When Art Mattered

Review: Claude Arnaud, Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell (trans.), 'Jean Cocteau: A Life’

'Portrait of french writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau' (detail) by Amedeo Modigliani
October 16, 2016

You have to admire somebody who just never quits. Such was the playwright/novelist/filmmaker/ballet scenario-maker/artist Jean Cocteau, who was an indispensable part of early 20th century French culture and "the sad clown of modernity," according to biographer Claude Arnaud. It all comes to a close when the emaciated, former opium addict Cocteau, lover of so many beautiful boys and men, dies in a world so different from the Belle Époque in which he came to flower, but in a world where Bob Dylan sang to the Tambourine Man, the Beats had issued their anti-Establishment howls, and where the virile Jean-Paul Belmondo had starred in Godard’s Breathless. The world of Cocteau’s youth was different. It was a world that now seems merely historic, a more perfumed world, replete with classical allusions (Cocteau wrote an Orpheus and other works on classical themes), a world where making it clear you wanted La Gloire made you already interesting.

Never heard of Cocteau? You’ve seen him if you’ve never heard of him. One of Broadway’s most venerable bridge-and-tunnel-crowd properties (now seen in dozens of cities in various versions) is Beauty and the Beast, based on the Disney movie, itself based on Cocteau’s magical-realism film of the same name, starring his most long-term boy- and then man-toy, Jean Marais. (Google "Jean Marais images": your jaw will drop.) You don’t have to be gay to have had a man-crush on Jean Marais, later a star of all French cinema, as he growls (in the amazingly realistic beast facial hair) "Vous volez mes roses"—You are stealing my roses. No wonder Belle is smitten. The concept of the hyper-virile Beast whose testosterone wins over Belle despite the hair is not Disney’s, it’s Cocteau’s.

My optometrist has soap-holders in his bathroom that are white hands protruding from the wall: that’s from Cocteau too, also Beauty and the Beast, where arms open magically from the walls holding torches as the father enters the castle. Okay, it’s hokey, and we all know how it was done: actors standing behind the walls. Similarly, we "get" how the most famous of Cocteau’s images was done, that of the Poet in "Blood of a Poet" (right up there with the Dali/Bunuel "Andalusian Dog" as a famous Surrealist movie) who enters the dream-world by going through the looking-glass—here a rectangular pool of water on the floor shot as if to seem a mirror on the wall. It’s spooky but because it seems borderline amateurish, it seems a bit sad. Cocteau seems to assume we want to suspend disbelief.

And that about sums up the artistic output of Jean Cocteau: fun but a bit obvious, over-heated but earnest. Clearly he thought we’d pretend to be fooled. But why, in this day and age, would we do that? But it wasn’t this day and age. It was the twilight of the Belle Époque, when play-acting was fun and when art was imagined by the Modernists to be capable of changing the world. Cocteau’s story basically ends with his all-but-blatant collaboration with the Nazis during the occupation of Paris, his endorsement of the sculptor of flexing athletes for the Reich, the physique sculptor Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite. After that there was only opium, estranged lovers, and death. By the 60s he seemed irrelevant.

The artistic world of "l’entre-les-deux-guerres" Paris is lovingly chronicled by Claude Arnaud in his new biography of Cocteau, and rendered by his translators in supple English that doesn’t read like a translation. But it is a Modernist world, which is to say a world that thought that we could live through art. The most influential book about Modernism, that movement with roots in late 19th century Symbolism and whose most well-known names for the Anglophone world are James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and T.S. Eliot, was Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle. The book’s title comes from a character in a French poem whose aristocratic hero, the eponymous Axel, sums up his desire to withdraw to the eponymous tower—the famous "ivory tower" in fact—by saying, with a dismissive gesture: "As for living, our servants can do that for us."

The world of Modernism, Cocteau’s world, is a world of people making art as if it was the most fundamental activity of all. That is the notion that separates us utterly from them. Now we know that art, if it exists at all, is junk on the floor of a museum, something bought and sold, something to amuse us before we go back to the real world. But back then, it’s amazing to think, they really believed. Picasso! Stravinsky! Both are part of Cocteau’s life, included here as the more minor artist publishes poetry, writes ballet scenarios (few successful; the biggest flop was The Blue God for his idolized Nijinsky), novels, plays, and art movies, all the while running after the Big Names of his time (such as Gide, now largely unread) and being run after in his turn as he became, if only briefly, a Big Name too.

This is an exhaustive and exhausting book—including all the people Cocteau rubbed shoulders with, famous and semi-famous names jostling on the page to re-create a world that was brought to an end by the dawning of our world in the aftermath of World War II. But at least it’s an evocation of a vanished era as if it still mattered—and that’s good. You want intensity from the person telling you the story you’re listening to; Arnaud is nothing if not intense. After all, if it’s narrated with ironic distance, absolutely nobody will care. And there is no distance here: it’s like the poet falling into the water mirror. All of a sudden, there you are, side by side with Proust, Gide, Anna de Noailles, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Picasso, and dozens of lesser lights.

It’s also a labor of love, it seems. Dedicated to Edmund White, the first major gay memoirist and novelist, it’s a contribution to gay history, something other than the now perhaps too often told U.S. "Stonewall to gay marriage" story. It almost seems to endorse Michel Foucault’s theory of homosexuality, while challenging his dating: for Foucault, there were no homosexuals before they were labeled as such at the end of the 19th century, just people doing certain acts. In this book, these are just men doing certain acts, until the Nazis began to slap labels on them. Cocteau himself denied that his love of men was homosexual; instead it was Platonic, like that of the Thomas Mann stand-in in "Death in Venice."

This book could read as a name-droppy slog, which it doesn’t. It could read as a desperate attempt to elevate a man who, after all, was a minor artistic polymath—which it is. (The introduction tries to suggest that Cocteau’s very form-changing dilettantism is more true to the reality of evanescent personality than the demand for a coherent body of works. It does not convince.) It could, and probably should be, read as a history of an artistic era in addition to the biography of a single person.

But most of all, it seemed to me, it should be read as the amazing story of a runty, ugly, not bright young man (failed his examinations for the Lycée diploma not one but twice) who nonetheless felt the need to create. Something, anything, whatever came along. It’s the flow that matters with Cocteau, the fact that he never quit. Of course if you don’t have the context of this mesmerizing forward impulsion in Arnaud’s book, you’re condemned to reading or seeing the works as if they were in fact meant to be solid works of art—what we call masterpieces. And at that level of comparison, they fall short. The movies may be Cocteau’s best shot at immortality; try the two mentioned above. The drawings are spindly and over-heated, all signed with a star, sort of a combination of Picasso doodles and the wire sculptures of Alexander Calder (which are witty and fun—consider the one of Josephine Baker recently re-installed in the National Gallery’s East Building in Washington). The longer works—I remember reading the play Les Parents Terribles in college, and the novel Les Enfants Terribles (about incest, opium, and homosexuality, later turned into a movie by Melville and an opera by Philip Glass)—are all unbelievably over-heated. I liked them in a French way, convinced they had to be profound, and that I would understand their depth someday.

Instead, I grew up. And so did France. The charm of Arnaud’s book is that he seems to re-create the adolescent intensity of Cocteau’s world, the one where the latest show at the Ballets Russes was all anybody talked about, and where Being Part of It All was the only thing that mattered. Reading it is like diving down to Atlantis. Take a weekend and take the plunge. When you get back, there will be a moment where you wonder where you’ve been—and where you are.

Published under: Book reviews