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.