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.

Dream on: Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris

I am lying in bed exactly as I would in reality, except that my forehead is pressed against the white powdery wall of a large cylinder made of lime, a cistern of sorts, exactly my height, and which is nothing other than myself, actualized and exteriorized. I feel this other exterior forehead pressing against my own, and thus I imagine my head is pressing against the very substance of my mind. [Undated]

A curious thing happened as I ventured into the dream writings of French author, Michel Leiris. I expected, perhaps, a surrealist-inspired fascination with the stuff of dreams, the settings, the strangeness, and the symbolism of nocturnal (or aided hallucinogenic) adventures. And there are, among the fragments and the longer descriptive accounts he collected between 1923 and 1960, many vivid images and observations. But this is not a self-indulgent, introspective endeavour. Nights as Day, Days as Nights demonstrates a psychoanalytical restraint, and an observational interest in the quality of dream life (and its echoes in the half-awake and “real life” realms). Consequently, as I made my way through his recorded recollections, I could not help but reflect on my experience of dreamed realities. In sharing Leiris’ journey, I caught glimpses of my own.

Born in 1901, Michel Leiris is widely regarded as a pioneer of confessional literature, known for his extensive autobiographical writings. He was drawn into the sphere of the surrealists early in his literary career, and although he broke with them before long, their influence would linger. He was also an accomplished ethnographer, who participated in anthropological missions into Africa in the 1930s, and worked at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris for much of his life. Given this context, his dream writings which, remarkably, span almost four decades, were nurtured in a rich, fertile soil. But, as translator Richard Sieburth indicates in his introduction, Leiris preferred to classify these notes, collected and published in 1961, among his poetic works, casting a different light on his lifelong exploration of the self. In his essay “Dreaming, Writing,” written to accompany the original release of Nights, Maurice Blanchot remarks that the reserve that Leiris shows in his transcribing of his dreams—not attempting to dissect them—should be respected in the reading. What he offers here is literary, not autobiographical or analytical: “These were once dreams, they are now signs of poetry.”

For Leiris, language plays an important role, not only in the translation of the remnants of dreamed (or fantasized) experience, but in the very substance of dreams. At times he plays linguistic games to escape or alter the events unfolding in his sleeping imagination, at other times he may reflect on the words used to his record remembered scenarios:

 The word rêve (dream) has something cobwebby to it, as well as something akin to gossamer veil that clogs the throats of persons suffering from the croup. This is no doubt due to its sonority and to certain formal connection between the v and the circumflex accent that precedes it (this accent being nothing more than a smaller, inverted v); hence the idea of interlacing, of a finely woven veil. Dreams are spiderlike, given their instability on the one hand and their veil-like quality on the other. If dreams are like the croup, it is probably because they are linked to the notion of nocturnal disturbances (like those bouts of false croup from which I suffered during the night as a very small child). [July 27–28, 1924, Real-life]

Leiris’ dreams are, essentially, recognizable to anyone who remembers their own dreams (since some people seem to be unable to do so). We have all likely had dreams that were bizarre, where a reality we think we know is distorted or shifts, situations that are sexually tinged, or charged with anxiety, or so terrifying that we awake with a start. And what about those dreams that feature people or places that are familiar, but oddly out of time? Or the multi-layered dreams, those that seem to descend or surface to different levels of consciousness—dreaming you are awake, only to discover you are still asleep? The beauty that comes through (and it is not always beautiful in the aesthetic sense of the word), is the sensitivity with which Leiris records his experiences. He is capturing the thoughts, images, memories or ideas that come to him, whether he is awake, half-asleep, or sleeping—his dream life is not confined to one realm of the day—with little intervention or commentary. He may muse about an interpretation of some aspect, but only in passing. Most offerings are presented raw, so to speak, and in vivid detail:

By a pool, a row of giant toads the size of chimpanzees, all covered with moss. They would appear to be part gorilla, and their colours range from green to gray to brown. The finest specimen—to the extreme left of the row—is bottle-green with huge eyes like frosted lightbulbs. They are all getting ready to dive into the water and crawl back into their shells (?). It occurs to me that if I dressed up in knickerbockers and wore a large green felt cap, I would look like a toad. [September, 1933]

Having a record, albeit at times sporadic, that spans a significant period of one man’s life, from roughly the age of twenty-two to sixty, offers insight into another important quality of the dream space. Figures from his “waking life,” as he puts it, appear—and for Leiris this is a fascinating cast, he knew Georges Bataille, Georges Limbour, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, and countless other well-known writers, poets and artists. But it is his wife, Louise Godon, whom he calls “Z,” who is the abiding presence throughout, whether she is out with him, waiting to meet him somewhere, or comforting him when he awakens with a scream. Other, often anonymous, women may attract his attention in his dreams, but she is never far away, so it seems, from his heart or mind.

Of course, events in the real world also infiltrate the realm of dream and fantasy. During the war years, Leiris’ accounts show a striking amplification of military imagery and themes of impending death, ranging from the allegorical to the theatrical to the disturbingly realistic. This is to be expected, but these records collected and presented, chronologically as they are, map the interior response to exterior terror, in real time. The dreamer, now in mid-life, evolves during these years. He almost seems to become a more astute listener to his own anxious imagination. The entries recorded in the post-war years feature longer, more detailed, but no less surreal, narratives.

When Michel Leiris organized and published this collection in 1961, he would still live, and continue to dream, for another twenty-nine years. Alongside his autobiographical writings, he engaged in a rigorous and formal journal keeping project that spanned seventy years (1922-1989), but Nights as Days, Days as Nights stands as a particularly engaging poetic gift. The invitation to spend time in someone else’s dreams may seem odd, after all, our own dreams are typically of less interest to others than they are to us. But Leiris has a rare ability to transmit these imagined episodes in a way that is not only interesting, but encourages us to recall the way we experience ourselves and others in our own dreams, to become alert to the recurrences, the insecurities, and the wonder that lingers. As such, this very personal project becomes universal, enriching the nights and days of those who are open to it.

Nights as Days, Days as Nights by Michel Leiris, translated by Richard Sieburth, with a foreword by Maurice Blanchot, is published by Spurl Editions.