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Nonfiction in Brief

DIARY OF AN UNKNOWN by Jean Cocteau (Paragon House: $17.95)

June 19, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

Where Sergei Diaghilev told artists, " Etonnez-moi "--surprise me--Jean Cocteau, France's artistic chameleon, went a step further, suggesting that artists should "throw a bomb." Cocteau took his own advice, creating and then destroying elaborate styles and theories, not only in his plays, novels, films and librettos for opera, but in his life. In these pages, Cocteau admonishes himself for having thrived upon and solicited public attention: "Instead of understanding that the audience is made up of four-legged animals who flap their front paws one against the other, I allowed myself to be seduced by applause. . . . I committed the crime of letting myself be hurt by the insults and of considering the praise as my due." Cocteau changes his basic ideology, too: Freud's sexual theories, once disturbingly simplistic to Cocteau, are used liberally and sincerely in the chapter, "On Criminal Innocence."

Cocteau's most fundamental rebellion against himself comes in the essay, "On Invisibility," one of the most focused and probing in a collection that sometimes can be enigmatic and digressive. Here, he questions his long-held belief that only a life of art can lead to truth, anxiously wondering whether art is simply another deception: "Isn't this orgy of words the only way to whip myself into the frenzy of writing, since I have no real intelligence of my own? If I don't get the machinery in motion, I begin to vegetate, to think of nothing. This void terrifies me and flings me into the arms of discourse." This is Cocteau at his most cynical, though, for in other pages, he writes with great enthusiasm about nature, history, poetry and psychology, acknowledging that the curious are bound to come across some truth, if only by good fortune. As he has written, "The beautiful is always the result of an accident."

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