Jean Cocteau: Lettres à André Gide (avec quelques réponses d’André Gide)
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!”
Gide didn’t like him. In a doleful entry in his journal which has become perhaps the most famous remark ever made about Jean Cocteau Gide wrote: “He is incapable of seriousness…he wants to be sad with the same kind of sadness as you, and suddenly he adopts your mood and explains it to you…. He has the carefree attitude of the street urchin…c’est près de lui que je me sens le plus maladroit, le plus lourd, le plus morose.” Later, he was to think of Cocteau, the prolific Cocteau, as a sort of squirrel, and of himself as a bear—a bear, one supposes, remembering Gide’s Flaubertian travails, because a bear takes two years to reproduce. Cocteau, for his part, always insisted he had been the recipient of “exquisite letters from André Gide which quite failed to correspond to his obsessive ‘open’ communications.”
We now have, from La Table Ronde, a collection of Cocteau’s many letters to Gide, along with the latter’s sparse responses. It is a collection, alas, which corroborates neither Cocteau’s fancy nor even the cautious judgment of the editor, Jean-Jacques Kihm: “l’histoire parallèle de deux hommes qui étaient peut-être sur le point de se trouver.” The exchanges are interesting, nevertheless, because they demonstrate the ambivalence Cocteau would always harbor toward father figures or father-myths, as well as revealing, beneath a courteous forebearance (“charmant ami“), how alternately appalled or threatened Gide was by le prince frivole.
To Gide, surely, Cocteau could be little more than a talent celebrating itself, not for posterity, but for temporality: a talent, in black pajamas with a red neckerchief, parading through on a velvet litter, cheered by the jeunes premiers and fashion-mongers of le tout Paris. (See the devastating portrait he drew of Cocteau, the dry and dilettantish Comte Robert de Passavant in Les Faux-Monnayeurs.)
The meticulous, self-regarding, self-questioning André Gide—a great man of letters, of course, far greater than Cocteau—who, I suspect, spent all of his life trying to rid himself of the prig he knew himself to be so that the immoralist he so longed to become would be born (“Let everyone follow his inclinations,” he says grandly, “provided he go upward”); who, like Goethe, could well have confessed he was prone to prefer injustice to disorder; and who (if Cocteau knew, how he must have thought it trop Gidean) even had it arranged in his head which of the classics he would read on his death bed. Against that, picture the poet at his house at Milly-la-Forêt, his last hours taken up with the news of Edith Piaf’s death; then at his funeral, another great friend, Maurice Chevalier, sending Cocteau a wreath of flowers, with the giddy inscription: To the One and Only….
Both Gide and Cocteau, of course, were homosexual. But Gide, rather late in middle age, with what one can only regard as tremendous panache, fathered a child, to prove, not to himself, but to the world, that he was capable of “procreative ardor.” Although he was a loving father, there is little, either in his character or in his writings, I think, to suggest he ever wanted to be one. Cocteau, if we can accept his protestations, did want a “son”; and the fatuousness or tenuousness of his relations with women (the canards about Mistinguett or Madeleine Carlier; the “liaison” with Nathalie Paley, whom Steegmuller calls “the Princess”), his attempts (while renouncing neither his lovers nor his drugs) to “regulate” his “situation,” his intention, in later years, to legally adopt Edouard Dermit, the last of his young men, all add a grotesque poignancy or humor to a life which Gide, along with so many others, always thought of as “excessive” and “insincere.”
Reared on the Bible, Chopin, and soirées at Mallarmé’s, Gide had an immense moral and cultural self-assurance, a temperament and education inseparable from the tradition of French letters. Cocteau, twenty years younger, a “dunce” at the Ecole Alsacienne, a truant skating at the Palais de Glace or watching Bernhardt perform, was attracted to a lesser tradition, that of the boulevardier: Je suis parisien, je parle parisien, je prononce parisien. (“Schools, classes,” Cocteau once told Mayakovsky, “mean barbarity, backwardness.”) Cocteau and Gide shared similar likes and dislikes (Nietzsche and Wagner, for example); they were narcissists and, for them, narcissism was always a reflection of the underworld, and, in one way or another, they flirted with the underworld, the inverted image, all their lives.
Yet for Gide, in himself or in his characters, self-realization even when demonic would always be a problem of moral philosophy, the adventures of Lafcadio or Michel always a social or psychological matter. Gidean experience is essentially Kantian. “The only art which interests me,” he says austerely, “is that which, rising from unrest, tends toward serenity.” For Cocteau, with his romantic distrust of forms and categories, with the instinctively fragmentary nature of his works, morality could have “nothing to do with morality proper,” but had to be “built up by each one of us as an inner style, without which no outer style is possible.”
“People in a trance,” says Proust, “always ask to be told of their future, for fear of being made to confess their past.” All of Cocteau’s characters, whether in classical or contemporary dress, whether his foot-stamping hedonists or debauched naïfs (and only Cocteau would enthuse over a “naïve amorality”), exist in a “timeless” present. They are sleepwalkers, literally, as with Paul in Les Enfants terribles, or symbolically, as with the others. “The elegant young men of Verona,” suggests Cocteau in his adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, “have a certain aggressive way of walking, one hand on the hilt of their sword. Only Romeo does not follow this fashion, and walks as though sleepwalking.”
Like Cocteau, though fearful of childhood and of children, of “children at play who destroy everything and respect nothing,” these characters, nevertheless, are always obsessed with the “mythology of childhood,” with spells, webs, traps, charms, stratagems. Unable to assume the past, they use the “unreal” world as a magical means of preventing any one image from taking over, so they are continually transforming themselves. The “real” world, for them, is a newspaper clipping, a bit of gossip, a record on a gramophone, a millionaire mysteriously turning up to pay everyone’s bills, the garage in L’Eternel Retour, an adventure, a war. Like sleepwalkers, these characters never look back, yet tempting fate, they are always trying to change the course of events, letting in someone or something from the “real” world to break the enchanted circle: Paul and Elizabeth with Agathe, Nick with Madeleine, the Queen with Stanislaus, Renaud in the garden where la lumière regarde et le silence écoute—and they meet death precipitately.
Most of Cocteau’s works are miracle plays à rebours, without divine intervention, only divine inexorability. The only works where, once the enchanted circle shatters, Cocteau allows a happy ending, are in his fables, La Belle et la Bête and Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde. Commitment, for Cocteau’s characters, has a shallow ring. His characters are solitaries. Oedipus is a “playing card king” who “becomes a man”—but off-stage, in the future awaiting him at Colonus, to which he goes hand in hand with the ghost of Jocasta. “Ah, if you only knew,” she tells him, in a fantasy of forgiveness, “how unimportant in my world are the things which seem monstrous to men.” Knowledge is a necromantic plunge. In Orphée we hear “Jupiter gives wisdom only to those he wishes to destroy.” In Thomas l’Imposteur, Guillaume, felled at the front, attempts to seduce death, make it seem a dream.
A bullet. I haven’t a chance if I don’t pretend to be dead, he said to himself.
But in him make-believe and reality were one.
Guillaume Thomas was dead.
Seduction, of course, has always been strong in Cocteau’s self-creation. He kept at it throughout his life, speaking of his “good luck,” his “bad luck,” trying to seduce his fate, invent or reinvent it, make it seem better than it was. Cocteau incarnated the need of so many to be with the famous or to become famous, “larger than life.” Yet once intimate with his “gods,” his extraordinary events, he would go beyond that; improving on reality, he’d make it more “real.” So, in his memoirs, we come across the startling scene of Cocteau with Nijinsky and Stravinsky in the Bois de Boulogne, watching Diaghilev weeping and reciting Pushkin after the scandale of The Rite of Spring. So, during the war, Cocteau’s comrades, a company of Fusiliers-Marins, must be completely wiped out the day after he leaves St. Georges. Cocteau was the supreme fantast, yet always earthy enough to know that a clever, if apocryphal, anecdote survives everything.
Lamenting never having been graced with a “handsome face,” he developed a voice that crackled like tinfoil, suitable for oracular utterances, one of which was heartfelt: Les privilèges de la beauté sont immenses. So he would long “to be those he found beautiful, not to be loved by them.” So as a poet, ironically enough, he wanted not to be admired, but to be believed. A part of him thought of poetry as a game, a vast pun (le truc c’est art), the playfulness of his works which so appealed to Ortega; a deeper part of his nature thought of it as a religious calling, a “great solitude, a struggle against extraneous temptations and charms.” He often spoke of submission. The way a woman becomes swollen with child, the poet, for Cocteau, becomes inflamed with words, messages from the angels, electric wires running through the body (“Genius, like electricity, is not to be analyzed”), then bursting (“inspiration is merely expiration”).
With his assorted crises de nerfs, his hypochondria, his boils, his drugs, his mania to be everywhere and everything, Cocteau seems an inexhaustible neurasthenic, forever waxing at concert pitch. Yet it would appear, both from his life and from his works, that he needed the attentions, even the abrasiveness, of others to keep him awake, so he would not surrender completely to the dreamland that was always threatening to engulf him. The dreamland that followed him to the war, that would make him see, in the hallucinatory imagery of Thomas l’Imposteur, the sandbags at Nieuport grow “floury with moonlight,” the lookout suggest “the silhouette of a fierce and jealous miller watching with a gun at the window of his mill”; the dreamland that often cost him his loves, or would make him want to forget he ever had them, either as Galahad, the prototype of the poet-priest, in Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde, crying “I am snatched away from all whom I love,” or as the self-consciously, quasi-autobiographical Baudelairean hero of Le Grand Ecart remarking that “in order to live on earth you must follow its fashion, and hearts are no longer worn.”
It was the dreamland which, after Radiguet’s death and shortly before the aborted attempt, through the ministrations of Max Jacob and Jacques Maritain, to “return to the sacraments,” would make Cocteau, as Steegmuller notes, sit at a table and stare at “himself in the door-mirror of the wardrobe” at the Hotel Welcome and draw “himself over and over again.” The mirror which dissolves appearances as much as it reflects them, the mirror in Orphée “through which death comes and goes,” the mirror where “you’ve only to watch yourself all your life long and you’ll see death at work like a swarm of bees in a glass hive.” The effect of mirror-watching was annihilation.
Certainly, for all his frivolity, the sense of martyrdom is shockingly present in Cocteau. Unlike Gide, he was, apparently, sexually passive. Opium, for instance, often had the effect of making him impotent. Although he had the reputation of “ruining” or “destroying” young men, a lover who later became a monk remembered him, in a private letter published in Steegmuller’s book, as “profoundly chaste.” In Bacchus, Hans, Cocteau’s holy fool, is destroyed by Lothar, his friend, as in the death of Saint Sebastian, smothered with arrows by the soldiers of his lover, the emperor. The sense of martyrdom is especially evident in the innumerable sketches Cocteau made of young men, sketches which represent always the same young man, Cocteau’s beau idéal, the flawless body “rigged with muscles the way a schooner is with ropes,” the head thrown back, caught in a convulsive moment, a face at once squalid and angelic—a masturbatory fantasy, but something more.
Cocteau hated Freud and made mocking references to psychoanalysts or psychoanalytic theory all his life, but he never seems to have come to grips with the great theme of fathers and sons. His themes were always of sons and mothers, sisters and brothers, themes of incest, of impossible loves, melodramatic and grandiloquent themes which were, in turn, protective coloring for his real themes, those of homosexual romance and narcissistic despair. What “time” was for Proust, what “will” was for Gide, Dargelos and le sexe surnaturel de la beauté, the theme of the voyant in love with the voyou, became for Cocteau. Dargelos was the “cock of the crowd” of Cocteau’s youth; Dargelos of the “fatal profile,” of the “marble heart,” Dargelos with the name that “stood for arrogance.”
Throughout his work, the pressing memory of le bel indifférent assumes, for Cocteau, the symbol of all that cannot be subdued, the diamond which cuts every substance, but which can be cut by no other substance but itself. Here was another of those symbols of the absolute, what Cocteau always wanted, what so much of French literature seems to always need, but it was a paradoxical symbol, which, as we know from the limits of Cocteau’s art, he would never, or could never, completely follow. “Perhaps I know,” he tells us slyly, “how far I can go.”
Cocteau must have surely seen the temptation to be among, as he puts it, the “damned,” in the celebrated relationship of Verlaine and Rimbaud, what the intoxicated Verlaine himself saw in the younger poet’s programmatic attempts to be a criminal (Oh! ces jours où il veut marcher avec l’air du crime!),3 to plunge into the abyss. But Cocteau, with his bourgeois prudence and piety (in the last year of his life, in the south of France and in London, he painted on the walls of chapels scenes from the gospels, and in one of these paintings portrayed himself at the foot of the cross), would, caught as he always was between self-aggrandizement and self-negation, never allow himself, in his works as in his life, to be quite so overwhelmed as Verlaine and Rimbaud had been. The natural gaiety of his writings stood guard over that possibility, as indeed did his philosophy of art where, as with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, the world would be tolerable only to the extent we can summon up marvels (Je suis un mensonge qui dit toujours la vérité). Above all, the very nature of Cocteau’s neurosis forbade it, that love that would be a “sickness…unremitting and incurable, a state of desire, chaste, innocent of aim or name.”
So the sense of martyrdom would always be there as would the homosexuality, but it would always have the aura of a spiritual adventure, of deliverance. At the end of Les Enfants terribles, the dying Paul will see not Elizabeth, not Agathe, but the snowballers of his youth in the Cité Monthiers courtyard, the students with capes and mufflers, and he will look for Dargelos, but Dargelos will be blotted out, and all he will be able to see will be that one “vast gesture of Dargelos’ lifted arm,” the god in the distance, abandoning him, exalting him.
It is true that Cocteau often falters, absurdly at times: you could play the whole of the Light Cavalry Overture through most of L’Aigle à deux têtes and not go too far wrong. Still, it has stunning passages; still, even the least of his works always manage those two or three remarks which go off with a bang. It is true he can be much too brilliant, or brilliantly motley, full of fluff and the Pléiade Classics. But so, too, are most poets: Shelley’s favorite authors were Lucretius and Benjamin Franklin. True, as well, that Cocteau is essentially a miniaturist and a variationist. One can well imagine him preferring the Variations on “Rule Britannia” to the “Ode to Joy”; his associations with Poulenc and Milhaud say as much.
Yet, though he does not have the conclusiveness and inclusiveness the great writer must always have, in small matters, in tone, nuance, epigrammatic grace, he can hardly be faulted; and in his evocations of youth and mystery and la gloire, in that mixture of caricature and fatalism, of the incantatory and the everyday, he has, I think, a charm more forceful, incontestably more inventive, than that to be found in the complementary works of Larbaud or Giraudoux or Montherlant or Alain-Fournier. As Steegmuller splendidly says, “Now one tone prevails, now another, and one recognizes his particular rainbow.”
When Cocteau was a very young man, he decorated the bottom of his letters with a heart; as he grew older, surer of himself and of his world, he drew just beneath his signature a star. Maurice Sachs wrote that Cocteau was inhuman, that he would burn, but the way ice burns, without warming, that he could not love. When we remember Cocteau’s many silences about those closest to him: about his father, who committed suicide when he was a boy; about his mother, whom he never rendered with the candor and penetration Proust and Gide brought to a similar subject; above all, about his lovers, especially Radiguet (aside from the poems Plain-Chant and L’Ange heurtebise apparently the only other particular portrait of Radiguet is in the character Cocteau calls H. in the pseudonymously published Le Livre blanc), we see that with Cocteau there will always be a series of doors which can never be opened, that the most “public” or “scandalous” literary figure since Wilde must deny us the “goods,” and that in any future estimation of him as a man and as an artist he will suffer for it.
And yet how can we have expected more? From his earliest years, it seems, Cocteau actually believed in his génie, his special-case existence. He was never, as he kept remarking over and over, artificial, only artifi-ciel. “What can one hope of an age like ours,” he exclaimed, “which does not even believe its conjurers.” Legend-making was in his blood. He burns the way myths do, cold and lasting.
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.↩
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.↩
To be sure, true seer that he was, Rimbaud has Verlaine make the remark in Délires I of Une Saison en Enfer.↩
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.↩
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.↩
To be sure, true seer that he was, Rimbaud has Verlaine make the remark in Délires I of Une Saison en Enfer.↩