The total, devouring work, which forgoes not only its author but also its audience, was Cocteau’s privileged aim. It was the principle of Parade, the ballet he wrote for Diaghilev in 1916, scored by a clamorous sensory mix of Satie, gunfire, and typewriters—booed at its premiere but praised by Apollinaire for its “surrealism”—and of his first film, The Blood of a Poet, a ghostly moving-picture manifesto with an artist-protagonist passing through mirrors and squinting through keyholes, anguished by what he sees (“documentary scenes of another kingdom,” in Cocteau’s words), which culminates in an act of self-destruction. But art could also exceed the typical materials (celluloid, language, the stage): Indeed, a life could be a work of art, lived out with great bravado and ebullience in the company of many admirers, ingénues, and madmen. Life was, or could be, as Cocteau remarked about his own childhood, a “theater in which you played every role, in unequalled possession of the world.”
But, of course, it could also be an initiation into infirmity. “The child wants a bedroom, to gather together his belongings and loves there,” Cocteau wrote. “He hates things that disperse. He likes illnesses, which bring people together and leave him in seclusion.” And the illnesses—among them hay fever and scoliosis, rheumatism and insomnia, shingles and toothaches—would, like his opium addiction of later years, prove painful and transfiguring.