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Great European Lives: Jean Cocteau

Jean Cocteau in France in January, 1955. (Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) - Credit: Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

#71: Jean Cocteau July 5, 1889 – October 11, 1963

The world has always had trouble accepting the true polymath. Even a person of great genius can take decades to excel in one genre, we harrumph, how can someone be a genuine success at a multitude of things? They’re chancers, people who haven’t paid their dues or put in the graft, there’s no substance to their work, their success is a parade of flukes clad in the emperor’s new clothes. Hence when WH Auden wrote, ‘To enclose the collected works of Jean Cocteau one would need not a bookshelf, but a warehouse,’ he didn’t necessarily mean it as a compliment.

The French are more accepting than most of the artistic polymath but even there Cocteau’s versatility could provoke pursed lips and suspicions aroused. Poet, novelist, film producer, librettist, painter, actor, composer, he even successfully managed a champion boxer for a while: there seemed to be no area where Cocteau couldn’t become a roaring success.

Naturally this meant that writers and poets who slaved over their manuscripts and film producers who spent years learning their craft would resent a man who seemed to them to be a mere dabbler, a foppish dilettante whose connections permitted access to the pinnacles of the arts without first scaling the lower slopes.

Yet such were Cocteau’s extraordinary reserves of talent that it’s hard to pick one area in which he was most gifted. His 1929 novel Les Enfants Terribles is still feted as a masterpiece, for example, while in Orphée and La Belle et la Bete he produced two landmarks of world cinema whose influence is still felt today, 70 years after they were made.

His first foray into film was 1930s avant-garde Le Sang d’un Poète and it’s the blood of a poet that Cocteau felt ran through everything he did to the point of classifying his own output under the headings, poésie, poésie de théâtre, poésie critique, poésie de roman, poésie graphique and poésie cinématographique.

It was as a poet that Cocteau had first launched himself into the French cultural landscape. He was barely 18 when in 1908 his verse was performed by an actor to a crowd of culturally-influential Parisians, a gathering that saw him proclaimed as ‘the new Rimbaud’, and his first collection La Lampe d’Aladin was published soon afterwards to wide critical acclaim.

That first poetic performance was orchestrated by his influential mother Eugénie, on whom Cocteau doted to the extent he remained living with her until he was 37. His solicitor father Georges had killed himself when Jean was nine years old, a tragedy that arguably forged his drive for success. The reason for George’s suicide always remained a mystery, and with Eugénie’s grief and hopes piled onto her gifted son the unanswered questions and inevitable guilt over Georges’ death might be what urged Jean to fill the void left by his father.

In the meantime he placed his mother on a pedestal, describing her as ‘a madonna swathed in velvet, smothered in diamonds, bedecked with nocturnal plumes, a glittering chestnut tree spiked with rays of light, tall, abstracted, torn between the last promptings to be good and one last look in the mirror’.

Cocteau’s early career played out in a world of privilege and connections. By the time war broke out in 1914 the 25-year-old counted among his circle the writers Marcel Proust, André Gide and Guillaume Apollinaire and the artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. In 1916 he was driving ambulances on the Western Front but his literary reputation was already stellar enough for the Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev to stage a ballet Cocteau had devised with the composer Erik Satie. Parade was first performed in 1917 by the Ballets Russes with a set designed by Picasso and programme notes by Apollinaire.

A decade later Cocteau would provide the libretto for Igor Stravinsky’s opera Oedipus Rex. It was this combination of cutting-edge avant garde and deep love for the ancient classics that, enhanced by an ear finely tuned to developments and changing fashions in the arts, kept Cocteau at the forefront of French culture right up until his death. Even as he aged he seemed to retain a cultural youth, a freshness of composition and originality of ideas that meant he never truly went out of fashion.

It was his faith in the anchor of classicism that led the surrealists to develop a febrile dislike of the man and his work. Indeed from the 1920s the surrealists’ leader André Breton pursued a vendetta against Cocteau that lasted two decades. Breton’s acolytes would turn up at premieres of Cocteau’s work, heckle loudly and lob stones at performers.

They once telephoned Eugénie and told her her son had been killed in a car crash and one of the surrealist circle even set out to murder Cocteau at an event that, fortunately, he decided at the last minute not to attend.

Surrealists apart (and with the exception of the homophobic Breton even they thawed eventually) it was Cocteau’s personality as much as his work that won people over and kept him at the cutting edge of the cultural milieu decade after decade.

His friendships and relationships ranged from the champion bantamweight boxer Panama Al Brown, whom he managed and took as a lover, to the waif-like Edith Piaf, the latter a friendship of such depth and endurance that the singer and the polymath even died within hours of each other.

Some say that Cocteau’s fatal heart attack was in direct response to news of Piaf’s death. On the last morning of his life Cocteau, who was working on the design of a new stage set for Debussy’s opera Pelléas and Mélisande, was swamped with requests for comment about the singer who had succumbed to cancer the previous night.

‘I have had a temperature since this morning and I must say that the death of Edith Piaf has given me new breathing pains,’ he told Reuters, laid up on his sofa. In poor health since a heart attack six months earlier, Cocteau told the news agency he’d felt uneasy the previous night and worried that it was down to the death of someone close to him. It was a kind of stifling sensation, he said, reminiscent of his heart attack.

When his heart gave out a matter of minutes later it was either a coincidence, Cocteau’s last and greatest artistic gesture or a final, emphatic act of upstaging. Even in death he was performing, because for all his artistic versatility Jean Cocteau’s greatest talent was playing himself.

‘I’ve dreamed more than I’ve lived and all that has taken on terrible proportions,’ he said towards the end of his life. ‘The spectator will barely notice that I’m like an actor in someone else’s play. Even this other is under orders from a mysterious schizophrenic who lives in us all, that most people manage to exorcise, or in whom they refuse to believe.’

As TS Eliot put it to Stravinsky, ‘Cocteau was very brilliant the last time we met but he seemed to be rehearsing for a more important occasion’.

Whether it was egotism, a deep-set and almost entirely hidden insecurity or an unconscious desire to atone for his father’s absence that kept Cocteau performing in both his professional and private lives, so successful was he that as the years passed he became known more and more just for being Jean Cocteau.

‘My name has overtaken my work,’ he said late in his life. ‘My work must catch up.’

Maybe this is the secret of the polymath: their true talent is the simple and singular act of being their extraordinary selves.

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