The Writing of Stones

This expanded version of a 2007 post features images from The Writing of Stones by Roger Caillois (L'ecriture des pierres, 1970). Though long out-of-print, affordable copies sometimes show up on Amazon.

Roger Caillois (1913–78) is a fascinating literary figure, "neither an academic nor a journalist, neither a scientist nor a researcher, nor could he ever be termed an 'intellectual,'" in the words of Denis Hollier, though he was elected to the Académie Française in 1971. After studying with Kojève and Mauss, in the '30s Caillois played a role in early Bataille projects like Acéphale and the College of Sociology. His first book, The Necessity of Mind—written at twenty but published posthumously—deals with the praying mantis, but contains lines like "I wanted to cross the border of my skin, live on the other side of my sense" (making me wonder how he got on with Daumal and Gilbert-Lecomte). He was responsible for salvaging from oblivion one of my favorite books, Jan Potocki's Saragossa Manuscript (basis for the movie). A well-regarded anthologist and a protégé of Jean Paulhan, Caillois introduced Borges and Carpentier and many other Latin American writers to France (he lived in Argentina during the war). He also wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate and founded and edited Diogenes. You can sample his essays in The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader and read a little more about him on wikipedia.

The Writing of Stones has fascinated me for years, and I love re-reading the last chapter, "Enter Life: The Other Writing." I've included passages from that chapter here. I also posted additional images from the book at But Does it Float.

Ruin marbles, Tuscany, dust jacket of The Writing of Stones

"Life appears: a complex dampness, destined to an intricate future and charged with secret virtues, capable of challenge and creation. A kind of precarious slime, of surface mildew, in which a ferment is already working. A turbulent, spasmodic sap, a presage and expectation of a new way of being, breaking with mineral perpetuity and boldly exchanging it for the doubtful privilege of being able to tremble, decay, and multiply."

"Enter life," belemnites

"Obscure distillations generate juices, salivas, yeasts. Like mists or dews, brief yet patient jellies come forth momentarily and with difficulty from a substance lately imperturbable: they are evanescent pharmacies, doomed victims of the elements, about to melt or dry up, leaving behind only a savor or a stain."

"Septaria," Spain

"Jasper," Oregon

"Meanwhile the tree of life goes on putting out branches. A multitude of new inscriptions is added to the writing in stones. Images of fishes swim among dendrites of manganese as though among clumps of moss. A sea lily sways on its stem in the heart of a piece of slate. A phantom shrimp can no longer feel the air with its broken antennae. The scrolls and laces of ferns are imprinted in coal. Ammonites of all sizes, from a lentil to a millwheel, flaunt their cosmic spirals everywhere. A fossil trunk, turned jasper and opal like a frozen fire, clothes itself in scarlet, purple, violet. Dinosaurs' bones change their petit-point tapestries into ivory, gleaming pink or blue like sugared almonds."

"The portrait," limestone, Tuscany

"Every space is filled, every interstice occupied. Even metal has insinuated itself into the cells and channels from which life has long since disappeared. Compact and insensible matter has replaced the other kind in its last refuge, taking over its exact shapes, running in its finest channels, so that the first image is set down forever in the great album of the ages. The writer has disappeared, but each flourish—evidence of a different miracle—remains, an immortal signature."

Septaria, Spain

Chalcedony, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

"Funeral monument," agate, Brazil

"Cleft," onyx, Brazil

"Peak," landscape agate, Mexico

Variscite, Utah

"Calligraphy," onyx, Brazil

About the book, from the flaps:

The Writing of Stones is a fascinating meditation on the human imagination contemplating the interior of stones. Caillois examines patterns that are revealed by polishing sections of minerals such as agate, jasper, and onyx. He considers the impact these configurations have had upon the human imagination throughout history and he reviews man's attempt to categorize and explain them.

Marguerite Yourcenar [in her introduction] points out that "there had taken place in [his] intellect the equivalent of the Copernican revolution: man was no longer the center of the universe, except in the sense that the center is everywhere; man, like all the rest, was a cog in the whole system of turning wheels. Quite early on, having entered 'the forbidden laboratories,' Caillois applied himself to the study of diagonals which link the species, of the recurrent phenomena that act, so to speak as a matrix of forms." Caillois found the presence throughout the universe of a sensibility and a consciousness analogous to our own. One way which this consciousness expresses itself is in a "natural fantasy" that is evident in the pictures found in stones. Man's own aesthetic may then be no more than one of many manifestations of an all-pervasive aesthetic that reveals itself in the natural world.