JEAN COCTEAU, THE MASK OF ORPHEUS AND NARCISSUS
Walter A. Strauss *
Walter A. Strauss *
The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play. Narcissus’ life is that of beauty, and his existence is contemplation. These images refer to the aesthet dimension as the one in which their reality principle must be sought and validated.(1)
The task before us is to examine this relationship, Orpheus-Narcissus, in the instance of Jean Cocteau’s (1889-1963) work and to see its implications, not only in Cocteau but in a wider perspective. To be sure, Cocteau’s work stands under the magic sign of Orpheus. After writing several brief ballet scenarios, he made his debut as a dramatist on the Paris stage, first with several adaptations (Sophocles, Shakespeare), then with his first original play, Orphée (1926), a modernization of the Orpheus myth. He called it a "tragedy in one act and one interval" and opened with a prologue in which the actor playing Orpheus requests the audience to be attentive until the end: "[N]ous jouons très haut et sans filet de secours. Le moindre bruit intempestif risque de nous faire tuer, mes camarades et moi.(2)" Are we perhaps at the Cirque Medrano? In a way, yes; Eva Kushner observes quite correctly that Cocteau "adapte sa pièce au goût extravagant et gai de son époque.(3)" The spectator nevertheless experiences some initial difficulties: when you streamline a well-known tragic theme, you come dangerously close to burlesque. Some of this may be completely intentional here, but what then happens to the Orpheus theme? It becomes — in this case — domesticated and trivialized, though that is evidently not what Cocteau really intended. He did not aspire to be a Jacques Offenbach, but frequently his drama reminds you of the boulevard theatre in which the Parisian bourgeois audiences of the first part of the century delighted so greatly. For instance, Orpheus and Eurydice are a modern couple living in a little villa in Thrace, and of course dressed in modern clothes. The scene in which Orpheus loses Eurydice the second time is no more and no less than a banal marital squabble. In this typical altercation of a middle class couple we learn that Eurydice has formerly been associated with the Bacchantes (mythologically that is not really correct). The Bacchantes in this case are a group of feminists avant la lettre; their chairperson Aglaonice is jealous of Eurydice and sends her a (literally) poison(ed) letter. Furthermore, Orpheus has been receiving messages from a horse, very much in the manner of those table-tapping seances that were all the rage in the nineteenth century. We are to understand that all this is semi-serious diabolic horseplay, since Orpheus is getting these nonsensical messages not from within himself but from an extraneous source for which this wingless Pegasus appears to be the medium. The horse seems to be some sort of Surrealist messenger, in touch with arcane powers. (The play as a matter of fact comes two years after the official inception of the Surrealist movement.) So this horse stands for a critique or burlesque of the automatic writing and the dream-conjuring of the Surrealists. The idiotic pronouncement that is thus transmitted to Orpheus is "Madame Eurydice Revient Des Enfers." It turns out that the Bacchantes’ club discovers that the acronym of that message spells out the word MERDE, and this is sufficient reason for them to come and decapitate Orpheus. It might be said that so far we have got more circus-play than tragedy. But there are some pleasant Cocteauvian inventions to offset the levity and to dignify the play to a certain extent. Yet tragedy and levity don’t coexist easily: we are not, after all, in the realm of the absurd, the grotesque tragedy of Ionesco; we are instead in the setting of a modern version of French classicism. Trying to provide a more sober ambience for the play, Cocteau offers us his favorite guardian angel Heurtebise, who first watches over Eurydice (who is definitely enamored of him, if only because her husband is neglecting her for that pseudo-Pegasus); and at the end of the play his function will be to reunite the couple. All this would be rather silly if it were not for the fact that this Heurtebise appears as a vitrier (a "bon vitrier" in contrast to Baudelaire’s "mauvais vitrier"), a device which permits him to appear haloed by the glass-panes that he is carrying. At one point, while repairing a window pane, Cocteau uses the acrobatic trick of leaving this "angel" suspended in mid-air. When Death arrives, she is elegantly accoutred as a kind of visiting surgeon wearing rubber gloves, but she wears an evening dress under her surgeon’s gown. She returns to the underworld by going through the mirror. Cocteau here uses the device of the mirror as the passage-way from the world of the living to the world of the dead for the first time. Death emerges from the mirror and disappears into it, and so will Eurydice and Orpheus in their turn. "Les miroirs sont les portes par lesquelles la Mort va et vient.(4)" We shall see subsequently that this motif will lead us into the Narcissus theme. After some more clowning involving police investigators and the (speaking) head of Orphée, the play ends with breakfast in heaven. It is really a wonderful life, and in this touching Frank Capra photo-finish, Orpheus says grace:
Mon Dieu, nous vous remercions de nous avoir assigné
notre demeure et notre ménage comme seul paradis...
Nous vous remercions de m’avoir sauvé parce que
j’adorais la poésie et que la poésie c’est vous. Ainsi
Inane? Serious? One would hardly want to call this a tragic work, but that is not really the point. Cocteau manages little more than to make the spectacle visually attractive. Greek myth, the Paris boulevard, show business, the designer’s craft, magic props and a certain degree of charm — all this contrivance from a self-indulgent magician, Cocteau, to entertain a certain public. In retrospect, it is little more than a rehearsal from the greatly superior 1950 film Orphée, where it appropriately finds a more apt medium for beauty, even for depth, while retaining and transposing the most original and striking inventions of the stage version. But first a word about Cocteau’s first fim, Le sang d’un poète, four years after the play. In this first venture into the cinema, Cocteau was able to feast himself on images and visual surprises, in effect on all of those things that bear witness to the artifice of the cinema. Everything in the film is trickery and illusionism, of the most inventive sort. And everything takes place in an instant, during the collapse of the factory chimney at Fontenoy. Even though Cocteau had referred to blazons, emblems and allegories in his dedication, Le sang d’un poète is not really meant to be "deciphered": it presents a series of vivid images of the life, solitude, pain and death of the poet (as Cocteau understood the notion of "poet," and as he saw himself). At the beginning, the poet in his studio finds himself afflicted with a wound which remains indelible on the palm of his hand and which in turn animates a statue: it is productive of creativity. Then comes the specific Orphic moment: the descent into the depth of the self through a mirror, the movement into a downward beyond. Yet the most striking aspect of this Orphic gesture is the fact that it goes through a reflecting surface, namely the image par excellence that is traditionally associated with Narcissus. Orpheus, strictly speaking, would not have needed any mirror; he needs Eurydice as well as the outer world in which he is to be reflected. So Cocteau’s Orpheus is narcissistic to begin with, and that aspect of him remains a constant feature. At the end of the film (when the collapse of the chimney is completed) the lyre floats through space, and Cocteau’s voice speaks of "l’ennui mortel de l’immortalité." This sounds Orphic enough, in a slick modern way, but it also underlines the fact that Cocteau’s Orpheus is not at all an animator of men and beasts nor a harmonizer of opposites, but a self-reflexive being: a narcissistic Orpheus. The sumptuous and exquisite film of 1950 brings the materials of the play up to date, matured by the film experience of La belle et la bête of 1945. It appears that in films one objects less to obvious gimmickry than on the stage. Or else the film has been magnetized by the wonderful enigmatic beauty of Maria Casarès playing the poet’s Death, who falls in love with her victim. Cocteau organized his material with a much surer, more experienced hand. His voice announces near the beginnning, "C’est le privilège des légendes d’être sans âge.(6)" In any case, no more trapezes without safety nets. Not only are the visual elements more striking here, but the narrative, the plot, work more effectively. The initial setting is now a poet’s cafe, somewhere in the provinces but actually reminiscent of places like the Café de Flore in Paris (existentialist headquarters at the time the film was made), populated by a group of quarrelsome, "mod" poets and their groupies. In the brawl that occurs the latest poetic idol Cégeste, who has displaced Orphée from Prominence and popularity, is killed. The first person to appear on the scene is Death ("La Princesse"), elegantly and majestically dressed, emerging from an equally fancy Rolls-Royce driven by Heurtebise (now upgraded from glazier to chauffeur), the guardian angel of the play. The ridiculous horse of the play is now the short-wave radio in the Rolls-Royce. The "diabolical" messages now come from "the other realm"; actually they are from the deceased poet Cégeste out of the underworld. Cocteau’s altered plot for this Orphée generates a new atmosphere for death’s dominant seductive presence, and the story thereby gains new momentum. Heurtebise is once more enamored of Eurydice, as in the play, but Orpheus remains ambivalent: Cocteau has again reinterpreted the myth. When Orphée mourns Eurydice, Heurtebise says to him: "Votre femme habite un autre monde où je vous invite à me suivre," and Orphée replies, "Je la suivrais aux Enfers...(7)" In the ensuing dialogue Heurtebise asks the pointed question "Est-ce la mort que vous désirez joindre ou Eurydice?"
ORPHÉE (détournant le regard) — Les deux...
HEURTEBISE — Et si possible, tromper l’une avec l’autre...(8)
The film leaves little doubt as to Orphée’s preference. Eurydice is as colorless and unromantic as she was in the play (in the film she is actually pregnant). The princess says to Heurtebise at one point "Seriez-vous amoureux de cette idiote?(9)" Indeed, Death has fallen in love with Orpheus and visits his room regularly. Cocteau’s voice-over solemnly pronounces the words "Et chaque nuit, la mort d’Orphée revenait dans la chambre.(10)" Yet the cold fascination that she exudes on the screen is paralleled by the glacial and mechanized image of the leather-jacketed motorcyclists that act as brutal harbingers of the deaths that occur in the story: Cégeste, Eurydice; finally Heurtebise and the princess herself, who has transgressed by becoming too attached to this world of the living and must finally be brought back to the "other" world: there they must face some unspecified punishment. The passageway to this other world, designated as "la zone," is one of the most brilliant visual creations of Cocteau (comparable to the interior of the castle of La belle et la bête): a Pompeian panorama of ruins unwinding behind the virtually immobile Heurtebise and Orphée struggling forward, as if against the wind. Gluck’s ravishing music from Orphée et Eurydice (the flute solo from the Dance of the Blessed Spirits) serves as a motto for the film, adding its own magic to that of the camera and the actors. It matters little in the film that at the end Orphée, reunited with a Eurydice he little cares for, says unconvincingly, "Il n’y a qu’un amour qui compte, c’est le nôtre(11)" and prepares to live like a good middle-class poet and head of household. When Pauline Kael said that "Cocteau’s special gift was to raise chic to art(12)," she was exactly on target, and she meant it as a compliment. And the radio message (enunciated by Cocteau’s voice in the film) "Jupiter rend sage ceux qu’il veut perdre," an inversion of the classical motto, cleverly manages to be right in the context of all this sorcery. In one of the mirror sequences of the film there is a revealing dissolve from the actual vertical mirror, in front of which the poet has fainted, to a horizontal pool-mirror: "L’appareil découvre tout Orphée, tel qu’il était au pied du miroir. Mais il se trouve au bord d’une flaque.(13)" In other words, Orphée is for a moment disclosed in the classical Narcissus pose, and indeed he has been close to that mythic persona all the time. Jacques Guicharnaud has been one of the few critics to point to this feature of Cocteau’s work explicitly when he speaks of his "unquestionable narcissism.(14)" Orpheus the mythical figure gazed at nature (and at Eurydice), but not at mirrors. Cocteau, with his reflecting surfaces, blurs the images of Orpheus and Narcissus. Cocteau’s valedictory Le testament d’Orphée of 1960 may be said (with a little stretch of the imagination) to celebrate the inner death of the poet (just as Le sang d’un poète was the inner life of the poet), and Cocteau is himself the center of the film, taking a Narcissus-look at himself. Film, he tells us, offers us visions of the real and a striptease that sheds the body in order to reveal the soul.
To be sure, the myths of Orpheus and Narcissus are not as far apart as Ovid might be implying when he treats of Narcissus in Book III and of Orpheus in Book X of the Metamorphoses; Ovid is our major source for Narcissus and, along with Virgil’s Georgics, Book IV, of Orpheus. Ovid subtly lets Tiresias, the bisexual sage, tell the tale of Narcissus, how he told Narcissus’ mother Liriope, a naiad (the father was the river-god Cephisos) that Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, "Si se non noverit" (III, 348) — if he never comes to know himself (which to us also means to recognize himself). Narcissus grew into a beautiful youth, desired by boys and girls, but adamant in his refusal to be touched by either. The nymph Echo literally pined away in her love for him, so that finally she wasted away and became (to quote Joseph Conrad out of context) "nothing but a voice," afflicted with what psychologists call echolalia. Then comes the famous episode at the pool:
To quench his thirst, inside him, deep within him
Another thirst was growing, for he saw
An image in the pool, and fell in love
With that unbodied hope, and found a substance
In what was only shadow.
He looks in wonder,
Charmed by himself, spell-bound...
He wants himself; the loved becomes the lover,
The seeker sought, the kindler burns. (III, 415-18, 424-26) (15)
After a long lament, there finally comes the terrifying moment of truth: "iste ego sum" (III, 463) — he is myself! And he decides to end his life; once more he returns to the pool: Narcissus wanes, Echo vanishes, the descending Narcissus, in a fine conceit of Ovid, "tum quoque se, postquam est inferna sede receptus,/ in Stygia spectabat aqua" (III, 505-06) — after he had been received into the infernal abode, he kept staring at himself in the Styx. But his body, too vanishes: "nusquam corpus erat; croceum pro corpore florem/ inveniunt foliis medium congentibus albis" (III, 509-10) — his body was nowhere; instead (the naiads and dryads) find a flower, its yellow center surrounded by white petals. Freud’s twenty-sixth lecture in A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis bears the title "The Theory of the Libido: Narcissism." It is a mature development of his earlier positions on the subject. As the result of his more recent research, he came to believe that the expanded libido theory will help to explain "conditions that belong to normal life; for instance, the mental attitude pertaining to the conditions of ‘being in love’,(16)" of organic illness, and of sleep. Of sleep he says that it is a condition in which all investments of objects, the libidinal as well as the egoistic, are abandoned and withdrawn again into the ego. "... In the sleeper the primal state of the libido-distribution is again reproduced, that of absolute narcissism, in which libido and ego-interests dwell together still, united and undistinguishable in the self-sufficient self. ... In my opinion, narcissism is the libidinal complement of egoism.(17) It is particularly interesting that Freud here links fatigue and sleep to Narcissus, in the sense that mind and body have a periodic need to withdraw and, so to speak, to regress, in order to store up new mental and physical energies for the tasks of waking life. This suggests two polarities within narcissism: withdrawal and reintegration. They are intended to complement each other. And there are additional interpretations of the Narcissus theme, more or less closely related to Freud’s, that ought to be considered. Gaston Bachelard’s L’eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière (1942) is one volume in a group of "elemental" studies of poetic imagery. It need not surprise us, after observing the "fluidity" of Ovid’s Narcissus, that Bachelard’s study begins with this motif. For him, "Devant les eaux, Narcisse a la révélation de son identité et de sa dualité, la révélation de ses doubles puissances viriles et féminines, la révélation surtout de sa réalité et de son identité.(18) Out of this comes, according to Bachelard, "un narcissisme idéalisant," whose force lies in its capacity to realize "la sublimation de la caresse.(19)" This is a splendid insight, because once again that is what Ovid implies, and what is echoed by a number of modern poets. The other Bachelardian possibility is "un narcissisme cosmique," which is in effect an extension of egoistical narcissism. "‘Je suis beau parce que la nature est belle, la nature est belle parce que je suis beau.’ Tel est le dialogue sans fin de l’imagination créatrice et de ses modèles naturels.(20) Here, then, we have the making of a formula that would link mimesis (les modèles naturels) and poiesis (l’imagination créatrice). Yet still another point needs to be added.
L’examen de l’imagination nous conduit à ce paradoxe: dans l’imagination de la vision généralisée, l’eau joue un rôle inattendu. L’oeil véritable de la terre, c’est l’eau. Dans nos yeux, c’est l’eau qui rêve.(21)
This quite poetic formulation lays the foundation for Bachelard’s meditation on water and dreams, and its true foundation is Narcissus. Oculus-speculum-somnum: Eye-mirror-sleep. Perhaps the most striking aspect of Bachelard’s perception is his emphasis on the visual aspect of the Narcissus-water motif. And indeed it is true that Narcissus attracts the plastic artist: he is all line, outline, reflection, tactility — caress, as Bachelard says so pertinently. Cocteau’s Orpheus has found his sanctuary in the mask of Narcissus. Bachelard’s perception helps us to mark one of the major distinctions between Narcissus and Orpheus. Narcissus is the god associated with seeing (himself, primarily); his auditive complement is Echo, who does not speak. Thus the three versions of Valery’s Narcissus ("Narcisse parle," 1891; "Fragment du Narcisse," 1921-26; "Cantate de Narcisse," 1938) are central to Valery’s commitment to French classicism and consequently they are sensuously linear and tactile. Orpheus, on the other hand, is a god that is heard (Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus consistently stress his impact on human ears); if he needs to see anything, it is the crucial and fateful moment when he cannot refrain from gazing upon Eurydice during his ascent from Hades; and for that he pays a heavy price, which not only deprives him of his love but costs him his own life, so that all that remains of him is his voice, singing. Orpheus’ voice rises; his mirror, if he really needed one, would be vertical (it is, frequently, in Cocteau, with the major exception noted); his harmonizing power reaches outward and upward, toward the stars. Narcissus remains horizontal, his body reaches into the surrounding landscape; in Freud’s sense, it extends the womb, cosmically, as "the libidinal complement of egoism." Herbert Marcuse, linking the image of Orpheus with that of Narcissus, tells us that they are the antithesis of Prometheus ("the archetype-hero of the performance principle"), and thus they are akin to Dionysus. "They have not become the culture-heroes of the Western World: theirs is the image of joy and fulfillment; the voice which does not command but sings; the gesture which offers and receives; the deed which is peace and ends the labor of conquest; the liberation from time which unites man with god, man and nature.(22)" Marcuse is, in his way, cultivating his Freudian garden: he pits the performance principle (Prometheus, and by implication, Faust) against the aesthetic principle (Narcissus-Orpheus); the latter "reconcile Eros and Thanatos," and that is also the direction in which Marcuse strives to redirect modern society, away from repression. As we have seen, Orpheus connects and harmonizes the interchanges between self and the world; Narcissus blurs them. In Cocteau the two myths overlap elegantly, with a minimum of interference. Wallace Fowlie reports that the last words he heard Cocteau say to him were "Orphée.(23) Yes, and this Orpheus in his vertical-horizontal mirror reflects Narcissus rather than himself; in any case, it mirrors Cocteau. The magic journey downward can also be a fatal voyage. Gide, in his collaboration with Stravinsky in the ballet-cantata Perséphone of 1934, intones:
De toutes les fleurs du printemps
Le narcisse est la plus jolie.
Celui qui se penche sur son calice
Celui qui respire son odeur
Voit le monde inconnu des Enfers.(24)
(1) Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization, New York, Vintage Books, 1962, p. 156. |Retourner au texte|
(2) Jean Cocteau, Orphée, Paris, Stock, 1927, p. 7. |Retourner au texte|
(3) Eva Kushner, Le mythe d’Orphée dans la littérature française contemporaine, Paris, Nizet, 1961, p. 177. |Retourner au texte|
(4) Cocteau, Orphée, p. 32. |Retourner au texte|
(5) Cocteau, Orphée, p. 55. |Retourner au texte|
(6) This statement occurs in the film but not in its published text. Jean Cocteau, Orphée. Film, Paris, La Parade, n.d. |Retourner au texte|
(7) Cocteau, Orphée. Film, p. 68.
|Retourner au texte|
(9) Cocteau, Orphée. Film, p. 59. |Retourner au texte|
(10) Orphée. Film, p. 53. |Retourner au texte|
(11) Orphée. Film, p. 115. |Retourner au texte|
(12) Pauline Kael, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, New York, Bantam Books, 1969, p. 409. |Retourner au texte|
(13) Cocteau, Orphée. Film, p. 21. |Retourner au texte|
(14) Jacques Guicharnaud (with June Beckelman), Modern French Theatre from Giraudoux to Beckett, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1961, p. 48. |Retourner au texte|
(15) Ovid, Metamorphoses, translated by Rolfe Humphries, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1955. |Retourner au texte|
(16) Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, translated by Joan Rivière, New York, Pocket Books, 1972, p. 423. |Retourner au texte|
(17) Freud, Introduction, p. 424. |Retourner au texte|
(18) Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves. Essai sur l’imagination de la matière, 1942, p. 34. |Retourner au texte|
(19) Bachelard, L’eau..., pp. 34, 35. |Retourner au texte|
(20) Bachelard, L'eau..., p. 45. |Retourner au texte|
(21) Bachelard, L'eau..., p. 45. |Retourner au texte|
(22) Marcuse, Eros, pp. 146-47. |Retourner au texte|
(23) Wallace Fowlie, The History of a Poet’s Age, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1966, p. 168.