Vidal in Venice
Jean Cocteau and the French Scene
Arnold SchoenbergWassily Kandinsky: Letters, Pictures and Documents
Vidal in Venice, the book of the television script, is part pocket-history, part waiting-room art, part tourist guyed. But the best parts are those in which Vidal compares Venetian and American political systems and arrangements. Good, too, is the chapter on Thomas Coryate, the early seventeenth-century “Innocent Abroad,” England’s first of the breed. And special mention should be made of the photographs, excellent in themselves, well-positioned as illustrations of the text, and successful in avoiding the over-familiar subjects and angles of postcard veduti.
Both republics, the Venetian and American, were equipped with “checks and balances” to prevent usurpation by doges and presidents. Each one “made sure that it would never become a monarchy—or a democracy,” Vidal writes, adding that the heads of the two states were balanced and constrained by a senate, as well as, in Venice, by a Great Council and a Council of Ten, and, in the United States, by a House of Representatives and a Supreme Court. These parallels are no more watertight, of course, than Venetian ground floors, and Vidal is soon referring to the US “Acting President” as the “Emperor of the West,” and to his Venetian counterpart of the past as a figurehead without “personal power” who was “not allowed to govern in Venice.” But the similarity between the divisions of government does hold water, and so do the further characterizations of both states as essentially mercantile—and not religious or ideological—and as having “accepted as perfectly natural human greed.” The Venetian desire for “a state in which it was possible for those of good family to do well at business” would also apply to America, if people of bad family were included.
In view of the relative sizes of the two republics, the physical separation on the American side of the various branches and agencies is understandably at an opposite extreme from the Venetian, where the Doge’s Palace, “a single, unfortified building,” combined “White House, Pentagon, State Department and CIA.” Radically different, too, are levels of performance. As “directors of intelligence and counter-intelligence,” the Venetians were incomparably more clever and economical than their American successors, and the book’s comparison between the efficiency of Venice’s Three Inquisitors, its spies and secret codes, its agents and assassins, and the bungling CIA, with its mammoth apparatus, is vintage Vidal. He does not say that Venetian plots to remove political and other enemies were not always top secret, as when the Senate in open session voted to sponsor a scheme to poison the Duke of Milan (see Millard Meiss’s Mantegna as Illuminator).
For a skipped heartbeat, in the chapter “The Turning of the Tide,” the reader fears that America’s most “mordant” moralist is about to become a merely conventional one: Vidal follows his discussion of Venetian courtesans, and of a scandal involving the relative of a Doge in a fight over one of them, with the observation: “Moral fiber was plainly weakening in the early 1500s.” Happily, the reference is to bribery, scams, the sale of noble titles and privileges, and the increase in corruption in both Church and State. Prostitutes were transformed into courtesans sometimes after the closing of the zoned Castelletto, when, too, thanks to growing international notoriety, the ranks of the profession multiplied. Vidal’s own visit to the Courtesans in the Museo Correr is sheathed in prophylactic wit:
A study of utter boredom…. The young boy [is] their bell-hop…. [The] elevated clogs are being aired prior to a promotional stroll through the Piazza.
If the weakest chapter is the one on the arts, it nevertheless diverts on the subject of correspondences between Renaissance painting and the movies:
When a major painter revealed his latest work, it was like a film premiere. Carpaccio was one of the most splendid of proto movie-makers…. [His] St. George is played by the Robert Redford of his day, while the dragon is handled by Steven Spielberg’s special effects department…
If Carpaccio was, let us say, the William Wyler of Venetian painting, Tintoretto was the Cecil B. DeMille. Tintoretto, like DeMille, was at his best with crowd scenes and fires. In his portrayal of St. Mark, the saint, in the guise of whom else but the marvelous Charlton Heston, swoops down from heaven…
Veronese, the Federico Fellini of his day,…was asked to paint the Last Supper. But the Inquisition complained about the result. [The title was changed to] The Feast in the House of Levi. That is how the picture was finally released.
To say that the Colleoni monument is “considered to be the finest [equestrian statue] since antiquity,” however, is to ignore the equally large claque for the Gattamelata. (Vidal tells us that Colleoni himself was said to have been over-endowed in genitalia, having as many testes as the balls on a pawnbroker’s sign.) It is certainly true that “Venice produced very little literature,” and it may also be true that Pasinetti (a UCLA professor when I knew him) is the city’s only major novelist. But literature in Venice did flourish in the theater, and Gozzi, Goldoni, and Lorenzo da Ponte merit at least a few words. (A related omission is that of Venice as one-time world capital of printing.)
Finally, Vidal writes that “an age of religious music had begun, with Gabrieli [which one?] and Monteverdi”; but Monteverdi’s importance in Venice is as a composer of operas. The art of Venetian mosaicists is barely mentioned, and perhaps should have been left out entirely: “As depicted in the mosaics of St. Mark’s Church, the body of St. Mark was smuggled into Venice from Alexandria in 829.” Yet “829” cannot be “depicted” and the furtiveness of the smugglers in the illustration suggests that the scene is the escape from Egypt, not the arrival in Italy.
In the acknowledgments to this volume commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Cocteau’s death, Peters describes him as “the first true multi-media artist.” The emphasis therefore is still on the diversity of Cocteau’s talents—Jean of all trades—rather than on his poetry.
The book includes handy, though overlapping, reference articles on Cocteau’s films, theater, and relationship to music by, respectively, Stephen Harvey, Neal Oxenhandler, and Ned Rorem. Dore Ashton’s more ambitious essay, “Intellectual Backdrop,” unintentionally reduces Cocteau to a peripheral figure simply by giving pride of priority to the Buñuel-Dali films,1 to Artaud’s theater, and to Surrealist painters. But one contribution deserves attention, Kenneth Silver’s “Jean Cocteau and the Image d’Epinal,” a study of the visual origins and references in Parade, the Satie-Cocteau-Picasso ballet, particularly since the work is receiving more exposure at present than ever before and was given this season by the Metropolitan Opera for a third year.
Mr. Silver sees Parade as a “parable of the travails of the avant-garde” vis-à-vis a disinterested public. His discussion of the piece is concerned not with its Cubist aspects, but with its example of popular culture rooted in childhood memories. The 1914 war provoked a revival of the three-centuries-old Epinal (Lorraine) prints. In contrast to the “documentary images” of photography, the brightly colored folkloric ones of Epinal proclaim moral and allegorical truths, and are stereotypical rather than specific—the mother-in-law, the cook, the policeman, the young married couple, and so on. Probably the best known of the series is the “Cris de Paris,” which Mr. Silver characterizes as the street vendor’s “visual lexicon.” Visually speaking, Parade is a transformed page from the “Cris de Paris,” as Mr. Silver demonstrates by tracing Picasso’s costume for the “Chinese Conjuror” to its Epinal origin—confirming, in the process, that the conception of the work was purely Cocteau’s.
A similar essay is overdue on the apparently unknown subject of Cocteau’s grand mastership in the Prieuré de Sion, a secret society resembling the Rosicrucians in its claims to ancient Egyptian origins. Cocteau’s predecessor in the order was Claude Debussy, whose biographers have concealed his connection with the brotherhood as successfully as have Cocteau’s. Mr. Peters, the editor of the book, refers to Cocteau’s drawings for murals in the Church of Notre Dame de France, Leicester Square, London, but does not say anything about the weird presentation of Prieuré de Sion symbols that resulted: the black sun with black rays, the Horus on a Roman shield, the huge rose beneath the crucified figure’s legs and feet—all that is visible of the body, though in any case the Christ is much less prominent than the portrait of Cocteau as donor. Mr. Peters says: “It was at Villefranche, in the chapel of St. Peter dedicated to simple fishermen, that Cocteau first began to decorate chapels.” In actuality Cocteau was embellishing churches near Lyon and in St. Mandrier twenty years earlier, in the summer of 1936.
Dore Ashton believes that Cocteau “came perilously close to becoming a Catholic doctrinaire.” Surely not doctrinaire, even in Catholicism. All the same, what did he mean by the line in Oedipus Rex, “L’autre côté de la mort“?
Recent books on Eliot continue to concentrate on the life rather than on the work, with the difference that “censorship” appears to have been relaxed, the scandal over Tom and Viv to have died down. Excerpts from unpublished letters and lectures are freely quoted here, and the dissenting views, including those of Harold Bloom’s psychoanalytics, are more than tokenly represented.
Among the thirty-odd contributions are substantial pieces of criticism, the most valuable of them Eliot’s own unpublished Dublin lecture of 1936, “Tradition and the Practice of Poetry,” with its focus on rhythm: “The great revolutions in poetry are revolutions in the sense of rhythm…. Wordsworth and Coleridge initiated a new age—not because their ideas were original, but because their rhythms were a departure from tradition.” In the writings of Eliot’s interpreters, a general increase of references to Mallarmé is conspicuous, along with an anachronistic tendency to connect him to the poems of the Prufrock period, when Eliot was protesting “the labored opacity of Mallarmé” as compared to “the prose of Rimbaud.” (Mallarmé, of course, would not have agreed that Rimbaud wrote prose: “Toutes les fois qu’il y a effort au style, il y a versification“; but no matter.)
In the first detailed account of Eliot’s unpublished thirty-eight-line dramatic monologue “The Love Song of Saint Sebastian” (1914), now in the Conrad Aiken Collection of the Huntington Library, Harvey Gross finds the poem revealing of Eliot’s sexuality. Gross describes the monologue as consisting of two stanzas, the first a masochistic (self-flagellating) episode, the second a complementary sadistic (strangling) one. Though the voice of the poem is presumably St. Sebastian’s, the fantasies of violence are those of the poet, and, Gross argues, they qualify more as case history than as art. The Sebastian that had most impressed Eliot was Mantegna’s in the Ca’ d’Oro, with, in Gross’s words, its “mixture of cruelty and erotic feeling” and “ecstasy of pain.” Both phrases provoke comment. First, the ecstasy is more certainly the experience of the susceptible voyeur than of Sebastian himself. Second, though eroticism is palpable in Mantegna’s depiction of flesh and loin drapery, surely the cruelty is negated by overkill—Sebastian as pincushion—and by the distractingly perfect aesthetic placement of the arrows.
Le Chien andalou and L'Age d'or.↩
Le Chien andalou and L’Age d’or.↩