Cocteau, Americans, Dignity, Slinkys

cocteau man ray wire sculpture

In 1949, the French writer, artist, and filmmaker Jean Cocteau wrote a few lines about French politics at that time, lines that might help Americans today view their own political battles with more optimism than usual. In my translation:

I know well that in 1949 politics are a big deal and the clashes of different factions seem more important than lovers’ quarrels. But, just between us, don’t these political battles feature the same injustice and bad faith as lovers’ quarrels? It’s the same ripe disorder, the same headache, the same perfect storm, the same rich pile of manure, the same fertilizer that allows plants to flourish spectacularly—on the left, on the right, below and above—and to scatter their seeds n’importe où [it doesn’t matter where; anywhere]. And it is this n’importe où that matters.

These lines are part of a 10,000 word Lettre aux Américains that Cocteau (with the help of a few drinks, one imagines) dashed off while flying back to Paris after a first visit to the United States (to New York). The letter keeps coming back to this dichotomy: order and disorder. Given the events then recent in Europe; the physical, economic, and moral circumstances of France in 1949; and the role the United States had played and was continuing to play in rescuing France and Western Europe as a whole—Cocteau sees the United States as the country of order, and he is not unappreciative of order’s virtues. Indeed the letter’s plaintive leitmotif is a plea of the defeated to its conqueror-savior: don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Yes, you’ve proved your superiority, the superiority of your organization and of your machines, but please appreciate that there are some good things, some things worth preserving in old Europe.

I know well what you are going to tell me: “What business is it of yours, man of old Europe?” I know well that it is ridiculous to preach when one deserves to be preached to. I am more familiar with our own faults than I am with yours. But there still remains chez nous [in France and in Europe] a disorder that allows for new things and for surprises—a pile of manure in which our cock sets his feet and which should not be confused with a pile of garbage . . .

“As French people, our fate is now linked to yours, and if the values threatening you triumph, we are lost with you.”

DP camp in France

Nowadays Americans visiting European cities may well appreciate how modern and well organized they are—the rapid trains and clean and efficient subways—and back home they may note the popularity of “Eurostyle kitchens” and of Miele vacuum cleaners and similar European products. But in 1949 the French, and Europeans more generally, were quite poor. The infrastructure was being rebuilt after all the bombing, and European homes lacked the modern conveniences with which Americans had become quite familiar. Cocteau keeps coming back to the idea that Europeans are living in a barnyard, while Americans live in modern bathrooms.

Feinenger Gables I, Smith, 1925But this also leads him, and with pathetic comedy—and not disguising that he is from the upper classes—to issue his complaint about American ways. Recalling Versailles, Venice, and Amsterdam, he writes:

The plumb line has destroyed the humanity of the facades that once offered the uneven and charming delights of a face. Each [façade] expressed itself and limped divinely. [Underscoring here and below reflects italics in Cocteau’s text.]

There is great danger in wishing for order and not making room for a kind of disorder in which the soul untangles and sorts itself out rather than just drying up, like old fishing line.[1]

Once, in the country, I happened upon an old issue of the Goncourt’s Journal [from the nineteenth century].[2] I opened it and was met with this note: “A friend comes from New York and gives us news that we dare not believe and which would be the end of everything. The toilets are attached to the walls. At first, a remark like this makes you laugh. And then you reflect and begin to fear that some of our problems come from this. [Toilets beings attached to walls.]

Man must obey the order that the toilet gives and come to it like an ox to a stable, like a horse to a hayrack. His will gives way and makes him weak. Before people brought us water, light, food; we did not have to move. We were free to not leave our armchair and our book. . . . But manual labor has disappeared. Machines have taken its place. And here is the tragedy. Faucets may work well in America, but they work quite badly in France.

We might recall one or another variation on an old joke, e.g.: Hell is a place where the plumbers are French, the cooks are British, the policemen German, and the intellectuals American.

Cocteau LIFE with clock 

It comes to seem that, despite his Lettre’s plaintiveness, despite the quite serious issues that Cocteau is touching upon, the comic will not be suppressed. He tells of being photographed for LIFE magazine. They wanted him to look eccentric, but then, after hours of shooting, when they had eccentric images (such as the one at right), they became afraid that these images wouldn’t go over well with readers “dans le fin fond de Massachusetts” (in the far reaches of Massachusetts).

I suggested that they say that the pictures they had taken had been quite normal, but the camera had played a trick on them. They were asking the public to excuse them; machines were becoming dangerous to the image of man. Add to this, I told them, an advertisement for Rolleiflex. For example: “The Thinking Rolleiflex.”

He tells, too, of seeing, at the Museum of Modern Art, an unforgettable spectacle. In a clean, well-ordered nursery, fifty little girls are painting, and looking around and sticking their tongues out at one another. Nannies are watching over these young creators of abstract art and giving them a rap on the hand if, by some bad luck, they start painting too realistically, making identifiable images.

Despite his Lettre’s plaintiveness, the comic will not be suppressed.

Cocteau (1889-1963) was a force in the twentieth-century avant-garde, and he was not in favor of regimenting and ordering it as in this MOMA nursery (however real or imaginary it may have been). The triumph of the American army and of American refrigerators and washing machines notwithstanding, he is all on the side of disorder, which he sees as ultimately the more productive and creative force.[3]

Another of his stories, about Hollywood, one of his particular bêtes noires. After Igor Stravinsky finally agreed to compose music for a Hollywood movie, Stravinsky was told that he would have to pay the cost of the music arranger, unarranged music being unimaginable. “This custom of arranging everything is your way, Cocteau writes. You believe that a “work of art must not, at any price, remain as it is.”

cocteau testament of orpheusThis is entirely against Cocteau’s approach, which included publishing his hastily written and unrevised airplane notes. Elsewhere he proposed: “[Y]ou cannot redo your work. . . . After you have written a thing and you re-read it, there is always the temptation to fix it up, to improve it, to remove its poison, blunt its sting. No”.[4]

And the American desire to arrange, to impose order, may also be seen as prudery, as a fear of passion, of imagination, and, ultimately, of life.

In your theaters, passion must be [presented as] unhealthy or curable. If not, then in the end it must be punished. Passion must come with an excuse. It must result from a disorder resulting from craziness or alcohol. Imagination, in the movies, must be attributed to a dream.


Finally, I note, or note again, that one of the particular threats Cocteau perceives is that of mechanization; mechanization as opposed to individualism, to individuals, and thus to the values of the Enlightenment. This is another way in which Cocteau speaks of the order-disorder dichotomy.

I have seen you, Americans, letting your masks fall and mechanically re-securing them, the way records fall into place in your bars [in jukeboxes]. One day, if you embrace such mechanical behavior, you will order your dinner in one of these bars, you’ll pay for it, someone else will eat it for you; and you will be nourished, without having chewed the meat. It will be the end of your world—the end of ours—the end of the world that the centuries have wrested from nothingness.

Earlier in the letter he proposes that Americans give Europeans access to the machines, to see if the Europeans might be able both to humanize the machines and the Americans, too, through diminishing the dominance of machines. While French individualism (or disorder or waywardness) was being domesticated, American waywardness might be stimulated “so that we might together rise up” against such things as sanctimoniousness, prudery, excessive order, and mechanization. (And smartphones?)

slinky ad 3 

Allow me to quote two paragraphs from Wikipedia which may help put some of the previous quotes from Cocteau and the final one in perspective.

In 1943, Richard James [an American with a degree in mechanical engineering from Penn State] was trying to develop a means for suspending sensitive shipboard instruments aboard naval vessels, even in rough seas. He was working with tension springs when he accidentally dropped one. Seeing how the spring kept moving after it hit the ground, an idea for a toy was born.

With a $500 loan, Richard James developed a coil winding machine and started the James Spring & Wire Company to mass-produce the Slinky. The name for the toy was coined by Betty James [his wife]. Slinky was successfully demonstrated at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia during the 1945 Christmas season and then at the 1946 American Toy Fair. It became a huge success, with around 300 million Slinkys purchased since then.

“Your role,” Cocteau writes to Americans, “is to save the dignity of man. . . . Your role is to defeat the living death that is coming down the steps of the world with the same mechanical coldness as this toy that is a spring and that people enjoy making go down your staircases.”

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Editor


les freres goncourtEndnotes

[1] The original text : « . . . une manière de désordre où l’âme se débrouille au lieu de se dessécher dans les lignes mortes ». This ligne morte could be old fishing line, or a phone line that’s gone dead, or a dead train line. The fishing line choice made here connects back to the verb se débrouiller which is often used in a figurative sense, “to manage,” but literally means “to unscramble” or “to disentangle.”

[2] Le Journal des Goncourt was published, starting in 1851, by the de Goncourt brothers, Edmond and Jules (pictured at right). Jules, the principal author, died in 1870, but le Journal continued until 1891. It is a mixture of quips, observations, and anecdotes, at times quite pointed or scabrous, and based in the literary and artistic Paris in which the Goncourts were trying to make their mark and from which they were viewing French life and art. The frankness and unedited casualness of the Journal, which is certainly still worth reading today, jibes with Cocteau’s own aesthetic. Among my favorites bits:

On a souvent essayé de définir le Beau en art. Ce que c’est? Le Beau est ce qui paraît abominable aux yeux sans éducation. Le Beau est ce que votre maîtresse et votre bonne trouvent d’instinct affreux. (As regards art, people have often tried to define what « beautiful » means. What does it mean? The beautiful is what is appalling to the untutored. The beautiful is what your mistress and your housekeeper, instinctually, find dreadful.)

Rien de si mal écrit qu’un beau discours. (There’s nothing more badly written than a good speech.)

And this anecdote, in my gloss and abbreviation:

I ran into one of my old mistresses, from my last year of high school. She had buried her bohemian past in a homely stew. Her lover, an American, had gotten a mistress on the advice of his doctor, and the only thing he did to amuse her was to take her every night to play dominos in a café with his American buddies. He was the essence of calm and level-headedness except when the subject of dominos came up—not in the café, but in bed. Falling asleep, she would feel the American wriggling and fidgeting silently, getting annoyed at all the mistakes she had made, for her lack of attention, for her forgetful French mind. Nonetheless, she’d fall asleep, but after half an hour or an hour of tortured, livid silence, the American would shake and wake her to say: “If you had played the five-three instead of the two-three, we would have won.”

[3] As a writer and critic I have, for decades now, kept coming back to—and usually honoring in the breach!—a few lines from what Cocteau said to the Paris Review, in an interview published in 1964, not long after Cocteau’s death.

The first time a thing appears it disconcerts everyone, the artist too. But you have to leave it— not retouch it. Of course you must then canonize the “bad.” For the good is familiar. The new arrives only by mischance. As Picasso says it is a fault. And by sanctifying our faults we create.

[4] Paris Review interview, previously mentioned. Note that the phrases separated by an ellipses in this quotation are, in fact, seventeen pages apart, and with the second set of phrases coming before the first one.


jacques-henri_lartigue_jean_cocteau_and_picasso_1955_d5670471hCredits and Links

Images are, from top to bottom: photo of Cocteau (with wire sculpture) by Man Ray, c. 1925. Photo from a displaced persons camp in France, right after the end of the Second World War. Reproduction of American painter Lyonel Feininger’s Gables I, Lüneburg [Germany], 1925; Smith College Museum of Art. One of Philippe Halsman’s photographs of Cocteau published in the 1949 LIFE photo spread: “Dream of a Poet: Halsman’s Playful Portraits of Jean Cocteau.” Image from movie Le testament d’Orphée (Testament of Orpheus), 1960. Slinky advertisement. Photo of Edmond and Jules Goncourt. Photo here at right by Jacques-Henri Lartigue: Cocteau and Picasso, 1955.


Jean Cocteau, Lettre aux Américains (Grasset, 1949; as reprinted in a Grasset « Les Cahiers Rouge » paperback, undated). An English translation may be available, perhaps in a library or at a high price.

Jean Cocteau, The Art of Fiction No. 34, Paris Review Interview by William Fifield, Summer-Fall 1964.

Wikipedia article on Richard James, the inventor of the Slinky, accessed August 2015.


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Cocteau, Americans, Dignity, Slinkys

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