Art, Opium, and Jean Cocteau

Jean CocteauOn this day in 1889, the great writer Jean Cocteau was born. But really, it is wrong to limit him as a writer. I have this little annoyance with Wikipedia where it will list someone as “actor, director, author, musician, and political activist.” Normally, this means they are actors, once directed a play, had a ghostwriter produce an autobiography, once sang a song in public, and told Barbara Walters that it was wrong to drown kittens. But in Cocteau’s case, he really did do a lot. If he had only been a film director, he would be listed in Wikipedia. He was also a prolific poet, novelist, and screenwriter—any of which would have made him an important writer.

He is best known for his 1929 novel, Les Enfants Terribles. It was first translated by our old friend Samuel Putnam, who most of you know for having written what I think is the greatest English translation of Don Quixote (not that later translations aren’t better, but they have the advantage of Putnam’s work). It is an amazing book about a brother and sister (Paul and Elisabeth) who play a game to see who can annoy the other to the point of exasperation. In my generation, it would be forcing the other to say “uncle.” But Paul is the passive one; it is Elisabeth who actively tries to annoy Paul while he tries to annoy her by not reacting. This game continues long into adulthood where Elisabeth actively sabotages Paul’s love life. This causes Paul to drink poison. While he lays dying, Elisabeth thinks that Paul is going to beat her so she kills herself with a gun, “winning” the game. Of course, it is all more complicated than that. Elisabeth is fundamentally in love with Paul. The game is how they show their love. And Elisabeth cannot live without Paul.

I know Cocteau best because of his book, Opium: Journal of Drug Rehabilitation. Literally, that is: “Journal of Drug Rehabilitation.” But for some reason, it is now published under the English title, Opium: The Diary of His Cure. And earlier editions were “a cure” and not “his cure.” But the latter translation of the book is probably better, because the book is more Cocteau than opium. He does a better job of describing opium than most authors because he admits to why the drug originally had a great pull but then how it turned into a trap. But when it is all done, he notes, “Now that I am cured I feel poor, empty, broken-hearted, and ill. Yeah, that’s about right. Of course, the book is more just his reflections of his life and art. It is scattered but brilliant.

Happy birthday Jean Cocteau!

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