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Claude Arnaut. Jean Cocteau. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. 1014pp.

            review by Stoddard Martin






Understanding an author may involve identifying what he is not. This is an idle game if far-fetched, but useful if focused on comparison with those to whom he was contemporary or close. Jean Cocteau, we know, figured in Pound’s pantheon of associates in Paris of the ’20s. The conjunction seems improbable in many ways and may invite guesswork about what each truly thought of the other. Living through the same historical period as Pound, Cocteau was a skin-sloughing chameleon as creator. He dabbled in a bewildering number of genres and was attached to myriad movements, from late symbolism to surrealism to neo-classicism to something resembling abstract expressionism. His very public private life was ornamented by bouts of homosexual cruising, opium-taking, occultism and Catholicism. He played the saint and the bad boy, was papal and pathetic at turns, metropolitan to a fault yet a man of the Midi. The huge new biography by Claude Arnaud offers Proustian detail on him and his milieu. Far from being an academic monograph, it is designed for the intelligent reader as a “book to go beyond all books” on arts and letters of the era, centred in Paris. Such light as it sheds on relations between Cocteau and Pound is minimal in fact yet rich in what might be construed. Full reading will exasperate those whose interest is specific yet delight others whose urge to understand a Zeitgeist is expansive.

Facts first... Arnaud’s index has a dozen references to Pound, most mere asides, a few about actual contact. Among the latter is noted a photograph by Man Ray of Cocteau, Pound, Tzara and other Dadaists “inaugurating... a bar on Montparnasse,” a grouping Arnaud ascribes to “common need for publicity.” Of Cocteau’s importance to Pound in Paris, Arnaud opines: “It was Cocteau whom Pound visited, with Picabia and Joyce, during his move to the rue de Saints-Pères, in the spring of 1921, and Cocteau he would compare to that complete man the Renaissance dreamed of, in the letter he sent regularly to the Dial... after having deemed Cocteau the most talented poet and prose writer in Paris.” This assertion is buttressed by an endnote: “Obviously, Ezra Pound had been sensitive to the use of ancient forms in Cocteau’s modernism, and to the vortex aspect – or ‘fusion of ideas endowed with energy’ – of Le Cap [de Bonne-Espérance]. Not content to use the English translation of that poem made by Jean Hugo, Pound encouraged his companion, Olga Rudge, to translate ‘Le mystère laic,’ and would later often quote Cocteau in his Cantos.” Arnaud’s characterization of Olga as Pound’s “companion” and his formulation that Pound “would later often quote Cocteau in his Cantos” indicate limits to his expertise on the American writer. (He cites Humphrey Carpenter in his notes but not David Moody.) However, it may be unfair to expect more from an author whose remit obliges him to take in hundreds if not thousands of associates of a figure ever at pains to maintain his centrality within artistic trends of the epoch.

Other Pound citations include his appearance at the Cocteau-ian boîte, Le Boeuf sur Toit, and Cocteau’s non-appearance at a supper for Pound where Surrealist “enemies” were staked out in order to thrash him – a tale based on hearsay and perhaps apocryphal. This anarchic side to the time and place had less to do with art than with expressionist manifestation – a dubious influence on Pound ultimately. More pertinent for us must be Arnaud’s notation of Pound’s praise for Cocteau’s Antigone and of Cocteau’s interest in Pound’s Villon, contemporary works showing their authors’ parallel passion for exhumation of tradition alongside modernist experiment and for free movement within and outside of genre in the direction of Gesamtkunstwerk. Beyond this, Arnaud leaves us to follow the tergiversations of Cocteau’s career with Pound in mind or not as we like. The enterprise is approached best by category: lifestyle, aesthetics, politics and legacy.

Lifestyle is not a topic Poundians often speak of, but no modernist could thrive as a social conservative in Paris of the ’20s, whether on Right or Left Bank. In a tradition harking back to Balzac and Stendhal, writers and artists made their rounds with one eye cocked to sexual and social liaison. Coming of age in the era of Proust, it would have been unthinkable for Cocteau, who mixed with what would later be called a “jet-set” and anticipates Andy Warhol, to have behaved otherwise. “Outsider” friends such as Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Picasso, Picabia and Coco Chanel proceeded similarly; and the tyro who had once eaten flowers from a table decoration at Violet Hunt’s in order to make an impact in London was hardly ignorant of the declensions one needed to master – he met Olga Rudge at the salon of wealthy expatriate lesbian Natalie Barney, who travelled in monde and demimonde alike; another of his lovers in this phase was Lady Cunard’s high bohemian daughter Nancy, who later became his useful, generous niche small press publisher. A middle class American, even if writing home like a good boy to his parents each week, could not expect to prosper long as a simple, uxorious bourgeois hereabouts – so Hemingway would shortly discover. It was a locale where eccentricity, even transgression, was the de rigueur outer sign of inner genius.

This is not necessarily healthy, sustainable or satisfying, as a mature Hemingway would lament at the end of A Moveable Feast; and there almost inevitably came a moment when countervailing seriousness set in – in aesthetics, Stravinsky’s reversion to austere classicism, for example, analogous to Eliot’s sea-change from “The Waste Land” by stages to “Four Quartets.” Cocteau, as said, was a tireless changeling in aesthetics, moving from mode to mode with the deft nimbleness required for one determined to be the arbiter of styles. Something resembling this may be seen in Pound’s shifts from section to section of The Cantos, almost tectonic with the chunky documentation of the middle group, a revived personal lyricism in the Pisans, lofty telegraphy in later cantos, gong-like ideograms etc. Polyphony throughout – an ability to move between high and low voice, in and out of accent, from savage mimicry to straight plea – gained impetus for him in the ’20s, and a talent for it he had surely observed in Cocteau: that instinctive way the poet was able to oscillate between the outrageous and the inward, the shocking and the tender, the transcendental and the guttural. That said, one should not push similitude far. These are tendencies to do with kinship in sensibility rather than with recordable “influence,” let alone imitation.

Such kinship may be what impelled both to escape the pressures of Paris for the south – Pound to Rapallo, Cocteau to Villefranche, Toulon or St Tropez. Both needed sun, sea and the Mediterranean’s timeless connection to a beloved classical world. Yet here likeness ends, for Cocteau would divert himself by seducing sailors and smoking dozens of pipes a day while Pound busied himself organizing early music concerts and holding forth to an “Ezuversity” of young visitors. Cocteau reverted to Paris while Pound made provincial Italy more and more his base. Once aged parents were nearby and other familial responsibilities up in the hills, he felt increasing compulsion to think big in a way that Cocteau neither wanted nor was obliged to; thus the fatal political dimension in him grew, while Cocteau shied away from it. Through confusions that ended with the Popular Front in France of the ’30s, Cocteau carried on as if not much had changed. Through certainties that deepened Fascist dictatorship in Italy, Pound became more and more of a zealot. Economics hardly entered the consciousness of the one and hardly left it in the other. Both persisted as writers/performers of repute after the War began, and both were confronted by the challenge of taking sides. But for Pound this was easy: he knew what he believed in and where his loyalties lay – with a regime he admired and an idea of his country which had effectively disappeared – while for Cocteau it grew tricky: he wanted simply to continue living and producing as he always had, despite attacks of nationalist “ultras” against him as an enjuivé decadent who had led France and its culture to the abyss. In the event, he found dealing with German occupiers more congenial than with the authorities of Vichy or enragé extremist fellow-writers such as Céline.

A cloud hovered over him after the War, while catastrophe fell upon Pound. Success under the Occupation provoked charges of collaboration. His many interventions to protect friends bred suspicion, as did his extolling of Hitler’s pet sculptor Arno Breker. But Cocteau ever had networks in high places to get him out of a jam, as various imbroglios over drug matters attest. Pound had protectors too, but institutions in the U. S. were less susceptible to influence than in the more tightly-held polity that is France. In any case, Cocteau’s “collaboration” was ambiguous and muted when set against Pound’s vehement rhetoric for Mussolini and against Jews. Arnaud notes Cocteau’s gestures of compassion for Pound among other literary partisans for the losing side after the War, former antagonists included. He does not comment on how their politics diverged from there, Cocteau flirting with the soft Marxism of Sartrean café society, Pound with a radicalism connecting to the MSI in Italy and precursors to an “alt-right” in the U. S. This, however, is by no means criticism of a book about a figure for whom indifference to politics remained the leitmotif. One might more legitimately hope for further exploration of how the two writers diverged in aesthetics ultimately.

As playwright and filmmaker, Cocteau had moved nearer to a mainstream of popular culture after the 1920s. This became evident during his years with the matinée idol he discovered and “made,” Jean Marais. His championing of Jean Genet during later days of the Nazis displayed continuing artistic courage, or at least fidelity to a certain strain of transgression. But these moves were in the direction of Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee among American counterparts rather than the course taken by the “last rower” in Section Rock-Drill or Thrones. Affinities remained – for classicism, metamorphoses, myth, the heroic, small presses, originality, the undiscovered, against Freud – also shared characteristics, such as loyalty to old friends and attraction to new recruits. (An aging Pound would remember Cocteau fondly, if with ambivalent comment on his ability as a jazz musician, in his Paris Review interview with Donald Hall.) Both poets were showmen in their ways and knew the value of celebrity. In the end, however, one remained an exemplary chameleon while the other was too much “a serious character” to simulate such a “postmodern” persona.

Arnaud depicts Cocteau as if of us today. He presents him too as representative genius of the 20th century – a receding day-before-yesterday now. No contradiction would have been apparent to Cocteau here. He would have recognized Arnaud’s work for the signal act of devotion it is – and as a book to go beyond books about a Zeitgeist.