Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Roger Caillois and the Mexican Jumping Bean

Answering questions for my recent interview with Ivy Alvarez, I began to think a lot about the relationship between science and poetry, particularly pondering if there was something oppositional between the two.

Then, yesterday I happened upon a review of a recently published book of translated essays by Caillois called 'The Edge of Surrealism' which mentions a difference of views that he had with André Breton, main man of the surrealist movement and writer of the celebrated poem: 'Ma Femme à la Chevelure de Feu de Bois':

My wife with the brush fire hair
Whose thoughts are summer lightning
Whose waist is an hourglass
Whose waist is the waist of an otter caught in the teeth of a tiger...

This, from the translation of David Antin included in: '20th Century French Poems' (Faber, 2002) edited by Stephen Romer. As an aside, I wonder why Roger Caillois was not included in this volume. He is published among the principle 20th Century French poets by Gallimard and the article I linked to above suggests that he might be 'the single most nodal figure of the French twentieth century'. That's a curious epithet. 'Nodal' is uncomfortably close to 'noodle'! But I think what the writer is pointing out is that Caillois went out of his way to situate himself at a crossroads somewhere between science and poetry, between politics and resistance, between prose and poetry. Judge for yourself: have a look at my translation of Caillois' prose poem Siliceous Concretions.

The incident with André Breton and the Surrealists concerned a Mexican jumping bean and resulted, according to Caillois, in a rift developing between himself and the Surrealists. The question is: given the mystery of Mexican jumping beans, is the more fruitful posture to break them open and dispel the enigma (Caillois' preference) or to respect the enigma and harness whatever imaginative possibilities it appeared to invite (Breton's position)?

I think this question perfectly exemplifies the difficulties I alluded to earlier of the possible oppositional character of science and poetry. In the context above, Caillois places himself as the man of Science, intent on cutting to the core of the problem and finding out what is going on inside the bean. Breton on the other hand is the mystic, the hermit who will watch the bean jumping for hours, formulating in his head an infinite number of ways to explain why the bean is jumping. Is there a tormented soul trapped inside it? Did a woman rub it between her lips and cause it to become excited? Has it become wet with the urine of a wombat and developed paroxysms? All of these questions rapidly come to mind, stimulating the poetic instinct.

I remember when I was about ten I actually bought a Mexican Jumping Bean. I'm glad I did buy one when I saw it because I have never seen another one since. That's perhaps a bit surprising, however, since around 20 million are exported from Mexico every year. Perhaps it's just because I stopped frequenting joke shops... I remember my little beans would jump around if you left them alone with a desk light shining on them to warm them up a bit. If Caillois had cut inside one he would have found the larvae of a moth tucked up in there. One of my beans actually completed the life cycle and produced a small grey moth that wandered around inside the container for a few days and eventually died.

If Caillois had cut into the bean, he would have found that it was lined with silk. The larvae holds on to the silk net and then rapidly contracts causing the bean to roll over. Despite their name, the beans do not typically jump but rather roll around. Mexican Rolling Beans don't sound quite so exciting, do they?

Would cutting the bean in half really have got to bottom of the problem of why Mexican Jumping Beans jump? Probably not. I have not been able to find a good explanation of why the beans jump. It seems possible that it might be a way of getting out of strong sunlight which might dry them out or reveal them to predators. If you cut the bean in half, it is unlikely that you would be able to watch the larva perform. More likely it would be scared to death.

This is an interesting development. Cutting the bean in half like a true scientist reveals that there is something inside making it jump, but poses a new question: why? Why does the larva throw itself around like that? This is very often the way with science. Tearing back the veil of one mystery reveals another, a Russian doll of conundrums, one inside the next, each more mysterious than the one before, deep mysteries, mysteries of time, of evolution. Like the question of how the ear evolved with tiny bones inside it. Or of how eyes developed as orbs of transparent jelly.

Is it beyond the capacity of a poem to deal with Caillois' approach? I don't think so. This is what Caillois was doing, he was testing the strength of poetry to deal with the advances in science, to make sense of it, to relate it to what was comprehensibly human, for it not to be some kind of pointless exercise.

He was not the first to take this view. After all, Leonardo da Vinci spent long days cutting up corpses and illustrating the human foetuses and organs which he found inside. The never equalled painter of horses, George Stubbs, dissected horses in a similar way to understand what was going on beneath their sleek hides. His aim was at once scientific and artistic. Did he love horses (the main form of locomotion prior to the 20th Century) in the same way that many men today love cars? Did he just want to understand what goes on underneath the bonnet? Or did he, as the article I've linked to suggests, want to deepen his understanding of horses, arrive at a deep appreciation of the horse from the inside out and the sources of its suffering - starting with the overweight and bewhipped rider sitting on its back?

So what should poets do? Turn their backs on the rapid developments in Science and pretend that the world is still in some pre-technological stasis circa 1860, perhaps a puff of steam engine smoke in the background as the Impressionists preferred in order to indicate how ultimately doomed we all are? Try and unimagine all the 'connaissances' which the world flings at them? Revert to a poetic pseudo-religion in which 'feeling' is raised up and 'knowledge' is cast out. In which everything to do with 'feeling' is related to the fairer sex and everything to do with 'knowledge' is disdainfully cast in the direction of men? To quote Don Paterson from his recent 'Book of Shadows':

"All my teachers have been women. Though several men have taken me aside for an hour to tell me the things they know."

And 1+1=3? Of course, an aphorism lives by hitting the mark, and this one certainly hits the mark. But still I don't accept it. There are plenty of women who could tell him the things they know as well... The point is science doesn't go away. Science takes us in, we wrap it around us and it wraps us around it. It involves us. It beckons us to enquire deeper and deeper. And I don't think poetry necessarily needs to feel threatened by science. If only it can find the necessary skills to deal with it: the required charms.


Andrea said...

I didn t know that about the beans.

"Science takes us in, we wrap it around us and it wraps us around it. It involves us. It beckons us to enquire deeper and deeper."
I like this, I agree.
Interesting post.

Patry Francis said...

Great interview with Ivy--and a lot to think about here.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you both.