Mexican Jumping Beans
And a debate among Surrealists
On December 21, 2020, I picked up my copy of Roger Caillois’ L’homme et le sacré, for the first time in perhaps a decade.
I found it randomly, looking about for another book, unaware even that the Caillois was there where I found it. It should have been on another shelf, on the other side of the room, according to the logic of my evidently less than perfect home library organizing system.
Sacredness is the topic of the Caillois book. I found my copy in a Paris used book store, a few minutes walk from the apartment in which I was then staying near Place Monge. I read perhaps 1/3 of the book standing right there in the shop next to the shelf from which I’d plucked it, mesmerized. In my mind’s eye, I can still see every contour of the place, including the view out the front window of the Rue Claude Bernard.
Caillois died on December 21, 1978, at the age of just 65. I found his book for the seconed time—in the labyrinth of my library—on the day of his death, 42 years later.
He and André Breton once had a bitter disagreement about the Mexican jumping bean. What, they wondered, to do about the mystery of the source of the bean’s vitality?
Breton argued for accepting the mystery. We do not know, we do not need to know, our joy at the bean’s inexplicable motion is not made one iota less euphoric by accepting our ignorance. Indeed, our excitement may depend on it.
Caillois defended the imperative of cutting the bean open to see what engine was driving it, even if this meant the magic of the bean must cease.
Breton died the year I was born, on the day that marked the end of my first five months in the world. Thirty years later, on that same day, and without previous knowledge that it was the day of his death, I visited his grave in Paris and took a photo that shows my shadow on his tomb.
Whose side am I on?
I can recall holding a Mexican jumping bean at some distant point in my childhood, purchased at some roadside establishment somewhere off the highway during a family drive to a distant place. I was fascinated. I was also too young then even to recognize the existence of the two conflicting views.
I have however spent the whole of my life since the age of reason pondering the two ways of knowledge and faith, choosing first one, then the other, then reversing, and again, back and forth, indecisive, compelled now by one and now by the other, seeing truth in both and in neither and in only one at a time.
And now, all these years later, what do I think?
Perhaps a choice is not necessary.
May one align with Caillois’ reasoned inquiry into sacredness, but because of a Bretonian method that is based on the irrational mystery of having stumbled on his book on the day of his death?
I think I will keep them both with me for the rest of my journey.
I think that the ability to simultaneously hold two seemingly conflicting ideas in one's mind, peaceably, can go a long way toward reducing our anguish as we search for answers.