Books: Cultural Amnesia — Jean Cocteau |
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The role of Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) in French twentieth-century culture was to be the wonder boy in perpetuity. He should be commended for it: some of his untiring precocity continues to amaze. Diaghilev’s famous instruction to him (“Astonish me”) was one he fulfilled by astonishing everybody. For Diaghilev, during World War I, Cocteau put together the ballet Parade, with music by Satie, décor by Picasso and choreography by Massine. No single production did more to advance all the arts at once. That they needed advancing was a principle Cocteau never questioned. In that sense, he was dedicated not to the private experience of art, but to its public impact. Unlike other troublemakers such as the Dadaists, however, he was not making up for shortage of talent. Cocteau went on astonishing everybody in a dozen different fields. He was poet, dramatist, graphic artist, novelist and film-maker, practising every art form at a high level. His love for the doomed young novelist Raymond Radiguet resulted in a cycle of tragic poems fit to dispel any illusion that he might have been a dilettante. But he had a dangerous taste for showing off to the exalted, and during the Nazi Occupation of Paris it led him astray. Receptions thrown by the Propaganda Staffel of the occupying power at the Tour d’Argent were too often graced with his exquisite profile. Compounded with an addiction to opium, his compromised reputation led to a spiritual decline after the war. Even then, though, he managed to produce the work by which he is most easily approached now: the film Orphée, which after sixty years still looks original despite all the originality it inspired from everybody else. (“Cinema is the form of modern writing whose ink is light” was a typical epigram.) There were other Cocteau films, most notably Beauty and the Beast, but Orphée gives the best sense of tout Paris making a home movie. If not the first, it was certainly the most sensational updating of a classic myth into modern dress. Orpheus, with immaculately cut pleated trousers instead of a toga, was played by Jean Marais, Cocteau’s young lover. The leading actress, Maria Casares, was Albert Camus’s mistress. French intellectual life was the world’s biggest small world, and everyone in it thought of Cocteau as the arbiter of elegance, even when they despised him. Sympathetic biographies by Francis Steegmuller and Frederick Brown have the facts, and the right judgement. Cocteau’s all-embracing multiplicity was a kind of unity, even if moral weakness was one of the things that it embraced. The best writer of all on “the banquet years,” Roger Shattuck, often brings Cocteau on as light relief, but doesn’t underestimate his importance. By and large, the well-funded and often highly qualified American students of French culture after the Belle époque were ready to forgive all in their aim to understand everything. A humane attitude, as long as it doesn’t lead us into the illusion that a man as intelligent as Cocteau didn’t know what collaboration meant. He did: he just thought he could find a style for it. After the war, Cocteau’s old friend Misia Sert (the tasteful patroness who serves as the nominal subject for one of the best of the many books about tout Paris, Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale’s Misia) threw a string of soirées for which she invited both those who had collaborated and those who hadn’t. She invited the two groups on different nights. So Cocteau never had to meet the people who wouldn’t stay in the same room with him, because they weren’t there.

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Too many milieux injure an adaptable sensibility. There was once a chameleon whose owner,
to keep it warm, put it on a gaudy Scottish plaid. The chameleon died of fatigue.

I UNCONSCIOUSLY PLAGIARIZED this idea on two separate occasions before discovering, when searching through my journals, that it belonged to Cocteau. If I had remembered, I would have flagged the borrowing: it is bad manners to do otherwise, and bad tactics too, because usually you will be found out. My excuse would be that Cocteau, though no end of a dandy and in many respects a posturing water-fly, had the knack of hitting on expressions that were so neat they seemed without a personal stamp, like particularly smooth pebbles on a pebble beach. He once said to an interviewer that you couldn’t teach a young artist anything: all you could do was open the door and show him the tightrope. I loved that idea and kept it in my memory. In his film Orphée there are ideas that I loved and kept in a different way: the cryptic phrases used by the angels—the phrases were based on coded BBC radio calls to the French Resistance—became recognition signals for my group of writers at Sydney University in the late fifties. “The bird sings with its wings,” we would intone to each other, in smug ecstasies of knowingness. No doubt we were being very precious, but so was Cocteau: Orphée is the apex of preciosity, and therefore, appropriately, the distilled projection of Cocteau himself. In life, far from being Orpheus, Cocteau was an Osric with an infinite range of hats, too many of them by Schiaparelli. In World War I, when he visited the front in a party led by Misia Sert—muse and patroness to all the artists—Cocteau wore a nurse’s uniform of his own devising. In World War II he was a cocktail-party collaborator, mainly because he couldn’t bear to be out of the swim. At the Propaganda Staffel receptions, with cocktails and finger food, Cocteau was a fixture, if a chameleon crossing a swastika can be called that.

While not exactly despicable—nobody died because of him—his behaviour was not admirable. He can be classed with Sacha Guitry, Arletty and Maurice Chevalier among the top-flight artists who gave themselves a free pass because of their art. Only Chevalier was subsequently crass enough to hint that he had really been an Allied spy risking his life to gather information, but Cocteau came close to the same kind of vulgarity when he evoked the call signs of the Resistance in Orphée. All he had the right to evoke was a simpering air-kiss aimed at the Gestapo. There was, however, another, deeper Cocteau: this one, the Cocteau who invented the exhausted chameleon. This was the quickly whittling and fletching phrase-maker who could say and write things that would travel through time like untiring arrows. “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo.” A crack like that doesn’t end the discussion, but it certainly starts one.

This, I think, was the Cocteau whom Proust loved: not the stylish poseur but the true stylist, a living concentration of art and intellect, of taste and daring. The moment in à la recherche du temps perdu when St. Loup runs along the top of the banquette in the restaurant is probably based on one of Cocteau’s carefully calculated displays of his show-stopping knack for creating memorable scenes by stealing them. And in the long run, St. Loup’s unlikely conversion to homosexuality was probably justified in Proust’s mind by Cocteau’s nature. Probably there were several real-life models for St. Loup, but at the end the model for one of the character’s dramatic moments took over the character’s inner being, if only because Proust’s inner being had the same bent. It would scarcely have happened, however, if Proust had not genuinely admired Cocteau, who was impossible to admire if one did not envy his talent. This remark about the chameleon comes from the aspect of Cocteau’s gift that will always remain enviable: the combinative power that underlay his protean knack for special effects. (The book Le Potomak, from which the quotation comes, was named not after the American river but after a creature he made up: a deep-sea fish that rises to the surface and dazzles everyone with its polychromatic, scintillating brilliance. Clearly he was talking about himself.) Endlessly pirouetting to get himself into profile, Cocteau was tiresome in the extreme, but mainly because the froth and fizz of his superficial behaviour made you nostalgic for the underlying man, whom you guessed correctly to be classical in his perceptions despite his self-denigrating mania for originality. It could be said that anyone who admired the looks of Jean Marais, the rebarbative star of both Orphée and La Belle et le bête, had the same classical perceptions as a Las Vegas hotel designer, but the late 1940s were a long time ago, and Marais’s bouffant hairstyle was the first ever seen in a serious context. Elvis Presley was not yet there to be copied. Cocteau thought of his own images. He really was as innovative as his admirers said. Their only mistake was to imagine that novelty was an ethos.