Roger Caillois

Roger Caillois

The early twentieth century Frenchman Roger Caillois was a scholar who studied topics in sociology, biology, anthropology, geology, linguistics, religions, and mythology and how they interconnect and influence each other. His studies and travels led to essays and books that explained his connective thinking. He was also a publisher of journals and a translator of world literature into French. So broad was Caillois’ studies and writings that the award-winning French author René Huyghe once said to Caillois, “You are, Sir, one of the most curious minds of our time, the most autonomous, the most resistant to his training."1

Roger Caillois was born into a lower middle class family in Reims, France on March 3, 1913. Though he was born just before World War I started in 1914, most of his youth was during the years between the World Wars. Living near Paris, Caillois seemed to associate with and learn from some of the influential minds of the time. For example, while he was in secondary school, he had Georges Bidault as his history and geography professor. Bidault, who would later help lead the French Resistance and briefly be prime minister of France, had not yet become known for his left wing politics on behalf of the common worker.

During this time Caillois also became associated with the surrealist poet Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and his artistic group, Le Grand Jeu. Surrealism philosophy began in Paris in 1924 and promoted the freedom of thought, language, and human experience from the prevalent rationalism of the enlightenment era. They were interested in liberating the human mind.2

After secondary school Caillois and his family moved to Paris where he studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand prep school. This elite and rigorous school was free and open to anyone who had shown personal merit. It also maintained an international student body of about one tenth to encourage open mindedness. While there Caillois was a fellow student with Jacques de Bourbon Busset, André Chastel, and Pierre Grimal, young men who would later become famous French writers, historians, and/or politicians.

After Caillois completed the two year preparatory course, he was admitted to the prestigious French university Ecole Normale Supérieure in 1933. By 1935 he had graduated and then continued his education at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, a widely recognized center for cutting edge research and ideas. The following year in 1936, he received a degree in religious studies.3 While at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Caillois learned from Georges Dumézil, a religion and mythography expert; Alexandre Kojéve, an influencial French philosopher; and Marcel Mauss, a sociologist who included anthropology concepts. These areas of religion, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of early man and cultures continued to shape Caillois’ thoughts and writings. They led to his first two essays: The Myth and the Man and Man and the Sacred.

Dissatisfied with the surrealism’s focus on individual fantasy or imagination, Caillois left that movement in 1934 and three years later was one of the founding members to form the Sociology College. For two years this intellectual group explored a wide range of disciplines to look for communal sources of subjectivity and to find connections between literature and science approaches.

In 1939 Caillois met the Argentine author and philosopher Victoria Ocampo and followed her to Argentina. That year he also published his first book, L’Homme et le Sacré (Man and the Sacred). While in Argentina he supported France’s war effort through the journal Les Lettres Françaises (1941) and founded the Institut Français de Buenos Aires. He also took over the editing duties of the Free France newspaper for a year in 1945.

After the war and learning of the Nazi atrocities, Caillois shifted his focus from battling the rigidness of societal order and morals to seeking to preserve and connect society and different cultures. He began by translating South American writers’ works into French. In 1948 he joined the Office of Ideas at UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) where he was in charge of its literary translation program. That same year he published the book, Babel.

His passion to bring Latin American literature to France led him to arrange the publication of the La Croix du Sud (Southern Cross) collection of Latin authors’ writings beginning in 1950. This passion was later recognized, after his death, when the Roger Caillois French Literacy Prize for Latin American Literature was established in 1991 to continue his work of honoring Latin writers.

Back in Paris he taught at his alma mater Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and continued his own writing and publishing. With funding from UNESCO in 1952 Caillois founded the international and multidisciplinary journal, Diogenes. He also wrote of gemology and collected rare stones, which are now housed in the New Museum in New York City.4

Caillois’ classic study of play and games, Les Jeux et les Hommes (Man, Play and Games) was published in 1958 and translated into English in 1961. Drawing on his background of sociology and anthropology, he expanded on the Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga’s views of play that were outlined in Homo Ludens (1938). Man, Play and Games is a classic study of play and games and how they affect society and become a part of daily life. The book characterizes the nature of play, distinguishes between games with rules and free play, and gives a description of four different types of play – competition, chance, simulation, and vertigo. The major portion of the book looks at sociological ties to play and games from primitive cultures as well as the ancient historic cultures of West and East and how they evolved over time.5

After about 35 years of writing and translating, Caillois was elected to a seat in the Académie Française, the board that regulates the French language. Besides being an open-minded student and philosopher, it appears the Caillois also had a playful side. It is said that during some of the Académie Française debates on the dictionary, he lightened things up by proposing words that didn’t exist and creating convincing etymologies.6

Caillois continued to write up until his death on December 21, 1978 in Kremlin-Bicêtre, a suburb of Paris.

  • 1. “Roger Caillois.” Académie française, < http://www.academie-francaise.fr/les-immortels/roger-caillois > 12 Jan. 2017.
  • 2. Mann, Jon. “How the Surrealist Movement Shaped the Course of Art History.” Artsy. 23 Sep. 2016. < https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-what-is-surrealism > 6 Feb. 2017.
  • 3. Henricks, Thomas S. “Caillois’s Man, Plan, and Games – An Appreciation and Evaluation.” American Journal of Play, Fall 2010, p. 159. < www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/3-2-article-cailloiss-man-play-and-games.pdf > 12 Jan. 2017.
  • 4. New Museum, Exhibitions. < http://www.newmuseum.org/exhibitions/view/the-keeper > 2 Feb. 2017.
  • 5. Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. Reprint. 2001. pp. 9-10.
  • 6. Op. cit., “Roger Caillois.”