August 2013

Patrick James Dunagan

nonfiction

The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau, translated by Elizabeth Sprigge

I had the recent luck to catch Jean Cocteau's film La Belle et la Bęte set to an operatic score by Philip Glass with live musicians and singers in performance. What with the smoke pouring off Beast's paws and the muscular living arms of candlesticks and statues living eyes snapping open following Beauty's every move, not to mention the quite witty script, the black and white film remains astounding as ever. The night was an amusing bit of cinematographic glee paired with a thrilling musical experiment. Glass has been re-envisioning Cocteau's films as opera. A couple of years ago I also saw Glass's Orphée. Cocteau no doubt enjoys, even if it is only by way of past conceit, the renewed attention generated by Glass revisiting his films in such manner.

Jean Cocteau is of course no longer alive. His work, however, repeatedly attests his devotion "to a pact of mutual assistance by which the living help the dead and the dead help the living." This remark, coming in the closing pages of his memoir The Difficulty of Being, hits on what is a key concern of Cocteau's: the correspondent-play between what is real, quantifiably known, and what is fanciful, the imagined real. At the erasure point of these boundaries is the field in which the varied forms of Cocteau's many art works flourish. His gesture toward his readers is at once Whitmanic -- "You take this book out your pocket. You read" -- while also recalling John Keats' "This living hand...": "little by little you will feel that I inhabit you and you will resurrect me. You may even chance to use a gesture of mine, a glance of mine." Cocteau is not shy making such announcements: "Naturally I am addressing the youth of a period when I shall no longer be there in flesh and bone nor my blood mingled with my ink."

The Difficulty of Being provides an excellent entry point into Cocteau's work, consisting of a series of short chapters based on broad themes, such as "On Death," "On Beauty," "On Laughter," as well as specific characters from out the artistic and literary milieus in which he moved, for instance "On Measurement and Marcel Proust." Cocteau offers his take on the subject at hand as well as whatever else he's able to pull in for discussion. His observations are frequently amusing ("If we must have ugliness, I have always preferred to good taste, which depresses me, the violent bad taste of those women who are actresses without a theatre, tragedians without tragedy, and with a physique predisposing them to extravagance"), while just as often perverse and self-involved, which is a part of their charm, after all. It's clear that he's seeking to entertain himself as much as anybody else. He always shares a perspective that leaves much to mull over: "Who are my real heroes? Emotions. Abstract figures who none the less live and whose demands are exacting." His thoughts "On Death" demonstrate his tendency to flip the conventional angle on any subject: "To live disconcerts me more than to die." And "Expert at camouflage, when she seems to be furthest from us, she is our very joy of living. She is our youth. She is our growth. She is our loves."

Cocteau published this collection in 1947, after having written it in the aftermath of La Belle et la Bęte, which he references throughout, along with a bad case of eczema to which he had succumbed due to the resulting stress of the film's completion. This is in spite of -- and likely contributes to -- what he dispenses as advice on working in such a nonstop serial fashion: "In regards to one's works, it is important to wait after each one, and let the body free itself of the vapours which remain in it and which may take a long time to dispense." As appears typical to his nature, he refuses to follow his own recommendation. Nonetheless, this is as much a handbook on how to live as it is anything.

Many of the sections have been sliced and diced, appearing in subsequent volumes whose editors sought to gather Cocteau's writing from numerous sources under a set of covers shaped to their own liking. Reading them as Cocteau initially envisioned, however, allows for full enjoyment of his feints and distracting asides, inserted no doubt to slow down readers avid for gossip. With good reason, as they are generously full of engaging details, it is Cocteau's recollections of his friends which have been republished again and again. Yet here these personal testaments are generously spread across the whole, rather than clumped densely together. There is the necessary space allowed for them to approach readers on their own terms. Plenty of gossip is included, but finely framed by Cocteau's fashioning.

Cocteau's description of Russian Modern dancer Nijinsky as "a professional deformity" is nothing but grotesque at first, remarking how "the muscles in his thighs and those of his calves stretched the fabric of his trousers and gave him the appearance of having legs bent backwards. His fingers were short, as if cut off at the knuckles." Yet Cocteau unveils that his purpose is only to acknowledge how Nijinsky's body was built to be "the idol of the public," as "everything about him was designed to be a seen at a distance, in the limelight. On the stage his over-developed muscles became slim. His figure lengthened (his heels never touching the ground), his hands became the fluttering leaves of his gestures, and as for his face, it was radiant." In what is a favored common maneuver, Cocteau begins with the ugly to show how it turns out something of beauty.

Hyperbole for Cocteau is as much a matter-of-fact methodic aid to writing as shorthand is in any secretarial pool. It makes it difficult to be certain whether always to trust his descriptions, yet they are delightfully composed and full of pointed impressions: "Proust would start anywhere, would mistake the page, confuse the passage, repeat himself, begin again, break off to explain that the lifting of a hat in the first chapter would reveal its significance in the last volume, and he would twitter behind his gloved hand, with a laugh that he smeared all over his beard and cheeks. 'It's too silly,' he kept saying..." Cocteau is always sharing what lessons his friends have taught him. Of the young writer Raymond Radiguet: "He calmed me down with his own calm. He taught me the true way. That of forgetting that one is a poet and of allowing things to happen subconsciously." The two met during World War I when "Radiguet was fifteen. Erik Satie was nearly sixty. Those two -- at opposite ends of the pole -- taught me how to understand myself." The older composer is as vital for Cocteau as his younger companion: "Erik Satie was my schoolmaster. Radiguet my examiner. Contact with them showed me my faults without their having to tell me of them, and if I was unable to correct them, at least I knew them."

How then to read Cocteau's avowals of insularity and resistance? "An artist can expect no help from his peers. Any art form which is not his own must be intolerable to him and upsets him to the highest degree." This contains of course a fair amount of mere posturing. Ever a fan of self-fabrication, Cocteau keeps his elaboration upon his own myth tongue-in-cheek: "A wave of the wand and the books are written, the film is shot, the pen draws, the play is staged. It is very simple. Magician. That word makes everything easy. No need to labour at our work. It all happens of its own accord." Cocteau's vigilant awareness of his public image necessitates that he bolster up appearance of his advance as the greatest of outsiders: "I elbowed my way through a mass of quarrels, disputes, trials for heresy. I searched for myself. I thought I recognized myself, I lost sight of myself, I ran after myself, I caught myself up, out of breath. As soon as I succumbed to some spell I was up in arms against it." He was always on the inside track, however, benefitting economically from key social contacts. The Difficulty of Being contains glimpses from all sides of his many-faceted self that made possible his fascinating artistic explorations across a lifetime.

The Difficulty of Being by Jean Cocteau, translated by Elizabeth Sprigge
Melville House
ISBN: 978-1612192901
192 pages