Jean Cocteau Essay - Jean Cocteau World Literature Analysis

Jean Cocteau World Literature Analysis

Cocteau constructed for himself a complete aesthetic universe; he wrote the texts, designed the scenery and costumes, selected the dancers, arranged the choreography, wrote the music, directed, often performed in the production, and illustrated the published book. As much as any one since the composer Richard Wagner, Cocteau demanded that his productions and publications be “total artistic experiences,” under the control of a single aesthetic imperative, and that his audiences appreciate his work on its own terms, free from modish evaluations or conservative intolerance. There is a curious combination in Cocteau’s work of an intense insistence both on classicism and on artificial convention and upon radicalism and individualism. The most sustained exposition of his thoughts on art and literature is his late work La Difficulté d’être (1947; The Difficulty of Being, 1966).

Rather than allying himself with fashionable authors of the day, most notably the Surrealists, Cocteau designates as his inspiration the Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who described his own writings as being “consubstantial with their author”—both mystically and physically inseparable from their author. Cocteau persistently credits the contributions of his friends to his work and insists upon the direct relationship of his own lived experience to that which he artistically represents. Yet his work is not simply an autobiographical expression of a personal experience to be assimilated exactly to the copious personal remarks and records that the author has left behind. Indeed, critics have even accused Cocteau of a lack of artistic and theoretical originality. Even as familiarity with such biographical details as the artistic society of the Café aux Deux Magots, frequented by the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and the Parisian avant-garde, is necessary to the full appreciation of the satire that opens the 1950 film Orpheus, for example, so, too, a knowledge of Cocteau’s theoretical indebtedness is crucial. Cocteau never claims to be original and often attributes his theoretical and artistic borrowings, claiming in this scholarly respect, as well as in other artistic aspects, to strive for clarity and lucidity, to “show darkness in broad daylight.”

Cocteau’s emphasis upon neoclassical simplicity and order in works such as Orpheus and Antigone stands in apparent contradiction to his recurrent interest in many of the metaphysical questions raised by German Romanticism in particular. In many of his works, from The Blood of a Poet and Bacchus to Children of the Game, as well as Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus, Cocteau develops commentaries upon, and versions of, central Romantic themes such as the inextricability of love and death, divine poetic intoxication, the inevitability of suffering for the artist, and the incomprehension and lack of appreciation of bourgeois society for radical art. Cocteau himself cites as inspirations the importance of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of Dionysiac poetic inspiration and of the unparalleled polymathy of the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Perhaps the single most persistent theme in Cocteau is that love can only be perfected in death. Like his precursor the French Romantic poet and novelist Victor Hugo, Cocteau sees the poet as the écho sonore, whose voice echoes both the events of the external world and such intense internal orphic realizations.

If love and death is a central theme, then the conduct and destiny of the poet is his dominant theoretical preoccupation. For Cocteau, “poetry” encompasses all media, and his own corpus contains experiments in dozens of literary genres and artistic media. For Cocteau, poetry is not an esoteric preoccupation of an elite group of aesthetes. Although often criticized as being precisely such a precious enterprise destined for a marginal coterie, Cocteau’s “poetry,” like the productions of so many artistic movements of the first half of the twentieth century, insists upon the universal relevance and importance of poetry as that alone that makes life worthwhile in a materialistic age, as the only remaining “spiritual luxury.” Cocteau’s work is committed to the double imperative both continually to shock its audience and uncompromisingly to create a radically individualized system of its own artistic fabrication.

The phenomenon of Cocteau, patron of new talent, scintillating conversationalist, homosexual, opium addict, and grand maître of the French avant-garde, especially after his self-imposed exile from Paris, often obscures the substance of his artistic achievement. Perhaps more so than any of his extraordinary fictional poets, Cocteau himself has become one of his own monstres sacrés.


First produced: 1922 (first published, 1928; English translation, 1961)

Type of work: Play

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