Cocteau, Jean 1889–1963
French poet, playwright, and film writer and director, Cocteau was associated with many avant garde movements, especially surrealism and cubism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
Jean Cocteau is a figure whose real stature and specific value seem to have escaped his contemporaries. Not that they were not fascinated by his quicksilver brilliancy, but it was rather in the way that certain extravagant "sacred monsters" of screen and stage fascinate the imagination. He was a Parisian rather than a literary figure and never kept in step with the rather solemn literary establishment in France. From the beginning of his career his style of life, his way of being was the antithesis of bourgeois. He was the friend of all the mavericks—Colette, Apollinaire, and Max Jacob; Satie, Picasso, and Diaghilev, to mention only a few. If we see at the center of French literary life in his time the eminently solid phalanx of the Nouvelle Revue Française, then surely Cocteau is an outsider, a man who carried far into the century the extravagant fantasies of "la belle époque." And he kept some of its mannerisms. This was not a facade, but the mark of one of the most versatile and talented personalities France has produced in our own time, a poet, essayist, novelist, playwright, film-maker, draftsman, and animator whose accomplishments have yet to be assessed.
Germaine Brée, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 9, No. 2, 1968 (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 251.
This erstwhile prodigy of a dozen avant-garde movements, familiar with all the great artists of his time; this high-spirited, unruly "mannerist," so bent on scandalizing, astounding or simply amusing his contemporaries; this improbable new member of the Académie Française, decked out in blue instead of the customary green—one is naturally disinclined to take him very seriously. Yet Cocteau is a serious poet; on occasion, he is one of the best of his time.
The word "poet" applies, whatever the medium he happens to be using. Cocteau himself lists his works under the headings of poetry, poetry of the novel, critical poetry, poetry of the theater and poetry of the films. And whatever the medium, these works are generally based on an identical theme: the drama of the poet, either taken out of traditional mythologies or projected into one of Cocteau's personal mythologies.
Germaine Brée and Margaret Otis Guiton, "Jean Cocteau: A Modern Daedalus," in their An Age of Fiction: The French Novel from Gide to Camus, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, N.J.), 1968.
[Cocteau] had a gift for improvisation and clear-eyed enthusiasm for new things. Possibly only Ezra Pound exceeded Cocteau in the ability to recognize what was valuable in novelty. When he began his career in 1908, he was a salon poet to the Belle Epoque society of Faubourg St.-Honoré. Discovering that there was a creative revolution going on across the Seine in Montparnasse, he grasped its significance at once and immersed himself in the Fauvists, the Futurists and the Cubists….
He continued as an awesome artistic conglomerate until he died in 1963. His beautifully written bestselling novel Les Enfants Terribles (1930) gave French youngsters the much prized sense of separateness and alienation that Salinger and Dylan gave to later generations. His movies, made as avant-garde experiments, have become art cinema classics.
Despite Cocteau's creative exuberance, there is no one work or art form for which he will be especially remembered. Rilke once said that his work "admits to the realm of myth, and he returns from its radiance aglow, as from the seashore." Cocteau was a mythmaker, retreating again and again to myths and fables—Orpheus, Oedipus, Antigone. Angels abound in his writing and painting. He wanted to enchant his audience rather than move them to pity and terror. "I want the kind of readers who remain children at any cost." He would have been delighted with Auden's simple epitaph: "The lasting feeling that his work leaves is one of happiness."
Martha Duffy, "Angels and Artifacts" (reprinted by permission of Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © Time, Inc., 1970), in Time, September 28, 1970, p. 77.
As if to compensate for a sense of unreality which beset him from childhood on, [Cocteau] engendered a style whose swift, manic tempo corresponds to the heightened reality he wished to impress upon his audience. One suspects that Cocteau needed to portray his world dramatically simply to see himself at all, that had he not conducted his life as if it were a mise en scène, he would not, in his own mind, exist….
It may well be that Cocteau's theatricality, his extravagant protestations of love, fidelity and understanding, his snobbishness, his overblown myths, his impostures, his uninterruptable soliloquies, his daredevil escapades, were stratagems by which he sought to overcome "the difficulty of being" (as he entitled a collection of autobiographical essays), the quaking inside him. To be sure, it was a fascinating life, far more fascinating than his account of it….
Cocteau does not really describe his pariahdom; he extols it. He uses it to lord it over the profane, the civilized, the rational, the protected, the powerful—in a word, the Establishment, to whom he portrays himself as an inhabitant of depths, spiritual and sociological, that are the more enviable for being unexplored….
Frederick Brown, "An Image of Cocteau," in Nation, October 19, 1970, p. 379.