In an unremarkable section of Paris, Roger Caillois saw hiding places for “floating beings.”
Pity the Fifteenth! Paris’s most populous arrondissement is also one of its least celebrated. Stretching from the Front de Seine high-rises in the northwest to the Tour de Montparnasse in the southeast, the Fifteenth is sleepy, residential, and architecturally undistinguished. Home to minor government agencies and the headquarters of various corporations, its streets and thoroughfares are named for military officers, former colonial possessions, inventors, and Émile Zola, France’s dullest great novelist. Rue des Entrepreneurs intersects Rue de Commerce, where it branches off into Rue de l’Église and Rue Mademoiselle, which gives a good indication of what was on the minds of the men who incorporated the small suburban villages of Grenelle, Javel, and Vaugirard into the metropolis in the early years of the Second Empire. To make matters worse, the Fifteenth is tantalizingly adjacent to some of Paris’s genuine landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower, located just across the Avenue de Suffren in the Seventh, the Cimetière Montparnasse, on the other side of the neighborhood’s eponymous and much-reviled skyscraper, or the tony apartment buildings on right bank of the Pont de Bir-Hakeim.
Yet this is Paris, and even the most unremarkable stretches of Zone 1 have their devoted mythographers. Born in 1913 in Reims, the jack-of-all-genres Roger Caillois knew something about being fame-adjacent. If you were to look at the faded group photographs of some of the most important avant-garde literary movements of the twentieth century, you would see him, in the background, with his thick eyebrows and chubby cheeks, manuscript in hand, ready to launch into a lecture about his latest intellectual obsession: mimicry, ludology, the sacred, gemstones, secret societies, science fiction, the City of Light. As a student at the prestigious École pratique des hautes études, Caillois became acquainted with the works of pioneering philosophers and anthropologists like Alexandre Kojève and Marcel Mauss. He was a member of the surrealists until a disagreement with André Breton over the nature of a Mexican jumping bean got him kicked out of the movement. He went on to found a discussion group, the Collège de Sociologie, with fellow excommunicant George Bataille, contributing articles to Bataille’s journal Acéphale while skipping the meetings of his secret society, one of which notoriously involved a serious discussion about a ritual sacrifice of one of the members. Walter Benjamin loathed him, but nevertheless included several citations from his writings on Paris in The Arcades Project. In Buenos Aires, where Caillois, a militant antifascist, spent the war years, he met Victoria Ocampo, the editor of the journal Sur. Ocampo was responsible for publishing some of the leading lights of what would become known as the Latin American Boom. Upon his return to France, Caillois took up a position at UNESCO, using his influence there to introduce the French reading public to his new friends Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, and Silvina Ocampo.
In the midseventies, shortly after his election to the comfortable immortality of the Académie Française, Caillois was asked by the producers of a French television channel to write and star in a documentary about the slice of Paris he had called home for nearly three decades. The result was A Little Guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the Use of Phantoms, a concise résumé of Caillois’s diverse intellectual career and one of the most outlandish contributions to the overstuffed genre of Paris psychogeography ever written. Part memoir and part metafiction, part literary criticism and part architectural monograph, part sociological study and part ghost story, the Little Guide is all Caillois, Renaissance Man of the Recherché.
The initial strangeness of the short text derives from Caillois’s longstanding method of “diagonal science.” In the Little Guide, he writes in the afterword, “I attempted to deduce the kind of phantom that would logically correspond to the administrative, bureaucratic, and technological civilization of the metropolis.” Diagonal science, as the name implies, cuts across C. P. Snow’s Two Cultures, applying the discourse of the natural and social sciences to the kinds of literary and mythic phenomena whose existence they refuse to acknowledge, and submitting, in turn, the poetic products of the imagination to the rigors of logic. Like a particle accelerator that smashes together the impossible and the empirical, the Little Guide puts itself on the trail of the supernatural beings that hide in the subatomic structures of the ordinary—even infra-ordinary—features of the built environment of the fifteenth arrondissement. “As always,” Caillois explains, “my ambition [was] to try to discover a common point between the two distant, somewhat incompatible processes.” Under the paving stones, in other words, the shrieks.
Strolling down the Avenue de Suffren, for example, Caillois notices an odd feature of the building that occupies the corner of the Rue de Laos. The side of the building, which, from one angle, looks perfectly normal, is revealed, upon further inspection, to be little more than a freestanding wall, too narrow for anyone to actually live in. For anyone human, that is. Although the toothing stones on the edge of the wall suggest that this building was once connected to another that has since collapsed—because of age, or structural instability, or perhaps even to one of the bombs errantly dropped into the neighborhood by the RAF during World War Two—Caillois hypothesizes that the building’s design is no accident. Rather, it is the residence of supernatural “beings of infinite slimness” or “floating beings from some unknown Limbo” capable of flattening “themselves against a porous wall that absorbs them like blotting paper,” an image suggested to him by the obscure symbolist poet Léon-Paul Fargue.
Caillois is fascinated by these “beveled buildings,” truly abundant in the Fifteenth, along with an unusually high incidence of blind walls, false façades, and merely ornamental windows, each beloved of his phantoms. In the parts of the arrondissement developed during the postwar period, Caillois’s attention is drawn instead to the ventilator shafts and drainage grates that dot the streets. These structures, built to clear away rainwater or aerate underground garages, have a secret function, according to him. Noting their uncanny similarity to some of the settings in the Weird Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, he speculates that they may have been constructed to provide the entry points for an extraterrestrial invasion of our planet.
It is only when, following the double-movement of diagonal science, you subtract supernatural elements like these from the Little Guide that its own secret function is revealed. A book that might read at first like a mini mash-up novel—The Painter of Modern Life and Zombies—turns out, upon further inspection, to be an oblique commentary on contemporary affairs. Shortly before Caillois began writing the Little Guide, the French government made the monumental decision to discontinue its foreign worker program. For a quarter century, France had been recruiting millions of asylum seekers and economic refugees from Eastern Bloc countries, its poorer neighbors, and its former North African colonies to make up for a shortage of domestic labor. Most of these immigrants remained after the program was canceled; their number steadily increased, mostly through family reunification, sparking a crisis of national identity that France, to this day, has yet to resolve. The fifteenth arrondissement itself was home to many such families, until—as Caillois ominously notes on the very first page—the “dilapidated dwellings” where they lived were cleared to make way for the high-rises of the Front de Seine, and they were forced to relocate to the banlieues.
In this context, it becomes clear why the phantoms who take up residence in the Fifteenth are described as fugitives and refugees in search of “hideouts,” “safe havens” and “asylum” in the crowded anonymity of the big city; and why the ones who come in through the ventilator shafts on the Villa Croix-Nivert are not just aliens but “foreign beings.” To the members of the “urban hive” among whom they have settled, they cause “the same irrational panic” as vampires, witches, and devils once caused the inhabitants of medieval villages. True, these étrangers are sometimes forced to infiltrate an unsuspecting human body in order to better blend in. But the process, as Caillois describes it, sounds less like demonic possession or alien abduction than assimilation to the way of life of the host. In the end, the only thing that distinguishes one of Caillois’s simulacra from a “native-born” human is the former’s “administrative nothingness”: his lack of a birth certificate, a rent receipt, a mailing address, a tax number, a residence permit. What kind of phantom logically corresponds to the administrative, bureaucratic, technological civilization of Paris? A sans-papier.
Caillois never tired of observing that myths are generated to respond to the fundamental needs of a collective. His Little Guide, however, is not so much an attempt to generate such a myth for modern Paris as it is a parody of the myths that already rule there, all the more effectively for going unrecognized. From the seemingly unpromising vantage point of the fifteenth arrondissement, Caillois managed to deduce something important indeed about the chimerical nature of national identity. The foreigner living in France is nothing but phantasmagorical being who “would never have emerged if he didn’t correspond to the longings and aspirations of society. He is its fabulous, invulnerable projection; sometimes its mirror image.”
Ryan Ruby’s translation of A Little Guide to the 15th Arrondissement for the Use of Phantoms was published earlier this year. His first novel, The Zero and the One, is forthcoming. He lives in Berlin.