Session 8

[Jean Cocteau]

Lecture 8
Jean Cocteau:
Opium: The Diary of a Cure (1929 / 1930)

Anthology texts to read:

  • Jean Cocteau (1889-1963): from Opium: The Diary of a Cure (1930 / 1958)
  • Aleister Crowley: from Diary of a Drug Fiend (1922)


If an addict who has been completely cured starts smoking again he no longer experiences the discomforts of his first addiction. There exists, therefore, outside alkaloids and habit, a sense for opium, an intangible habit which lives on, despite the recasting of the organism. This sense must not be taken for the regret felt by an opium-addict who has become normal again, although this regret does constitute part of the appeal. The dead drug leaves a ghost behind. At certain hours it haunts the house.

An addict who has been cured keeps defences against the poison within himself. If he becomes addicted again his defences come into action and force him to take stronger doses than those of his first addiction.

Opium is a season. The smoker no longer suffers from changes in the weather. He never catches cold. He suffers only from the changes in drugs, doses and hours, in everything in fact which influences the barometer of opium.

Opium has its colds, shivers and fevers which do not coincide with cold and heat.

Doctors would have us believe that opium dulls us and takes away our sense of values. But if opium takes away the old scale of values from under our feet, it sets up another for us, superior and more delicate.

(1930). One cannot say that opium, by removing all sexual obsessions, weakens the smoker, because not only does it not cause impotence, but what is more it replaces those somewhat base obsessions by others which are somewhat lofty, very strange and unknown to a sexually normal organism.

For instance a type of mind will be sensed, sought out, and linked across the centuries and the arts, against all appearances, and will haunt the untended sexuality across the most dissimilar sexes and social backgrounds (Dargelos, Agathe, the stars and the boxers in Paul's bedroom).

All animals are charmed by opium. Addicts in the colonies know the danger of this bait for wild beasts and reptiles.

Flies gather round the tray and dream, the lizards with their little mittens swoon on the ceiling above the lamp and wait for the night, mice come close and nibble the dross. I do not speak of the dogs and monkeys who become addicted like their masters.

At Marseilles, among the Annamites, where one smokes with implements calculated to confuse the police (a gas-pipe, a sample bottle of benedictine with a hole in it, and a hat-pin), the cockroaches and the spiders form a circle in ecstasy.

A POOR TYPE. THIS UNINTERESTING CREATURE. Labels which would be attached by the newspapers and the police to all those whom we love and admire. Leonardo da Vinci, for example.

In addition there are certain superior cliché remarks made by the people who know. But the young Annamites do not smoke. In Indo-China the people don't smoke any longer. It's only in books that they smoke aboard ship.

When I hear one of these phrases I close my eyes, I see again the boys' berths on board the X., one of the largest steamers on the Marseilles-Saïgon line. The X was waiting to get under way. The purser, one of my opium-smoking friends, had suggested the escapade to me. At eleven o'clock at night we crossed the deserted docks and climbed up the ladder on to the deck. We had to follow our guide at full speed and avoid the watch. We climbed over cables, worked round columns and Greek temples, crossed public squares, labyrinths of machines, shadow and moon­light, we mixed up the companion ways and the corridors so much and so well that our poor guide began to lose his head, until, softly, that powerful strange smell put us on the right path.

Imagine enormous berths, four or five dormitories, where sixty 'boys' lay smoking on two tiers of planks. In each dormitory a long table filled up the empty space. Standing on these tables, and cut in two by a flat, unmoving cloud half-way up the room, the late­comers were undressing, tying up the cords where they liked to hang up their washing, and gently rubbing their shoulders.

The scene was lit by the dim lights of the lamps, and on top of them burnt the spluttering drug. The bodies were wedged against each other and without causing the slightest surprise, or the slightest un­graciousness, we took our places where there was really no place left, with our legs doubled up and our heads resting on stools. The noise we made did not even disturb one of the boys who was sleeping with his head against mine. A nightmare convulsed him; he had sunk to the bottom of the sleep that stifled him, entering into him through his mouth, his large nostrils and the ears which stuck out from his head. His swollen face was closed like an angry fist, he sweated, turned over and tore at his silken rags. He looked as though a stroke of the lancet would deliver him and bring forth the nightmare. His grimaces formed an extraordinary contrast with the calm of the others, a vegetable calm, a calm which reminded me of something familiar. What was it? On those planks lay the twisted bodies in which the skeletons, visible through the pale skin, were no more than the delicate armatures of a dream ... In fact, it was the olive trees of Provence which those young sleepers evoked in me, the twisted olive trees on the flat red earth, their silver clouds hanging in the air.

In that place I could almost believe that it was all this profound lightness that alone kept this most monumental ship floating on the water.

I wanted to take notes during my stay in the clinic and above all to contradict myself in order to follow the stages of the treatment. It was a question of talking about opium without embarrassment, with­out literature and without any medical knowledge.

The specialists seem to be unaware of the world which separates the opium addict from the other victims of poisons, 'the drug,' and drugs.

I am not trying to defend the drug; I am trying to see clearly in the dark, to make blunders and to come face to face with the problems which are always approached from the side.

I imagine that young doctors are beginning to shake off the yoke, to revolt against the ridiculous prejudices and follow new developments.

A strange thing. Our physical safety accepts doctors who correspond to the artists whom our moral safety rejects. Imagine being cared for by someone like Ziem, Henner or Jean Aicard.

Will the young doctors discover either an active type of cure (the present method remains passive), or a regime which would enable us to withstand the blessings of the poppy?

The medical faculty detests intuition or risks; it wants practitioners, forgetting that they only arise thanks to discoveries which in the first place come up against scepticism, one of the worst forms of comfort.

There will be objections – art and science follow different paths. This is not true.

A normal man, from the sexual point of view, should be capable of making love with anyone and even with anything, because the instinct of the species is blind; it works in the mass. This explains the casual behaviour of the people and above all of sailors, which is usually attributed to vice. Only the sexual act counts. A brute is little concerned with the circumstances which provoke it. I do not speak of love.

Vice begins with choice. According to the heredity, intelligence and nervous fatigue of the subject con­cerned, this choice becomes more and more selective to the point of becoming inexplicable, comic or criminal.

A mother who says 'My son will only marry a blonde,' does not suspect that her remark corresponds to the worst sexual imbroglios. Travesties, mingling of the sexes. torturing of animals, chains and insults.


Art is born of coitus between the male and female elements of which we are all composed, and they an: more balanced in the case of artists than of other men. It results from a kind of incest, of love of self for self, of parthenogenesis. It is this that makes marriage so dangerous among artists, for whom it represents a pleonasm, a monstrous effort towards the norm. The 'poor specimen' look which is the mark of so many men of genius arises from the fact that the creative instinct is satisfied elsewhere and leaves sexual pleasure free to exert itself in the pure domain of aesthetics, inclining it also towards unfruitful forms of expression.

One cannot translate a real poet; not because his style is musical, but because his thought has a plastic quality, and, if this changes, the thought changes .

A Russian said to me: 'The style of Orphée is musical in the opposite way to what the public calls musical. In spite of its lack of music, it is musical because it leaves the spirit free to profit from it as it wishes.’

A poet, unless he is a politician (such as Hugo, Shelley or Byron), must only count on readers who know his language. the spirit of his language and the soul of his language.

The crowd likes works which impose their melody. which hypnotise, which hypertrophy its sensibility to the point of putting the critical sense to sleep. The crowd is feminine; it likes to obey or bite.

Radiguet said 'The public asks us if the author is serious. I ask the public if they are serious.' Alas! works of genius demand a public of genius. One can achieve a substitute for this receptive state of genius through the electricity emanating from an agglomeration of mediocre persons. This substitute allows one to have illusions about the fate of a play in the theatre.

- Jean Cocteau: Opium: The Diary of a Cure, 1930, trans. Margaret Crosland and Sinclair Road, 1958 (New York: Grove Press, 1980): 74-81.

International Modernism:
Art Movements (late 19th Century / early 20th century)

1880 – post-impressionism

1905 – fauvism

1905 – expressionism

1907 – Pablo Picasso: Les Demoiselles d'Avignon

1908 – cubism

1909 – futurism

1909 – Henri Matisse: La danse

1910 – Roger Fry: Post-impressionist exhibition, London

1910 – Frank Lloyd Wright: Robie House, Chicago

1912 – vorticism

1913 – Igor Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring

1914 – Wyndham Lewis: BLAST (Issue I)

1915 – Ezra Pound begins The Cantos

1916 – dada

1917 – Marcel Duchamp: Fountain

1918 – Tristan Tzara: Dadaist manifesto

1919 – bauhaus

1920s – art deco

1920s – magic realism

1920s – constructivism

1922 – T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land

1922 – James Joyce: Ulysses

1924 – surrealism

1924 – André Breton: Surrealist manifesto

[Jean Cocteau: Opium (1930)]

Workshop 8
Diary of a Drug Fiend

“As Glanvil says: Man is not subjected to the angels, nor even unto daeth utterly, save through the weakness of his own feeble will.

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”
– Aleister Crowley, Diary of a Drug Fiend, 1922 (London: Sphere Books, 1979): 7.

After a brief discussion of the prescribed texts, followed by any seminars which have been scheduled for this week, we'll move onto your responses to the writing exercise below:

Exercise 8:
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.

The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Bring a picture with you to class – perhaps a photograph out of a magazine, or any image which intrigues you in some way.

Using Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” as a model, you’re going to write a poem or short prose paragraph describing it.

  • Look at the picture carefully. List the things you see in it.
  • How do you react to those things? Write down some of those reactions.
  • Try grouping them together. Are there common factors?
  • When you start to write, describe the picture, then your associations with it – what it means to you.
  • Remember, your description must convey the essence of the picture even to a reader who can’t see it.

Next week:

Exercise 9: Rules & Taboos and Seminars on Arthur Koestler's Dialogue with Death due.

[Robert Capa: Soldier Killed by Snipers]

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