Editors’ note: In 1949, the French writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau spent twenty days in New York City. The visit inspired a short book, Letter to the Americans, which will be published in English by New Directions in June. In this excerpt, Cocteau reflects on the different ways that France and America think about poetry, art, and the imagination.
New York isn’t a sitting city. It’s not a reclining city. New York is a standing city, and not because of the skyscrapers where numbers (which devour New York) established their anthill. I speak of a standing city because, if she sat down, she would repose and reflect, and because, if she lay down, she would sleep and dream. Since she wants neither to reflect nor to dream, she stands divided between the two breasts of her mother, one flowing with alcohol and the other with milk. She wants to remain standing, to forget (what?), to forget herself, to wear herself out, to exhaust herself, to escape, by fatigue and the imperceptible swaying of drunks and of skyscrapers with immobile foundations and wobbling pinnacles, to escape, I say, the interrogation that you give to yourself, that you fear to give to yourself and to which you subject others continually.
Humanity is occupied by a darkness, by monsters from profound zones. We can’t descend the depths, but this darkness, sometimes, through the intercessions of poets, dispatches ambassadors terrible enough. These ambassadors intrigue you. They attract and repulse you. You try to understand their language and, incapable, you ask the poets to translate it for you. Alas! the poets don’t understand it any better and content themselves to be the humble servants of these ambassadors, the mediums for these individualistic phantoms that haunt you, that disturb you, that you would love to unionize.
France is interested exclusively in your books, in passionately reading the writers whom you hardly esteem; and I know of New Yorkers who are ignorant of recent American fashion trends that are already part of our culture. Pay us back in kind. Don’t let the obstacles multiply and don’t be content to get a sense of France through a brief visit like mine. Your book sales are in crisis. So be it. And ours? Nevertheless your books and your poets circulate in France, translated everywhere.
It’s gotten to the point that our real literature is a chamber music, a secret music best passed from hand to hand, under the table. Your endeavors of the same order have all the trouble in the world taking shape: America sooner finds billions to sponsor a huge catastrophe than the little it would cost to allow for an authentic creation. It’s true that beauty remains cursed in all its forms, insinuating itself fraudulently—what ends up lasting never comes into the world with the ease of what won’t. But you’re the people that consecrate the hazardous ventures of Europe. Your power is without bounds. My ultimate prayer will be then to ask you to be attentive to the new that hasn’t proven itself, and, since you hang from the walls of your museums the marvelous nonsense of our youth, to also permit our more recent marvelous nonsense to slip into America on the feet of the doves that Nietzsche preferred over the racket of platoons and their weapons.
Charles Baudelaire, who gave us your Edgar Allan Poe, speaks, in the preface that introduces his translation, of decadence as proof of an extreme civilization. Me, old European, decadent and proud to be, at the risk of appearing pessimistic to you (the pessimist is a man, in your world, to whom you give the finger, a man blacklisted), at the risk, I say, of making myself guilty of the crime of pessimism—which comes over me with the force of optimism and out of fear that things appear better than they are—I advise you to read this preface. I quote a paragraph of it:
But what the certified professors haven’t realized is that, in the movement of life, some complication, some combination can present itself, all of a sudden, unforeseen by their schoolboy wisdom. And so their insufficient language is found defective, as in the case—a phenomenon that will perhaps increase in variety—in which a nation begins with decadence, starting where the others finish. Since between the immense colonies of the present century new literatures are developing, there will most certainly arise spiritual accidents of a nature disturbing to the academic mind. Young and old at the same time, America gossips and prattles with a surprising volubility. Who could count her poets? They’re innumerable. Her bluestockings? They clutter the reviews. Her critics? Trust that she has pedants as valuable as ours for ceaselessly reminding the artist of ancient beauty, for questioning a poet or a novelist about the morality of their purpose and the merit of their intentions. There as here, but even more than here, literati don’t know how to spell; a puerile activity, pointless; compilers of cornucopia, hack writers, plagiarists of plagiaries and critics of critiques. Amidst this maelstrom of mediocrities, in this world enamored with material perfections—the scandal of a new genre that makes legible the grandeur of lazy people—amidst this society eager for surprises, in love with life, but above all with a life full of excitement, a man appeared who was great, not only because of his metaphysical subtlety, the sinister or ravishing beauty of his conceptions, or the rigor of his analysis, but great also and no less great at caricature. I should explain myself with some care; for recently an imprudent critic made use, to disparage Edgar Allan Poe and to undermine the sincerity of my admiration, of the word “juggler” which I had applied to the noble poet as a eulogy.
This sensational text and preamble could serve as our defense against those who complain of decadents. It will light your lantern. You will see, under the flickering light of the man responsible for it, what’s at stake in this eternal confusion between the juggler and the thinker, between an agile thought and the gesture of an illusionist.
If you listen with an attentive ear—and I don’t doubt you do—you will discover the reason why, no matter whether it’s Picasso, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Aragon, Sartre, Jean Genet, or myself (I cite on purpose men whose activities are in opposition to one another), the singular attitude of artists and the unique point of view from which they express themselves is all too hastily interpreted by the frivolous as a magical process for avoiding the anguish of work. In short, the attitude of nonchalance that crowns all genuine labor tricks the whole world into believing it’s as easy to create as it appears. The more you’re blessed, the more you’ll overcome yourself, the more you’ll fight against the gift that predisposes your ink to run too quickly, the more you’ll strive to harness and contain it.
Our universe evolves in waves and nodes. If there’s a node, there will be a wave. It’s a matter of patience—I don’t think that an injured country, with a wound that’s mending, gets better in a couple of weeks. It’s therefore absurd to pretend that France is declining. France, after what it has suffered, is a mending wound. It’s the term a doctor uses to describe an injury that’s healing. It doesn’t mean the wound looks ugly and is developing gangrene. On the contrary, a wound that isn’t mending is a dangerous wound, one that only gives the appearance of health. It misleads people who tend to be reassured by their own immobility and who have never observed the terrible workings of plants, sap, and bark.
Sergei Diaghilev led the multicolored and famous troupe of the Ballets Russes across the world. He declared to me: you’ve never really put on a spectacle if you haven’t done it in Paris. It is, he said, the only capital where the shows can provoke lovers’ quarrels.
I know well that in 1949 politics plays a considerable role and that the bickering of parties outweighs lovers’ quarrels, but between you and me, don’t these disputes seem just as unfair and in bad faith as lovers’ quarrels? It’s still a good disorder, a good cleavage, a good tempest, a rich manure, a fertilizer that makes the plants burst, to the left, to the right, below, above, spreading their seeds no matter where. And it’s this “no matter where” that counts.
Propaganda exploits this method, but it’s a conscious exploitation—only when it’s done unconsciously can such dispersals of seeds succeed in the long run.
It would be funny to cite for you, among others, the names of poets that honor France and ensure her true prestige. They’re men that she hounds with her police or her disdain: Racine, Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ducasse, Nerval, Verlaine . . . the game is too easy. So many downfalls, hospitalizations, desperate retreats to cloisters, departures, suicides, catastrophes.
If things had changed, there would’ve been discipline, order, fear, comfort . . . all qualities that France, I repeat, doesn’t possess and that would cause its ruin. France is bristling with valleys and peaks. You can’t imagine a flat France. Besides, if anyone attempted to flatten her, they’d never succeed. If you try, she bristles. It’s fortunate there are those who desire to flatten her. Because a country that records and reveres its disorder becomes a country of the dead. Its coincidences assume the role of principles and its people resemble plants reading treatises on horticulture.
France would have everything to lose by pursuing resources unsuitable to it—for example, by attempting to be a big industry. Its prerogatives are artisanship, invention, discovery, accident. Accident especially, son of disorder, that breaks the straight line and leads to surprises, giving unpredictable meanings to things, things that the French continue naively to call miracles.
The Earth must be a great deal younger than is generally thought—those that love to destroy or construct still have plenty of time to invent verses and catastrophes.
The earth seems old to us. She must be sixteen years old in comparison to the duration of a human life. She’s at the age of schoolyard scuffles; all fun and games, until someone gets hurt. Without doubt she was, in the time of ancient Egypt, at the age of sandcastles by the seaside. In the days of the Greek philosophers, she was at the age when you question your parents. Our good fortune is being spared from living on earth when she reaches the age of reason. It’s the dreariest age of all.
I very well know that it’s tiresome to live in dangerous times. I’m not so naive as to think the time of wars is over, that people will manage to live hand in hand. And the fault doesn’t lie with anyone. Responsibility on this order of things is just a way of reassuring yourself and nourishing your pride. Humans fight each other by nature—they imitate animals, plants, and microbes. But I dislike the tendency to fear that one war will follow another. Such fears are harmful to undertakings that can honor a world which war dishonors. It serves as an excuse for laziness, as so many people say to themselves: “What’s the good of working and creating since destruction is coming?”
I salute your optimism. My pessimism is merely a form of optimism. I’d rather things happened otherwise, and there are times that I weep on the ruins. Afterwards I think the ruins have a great beauty that surprises and inspires us in some unexpected artistic direction. Cities of solid gold must sleep under the sands. The earliest ages may well be the last vestiges of advanced civilizations. Let’s get used to humility in the face of such an incomprehensible system, and since we can’t climb the ladder of angels, let us resign ourselves to our own ladder that we owe it to ourselves to climb to its highest echelons.
It’s quite ridiculous, as well, to speak of decadence in a land which results from decadence. In fact, light is the result of decomposition. As soon as a star ceases to be in a nebulous state (it grows old in some way), it decomposes and ignites. When the fire dies down and retreats inward, the star crusts over. In a state of decadence and decay, the land gives birth to life. The star swarms with vermin. That’s us.
—translated by Alex Wermer-Colan
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 8, on page 43
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