Roger Caillois Among the Nonhumans

Jeffrey J. Cohen

Theorizing the interface between humans and their others, especially animals, has proven an especially rich critical topic in the past decade. The work of scholars like Steve Baker, Jacques Derrida, Susan Crane, N. Katherine Hayles, Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Alphonso Lingis, Karl Steel, Julian Yates, Jonathan Gil Harris, Bruno Latour and Cary Wolfe has stressed the tenuousness of any line that would segregate the human from the nonhuman. Just as valuable to this multidisciplinary investigation, I would argue, is the eclectic work of Roger Caillois. Connected in complicated ways to Andre Breton and French surrealism, Caillois’s friendships read like a Who’s Who of francophone theory. He was introduced to Georges Bataille by Jacques Lacan. With Bataille and Michel Leiris he founded the influential College of Sociology in 1938. When Bataille determined that a secret society he had formed (Acéphale) needed to cement its membership around an act of human sacrifice, and when someone (possibly the perennially depressed Leiris) volunteered as victim, Bataille -- it has been suggested -- attempted to convince Caillois to be the executioner. Needless to say, the sacrifice did not take place: Roger Caillois was the kind of scholar by nature ambivalent towards any group desiring his membership. Indeed, this reticence goes a long way towards explaining why his work remains relatively neglected while that of almost everyone who moved through his intellectual circle has proven influential in the world of theory. There is something anomalous about Caillois, both as a person and as a writer.

I became interested in Caillois's work through the reverence shown him by the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, feminist reinterpreter of Lacan and Deleuze, theorizer of boundaries as space of becoming. Caillois is useful for thinking the world from a non-anthropomorphic point of view. He devoted his life to exploring such mysteries as why stones are such accomplished artists and why animal mimicry doesn't actually imitate anything. He never wanted to keep uncertainty in place simply out of reverence. Famously, he broke with the Surrealists when Andre Breton refused to cut open a Mexican jumping bean. Caillois thought it ridiculous to argue that the bean's secret interior ought to be preserved simply to keep a sense of mystery intact. Yet Caillois also insisted that a place exists within science for art.

Claudine Frank, Caillois's recent editor and translator, makes two statements about his early intellectual projects that well summarize his promise for a renewed humanism: that "he was always seeking out new monsters" ("Introduction," Edge of Surrealism), and that he was engaged in composing a kind of "reverie" that could engender a "subversive, revolutionary New Science," interrogating rather than dismissing the imaginative and the fantastic. These projects involved the displacement of homo sapiens from an assumed centrality, discovering the alien within the unraveling contours of the human -- and the human within insects, octopi, butterflies, agates, inhuman architectures, the workings of the cosmos. "Man is a unique case only in his own eyes," Caillois observes in his provocative essay "The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis" (c.1934). Here he takes as his starting point the eternal fascination men betray with the femme fatale of the insect world, the mantis who beheads her partner as a prelude to mating. Caillois acknowledges that this recurring interest may derive simply from "some obscure sense of identification" elicited by the insect's "remarkably anthropomorphic form" (73). Yet he is not satisfied by a principle of simple projection, as if by detailing the function of the mantis within male fantasies the insect's uncanniness would then stand explained. There exists in the praying mantis, he writes, an innate lyricism (Edge of Surrealism 74, 78), an irreducible superfluity. Even when decapitated, the mantis is capable of walking, mating, laying eggs, even feigning rigor mortis to escape impending danger. Attempting to describe this acephalous body having sex, living its life, and imitating a cadaver leads Caillois to observe of his own convoluted language: “I am deliberately expressing myself in a roundabout way as it is so difficult, I think, both for language to express and for the mind to grasp that the mantis, when dead, should be capable of simulating death” (79). He finds a similar impulse to lyricism (or “objective lyrical value”) in almost all scientific writing about the insect, an impulse that overcomes habitual “professional dryness” (78) and swiftly carries writers out of their scientific lexicons and deep into poetry.

The mantis offers no comfortable lessons about the anthropomorphism of insects: its lyricism is not a human projection, but a fact of its being, a cosmic given that it shares across boundaries with other human and nonhuman bodies:

Such research tends to establish that determinations caused by the social structure, however important, are not alone in influencing the content of myths. We must also to take into account half-physiological, half-psychological factors … We should pay more attention to certain basic emotional reactions and clusters that sometimes exist only as potentialities in human beings, but that correspond to phenomena explicitly and commonly observed throughout the rest of nature. (81)
The mantis thereby suggests the entomonous residue infecting the human, breaching the barrier between Cartesian subject and nonhuman environment. It becomes proof of what Caillois calls "the systematic overdetermination of the universe" (76) – quite a burden for a small bug to bear. By refusing allegory, by refusing contextualization into mere human meaning, the praying mantis restores danger to the object under scientific scrutiny, allowing that the act of contemplation itself immediately trespasses the distinction between observer and observed, rendering them inextricable.

Caillois develops these themes further in "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia," an essay likewise exploring the intimacy of the insectal. Caillois's work here proved instrumental for the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan as he formed his notion of the Mirror Stage. Against those Darwinians who see in every attribute of an animal its evolutionary use value, Caillois develops an anti-utilitarian argument in which the spatial and the corporeal interpenetrate. Mimicry, the vertiginous displacement of environment onto body, is for Caillois not a survival strategy but an unnecessary surplus, a "dangerous luxury." Predators are seldom deceived, he observes, when their prey adopt attributes of the space they inhabit, such as when a butterfly imitates a twig or a beetle disguises itself as a pebble. Most animals hunt by smell, not sight: "numerous remains of mimetic insects are found in the stomach of predators." Many inedible creatures imitate their environments needlessly (96-97). Mimicry -- whether animals becoming their worlds, or humans imitating their surroundings magically or aesthetically – is a succumbing of body and subject to the "lure of space" (99). This "dispossession" of the privilege of being one's own center spells the death of the autonomous subject, as self is scattered across landscape and landscape intermixes with self. Caillois gives a literary example, Gustave Flaubert's rendition of the desert-dwelling Saint Antony. The hermit rapturously witnesses the "interpenetration of the three natural kingdoms" [vegetal, animal, geological] and "disperse[s] himself everywhere, to be within everything" (101). Elizabeth Grosz writes in summation that what Caillois has identified is "a certain structural, anatomical, or behavioral superabundance, perhaps it is the very superfluity of life over and above the survival needs of the organism." This superfluity of life is, by another name, art.

Later in life this surrealist biologist argued that art is not possessed only by humans or by animals: art is a superfluous beauty that is fashioned by geology as well as by hands. The Writing of Stones is a stunningly illustrated tour of nonhuman art: lithic sculptures offered for no particular audience to admire, the petrification of a universal impulse to produce beyond utility, a union of the human with geological phenomena that had seemed until Caillois looked so intently upon them to be the inert. He finds in marble, amethyst, jaspers, limestone and agates an aesthetic formed of “surprising resemblance” to human art, a resemblance “at once improbable and natural” (The Writing of Stones 1), a resemblance better described as a commonality. This “intrinsic, infallible, immediate beauty, answerable to no one” and possessed indestructibly by certain rocky formations he describes as the “promise and the foundation” of human beauty:

Stones – and not only they but also roots, shells, wings, and every cipher and construction in nature – help to give us an idea of the proportions and laws of that general beauty about which we can only conjecture and in comparison with which human beauty must be merely one recipe among many others … In stones the beauty common to all the kingdoms seems vague, even diffuse, to man, a being lacking in density (2-3)
Humans may resist beholding in the colors, textures, and resemblances of stones the colors, textures, and resemblances of their own art, the “endless variation” of cosmic phenomena as evident in fern fronds and mollusk shells as eruptions of quartz and Rothko canvases. Humans may resist seeing in themselves and in their works architectures of beauty that connect them to the cosmic, the microscopic, the inanimate, connect them to “works executed by no one” (13), connect them to “the aesthetics of the universe” (3). Yet despite this disavowal something exists within “imperturbable stone which neither feels nor knows” (75) that in its excess of pattern, color, harmony and form triggers “something we might describe as the lapidary” that fills us with “wonder and desire” (3). Often we answer such lapidary pull by becoming collaborators with stone – most famously, when early modern artists painted scenes from Orlando Furioso or the Divine Comedy on pieces of marble that provided naturally occurring backgrounds of forests, ruins, and flames.

Interested as he is with art within stone, Caillois does not mention the stoneworks that would seem the ultimate expression of such alliance: menhirs, dolmens, and vast arrays like Avebury. Stonehenge, for example, may be in part a human version of the naturally occurring standing stones of the Preseli Mountains in Wales. Here dolerite can be found in the form of rectangular pillars, seemingly rough-hewn by some primal architect, sometimes appearing to have been positioned as an orderly line of monoliths. The stones tower over an expansive landscape of grass, lichen-encrusted boulders that appear to have smashed by giants, and springs that according to local myths possess curative powers. These bluestones of the Preseli Mountains were the source of the earliest oldest stones erected at Stonehenge, 250 miles away. The archeologist Geoffrey Wainwright calls the bluestones “a natural monument” of columns and pillars and has found ample evidence that they were venerated in Neolithic times, often through the inscription of artwork on their surfaces. Something about the formations so inspired their beholders that they transported eighty or so monoliths, each weighing up to four tons, through an almost inconceivable amount of effort to distant Salisbury plain. Nature’s exorbitance called forth a human response that was just as excessive. The Preseli bluestones are an artwork wrought through the shifting of the landscape over vast spans of time, the expenditure of gravitational and climatic energies; Stonehenge is an artwork wrought through the release of energy in sinew and muscle, but something more than a simple imitation of a natural original. Both cases seem the product of ongoing and restless forces that effloresce into enduring forms; human or not, both are worlds wrought in stone.

Caillois stresses throughout his analysis that even though this art seems embedded within what is dead, immobile, and unchanging, what in fact fascinates is the active connection between stone and world, evident in the unbearably slow formation of its artwork, and evident as well in the participation it demands from its environment – including the human observer. Gazing upon a sheet of scaled jasper he writes “Even while I am reducing things to their chemical constituents I cannot help descrying swathes of arctic light shining meagerly on inky lichens, struggling vegetation exhausted by rough winds and burned by frost” (64). Such reverie is not human projection, but a participation across kingdoms (animal, mineral) activated by the beauty common to both. Sometimes in stone we behold forms once living: wispy fossil tracing of leaves, petrified bones of animals whose ancient bulk troubles the imagination to body forth again. Sometimes we behold natural resemblances to such recurring forms. Often we witness the preservation of a past that did not endure: “life’s mistakes, to remind nature of its monsters, its botched jobs, its blind alleys” (81). Or perhaps in this abortive past we behold a future that includes ourselves, observers made of more stone-stuff than we care to acknowledge:

[These ‘monsters’] somehow announce the coming, in the distant future, of a species that makes mistakes … They presage new powers, imperfect but creative … They seem to be manifestations of what I have ventured to call a natural fantasy … a lasting and inalienable collusion between this series of fertile abortions and their ultimate beneficiary (82-84).
Roger Caillois has been accused of pessimism, even misanthropy: “a kind of indifference toward what is human.” More accurately, what Caillois attempted was to view the world through a less anthropocentric lens, one in which stones and artists share a common impulse towards the production of beauty, one in which humans and rocks share secret affinities. As the heir to nature’s creative experiments, Caillois, wrote, man must “recognize, among the daunting mass of nature’s ventures, those which, though they did not succeed, opened up for him, through their very failure, a glorious way ahead” (84) – one in which animals, rocks, and homo sapiens bear in their forms and substance the imprint not of some divine maker, not of an intelligent design, but of an art-making “universal syntax” (104) that sometimes through its conjunctions commits artistic errors, births monsters … and sometimes through these same recurring processes animates an imperfect world with a beauty more than human.

Caillois is famous for his meditations on the sex life of the praying mantis, the misfires of mimicry among animals, the power of stones to pull the thinking subject into disruptive encounters with inhuman art – a collaboration of the animate and the inorganic propelled by beauty. His work clearly resonates with recent scholarly obsessions: the monstrous, the inexcluded, the exorbitant. He also formulates modes of analysis that move us beyond arguments based upon evolutionary, cultural, or symbolic use value. Caillois proposes what might be called aninormality: an anti-utilitarian conception of the nonhuman that moves us beyond its normalizing function into a realm where human and nonhuman counterinfect, where all kinds of bodies lose the rigor of their boundaries and become anomalous.