More interested in ideas than in young women…

Roger CailloisRoger Caillois (1913-1978), before pursuing a non-academic career in international bureaucracy with UNESCO and being appointed to the Académie Française near the end of his life, was briefly involved with the Surrealist movement around Breton in the early 1930s (later, in 1937, he co-founded the College of Sociology with “dissident” Surrealists Michel Leiris and Georges Bataille).

His eventual break with the group revolved around the supposed incompatibility of science and poetry (with Caillois opting for the former and Breton defending the latter), summarised by the legendary episode of the Mexican jumping bean. One night, during one of their reunions at a café in Paris, Breton refused to slice a jumping bean open that one of the Surrealists had brought to the meeting, because he was afraid that finding a larva inside would irretrievably destroy its mystery. Caillois, on the other hand, promoting a form of the marvellous that does not fear knowledge but thrives on it, had already asked the waiter for a knife.

jumping beanMuch later, in 1973, when recalling his friendship with Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, Caillois reveals his discomfort with the Surrealists’ “indulgent” lifestyle, providing some intriguing insights into their libertine mindset: he recounts, for instance, that Éluard often reproached him “in a friendly way” for being more interested in ideas than in young women. Describing the legendary café meetings on Place Blanche in Paris, he writes:

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-curaçao and in summer, pernod. To change color was almost a sign of opposition, as Monnerot pointed out to me.

Quote from Claudine Frank (ed.), The Edge of Surrealism. A Roger Caillois Reader.

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