It is strange to think that nature, which can neither draw nor paint any likeness, sometimes creates the illusion of having done so, while art, which has always been successful at resemblances, renounces its traditional, almost inevitable and ‘natural’ vocation and turns to the creation of such forms as nature itself abounds in – mute, unpremeditated, and without a model. i
With The Writing of Stones (1970), Roger Caillois profoundly revisits many of the basic themes of Surrealism (beauty and automatism), recasting them in a decidedly geological framework that severely demotes the idealization of the mind that had been so essential to Breton and his associates. It also, in certain respects, could be read as distancing itself from Bataille’s obsession with the formless, revealing the cosmos rather as a spontaneous and dead architecture within which apprehension and experience operate as little better than games or jokes in the seemingly random processing of moribund matter. This deadness is associated with radically abstract forms. Their manifestation as images, akin to either non-objective images or representational ones – it makes no odds – signals an essential paradox in the nature of images.
It is a warning, a signal. It bears witness to the fact that the tissue of the universe is continuous, and that in the vast labrinth of the world there is no point where apparently incompatible paths, from antipodes much farther apart than those of geography, may not intersect in some common stela, bearing the same symbols and commemorating unfathomable yet complementary pieties.ii
By seemingly arbitrary means, an image can appear in stone, not simply as an illusion, but as a coincidence that produces form determined by the radical forces of abstraction. A face that appears in a stone is an accident, but no less than the human face itself. The paranoiac drive to see similarity in things, to look for analogies, could correspond, he suggests facetiously, to some universal syntax.iii Although the Surrealists had obsessed over automatism, both in writing and drawing, in order to attain the undiluted power of unconscious though, it seems as though the non-sentient material world was doing something identical. This theme was forcefully enacted in J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibit (also published in 1970) which, like much of Ballard’s work, seems to be about technology but is ultimately more about the erosion of the boundaries of biology by geology. As William Burroughs said of that book, “Since people are made of image, this is literally an explosive book. The human image explodes into rocks and stones and trees: ‘The porous rock towers of Tenerife exposed the first spinal landscape . . . clinker-like rock towers suspended above the silent swamp. In the mirror of this swamp there are no reflections. Time makes no concessions.’iv Face and landscape, landscape and stone: all collapse into one another. As Caillois says of his eerilyv fascinating stones, “What we are dealing with is an illusion not merely of a human face but of a picture, that is, of a human creation depicting a human face.”vi
A stone possesses gravitas because it is solid and does not change. Attraction couples the eye to this, elicited by a fascination with accidental resemblance. This ‘oddity’s’ power is that of spontaneous beauty which is ‘at once the promise and the foundations’ of beauty.vii This foundational beauty is an achievement without skill or invention; a beauty greater than intention, intuition or perception – absolutely concrete and abstract (a theoremetic architecture of the universe). Beauty under-girds the world and finds itself ineluctably displayed, as if by accident, to the world’s impoverished but ambitious latecomers (people). For these creatures, only stooping toward erection following their emergence from the slime, the mineral kingdom has a “menacing perfection – for it rests on the absence of life, the visible stillness of death.”viii
The connoisseurs of stones that Caillois deals with in his text seemed to be part of a baroque fascination with forms in excess that tended to a beauty without human meaning. This is distinctly different from something like the fascination with stone found at a certain period in China. There, one found a split between the assessment of the stones themselves, a dialogic between the stones and their rubbings that records their history, and a contemplation of the rubbings alone. The central move was largely antiquarian. The final almost totally aesthetic. Antiquarian connoisseurs of stone rubbings accompanied their fascination with a melancholy lament. Creating rubbings from the ancient stones gradually erased the stones and their markings, breaking them down. Each rubbing provided a kind of photograph of this decay, the art object, or the recording of history, literally ruining what it traced. However, for Caillois, the connoisseurship of stones revolves around an affection for resemblance without representation. The formation of stones by metallic and other deposits, breakages, damage and strange combinations creates images by chance. This may be the most significant kind of automatism, one removed from both language, gesture and any kind of ‘external reference’.ix The familiar image as the ultimate coincidence rather than as an instance of mimesis.
For Caillois, human art comes after beauty, registering only a pallid and absurd invention that can echo the creative aesthetics of the universe.x Life is a ‘surface mildew’xi or ‘slime’ whose primary privilege is its capacity to decay. Life is the gelatinous, irrigated and blurry, driven to domesticate the minerals of the world so that a surface can be constructed, allowing for this excretion of an earlier surface to multiply. Sentience promotes the creation of shelters and habitats which will gradually be abandoned, agglomerating into masses and returning to the inertia of stone. “Wonder can only arise and increase when a spectacle endures, survives perception and is ultimately seen to be less transient than the ephemeral being who came upon it.”xii The metamorphoses of life are written into the stones of the world. Life flourishes ultimately to perpetuate the immortal signature of the fossil.
Caillois’ other significant text dealing with stones turns to the inukshuks of northern Canada. After surveying various interpretations of these sculptures, he makes his final, tenuous, conjecture about them: “I think that the inukshuk are neither aesthetic works nor holy images, let alone documentary, realistic, or encoded representations.”xiii He notes that their makers take care not to alter the stones in a significant way, retaining all of the crudeness of the stone and only discarding some of the earth they were culled from. The figures display extraordinarily little of anything resembling bone structure. They are not outlines of the human body nor do they possess any ‘filler’ that would hint at a flabby interiority. Rather, they are figures that “seem to be on the point of coming apart.”xiv What is remarkable then is that they figuratively hover around the indifferent. They remain stones before all else. As figures, their power is in their tendency to break down.
The inukshuk are not merely men of stone, but figures of men aggressively built of pieces of stone which continue to belong to the mineral world without the slightest intention of making any changes, and which, even better, are unequivocally displayed as being destined to remain merged and impossible to identify by the slightest human token or manifestation. Never has there been such an eloquent or humiliating variant on the theme of in pulverem reverteris.xv
The living figure is only sediment operating at a different degree of chronic activity.
i Caillois, Roger; translated by Barbara Bray. The Writing of Stones. (Charlottesville: The University of Virgina Press, 1985), 14.
ii Ibid., 103.
iii Ibid., 104.
iv William Burroughs in the preface to Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. (Flamingo, 2001), np.
v There is a vague sense of the unheimlicheit to all of this, only minus everything that I find appalling in the Freudian idea. To replace the kind of pretentious sentimentality that seeps from discussions of the ‘uncanny’ with an odd beauty whose power is predicated on a far more radical form of alienation, is certainly desirable and holds untapped potential for discussions of resemblance.
vi Caillois, Roger; translated by Barbara Bray. The Writing of Stones. (Charlottesville: The University of Virgina Press, 1985), 101.
vii Ibid., 2.
viii Ibid., 3.
ix Ibid., 5.
x Ibid., 3.
xi Ibid., 105.
xii Ibid., 100.
xiii Caillois, Roger; translated by Paul and Rosanna Rowland. “The Stone Men of the Canadian Arctic.” Diogenes 24, no. 94 (1976), 92.
xiv Ibid., 91.
xv Ibid., 86.