On April 15, 1931, a host of Parisian luminaries gathered to attend a boxing match showcasing “Panama” Al Brown—an Afro-Panamanian bantamweight and the sport’s first Latino world champion. If a resurrected Proust had wanted to evoke the social life of Paris at the time, he could have done worse than to focus one of his swirling crowd scenes around this sporting gala. Marcel Mauss, the great sociologist, nephew of Émile Durkheim and well-known author of the brilliant The Gift (Essai sur le don), fresh from giving his first classes as the new chair of sociology at the Collège de France, epitomized the elite of the French academy. Representing the social elite was the Vicomte de Noailles, patron of all the arts. He had commissioned music from Francis Poulenc, financed Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’or, and was the first major collector of Salvador Dalí. Accompanying him was his friend and protégé Jean Cocteau, who (astonishingly) was then Panama Al Brown’s boxing manager and (rather less astonishingly) seems to have been one of his client’s many male lovers. Brown was no more a standard pugilist than Cocteau—artist, writer, filmmaker, doyen of the avant-garde—was a traditional manager: he had been a jazz singer in Paris and tap-danced in Josephine Baker’s Revue Nègre.
The bout was a fund-raiser, and a successful one, yielding more than 100,000 francs for a notable cause: Brown announced that he was fighting “to increase the knowledge about and understanding of Africa.” In particular, the event was in support of an expedition across French Africa, stretching more than five thousand miles from Dakar, Senegal, capital of French West Africa, to Djibouti, capital of French Somaliland. Subvention had already arrived from the French parliament, various other French ministries and institutions, and the Rockefeller Foundation, but this mission—at its core a shopping trip that was to last more than a year and a half—would not be cheap. Every franc counted.
The Mission ethnographique et linguistique Dakar–Djibouti was led by the entrepreneurial anthropologist Marcel Griaule and included a couple of trained linguists, a botanist, an ethnomusicologist, an official artist, a fellow with expertise in transportation as well as in film and photography, and a handyman who also served as a nurse, mechanic, cobbler, and barber. Then there was the mission’s “secretary-archivist,” Michel Leiris, who was also in attendance at that Paris gala.
Leiris, not yet thirty, was a curious choice for the position. He was a lightly occupied litterateur: a poet, a critic, and an editor at Georges Bataille’s Surrealist journal Documents, a fantastic mélange of ethnography, archaeology, and music and art criticism, with photographic celebrations of everything from abattoirs to the big toe. Leiris—who had allied himself with André Breton’s first Surrealist manifesto in 1924, only to be expelled in a “purge” that followed a few years later—had extensive connections in the art world and was married to the stepdaughter of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the first great art dealer of the Cubists. He earned his bona fides as a Surrealist poet in 1925 with the publication of Simulacre, whose method of composition he described like this:
On a blank page inscribe—disconnectedly, in the greatest possible disorder—a certain number of words that strike you as being resonant. When you feel prompted to link several of them together, circle each and construct a sentence. Continue doing this until you have exhausted all the words on the page, except (perhaps) for one or two which will supply the title.
The results can be oddly pleasing:
hors des perspectives du langage
le règne des ossatures s’abreuve
au nid muet de l’énigme.
[outside the perspectives of language
the reign of skeletons drinks deep
at the voiceless nest of the enigma.]
His only other published book at that point was Le point cardinal, which an admirer once described as a “sustained prose narrative of erotic transcendence,” providing an account of “the gradual attainment of surreality by a speaking subject.” Is this someone you’d entrust with keeping the official record of an ethnographic odyssey?
“What inspired Griaule to take me on as a collaborator?” Leiris himself asked. “This remains unclear to me; but for it I will always be grateful to Griaule, or to the demon that inspired him.” We all have reason to be grateful to that demon. L’Afrique fantôme, the account of the Dakar–Djibouti mission that Leiris published in 1934, the year after his return, is by turns annoying, charming, fascinating, and simply bizarre. This book is no bantamweight, weighing in at some seven hundred pages of exhausting if irresistible reading. We should be grateful, too, for Brent Hayes Edwards’s fluid and intelligent new translation and the rich but unobtrusive scholarly apparatus that surrounds it. Some of the many rewards of this edition are to be found in the margins of the text, where Edwards has assembled useful counterpoints of various kinds, including excerpts from the letters Leiris wrote along the way to his wife, Zette.
Many have seen this intensely personal work as the opening salvo in a lifelong onslaught of autobiographical writing, a predecessor to Leiris’s 1939 L’Âge d’homme (Manhood), which Susan Sontag described in these pages as a “brilliant and repulsive autobiographical narrative.” Manhood’s successors, the four volumes of La Règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), published from 1948 to 1976, were to make their author one of the most admired French literary figures of his generation. Given his wide and weighty reputation, it’s surprising that an English translation of Phantom Africa has had to wait more than eighty years.
The steamship Saint-Firmin set sail from Bordeaux for West Africa about a month after that rather surreal sporting gala, with the Dakar–Djibouti mission team aboard. They had been charged with collecting art and artifacts for the two major Parisian museums that then displayed African material culture: the Natural History Museum and the ethnographic museum of the Trocadéro, where two decades earlier Picasso, encountering its collection of African masks, had come to realize, in his words, “what painting was all about.” Along the way, the mission’s members were to conduct high-speed interrogations of a score of cultures and languages—a sort of anthropological speed dating. There were only two extended visits, with Dogon villagers in Mali and with the Amhara people in Gondar, Ethiopia. The mission had the support of the French authorities when it was moving through French West Africa and French Somaliland, in places that are now in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Niger, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, and Djibouti; but it passed as well through the Belgian Congo and British Nigeria, where it received the friendly support of the local administrators of these other European powers; its patron for the stay in Gondar was the local consul of Mussolini’s Italian government, which was soon to make Ethiopia one of its colonial possessions (though for less than five years).
None of this stopped Leiris from remarking critically on the habits of colonial officials or from noticing the darker sides of the colonial system and the barriers it placed between Europeans and Africans. After a drunken exchange of “lyrical compliments” stressing the brotherhood of man with a group of Dogon elders, Leiris writes:
What a sinister comedy these old Dogon and I have been playing! A European hypocrite, all sugar and honey, and a Dogon hypocrite, so trite because so much weaker—and accustomed to tourists, in any case—will not be brought any closer by the exchange of fermented liquor. The only link there is between us is a common duplicity.
Three months later, he says he is “less and less able to stand the idea of colonization” and suggests that all the talk about the welfare of the natives is in the service of reducing resistance so they will “pay their taxes.” In a letter to Picasso, he writes that “the arrogance of white men, more something stupid than positively malicious, is on display at every occasion.” Edwards rightly speaks of Leiris’s “contemptuous depictions of the parade of mediocre colonial administrators.”
The most consistent attitude of the book, though, is not really anticolonialism but a kind of generalized misanthropy. If the administrators are stupid, the locals are dishonest, manipulative, duplicitous—as, of course, are the members of the Mission Dakar–Djibouti; as, of course, is Leiris. It took him another couple of decades to “blossom,” as Edwards puts it in his helpful introduction, “into a full-fledged anticolonial stance.”
Leiris’s journal is nevertheless franker about the mission’s methods than Griaule and the mission’s government sponsors would have preferred. On September 6, 1931, visiting the village of Kemeni—in what is now south-central Mali—Griaule pockets a couple of flutes he finds in a shrine, hiding them “inside his boots.” Not long afterward, Griaule gets fed up with the refusal of the chief of a Bamana shrine to agree on the terms for viewing an important ritual object, which Leiris describes as “an enormous mask of a vaguely animal form, unfortunately deteriorated but entirely covered with a crust of coagulated blood.” The object played a central role in the ceremonies of the kono society, whose initiates learn secret knowledge from a ritual expert. Griaule decides that he has had enough of the locals, and then decrees
that, since they are clearly mocking us, they must hand over the kono as recompense in exchange for 10 francs, or the police supposedly hiding in the truck will take the chief and the village notables to San, where they will have to explain themselves to the administration. Appalling blackmail!
Edwards’s marginal note to the passage tells us, “In the manuscript, ‘Appalling blackmail’ replaced a sentence that Leiris crossed out: ‘A peculiar operation involving all sorts of things, from simple bluffing to blackmail, the abuse of power, fraud, and pure profanation.’” Ten francs in today’s money is five or six dollars—for the central ritual object of Bamana traditional religion.
The following day, Griaule orders Leiris and a fellow mission member to creep into a shrine in the next village and steal another piece, without the bother of having to negotiate a price. “My heart is beating very loudly,” Leiris wrote that evening, “because, since yesterday’s fiasco, I am more keenly aware of the enormity of our crime.” It’s no wonder that he came to refer to the objects they collected as butin, a word that shares its Germanic origins with the English word “booty.”
Still, given recent debates about the return of colonial expropriations, it’s worth pointing out, as Leiris did later, that episodes like these were rare. “We paid for almost everything,” Leiris told some younger anthropologists more than fifty years on. If the flutes and the kono have rightful owners somewhere who might want to make a claim on them, much of the rest of the butin seems to have been acquired for an agreed price from people who were entitled to sell it. And so these objects (many of which are now in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris) can continue to serve the function Leiris hoped they would: reducing ethnocentric prejudices by making the civilizations of Africa intelligible to Europeans.
André Breton, in his first “Surrealist Manifesto,” wrote, “A story is told that, in former times, Saint-Pol-Roux used to have a placard posted on the door of his manor house in Camaret, every evening before he went to sleep, on which you could read: THE POET IS WORKING.” Leiris’s debts to Surrealism are revealed in his willingness to report the overnight work of his own unconscious. (The cultural theorist James Clifford has aptly referred to Leiris’s “oneirography.”) His entries for 1932, for example, begin:
A dream: A French district commissioner, affiliated with a powerful sect of Dahomean fetishists, tries to strangle me while I sleep; it seems to have something to do with a human sacrifice; I yell to Griaule for help.
Nor are dreams like these the only intensely personal details he shares. On another occasion he worries out loud about his impotence. In early April 1932, he starts drafting a possible preface to the book, telling us, for no evident reason, that he reread it “in the toilet.” In this abandoned preface he takes up the question why there is so much about its author in the mission’s official diary:
Some will say that, speaking of Africa, I don’t need to say whether, on such-and-such a day, I was in a good mood, or even how I defecated. I would reply that while not being the sort of person who falls to his knees before his own works (whether it is a matter of books or of children, two kinds of excrement), I do not see why, if all else fails, I should let such an event pass in silence. Not only is it just as important in itself as the fact that this or that tree, or a native dressed in this or that fashion, or this or that animal happened to be at a given moment on the side of the road. But this phenomenon of defecation also must be recounted because it is valuable from the perspective of the narrative’s authenticity.
A little later, he adds—in a sentence that could have been written by Montaigne—“I have as little taste as I have talent for speaking of what I do not know, and the only thing I know well is myself.” He is, as Montaigne put it, “myself the matter of my book.”
If Leiris doesn’t have a persuasive account of how or why he chose what to tell us, the peculiar focus on himself is a critical aspect of the work’s fascination. Sontag observed of Manhood that it “makes unusual demands on our interest in the author as a man.” Phantom Africa is, I think, less demanding. All the same, there is something seductive about the ruthless self-revelation, which was to go even further in Manhood (a book he had begun before the trip but finished only on his return). Long before the celebrated “autofictions” of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Leiris—in this work as in his later, interior ethnographies—relished self-exposure in its chilliest forms. He dares us to dislike him.
Consider Leiris’s investigations—over the long months spent among Amhara villagers in Gondar—into a form of spirit-possession by the zar, spirits who inhabited their priestesses and could harm and heal. (More than twenty years after his return, he published a monograph based on this work.*) Over more than a hundred pages, Leiris reports the daily waxing and waning of his relationships with a variety of figures in this female cult, starting with Malkam Ayyahou, the “lady chieftess of the zar,” whom he views—when they meet in July 1932—as “part procuress, part clown, and part pythoness.” Then he meets her daughter, Emawayish, and carries on with her a strange, extended relationship, with an erotic dimension that is oddly inexplicit. One wonders what Leiris’s wife thought as she received the regular installments of the journal that he mailed to her for safekeeping. In early September, he describes the young priestess as “so placid and beautiful.” In a note added after his return, he writes of having “put my hand under her shamma,” the long white cotton robe worn by Ethiopian women and men. “I will always remember the dampness between her thighs—damp as the earth out of which golems are made.”
“The constant obstacle between me and Emawayish,” he decides in retrospect, “was the idea that she was excised, that I couldn’t excite her and might appear impotent.” (According to UNICEF, even today two thirds of Ethiopian women have been excised, that is, subjected to genital cutting.) In September 1933, Leiris writes of “the shame that I felt at having traveled for nearly two years through Africa without sleeping with a single woman.” (This was decidedly not true of everyone on the mission; Leiris makes clear that for some of his colleagues the expedition extended to sexual tourism.)
Exploring the zar, Leiris is constantly offering the women gifts—money, perfume, blankets, animals for sacrifice. His sense that he is being manipulated in order to keep this booty coming eventually undermines their relationships. By the time he is leaving, he writes of Emawayish, “Her above all I can bear no longer.” In the daily back and forth of their negotiations about which rites the priestesses of the zar will perform for his review, a pattern of mutual exploitation develops, though one that is outside the colonial setting that frames so many of the mission’s earlier activities. For only here, toward the end of their journey, in independent Ethiopia—where Haile Selassie was newly ensconced as Negusa Nagast, King of Kings—did the mission members face a set of officials rather less compliant than the colonial administrators who had cleared their path elsewhere. The comedy of Griaule’s negotiations with a variety of Ethiopian officials, first about their entry into the country, and then about their departure, provides one of the high points of the narrative.
Upon his return from the journey, Leiris took up a post as an ethnologist at the Musée de l’Homme, which inherited the collections of the Trocadéro in 1937 (and lost them to the new Musée du quai Branly in 2006). He worked there until his retirement in 1971. Griaule went on to be a leading figure in French social science, becoming the first chair of anthropology at the Sorbonne. He returned often to work with the Dogon, and in 1948, he published Dieu d’eau: Entretiens avec Ogotemmêli, an astonishing account of a series of conversations with a blind Dogon hunter who regaled him over thirty-three days with secret cosmological knowledge. Controversy persists about how much of this material was Ogotemmêli’s invention and how much was indeed Dogon tradition. (I am of the party of the skeptics.) Unsurprisingly, the publication of L’Afrique fantôme led to an estrangement between Griaule and Leiris. Other scholars found it merely baffling. In a three-sentence journal notice, the great British anthropologist Edward Evans-Pritchard declared that “the book has little scientific value.”
An unclassifiable classic, Phantom Africa belongs to no genre. Certainly its pages have inspired a broad range of readers over the years. Sartre discussed the book’s account of Ethiopian spirit-possession extensively in his Cahiers pour une morale, and called out to it in “Orphée noir,” his introduction to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s classic 1948 anthology of new black poetry; in one of many incantatory passages, Sartre spoke of “phantom Africa flickering like a flame between being and nothingness” (thus linking Leiris’s title with one of his own). Scholars have found the book’s influence, too, in the novel Le regard du roi (The Radiance of the King) by the Guinean author Camara Laye, one of the most significant works of francophone African literature; it traces the journey of a shipwrecked European whose fictional experiences bear similarities to Leiris’s account. Phantom Africa—a dazzling feat of what James Clifford persuasively calls “ethnographic surrealism”—remains at once sui generis and, for many of its French readers, intensely generative. In ways that couldn’t have been anticipated, it was as valuable as any of the treasures that came back with the sometimes unsavory expedition that Panama Al Brown’s boxing match helped launch.
Leiris himself was forever marked by the experiences he recorded. Among the first of his scholarly works was one based on the notes of his trip, “La langue secrète des Dogons de Sanga,” which, in 1938, served as his thesis at l’École Pratique des Hautes Études, and was one of his many distinguished contributions to ethnography. In postwar Paris, Leiris became an active supporter of the literary magazine and publishing house Présence Africaine, which was a center of anticolonial and anti-racist organizing. He also became increasingly active in the French left—he was a figure in the protests of May 1968—and, when he died, in 1990, he left most of his estate to human rights organizations such as the Mouvement contre le Racisme et pour l’Amitié entre les Peuples.
The experiment that was Phantom Africa was, perhaps for the best, not to be repeated. In the decades that followed his Dakar-to-Djibouti adventures, Leiris divided his writing largely between ethnography and autobiography, separating the two streams of prose nonfiction that had come together for a moment in Phantom Africa. Reading this brilliantly idiosyncratic book, seeing how “scientific” ethnographic knowledge was made, you can understand why he wrote, long after his retirement, that ethnography was “a sort of hunt with no quarry save shadows”—or, as he should perhaps have said, phantoms.