“Humanity is occupied by a darkness…” #JeanCocteau # LetterToTheAmericans @NewDirections


As I’ve mentioned before on the Ramblings, French author and polymath Jean Cocteau is a long-term favourite of mine. As I said in an earlier post, “I first encountered his works back in the mid-1980s, when friends dragged me off to a screening in London of two of his films, “Orphee” and “La Belle et La Bete”. If I recall correctly, it was at the Electric Cinema in Portobello Road, on a dreary afternoon, and I emerged afterwards stunned, into a dark rainy night, filled with a sense of wonder at the filmic visions I’d just seen. I’ve loved Cocteau and his work ever since, and as well as his films, I have quite a number of his written works…” That was when I read his “Journals” for the 1956 Club and re-encountering him through a book I hadn’t read before was a real treat. So when I stumbled across mention of his “Letter to the Americans” online recently, it was a no brainer that I would have to send off for a copy!

“Letter…” is an essay, translated here by Alex Wermer-Colan, which was written In 1949 after Cocteau had made a short transatlantic visit, spending 20 days in New York. On the plane home, over the ocean, he turns his mind to his experiences in the New World and muses on the differences between it, and the Old World from whence he comes, giving a revealing look at how a European felt about America in the immediately postwar period. Cocteau is a European through and through, and although he has been seduced by many elements of America, in many ways he’s not convinced…

You won’t be saved by guns or by fortune. You will be saved by the minority of those who think.

Although short, the essay allows Cocteau to explore the differing views the two worlds have of art, literature, dreams and psychology; and their divergent lifestyles, with both cultures placing importance on different things. During his visit, which was to promote his new film “The Eagle with Two Heads”, Cocteau was feted and as he points out, everything was laid on for him. He appreciates this, but is well aware of how different is the American view of the arts. His film was cut; it was not necessarily that appreciated; and this does set the reader wondering on how a French art-house film would have appeared to a verging on 1950s American audience.

One of Cocteau’s distinctive drawings

Interestingly, his take on the differences between the nations focuses on order vs disorder; the rigidity and control of a city standing tall and straight full of skyscrapers, as compared with disorderly France which can produce a Picasso, is pronounced. Both cultures could do with a little more exchange, allowing elements from each to blend and bring the best of both together. He urges Americans to steer away from the influence of radio and telephone, to embrace the future and develop as a nation. As he puts it:

Your role is to save the old world that is so tough, so tender, that loves you and that you love. Your role is to save the dignity of humanity.

“Letter…” is a fascinating and thought-provoking read which left me with an image of the great artist aloft in a plane, staring out at the stars while his fellow passengers sleep and gathering his thoughts about his visit. Modern America was still developing at the time and could have gone in many different directions; the rather rigidly controlled 1950s, with their consumer society, Cold War, Atomic bomb, fixed gender roles and desire for affluence, were perhaps not what Cocteau was generously hoping would happen. Looking back, though, it’s a wonderful snapshot of the man and his world and his thoughts, and I’m so glad it’s finally been published and I have had the chance to read it; maybe this could be the autumn of my re-engaging more deeply with Jean Cocteau and his work! 😀

“I have to pawn all my words…” @NewDirections @maryanncaws


The Milk Bowl of Feathers (edited, introduced and translated in places by Mary Ann Caws)

The fact that I can’t recall what prompted me to pick up a copy of this book recently proves just how shocking my memory is… Yet it’s only been in the house a few weeks so goodness know why I felt the need to buy it just at this time! However, it turned out to be an ideal read following on from the Leonora Carrington Penguin Modern; because the subtitle of this intriguing little book is “Essential Surrealist Writings”, and Carrington herself does feature in it!

“Milk Bowl…” is edited and introduced by Mary Ann Caws, who also translates many of the pieces – all of which is an amazing achievement. The book was published by New Directions and draws on a 1940 anthology by the publishing house’s founder, James Laughlin. I suspect, however, the involvement of Caws may have something to do with the pleasing presence of a large number of surrealist women, which really helps make this an absolutely fascinating read.

The Milk Bowl of Feathers

Surrealism grew out of Dada, and Caws covers the genesis of the movement in her introduction, as well as discussing themes and major practitioners. The extracts which follow and make up the body of the book are a wide-ranging, stimulating and really fascinating selection. There are pieces by Aragon, Breton and Dali; poems by Robert Desnos and Paul Eluard; even occasional illustrations. In fact, it’s probably the poetry that will stay with me most from this anthology, as some of it is really stunning and intense. Interestingly, Caws highlights the fact that the “notion of impassioned love” is one of the most important things in surrealist writing, and that’s reflected here, most particularly in the poetry. Desnos, Joyce Mansour and Eluard provide luminous, beautiful and intense verse, all dealing with love and its vagaries, although often with a dark edge which recalls Baudelaire. Leona Delacourt’s draft letters to Breton are fragmented and passionate; and Leonora Carrington’s short but sharp story is as a grim as anything the Brothers ever wrote!

I think Surrealism, like Dada, often comes across as difficult, scary or offputting; additionally, it’s probably more often linked with the visual arts as opposed to the written. However, the variety of the extracts on show here reveals that Surrealist writing can be strange, confusing, exciting, intense, dark and passionate – and definitely accessible to anyone who wants to read it. “The Milk Bowl of Feathers”, at a concentrated 78 pages, is an ideal introduction to this kind of writing and whatever prompted me to pick up a copy, I’m very glad that I did! 😀

(Re the translators – I always name the translators of the books I read, but in this case each of the 30-odd extracts has a translator/translators named at the end of the piece, and frankly to list them all here would just look silly. You will see their names and appreciate all their work if you buy this book – which I urge you to do!)

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