Roger Caillois

Roger Caillois
Born (1913-03-03)3 March 1913
Reims, France
Died 21 December 1978(1978-12-21) (aged 65)
Paris, France
Occupation Sociologist
Nationality French
Notable awards Grand Prix de Littérature Policière; Marcel Proust Awards; European Union Prize for Literature

Roger Caillois (French: [ʁɔʒe kajwa]; 3 March 1913 – 21 December 1978) was a French intellectual whose idiosyncratic work brought together literary criticism, sociology, and philosophy by focusing on diverse subjects such as games, play as well as the sacred. He was also instrumental in introducing Latin American authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda, Miguel Ángel Asturias to the French public. After his death, the French Literary award Prix Roger Caillois was named after him in 1991.


Caillois was born in Reims but moved to Paris as a child. There he studied at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, an elite school where students took courses after graduating from secondary school in order to prepare for entry examinations for France's most prestigious university, the École Normale Supérieure. Caillois's efforts paid off and he graduated as a normalien in 1933. After this he studied at the École Pratique des Hautes Études where he came into contact with thinkers such as Georges Dumézil, Alexandre Kojève, and Marcel Mauss.

The years before the war were marked by Caillois's increasingly leftist political commitment, particularly in his fight against fascism. He was also engaged in Paris's avant-garde intellectual life. With Georges Bataille he founded the College of Sociology, a group of intellectuals who lectured regularly to one another. Formed partly as a reaction to the Surrealist movement that was dominant in the 1920s, the College sought to move away from surrealism's focus on the fantasy life of an individual's unconscious and focus instead more on the power of ritual and other aspects of communal life. Caillois's background in anthropology and sociology, and particularly his interest in the sacred, exemplified this approach. He participated in Bataille's review, Acéphale (1936–39).

Caillois left France in 1939 for Argentina, where he stayed until the end of WWII. During the war he was active in fighting the spread of Nazism in Latin America as an editor and author of anti-Nazi periodicals. From 1940 to 1945, he lived in South America.[1] In 1948, after the War, he worked with UNESCO and traveled widely. In 1971 he was elected to the Académie française. In 1977, he started to write a book with the painter Bernard Mandeville. In 1978, Caillois wrote Le fleuve Alphée,[2] an award-winning autobiographical essay (Marcel Proust Awards and European Union Prize for Literature), followed by Cases d’un échiquier. He died, aged 65, in Kremlin-Bicêtre.

Today Caillois is remembered for founding and editing Diogenes, an interdisciplinary journal funded by UNESCO, and La Croix du Sud (Southern Cross), a collection of books translated from contemporary Latin American authors published by Gallimard that is responsible for introducing authors such as Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier and Victoria Ocampo to the French-speaking public. He is also widely cited in the nascent field of ludology, primarily from passages in his book Les Jeux et les Hommes(1958). The book has been translated to English by Meyer Barash in 1961 as Man, Play and Games.

Caillois' key ideas on play

Caillois built critically on an earlier theory of play developed by the Dutch cultural historian Johan Huizinga in his book Homo Ludens (1938). Huzinga had discussed the importance of play as an element of culture and society. He used the term "Play Theory" to define the conceptual space in which play occurs, and argued that play is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the generation of culture.

Caillois began his own book Man, Play and Games (1961)[3] with Huizinga's definition of play:

Summing up the formal characteristics of play we might call it a free activity standing quite consciously outside "ordinary" life as being "not serious," but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means.[4]

Caillois disputed Huizinga's emphasis on competition in play. He also noted the considerable difficulty in arriving at a comprehensive definition of play, concluding that play is best described by six core characteristics:

Caillois' definition has itself been criticized by subsequent thinkers;[5] and ultimately, in spite Caillois' attempt at a definitive treatment, definitions of play remain open to negotiation.

Caillois distinguished four categories of games:

Caillois also described a dualistic polarity within which the four categories of games can be variously located:

Caillois disagreed particularly with Huizinga's treatment of gambling. Huizinga had argued in Homo Ludens that the risk of death or of losing money corrupts the freedom of "pure play". Thus to Huizinga card-games are not play but "deadly earnest business". Moreover Huizinga considered gambling to be a "futile activity" which inflicts damage on society. Thus Huizinga argued that gambling is a corruption of a more original form of play.

Against this, Caillois argued that gambling is a true game, a mode of play that falls somewhere between games of skill or competition and games of chance (i.e. between the Agon and Alea categories). Whether or not a game involves money or a risk of death, it can be considered a form of Agon or Alea as long as it provides social activity and triumph for the winner. Gambling is "like a combat in which equality of chances is artificially created, in order that adversaries should confront each other under ideal conditions, susceptible of giving precise and incontestable value to the winner’s triumph."[6]

Caillois' interest in mimicry

When Caillois worked with Bataille at the College of Sociology, they worked on two essays on insects in the 1930s: ‘La mante religieuse. De la biologie à la psychanalyse’[7](1934) and ‘Mimétisme et la psychasthénie légendaire’[8] (1935) Caillois identifies "the praying mantis and mimicking animals as nature’s automatons and masquerades." He formulates "in his peculiarly naturalist fashion what it would mean to act and create without the intervention of the sovereign ego, that magnificent artifact of the modern West that surrealism and the avant-garde have taken such drastic measures to counteract." These articles "might read like two obscurantist entomological studies that, in a way some would describe as bizarre, try to contradict all evolutionary explications for animal cannibalism and mimicry. Their publication in the context of [the surrealist journal] Minotaure makes it possible to see them as the search for figures that evidence the possibility of intelligence without thought, creativity without art, and agency in the absence of the (human) agent."[9]

Roger Caillois French Literary Prize

The Roger Caillois French Literary Prize for Latin American Literature was created in 1991 and has also been awarded to figures such as Carlos Fuentes, José Donoso, and Adolfo Bioy Casares.


The Saragossa Manuscript by Jan Potocki. Edited and with preface by Roger Caillois. Translated from the French by Elisabeth Abbott. New York, Orion Press, 1960.

Man and the Sacred, trans. by Meyer Barash. New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1960.

Man, Play and Games, trans. by Meyer Barash. New York, Free Press of Glencoe, 1961.

The Dream Adventure, 1963 edited by Caillois. New York, Orion Press, 1963.

The Mask of Medusa, 1964, New York, C.N. Potter, 1964.

The Dream and Human Societies, edited by Caillois and G. E. Von Grunebaum. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1966.

The Mystery Novel. trans. by Roberto Yahni and A.W. Sadler. New York, Laughing Buddha Press, 1984.

The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader. Edited and with an introduction by Claudine Frank ; trans. by Frank and Camille Naish. Durham, Duke University Press, 2003.

Pontius Pilate: A Novel. Translated by Charles Lam Markmann with an introduction by Ivan Strenski; University of Virginia Press, 2006.


  1. Falasca-Zamponi, S. (1957). Rethinking the political: the sacred, aesthetic politics, and the College de Sociologie. Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press.
  2. Le fleuve Alphée. An English translation of the poem: The River of Alpheus. The poem contains ethnic collection of imageries which can be decoded as the interconnection between humanity, mythology and the representation of Gods.
  3. Caillois, R. (2001). Man, play, and games: University of Illinois Press.
  4. J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens (English translation; New York: Roy Publishers, 1950, p. 13). On p. 28 there is another definition not quite as eloquent, but less restricted: Play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and consciousness that it is different from ordinary life." (as cited in Caillois, 2001, p. 177)
  5. For example Sutton-Smith (1997) questions whether individuals in a leisure-based Western culture are 'free' to play - in light of an apparent obligation to spend leisure time 'wisely'. In general, play forms are subject to considerable social pressures, and particularly in post-industrial societies, leisure and media, though perhaps forms of play, do have economic significance.
  6. Caillois 2001, p.14
  7. An English translation of the essay: The Praying Mantis, from biology to psychoanalysis (1934)
  8. An English translation of the essay: Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia (1935)
  9. Cheng, Joyce: "Mask, Mimicry, Metamorphosis: Roger Caillois, Walter Benjamin and Surrealism in the 1930s" Modernism/Modernity (Baltimore, MD) (16:1) Jan 2009, 61-86. (2009)


This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 10/3/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.