The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader

The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader

by Roger Caillois

The Edge of Surrealism is an essential introduction to the writing of French social theorist Roger Caillois. Caillois was part of the Surrealist avant-garde and in the 1930s founded the College of Sociology with Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris. He spent his life exploring issues raised by this famous group and by Surrealism itself. Though his subjects

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The Edge of Surrealism is an essential introduction to the writing of French social theorist Roger Caillois. Caillois was part of the Surrealist avant-garde and in the 1930s founded the College of Sociology with Georges Bataille and Michel Leiris. He spent his life exploring issues raised by this famous group and by Surrealism itself. Though his subjects were diverse, Caillois focused on concerns crucial to modern intellectual life, and his essays offer a unique perspective on many of twentieth-century France’s most significant intellectual movements and figures. Including a masterful introductory essay by Claudine Frank situating his work in the context of his life and intellectual milieu, this anthology is the first comprehensive introduction to Caillois’s work to appear in any language.

These thirty-two essays with commentaries strike a balance between Caillois’s political and theoretical writings and between his better known works, such as the popular essays on the praying mantis, myth, and mimicry, and his lesser-known pieces. Presenting several new pieces and drawing on interviews and unpublished correspondence, this book reveals Caillois’s consistent effort to reconcile intellectual rigor and imaginative adventure. Perhaps most importantly, The Edge of Surrealism provides an overdue look at how Caillois’s intellectual project intersected with the work of Georges Bataille and others including Breton, Bachelard, Benjamin, Lacan, and Lévi-Strauss.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Roger Caillois has remained relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. This superb selection of his essays, expertly translated, shows the full range of his thought and should place him next to Bataille and the Surrealists as a major intellectual figure in interwar and postwar France. Claudine Frank's general introduction and detailed commentaries on individual essays provide the necessary contexts for understanding this complex, often paradoxical thinker. A first-rate work that is sure to be of interest to all students of 20th-century French thought.”—Susan Rubin Suleiman, author of Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature

The Edge of Surrealism is the Caillois in one volume that is so badly needed considering the very dispersed status of Caillois’s work and that no such volume exists in any language, not even in France. This selection is excellent, done by someone who not only knows thoroughly the production of the author but knows also what’s most relevant for our contemporary interests.”—Denis Hollier, author of Absent without Leave: French Literature under the Threat of War

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Duke University Press Books
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The edge of surrealism

A Roger Caillois reader
By Roger Caillois

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3068-7

Chapter One

Introduction to "Testimony (Paul Eluard)"

In 1973, Caillois warned his audience that this evocation of his friendship with the poet Paul Eluard, and of his own experiences in the Surrealist movement, was inchoate at best. Yet such retrospection offers a lively roster of Caillois's aims and doubts with respect to Surrealism, which are interesting to compare with those voiced forty years earlier, in his "Letter to Andre Breton."

As recounted in "Testimony (Paul Eluard)," the young Caillois was deterred by the ambiguities of Surrealist politics. A full-fledged member from 1932 to 1934, he witnessed at close hand the difficult relations between the Surrealists and the French Communist Party (from which they were formally expelled in 1933); he also took part in the early stages of the antifascist intellectual mobilization of the Surrealists within the communist-led Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires (AEAR) and, subsequently, the Comite de Vigilance des Intellectuels Anti-Fascistes, founded in March 1934 to align communists and noncommunists alike.

In aesthetic terms, Caillois was bitterly disappointed that the experimental strategies of Surrealism, such as the practice of automatic writing, were more "literary" and less "scientific" than he had hoped. Although he was enthralled at first by Surrealist gamespurporting to explore the mechanisms of the imagination, he soon decided that these were deceptive social events in which the participants simply mimicked the common language of the group. He remarked in 1971 that this shortcoming had not escaped Breton's attention. Moreover, "Testimony (Paul Eluard)" underscores the fact that Eluard's "tentative poetry," by deliberately feeling its way along, explicitly denied the principles of automatized composition.

This essay conveys the impassioned and ascetic intransigence of Caillois's youth, which was colored early on by the Romantic cult of Saint-Just. A few years later, the essays he published under the aegis of Surrealism (such as "The Praying Mantis") or right after his break with Breton (such as "Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia"), maintain a tone of almost exasperating scientific impersonality, even though these investigations, inspired by Freud and Pierre Janet, place emotion and obsession at their core. But "Testimony (Paul Eluard)" also reveals Caillois's sense of humor and irony, which would become all the more pronounced in his later years, especially when evoking his avant-garde allegiances of the 1930s.


The author would like to stress that the following text was originally performed as an improvised speech, without any help from notes or chronological documents. We hope that the reader will take it as such and respond to the artless spontaneity of someone relying upon the good faith of this audience.

During yesterday's meeting I noticed that some of you, especially the scholars, were rather puzzled by the chronology of events between 1932 and 1935. I have tried to reconstruct this. My first intention was to speak of Eluard during the period when I knew him, that is, from 1931 until his death. However, after the war I frequented him less; we didn't meet almost daily as we had between 1932 and 1935. That was the period when political questions first began to present themselves, and in a very flexible and fluctuating way. In other words, people were taking positions that were being constantly reshuffled. And so I've tried to recreate this chronology-but without success. The recollections you'll be hearing are hence incomplete-not only piecemeal but also unconfirmed. I would be the first to urge you to check them before using them.

We must also remember to describe the witness. At that time I was a very young man ... taking preparatory classes for the Ecole Normale Superieure. I was naive, doctrinaire, uncompromising, and rather aggressive.

I was born in Reims. I was a friend (at first, simply a neighbor on the same street) of several young men a few years older than myself: Vailland, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, and Daumal. They were the ones who made me read Rimbaud and Lautreamont and drew my attention to Eluard. At the time, I'd read only one book by Eluard, La Capitale de la douleur, which I'd actually found rather disconcerting.

While a student at the lycee Louis-le-Grand, I was asked what kind of literature I liked for a survey by the newspaper, L'Intransigeant. I replied: "Romanticism, and the contemporary equivalent of Romanticism, namely Surrealism."

Andre Breton wrote me a note asking me to come see him; I did so, very excited, just at the time of the Aragon affair. Aragon had recently converted to communism and was returning from Russia. He had written a poem for which he had been greatly criticized. Certain lines had been interpreted as an incitement to commit murder. Breton had then put out a pamphlet demanding the dismissal of the "charges" against Aragon. Naturally, I signed this manifesto, which explained that poetry was not a serious matter. I remember that a few people (Bergery among them1) protested at this point, arguing that if poetry was to be taken only symbolically and figuratively, then perhaps it did not have the importance Surrealism claimed to ascribe to it.

What has been reported in books does not adequately convey the atmosphere surrounding those events. True, there is Andre Thirion's recent book [Revolutionnaires sans revolution; 1972], but I find that Thirion, whom I knew in those days, is very sketchy about the period. In addition, there are biased accounts that distort the facts, or at least make them too systematic.

So this was right after the break with Aragon. And yet, the group was not so much concerned with politics as with something entirely new: the arrival of Dali, and especially the emphasis on what he called paranoid-critical activity.

The important thing here was not the word paranoia (Breton and Eluard had already published their Immaculate Conception, with simulations of pathological deliria); it was the word critical. This was something quite new for the group, this idea that the simulation of delirious psychotic mechanisms could occur together with their critical examination and present itself as a method. For Paul Eluard-as we're speaking of him-the situation was doubly awkward. First, there was his personal relationship with Dali. His wife, Gala had left him and married Dali. Eluard was living with Nush. He loved her, and I may, perhaps, have a chance to describe how delicately he treated her. He was then suffering from tuberculosis and spent part of the year in sanatoria. And yet, if Nush dropped her glove or a piece of paper, he would rush to pick it up-even though he knew he wasn't supposed to make sudden moves. Still, despite his constant attentiveness to Nush, I always had the feeling that the memory of Gala (and not just her memory, for she was there in person) continued to fascinate him.

I found many things shocking in Surrealism, and when I withdrew from the movement after bearing with it for three years, it wasn't because I found it too strict, but because I thought it too indulgent. For example, I was surprised to discover that Eluard was not the poet's real name. I thought it unworthy of a poet (especially a Surrealist poet, theoretically opposed to all forms of convention and vanity) to choose a name that wasn't his own. His poem on the Gertrude Hoffmann girls shocked me too, not its contents but the title ["Les Gertrude Hoffmann Girls"; 1926]; this did not impress me as a suitable topic for poetry but rather for reprehensible levity. I must say that I was then earnestly cultivating chastity and reserve. I did so not through inclination or morality but in order to imitate, I thought, my favorite hero, Saint-Just, about whom I'd written my first article when I was fifteen. This attitude irritated Eluard, who often reproached me in a friendly way for being more interested in ideas than in young women. But he could see that my case was hopeless. Perhaps he could also discern the affectation that entered into this naive embodiment of the theorist, the "incorruptible" doctrinarian. When he wrote me postcards, he would often send me scantily clad girls. In my opinion, this was not entirely innocent.

Something else offended me. I had joined the Surrealist group believing in automatic writing, and then I realized that no one practiced it. Especially not Eluard, who openly disregarded it. Not only did he disregard it, but he was in the habit-and I found Supervielle did the same-of writing what I'll call tentative poetry. By that I mean, he would try out every single line on his friends. He would ask their opinion: "What do you think? Is it okay? Wouldn't it be better this way?" In point of fact, he would decide himself, and would do so alone. But what was characteristic (and it seemed to me the very opposite of automatic writing) was his constant care to grope his way along slowly and quite visibly.

I would often go to see him. I also used to meet him at the cafe Cyrano, on the Place Blanche, together with all the other members of the Surrealist group. They had their mandatory rituals. Whenever a woman arrived, Breton would get up and kiss her hand. Even the color of the drinks was ritualized: in winter it was tangerine-curacao and in summer, pernod. To change color was almost a sign of opposition, as Monnerot pointed out to me.

It was at this point that I published my article on the praying mantis, first in Minotaure, which was practically a Surrealist review, and then in Mesures. I felt I'd rather inspired the habit of breeding praying mantises, which Breton and Eluard took to doing at Castellane.

There were also the postcards. This was when Eluard published part of his collection in Minotaure. Above all, there were the Surrealist games, which were the real cause of my break with Surrealism. There were questionnaires (irrational, of course) to which, in my naivete, I ascribed some scientific intention. We were supposed to react as quickly as possible. Many of these questions and answers were published in numbers 5 and 6 of Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution. Thus the project's literary nature, in the worst sense of the word (indeed, its exclusively literary nature), is there for everyone to see. This is what made me bristle, allowing me to see that my adherence to Surrealism was basically a misunderstanding. I had imagined that Surrealism was the end of literature but, in trying it out, I realized that it was an avatar of literature. The games revealed this to me, because the answers were almost always (not to say always) Surrealist cliches.

As for relations with revolutionary parties, I've already mentioned them with regard to Aragon's poem. Breton had defended it rather clumsily because his defense of Aragon essentially amounted to saying that because Aragon's text was poetic, it should not be taken seriously. Aragon rejected this defense (justifiably, in my view) and disowned Breton.

As a whole, the group joined the AEAR (Association des Ecrivains et Artistes Revolutionnaires). Breton carried things quite far at that point. There was a short-story competition for the worker-members. Breton was not only a member of the jury but also its formal spokesman. Upon reading these stories, which dismayed him, he took pains to discern their merits while expressing major reservations that could not deceive informed listeners. After that, the only Communist Party leader who approved of Breton was Gabriel Peri. Vaillant-Couturier was more of a writer and, at the same time, more political; it was thanks to him that the AEAR had been opened up. Breton here had a determined enemy, Freville, the literary critic for L'Humanite, and Freville won the battle. There was a memorable meeting of the aear. (I evoke this only for its atmosphere, because neither Eluard nor Aragon were there: Aragon never attended a single session of the Association while Breton was there.) Freville delivered a real prosecution address against the Surrealist group. I am specifying this because the meeting took place behind closed doors and I don't think there was ever any record of it. First of all, Freville attacked Breton on account of the Vases communicants. His argument went pretty much like this: "Comrade, do you admit that on page 24 of your book, you praise Lenin?" "Yes," replied Breton. "And that on page 18, you approve of the Marquis de Sade?" "Yes," said Breton again. "Well, I rest my case: in my opinion, a book that puts Lenin on the same level as the Marquis de Sade is objectively counterrevolutionary." This was and still is a formidable turn of phrase.

Then Freville spoke of Dali. Dali was attacked in far greater detail. He had painted Lenin with an inordinately long head resting on the kind of wooden fork used to prop up heavy branches. This was deemed sacrilegious. He had also painted six hallucinatory images of Lenin on a grand piano. He had sold a painting to a countess, who was said to be a niece of the Pope. And so on.

Above all, Dali had published an erotic dream in the sixth issue of Le Surrealisme au service de la revolution, in which he was masturbating with a roll of bread! This, apparently, was totally unacceptable. There was also (and this was one of the main items in Freville's indictment) the hostile review of a Soviet film, The Way of Life (if I remember correctly) that demonstrated how hooligans were rehabilitated in the U.S.S.R. The article was signed by Ferdinand Alquie, and essentially concluded that the young delinquents were nonetheless preferable to the informers. This went too far. Freville called on Breton to repudiate Dali and Alquie. Breton refused. The meeting ended in turmoil, but without resolutions to expel anyone.

At this very moment, the Reichstag was burned down and the Nazis came to power. I think that the gravity of the new situation was what changed Breton's attitude toward Dali. The AEAR published a newspaper page in black and red print, with a bloody swastika. To draft it, Vaillant-Couturier was selected from the majority group, and I myself from the Surrealist faction. This manifesto stated the AEAR's faith in the German proletariat. So then Dali became very angry and said he wouldn't sign a text like that, which he considered completely idiotic; that for his part, he would never have the slightest confidence in a proletariat that hadn't even been able to manage a "truly refined" and "truly subtle" general strike. This took place at Breton's home. I don't remember if it was before or after the publication of the page in question, but I remember Dali's adjectives. After this explosion, the people present seriously considered ousting Dali. To convey the mood of these quarrels, before coming here I unearthed the pneu [pneumatic letter] I received from Breton and Peret. Note the date, February 2, 1934; that is, four days before the demonstrations of February 6:

Dear friend, we are absolutely counting on your presence at the meeting to be held on Monday, February 5, at 9 o'clock sharp, at Breton's residence, 42 rue Fontaine. Agenda: Dali having several times committed counterrevolutionary acts tending to glorify Hitlerian fascism, we the undersigned propose to expel him from Surrealism as a fascist element, this despite his declaration of January 25, 1934, and to oppose him in every possible way. Given that Yoyotte supports Dali in this confusional propaganda, which is disruptive to Surrealism's revolutionary ideology, we the undersigned propose to exclude him until he is able to keep his opinions to himself.

Paris, February 2, 1934. Signed: Breton, Max Ernst, Tanguy ...

In the event that it is absolutely impossible for you to attend this meeting, please send us your vote, or convey it by proxy, with a written authorization for a person present. In addition to those signing the above motion, and those in question (Dali and Yoyotte), we also summon Caillois, Char, and Maurice Henry.

Crevel, Eluard, Giacometti, and Tzara, being out of town, are requested to send in their decision by mail.


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Meet the Author

Roger Caillois (1913-1978) was a French social theorist and writer. Claudine Frank is Assistant Professor of French at Barnard College.

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