Cocteau’s epitaph in Saint-Blaise-des-Simples Chapel in Milly-la-Forêt, via Wikimedia Commons. Photograph by Renaud Camus, licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Jean Cocteau wrote on anything he could get his hands on, wherever he could. Édouard Dermit informs us that he often saw Cocteau writing next to him in the car, or while lying down, or when at the table (between fruit and dessert courses), using the smallest scrap of paper or cloth. This version of Secrets of Beauty was composed in March 1945, on a long journey back to Paris. Toward the end of the text, he writes: “Why do these thoughts come to me, to someone who is so reluctant to write? It’s probably because … I am writing them on the move, in a third-class carriage that keeps jogging me. I reconnect with this dear work [of writing] on the endpapers of books, on the backs of envelopes, on tablecloths: a marvelous discomfort that stimulates the mind.”
Cocteau was like one of those magicians who, having announced that they are going to reveal the secret of one trick, immediately perform another. He offered up “secrets of beauty” so frequently that the volume from which the following notes have been extracted could almost be called New Secrets of Beauty. The book followed in the tradition of Cocteau’s Le Coq et l’Arlequin (The Cock and the Harlequin) in 1918, Le Secret professionnel (Professional secrets) in 1922, Le mystère laïc (The secular mystery) in 1928, and Démarche d’un poète (A poet’s process) in 1954, as well as countless shorter articles in which the poet promised to reveal secrets about his plays or films.
These notes remind us of the following lines from his book about Jean Marais: “Beauty hates ideas. It is sufficient to itself. A work of art is beautiful just as a person is beautiful. The beauty I speak of provokes an erection in the soul. One cannot argue with an erection.” Is it therefore pointless to attempt to get to the bottom of Jean Cocteau’s secrets? We will content ourselves with relating them to an answer once given by the Dalai Lama, which Cocteau quoted on several occasions: “The secret of Tibet is that there is no secret. But it is the one that must be defended with the greatest care.”
Poetry can act only as a physical charm. It’s made up of a host of details that cannot be distinguished instantly. If this were not the case, then it would be impossible to expect anyone with concerns of their own to venture into the labyrinth of a style, to explore its every recess, and to lose themselves in it.
Poetry stops short of ideas. Ideas are lethal to it. Poetry is itself an idea; it cannot express ideas without becoming poetic and thereby annihilating itself.
Poetry is not holy just because it speaks of things that are holy. Poetry is not beautiful just because it speaks of things that are beautiful. If we are asked why it is beautiful and holy, we must answer as Joan of Arc did when she had been interrogated for too long:
To read poetry you must be inspired.
The word poetry is much abused; it is used for everything that seems poetic. But poetry cannot be poetic. Poetic things acquire a borrowed radiance from poetry.
A poet’s violence cannot be long-lived. Joan of Arc wasn’t around for long.
The poet is a servant of forces that he does not understand. He must keep the house clean. His progress can only be moral.
A poet cannot achieve visible success. That which is clandestine cannot become ofﬁcial without ceasing to be clandestine. Those who believe that they are bringing a secret to light are mistaken. They are driven out of the shadows where poets live, and a new clandestinity re-forms behind them.
Baudelaire’s contemporaries saw only grimaces in his work, and only grimaces they admired. From behind these grimaces, the gaze traveled slowly toward us, like starlight.
Slackness, lyricism, and words are the downfall of young poets. I advise them to follow an old wives’ regimen, a very simple form of hygiene: Write backwards, join up your letters, write while looking at the paper in the mirror, make a geometric drawing, place words on the points where the lines intersect and fill in the gaps afterward, turn a famous text upside down by inverting the meaning, and so on.
In this way they will become athletes and build their mental muscles. Strong goodness is stronger than wickedness that passes for strength. One must overcome conformity to the latter. One must be good.
The left cannot go right. If it seems to be going right, that is because it has become right; it is no longer left. It will never be left again. That’s the end of it.
Poetry is subject to speciﬁc laws. A serious man who is capable of feeling like a poet can give the impression of being one simply by knowing these laws and by studying the mechanisms that produce beautiful or unusual things.
Beauty is lame. Poetry is lame. It is from a struggle with the angel that the poet emerges—limping. This limp is what gives the poet his charm.
If poetry didn’t limp it would run, and it cannot run because it counts its steps and moves erratically.
A poem stands in deﬁance of what man habitually considers to be the best way of expressing his thoughts. One must therefore be very humble in order to read a poem without antagonizing it.
Cinematic poetry: I am often asked what I think of it. I think nothing of it. I don’t know what it is. I have seen films made without the slightest poetic concern that nonetheless exude poetry, and I have seen poetic ﬁlms in which the poetry simply doesn’t work.
Poetry in ﬁlms derives from unusual relationships between objects and images. A simple photograph can produce these relationships. I have photographs at home that were taken in the warehouse where the Germans melted down and destroyed our statues. The most mediocre statues became great.
Poetry works like lightning. Lightning strips a shepherd bare and carries his clothes several miles away. It imprints on a ploughman’s shoulder the photograph of a young girl. It can obliterate a wall and leave a tulle curtain untouched. In short, it creates unusual things. The poet’s strikes are no more premeditated than lightning.
Poetry borrows astonishing contrasts that occur by chance. It disorientates; it accidentally establishes a new order.
Poetry is a precision instrument. A precision shot. A long-range shot.
People say to me, “You don’t change.” I reply, “I’m too distracted.”
A poet must concern himself with poetry alone.
Poets receive only love letters.
A man without a drop of passionate blood will never be a poet.
B. wrote poems before he was shot. A man who wants to outlive himself thinks only of writing poems.
Apollinaire spoke to me about “event poems”: each poem must be an event. Sometimes poets milk events for more than they are worth. These opportunistic poems are always the ones that attract the most attention.
The absence of rules in poetry forces the poet to discover methods that bestow upon his work the mystique of a secret cult ritual.
Style is not a dance. It’s a process.
A poet should be recognizable not by his style but by the way in which he looks at things.
A poem arises from a marriage between the conscious and the unconscious; between will and a lack of will; between accuracy and vagueness.
All beautiful writing is automatic.
A poet must be a saint, a hero, but without anyone knowing it. He must have no fear of death, with which he ought to be on ﬁrst-name terms.
A poet hates himself. He respects only the vehicle within himself.
A poet’s laziness, waiting for voices: a dangerous attitude. It means that he isn’t doing what he needs to do in order to make the voices speak to him.
Discover physical and moral hygiene. Always be in a state of grace. The poet’s religious exercises.
To sleep is to return to the stable. Don’t sleep too much.
Translated from the French by Juliet Powys.
An adapted excerpt from Jean Cocteau’s The Secrets of Beauty, translated by Juliet Powys and with a foreword by Pierre Caizergues, forthcoming from ERIS in January.
Jean Cocteau (1889–1963) was a writer, filmmaker, and visual artist. He was prominently associated with the Surrealist, avant-garde, and Dadaist movements.
Juliet Powys is a translator of French and Italian.
Pierre Caizergues is a poet, an editor, and the director of the Jean Cocteau Committee.
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