A Great Literary Masterpiece Is Only a Dictionary in Disorder

Jean Cocteau? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent French writer Jean Cocteau has been credited with the following humorously skewed definition. Here are three versions:

  1. A great literary masterpiece is simply a dictionary in disorder.
  2. The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.
  3. Masterpieces of literature are nothing more than the alphabet in disorder.

Would you please help me to find the original citation in French?

Quote Investigator: The statement appeared twice in the Cocteau’s 1924 work “Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916”. The section “Première Visite au Potomak” contained this text: 1

Si Hugo vous avait confié son oeuvre inédite, sans doute lui eussiez-vous rendu le dictionnaire Larousse, car, songez-y, Argémone, un chef-d’oeuvre de la littérature n’est jamais qu’un dictionnaire en désordre.

The section “Prospectus” referred to the text above: 2

Mes poètes furent: Larousse, Chaix, Joanne, Vidal de La Blache. Mes peintres: l’afficheur. La moindre impulsion suffisant à ma paresse de goinfre. A cette date, je notais (POTOMAK, p. 244): « Le plus grand chef-d’oeuvre de la littérature n’est jamais qu’un dictionnaire en désordre »

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The 1935 collection of critical essays “French Novelists of Today” by Milton H. Stansbury included a chapter on Jean Cocteau. The commentator noticed Cocteau’s arch expression and used it to chide the author: 3

If we accept Cocteau’s definition of a literary masterpiece, “a dictionary in disorder,” his works fall all too naturally under this heading. They must be accepted and enjoyed as a series of glittering and rapidly moving scenes developed by means of clever verbal juggling.

In 1936 “The New York Times” reviewed Stansbury’s book and provided further distribution to the quotation: 4

Delightful indeed are the essays in which Mr. Stansbury tears minor celebrities to tatters. He mercilessly exposes the vanities and foibles and affectations of Jean Cocteau. Cocteau’s definition of a literary masterpiece (“a dictionary in disorder”) he flays beautifully, as beautifully as he pulverizes Paul Morand’s geographical pirouettes.

The 1942 reference “Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature” included a section about Cocteau containing the following passage: 5

As a poet the volumes Poésie 1916-1923 (1925) and Opéra 1925-1927 (1927) show him an astonishing experimentalist in technique, often amusing, always eccentric, and an inveterate practitioner of his theory of poetry: that “a great literary masterpiece is but a dictionary in disorder.”

In 1979 a newspaper in Santa Fe, New Mexico printed an advertisement for media services that included a version of the saying using the word “alphabet” instead of “dictionary”. No attribution was given: 6

The greatest masterpieces of literature are nothing more than the alphabet in disorder. Let the Professionals build your masterpiece.

The 1984 reference “The Cynic’s Lexicon” by Jonathon Green included this entry: 7

JEAN COCTEAU
1889-1963 French man of letters

The greatest masterpiece in literature is only a dictionary out of order.
Le Potomak

In conclusion, Jean Cocteau should be credited with either of the statements he published in 1924. The English translations vary, but the word “dictionary” is a better fit than “alphabet”.

Image Notes: Portrait of Jean Cocteau between 1910 and 1912 by Federico de Madrazo de Ochoa accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Assemblage of words from play.magneticpoetry.com.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro, Jonathon Green, and Jesse Sheidlower who caused QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1924, Title: Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916, Author: Jean Cocteau, Edition: 1924 Septième Edition, Texte Définitif, Section: Prospectus, Quote Page 14 and 15, Section: Première Visite au Potomak, Quote Page 243 and 244, Publisher: Librairie Stock, Delemain, Boutelleau & Cie, Paris. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1924, Title: Le Potomak, 1913-1914: Précédé d’un Prospectus 1916, Author: Jean Cocteau, Edition: 1924 Septième Edition, Texte Définitif, Section: Prospectus, Quote Page 14 and 15, Publisher: Librairie Stock, Delemain, Boutelleau & Cie, Paris. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1935, French Novelists of Today by Milton H. Stansbury, Section: Jean Cocteau, Quote Page 144 and 145, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1936 January 12, The New York Times, Thirteen Novelists Of France by Harold Strauss, (Book Review of “French Novelists of Today” by Milton H. Stansbury), Start Page BR8, Quote Page BR8 and BR23, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1942, Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature, Edited by Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Entry: Jean Cocteau, Start Page 293, Quote Page 294, The H. W. Wilson Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1979 January 25, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Section: Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce: Greater Santa Fe Business Review & Forecast (Advertising Supplement to The New Mexican), Advertisement for Media Services at Casa Solana Shopping Center, Quote Page 22, Column 2, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Newspapers.com)
  7. 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: Jean Cocteau, Quote Page 49, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)