The Edge of Surrealism

A Roger Caillois Reader

The Edge of Surrealism

Book Pages: 440 Illustrations: Published: July 2003

Author: Roger Caillois

Editor: Claudine Frank

Translator: Camille Naish

Art and Visual Culture > Art Criticism and Theory, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Sociology

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 Presenting several new pieces and drawing on interviews and unpublished correspondence, this book reveals Caillois’s consistent effort to reconcile intellectual rigor and imaginative adventure.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.


“This volume provides an excellent overview of the rich diversity of Caillois’s production. It is to be thoroughly recommended.” — Ceri Crossley , Modern & Contemporary France

". . . I am indebted to Frank for the historic frames she provides. . ." — Allan Graubard , Leonardo Reviews

"[A] valuable collection, as important for its reassessment of Caillois's (and surrealism's) place in the genealogy of French theory, as for its extensive collection of Caillois's shorter writings." — Jonathan P. Eburne , Journal of Modern Literature

"[A]n essential introduction to the writing of [this] French social theorist. . ." — Umbrella

"[R]eaders of Caillois stand deeply indebted . . . [to Frank's] informative commentary. . . . The choice of texts is quite admirable. Many of the familiar essays are included, but there are fascinating and unexpected entries. . . . [Frank] has assembled enough little-known material by one of the more intriguing figures of twentieth-century French thought for this volume to deserve warm welcome from anyone interested in the byways of European intellectual history." — Jeffrey Mehlman , Bookforum

"Although this is a crucial addition to the very few existent translations of Caillois’ work, its publication serves to underscore how neglected this writer is in the English-speaking world. . . . This is a truly important book for students of surrealism, which covers a significant range of Caillois’ writings and provides the reader with a good grounding from which to explore further Caillois’ thought. In its insightful presentation of the complex and multi-disciplinary aspects of Caillois’ thought, Claudine Frank’s commentary is invaluable for both students new to Caillois and for the more advanced reader." — Donna Roberts , Papers of Surrealism

"Claudine Frank’s Reader is the first of its kind and it is wonderful. The translations, the general introduction, the brief presentations of each of the thirty-two pieces, the annotations and the bibliography are of outstanding quality. This is scholarship of a standard that is encountered all too rarely in the contemporary intellectual world, and it is a delight to savour it." — David Macey , Radical Philosophy

"Excellent introductory essays and notes by Frank contextualize Caillois in French intellectual life of the mid-20th century, with clear analysis of his positions and apparent contradictions. . . . The selections and chronological organization provide a subtle analysis of the French world of letters and show the development of Caillois as an intellectual, humanist, and writer, including his time in postwar Argentina and its impact. . . . . Recommended." — J. L. Croissant , Choice

"Frank's Reader will inspire those interested in Caillois to undertake productive adventures in his oeuvre, getting them started but without holding their hands along the way. However, the meticulously documented general introduction, as well as the trenchant introductions to each essay in the book, provide more than enough signposts." — Gary Genosko , Canadian Journal of Sociology

“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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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Roger Caillois (1913-1978) was a French social theorist and writer.

Claudine Frank is Assistant Professor of French at Barnard College.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

I. Theory and the Thirties, 1934—1939

Surrealism and Its Environs

1. Testimony (Paul Eluard) 59

2. The Praying Mantis: From Biology to Psychoanalysis 66

3. Letter to Andre Breton; Literature in Crisis 82

4. Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia 89

Biology and Myth

5. Review of L'Homme, cet inconnu, by Dr. Alexis Carrel 107

6. The Function of Myth 110

7. The Noon Complex 124

8. For a Militant Orthodoxy: The Immediate Tasks of Modern Thought 130

Lucifer at the College of Sociology

9. Interview with Gilles Lapouge, June 1970 141

10. First Lecture: Sacred Sociology and the Relationships among “Society,” “Organism,” and “Being” 147

11. Dionysian Virtues 155

12. Aggressiveness as a Value 160

13. The Birth of Lucifer 166

14. Paris, a Modern Myth 173

15. Sociology of the Intellectual 190

II. Writing from Patagonia, 1940–1945

After the College

16. Preamble to the Spirit of Sects 205

17. Discussions of Sociological Topics: On “Defense of the Republic” 213

18. The Nature and Structure of Totalitarian Regimes 217

Treasure and Culture

19. Duties and Privileges of French Writers Abroad 235

20. Patagonia 240

21. The Myth of Secret Treasures in Childhood 252

22. The Situation of Poetry 262

23. Pythian Heritage (On the Nature of Poetic Inspiration) 268

III. Postwar Stances, 1946–1978

The Moralists

24. Loyola to the Rescue of Marx 279

25. Paroxysms of Society 284

26. Metamorphoses of Hell 298

Signs and Images

27. The Image 315

28. Fruitful Ambiguity 320

29. Surrealism as a World of Signs 326

Diagonal Science

30 The Great Bridgemaker 337

31. A New Plea for Diagonal Science 343

32. The Natural Fantastic 348

Roger Caillois Timeline 359

Notes 363

Bibliography 401

Index 415
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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3068-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3056-1
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