Hidden away from his bedroom, somewhere inside the family’s Paris townhouse on rue La Bruyère, were the frontiers of Jean Cocteau’s “unreal, fabulous zone,” in which every room seemed mythic and far-flung, like a fantastic curiosity shop halfway around the world, known only by hearsay. Born Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau in Maisons-Laffitte, outside of Paris, he was one of three children in a comfortable Catholic family of diplomats and lawyers. His childhood was spent as a restless mental traveler—a habit intensified by age, as Cocteau the child became Cocteau the artist, creator of an enormous and ungovernable body of poems, plays, novels, films, journals, and drawings. The German governess who read fairy tales to him and his siblings; the family billiard room stocked with two Stradivariuses and a plaster mask of Antinous; the summer home decorated with Ingres drawings and Delacroix paintings—here were the early indulgences, the origins of a sensibility that saw any place, however familiar, as an enchanted case for further study.
In Jean Cocteau: A Life—a massive work, totaling more than 800 pages, published in France in 2003 but appearing in this country last fall, in a translation by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell—Claude Arnaud puts this sensibility at the center of a 74-year labor of continuous self-invention. As a literary biography, it is comprehensive and stimulating, worked through with great care. As a work of cultural history, guided by an aesthetic worldview, it is relevant to some of the broad impulses and compulsions of the arts of our own period. When so much of the art of the last decade consists of seemingly unfinished and interminable “situations” (Ragnar Kjartansson’s Bliss, for instance, with its 12-hour repetition of the final aria from The Marriage of Figaro), or when the works become evidence of an earlier unseen activity, completed on the artist’s behalf (the plywood encampments of Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument, with their arranged public lectures and seminars), we may be reaching the outer limits of a peculiar taste: a taste for what Cocteau called, in the diary he kept during the making of his 1946 film Beauty and the Beast, “work which devours its author.”
The total, devouring work, which forgoes not only its author but also its audience, was Cocteau’s privileged aim. It was the principle of Parade, the ballet he wrote for Diaghilev in 1916, scored by a clamorous sensory mix of Satie, gunfire, and typewriters—booed at its premiere but praised by Apollinaire for its “surrealism”—and of his first film, The Blood of a Poet, a ghostly moving-picture manifesto with an artist-protagonist passing through mirrors and squinting through keyholes, anguished by what he sees (“documentary scenes of another kingdom,” in Cocteau’s words), which culminates in an act of self-destruction. But art could also exceed the typical materials (celluloid, language, the stage): Indeed, a life could be a work of art, lived out with great bravado and ebullience in the company of many admirers, ingénues, and madmen. Life was, or could be, as Cocteau remarked about his own childhood, a “theater in which you played every role, in unequalled possession of the world.”
But, of course, it could also be an initiation into infirmity. “The child wants a bedroom, to gather together his belongings and loves there,” Cocteau wrote. “He hates things that disperse. He likes illnesses, which bring people together and leave him in seclusion.” And the illnesses—among them hay fever and scoliosis, rheumatism and insomnia, shingles and toothaches—would, like his opium addiction of later years, prove painful and transfiguring. For Cocteau, every agony was proof of an ennobling sensitivity connected to a frail, lithe body. He was, as Arnaud puts its, “a being made not of flesh but of vapor, bewitching but too unstable not to suffer from it—like a cloud traversed by horizontal flashes of lightning.” Illness for Cocteau meant the building up of an inner life and the creation of a place for make-believe, which could be perused and replenished ad infinitum.
It is difficult to talk about Cocteau without talking about the sacrificial character of his relationships. When he admitted to being “seduced by people who have a mysterious prestige” (a quality he thought inseparable from “lack of heart”), Cocteau was in a sense justifying his infatuation with the young, gifted Raymond Radiguet, whom he met in 1919, and who would be killed at age 20 by typhoid. Despite their trips to the French coast, where Radiguet wrote the only two novels he would ever publish, and where Cocteau worked on his Thomas l’imposteur; despite what Arnaud calls the “long neoclassical summer” spent together reading Ronsard and du Bellay; despite the cavalier effort to repudiate Symbolism once and for all, to scour the Dadaism of the age, to make “tradition newer than rupture”—despite all of this, Radiguet’s relationship to Cocteau was punishingly, damningly impassive. But it was also a provocation. “Moved by Radiguet’s silence,” Arnaud observes, crucially, “Cocteau fell in love.” Because the young man’s sexuality was inadmissible to his older mentor (Radiguet flaunted his women, uncharitably, in front of an aggrieved Cocteau), their relationship took the form of a complex sequence of interlocking deprivations, like an erotic negative theology, in which every absence was filled by strong imaginative work, as Cocteau’s childhood had taught him to do so well.
Viewed in proximity, Radiguet’s imperiousness, his phantom grandeur and incurable cool, could only appall. Viewed from without, they could be understood “scenically,” as props laid out in deep orthogonal space. Cocteau’s was the talent of a grand scenarist, an acquisitive metteur en scène, using up whatever seemed most inert and impersonal about other people—typically the people dearest to him, like Radiguet, but also, at different times, collaborators and established impresarios like Picasso and Stravinsky and Diaghilev. (As Arnaud puts it, the more Radiguet “withdrew into his own enigma, the more that Cocteau’s fairy-like imagination made him into an untouchable entity, and hence one worthy of being adored.”) In this dark ethics of hoarded rebukes, every relationship had at its painful center an unreciprocated emotional transaction, demanding enormous rations of adulation and attention, which Cocteau dispensed freely to his protégés and mentors alike.
When he turned to opium in the early ’20s, it was an anguished response to Radiguet’s death. “Everything we do in life, even love, we do on an express train headed for death,” he wrote in 1930. “To smoke opium is to leave the moving train.” A regimen of three pipes in the morning, four in the afternoon, and three in the evening was, in those years, Cocteau’s chief technique for sabotaging the moving train, for taking up residence in a deathless, exalted headspace that, if it couldn’t entirely reproduce the special structures and pleasures of his relationships, seemed equally gratifying and valid. Here is Arnaud:
He confused day and night, his limp body resting on the mat, head propped up by a cushion, legs curled up in the fetal position, as he raised himself up just long enough to suck on the bamboo while the opium crackled in the bowl of the pipe, like a diseased lung. Time froze, and with it the horrific sensation of driving at breakneck speed. Life reversed itself, and he felt as if he were moving backward, washed in the photo-development bath that turned negative back into the image taken from reality.
I can think of no better summary of the Cocteau sensibility: the confused, directionless break in all orientation; the destruction of intelligible transitions (between feelings, between identities); the dual love of repose and speed. “Time froze,” and so Cocteau would build a life outside it, impishly, like the brother and sister of Les enfants terribles. Cocteau had his own committed share of detractors. Sartre called him “the prince of counterfeit money” and lamented his “harassed, choked way of thinking, which still continues, jumping nimbly from one thought to the next, without realizing it is running in circles in its cage.” Breton resented him, describing him in a letter to Tristan Tzara as “the most detestable being of this time.” Toward the end of his life, when asked if he respected Cocteau as poet, Genet answered sharply: “No.”
But Cocteau—and this may be what joins him to Sartre, Breton, and Genet—was writing at the far end of an established intellectual tradition that made his own peculiar mix of pathos and sincerity possible at all, and that he would spend a lifetime working to ransack and exaggerate—with tremendous, unstinting speed. Sartre’s complaint about Cocteau’s “harassed, choked way of thinking” might as well be self-portraiture; it is by now well known that the author of Nausea and Being and Nothingness consumed, with incomprehensible frequency, enormous doses of amphetamines to complete The Critique of Dialectical Reason. As he told Simone de Beauvoir, “In philosophy, writing consisted of analyzing my ideas; and a tube of Corydrane meant ‘these ideas will be analyzed in the next two days.’” Whereas Sartre’s was an intensive and disaggregating mind that could be induced to run at a much higher speed—in effect, doing the same kind of work, but more quickly—Cocteau’s could be tuned and dialed into at whim, fielding signals from a place that remains inaccessible to most of us. (He once boasted that Les enfants terribles was “dictated” to him in 17 days.)
For Cocteau, all art—like all thinking—is an extensive, gratuitous act. The French intellectual tradition of l’esprit géométrique, of Pascal and Condillac and Fontenelle, found itself, more than two centuries later, solemnly inverted by the maker of Orpheus. “Irrational, not classical, and anti-Voltairean, Cocteau had the conviction that serious things were happening elsewhere,” Arnaud writes, “beyond or beneath appearances—in the wings of reality, where past, present, and future were woven into a unique form of time that had infinite density.”
The consequences are still being borne out. In the arts of our own period, perhaps the central, regulating unit isn’t the picture (the legacy of the perspective system in painting, for example, with its approximation of human vision) or the picture plane (the legacy of modernism, in which a work’s formal properties are at least as valuable as its depiction of familiar persons or things) or even the conceptual problem, but the process. Under this new alignment, art more and more resembles an enormous circulatory system: Any object, image, sound, gesture, text, etc., can become data, set to motion in a thick, clamorous junk-space. Not l’esprit géométrique, but l’esprit infini—a life nourished by infinity—which is by necessity always a little marginalized, always beautiful and generous and lucid, and for which Cocteau, we can know now thanks to this fine biography by Claude Arnaud, remains unsurpassable.