The Dunce Gets a Doorstop: A Life of Jean Cocteau

By Kevin McMahonOctober 17, 2016

The Dunce Gets a Doorstop: A Life of Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau: A Life by Claude Arnaud

THE MOST FAMOUS unknown modernist has never lacked biographers — beginning with himself — but Claude Arnaud’s 2003 epic, now available in English courtesy of Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandel, is the first to attempt the impossible: a continuous narrative of Jean Cocteau’s life, instead of selected highlights. The result is an unwieldy 1,000+ page doorstop. But the vastness is not vacuous; it’s the space necessary to unreel Cocteau’s story in full. If some of the previous biographies, like Francis Steegmuller’s 1970 classic, are more readable, it’s because they weren’t as ambitious. Readers owe Arnaud thanks for dispatching a job that none before him had the stamina to face.

Telling the story in full, and working primarily from documents, Arnaud collates accounts and fixes the chronology of events, sorting the probable from the improbable. This would require quite a bit of work when dealing with any subject, but in the case of Cocteau, the requisite labor is awe-inspiring. Cocteau links the Paris of Jacques-Émile Blanche and Sarah Bernhardt to that of Jean-Luc Godard and Brigitte Bardot. He lived in the thick of so many significant cultural events that, as Arnaud notes, “there is not a book devoted to the literature, cinema, ballet, theater, or music of the twentieth century in which his name doesn’t figure frequently.” Even while zonked on opium during most of the last 40 years of his life, Cocteau managed to pursue a half-dozen careers with greater success than the most disciplined professional manages to pursue in a single one.

And yet, though the book is dense with detail, it is the furthest thing from a slog. Whatever he was, Cocteau was never boring, and I can’t think of another full-dress biography with a higher laugh-out-loud count. Arnaud’s scholarly diligence is combined with imaginative sympathy; he makes not only the protagonist but the supporting characters come alive. His nuanced account of Anna, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles, for example, rehumanizes a Belle Époque freak. Arnaud shows how she taught the adolescent Cocteau that torrents of talk — if sufficiently brilliant and outrageous — could enchant and dominate others. But this was a dangerous art, which laid Cocteau — like the Countess — open to the charge of being a better talker than writer.

Arnaud’s narrative charts Cocteau’s ascent from the faded little world of the Countess, Edmond Rostand, and Reynaldo Hahn to the world stage of Marcel Proust, Misia Sert, Sergei Diaghilev, and Vaslav Nijinsky. From there, in between sorties behind the lines of World War I, Cocteau invaded the Parisian avant-garde, attaching himself to Erik Satie, Stravinsky, Picasso, Apollinaire, Max Jacob, and other titans of modernism.

One of the accomplishments of Arnaud’s fine-grained approach is resolving doubts over Le Potomak, Cocteau’s first, and still eye-opening, avant-garde text. It was published in 1919, but Cocteau always insisted he had completed it six years earlier. This has always seemed unlikely: he didn’t encounter the avant-garde until 1915. But Arnaud confirms the dates, adding that Cocteau was by then subscribing to Les Soirées de Paris, where he would have discovered the work of Apollinaire, Jacob, Blaise Cendrars, and other future colleagues. Le Potomak is key, because it marks Cocteau’s commitment to fairy tale as his distinctive genre. He continued mining this vein for 50 years, in fiction, poems, plays, movies, and gossip. Within another specialized subcategory of fable, journalism, Cocteau remade himself into spokesman-curator-advocate for Parisian modernisms of many flavors, from Les Six to the New Wave. He became world-famous, but also widely despised.

Arnaud demonstrates how André Breton’s calumny against Cocteau in the ’20s, aped by his Surrealist brethren, still taints Cocteau — even though its blatant homophobia is now evident and intolerable. Arnaud’s discussion of interwar Parisian art politics follows the traditional historiography, accepting at face value the significant manifestos and party allegiances. This authorizes him to cite well-worn “années folles” anecdotes — for example, Robert Desnos publicly vowing to assassinate Cocteau at a 1923 banquet in honor of Ezra Pound — but I wonder if this approach is still valid, especially because Arnaud dismisses most of the players, except for Cocteau and Louis Aragon, as “corpses.”

Declared enemies were troublesome, but friends were not necessarily Cocteau’s best supporters. In person he was obviously a force to be reckoned with: one after another of his peers testifies to how stupid he made them feel when he held forth. And they all seem to have taken their revenge at their desks. André Gide was a serial offender, but T. S. Eliot’s 1951 comment to Stravinsky is a Nobel Prize–worthy specimen of the genre: “Cocteau was very brilliant the last time we met […] but he seemed to be rehearsing for a more important occasion.”

I suspect Arnaud was aided by the fact that he did not rely on the testimony of old friends, who all have axes to grind, and would have liked to redirect the historical spotlight on themselves.

When Cocteau abandoned Anna de Noailles and others for the School of Paris avant-garde, hardly anyone saw the change as an ascent. Misia Sert, for one, predicted that his new companions would ruin him, and she was almost right. It was only after the war, when Cocteau turned his back on the official avant-gardes — at the instigation of his teenage boyfriend, the literary prodigy Raymond Radiguet — that he came into his own. Under the influence of Radiguet’s acidic 1923 noir romance Devil in the Flesh, Cocteau produced a laconic depiction of disintegration, The Miscreant (originally Le Grand Écart), followed the same year by the even more remarkable Thomas the Impostor. Outside of movements, he found his way.

Arnaud is at his best in the section covering World War II. He manages to discuss the Vichy regime, the German occupation, censorship, collaboration, and the rest without losing the thread, or his objectivity. His diagnosis is plausible and fair:

The social milieu in which Cocteau had been raised had no tradition of resistance. It had always managed to maintain a relationship with whoever was in power, whether radical or right-wing, in order to maintain its prestige and privilege, however much it may have ridiculed or denounced the government in private.

If not a collaborator, Cocteau was certainly guilty of bad taste, celebrating in print the sculptor Arno Breker, a fabricator of homoerotic Nazi kitsch. Justifying himself after the war, Cocteau claimed that Breker had saved Picasso and many others; Arnaud conscientiously presents Breker’s own list of the French artists and craftsmen he had protected, but he also makes clear that Cocteau — with or without Breker — wasn’t able to save Max Jacob, whose death in captivity and grotesque funeral are presented in detail.

In his journal, Cocteau made light of the post-Liberation tribunal that evaluated his culpability: “I forgot to mention my Purification. […] In five minutes they purified me, and then I passed in front of the others, very dignified, with a lily in my hand” (my translation). He forgot? That’s contradicted in the films Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960), in which the confrontation with a jury in a shabby room becomes a life-and-death struggle.

The ideal biographer of Cocteau needs not only diligence, but a sensitive bullshit detector as well, and Arnaud’s is reliable. He dismisses young Cocteau’s escape from home to Marseilles for a few weeks of adolescent rebellion — which previous biographers have related with complete credulity — as fiction. Arnaud’s skepticism and tact illuminate Cocteau’s romantic life. His account of Cocteau and Jean Marais’s relationship makes it clear that “The First Modern Gay Couple” (according to ceased physical relations 18 months into their 10-year cohabitation. Likewise, Cocteau’s time with Raymond Radiguet included only the briefest period of intimacy, as did the last 16 years of his life with Edouard Dermithe. Was Cocteau the first public figure in Western culture to publicly exaggerate his affairs with men?

Arnaud makes the brilliant suggestion that Nijinsky established Cocteau’s erotic ideal: a physically stunning male who is an artistic genius by dint of instinct and constant work, not intellectual effort. This description fits both Radiguet and Marais, but doesn’t apply so well to Cocteau’s other hunks, despite his dogged promotion of all of them as geniuses of one sort or another. Drugged-out Jean Desbordes at least seemed to care for Cocteau and died a martyr of the Resistance, which is more than can be said for the self-mutilating Franz Thomassin. Arnaud’s imaginative sympathy even extends to the worst boyfriend of his life — and perhaps of all time: Maurice Sachs, a psychopathic conman and thief who ended his days betraying foreign factory slave-workers to the Gestapo in the twilight of the Reich.

Arnaud further complicates the picture with the story of Cocteau’s romantic attachment to the Romanov princess Natalie Paley — a man-killer out of Evelyn Waugh’s worst nightmares — with whom Cocteau almost produced a child.

By this point it should be clear that this book is rife with names and dates. In order to get all the characters through their entrances and exits, Arnaud makes liberal use of paraphrase and — to be blunt — cliché. This is no fault in itself; the alternative would have been to quote Cocteau and his almost-as-voluble friends verbatim, which would have swelled the volume to three times its current length. And yet, unfortunately, Arnaud’s paraphrases sometimes slip into sloppiness. The 1928 classic The Seashell and the Clergyman is not a film by Antonin Artaud but instead Germaine Dulac. “[F]ifty-year-old transvestite” is not the most apt description of the Kabuki performer Onoe Kikugorô VI. Arnaud’s odd interpretation of the film Orpheus is premised on the mistaken belief that it ends with Eurydice having given birth (not with her and Orpheus expecting a child). Arnaud also appropriates without comment material from sources that merit full discussion. The worst instance is his account of the production of Beauty and the Beast (1946), which naturally relies on Cocteau’s Diary of a film (1947). But beyond an endnote, Arnaud doesn’t even mention the existence of the Journal, and so readers may miss out on Cocteau’s most compelling dissection of the pain and joy of creation — and most terrifying and hilarious adventure story. (Also annoying is the absence of an index of works discussed; the original Gallimard edition didn’t have one, but Yale University Press should have fixed that.)

Despite the slips, Arnaud’s biography succeeds so well that I hope it shelves discussion of Cocteau’s life for a good long while, and redirects attention toward his work. And here we come to my biggest complaint: Arnaud provides in-depth accounts of the production of Le Potomak, The Miscreant, The Holy Terrors (originally Les Enfants Terribles, 1929), The Human Voice (1930), and other works as episodes of Cocteau’s life, but he rarely pauses to offer much evaluation. And when he does, it’s often the most minimal indication of praise or dispraise. Non-experts will finish Arnaud’s book without any idea as to which of Cocteau’s works are worth pursuing. This is a major disservice to the book’s subject.

Arnaud makes clear that what saved Cocteau’s life, again and again, from his various failures, betrayals, and reversals, was his superhuman work ethic and manic productivity. When W. H. Auden wrote in 1950 that “to enclose the collected works of Cocteau one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse,” he meant it as a compliment. But it’s a compliment that’s far more likely to scare people off, rather than invite them in. The productivity has certainly scared off literary professionals. As Arnaud himself observes, “No major critic has ever taken the time to analyze Cocteau’s work.”

Academia can keep reputations evergreen, but Cocteau has never enticed scholars. His oeuvre encompasses major works in multiple media, crossing departmental boundaries. And since Cocteau’s fairy tales have a deliberately unserious cast, the work seems too idiosyncratic to link up with any larger cultural trend. There’s no easy argument for its significance.

Given the state of foreign-language modernism available in English, Cocteau’s standing in the Anglophone world is not the worst. But the work deserves better. Most of his movies are in circulation, but Les Parents terribles and L'Aigle à deux têtes (both 1948) are not. We still need a translation of the novel La fin du Potomak (1940). A smart publisher could issue all the long-form fiction in a single volume — the result would be slimmer than a standard airport novel. None of his volumes of poetry has ever appeared in English, nor has his verse play Renaud et Armide (1943), without which Beauty and the Beast is incomprehensible (Armide is the Beast’s big sister). The last English-language anthology was published over 40 years ago. Can’t we have a new one to mark the upcoming centenary of Le Potomak? On the other hand, I suspect Cocteau’s reputation would brighten considerably if most of his visual art vanished without a trace, except for the caricatures from the ’20s and a few posters and book covers.

In every medium, Cocteau maintained to the end the manners of a Belle Époque host: he never fails to entertain. During his life this rendered his high modernist credentials suspect — but none of that matters now. As Arnaud shows, the amiability, as well as the manic productivity, stem from a kind of despair: the world is a misunderstanding; the poet is a weak point in its lie.

During his life, Cocteau was routinely accused of devoting more energy to playing the part of poet than producing worthwhile work. Furthermore, his dedication to fables has allowed subsequent generations to dismiss his work as trifling. And indeed, his mirrors and hunks and statues can seem pretty tame and unserious. But seriousness is not significance. A professed Nietzschean, he considered solemnity ridiculous, writing in his journal (in Richard Howard’s translation), “I'm the dunce of the class. I hope to remain so until I die and after death. Gide believes me incapable of gravity. My gravity is not his. Thank God!”


Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Kevin McMahon is a writer, scholar, and archivist based in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor’s in Classics from the University of Illinois and a master’s in Moving Image Archive Studies from UCLA. He has been the manager of SCI-Arc’s Kappe Library since 1987, and co-manager (with Reza Monahan) of the SCI-Arc Media Archive since 2012. His writing has appeared in a number of scholarly and popular journals.


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