- Extracts from Pierres réfléchies
SubStance is pleased to present, for the first time in English, the Prologue and Epilogue from Roger Caillois's Pierres réfléchies. Pierres réfléchies is the last, and least cited, of Caillois's singular writings on stones, which are being rediscovered and reread in the contemporary geologic-philosophical-aesthetic context. Here, Caillois provides a final articulation of his mystical materialism and diagonal science, his hermetic reading of a cosmos composed of hieroglyphic signs, in which "stone… speaks… the most convincing language in the universe." These ruminations from Pierres réfléchies display a deeper methodological discernment, and more somber humor (in both senses), than the earlier works. Perhaps this is why Caillois deems it "useful to reproduce" in a footnote his first (and most often quoted) account of mystic materialist musings in Pierres (Éditions Gallimard, 1966). The shift from the "mental effervescence" of the first work to the search for "clarity" and "austerity" in these passages from Pierres réfléchies mark them as an essential selection from Caillois's reflections on stones.
Caillois bequeathed his mineral collection to the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. The collection, featured at the 2013 Venice Biennale, can be seen at the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie. Information about Caillois's collection, including specimen images, may be accessed at http://substancejournal.sites.lmu.edu/home/supplements/rock-records.— Paul A. Harris
Prologue: The Apostate
Stones, here, are sometimes objects of contemplation, like things used for spiritual exercise. I do not look at them in terms of their dimensions or qualities. I only focus on their appearance, which is practically all I know or perceive of them. Like the ancient Chinese, I am inclined to consider each stone to be a world. Like Pascal, I presume that, from the atom to the nebula, the models for the two infinities coincide, and, like Paracelsus, I readily imagine that there are kinds of signatures for things—patterns that vary but are constant. While their appearances first surprise us because of their variety, if the universe is countable, they must necessarily recur.
I unintentionally leave aside the question of scale, in the certainty that, at every level, the problems, proportions, and architectures remain analogous. My starting point is the object. I pay sustained—nearly tedious—attention to it. I do not claim to become totally engrossed in it. At the very moment I am demanding myself to be more exact, and to adopt a more precise approach, I detest even more the metaphors I am forced to use, the slippages that invite me to exaggerate the image, and which, while it is emerging, make it slide into insignificance, like paper money with no gold to back it. I only strive to reveal the hint of a trace, of an [End Page 149] ordered network, the laws that lay out the grids in which originate the fraternal permanent partitions of meditative space.
The extended world suddenly ceases to be, as philosophy would argue, the incompatible opposite of thought—that other mode of existence. It becomes instead its natural environment. At this juncture, it seems to me the mind can hardly attempt anything other than joyful and accurate classification—the distribution of things and principles in an ideal wind rose. I no longer consider geometry or the wily system of numbers to be a construction of the mind, nor a reflection of human intelligence that is finally intelligible to itself. Thought, on the contrary, seems to be the questionable and vague approximation of the subjacent order, which at times it recklessly, almost misguidedly, extends and also attempts to reach. As far as it strays, it can sense or recompose the dismantled and indecipherable order in which it recognizes itself. It identifies it instinctively, every time it succeeds in extracting itself from the obscurity of psychology, from the necessary and costly detour it must make to gain access to consciousness. As soon as it escapes from this fermentation, it is sucked up and returned to the grammar or rigors of unalterable space, which remain its own, are...