Unknown Masters 


Jean 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.

Philip Coppens

Jean 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.

Who 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 another world.
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.

The mirror as an entrance to the Otherworld, in Blood of a Poet

Cocteau 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.

It 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.

As the story progresses, we find that our world-famous poet Orpheus becomes obsessed with nonsensical phrases that are uttered over the radio.
“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.

So 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 will.

Cegeste 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.”

Are 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.

Cocteau mural in Notre-Dame de France, London

It 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 weaning.

Here 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 the film?

Cocteau's tomb and decorated church in Milly, near Paris

Poet, 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 poets.

Selfportrait of Cocteau, Notre-Dame de France, London

Cocteau 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 person?

There 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.

This article appeared in Les Carnets Secrets 5 (2006).