlant, “Mademoiselle de Plémeur” in Selected Essays by Henry de Montherlant, ed. Peter Quennell (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1961), 27-38.
 Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1962): 262.
 Ivo Jirásek (2015) Religion, Spirituality, and Sport: From Religio Athletae Toward Spiritus Athletae, Quest, 67:3, 290-299, DOI: 10.1080/00336297.2015.1048373.