• An Introduction to Caillois’ Stones & Other Texts
  • Donna Roberts
  • [6] Flint Magazine Issue 1+2
  • 08/2018
  • Asset 6

“As a member of a species, the human species which is late-coming, temporary, and transient—it will not even last as long as the dinosaurs lasted —I am doomed to error.”

Roger Caillois, 1978.



The work of Roger Caillois (1913-1978) tends to defy classification. In fact, one might suspect that Caillois consciously cultivated a professional persona based on a peculiar combination of scholarly brilliance and intellectual obliqueness—sometimes bordering on the perverse or provocative—and an idiosyncratically disparate choice of subject matter. Described in 1974 by journalist Hector Biancotti as “the last Encyclopedist,” Caillois wrote on such diverse themes as insect behavior, myth, war in ancient China, science-fiction, festivals, the octopus, Hitler, masks, the detective novel, dreams, Montesquieu, the periodic table, poetry, unicorns, Lucifer, and stones.

Flint Magazine’s new translation of Caillois’ 1966 publication Pierres is something of a landmark in the slow progress of disseminating the author’s work to an Anglo-American readership. Despite his election to the prestigious Académie française in 1972, however, those special characteristics of Caillois’ work—its eclecticism, erudition, and challenging language and style—have also rendered his œuvre relatively eccentric within the canon of twentieth-century French lettres. Even Caillois’ best-known work reveals his unorthodox locus as a writer and critic à rebours. As apparent in the structure of Stones, with its sections titled “Mythology,” “Physics,” “Metaphysics,” “Ethics,” and “Testament,” Caillois’ erudition and the fluid complexity of his mature writing, melding poetic reverie, arcane histories and mineralogical insight, demands of his reader (and not least his translator) both sustained attention to philosophical undercurrents and a capacity to drift through intricate layers of descriptive imagery. As neither exactly science nor entirely poetry, much of Caillois’ work tends to confound readers who require clarity of genre. But that kind of isolationist attitude to thought and classification was exactly what Caillois baulked against. Caillois’ encyclopedic drive was rooted in his affinities with surrealist and romantic thinking, in challenging the strictures of classification, not out of a sense of unruliness but, on the contrary, from the basis of a critique which sought to throw into question received ideas and given assumptions about the relations between the stuff of the world.

The paradoxical character and highly-developed eclecticism of Caillois’ writings can in some ways be traced to his formative influences, ranging from surrealism to high academia. In the 1930s he was for a few years a passionate member of André Breton’s Paris surrealist group and after that a founding member of the College of Sociology, the militant collective dedicated to the sociological study of the sacred that he established alongside Georges Bataille and former surrealist-turned-ethnographer, Michel Leiris. Alongside these avant-guard engagements, Caillois simultaneously developed a promising academic career at the École pratiques des hautes études, mentored by the sociologist and anthropologist, Marcel Mauss, and the mythographer and historian of comparative religion, Georges Dumézil. So promising, in fact, that, according to his friend and art historian André Chastel, Dumézil (later a mentor to Michel Foucault), acclaimed Caillois as “the genius of
our time.”

Caillois’ network of engagement during this decade was hugely influential in developing the idiosyncrasy of his method and the thematic focus of his studies. While his avant-garde apprenticeship with Breton and Bataille nurtured his prodigious intellectual boldness (he was only 21 years old when Breton hailed him “the mental compass of surrealism”), through his academic training Caillois developed a keen sense for underlying and inter-connecting structures, whether related to society, myth, games, poetry, the imagination, or the affective character of the natural world. If one reads closely enough, Caillois’ Stones draws together the threads of many such concerns. While the above-mentioned figures influenced the structural and methodological facets of Caillois’ writing, then two other formative twentieth-century figures influenced his style and development as a writer. First, the philosopher of science and the imagination, Gaston Bachelard, who Caillois met in 1934, and whose thoughts about the phenomenology of imagination greatly influenced his writings on stones and his generalizing approach to the poetic relationship between mind and nature. Second, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who Caillois met while living in Buenos Aires between 1939 and 1945, and of whose work he became the first French translator. Indeed, Caillois’ books might even appear like some of those that inhabit the curious libraries or old houses found in the uncanny fictional labyrinths of the Borgesian universe.

The unusual combination of interests and influences that developed the broad scope of Caillos’ œuvre were already reflected in his early publications. For example, his implacable interrogation of the assumed status of art and poetry as claiming a subjective value beyond rational analysis, Art on Trial by Intellect (1935); his essays in the surrealist periodical Minotaure that drew disturbingly uncanny relations between deathly insect behavior and human psycho-sexual complexes, titled “The Praying Mantis: from Biology to Psychoanalysis” (1934) and “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” (1935); and the sociological publications Myth and Man (1938) and Man and the Sacred (1939). These early interests would extend in numerous directions following Caillois’ move to South America, prompted by his distance from Paris and his experience of the vast scale of the natural landscape and cultural complexities of the Americas. Not long before the outbreak of war in Europe, Caillois was invited to Buenos Aires by Victoria Ocampo (editor of the vanguard literary hub of South America, the magazine Sur), and through the 1940s became a celebrated intellectual ambassador of socio-political critique and a lynchpin for French writers and artists in exile. In 1945, he returned to Paris and maintained his links with South America both by founding with the publisher Gaston Gallimard Le Croix du Sud, a series of Ibero-American literary publications, and by joining UNESCO in 1948 in a cultural role which enabled him to travel extensively and took him back to the Americas.

It was during his war-time exile in South America that Caillois had his first memorable encounter with minerals, as he recounts in his autobiographical work Le Fleuve Alphée (The River Alpheus, 1978) during a visit to a mine in Belo Horizonte in 1942. In the sorting area of the mine, at the time a source of trade in quartz for radars between Brazil and Great Britain, Caillois was invited to choose from the rejected prisms scattered over the ground and picked out a beguiling lump of phantom quartz. On his return to Argentina, however, the rock was confiscated by customs officials who regarded it as “strategic material,” despite Caillois’ protestations that the only reason he was allowed to take it was owing to its impaired quality. Although he claims to have been mortified at losing such a fascinating object, Caillois did not at this point begin to write on stones and minerals. It was not until his first book dedicated to the subject some twenty-five years later—this book—that Caillois would implicitly evoke his first mineral seduction through his clear and uncharacteristically warm identification with the Chinese artist and Imperial functionary, Mi Fou, with whom he shared “the same reverence for stones.”

Occasionally in his writings, Caillois acknowledged some cool intellectual fraternity with a historical figure, suitably eccentric or surprising: the pessimistic Blaise Pascal of the Pensées, for example, or the terrifying young militant of the French Revolution, Louis Antoine de Saint-Juste; the irascible Stoic philosopher Diogenes (after whom Caillois named the UNESCO-funded interdisciplinary journal he founded in 1952), or Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist and inventor of the marvelously economical Periodic Table. Caillois’ identification with Mi Fou, however—who he refers to as a “fraternal maniac” and whose name would no doubt have appealed to his surrealist sensibility, suggesting in French “half mad”—is relatively passionate. Clearly relating in Stones to the Chinese poet-official when he describes him as “intolerant and foolhardy, scornful of beaten tracks, keen on enigma, contradiction and challenge,” Caillois’ account of the theft of Mi Fou’s favorite stone recalls his personal distress at the hands of Argentine customs: “I share Mi Fou’s despair. I feel his irreparable loss and I imagine he never recovered from it. Across centuries and meridians, despite the differences in character and destiny, I feel a special sympathy for him, unlike any other.”

Stones, then, is in some way a personal homage to Mi Fou. It expresses his rapport with the significance of stones within Buddhist practice and to the meditative, philosophical, and also modest way in which stones figure in the artistic, intellectual, mythical, and sacred realms of historic Chinese culture. In Stones, as in his other writings on natural phenomena, Caillois follows a conviction that human art—in no way proffering exceptionalism to the species—is but a weak branch of nature’s genius. The reference at the very end of Stones to Chinese artists signing slabs of marble is an acknowledgement of how, long before it became a theorized intention of modern European artists, non-European cultures had a highly nuanced sense of natura naturans, of working in the spirit of nature rather than vainly attempting to copy it. It is also, however, a rather cheeky innuendo that disparages the legendary reputation of his compatriot, Marcel Duchamp, and the conceit of the Occidental avant-garde in thinking that one of their own was the first to sign an object he had not himself made.

As well as drawing upon highly affective or philosophically engaging examples of stones and minerals in oriental culture, Caillois was drawn to the enigmatic image of the polyhedron in Albrecht Dürer’s Melencolia I, for example, and recognized another affinity in the depiction of crystals in the metaphysical paintings of the Czech artist, his life-long friend Josef Šíma, which hinted at the formative architectonics underlying and unifying all aspects of nature. Caillois was also drawn to the ways in which stones seemed to provoke an imaginative response in humans which in some way made them difficult to conform to strict systems of classification. Caillois’ writings on stone are nourished by the lyrical tendencies of natural histories which reflect the wonder and confusion of classical and early modern scholars in the face of the hallucinatory pictographic forms of stones and their convergence of the brutal, energetic laws of nature with the play of chance. Throughout Stones, Caillois reveals his love of these kinds of paradoxes, defining stones as a ubiquitous and yet utterly marvelous phenomena. He explores how, through history, stones have fascinated human minds with their host of ambiguities, seeming at once animate and inanimate, organic and inorganic, mineral and vegetal, useful and useless, the stuff of poetic reverie and cultural symbolism as well as raw material, the access to which marks the technological advance of human civilization. Stones for Caillois are both an ancient source of human ingenuity and unchained imagination, both finalized by accident during some inhumanly distant epoch and forged according to certain inflexible laws of nature.

For those who might be familiar with his sociological writings on myth, the sacred, and games, Caillois’ writings on stones, and this seemingly distinct efflorescence from the 1960s onwards of what he referred to as his “material mysticism,” might seem a bizarre development. However, although this apparent turn away from the analytical study of the social to a study of the natural realm and its affective force upon the human imagination might seem to separate his writings on stones from earlier work, there are surprising continuities. Caillois himself drew attention to these continuities in numerous publications, such as The Squares of a Chessboard (1970), the title of which signifies his preoccupation with relations between parts and whole and introduced texts he had collated in a way that would alert the reader’s attention to what he called the “interstitial tissue” of his writings. Between his first publications of the 1930s, in the context of surrealism and his encounter with Bachelard, and his later writings on stones, Caillois maintained an understanding of the poetic and imaginary as objectively grounded within deep and fixed relations between mind and world. “Nothing is a stranger to anything. Meaning, that the laws which govern the mind of man are not fundamentally different from those which determine the graphic structure of stones, etc. These laws are the same: simply, they adapt differently to the order—mineral, vegetal or animal—to which they belong.”

Caillois’ turn to stones as his main preoccupation in older age can, then, be read in a number of ways. One way to approach his mineral fascination is to underscore how it relates to his life-long interest, nurtured by his encounter with surrealism, with the idea of a system of encyclopedic knowledge that could incorporate what science and positive analysis necessarily leave out: the poetic, mythical, sacred, emotional, unconscious, oneiric, vertiginous, and imaginative. Caillois makes clear in the first pages of Stones that he is not speaking of their practical utilization: “I overlook mineralogy, ignoring the arts that give stones a purpose.” Nor is he interested in the kinds of stones considered precious in terms of their market value. Such a rejection of utilitarian and economic interests is typical of Caillois’ entire œuvre, influenced as it was by the critical analysis of the over-estimation of restricted economy by Mauss and Bataille. Through this rejection, Caillois aimed to expose the narrow rationalism that overdetermines such concerns and to accentuate the importance of other values and impetus within human life and of other forces that shape societies and cultures.

In Stones and other texts on minerals, Caillois pays homage to various characters who are significant for their innovative, critical, and imaginative development of the kind of expansive and holistic knowledge that he sought to develop. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, for example, who dedicated the final two works of his thirty-seven volume Naturalis Historia to stones, is a latent presence within Caillois’ text. Following Aristotle and the Stoic philosophy of nature, Pliny’s incorporation of stones and other natural objects according to their significance in historical and mythical tales and their valuable and useful properties for humans contributed enormously to the genre of the encyclopedia that developed in the middle ages with the work of church scholars like Albertus Magnus through that of early modern scholars like the sixteenth-century natural philosophers Conrad Gessner, Ulisse Aldrovandi and Giambattista della Porta.

The highly eclectic epistemological scope of the early encyclopedias, with their myths, folklore, moralizing, and magic, offered a richly imaginative model for Caillois’ notion of “diagonal sciences,” the method he proposed for developing a transversal and ambitiously coherent picture of universal knowledge. He was, however, also influenced by the advancement of the more properly scientific developments of the Enlightenment, notably the radical political, materialist, and atheist character of the eighteenth-century Éncyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (compiled between 1751-1780), which had already provided an insurgent encyclopedic model for Bataille’s heteroclite periodical Documents (1929-30). Into this already heady mix, Caillois introduced the German romantic passion of the poet and geologist Novalis, whose ardent vision of an encyclopedia of everything within the realms of both science and poetry was sketched in his Das Allgemeine Brouillon (Notes for a Romantic Encyclopedia, 1798-9). While impressed with Diderot’s Éncyclopédie, Novalis wanted to go beyond the individual distinctions of this model and desired to unify phenomena and our way of thinking them, an approach which would reflect the romantic conception of the profound unity of the world. “A science is perfected,” wrote Novalis, “if it is applicable to everything […] if everything is applicable to it.” Inspired by this romantic pursuit of a vast system of coherency, Caillois thus combined in his work Novalis’ zeal for a universal “encyclopedistics” with the more structuralist approach developed by his tutor, Mauss, and his inter-relational model of the “total social fact.”

Caillois doggedly rejected the anthropocentric view of human preeminence and exceptionalism, declaring in Le Fleuve Alphée:

Man can less and less doubt that he is only an excrescence of nature, with which he remains co-substantial and to the laws of which entirely submitted. Yet he has been so successful in domesticating the energies within reach that he is naively persuaded that nature belongs to him, while he knows very well that it is he who belongs to nature and that he is an extension of it, far from having been parachuted in by some God.

Moreover, he also rejected the idea of human culture as in some way distinct from nature as a whole. Throughout his work, Caillois undermined the economically and utilitarianly rationalized interpretation of what connects humans to nature at large; a view that, according to many contemporary natural scientists and ecologists, has been crudely and often perniciously extrapolated from evolutionary theories. Relegating such supposedly dominant principles of “survival” or “self-preservation” within nature, Caillois argued that the natural world reveals other motives, including those that humans express through art, poetry, the imagination, excess, risk, and intoxication. He thus sought to create links between the human and non-human realms which might open out a less conservative understanding of nature and, concomitantly, a more measured revision of the human place within it; one that would promote such “inadmissible similarities” as to show humans, in fact, to be closer to stones than to any deity. This ambition thus prompted Caillois to pursue his great range of studies and directed his encyclopedic concerns into disparate terrains in search of unexpected similarities that might serve to bridge scientifically-constructed and misleading distinctions between natural realms. His general aim, he wrote, was “to trim back the perceptible universe in order to reveal the correlations, networks, crossroads and regularities” which are normally obscured by isolated modes of research.

While historical analogies in the West between humans and the natural world have tended to draw resemblances between perceived personalities within the animal and vegetal realms or the structures of insect life as productive socio-economic models, for example, Caillois characteristically developed a far more oblique and unusual set of comparisons, of which his identification with the inert, inorganic mineral realm is perhaps the most extreme. Before writing on stones, Caillois focused on establishing “inadmissible similarities” between humans and insects. Nonetheless, we can trace his route to stones through these earlier disquieting or fantastical forays into natural history, especially his attention to perceived visual resemblances in natural forms. Caillois was not only interested in the ways in which marvelous natural objects or creatures “mobilized the imagination,” as he put it, but also, and more challengingly, was riveted to the question as to whether there are detectible patterns or even laws behind the ways in which the human imagination responds to certain natural phenomena. In a text published in The Squares of a Chessboard, titled “Apotheosis of Humiliated Matter,” Caillois expressed his romantic and in fact quasi-ecological conviction of the unity encompassing humans and the natural world through the question of whether there exists a distinction between the notion of beauty (a notion which on the whole held little interest for him) in art and nature. He writes of art as revealing “another proof that the one who looks and that which is looked at are of the same sort, belonging to the same universe, and that the idea of beauty is like a sap which circulates between them in the unity of their substance and which ties the one to the other by new bonds.”

Following Bachelard’s phenomenological approach, Caillois argued that the logic of poetry and the imagination works—not through subjective causality—but through what Bachelard called in The Poetics of Space the “trans-subjective.” Like Bachelard, Caillois argued that the logic of the imagination can be studied objectively, just like any natural phenomenon, and that its force of conveyance through poetry and myth owes nothing to accident but rather—as with the realms of the social, the sacred, and the natural—derives its power of communication, across time and place, through the regularity of laws that may well be mysterious but are not entirely indecipherable. In a way, then, we can see Caillois’ writings on stones as a continuation of Bachelard’s phenomenological studies from the 1930s and ‘40s of an elemental imagination reflected in mythical and poetic thinking about fire, water, and earth. Writing in The Octopus: Essay on the Logic of the Imaginary (1973), Caillois—like a kind of Captain Nemo of the imagination—claimed to be pursuing the “grid of established analogies and discreet connections which constitute the logic of the imaginary,” asserting: “If mystery affects us, if the unusual enthralls us, if poetry is possible, it is only because of the complex and disconcerting correspondences which disperse the unity of the cosmos.” Indeed, for Caillois, the laws which govern the human imagination are not even exclusive to the species but run through the vital, informing processes of the natural world as a whole. He developed this conviction through his notion of “generalized poetics,” declaring in an interview from the early 1970s, for example: “The fantasies of man, the imagination itself are only a prolongation of the general laws of the universe.”

Caillois’ evocative analogies between the formations of minerals and other natural realms—the vegetal and human in particular—are rooted in natural histories, from ancient to modern, which draw attention to paradoxes of classification, ontological slippages and confusions, that reveal the limitations for knowledge in strictly separating the poetic from the scientific. The spell of visual resemblance which Caillois conveys in Stones, was originally initiated by his interest in insects, specifically his early fascination with the apparent form of a skull on the thorax of the Death’s-Head Hawkmoth (Acherontia atropos), which he saw as an uncanny simulacrum or a hallucinatory blazon of deathly morphology. Like his fellow surrealists André Breton and Salvador Dalí, Caillois was compelled to natural objects which appeared to resemble other things, especially if they appeared to transgress an apparently rigid classificatory law: the vegetal appearance of coral, the “masks” worn by insects, the apparition of a human figure, a pine-forest or a Florentine landscape embedded in pictographic stones, and other such visual analogies that have not only been central to mythic, folkloric and poetic thought, but also, as Michel Foucault discussed in The Order of Things (1970) to the world view of early modern natural philosophy in Europe. Caillois came to refer to this perceptual-cognitive impulse to resemblances as “the demon of analogy” (borrowing the term from Stéphane Mallarmé), and in Stones he allows himself the liberty to elaborate upon the endlessly rich poetic chimeras experienced through the mineral realm.

When Caillois writes in Stones “I felt myself taking on parts of the nature of stones,” his identification with the most primeval of matter verges on mystical self-dissolution. There is certainly a melancholic resignation to the process of ageing and inevitable mortal disappearance in Caillois’ writings on stones. While personal, however, this melancholia links the limited human span in terms both ontogenetic and phylogenetic, and—as if meditating through the relative immortality of stones themselves—defines the human in various texts as an “imposter,” describing the species as “transient,” “ephemeral,” and an “episodic species doomed to distinction.” Expressing these views in an interview not long before his death in 1978, Caillois admitted: “From the instant that one situates mankind as a precarious species, it is difficult to escape a certain moroseness.” Thus, Caillois’ writings on stones reflect a kind of philosophical pessimism that seeks a preparatory detachment from the human realm and embraces stones as an “antidote” to the inherent failings of the human, his human being. In terms, though, of the continuity of theme and focus throughout Caillois’ œuvre, this “moroseness” and his general identification with stones can be interpreted through his life-long obsession with detecting an ill-defined instinct within the human towards annihilation and fusion, even at the risk of self-erasure. Caillois pursued evidence for this multivalent impulse in his sociological studies of the sacred, war, and festival, and also through his fascination with the perennial feature of masks in ritual, myth and nature, as exemplified in the mimetic attributes of insects. He connected this impulse to human psychology, drawing, for example, on Sigmund Freud’s notion of the “death instinct” or in Pierre Janet’s theory of psychasthenia, which Caillois interpreted as an inability to sufficiently inhabit a well-defined ego, an urge to assimilate into space or into one’s environment, and a desire to merge from the animate into the inanimate realm.

There is also, however, a kind of evolutionary mythopoesis in Caillois’ reverie on stones that, paradoxically, in spite of their otherworldly and inhuman nature flows from the mythical imaginings of stones as generative and related to human birth and ancestry. Through an ultra-monistic sense of evolution, Caillois sees stone as an original substance within which humans are prefigured; the willo-the-wisps of their forms appearing like hallucinatory and uncanny premonitions within some impersonal and cosmic imagination millions of years before the advent of the species and the development of its compulsive “demon of analogy.” Humans haunt the stones which precede them, and stones haunt the evolutionary event of homo sapiens, our primal matter and the laws which determined our development. For Caillois, stones manifest what humans lack: “Men envy their longevity, their severity, their intransigence and their radiance, their smoothness and impenetrability, and their capacity of being full even as they are shattered.” They also represent what humans aspire to be and to achieve, yet with even the best of their abilities only ever barely approaching their order, structure and brilliance or the concrete pictographic wonder of the forces that formed them.