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Odd Man Out


by Michel Leiris, Translated from the French by Richard Howard
Grossman, 162 pp., $4.00

Plunked down in translation in the year 1963, Michel Leiris’s brilliant and repulsive autobiographical narrative L’Age d’Homme, is at first rather puzzling. Manhood, as it is called in English, appears without any covering note. There is no way for the reader to find out that Leiris, now in his sixties and the author of some twenty books none of which are yet in English, is an important poet and senior survivor of the Surrealist generation in Paris in the 1920s, and a fairly eminent anthropologist. Nor does the English edition explain that Manhood is not recent—that it was in fact written in the early 1930s, first published in 1939, and republished with an important prefatory essay, “Literature Considered as a Bullfight,” in 1946, when it had a great succès de scandale. Even aside from the fact that autobiographies are not usually attractive unless we have some prior interest—or reason for becoming interested—in the writer, the fact that Leiris is unknown here complicates matters, because his book makes unusual demands on our interest in the author as a man.

In 1929, Leiris suffered a severe mental crisis, which included becoming impotent, and underwent a year or so of psychiatric treatment. In 1930, when he was thrity-four years old, he began Manhood. At that time, he was a poet, strongly influenced by Apollinaire and by his friend, Max Jacob; he had already published several volumes of poetry, beginning with Simulacre (1925); and in the same year that he began Manhood, 1930, he wrote a remarkable novel in the Surrealist manner, Aurora. But shortly after beginning Manhood (it was not finished until 1935), Leiris entered upon a new career—as an anthropologist. He made a field trip to Dakar-Dijibouti (Africa) in 1931-33, and upon his return to Paris joined the staff of the Musée de l’Homme, where he remains, in an important curatorial post, to the present day. No trace of this startling shift—from bohemian and poet to scholar and museum bureaucrat—is recorded in the wholly intimate disclosures of Manhood. There is nothing in the book of the accomplishments of the poet or the anthropologist. One feels there cannot be; to have recorded them would mar the impression of failure.

Instead of a history of his life, Leiris gives us a catalogue of its limitations. Manhood begins not with “I was born in…” but with a matter-of-fact description of the author’s body. We learn in the first pages of Leiris’s incipient baldness, of a chronic inflammation of the eyelids, of his meager sexual capacities, of his tendency to hunch his shoulders when sitting, and to scratch his anal region when he is alone, of a traumatic tonsillectomy undergone as a child, of an equally traumatic infection in his penis; and, subsequently, of his hypochondria, of his cowardice in all situations of the slightest danger, of his inability to speak any foreign language fluently, of his pitiful incompetence in physical sports. His character, too, is described under the aspect of limitation: Leiris presents it as “corroded” with morbid and aggressive fantasies concerning the flesh in general and women in particular. Manhood is a manual of abjection-anecdotes and fantasies and verbal associations and dreams set down in the tones of a man, partly anesthetized, curiously fingering his own wounds.

One may think of Leiris’s book as an especially powerful instance of the venerable preoccupation with sincerity peculiar to French letters. From Montaigne’s Essays and Rousseau’s Confessions through Stendhal’s journals to the modern confession of Gide, Jouhandeau, and Genet, the great writers of France have been concerned to a singular extent with the detached presentation of intimate feelings, particularly those connected with sexuality and ambition. In the name of sincerity, both in autobiographical form and in the form of fiction (as in Constant, Laclos. Proust), French writers have been coolly exploring erotic manias, and speculating on techniques of emotional disengagement. It is this longstanding pre-occupation with sincerity—over and beyond emotional expressiveness—that gives a severity, a certain classicism even to most French works of the romantic period. But to see Leiris’s book simply in this way does it an injustice. Manhood is odder, harsher than such a lineage suggests. Far more than any avowals to be found in the great French autobiographical documents of incestuous feelings, sadism, homosexuality, masochism and crass promiscuity, what Leiris admits to is obscene and repulsive. It is not especially what Leiris has done that shocks. Action is not his forte, and his vices are those of a fearfully cold sensual temperament—wormy failures and deficiencies more often than lurid acts. It is because Leiris’s attitude is unredeemed by the slightest tinge of self-respect. This lack of esteem or respect for himself is obscene. All the other great confessional works of French letters proceed out of self-love, and have the clear purpose of defending and justifying the self. Leiris loathes himself, and can neither defend nor justify. Manhood is an exercise in shamelessness—a sequence of self-exposures of a craven, morbid, damaged temperament. In the course of his narration Leiris reveals—not incidentally—what is disgusting about himself. What is disgusting is the topic of his book.

One may well ask: who cares? Manhood undoubtedly has a certain value as a clinical document; it is full of lore for the professional student of mental aberration. But the book would not be worth attention if it did not have value as literature. This, I think, is considerable—though, like so many modern works of literature, it makes its way as anti-literature. (Indeed, the whole modern movement in the arts presents itself as anti-art.) Paradoxically, it is just its animus to the idea of literature that makes Manhood—a very carefully (though not beautifully) written and subtly executed book—interesting as literature. In the same way, it is precisely through Manhood’s unstated rejection of the rationalist project of self-understanding that Leiris makes his contribution to it.

The question that Leiris answers in Manhood in not an intellectual one. It is what we would call a psychological—and the French, a moral—question. Leiris is not trying to understand himself. Neither has he written Manhood to be forgiven; nor to be loved. Leiris writes to appall, and thereby to receive from his readers the gift of a strong emotion—the emotion needed to defend himself against the indignation and disgust he expects to arouse in his readers. Literature becomes a mode of psychotechnics. As he explains in the prefatory essay “De la Litérature Considérée comme une Tauromachie” (which translator Richard Howard plausibly renders as “The Autobiographer as Torero”), to be a writer, a man of letters, is not enough for Leiris. It is boring, pallid. It lacks danger. Leiris must feel, as he writes, the equivalent of the bullfighter’s knowledge that he risks being gored. Only then is writing worthwhile. But how can the writer achieve this invigorating sense of mortal danger? Leiris’s answer is: through self-exposure, through not defending himself; not through fabricating works of art, objectifications of himself, but through laying himself—his own person—on the line of fire. But we, the readers, the spectators of this bloody act, know that when it is performed well (think of how the bullfight is discussed as a preeminently aesthic, ceremonial act) it becomes, whatever the disavowals of literature—literature.

A writer who subscribes to a program similar to Leiris’s for creating literature inadvertently, out of self-laceration and self-exposure, is Norman Mailer. For some years now Mailer has conceived of writing as a blood sport (more often in the image of boxing than bullfighting), and insisted that the better writer is the man who dares more, who risks more. For this reason, Mailer has used himself increasingly as the subject of his essays and quasifiction. But there are big differences between Mailer and Leiris, and they are revealing. In Mailer, this enthusiasm for danger appears much of the time in a base form—as megalomania, and a tiresome competitiveness with other writers. In Leiris’s writings, there is no awareness of a literary scene, of other writers, fellow-toreros competing for the most ravishing danger. (On the contrary. Leiris, who has known practically everybody, painters as well as writers, is extremely deferential when he discusses the work and person of his friends). Mailer in his writings is ultimately more concerned with success than with danger; danger is only a means to success. Leiris in his writings is not concerned with success at all. Mailer records in his recent essays and public appearances his perfecting of himself as a virile instrument of letters; he is perpetually in training, getting ready to launch himself from his own missile pad into a high, beautiful orbit; even his failures may yet be turned to successes. Leiris records the defeats of his own virility; completely incompetent in the arts of the body, he is perpetually in training to extinguish himself; even his successes look to him like failures. Perhaps the essential contrast between the optimistic, populist temperament of most American writers and the drastically alienated posture of the best European writers can be seen here, Leiris is a much more subjective, less ideological writer than Mailer. Mailer shows us how his private travails and weaknesses produce the strength of his public work—and wants to engage the reader in this process of transformation. But Leiris doesn’t see any continuity between his public self, distinguished as that may be, and his private weaknesses. While Mailer’s motives for self-exposure may be described as spiritual (not to mention worldly) ambitiousness—a desire to prove himself through repeated ordeals—Leiris’s motives are more desperate: he wishes to prove, not that he is heroic, but that he is at all. Leiris loathes his physical cowardice and ineptness. Yet, far from wishing to exonerate himself for his ugly failings, what he seems to wish is to convince himself that this unsatisfactory body—and this unseemly character—really exist. Haunted by a sense of the unreality of the world, and ultimately of himself, Leiris searches for a strong, unequivocal feeling. But, like a regular text-book romantic, the only emotion Leiris acknowledges is the one which involves a risk of death. “With a bitterness that I never suspected before I have just realized that all I need in order to save myself is a certain fervor,” he writes in Manhood, “but that this world lacks anything for which I would give my life.” All emotions are mortal to Leiris, or they are nothing. What is real is defined as that which involves the risk of death. One knows from his books that Leiris has made several serious attempts at suicide; it might be said that, for him, life becomes real only when placed under the threat of suicide. The same is true of the vocation of literature. In a view like Leiris’s, literature has value only as a means of enhancing virility, or as a means of suicide.

Needless to say, it does neither. Literature usually begets literature. Whatever the therapeutic value of his self-exposure in Manhood, Leiris’s mode of operating upon himself did not end with this book. His literary work since the war does not show a resolution of the problems set forth in Manhood, only further types of complication. Under the general title La Regle du Jeu (The Rule of the Game), Leiris has been writing essays on sense memories of his childhood, private images of death, of sexual fantasies, the associative meanings of certain words—more discursive and more complex autobiographical forays than Manhood. Two of the projected three volumes have appeared: Biffures (Deletions) in 1948, and Fourbis (Whatchamacallits) in 1961. The mocking titles tell the story. In Fourbis, one finds again the old complaint: “If there is nothing in love—or taste—for which I am ready to face death, I am only stirring up empty space and everything cancels itself out, myself included.” The same theme is continued in his recent Vivantes Cendres, innommées (Living Ashes, Unnamed), a cycle of poems which are a “journal” of Leiris’s attempted suicide in 1958, and illustrated with line drawings by his friend Giacometti. For, it seems, the greatest problem Leiris faces is the chronic thinness of his emotions. The life which he dissects in all his books is polarized between what he calls his “huge capacity for boredom, from which everything else proceeds” and a staggering burden of morbid fantasies, memories of childhood injuries, fear of punishment, and failure ever to be at home in his own body. By writing about his weaknesses Leiris courts the punishment which he dreads, hoping that he will rouse in himself an unprecedented courage. One has the impression of a man flogging himself just in order to make his lungs consent to draw air.

The tone of Manhood however, is anything but vehement. Leiris speaks somewhere in the book of preferring English clothes, of affecting a sober and correct style “actually a little stiff and even funereal—which corresponds so well, I believe, to my temperament.” This is not a bad description of the style of the book. The extreme coldness of his sexual disposition, he explains, entails a profound distaste for the feminine, the liquid, the emotional; a life-long fantasy is that of his own body becoming petrified, crystalline, mineralized. Everything that is impersonal and cold fascinates Leiris. For example, he is attracted to prostitution because of its character as a ritual; and “brothels are like musems,” he explains. It seems his choice of the profession of anthropology also owes to the same taste: he is attracted by the extreme formalism of primitive societies. This is clear in the book which Leiris wrote about his two-year field trip, L’Afrique Fantôme (1934), as well as in several excellent anthropological monographs. Leiris’s love of formalism, reflected in the cool underplayed style of Manhood, explains a seeming paradox. For it is surely remarkable that the man who has dedicated himself to ruthless self-exposure has written a brilliant monograph on the use of masks in African religious rituals (“Possession and its Theatrical Aspects among the Ethiopians of Gondar,” 1958): that the man who has carried the notion of candor to its most painful limits has also concerned himself professionally with the idea of secret languages (“The Secret Language of the Dogons of Sanga.” 1948).

This coolness of tone of Leiris’s book—combined with a great intelligence and subtlety about motives—is what constitutes Manhood’s very high order of literary merit. Yet, ultimately, I must confess to a certain impatience with, and distaste for, the book. Apart from the brilliant prefatory essay, Manhood is deliberately formless; there is no reason for it to end where it does; such types of insight are interminable. The book has no movement or direction; it provides no consummation or climax. Manhood is another of those very modern books which are fully intelligible only as part of the project of a life; a book, in other words, is an action, giving on to other actions. The danger of this type of literature is that, item by item (rather than retrospectively viewed as part of a body of work) it is often boring. But perhaps we shall have to acknowledge boredom as an indispensable technique of modern literature, as the ugly and the messy have already become essential resources of modern painting.


Problems of Translation March 19, 1964