Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM

It’s no secret to my literary friends that I have been somewhat obsessed with French writer Michel Leiris this year. I will address this fact further at a later date, but essentially, it is his autobiographical writing that fascinates me—it’s a very internalized, yet sharply observant form of writing about language, memory, and experience. In his epic journal project, Phantom Africa, a detailed, personal record of his experience as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition in the early 1930s, one see him develop as a writer as the weeks and months past. With a background as a Surrealist poet and an essayist, he was a strong writer at the outset; what evolves over the course of the journey is an uncanny ability to lay himself open on the page with a distinct, idiosyncratic honesty. A discussion of this development forms the primary thread of my review of this critical work, published earlier this week at 3:AM Magazine.

However, the publication of this valuable document  in English, at this point in the ongoing post-colonial narrative, holds an importance that I only allude to in my critique. Leiris’ primary role on the expedition was as secretary-archivist. Ethnographic study was, for all intents and purposes, a mechanism of colonial control and exploitation. Thousands of artifacts, many with profound cultural and spiritual meaning, were collected for display in museums back in France. Some items were purchased, others taken by force or deceit, but in the end, it was all facilitated by an exercise of the power of the colonizer over the colonized. Leiris is not unaware of this fundamental inequity and he does express considerable concern and discontent with the ethics of the entire colonial enterprise, but he also admits to enjoying the thrill of the raid. Of course, it is not appropriate to measure a man outside the context of his times. Leiris’ true gift here lies in is his candid, unedited, record of the events he knows of or takes part in. It forms a vital contribution to the argument in favour of the repatriation of lost art and artifacts to Africa.

Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, is published by Seagull Books. My 3:AM review can be found here.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

9 thoughts on “Some thoughts on Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa and a link to my review at 3:AM”

  1. I know nothing of this author, but am keen to find out more. That colonial exploitation theme is problematic, and I suppose is still resonating in stories about removal of statues and other public sites which depict individuals with a dubious link to the colonial past. Bristol, where I was an undergraduate, is about to rename the Colston Hall entertainment venue, because the man it commemorates had been involved with the slave trade in the 17-18C…It’s good to think that Leiris was alert to the implications of the expedition’s less salubrious activities. Interesting post, Joseph.

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    1. Leiris is seeing a resurgence in English language readership. Lydia Davis’ translation of the third volume of his four-part autobiographical project, Rules of the Game, was released this year, along with this work, and his dream diaries which I reviewed earlier. He was associated with Breton and the Surrealists. but broke with them. He was life-long friends with George Battaile, a friend of Blanchot, de Beauvoir, and many other Paris artists and intellectuals. He married the illegitimate daughter of Picasso’s art dealer.

      He was a wonderful writer, critic, and a respected ethnographer, but he was also prone to depression and anxiety. Quite a fascinating, often conflicted man. A book like Phantom Africa in which Leiris recorded his daily thoughts and experiences without editing them—even through three editions in French—must be judged as representative of the romanticism of the “black race” and the accepted agenda of the anthropological exercise of the era. Leiris’ perspective reflects his role as a junior member of the team, and his naturally self-critical, moody character.

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  2. I had initially planned to write my PhD on Leiris but this book put me off. The way he describes how some things were stolen . . . I think it’s pretty awful. And revealing. As a cultural anthropologist I came across a lot of dubious accounts from the early pioneers of the field. This and Malinowski’s diary were two of the worst. That said, it makes for fascinating reading nonetheless.

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    1. I have an undergrad degree in Anthropology (mainly biological, 30+ years ago), but I never encountered Leiris. Most of my chosen cultural course focus was South East Asia which saw plenty of dubious characters pass through too. From a present day perspective, I think Leiris inadvertently does the historical record a favour by not sugar coating the exploits of the Mission or his participation. He was not an ethnographer when he was hired on and he was not always enamoured of the discipline even when involved in the activity. In this Seagull edition, the inclusion of excerpts from his letters to his wife shows even more clearly than the text, the depth of his conflicting emotions. He also takes criticism from his colleagues for not maintaining a mercenary objectivity in Ethiopia when studying the zar (while the others were preparing to make off with murals from churches). If he was not such a self deprecating, insecure man at heart (not to mention, such a lyrical writer), the text would have even been either more brutal or much less honest.

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  3. What a fascinating figure: I can imagine his appeal and the sense of becoming ever-more interested as one reads on. This is one which has only a single borrowable copy in the library system here, but I have put in a request, just to have a peek. At 711 pages, I suspect it will be little more than that – peeking – as I probably don’t have the context to properly appreciate the volume anyway, but his circumstances are certainly intriguing enough to take me that far, at least!

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