Jean Genet on the Hidden Heart of Jean Cocteau


Chicago, 1968

“Greek [Grec]! The dry elegance of this word, its brevity, its rupture even, a little abrupt, are the qualities that can be readily applied to Jean Cocteau. The word is already a fastidious work of cutting: thus it designates the poet freed, cut loose from a substance whose chips he has made vanish. The poet—or his work, but even so, it is still he—remains a curious fragment, brief, hard, blazing, comically incomplete—like the word “Greek”—and one that contains the virtues that I want to enumerate. Luminosity above all. An illumination, above all uniform and cruel, showing precisely the details of a landscape apparently without mystery: that is Hellenic Classicism. The intelligence of the poet, in fact, illumines his work with such a white, raw light that it seems cold. This work is elegantly disordered, but each of its shafts or plinths was rigorously worked over, only, it seems, to be broken and left there. Today, beautiful foreigners visit it. It bathes in a very pure, very blue atmosphere. It is not just playfulness that makes us, in speaking of Jean Cocteau, develop a metaphor. … That is the tragedy of the poet. A deep human humus, almost foul-smelling, exhales whiffs of heat that sometimes make us red with shame. A sentence, a verse, a drawing of a very pure, almost innocent line in the interstices between words, at the point of intersection, emit like smoke a heavy, almost fetid air, revealing an intense subterranean life. That is how Jean Cocteau’s work seems to us, like a light, aerial, stormy civilization hanging from the heavy heart of our own. The very person of the poet adds to it, thin, knotted, silvery as olive trees. But to have borrowed such forms was dangerous, for the least-developed minds came up with the notion of pastiche; while others even worse, gravely pondered this elegance alone and not what summoned it. So today, here, we want to draw your attention not to the way in which the poet hides himself, but to what it is he seeks to hide. …”
LitHub
New Statesman: The crimes of Jean Genet

French poet, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau.

About 1960s: Days of Rage

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