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Cocteau, Jean

Category: Writer

Jean Cocteau was a French poet, novelist,  playwright, artist and filmmaker, who lived from 1889 to 1963. His circle of friends included Pablo Picasso, Jean Hugo, Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Erik Satie and Édith Piaf. 

Cocteau was openly gay. His muse and lover for over 25 years was actor Jean Marais.  But, in the 1930s, Cocteau also had an affair with Princess Natalie Paley, the daughter of a Romanov grand duke.  Cocteau wrote a number of innovative plays  La Voix humaine, Orphée, later turned into one of his more successful films;  and La Machine infernale

In 1940, Le Bel Indifférent, Cocteau's play written for and starring Édith Piaf, was enormously successful. He also worked with Pablo Picasso on several projects and was friends with most of the European art community.  Cocteau's films, most of which he both wrote and directed, were particularly important in introducing the avant-garde into French cinema

Orphée aux points by Jean Cocteau (1950)

Cocteau's opium use and his efforts to kick the habit produced some notable books.   Les Enfants terribles  was written in a week during a strenuous period when he tried to ween himself off opium.  In Opium, Diary of an Addict  he recounts the experience of his recovery from opium addiction in 1929. His accounts, which include vivid pen-and-ink illustrations, alternate between his moment-to-moment experiences of drug withdrawal and his current thoughts about people and events in his world.  He finally managed to succeed with the help of a clinic paid for by his friends.

Cocteau was born in Maisons-Laffitte, Yvelines, a village near Paris. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. Jean left home at fifteen. He published his first volume of poems, Aladdin's Lamp, at nineteen.

 

 

During World War I, Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver. This was the period in which he met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and numerous other writers and artists with whom he later collaborated.

Russian choreographer Sergei Diaghilev persuaded Cocteau to write a scenario for a ballet, which resulted in Parade, in 1917. It was produced by Diaghilev, with sets by Picasso, the libretto by Apollinaire and the music by Erik Satie. 

Cocteau also wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinsky's opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex.  He was already taking opium and was addicted by this time.

Opium – the Diary of his cure – Jean Cocteau
Picasso used to say to me the smell of opium is the least stupid smell in the world

Opium – the Diary of his cure – Jean Cocteau
 I would add that opium is the opposite of the Pravaz syringe.  It reassures.  It reassures by reason of its luxury, its rites, the ant-medical elegance of its lamps, furnaces, pipes and the age old perfection of this exquisite poisoning......

 

It is rare for an addict to forsake opium.  Opium forsakes him, ruining everything.  It is a substance which escapes analysis – living capricious, capable of turning suddenly against the smoker.  It is the barometer of a diseased sensibility.  At times when the weather is humid, the pipe drips.  If an addict goes to the seaside, the drug swells and refuses to burn.  The approach of snow, a storm or the mistral, destroys its efficacy.  Some noisy surroundings can take away all its virtues.
In short there is no mistress more exacting than this drug which takes jealousy to the point of emasculating the addict....
If he takes care of himself, an addict who inhales twelve pipes a day all his life will not only be fortified against influenza, colds and sore throats, but will also be far less in danger than a man who drinks a glass of brandy or who smokes four cigars.  I know people who have smoked one, three, seven, up to twelve pipes a day for forty years........

 

Addiction ruins the liver, affects the nervous cells, causes constipation, makes the temples like parchment and contracts the iris of the eye.  Habit is a rhythm, a singular hunger which can upset the addict, but causes him no harm. 

The symptoms of the craving are of so strange a kind that they cannot be described............ imagine that the earth is turning a little less fast, that the moon is coming a little closer....

Like love, like seasickness, the craving penetrates everywhere.  Resistance is useless.  At first a malaise, then things become worse.  Imagine a silence equivalent to the crying of thousands of children whose mothers do not return to give them the breast.  The lover's anxiety transposed into nervous awareness. 

An absence which dominates, a negative despotism.

 

The phenomena become clearer.  Flashes like moire before the eyes, champagne in the veins, frozen siphons, cramps, sweating at the root of the hair, dryness in the mouth, sniffling, tears.  Do not persist.  Your courage is to no  purpose.  If you delay too long, you will no longer be able to take your equipment and roll your pipe.  Smoke.  Your body was waiting for only a sign.  One pipe is enough. 

It is easy to say; 'Opium arrests life, anaesthetises.  Well-being comes from a kind of death'.  Without opium I am cold, I catch cold.  I do not feel hungry.  I am impatient to impose what I invent.  When I smoke, I am warm, I do not know what colds are, I am hungry, my impatience disappears. 
Doctors, reflect on this riddle! 

 

Opium – the Diary of his cure – Jean Cocteau
Clinics receive few opium addicts.  It is rare for an opium addict to stop smoking...Of all drugs, 'the drug' is the most subtle. 

The lungs absorb its smoke instantaneously.  The effect of a pipe is immediate.  I am speaking of the real smokers. 

The amateurs feel nothing, they wait for dreams and risk being seasick; because the effectiveness of opium is the result of a pact.  If we fall under its spell, we shall never be able to give it up. To moralise to an opium addict is like saying to Tristan: 'Kill Yseult.  You will feel much better afterwards'.

 

 

Opium lightens the mind.  It never makes one witty.  It spreads the mind out.  It does not gather it up into a point.

To say of an addict who is in a continual state of euphoria that he is degrading himself is like saying of marble that it is spoilt by Michelangelo, of canvas that it is stained by Raphael, of paper that it is soiled by Shakespeare, of silence that it is broken by Bach.

 

 

 

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