Word Screen Park
Kevin McMahon
Jean Cocteau: uninhabitable homes, treacherous possessions, unliveable lives

Since 2015 I have been immersed in Cocteau. Not quite sure what kind of text or end product this will lead to. One preliminary by-product was "The Dunce Gets a Doorstop," a review of Claud Arnaud's biography (L.A. Review of Books, October 17, 2016)

Part of the motivation is intellectual curiosity: I had just watched his Orpheus and Beauty and the Beast—as I have a couple times every year for the past three decades—and suddenly realized I didn't have a clue where these works came from, how they fit in with Cocteau's other work. The other part is rage. Rage at the homophobic calumny Cocteau has been—and continues to be—subjected to.

No major modernist’s career is worse known than Cocteau’s. The latest histories repeat dismissals of a faggot poser coined a century ago, without even a token attempt to inspect the evidence. One page of James Lord’s profile of Cocteau in Some remarkable men: further memoirs (1996) runs through the whole miserable vocabulary of homophobic sneers: wit, ingenuity, excessively mannered, fashion magazines, pseudo-poetic posturing, well-advertised liaison, coy, erotica, effusive, chic, performance.

Cocteau’s sociability has insured him a minor fame. In the Anglophone world, his writings are cited for quips about his more esteemed acquaintances. At least that’s all that ever gets quoted. Even if nobody cares about grossly misrepresenting an œuvre that deserves better, it’s a problem because it makes Cocteau’s most enduringly prominent and popular work—his movies—seem to come from nowhere.

Much of his work is a pastiche of stuff pilfered from Apollinaire, Max Jacob, De Chirico and others. But of all the modernist disciples of Rimbaud, Cocteau extended the adolescent master’s confused rhetorical modes—oracle, puerile jape, lyric sigh, acidic observation, sly aphorism—with a voice that’s curt and exhilarating.

On the surface everything Cocteau did was light. He avoided obvious horror, and his mirrors and hunks and statues can seem, at first glance, lame.

If he insisted on his significance, he never claimed seriousness. Like all genuine pupils of Nietzsche, he considered solemnity ridiculous: “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!

But when you look closer, the light fades and you are confronted with a complete lack of hope. No hope for humanity, no faith in God, nature, the people, history, wit or rationality. Above all, in contrast to most of his contemporaries, no faith in art: “Poetry is a religion without hope.” ...

(Stay tuned.)

[Image: still from Testament of Orpheus (Jean Cocteau, 1959)]