Commentary Magazine


Cocteau, by Francis Steegmuller; Professional Secrets: An Autobiography of Jean Cocteau, writings selected by Robert Phelps

La Vie du Poète

Cocteau. A Biography.
by Francis Steegmuller.
Atlantic-Little Brown. 583 pp. $12.50.

Professional secrets: An autobiography of Jean Cocteau. Writings selected
by Robert Phelps;
translated by Richard Howard. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 331 pp. $8.50.

In 1965, two years after Jean Cocteau’s death, a splendid exhibition of his life and times was mounted at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, presenting an unforgettable display of more than half a century of art, literature, and greasepaint. For although Cocteau did not belong to any group, and is thus especially hard to classify, there was scarcely any manifestation, important or trivial, with which he was not in some degree associated. Now the modernist clowns and harlequins, the blue trains and megaphones have entered history; the violent battles of a bygone avant-garde seem almost as remote as that of Hernani. Yet after so long in the spotlight, at once hated and adulated beyond measure, Cocteau remains a subject of continued fascination and controversy. How to find the thread of Ariadne to guide us through the maze of this protean and willfully elusive Minotaur—the thread of the poet’s life or of his work?

“I wonder how people can write the lives of poets . . .,” said Cocteau. “There are too many mysteries, too many true lies, too much of a tangle.” The biography of a poet can be helpful insofar as it enables the reader to penetrate the artist’s work more easily and to set this solidly in its cultural moment. In such a view, the poet’s life merely provides a form of scaffolding, for it is only partially out of direct experience that the intangible architecture of his work is shaped. This is not quite how Francis Steegmuller sees his purpose in his biography of Cocteau who, though he worked with acclaim in a bewildering diversity of fields—lyric verse, novel, drama, ballet, opera and oratorio, drawing, mural painting, cinema, and the rest—conceived all of them as a unity, as expressions of personal poetry and of his own inner mystery and phantasmagoria. In Francis Steegmuller’s view, “Out of his life, so often derailed, came the work that makes the life worth recounting,” that is, the work justifies the life. It is rather as if Kubla Khan raised the value of the visitor from Porlock, instead of determining our interest in the mysterious imaginative road to Xanadu.

The trouble is that Cocteau continues to pose considerable problems for all who try to approach him. One of these difficulties is how to disentangle the frivolous prince from, the dedicated professional artist he indubitably was (although some would deny him the title). Before a meaningful relation between life and work could be established, it would be necessary to distinguish between those works which principally affected the taste of the day and those of more enduring merit. Otherwise, the Cocteau story becomes in large part an adjunct of the salons, the Diaghilev ballet, the music hall, the backbiting and infighting of the Parisian literary world, to say nothing of the tormented destinies of his various “angels” or “adopted sons.” All this is rich and fascinating enough and a tempting (if poisoned) gift to the biographer. A straightforward approach certainly has the merit of clearing the air, but it also leaves the main difficulty unresolved. Legend is painstakingly sifted from fact: curiously, though, the effect is rather like quenching Aladdin’s lamp, since Aladdin-Cocteau thrives in that poetic region where fantasy and mystery prove more potent than actuality.

Cocteau the witty and scintillating enchanter, the dazzling conjurer whose legerdemain could produce a magic rose out of sordid and prosaic soil, or evoke El Greco’s Toledo out of a dead frog and electricity; whose extravagant theatricality made him akin to his own “sacred monsters”; whose blood (as he liked to say) was ink, becomes the cultural chameleon and modish self-advertiser. He appears as the man who was snubbed by Apollinaire and who was not nearly so intimate with Stravinsky as he cared to pretend. Doubtless this diminution of the role he claimed in his need to be loved is one aspect of the truth about Cocteau, yet it is not the only truth, perhaps not even the most important truth about him. Francis Steegmuller’s biography is as elegantly composed and as pleasurable to read as his Flaubert and Madame Bovary but—perhaps unwittingly—it encourages one to feel less confident about and less well-disposed toward Cocteau; whereas what one should be remembering is that Cocteau was not the first highly gifted artist to be an equivocal human being.

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Much as the author seeks for something agreeable to say about Cocteau’s character, stressing notably his generosity to friends, there are only too many elements that he finds hard to take, beginning with the small boy in a tantrum, who frightened his mother into concealing a gift of cigars for their manservant, and then denounced her to a railway customs inspector. Cocteau could be bitchy, and was not above betraying a colleague, like the designer Bakst, with a word. And for the middle-aged deceiver and self-deceiver, noisily indulging in an affair with a highborn lady for the avowed purpose of begetting a son, while keeping concealed behind her photograph the picture of a narcissistic and elastic ephebe capable of a striking feat of sexual acrobatics (a decription discreetly left in French), a certain amused and urbane distaste is manifest.

Significantly, Cocteau never alluded to his father’s suicide in 1898, though he was not averse to hinting that the latter’s unhappiness may have been caused by repressed homosexual tastes. At fifteen, Cocteau had escaped from his well-connected bourgeois milieu to spend some months in the male brothels and the underworld of Marseilles. In 1908, when only eighteen, he was launched by the homosexual actor Edouard de Max, and became the darling of the salons frequented by Proust, later dropping the poems written in this period from the canon. The impact of the Russian ballet, of Stravinsky and Picasso, and of World War I made of Cocteau the poet upon whom the mantle of Apollinaire had fallen, the advocate of Satie and the composers known as the Six, the arbiter of taste who enlarged the sensibilities of his contemporaries.

Young men began to hang about outside his home and address their prayers to his photograph. Meanwhile, the droll poet, Max Jacob, a convert to Christianity, had introduced him to the tough-minded youthful prodigy, Raymond Radiguet, author of The Devil in the Flesh, who inspired some of Cocteau’s finest poems and whose untimely death at the age of twenty led Cocteau to despair and opium. Through the offices of the neo-Thomist philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and his Jewish-born wife, Raïssa, he momentarily returned to the Catholic rites, taking with him his (then) admirer, the shady Maurice Sachs, of whom a friend said, “When we heard you were in the Seminary, we thought it was a new night club.” A novelist was later wittily to characterize this extraordinary episode of religious conversions in the 20′s as “pederasthomism.” Maritain was shocked to discover that Cocteau did not intend to sacrifice opium or his association with Jean Desbordes, apostle of self-indulgent sexuality. Art and religion did not mix, suggested Cocteau in an interview in 1928, above all art must be free, and he added: “Art is the spirit made flesh, and the spirit is made flesh through a marriage between the artist and himself, and other extremely dubious forms of incest.”

Narcissism and egotism—the reverse of Cocteau’s gift of prolonged childhood—led to imperviousness or callousness. A lack of proportion, typical perhaps of a certain kind of poetic temperament, caused him to show more emotion at a personal attack upon himself than at the fall of France in 1940. He made the mistake of writing in praise of Hitler’s favorite sculptor in 1943, though he also did his best to obtain the release of Max Jacob, who died in Drancy prison. Like so many others after the war, he needed to justify himself, and absurdly told Harold Nicolson that he had felt he owed it to his art not to join the Resistance.

Basically, Cocteau was lost in the world of politics and affairs: all he cared about was the Left and Right of art. He represented the fading flowering of a poetic outlook derived from Baudelaire. Perhaps, too, Baudelaire’s yearning to plunge into the Unknown in search of the new was to do Cocteau, who echoed it, more harm than good. He became self-conscious about the modern, and ended by doing the opposite of what was going on at the moment. This preoccupation with modernity was one side of Cocteau that particularly aroused the animosity of Gide. But along with Gide he figures among the last of those larger-than-life French literary myth-makers, skillful manipulators of their own public image.

What seems to be missing from Francis Steegmuller’s book is any strong view about Cocteau’s place and contribution as a poet in the widest sense (as distinct from his role as historical figure and as witness of his era). While not, of course, attempting an assessment of Cocteau, like most observers he sees the high point of Cocteau’s career in the poems, plays, novels, essays, and other works that came out of World War I and the opium-smoking 20′s. With the dramas of the 30′s he perceives an evident decline, followed by a renewal in the films of the 40′s. Such a standpoint determines the pattern of his book. He therefore concentrates on the period up to 1930, and tends to skip over the later plays, feeling perhaps that these have been more than adequately dealt with in English by critics like Grossvogel and Guicharnaud, among others.

This judgment makes for tidiness but it appears especially hard on a play like The Infernal Machine, first produced in 1934, which some noteworthy critics have considered Cocteau’s greatest dramatic achievement. As Robert Phelps observes in his introduction to his useful anthology of (rather truncated) excerpts from Cocteau’s miscellaneous writings in translation, the Sphinx’s incantation in that play was one of the best prose passages Cocteau ever composed. The revival in 1954 at the Bouffes-Parisiens, with the enchanting Elvire Popesco (for whom the part was originally written) as Jocasta, Jeanne Moreau as the Sphinx, and Cocteau’s devoted protégé Jean Marais as Oedipus, proved impressive at a moment when the postwar Parisian stage was at its liveliest. Moreover, Cocteau’s films seem overpraised here at the expense of his plays. Leaving aside the extraordinary experiment, The Blood of a Poet, his best movies, Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus (based on the play of 1926), have their place in the history of the cinema no doubt, as examples of the way a director could succeed in imprinting on film an intensely personal form of poetry; yet in the light of his early works they appear largely as the exploitation, in another medium, of a familiar vein of imagery.

What the biographer seeks—the inner man—is just what Cocteau was anxious to preserve behind his masks. As Cocteau often maintained, the outer visible appearance protected an inner inviolate core. To put the worst construction on this—Eric Bentley’s—is to presume that the visible conceals nothing but a vacuum. To put the best construction upon it would be to say with Keats that the poet lacks identity. For Max Jacob (and for himself) Cocteau was “the Poet” with a capital P. Cocteau believed in the conception of the poet as accursed, a creature apart, possessed by and suffering under the weight of the god. He was the instrument of he knew not what. The Muses who sought neither to please nor to displease visited him . . . and left him. In the end, one is no nearer knowing the “real” Cocteau through his biography—the “real” Cocteau who exists and will survive in his best work.

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