One French Philosopher’s Obsession with Stones

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This post comes from Emily Wolahan, Associate Editor of Two Lines.

Excellent writers fill the pages of Issue 25 of Two Lines. From Kim Hyesoon, translated by Don Mee Choi, to Kobi Ovadia, translated by Yardenne Greenspan. You should pick up an issue or subscribe now to get in on all of this fantastic writing.

One of the writers and pieces that I tell people about when I get excited about this issue is Roger Caillois, the late French philosopher, poet, and lover of stones, and his lyric essays on stones from La lecture des pierres. Translated beautifully by Elizabeth Deshays, these three short, poetic pieces praising stones blew my mind. On the level of obsession of Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, the essays include lines like:

The scoriaceous volumes of native metals were molded in fearsome underground melting pots and seem still to be bristling almost to the point of explosion.

and

I speak of stones: algebra, vertigo, and order; of stones, hymns, and quincunxes; of stones, stings, and corollas, the threshold of dreams, the leaven and the image.

And aside from the beauty of the three pieces in Issue 25, there’s so much more to know about Caillois. The stones that he describes he has also collected, and many were displayed in “The Encyclopedic Palace” at the Venice Bienalle in 2013. You can view his incredible stones here and here.

Roger Caillois spent a lifetime exploring the imagination. He began his intellectual life as a Surrealist until he famously split with André Breton (but, then, who didn’t at some point split with Breton?). Their feud hinged on a disagreement over how to conceive of the unknown. Breton wanted to hold on to the magical and disregard a material explanation. Caillois, however, could see the magic in the material explanation.

Caillois went on to found College of Sociology with Georges Bataille, where he was interested in exploring the sacred within society. But for Caillois, the sacred was not an anthropological interest; it was material, philosophical and poetic.

Marina Warner writes in her excellent essay on Caillois from 2008 in Cabinet, “Materialist mystics, among whom I count Caillois, do not search for self-knowledge, nor for foreknowledge of their destiny, the sirens’ secret; but they emphatically investigate hidden meanings and scan the deepest horizons of time into infinity: the world turns into an inexhaustible book written in hieroglyphs.” Caillois regards the world with a relentless eye, applying meaning to whatever seems to not yet be graced with it. He explores the subjectivity of our gaze, and increases that subjectivity by framing the objects he regards.

The cross-sections of these stones are displayed as if floating in white space, alit, glowing. We can’t help apply some meaning to their swirls and blended color, or to the sharp circles and angles some hold. Warner quotes Caillois from his first book on the stones, Pierres, “‘Philosophers have not hesitated to identify the real and the rational. I am persuaded that a different bold step . . . would lead to discover the grid of basic analogies and hidden connections which constitute the logic of the imaginary.’” Caillois’s exploration of that logic infuses his prose poetry.

In “Stones: Dedication,” included in Issue 25, Caillois writes, “Like someone who, when speaking of flowers, makes no mention of botany, nor the art of gardens or that of floral arrangement—yet still will have much to say—so shall I disregard mineralogy, [. . .] and speak only of bare stones, fascination, and glory.”

Pick up an issue or subscribe now to read Deshays’s great translation of Roger Caillois. There’s no one else quite like him.

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