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Eternal Cocteau


by Francis Steegmuller
Little, Brown, 583 pp., $12.50

Jean Cocteau: Lettres à André Gide (avec quelques réponses d’André Gide)

La Table Ronde, 217 pp., 35 F.

Professional Secrets

edited by Robert Phelps
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 331 pp., $8.50

Cocteau led a fabled life, full of signs and wonders, some comic, some tragic. Of course he was very modern and very perverse, but he was, I think, a sort of Galahad, a Galahad, perhaps, of opéra bouffe. What made him a Galahad was his desire to be driven by “unknown forces,” “to make a report,” as he says, “for an Intelligence Service that is difficult to place,” to plague, at the court of the Ballets Russes, Serge de Diaghilev, he with his “watery eye cast down with the curve of a Portuguese oyster,” and no doubt his King Arthur—to plague the impresario until he gave him the clarion call: Etonne-moi, “the first notes of a period that were struck in 1912, and would only end with my death.”

What made Cocteau a bit of a buffoon were his scandals, his feuds; his apparently constitutional restlessness (often remarked upon by Picasso and Colette); his spindly, pulsating, dandified figure; his face, which, in repose, would suggest that of a seminarian, but, when animated, with his heraldic nose and unloved mouth, that of a harlequin; and, lastly, of course, his not infrequent inability to take “dictation from the gods” except when before a packed house.

His career, that astonishing array of poems and plays, films and essays, ballets and novels, drawings and sculpture, so often regarded as a revue, a spectacle, as anything and everything but an oeuvre, was, like his character, never easy, and disturbing to many. In Francis Steegmuller’s book, for instance, a balanced, very vivid biography, we come across a letter from Cocteau to his mother, written when he was in his early thirties, a few months before the premiere of Les Mariés de la Tour Eiffel, a jeu de théâtre which, along with Parade and Le Boeuf sur le toit, Cocteau would offer, ingratiatingly enough, as a “calculated insult to the public”—and two years or so away from probably the reverberating event of his life, the sudden and shocking death of his protégé and lover, the dazzling Raymond Radiguet. (“In three days,” the typhoid-ridden, twenty-year-old novelist had predicted, “I will be shot by God’s soldiers…. The order has been given.”) It was a death which plunged Cocteau into despair, drugs, and a fleeting return to the church of his childhood.

His mother, with whom he dined regularly throughout his life, was a genteel haute bourgeoise in lace, prayer book in hand, but also the pretty first-nighter Cocteau always remembered dressing for the red and the gold (le mal rouge et or: Baudelaire’s phrase), for what he called as a boy “the great forbidden theater.” Here, in the letter, adopting a tone he rarely assumed, Cocteau remonstrates with his maman, as he would do increasingly with so many others, over the sorry condemnation, which followed him to the grave, of having scattered his talents, both ethically and aesthetically—in other words, of having wasted his life.

Pull yourself together,” you say? That’s a good one. Don’t you realize yet that I spend my life disengaging myself from my instincts, keeping them under observation, sorting them as they emerge, and then taming them for my advantage? Such is the discipline that you never manage to understand, the discipline that is entirely of my own creation, like everything I do….

Not surprisingly, the self-discipline Cocteau speaks of was thought to be “unnatural,” and he himself, by both philistines and bohemians, called a master of masquerades, full of presumed impieties or impostures. Yet to the animateur whose favorite word appears to have been monstre, which means, of course, monster, but also prodigy and freak and little monkey (attends un peu, petit monstre!); to the aesthete counseling us that every work of art be composed of “concealed admissions and lofty puns, strange riddles and calculations,” it was, no doubt, perfectly natural that he became, as he famously did, a Richelieu in the art of self-promotion; even, given what Steegmuller calls “the wars of art” in the literary life of his day, a Machiavellian, one among others of a similar stamp.

Approaching the future always in the light of the fabulous, he found it natural, as well, early in his career, to take angels to be his ministering spirits. They came to him in the form of aviators, with goggles and grease and leather jackets, rather like Roland Garros, his friend, with whom he flew above the trenches during the war, later to rewrite Antigone, as an attempt, so he thought, to capture the essence of Ancient Greece by looking down on it from the roof of the world. It was natural too that, a devastating mimic, he seemed to be the mimic of an entire generation, the blessed generation of the belle époque and after, a generation which was itself a historical mimic, those poets and painters, philosophers and composers about whom so much of modernism lay, like the animals in Eden, waiting to be named.

Of that generation Cocteau often speaks. “When I was young,” we hear him ask himself, “did I not always turn on my own loves?” By his “loves” he means his mentors. Cocteau had the superb instinct of the scholarship student for knowing which instructor would be “in” one year, or would be “in” the next. When his mentors—Barrès and Ravel, Satie and Stravinsky, Diaghilev and Picasso—began repeating themselves or saying things that did not concern him, or that he thought he could not use, he left. It was not that he was unfaithful, it was simply that he always had to have more than one bloom on the branch. One reason, among a thousand others no doubt, why André Breton, with a cry of rage, called him in a letter to Tristan Tzara “the most hateful being of our time”—André Breton whose manifestoes tread so heavily from idea to idea while those of Cocteau “skip steps.”1

From Rimbaud, Cocteau took the sense of menace; from Lautréamont, the sting of blasphemy; Ronsard taught him classicism. He loved the worlds of Carroll and Verne and of Fantomas. There was also Balzac with his two thousand characters, his “vie torrentielle,” his streams of coffee; and Baudelaire, his scents, his cravats, his “ménagerie de nos vices.” Le Hasard est le plus grand artiste, says Balzac a motto, perhaps, for the trouvaille-addicted Cocteau; just as Baudelaire’s

Et le Temps m’engloutit, minute par minute,
Comme la neige immense un corps pris de roideur

suggests the memorable scene of the Cité Monthiers courtyard, the boy with the satchel bleeding in the snow, in Les Enfants terribles and Le Sang d’un poète. Because he felt France was always burning her poets (in effigy, to be sure, which only made matters worse), he would think of himself, from time to time, as Rousseau; because he was witty and catlike and, here and there, curled up like a cat in the villas of his friends, he would try not to think of himself, as others did, as Voltaire.

All that, of course, is Cocteau’s mythomania. Much more important are his mythic vocabulary (secret, mystery, muse, mirror, death, angel), his mythic slogans (le mystère laïc, le secret professionel, 2 la poésie de tous les jours), and the mythic proliferation of themes and images from one work to the next. Of the latter, there are many examples; let me recall some. The gangrene spreading through the body “the way ivy grows over a statue,” in the hospital scene from Thomas l’Imposteur, the same ivy entangling other objects in Antigone or Les Monstres sacrés, in the essays and the poems; “the curl of the sea and the rose,” the thread with which the Sphinx envelops Oedipus, the same spell Cocteau weaves around Renaud and Armide, Launcelot and Guinivere, or with which, at the end of Les Enfants terribles, Elizabeth ensnares her brother Paul, slowly drawing him with her “backwards into nothingness’; “the storm coming from the depths of time, its thunderbolt aimed at one man,” in La Machine infernale, later appearing as the processional death knell the Princess and Heurtebise work against, restoring the hero to life, in Orphée; the dead Proust, lying on “his child’s bed in his cork-lined sentry box,” in Cocteau’s beautiful tribute to his friend in La Difficulté d’être, the notebooks bearing the great work piled to the left of Proust, continuing to live like “a dead soldier’s wrist watch,” an echo of the watch of the dead captain in Discours du Grand Sommeil, ticking on in the poet’s hand.

And the rooms, those ritual settings for Cocteau’s réalité fabuleuse, rooms which both expand and enclose the mythic sense. The rooms, in the plays, films, and novels, resemble treasure troves, pavilions, gypsy caravans, but are really refuges, retreats, cells. “In every theater in the world,” says the aging actress to the ingenue in Les Monstres sacrés, “the stairs backstage look just like the stairs of a prison.” So the room where the young Oedipus rests his head on a cradle on his wedding night with Jocasta, the rooms where Mick and his mother, the Queen and Stanislaus, Paul and Elizabeth, almost all of Cocteau’s characters, play those games which never end, revolving around them like constellations, but which when they do end, as of course they must, end in blood sport.

Above all, the rooms of Jean Cocteau himself, at the rue d’Anjou, or the Hotel Welcome, or the Palais-Royale, where at whatever age we observe him in Steegmuller’s biography, he will be writing very hurriedly, very anxiously, surrounded by his mementos of Bakst or De Max, seated at his architect’s table, “looking a fright,” as so often his servants or lovers remarked, for the intensity, the alacrity must always be there. Done with the Cirque Médrano and the Fratellini clowns; done with the theater and the sad sphinx smiles of Edwige Feuillère and Marie Bell; done with the remorseless monologues of the Comtesse Anna de Noailles (“I’m useless but indispensable,” she would say; “All art is quite useless,” says Wilde); done with dinner at Jacques Maritain’s or a drag ball at Montmartre; done with managing Les Six and managing his Panamanian boxer, Al Brown; done, too, with his clay pipes and his bamboo and amber pipe from which, as Maurice Sachs wrote, “he breathed in all the smoke from the little ball of opium, held it for a moment, and then exhaled in a great blue cloud”—each night, emptying himself at his desk, Cocteau, who thought he was possessed by demons, “those two demons, laughter and melancholy,” must feel his fancies, his aphorisms running out of him like sand from an hourglass. At one moment he will write: “Everything a man does, even making love, he does in the express train rolling towards death.” At another: “A work of art must b pleasing to all the Muses. That’s what I call proof by the number nine!”

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    Manifesto writing which sounds similar in every generation, every milieu. Hugo, Marinetti, Synge, Sarraute: the prescriptions must vary, of course, but the tone of inflammatory self-righteousness is constant and the same. It is what Cocteau could well have called the original sin of the avant-garde. Cocteau’s manifestoes, at least, are more amusing, hence more lasting: “The first point about Le Train bleu is that there is no blue train in it…. It is danced by the real Russian Ballet, but it has nothing to do with Russian Ballet. It was invented for Anton Dolin, a classical dancer who does nothing classical.”

    Cocteau’s “step-skipping” (which, characteristically, he always denied doing: “An artist never leaps over steps; if he leaps over some, he loses time; for he’s got to climb them all over again later”) could create problems. From Steegmuller, we learn the following:

    In a recent article in an American magazine Mademoiselle Chanel is quoted as calling Cocteau “a snobbish little pederast who did nothing all his life but steal from people.” In the same article she is also quoted as saying that “Fashion must be beautiful first, and ugly afterward. Art must be ugly first, then beautiful afterward.” The article fails to mention that the second quotation comes from a eulogy of Chanel by none other than Cocteau himself, which appeared during the Fifties in Harper’s Bazaar.

    Alas, Steegmuller neglects to add that in a eulogy of Jean Marais, which also appeared during the Fifties, and which, as often happened in his later years, was also a eulogy of Jean Cocteau, the poet attributes the quotation to Mademoiselle Chanel. It certainly has the sound of Cocteau. Was he playing games? Skipping steps? Or had, by then, his thousand and one mots addled his head? That they, on occasion, befuddle his admirers may be seen in a recent instance from Gore Vidal: “Like Jean Cocteau, Henry James believed that a work of art was never finished, merely abandoned”—a remark made, of course, by Valéry, which was, to complete the circle, an adaptation of a remark made years before, I believe, by Flaubert.

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    Behind Cocteau, the celebrity, hymning “the mysteries of adolescence,” stands Cocteau, the creative artist, and also Cocteau, the aging man, looking at the plight and beauty of his situation and commenting on it. Although he would never mellow, never, in fact, really age (youth individualizes, age universalizes, and Cocteau was always much too idiosyncratic, even in his myth-making, to ever transcend himself), he had, nevertheless, that special gift, especially in the portraits-souvenir, journals, and essays, of stepping back and presenting to the world the cultural drama of which he would be a part—indeed, as it would often seem, the central figure. Stravinsky calls him a “first-rate critic,” and when we come across the freshness, ‘spunk, and, now and then, the pure luck of his observations we cannot help but be reminded of Rimbaud, Wilde, Valéry, and Nietzsche (compare Cocteau on “angelism” with Nietzsche on “inspiration” in Ecce Homo).

    Happily, a number of these writings have been collected by Robert Phelps in the anthology he calls Professional Secrets; unhappily, his selections seem somewhat snippety or unsatisfying, (what we should have more of we have less of, and vice-versa), probably because, though Phelps clearly loves Cocteau, he loves him the wrong way, the way a fan loves a star, one of those enthusiasms which should not be encouraged, I think, beyond puberty. Le petit Jean, the godling of gossips, struggling between Muse and Mammon—perhaps we’ve had enough of that. The translations by Richard Howard, however, are marvelous.

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