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Nature is a temple where living pillars Let sometimes emerge confused words … -Baudelaire
Roger Caillois, polymath, aesthetic philosopher, historian of science, and social analyst of ritual and belief, was friends with André Breton and fellow Surrealist; but in 1934 they parted over the Surrealist commitment to mystery for its own sake: Caillois was an investigator of a more empirical temper. Caillois’s disagreement with Breton arose when the two men were shown some Mexican jumping beans: beans that will suddenly twitch and take a leap into the air. Caillois conjectured that there was a worm or larva inside them, and he wanted to dissect one to find out; Breton objected roundly, denouncing Caillois as a low-grade positivist who refused the marvelous and defaced the poetic by wanting explanations—in other words, Caillois was of the party that wants to unweave the rainbow.
For Breton, hasard objectif—objective chance or unpredictability—admirably disrupted the harmonious patterns of reason and delivered the mind-expanding stimulus of disorder: convulsive beauty. Caillois wrote a lettre de rupture to Breton, which confirmed the depth of his quarrel with Surrealism, declaring that he wanted “research and poetry” together. He went on, “I want the irrational to be continuously overdetermined, like the structure of coral; it must combine into one single system everything that until now has been systematically excluded by a mode of reason that is still incomplete.”
Three years after he quarreled with Breton, Caillois became one of the founders, alongside Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris, of the so-called Collège de Sociologie in Paris, which was dedicated to exploring the nature of the sacred in society. Though none was a follower of any particular faith, all three believed in the sacred as a system that exceeded current understanding of reason and psychology—they were experimental mystics, mostly renegades from Catholicism.
The journals and other publications they created—such as Minotaure, Documents, and Caillois’s own Diogène—reveal a restless and sometimes prurient probing of other cultures, especially their members’ intimacy with altered consciousness, magic rituals, and mysteries of knowledge. A desire to discover stratagems to accede to worlds beyond the senses fired their passion for the votive art, dances, and music which constituted the presence of the sacred.
A little while after the incident with the beans, when the conflict had acquired a certain moment and fame, Breton explained that Caillois hadn’t understood him. He would not have been opposed to cutting one open, he said, but he was determined that all the possibilities that the mystery offered for reverie, dream, and wonder should be exhausted before doing so.
Material mysticism led Caillois back to magical thinking, which he expanded further than the Surrealist interest in chance and coincidence as he probed for insights into the order of things. Caillois was equally, perhaps even more, fascinated with magic than the Surrealists, but he wanted to probe what might exist as phenomenally marvelous, beyond the subjective self—he was a scholar of the sacred, and from the episode of the jumping beans onwards, he looked for its character and its workings in actual phenomena. In this sense he was more of a believer—though not in a personal god or a religion. Where Breton exalted the perceiver, Caillois wanted to go beyond these anthropocentric limits. But the distinction cannot be held hard and fast as a standoff between subjectivity and objectivity. As Peter Galison has commented on the Rorschach test, prime trophy of Surrealism’s long reach, “no account of Rorschach subjectivity (how we characteristically perceive our world) would be possible without a concomitant characterization of objectivity (how the world is without that distortion). We therefore need a joint epistemic project addressing the historically changing and mutually conditioning relation of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ knowledge.” Caillois spent his thinking life trying to work out this position.
Visiting London in 1894, the young poet Paul Valéry was excited to a state of frenzy by his readings in the new physics—especially James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. Scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century were refashioning the perception and the very concept of the physical world: the invisible hand behind the signatures was identified with a difference, and the effect was indeed electric: in Maxwell’s revelation of invisible “lines of force,” Valéry recognized a key metaphor for the role of imagination in poetic vision, which could also allow phenomena that cannot be directly perceived to come into being and combine together as objects of mental contemplation. For Valéry, this work needed an understanding of mathematics: he wanted to perform in poetry a kind of linguistic algebra that would render intelligible the elusive and impalpable geometry of reality. “The study of my imagination …” he wrote in his London notebook, “has led me to considerations of mechanics and geometrics, which is hardly astonishing or hypnotizing. It is sometimes possible. Role of time, of space, of mass.” This movement of Valéry’s exultant thought, as it follows the lines of forces in the electromagnetic field to the physical architecture of space-time and mass, led him to posit “a logic of the imagination” which attunes human consciousness with phenomena according to deep symmetries that remain invisible and impalpable in the ordinary order of things—like sound and radio waves, like the interior of the nucleus.
The same thought returns in the ecstatic prose poetry of Roger Caillois two generations later, as he contemplates rocks and stones, meteorites and crystals. He called stones l’orée du songe—the shore of dreaming—and he amassed a wonderful collection, which he left to the Museum of National History in Paris where you can go and look at them; he also wrote two luminous books about stones. These are not about precious stones such as diamonds and rubies but about dendrites, agates, Chinese scholars’ stones—pebbles and rocks that look like nothing much at first but can open up wonders under contemplation. Pierres (Stones) from 1966 is a Valéry-like prose poem, intense and rhapsodical. They lead him to understanding the physical makeup of the world, its “algebra, vertigo, and order.” He exults in their inscrutability and their lack of affect, their silence, their sheer stoniness. When Caillois reads “the writing of stones,” when he pores over the whorls and swirls in an agate, he ponders the revelation of cosmic time they grant him. “They provide moreover, taken on the spot and at a certain instant of its development, an irreversible cut made into the fabric of the universe. Like fossil imprints, this mark, this trace, is not only an effigy, but the thing itself stabilized by a miracle, which attests to itself and to the hidden laws of our shared formation where the whole of nature was borne along.”
The Writing of Stones How did the circles in the stone grow there—like tree rings, like ripples in a pond? Lines of force exert their power uniformly through space-time at any scale, no matter how small, or how vast.
The writing in the rock is the signature of time itself, captured as Valéryan forms in movement, displaying their growth and articulation over eons in the stilled swirls of their inner core, the camouflage stripes and fault-lines of their structure, their veins and cells; it is possible to see clearly, vertiginously, in these sections through a pebble or a rock the flow of organic matter as it took shape and petrified.
By the end, Caillois has surrendered to the objects of his study: the ideal state is to “let Nature pass into you.” By dint of his enraptured thinking on stones, he feels that he is more alive than ever, chased by the wind of his passionate responses. But he has himself also turned to stone, he feels—and he delights in his metamorphosis.
In his second work focusing on stones, L’Ecriture des pierres (The Writing of Stones), written towards the end of his life, Caillois struggled to formulate his credo about where his decipherment might lead: “The tissue of the universe is continuous,” he proposed. “I can scarcely refrain, from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim, almost lost memory, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.” With this principle, Caillois expands on how a cluster of certain natural circumstances, “proclaim, or illustrate, more spectacularly than is usually the case, but at the same time in a manner almost obligatorily reticent and cryptic, the existence of fundamental constants which ensure the latent continuity of the tissue of the world. Then the object makes a sign, becomes sign. It attracts onto itself that exact imagination, which reveals the object more than inventing it.”
Oddly, this perception offered by stones returns us to ancient metaphorical visions of the cosmos; in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, inorganic and organic life, stone and flesh, do not stand as opposite poles but flow and fuse along the continuum uniting all things. Valéry’s impulse to find a literary analogue operating with language for the new physics’ vision of nature doesn’t disrupt poetry’s endeavor or twist it from a long-established orbit. The search for metaphor can march with the experimental method of science, as Roger Caillois the manist believed—and practiced in his writing and his thought.