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The Difficulty of Being , by Jean Cocteau

La DifficultĂ© d'ĂȘtre - Jean Cocteau


Jean Cocteau in 1923


With La difficulté d'être (1947) Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) has written a collection of short autobiographical essays on the apparent model of the classic French moralists. Of these I have read but Montaigne and a little of de La Rochefoucauld, so I can hardly draw lines of influence and style for Cocteau's essays. With titles like "De l'amitié" and "Des moeurs", etc. he deliberately alludes to Montaigne (*), but he delivers essays which are notably shorter and less erudite than the latter's. And, frankly, in the end, these allusions and the cover blurbs talking about Pascal and Chamfort are quite misleading.

I have the possibly mistaken notion that sincerity is essential for moralizing essays and find that Cocteau occasionally escapes into what seems to me to be a pose. Nonetheless, there are many passages in this book which seem quite sincere to me: when he sketches the nature of Erik Satie and what he meant to Cocteau; when he does the same for the precocious little genius, Raymond Radiguet; when he evokes what the Comédie-Française in Paris meant to him, etc. 

But, really, although Cocteau does some moralizing - some offering of advice in the game of life - in this book, his central theme is himself, his life, his work, his friends. This is as close an approximation to an autobiography that we have from Cocteau, with the possible exception of Opium and Portraits-Souvenir which are concerned with limited portions/aspects of his life. Read from this point of view, the book is quite interesting; read from the point of view of moral essays, quite a bit less so. As autobiography I find it engaging, even though I have a fairly good idea of the course of his life; nothing quite replaces seeing someone else's life through their own eyes (despite the, shall we say, corrections that person makes in the story). How much more engaging will it be for those who yet know little about Cocteau's life? 

Imagine for a moment this anecdote, told in the book: Serge Diaghilev having challenged Cocteau in the Place de la Concorde late one night with "étonne-moi!" (amaze me), Cocteau, Picasso and Satie put together a little thing called "Parade",(**) which generated such a reaction from the audience that only the sight of Guillaume Apollinaire, with his head still heavily bandaged from a war wound and in uniform, dissuaded the ladies of the audience from stabbing out the authors' eyes with their hatpins! According to other witnesses, perhaps the ladies wouldn't have resorted to their hairpins, but physical harm was imminent...

He writes beautifully about his aesthetics of writing, theater, and cinema. And there are other stories of Nijinsky, Diaghilev, Apollinaire, Picasso, Proust, hints of how such a multi-talented artist juggled so many balls, and yet more... 

These essays have been translated into English and are available in multiple editions.

(*) It's not a good idea to ask to be compared to Montaigne.

(**) A "cubist" theater piece/ballet (1917) for which Satie wrote the music (which included foghorns and typewriters, at Cocteau's insistence); Picasso made the sets, costumes and props; Cocteau was responsible for the story and characters; Léonide Massine did the choreography, and Ernest Ansermet conducted the orchestra. In this link


you will find a little video about the scandal of "Parade" which includes a recording of Cocteau himself relating a few anecdotes in connection with it. And in this clip


you will find excerpts from a recent recreation of the piece. One can well understand why a 1917 audience might have thought it was being made into an ass.