Mortality And Humility Of A Poet Who Is Capable Of Creating Immortal Images And Meanings – Grace Which Is Not Phobic About Humor And Wit

My star is a Hibiscus flower
Jean Cocteau, “Two Screenplays”, A Pelican Book, 1968, p. 144

Of course, works of art create themselves, and dream of killing both father and mother. Of course, they exist before the artist discovers them. But it’s always “Orpheus,” always “Oedipus”. I thought that by changing castle I’d change ghosts and that here a flower could make them flee.
Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Princess [Death]: We are the inquiry commission of a tribunal to whom you must account for some of your acts. This tribunal wishes to know if you plead guilty or not guilty. (To Heurtebise) Would you read out the two accusations?

Heurtebise: First: you are accused of innocence – or in other words, of an attack on justice by being capable and guilty of all crimes, instead of just one, and liable to be convicted in a way that our jurisdiction will decide. Second: You are accused of incessantly wanting to penetrate with fraudulence into a world that is not yours. Do you plead guilty or not guilty?

Poet:I plead guilty in both instances. I admit that I am closed in by the thread of mistakes I have not made, and I admit that I have often wanted to jump over the fourth mysterious wall that men write their loves and dreams upon.

Princess: Why?

Poet: Probably, because I am tired of the world I live in and detest habits. Also because of that disobedience with which audacity defies the rules, and that spirit of creation which is the highest form of the spirit of contradiction – pertaining to human beings.

Princess: If I am not mistaken, you are making a religion out of disobedience?

Poet: Without disobedience what would children do? Or heroes? Or artists?

Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Princess: What do you mean by “film”?

Poet: A film is a petrifying source of thought. A film revives dead acts – a film allows one to give a semblance of reality to unreality.

Princess: And what do you call unreality?

Poet: What goes beyond our meager limits.

Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Heurtebise: So in your world there are individuals that are like an invalid with no arms or legs, who sleeps, dreaming that he is moving and running.

Poet: You have given an excellent definition of the poet.

Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Princess: What do you mean by poet?

Poet: The poet, by composing poems, uses a language that is neither dead nor living, that few people speak, and few people understand.

Princess: And why do these people speak this language?

Poet: To meet their compatriots in a world where, too often, the exhibitionism that consists of revealing one’s naked soul is practiced only among the blind.

Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”


Princess: Did you write:
“This body that contain us does not know us.
What lives in us is lived in.
And these bodies, one inside the other
Form the body of eternity.”

Poet: I wrote that, yes.

Princess: And who told you these things?

Poet: What things?

Princess: The things that you say in that language that is neither dead nor living.

Poet: No one.

Princess: You are lying!

Poet: I agree if, like myself, you believe that we are the servants of an unknown force that lives within us, manipulates us, and dictates this language to us.

J. Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Poet: Cegestius!

Cegestius: You gave me my name…

Poet: I can hardly recognize you. You used to be blonde.

Cegestius: That was for a film. This time it’s no longer a film. It’s life.

J. Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Jean Cocteau, “The Testament of Orpheus”

Jean Cocteau, “Villa Santo Sospir”

Jean Cocteau vis-a-vie his “The Testament of Orpheus”
Jean Cocteau in boyhood

Jean Cocteau as a young man
Jean Cocteau as a young man

Jean Cocteau in his later years

Jean Cocteau is being attended in order to prepare him for the camera

Jean Cocteau’s acquaintance with the Sphinx, and, may be, this time it is the human being who’ll put the riddle in front of Sphinx (and not the other way around)

Jean Cocteau-the poet is trying to reincarnate into mortality

The poet’s disappearances and reincarnations always make him feel awkward and absurd

The poet is trying to meet a scientist who would be able to return him from the eternity of his reincarnations back into human mortality, but by mistake he found a professor too early – in his adolescence (Jean-Pierre Leaud).

Aesthetic pedagogy

To explain to the public Cocteau’s stance as an artist is not an easy task

Oedipus (Jean Marais) travels on foot through history

The incredible eternal walk of Oedipus through human history – from his own life into lives of people and into meaning, into art and the human heart

Cocteauan poet’s social life

The poet is invited for the audience with society’s highest officials as a solemn gesture of appreciation. To be allowed to wait for the audience is a biggest honor for an artist.

Cocteau’s criticism of mass culture

Cocteau-the director shows to mass-cultural stars how to combine sexual and verbal messages

In mass culture sexual appeal must glue to everything, add itself to and penetrate everything including intellectual and financial dedications

Poet’s voyage to mortality from the poetic heavens

Voyage to mortality is a fear-inducing adventure, and the poet becomes dependent on his much younger guide who knows the modern life much better

When the poet makes a spiritual transition from his immortality (his self-immortalization in his poetry) to his mortality – when he feels that only his poetry belongs to the (symbolic) immortality while he himself belongs to the mortals, he has to be careful: how not to return to a narcissistic world-view and life style and the most vulgar – socio-morphically megalomaniacal self-perception.

The poet and his conformist double

This man in the jacket is Cocteau’s superficial twin – Jean Cocteau belonging to his fame and career.

The existential mission of the poet based on personal humility and his new poetry of otherness

Cegestius is the helper and guide of the poet who in his “new identity” needs assistance and advice

Hibiscus flower – Cegestius’ gift and message to the poet about the necessity of poetic dedication to the otherness of the world

Cegestius is trying to help the poet to become less fixated on his own personality

Cegestius attempts to communicate to the poet the necessity of accepting his own mortality – to stop cathecting personal immortality as a crown of poet’s albeit sublime exceptionality

Cegestius is forcing the poet to change his life from self-aggrandizement through poetry to participation in co-creation of the world’s life

Pedagogy of the Hibiscus flower

After Cegestius’ insistence and encouragement the poet restores the flower to life after he impulsively destroyed it in his frustration about his incurable auto-philia/self-admiration.

The poet learns how to sacrifice his glorious immortality for the sake of helping the world’s existence.

Afina Pallada/Aphrodite punishes poet for choosing mortality

Aphrodite as the personification of inhumane – godly wisdom

Aphrodite is preparing to punish the poet for becoming just a human being

The poet is pierced by Afina’s spur, a wound which partially restores his immortality against his will and makes him ghost-like

The sacred blindness of the poet

As a basically mortal creature, the poet doesn’t know what awaits him after death

Poet befriends the Sphinx who, like the poet, doesn’t know its destiny

The poet still is trying to see and to understand what is after death, but in vain. Now his strength is in his limitedness within life.


What could motivate a poet, personified by Cocteau himself in his “The Testament of Orpheus”, to disappear from the 20th century he felt locked in (“disappearance is not easy”, as he himself complains to destiny), to the 18th century (and wear the costume from Louis XIV and hat from Louis XV’s epochs, while continue to smoke cigarettes (forced to lie to his new acquaintances that he invented it, to be left in peace)? What made him do all of this and other bizarre things (like his tireless appearances and disappearances before everyone’s eyes)? He, probably, couldn’t answer with certainty himself. But, as if, it’s not enough eccentricities, what could make a poet to wish to return to modern world in spite of feeling himself like a solemn somnambulist? The film depicts an existential poet who moves inside our world as a sleepwalker, who looks around like a gentle alien fearful of what can happen with him and what all this could mean?

Why did the poet come back? What has he forgotten here, in our noisy and vain life, amidst our instinctive destructive greed? Whole his life – more exactly, all his numerous lives, the poet was (phoenixologically) hooked on immortality. May be, the ultimate reason for returning home is becoming weary of being doomed to resurrect from one his poem to another, from one amorous reincarnation to the next? May be, the time did come for him to give his immortality away. He was always trying to escape from life to poetic beauty, and now he has to give artistic beauty back to life.

Here is the mystery of the Hibiscus flower which the poet destroys (during the bout of irritation because of his feeling that this flower symbolizes him, again and again himself) and, under the influence of Cegestius, resurrects, making the flower (a life) immortal instead of himself, making life even more flowery and fertile as a part of the greatness of creation. (Eroticized) narcissism is the traditional poets’ spiritual weakness. Only now, after returning to condition of mortal life (becoming mortal through professor’s “magic” super-bullets, which exactly meant to provide immortality for regular people), the poet is cured of his aesthetic narcissism (from writing always like Orpheus, always about Oedipus). But only now he got the ability to “change castles” and start to write about otherness of the world. When he stopped to be immortal, he got the ability to restore and immortalize the flowers of life.

Hibiscus flower as it was given to him by Cegestius is a signifier of poetic immortality (when a poet felt that he is immortal through his work, that his poetic creativity is a vehicle of his personal immortality because an art is his, it is him), but also – a world’s life, independent of poet’s existence. Now the poet is able to return to life his poetic gift (which was never completely his). Before the poet was between himself and his immortality achieved through his poetry. Now when the poet made himself mortal by believing in his mortality, his poetic gift helps life (the flower) be itself. The poet’s new talent is to restore to life the destroyed natural beauty (restoration of the Hibiscus flower – visual metonymy of phoenixological competence of the mortal poet). In other words, poet is mortal but dedicated to the immortality of the world as otherness.

In his old age the poet pays with accepting his mortality for helping the creation to keep the world immortal. Now poetry becomes like life (dedicated to the otherness of the world). Cocteau here is the unexpected prophet of our task in the 21st century to try to restore the nature which the blindly greedy among us have wrecked, robbed, poisoned and almost destroyed. The Cocteauan poet is not projecting into the world his own self-aggrandizing passion, like before when he was vainly trying to identify with his poetic immortality. By accepting death, the poet becomes a poet of life, a creator of life through the poetry of life’s otherness. He learns to restore the Hibiscus flower, as we, humans of 21st century must learn to restore our own humanity and natural environment. Now the poet is capable of making life as poetry.

By returning to his home of modernity, the poet, purely intuitively, achieves the final stage of his life which includes the acceptance of his limitations as a human being in comparison with the world, and only then he is ready to influence it with his spiritually poetic emanations. Before the poet was a great escapist. His poetic gift was invested into his own immortality, while the human world was left to its own triviality, which Cocteau depicts in the film on his way to Minerva, where we, through the poet’s perception, meet various types of philistines innocently consuming the world and their own lives. Mass culture is represented by Cocteau as producing its own language, simultaneously simplistic and pretentious, situational and generic. Human careerist obsessions (including that of the poet’s double) are characterized as vain pursuits of social recognition.

Minerva doesn’t respect the poet (in the second phase of his spiritual evolution) for being a spiritual bum, for not knowing what he wants from life and what he is doing, for always spoiling his own efforts. Her cruel intervention into the poet’s destiny takes away his mortality which he was recently pursuing (although, may be, without the necessary determination). After being radically pierced by Minerva’s spur, the poet becomes like Cegestius – a ghost of himself lost between life and death, ontologically a homeless wanderer. To become ghosts after death is usually the destiny of certain mortals punished for their awkward rebellious efforts against their mortality. But in the poet’s case the punishment is for his “irresponsible and capricious” desire to express “disrespect” for the gods and to return to mortality. The poet is punished by Minerva for the absence of godly monumentality, for betrayal of his eternal identity of his narcissistic phase, which Minerva, in her ignorance of a Goddess, took for the poet’s imitation of Gods’ immortality.

That is, it seems, Cocteauan poet’s testament – to try to be mortal, lost, adrift, spiritually homeless, and in all humility be able to enjoy it. With all ambitiousness, the poet is the one who doesn’t take himself too serious in spite of his seeming appearance of being the one who makes the supreme efforts to be more “sublimely” genuine creature than anybody else. Like the Sphinx in “The Testament…” the poet doesn’t know what awaits for him tomorrow.

Cocteauan poet as a philosopher of poetry – as somebody who needs to reflect about himself as a poet, not only to write poems and who is interested to understand the very human need to do so – tries to grasp how it’s possible to create works of art and why some human beings are destined to do it. Indeed, what is this obsession to add to the world and life the works of art about the world and life? Why do poets wish to be god’s co-creators? Why do they feel that the universe needs their “commentaries” about it in a form of revealing its meaning? Cocteau’s “The Testament of Orpheus” is like a “diary” of the poet’s investigation of his destiny. Poet’s philosophizing about poetry and about his very existence is not only a practice of humility, but, first of all, it is the transference of the poet’s significance to the spirituality of poetic function. “The Testament…” elaborates this very process of the poet’s psychological evolution from proud contemplation on his own poetical gift to self-forgetfulness in front of the spirituality of existential creative labor.

At the end of the film Cocteau’s images describe how immortality of the poet develops into his mortality as a human being (him dissolving into a non-being inside the rocks, while his official ID in the hand of the police officer dissolves/disappears from the world).

Posted on April 13, 2016 –   “The Testament of Orpheus” by Jean Cocteau (1959) by Acting-Out Politics