“The Horticulturalist of the Self”

In a 1963 issue of the New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag hailed the translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s major early works into English, unabashedly calling the ...

In a 1963 issue of the New York Review of Books, Susan Sontag hailed the translation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s major early works into English, unabashedly calling the French anthropologist “a hero of our time.” The Anglophone reception of Michel Leiris, Lévi-Strauss’s contemporary and for some time his colleague at the Musée de l’homme (Museum of Man) in Paris, by contrast, has proceeded far more slowly, with many false starts and digressions. Now, more than a quarter century after his death, the publication of two major works by Leiris, in magnificent English translations by Lydia Davis and Brent Hayes Edwards, signals a burst of wider recognition for this iconoclastic anthropologist and literary autobiographer.

Before Elena Ferrante, before Karl Ove Knausgaard, before the contemporary flourishing of autobiographical narrative, there was Michel Leiris’s memoir La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), published in four volumes between 1948 and 1976, the third volume of which has recently appeared in Davis’s translation, as Fibrils. (The previous two, Scratches and Scraps, both also brilliantly translated into English by Davis, in the 1990s, were reissued in 2017 alongside this new one.)

Likewise, before Michael Taussig, before Ruth Behar, before the “literary turn” in anthropology—indeed, more than 20 years before Lévi-Strauss’s literary ethnography, Tristes tropiques—there was Michel Leiris’s monumental L’Afrique fantôme, published in 1934 and finally released this year in an English translation by Edwards, as Phantom Africa. The fibrils—filaments of muscle, cellulose, or other organic tissue—of Leiris’s thought and writing have at last extended from interwar and postwar Paris to reach our contemporary moment.

If Lévi-Strauss was an exemplary figure of his own, midcentury moment, as Sontag claimed, then Leiris was ahead of his time. We might be tempted to think that anthropology began only in recent years to experiment with form and face up to its entanglements with imperialism. But Phantom Africa, published 80 years ago, is an extended account of the discipline’s complicity with empire, written in the form of a personal travel diary.


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Leiris was a member of the French ethnographic expedition, led by Marcel Griaule, that traveled across central Africa from Dakar, Senegal, to Djibouti between 1931 and 1933, bringing back thousands of objects to form the core of the anthropological collections of the Trocadéro Museum and later the Musée de l’homme. Leiris shows that these masks, musical instruments, and clothes were collected not only through purchase and barter but also by trickery, coercion, and theft.

In Kemeni, Mali, near the beginning of the expedition, for example, Griaule threatened the villagers with arrest (he lied that there were police hiding in the expedition truck) unless they handed over a sacred object for a paltry sum. When the initiates of the local Kono secret society (one of several male ritual organizations of the Bamana people) refused to retrieve it, Leiris reported, “We go ourselves, wrapping the holy object in [a] tarp and creeping out like thieves.”

This is the first of many descriptions of the expedition’s looting of African communities in the name of scientific knowledge. A number of the objects “collected” remain on public display to this day in Paris at the Musée du quai Branly, including at least one of the Kono masks stolen by Griaule and Leiris. This raises a further question: could Phantom Africa be used as testimony in a case for the repatriation of these sacred items to their proper homes?

The 645 pages of Phantom Africa show Leiris concluding again and again that colonialism was not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. The book is a fantastically elongated foreshadowing of the famous opening line of Tristes tropiques: “I hate traveling and explorers.” Leiris complains repeatedly about his fellow expedition members. He is frustrated by the narrow-mindedness of the colonial consuls and administrators who must be called on formally whenever the party arrives in a new location. He is likewise disappointed by Africa itself.

On first arrival in Dakar, he is reminded of Fréjus, a town on the French Mediterranean coast, and not in a good way: his impression is of “vague pretentiousness” masking “squalor.” Ten months later, the party approaches the Nile River in what is now South Sudan: “As we approach, the river comes into view, as unimposing as a common canal in France. I don’t dare admit my disappointment.”

If Lévi-Strauss was an exemplary figure of his midcentury moment, then Leiris was ahead of his time.

If you get the feeling this might not be too much fun to read, you are correct. And that, I think, is the point. Leiris narrates his own disillusionment as a way of puncturing a Eurocentric myth, even a phantom, of Africa: that it was a stage for romantic longing and a place of primitive simplicity. In the 1951 preface to the book’s second edition, he makes this clear. Leiris had hoped the trip would be a way to “break away from my previous intellectual habits, and, through contact with men from another culture and another race … to broaden my horizon to a truly human scale.”  With the benefit of postwar hindsight and in the era of decolonization, Leiris holds up his fantasy for inspection and finds it—and the discipline he chose for its enactment—wanting: “Thus conceived, ethnography could only disappoint me.”

The irony, then, is that a founding text of French anthropology is an eccentric, heterodox affair. Whereas Anglophone anthropology had to wait for the posthumous 1967 publication of Bronisław Malinowski’s private diaries for the field-changing realization that anthropologists could be racist and misogynist, in Francophone anthropology the complicities, foibles, and failures of its practitioners have been hiding in plain sight, almost from the very beginning, in Phantom Africa.

The antithesis of a swashbuckling hero, Leiris is assailed by doubts—and by insects: “All these days remain hollow. My motions are purely mechanical. Again, I am being driven to hate my companions.” And: “I am being devoured by fleas.” Pages are devoted to the mundane logistics and challenges of the expedition: trucks stuck on bad roads, protracted negotiations with donkey and mule owners, the car sickness of an expedition dog, Potamo. Exasperated, Leiris reflects, “Writing a travel book is an absurd undertaking.” The absurdity takes the form of a ubiquitous, swirling undercurrent, rather than the sudden flashes of defamiliarization you might expect from a writer who made his reputation as a surrealist and was chosen by Griaule for the expedition, though he had no ethnographic experience, because of a mutual affiliation with Georges Bataille’s journal Documents.

Leiris’s book contributes to French modernism not through automatic writing but rather through what Edwards, in his fine introduction to the book, calls its “dogged empiricism.” The published version of Leiris’s diary apparently differs little from the journal that he kept on the expedition: Edwards says that “Leiris was adamant that aside from minor corrections, the diary entries included in Phantom Africa were not revised after the fact.” The book has the on-the-spot authority that fieldwork-based anthropology requires, but it resists the genre requirements of anthropological writing: narrative arc, analytic structure, an argument.

One extended episode of conventional fieldwork is recounted. The party spends several months in Gondar, Ethiopia, where Leiris plunges deeply into observation of, and then partial participation in, the local zār rites, involving practices of healing, spirit possession, ritual dance, and animal sacrifice. Leiris befriends a local healer, Malkam Ayyahou, and her daughter, Emawayish, and spends many nights taking notes on the spirits that descend during ritual possession, marking the precise ways in which cuts are made during animal sacrifices, writing lyrically and precisely about what he witnesses during these ceremonies.


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Moving out of the Italian consul’s residence, Leiris opts to live full-time in Malkam Ayyahou’s compound. On a market visit shortly before the expedition is set to leave town, Leiris reports himself having a “great time,” finally leaving his irritations and frustrations behind, armed with his friendships and his insect repellent: “The sun beats down. It is very hot. I fan myself with my fly-swatter. I feel like I know everyone. I am happy.”

The intensity of Leiris’s experiences and emotions—not only happiness but also intoxication, anger, boredom, curiosity—contribute to the strength of his anthropological writing, with Malkam Ayyahou, Emawayish, and the group’s interpreter, Abba Jerome (Leiris cannot speak or write Amharic), all drawn as sympathetic, complex characters with multiple motivations for allowing Leiris to temporarily enter into their circle. Leiris lays bare the material, affective, even spiritual underpinnings of fieldwork, and the result does not undermine ethnographic practice but instead produces a superior piece of ethnographic work. In this way, too—in rejecting the phantom of disinterested scientific inquiry—Leiris was ahead of his time.

Lest this review become a kind of hero worship, however, I should note that Leiris’s journal also reveals him to be just another bourgeois white man taking advantage of his power in a search for adventure—a product of his time and an all too familiar figure in our own. Although Leiris documents the plunder that members of the expedition carry out, he continues in his official secretarial role and inventories each object, no matter its provenance, and participates in an elaborate effort to smuggle the expedition’s hoard out of Ethiopia.

Most disturbingly, at the end of the Gondar section in December 1932, Leiris reveals in a footnote a vital episode that had taken place months earlier, in late August, but is only vaguely alluded to in the journal entry for that earlier date: at a ceremony soon after he had met her, Leiris had groped Emawayish, “put my hand under her shamma,” a violation he self-indulgently calls “the single rather misplaced gesture I permitted myself with regard to Emawayish.”

This is a powerful confessional moment that tests the limits of the reader’s sympathy for Leiris. Moreover, it distorts the form of the diary and the reader’s fantasy that all significant events are included in the day’s record. The four-page journal entry for the ceremony in question, on August 24, 1932, emphasizes Leiris’s estrangement from the rituals (“I felt terribly foreign”) and refers obliquely to a “pleasant memory: that of Emawayish … with her soft, moist and cold flesh, which nauseates me and at the same time scares me a little.” This is a phrase whose meaning isn’t clear at all until Leiris’s retroactive explanation four months later.

That this episode is first glossed over and then presented out of chronological sequence raises the question: what other distortions occur in Phantom Africa? The reader is grateful for Leiris’s anthropological work, for his anti-romantic narration of the nitty-gritty of Europe’s production of knowledge about Africa. The reader is grateful, too, to Edwards for his consistently skillful translation and his willingness to undergo the “extreme endurance test” of rendering L’Afrique fantôme.

Leiris lays bare the material, affective, even spiritual underpinnings of fieldwork, and the result is a superior piece of ethnographic work.

Many pages of the journal are devoted to writing about the journal itself—its limitations, its absurdity, its comforts, its future publication. With a characteristic mixture of playfulness and gravity, Leiris inserts halfway through the book “a draft of the ‘Preface’ for the eventual publication of these notes.” Ultimately Leiris did not use those pages for an actual preface to Phantom Africa, so they function instead as a kind of phantom preface to the writer’s principal postwar literary project, The Rules of the Game: “Some will reproach me for attaching too much importance to MY individuality: for striving—good little horticulturalist of the self—to bring out MY impressions. … [But] it is in pushing the particular to the extreme that, often, one reaches the general … in carrying subjectivity to the peak that one attains objectivity.”

The good little horticulturalist of the self is an apt description of the autobiographical main character in Fibrils, and in the previous two volumes of The Rules of the Game. Happily, Lydia Davis has now returned to Leiris after a 20-year gap in which she established her reputation as perhaps our finest writer-translator, winning the Man Booker International Prize for her short stories and her translations of Proust and Flaubert.

The intellectual and literary ambition of The Rules of the Game is in constant, irresolvable tension with the ordinariness of its bourgeois Parisian narrator’s life. The drama is almost never in the events: a pleasant evening of drinking and looking at art in Copenhagen, a trip to an Italian spa with his wife, the regular walk from home to his office in the basement of the Musée de l’homme. The drama is all in the writing.

Like watching an acrobat, the reader marvels at Leiris’s narrator moving, now slowly, now swiftly, through a series of sinuous loops, curls, and excursions. And at almost every one of these turns, there is a reflection on writing: there are passages on the process of note-taking and the difficulty of recording remembered experiences, and segments where the process of writing, and the process of writing about writing, produces its own revelations.

There is, though, one highly dramatic event at the center of Fibrils: Leiris’s unsuccessful suicide attempt, in 1957. An extramarital affair and Leiris’s inability to cope with his conflicted feelings toward his (unnamed) lover and his wife (Zette, known here only as Z) pushed him to a barbiturate overdose. Ironically, Leiris is least self-indulgent when describing his own trauma and recovery. Detailed descriptions of the hospital ward, nurses, and fellow patients give the memoir momentary doses of narrative realism, but Leiris’s narrator is soon in flight again, to a long digression about an opera-performing aunt from Brussels and his attraction to lives on display as grand spectacle, even as his own life follows a mundane script of doctor’s appointments and a return to the overdue book review that had been sitting on his desk at the moment of his overdose.


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Toward the end of Fibrils, Leiris, walking his characteristic tightrope between pretentiousness and precision, makes explicit his literary and intellectual goals in life and in writing: “To make the frivolous play that takes place between words coincide with something of a vital seriousness,” and to “derive from this attitude toward words a more intense way of life and a rule for living.” There is a kind of ascetic quality to this mission, just as the ethnographer in Phantom Africa kept recording the ceremonies he witnessed, though he might have preferred “to let [him]self go.” There is also an auto-ethnographic quality to these observations, however, since Leiris is transcribing them from note cards he had kept during the writing process, so that he is observing and recording his writing practice at the same time that he is reflecting on his most elevated goals as a writer.

These statements could be the grand aspirations of any autobiographical writer, but they are also concrete, even mundane descriptions of words that appear on a “slip of paper” Leiris wrote. They are written drafts of goals for writing, but those goals cannot properly be enacted in writing, just as people’s actual lives cannot match their rules for living. It comes as little surprise when Leiris reveals, in the context of his initial recovery in his hospital bed, that he finds most comfort in reading “poets in which poetry itself becomes the theme of poetry.”

There has been a long gap between Leiris’s publication in French and his full arrival in the Anglophone world—and in fact that arrival has still not properly occurred, since the fourth volume of The Rules of the Game and at least one other major book, Contacts de civilisations en Martinique et en Guadeloupe, remain untranslated. Leiris’s slow, incomplete reception in the English-speaking world echoes his writing itself: it is full of loops and digressions and questions. Is Lydia Davis at work on the translation of the fourth volume of Leiris’s memoir, Frêle bruit (Frail Noise)? Is Brent Edwards planning a translation of Contacts de civilisations, a work that the Martinican writer Édouard Glissant called “quite simply, a great modern book”? I hope so.

The filaments that connect Leiris’s works to each other and to the wider questions of writing and ethics in the 20th and 21st centuries still have room for further extension. Michel Leiris is certainly not going to be our hero, or even our guide, in the age of Trumpian authoritarian masculinity, but he might just be our writer. icon

Featured image: Figure: Seated Male on Stool (18th–19th century), Dogon peoples, Mali. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York