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Cocteau, Jean (1889-1963)  
 
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With Proust, Stein, Roussell and Colette, he remained on familiar terms, but with Gide his relations were strained. Cocteau claimed that one of Gide's lovers used him to make Gide jealous. In addition, however, he may have recognized himself in Passavant, the evil homosexual who corrupts youths in Gide's novel The Counterfeiters (1926).

In some sense, Cocteau's White Paper is a kind of response to Gide's Corydon (1911-1924). Whereas Corydon presents a homosexual narrator giving a heterosexual man a series of lectures, White Paper, in contrast, recounts a series of erotic and compelling images of sexual joy and pain. Cocteau celebrates and illustrates the wild love of sailors like the one with a "Born-to-Lose" (Pas de chance) tattoo.

Sponsor Message.

Stunned by the bitterness of Gide's journal comments, published at his death in 1951, Cocteau began his own journal Past/Tense in July of the same year and carefully avoided belittling Gide.

Cocteau also had problems in his relations with Jean Genet. He compared Genet to Rimbaud, but Genet never saw Cocteau as his Verlaine. The men met in 1943, after Cocteau had read portions of Our Lady of Flowers and arranged to find a publisher. Later, Cocteau illustrated Genet's Querelle (1948) with erotic drawings of naked sailors buggering each other.

He attended Genet's many trials, supported him in prison, and organized a successful campaign to win Genet a pardon when he faced possible life imprisonment as a habitual criminal. As a character witness, Cocteau swore under oath that Genet was "the greatest writer of the modern era." Cocteau resented the truth of that statement, and Genet resented being judged by Cocteau.

Cocteau's best criticism explains his own work and that of his friends. Professional Secrets (1922) and The Difficulty of Being (1947) resemble Nietzsche, whom both Genet and Cocteau emulated. Cocteau asserted that "Nietzsche never makes mistakes, except in Zarathustra when he becomes 'poetic.' To be poetic is the opposite of poetry."

Cocteau perhaps makes similar mistakes in The Rooster and the Harlequin, an attack on Russian and German composers in favor of the French Six, Darius Milhaud, Georges Auric, Arthur Honegger, Germaine Tailleferre, Francis Poulenc, and Louis Durey. His attack here highlights one of his weaknesses and perhaps strengths, his complete Gallicism.

Cocteau's alleged frivolity might be charged to his immersion in the feminine. His father died in 1898, and he lived close to or with his mother until her death in 1943. He enjoyed the company of wealthy women like Coco Chanel, who often supported his work and his lovers. He played the little boy to figures such as his mother, Comtesse Anna de Noailles, Valentine Hugo, and Francine Weisweiller.

He created powerful roles for women in his films and plays. Like many gay males, he loved actresses and women singers. A companion explained that women "formed part of the décor of his life." On the day that Edith Piaf died, he recorded a tribute to her, which was broadcast on French radio; he himself died later that day, October 11, 1963.

In celebrating the painter, Cocteau's Ode to Picasso (1919) celebrates the nine muses as each a separate aspect of creation or poetry. For Cocteau, genres did not separate but bound together his and others' work in the theater, the cinema, drawing, painting, music, dancing, and sexual relations.

In bibliographies assembled in his later years, he catalogued his numerous works under various branches of poetry: Poetry itself; Poetry of the Novel; Critical Poetry; Poetry of the Theater; Graphics Poetry (including book illustrations); and Cinematographic Poetry.

Although he hated academies, Cocteau near the end of his life accepted their accolades: among them, an honorary degree from Oxford (1956) and membership in the Académie Royale de Belgique (1955), the Académie Française (1955), National Institute of Arts and Letters (New York, 1957), and the Légion d'Honneur (1961).

The publication of his Complete Works (1946-1950) in ten volumes, though hardly complete, stamped him as a classic author. But the man himself, however much he reveled in celebrity, struggled continuously not to become monumental.

Today, Cocteau is best remembered for his cinema. Doubtless, this is more a commentary on our times than on Cocteau. He has been recognized as a pioneer in film and his films continue to inspire viewers and other filmmakers.

In Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking (1992), Allan Williams writes, "Cocteau's films are arguably more significant as expressions of his personality and artistic vision than as contributions to film history. Though in the cinema's evolution, they are not of it." This comment could be said of all the genres he attempted.

As Jean Genet remarked, "We deny Jean Cocteau the stupid title 'enchanter': we declare him 'enchanted.' He does not 'charm.' He is 'charmed.' He is not a wizard, he is bewitched." Cocteau relished such comments; he never wanted to be in the "in" crowd; he ever feared being killed by his own creations.

Charles Shively

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For prolific French poet and artist Jean Cocteau, filmmaking may have served as the best medium for the expression of his genius.

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    Bibliography
   

Brown, Frederick. An Impersonation of Angels: A Biography of Jean Cocteau. New York: Viking, 1968.

Crowson, Lydia. The Esthetic of Jean Cocteau. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1978.

Emboden, William A. The Visual Art of Jean Cocteau. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1989.

Evans, Arthur B. Jean Cocteau and His Films of Orphic Identity. Philadelphia: Art Alliance, 1977.

Fifield, William. Jean Cocteau. Columbia Essays on Modern Writers 70. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974.

Fowlie, Wallace. Jean Cocteau: The History of a Poet's Age. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966.

Gilson, René. Jean Cocteau, An Investigation into his Films and Philosophy. Trans. Ciba Vaugh. New York: Crown, l969.

Knapp, Betinna L. Jean Cocteau. Twayne's World Authors Series. Rev. Edition. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Peters, Arthur King. Jean Cocteau and His World: An Illustrated Biography. Foreword by Ned Rorem. New York: Vendome Press, 1986.

Saul, Julie, ed. Jean Cocteau: The Mirror and the Mask: A Photo-biography. Boston: Godine, 1992.

Steegmuller, Francis. Cocteau, A Biography. Boston: Little Brown, 1970.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Shively, Charles  
    Entry Title: Cocteau, Jean  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 28, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/cocteau_j.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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