Michel Leiris, Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards, Seagull Books ISBN 9780857423771
Travel, as a preoccupation of modernity, has much to do with the essentially chauvinist belief that one possesses a purer, higher self that will be accessed if only one ventures into the great elsewhere. This is the stuff of all early twentieth-century journey narratives, where the destination is merely what fills in the frame. The traveler is not autotelic, however much the trope may idealize sojourning for its own sake. As the previous century gained steam, no landscape existed that was not already half-coloured-in by the expectations of giddy anthropologists, braying explorers, asinine amateur adventurers and the like.
Michel Leiris’ Phantom Africa, translated here by Brent Haye Edwards, is a dense salmagundi of diaristic musings. Running to over 700 pages in this edition, the book is a prodigious thicket that came about when Leiris enlisted with the Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an expedition under pre-eminent anthropologist Marcel Griaule that lasted from 1931 to 1933. The main purpose of the trip, which traversed its way through the French colonies of West and Central Africa, as well as into the Belgian Congo and Anglo-Egypt Sudan, was to gather African art and artifacts for the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. These august institutions, like many other European museums, filled their halls with looted art: the expedition immodestly gathered some 3700 objects which went on to be displayed and housed and transferred between French galleries with little thought given to the prospect of returning them to their places of origin. This wholesale harvesting was undergirded by a perverse desire to show artefacts out of context, so that they became symbols of the collector’s largesse (‘how good of us to notice these people who would otherwise merit no attention’), at the same time that the larger colonial subjugation declared that the identity being pilfered from didn’t matter. As Edwards remarks in his scrupulous introduction, “despite the air of benevolence attached to this enterprise – which for Griaule represented a means of preserving and publicizing the richness and diversity of ‘native’ cultures – there can be no doubt that it was undertaken explicitly in the service of the French colonial empire”.
At the time of the Mission’s initiation, anthropology was still being legitimized as an institutional discipline in France. Its work, like other practices of coercive collection and curation, was to categorize and give meaning to the non-Western world. The meaning given would cement ties between the academic discipline and the administration of the colonies. Similar exercises were occurring in South Africa, where anthropology’s academic gravitas would be used to lend authenticity to the dubious credos of the scientific racism community. In his later life, Michel Leiris became a left-wing French intellectual of the sort that is often parodied now, and he died in his 89th year as a deeply influential figure in French writing. His work evinces a nuanced preoccupation with fractal states of being, with the impossibility of wholeness, and with the ultimate narcissism of ethnography. But in the early 1930s, Leiris was not, initially at least, thinking about the complicities of anthropology.
This travel journal, published in 1934, drops deep into the murky waters of colonial exploration. It is an account of itself, and a critique from within. That is to say,
Leiris is writing creatively about his failure to write what was expected of him.
He had met Griaule while working in the offices of the avant-garde journal Documents, and Griaule had obviously felt confident enough in Leiris’ credentials to offer the twenty-seven year old the chance to be part of his next ethnographical mission to Africa. Leiris, who was a depressive, was persuaded by his psychoanalyst that the trip would be just the ticket to cure his quarter-life anxiety, and so was contracted to document things in a particular way, to observe and to process and to grant meaning to what he saw and experienced.
His aims, such as they existed, were to cut through the distortions of his own culture, using science:
A research trip undertaken in accordance with the standards of ethnography – such as the expedition from Dakar to Djibouti in which I am planning to take part, under the direction of my friend Griaule – should help to dissipate no small number of these errors and consequently, to undermine a number of their consequences, including racial prejudice, an iniquity against which one can never struggle enough. This suffices to give this enterprise a great human significance in addition to its scientific interest.
Leiris was less of a thoroughgoing racist (to borrow an Achebean term) than his literary hero Joseph Conrad, but his ideas about the Africa he was to sojourn through betray the modernist obsession with slipping free from the repressiveness of his own time. He was against French colonialism, without knowing how to disentangle himself from it. His writing is thus a way of thinking through this dilemma. He had been gifted an excuse to leave behind his milieu, even though that milieu imprinted itself on him. Reading Leiris, it becomes apparent that the Mission was less of a radical departure than it was the logical follow-on from the night life of interwar Paris, where Leiris had been enraptured by African American music, and the glimpses of Black culture he saw presented therein. Here is Leiris, writing in 1939 of his nights in Paris:
In the period of great license that followed the hostilities, jazz was a sign of allegiance, an orgiastic tribute to the colors of the moment. It functioned magically, and its means of influence can be compared to a kind of possession. It was the element that gave these celebrations their true meaning, with communion by dance, latent or manifest exoticism, and drinks, the most effective means of bridging the gap that separates individuals from each other at any kind of gathering. Swept along by violent bursts of tropical energy, jazz still had enough of a ‘dying civilization’ about it, of humanity blindly submitting to The Machine, to express quite completely the state of mind of at least some of that generation: a more or less conscious demoralization born of the war, a naïve fascination with the comfort and the latest inventions of progress, a predilection for a contemporary setting whose insanity we nonetheless vaguely anticipated, an abandonment to the animal joy of experiencing the influence of a modern rhythm, an underlying aspiration to a new life in which more room would be made for the impassioned frankness we inarticulately longed for. In jazz, too came the first appearance of Negroes, the manifestation and the myth of black Edens which were to lead me to Africa and, beyond Africa, to ethnography.
This is Gatsbyean philosophy as manifesto. It is the young person’s enthrallment to pop. But it gives clear (albeit after-the fact) signal to the idea that for Leiris, who was a lapsed surrealist, the trip to Africa was a Katabatic journey to recover something that could be made to fit into the European imaginary in enlivening ways. The resonance of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is clear, but the war-shy thrust into sybaritic unthinking also foretells the Beats. What Leiris apprehended in urban Paris was the whirring animist machinery of cosmopolitan modernity (and jazz is nothing if not the soundtrack of the modern age). In his role as secretary-archivist, the text he produced was a felt experience of the disorienting blur of a world moving in different rhythm to his own.
From the very first, Phantom Africa is about the search for an exoticized elsewhere. Often, Leiris is decidedly lugubrious about the land’s failure to cohere into the expected aesthetic:
Around 10’o clock, the coast of the Rio de Oro. A barren landscape, giving a terrible impression of Africa . . .
He has little time, too, for the modern products of French colonialism’s racialized reach. Casually watching the scenes of departure as they alight from Bordeaux, he sees some black workers bidding their friends goodbye and notes that:
One of them, dressed in a “triple-breasted” navy-blue suit, wearing a checkered cap and black patent-leather shoes with white suede, has a grand air of elegance.
Leiris’ noticing betrays the man’s presence and his garb as out of place to white eyes. It isn’t difficult to draw a line from this seeing to Marlowe’s description of the boiler-stoker in Heart of Darkness as resembling “a dog in a parody of breeeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind-legs.” A month or so later, Leiris finds himself unimpressed by Dakar (“a bath of vulgarity”):
Unfortunately, the black men here are no nicer than the Europeans. I think of a black dock employee, sporting a luxurious colonial cap and wearing an immaculate boibou, whose conversation was sprinkled with Parisian expressions like “Laisse pisser le merinos! Ne t’enfais pas!” or “Tu m’as fait un(sic) faux bond!” As the director of economic affairs told us, and as so many other colonials say, in places where the black man is in direct contact with European civilization, he only picks up the bad parts.
For the young author, the good black people are the ones who conform to his exoticization, not those whose visual or vocabular registers mark them out as coevals. Leiris’ omnivorous gaze is also, at times, a sexual one. He observes an accident almost befall a crew of workers, but draws his attention swiftly away like a sudden turn of the head:
In the patrol boat, there is a very beautiful young boy who handles the pump; he must be the catamite of the Moors on the crew.
He will notice “a very pretty Negress” before immediately deciding that her frills and coquetry mean she must be a prostitute. He will casually remark of the seven Syrian brothers who own a provisions store, that “every one of their shopgirls has slept with at least one of them. Many of their female European clients sleep with them, too, as a way to settle their bills.” This is a man attempting to find a way into understanding what he is looking at, though the codes of sex and domination deliver less than they promise. Nevertheless, he persists.
But his initial faith in authentic indigene just waiting to be found is rapidly eroded when he realizes that there were ineluctable asymmetries of power between the expedition of which he was part, and the people he encountered. These asymmetries couldn’t help but call attention to themselves, frustrating the author’s fantasy of noble encounter. Leiris becomes ever more aware that he is attempting to access a space that negates him, or is at least indifferent to his being there. He grows increasingly aware of the obfuscations, obstructions, and evasions that are the outcome of some of his encounters with the black people around him, and he is also increasingly aware of how easy it is, when faced with such intransigence, to succumb to the colonial violence he deplores.
Again, anthropology is the great enabler. The anthropological jaunt conjoins to the business of its colonial sponsor via a boastful logic: we are right to colonize, because we recognize value, since we possess so much of it ourselves.
Anthropology has long functioned as a vehicle for the commodification of the Other.
This wholesale coercion proclaims that the conjunction between looted object and subsequent display site is edifying for the artifact. It is thus not a surprise that the expedition progresses from collecting household objects to gathering stories, to commandeering sacred objects via blackmail and bullying. The violence the expedition represents acquires a modality where it expresses alienation from what is being dominated.
Leiris grows increasingly aware of the bad faith of these encounters. But what we as readers glimpse fleetingly in the chaotic proliferation of recorded moments is the presence of fleeting temporalities, ones that open up in the distance between the shadow and substance of perception and reality. The minoritized people, the indigenes from whom knowledge is sought, come to life in these moments where they are beyond translation, eluding understanding, practicing refusal, resisting reduction. They are misrecognized as ‘The Other’, and that misrecognition opens up a fugitive space in the symbolic order of things when they refuse to be called by that name.
It is fugitive because it exists only briefly, before it is subsumed in the maw of knowledge collection.
What Leiris thus experiences is the disorienting warp that is the condition of being out of sync with the locals. The presumed notion underpinning the anthropological expedition – that European time is the point against which all Others are measured, translated and given value – is not a suitable apparatus for making their way through these territories. Each of his entries, though they encode a growing ennui, are for the reader a barely distinguished overrun. The text is an engine that misfires, revs up randomly, cannot (finally) escape itself. Its frustrations and futilities are approachable: we have, many of us, experienced the sense that the conversation we’re logged into isn’t the one we would prefer to be having: for Leiris, the sense is one of being trapped in an engagement where no desirable outcome is possible. Forced into an uncanny rootlessness, the author has to reckon with what is, at its core, boredom. Though there are occasionally moments of delight, he is compelled to admit that the people he encounters are no more interesting than the yokels in his home country.
Leiris was a writer and bizarrist, who in his other work writes of the need to pay unstinting attention to what is too particular and too personal. He believed thoroughly in the power of going astray, of being detoured by the unexpected. The book discards objective annotating in favour of the impression, the straying of detail, the ever-present happenstance. It is a book marked by the steady accretion of paratext: letters pile up in the margins. Notes, prefaces, footnotes, interview transcriptions, songs, endnotes, telegrams, lyrics, are all sutured into the book, and so the page vibrates with the tension of these different sayings. In this new edition, Brent places letters Leiris sent to his wife Zette in the margins: the reader might move between the entry and a letter written on the same day, for instance, setting up an unsteady game. What does he leave out? What does he choose to say?
The divergent forms of narrating experience converge in a way that deforms the book for the better.
The more of the colonies Leiris sees, the more he despises his fellow white people.
In a letter to Zette, to whom he was sending installments of the journal:
The people of Dakar are horrible. They’re like people in Fréjus, or people in mediocre inns for folks out for a Sunday drive. People like this spoil everything and make you wish you were anywhere else.
Leiris’ trenchant critique is all the more fascinating because his decision to record events in this way crystallizes the experience of travelling through a world that is experiencing ruction:
We pass the Cap Blanc under a violent wind that showers us with sand. We make out the lighthouse where the guardian and a soldier who was with him were recently killed by Moors. The culprits were lynched by the soldiers before they could be brought aboard the Saint-Firmin, on its previous voyage, to be transported to the authorities.
Phantom Africa is a text with porous borders, allowing itself a textual mongrelism that is often amusing, after a fashion:
In the morning, a conversation and aperitif with the commandant. He tells us that to combat fever, the Krumen on board habitually put a hot pepper in the anus. Moreover, the pepper is one of the essential elements of their food.
This is a curious book to try to read in 2020. The vexing question (why does it vex? because to admit theft is to admit guilt, thus opening oneself to censure) of whether cultural artifacts should be returned to the countries from which they were pilfered is being rehearsed in the public domain. Popular media has given the question memeable provenance through the figure of Eric Killmonger, Michael B. Jordan’s anti-villain character in 2018’s glossy high-grossing Black Panther action film.
From our perspective, we know that France’s folksy colonialism in North and West Africa, and its other theatres of imperialism, styled itself as sociality, when in fact it was about vampiric exploitation and the enforcement of unity as a means of generating French citizens. It sought to use the practices of empire to extend itself via repetition. It was a self-congratulatory scheme in which French values were thrust upon the peoples it had colonized, and the cultural history of those countries was then submerged. To gather up cultural belongings in an anthropological knapsack is to say that culture belongs to a superceded time.
A simplified reading of Phantom Africa might propose then, predictably, that the text was ahead of its time. After all, while Leiris might not have been an anti-colonialist, his writing evinces a wariness – perhaps even a contempt – of French colonialism. The text cannot help but court this reading. But it also deflects it, prompting more interesting readings. Leiris’ chien et loup wanderings amid societies where the dynamic of change is latent or imminent, make for an interesting scene of reading. Though it is sometimes difficult to shake the idea that Leiris’ narrator feels himself the victim here – the victim of a borrowed falsehood – the despondency of the experiencing self is perhaps proof that the attitudes that underpin such wanderings are not indissoluble.
The ‘phantom’, then, is two-fold. It is at one remove the Africa that does not exist, the exoticized Africa that turns out to be banal and quotidian; but it is also the Africa that can only be felt because it lurks beyond the range of the writer’s gaze. With a work like this, such cliches magnetize themselves and resist dislodging. There are no barbarians. The voyager finds only himself. And yet. . . it is the ‘and yet’ that creates a shimmering tension through which, briefly, the phantom might be glimpsed.
Sand images by Garth Erasmus