I Believe I Would Take the Fire

Jean Cocteau? André Fraigneau? Harold Acton? Ned Rorem? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A top literary figure whose home was packed with valuable manuscripts and art objects was once asked to choose a favorite item. A vivid and heartbreaking scenario was proposed by an interviewer. The reply described the perfect salvation:

Suppose flames were consuming your home and time was precious. What one thing would you carry away?

I would carry away the fire.

The discourse above is approximate because I do not recall the exact phrases. Taking the fire would save the valuable items. In addition, the action alludes to Promethean inspiration. Would you please help me to identify the interview participants and a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1951 André Fraigneau conducted a series of radio interviews with Jean Cocteau. Transcripts of the discussion were published in 1965 and again in 1988 in a volume titled “Entretiens: Jean Cocteau et André Fraigneau”. Here is an excerpt from the French dialog. Emphasis added by QI:[ref] 1988,Title: Entretiens: Jean Cocteau et André Fraigneau, Authors: Jean Cocteau & André Fraigneau, Editeur: Jean-Paul Bertrand, Collection: Alphée, Description: Interviews of Jean Cocteau conducted by André Fraigneau; front flap of dust jacket states interviews were broadcast January 26 to March 28, 1951, Quote Page 80 and 81, Publisher: Editions du Rocher, Le Rocher, Monaco. (Verified with scans; thanks to Claire Lauper in Paris)[/ref]

André Fraigneau. — Parmi ces objets il y en a bien certains auxquels vous tenez particulièrement? Si par exemple, je ne sais pas, enfin, s’il y avait le feu chez vous, quel est l’objet que vous préféreriez et que vous emporteriez ?

Jean Cocteau. — S’il y avait le feu chez moi ?

André Fraigneau. — Oui.

Jean Cocteau. — Je crois que j’emporterais le feu.

Here is one possible English translation of the dialog:

André Fraigneau. — Among these objects there must be some that you are particularly attached to? If, for example, I don’t know, well, if there was a fire in your home, which object would you prefer, which object would you take with you?

Jean Cocteau. — If there was a fire in my home?

André Fraigneau. — Yes.

Jean Cocteau. — I believe I would take the fire.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1967 “The Christian Science Monitor” of Boston, Massachusetts published a review of Jean Cocteau’s “The Difficulty of Being”. The reviewer believed that the question and response had appeared in a literary magazine:[ref] 1967 June 15, The Christian Science Monitor, His makeup didn’t scrub off by Melvin Maddocks, (Book Review of “The Difficulty of Being” by Jean Cocteau), Quote Page 11, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)[/ref]

There is, simultaneously, a marvelous posiness and a marvelous accuracy to his answer to the question of a French literary magazine:

“If your house were burning down and you could take away one thing, what would it be?” Cocteau replied: “I’d take the fire.”

In 1971 “The New York Times” published a review of British scholar Harold Acton’s “Memoirs of an Aesthete 1939-1969”. Acton mentioned Cocteau’s line, and the reviewer reprinted it in the newspaper:[ref] 1971 May 16, New York Times, Book Review by Nora Sayre of “Memoirs Of an Aesthete 1939-1969” by Harold Acton, Quote Page BR34, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Cocteau, asked what single object he would save if his house were burning, replying, “I’d take the fire” — all these and others “who were incapable of dullness” gleam through the memoirs like the history Mr. Acton is determined to keep alive.

A 1986 essay by composer Ned Rorem referred to Cocteau’s statement in French:[ref] 2013 Other Entertainment: Collected Pieces by Ned Rorem, Essay: Cocteau in America 1986, Unnumbered Page, Open Road Media Integrated Media, New York. (Google Books Preview)[/ref]

The day he died in 1963 I wrote an essay called “I’d Take the Fire.” The title is Jean Cocteau’s answer—“J’emporterais le feu”—to the familiar question, “If your house were burning down and you could take away just one thing, what would it be?” My argument was that the culture of France (all aspects of it—novels, painting, dance, theater, music, even movies) had, since World War II, fallen from high and shrunk into an elegant parasite. Cocteau had ignited a France of his own . . .

In 1988 “The New York Times” printed an excerpt from a book by Paul Monette who referred to Rorem and Cocteau:[ref] 1988 October 9, New York Times, Noted with Pleasure, Making Time Happy, (Excerpt from “Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir” by Paul Monette), Quote Page BR51, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

In this regard Ned Rorem recounts a crystalline remark of Jean Cocteau’s. When asked what one thing he would carry away from a burning house, Cocteau replied, “I would take the fire.” There’s something in there about the fire of inspiration, but I choose to see it the other way, carrying out the fire to spare the house.

The international bestselling Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho shared an anecdote on his personal website in 2007:[ref] Website: Paulo Coelho Writer Official Site, Article title: What would you save?, Article author: Paulo Coelho, Date on website: September 3, 2007, Website description: Official website of Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. (Accessed paulocoelhoblog.com on February 9, 2018) link [/ref]

A journalist went to interview Jean Cocteau, whose house was a jumble of ornaments, paintings, drawings by famous artists and books. Cocteau kept absolutely everything and felt a deep affection for every object. It was then, in the middle of the interview, that the journalist decided to ask Cocteau: ‘If this house were to catch fire right now and you could take only one thing with you, what would you choose?’

‘And what did he reply?’ asks ílvaro Teixeira, a fellow guest at the castle where we were staying and himself an expert on Cocteau’s life.

‘Cocteau said: “I would take the fire.”‘

And there we all sat in silence, applauding in our hearts that brilliant response.

In conclusion, Jean Cocteau should receive credit for this line. He was responding to a question from André Fraigneau in 1951. Notable writers such as Harold Acton, Ned Rorem, and Paulo Coelho have referred to Cocteau’s remark.

(Great thanks to Satya Keyes whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Claire Lauper in Paris who accessed “Entretiens: Jean Cocteau et André Fraigneau”. Lauper also provided a translation of the key passage and provided additional insights. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

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