Cocteau: The life of a poet
Jean Cocteau, alleged
Grand Master of the Priory of Sion, was a true master of poetry,
painting and cinema, creating a surreal world… which he
considered to be totally real.
Cocteau was a poet wrapped inside a painter wrapped inside a filmmaker
and actor. And he was even a boxing manager. Each was a skin,
a costume, which he sometimes wore at the same time. Cocteau shed
few of these skins and over time, even posthumously, acquired
several more. In the 1980s, he was specifically promoted as the
presumed Grand Master of the Priory of Sion. In 1997, his painting
inside the London Notre Dame de France church became one of the
key promotional items for Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s
“The Templar Revelation”, the work that would go on
to inspire “The Da Vinci Code”.
Though these claims are largely fabricated, Cocteau did have a
fascination with the Italian master. In 1959, Cocteau contributed
to a work on Leonardo Da Vinci, for which he wrote one of his
famous poems: “Homage to Leonardo”, stating that his
work expressed “better than this short work [i.e. his own
contribution] that what Leonardo inspired me to do and the fraternal
love I have for him.” Fraternal love… is this not
typically used by members of certain types of secret or initiatory
societies – a brotherhood? In this case, would the rules
that apply to Freemasonry equally apply to the Priory of Sion,
or some similar type of fraternity? This type of speculation has
been sufficient to invent another skin or costume for Cocteau…
though it merely obscurely who Cocteau really was… in the
nude. And the “fraternal love” could merely have meant
that both were homosexual.
was Jean Cocteau? In short, he saw himself as a poet. But he himself
felt it was very dangerous to hold the mirror too closely, if
only because Cocteau was obsessed with mirrors. In “Blood
of a Poet”, a trend-setting short film made early on in
his career, mirrors act like an event horizon, a watery substance,
that propel those who attempt to penetrate through that veil to
a strange realm, a world of deities, the dead, imaginal beings…
the real home, it seems, of the poet. The poet was neither living
nor dead; he was spoken of by few, understood by even fewer, if
only because he spoke a language that was both of this and of
By the time we see Cocteau at work in “The Testament of
Orpheus”, in which he not only directs but also plays the
leading role, playing Jean Cocteau (who else?), we are blessed
with eighty minutes of absurd, yet brilliant fantasy. In the movie,
Cocteau tries to paint a flower in his own typical style, but
instead he ends up making a self-portrait. Each time, his effort
results in a self-portrait. Hence, a man wearing a skull mask
appears and states that a painter will always end up painting
himself, no matter what. And we can learn much about Cocteau by
looking at what he did.
mirror as an entrance to the Otherworld, in Blood of a Poet
felt that film was an excellent means of expression for the poet.
The cinema gave reality to irreality. Nevertheless, he warned
of “Hollywood productions” and in “The Testament
of Orpheus”, which he concluded a few years before his death,
he instructed young cineastes to experiment more, further, bolder.
As incomprehensive an experiment as “Blood of a Poet”
was, as rigid and ingenious “Orpheus” is, as delightfully
funny and eclectic is “The Testament of Orpheus”.
But, as mentioned, Cocteau was a poet, and according to Cocteau,
for a poet to become immortal, there needed to be a sacrifice.
Furthermore, “a poet only seems to die.” It may be
because a poet was perhaps never born. And in “The Testament
of Orpheus”, he is told that “You do not belong to
this world”, i.e. our world, the world of the living.
It is clear that Cocteau was obsessed with death, and immortality.
He explained himself that he was specifically preoccupied with
what Dali had called “phoenixology”: people dying
to be reborn, and be transformed. In the movie, the symbol of
this rebirth is a reborn flower. When he offers it to Minerva,
the goddess of Reason, she naturally refuses such gift –
if only because there is no logical to a restored flower –
how can it be? Indeed, it seems she kills him for presenting him
with an illogical reality and shattering her “Reality of
Reason” – upon which the deceased Cocteau is quickly
raised from the dead, like Lazarus.
is logical Cocteau would have an obsession with death. His father
was a lawyer and amateur painter, who committed suicide when Cocteau
was nine. At the age of fifteen, Cocteau left home.
For a man obsessed with death, the “descent into the underworld”
is expectedly one of the major themes depicted into the films
of Jean Cocteau. It appeared as early as “Blood of a Poet”,
where he is already developing the theme that will be the backbone
of “Orpheus”. “Orpheus” is based on the
legend of Orpheus and Euridyce and the former’s entry into
the underworld to recover his wife from Death itself. As Cocteau
stated, it was a legend beyond time and space.
Cocteau reworked the story into that of a famous poet, Orpheus,
played by Jean Marais, with whom Cocteau had a long relationship.
The movie begins with a gathering in the “Poet’s Café”,
which is identified as the centre of the universe. Jacques Cegeste,
an aspiring, young poet, is killed by two motorbike riders, who
are in truth angels of Death. Death herself arrives on the scene
shortly afterwards, riding in a car. She “lives locally”
under the guise of a princess, who publishes “Nudisme”,
a book of poetry that has nothing but blank pages.
With Cegeste dying, Orpheus is told to come with the Princess,
to take Cegeste to hospital. Instead, they drive to the Princess’
home, accompanied by her angels, where Cegeste is raised from
the dead, to serve her. Orpheus returns home to his wife, Euridyce.
But Death has fallen in love with Orpheus and visits him repeatedly
at night while he is sleeping. She then decides to kill Euridyce,
so she can have him, only soon having to appear in front of a
tribunal, being charged and convicted for trespassing her authority.
the story progresses, we find that our world-famous poet Orpheus
becomes obsessed with nonsensical phrases that are uttered over
“Silence goes faster backward. Three times.
The mirrors would do well to reflect further.
38.39.40. Repeat twice.” They are meaningless phrases in
our reality, but to Orpheus, they mean more than anything he has
ever written and he would trade in any poem he has written for
these divine messages. It seems that he alone, a poet, is able
to understand their true meaning: instructions to the angels,
sent from the beyond to Earth.
what did Cocteau make of the Afterlife? It appears to void of
free will. Orders are given, and orders are carried out. The world
is black and white. If orders are broken, there is judgment, and
punishment. Who is the ultimate commander? Even Death does not
seem to know. They all assume it is God, but he seems absent.
They just go through the motions, admiring us for we have free
was transformed into an angel, and Cegeste would make his reappearance
in “The Testament of Orpheus”. There, Cegeste turns
out to be Cocteau’s guardian angel, who materialises, to
help him. He shows Cocteau a metamorphosis of an orchid in a death’s
mask. Asked how he did this, Cegeste explains that the rite forms
part of a ceremony about which he is not allowed to enlarge.
But Cegeste is not the only angel: there is Heurtebise, Death’s
driver, who had committed suicide by gassing himself, to be raised
by Death as well. And what to make of what Heurtebise states:
“I give you the secret of secrets. Mirrors are gates through
which the dead come and go. All of you, look at your life in a
mirror and you see Death at work.”
these but allegorical expression of a poet? For Cocteau, it was
much more than that. Cocteau appears to be one of those people
who seem to have benefited from an “occult protection”
– not from a group like “The Priory of Sion”,
but from “the beyond – the angels”.
Cocteau reported that his “awakening” to this Other
Realm began in 1910: “the first sound of the bell, which
will finish only with my death, was given to me by Diaghilev,
one night, on the Place de la Concorde […] As I questioned
him on his reserve (I was accustomed to the praises), he stopped,
adjusted his monocle and said to me: ‘Astonish me.’
[…] This sentence saved me from a brilliant career. I guessed
that one does not astonish Diaghilev. From this minute onwards,
I decided to die and live again. The work was long and atrocious.”
The amateurs of sacred geography and ancient mysteries will appreciate
the specific location of this revelation: the foot of the obelisk
of Luxor, in front of the Louvre.
One of the first outcomes of this awakening was in 1919, when
Cocteau published a book on which he was working since 1913: “The
Potomak”. It was a long pregnancy, resulting in a disconcerting
work that is a mixture of a novel, poetry and autobiographical
elements, all of this laced with drawings, which on first sight
seem to have little in common with the text. It would Cocteau’s
trademark. Asked to explain the bizarre cacophony, he stated this
was often the form “imposed” by the “parliamentarians
of the unknown” when they dictate a work to the writer.
But if the realisation of the Place de la Concorde provoked in
Cocteau an awakening (the first step that is required for any
initiation), the publication of “The Potomak” corresponded
to a true second birth. It would prepare him for a major revelation.
mural in Notre-Dame de France, London
is 1925. Cocteau, having visited a friend, is in an elevator.
Suddenly, he feels the presence, right besides him, of “something
both terrible and eternal”. This “thing” identifies
itself: “My name can be found on the plaque.” There
is only one plaque, and it lists the maker of the elevator: “Heurtebise.”
The unknown, which for years has been sending its “parliamentarians”
to Cocteau, has therefore finally decided to reveal itself. From
then onwards, Heurtebise accompanies Cocteau in all of his works.
Or, rather, he shows him what road to take and thus guarantee
that Cocteau will follow the path that has been set out for him
by the angel. Even though he is now “officially” helped
by the forces of the invisible, he is definitely not free to do
as he pleases – underlining that he is no longer a man of
this world, no longer in possession of free will, but instead
an automaton of the Otherworld, here to carry out their orders
– like they do.
By all accounts a bizarre account, hard to interpret. The sceptics
might argue that it was mad, drug induced. It could very well
be. In 1918, he had met the 15-year-old poet Raymond Radiguet
and they may have become lovers. At the very least, they were
soul mates, and Radiguet was also his artistic protégé.
But Radiguet's sudden death in 1923 left him stunned. He did not
attend the funeral, like he did not attend any other funeral.
It did mark a long, deep exposure to opium, though Cocteau himself
felt that Radiguet’s demise did not inaugurate his opium
dependency. The two events nevertheless did largely coincide.
Though addicted (using drugs for most of his later adult life,
though apparently not as intense as in the 1920s), his art definitely
did not suffer. In fact, his most notable book, “Les Enfants
Terribles”, was written in a week during a strenuous opium
then, the origin of the angel Heurtebise, who made appearances
under several guises in the work of Cocteau: a glazier in the
theatre production of Orpheus, a driver of the princess in “Orpheus”,
he will even be a judge in “The Testament of Orpheus”.
Heurtebise accuses Cocteau of “always, incessantly, wishing
to penetrate, fraudulently, in a world that is not yours”.
If the functions of driver (a man who knows the road, who knows
where to go) and judge (the one who gives verdicts and makes sure
the game is played conform to the rules) convene well with a superior
being, the profession of glazing may seem bizarre to us, but not
to Cocteau, for it is the glazier who makes mirrors, that all
important instrument to penetrate into that other world. And is
it any wonder that many of Cocteau’s special effects rely
on reversing the “arrow of time”, by playing back
tomb and decorated church in Milly, near Paris
actor, cineaste, writer… painter. Late in life, Cocteau
began to decorate several churches. In “The Testament of
Orpheus”, he incorporates the church of Villefranche-sur-mer,
between Nice and Monaco, on the Mediterranean Coast, which around
1956 he seems to have prepared as the site where he would be buried.
He also did a mural in Notre Dame de France, in London, in 1960.
He painted Mrs. Weisweiller's Villa Santo Sospir, near Cap Ferrat,
which also had some murals by Picasso, whom Cocteau knew well
and long. The themes of the villa are largely mythological. But
his chef d’oeuvre is the chapel of St Blaise, in Milly-la-Forêt,
near Paris, whose walls were painted by the master himself. This
chapel would become his tomb.
Three walls are largely depictions of known and bizarre plants.
One side of the structure is totally dedicated to a religious
theme: the resurrection of Christ. When we look at this fresco
more closely, we note that there are certain items that are not
conform to the dogma: why are there two crowns of thorns? The
second crown, on the right, also seems to be somewhat more surreal
than the other. It is in fact an angel who discovers it, while
lifting up a veil, whereas the niche in which the other is placed
“accidentally”, is next to the depiction of a Roman
soldier. Christ, standing, has his aureole, as he should have.
But it is not around his head; it is around his hand. The same
inconsistencies have been pointed out for the mural in Notre Dame
de France: the head of Christ is missing from the painting. And
why is Cocteau looking away from the crucifix?
Though assumed to have great affinity to Leonardo and John the
Baptist, Cocteau must have had greater affinity with Christ. Like
Jesus shed his blood for the salvation of Mankind, so too a poet
had to bleed, for his art, and to become immortal. If Cocteau
would have had his say, he would have made Jesus patron saint
of Cocteau, Notre-Dame de France, London
was a poet, but in “The Testament of Orpheus”, he
saw himself equally as a time-traveller. A time-traveller breaks
the most stringent rule of all: the arrow of time. And Cocteau
saw it as his life’s mission to be disobedient. In the movie,
we see him using a fold in time, which he uses as a method of
resurrection, to restore a man. It is a science of the soul.
We know he was extremely interested in the famous adventure that
befell two English women, Charlotte Moberly and Eleanor Jourdain,
in the gardens of Trianon in Versailles. These two women, whose
reputation has never been put in doubt, had an “out of time”
experience, finding themselves three centuries back in time, meeting
the path of people of which some even address them in person.
This incident, which occurred in 1901, was studied by several
explorers of the supernatural. Cocteau, who one day would be labelled
the “first poet of parapsychology”, could obviously
not remain indifferent. For him, it was “one of the most
important experiences of our time”. It seems that for the
remainder of his time, he tried to emulate their voyage. And if
anyone ever were to succeed, surely a poet would be the likeliest
are no mirrors in the chapel in Milly-la-Forêt. Instead,
we come face to face with his epitaph: “I stay among you.”
Cocteau died of a heart attack on October 11, 1963 at the age
of 74, only hours after hearing of the death of his friend, the
French singer Édith Piaf. Making that journey seems to
have been what he had been practicing for for decades. Death was
hence but a small step for Cocteau – and an even smaller
one for a poet.
article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 5 (2006).