:: Article

The accidental ethnographer: Michel Leiris and Phantom Africa

By Joseph Schreiber.

Phantom Africa

Michel Leiris, Phantom Africa, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards (Seagull Books, 2017)

When I left for Africa, I hoped that I might develop a heart! I am more than thirty years old. I am getting older, and still this constant intellectuality . . . Will I ever discover my freshness and simplicity?

When Michel Leiris was offered, without any prerequisite experience, the position of secretary-archivist on a two-year ethnographic expedition across sub-Saharan Africa, he was a disillusioned poet seeking escape from the Parisian literary scene. He had already fallen away from the French Surrealists with whom he had been associated and was working with Georges Bataille in the offices of the journal Documents when he met noted anthropologist Marcel Griaule and secured the invitation. He agreed to accept it under the counsel of the psychoanalyst who had been treating his deepening depression. He was advised that the change would do him good.

Of course, it was not quite that simple. Leiris was drawn to this adventure for several personal reasons. One, fuelled by time spent in the jazz clubs of post-war Paris, was the desire to indulge a fantasy—at once mystical, exotic and erotic—associated with the “black race”. Misguided and naïve, especially from today’s perspective, it would hold him in thrall throughout the journey, even as his attitudes became more nuanced and more cynical. Another was a longing to find himself, to return a changed and better man. If he was anticipating a miraculous transformation, he would be sorely disappointed, but his time with the Dakar-Djibouti Mission would prove to be pivotal in his professional and creative life.

Leiris’ primary role with the Mission involved writing reports, keeping daily logs and maintaining a catalogue of all the artefacts—some 3,700 objects, artworks, manuscripts and zoological specimen—collected along the way. However, despite his lack of training, he was also involved in a wide range of ethnographic tasks including gathering data and information, interviewing informants and, later, indulging his own obsessive fascination with the zar possession cult in Abyssinia. Alongside all of this he kept a journal, a daily account of the team’s travels and activities with a distinctly personal, idiosyncratic twist. His entries are coloured by his own impressions, anxieties, dreams and fantasies. The resulting notebooks, gathered together following his return to Paris, would constitute his first book, Phantom Africa. Initially published in 1934, a second updated edition was published in 1951, and a third in 1981.

Now this classic of twentieth century French literature is finally available in English, in a handsome volume from Seagull Books. Running to over 700 pages, including a 56-page introduction by translator Brent Hayes Edwards, this publication is a monumental undertaking which reproduces all of the original photographs and incorporates, where relevant, excerpts from Leiris’ letters to his wife Zette, in columns that run alongside the body of the text. This layout also facilitates easy access to Leiris’ occasional notes and the translator’s comments. Nonetheless, reading Phantom Africa is likewise a monumental undertaking—exhilarating and exhausting in turns.

The record begins on May 19, 1931 as they set sail from Bordeaux, and ends as they approach the port of Marseilles on February 16, 1933. Phantom Africa is neither a conventional diary nor a travelogue. There is no attempt to evoke a grand narrative or tell a heroic tale. He records both the mundane and the extraordinary. There are long stretches of tedium—for Leiris and for the reader—although the two circumstances do not necessarily coincide. During their long stay in Gondar in Northern Ethiopia, for instance, Leiris incorporates extensive notes from the zar ritual sacrifices he attends and plowing through page after page can begin to drag:

Sitting on the left-hand bench, Malkam Ayyahou (who is preparing the entrails, assisted by the field slave) cuts out the lungs. She tells her adepts that the great zar have not yet come. She says the ceremony must be completed here.

Tebahou takes the heart and spears it on the end of a stick.

He cuts in two and studies both halves. The lack of congealed blood means it is pure.

As the preparation progresses, the prepared pieces of entrails are taken back into the alcove. Throughout all this talla is drunk.

The ceremonies last for days, and he leaves out no details. However, when he himself is bored, with time on his hands, he yields to the introspective dissection of his ambitions, doubts and insecurities, creating, for his audience, an atmosphere of intimacy that seems to deepen as time goes on, building a strange bond that lingers after the last entry is recorded.

Leiris 1

What makes Phantom Africa such a fascinating document is Leiris’ observational acuity and emotional honesty. His presumed audience is ambiguous. He is keeping this peripheral record with the intent of publishing, yet it seems as if he is writing, first and foremost, for himself and for his wife. He realises that some of what he is capturing may not be well received. He takes little care to mask the identity of team members when reporting potentially scandalous behaviour, and advises Zette early on that it is likely best that she not share the instalments he is sending home beyond a few trusted friends. He does not edit what he records—his impressions of those he encounters, accounts of pillaging that read like tales of adventure, details of rituals and ceremonies, and descriptions of his nightly dreams all go into the mix. He does not rework and tidy up the entries. There is no index or glossary. Any corrections or updated information is confined to infrequent footnotes. He does, however, make liberal use of ellipses throughout, granting space for his unfinished thoughts and opinions to hang in the air. The resulting text lands somewhere between uninhibited literature and hallucinatory documentary.

Leiris’ entries during the early months of the expedition reveal a marked vacillation between enthusiasm and disillusion, as he adjusts and readjusts his romantic image of Africa to the reality he finds. Dakar, where they disembark, disgusts him and he is eager to get “into the bush”. He is excited when they reach villages and begin to interact with the “natives”, but it doesn’t take long before disenchantment with his new would-be profession seeps in. He longs to be able to engage his informants in more human topics than the meaning and uses of objects. Ethnographic practice at this time is still essentially in the service of a colonial agenda—data is gathered as a means of understanding and exerting control on the colonised, while items are collected to furnish museums in France. Acquisition by whatever means necessary is the order of the day.

Less than a month out, Leiris begins to notice a growing sense of displacement and isolation from his companions. He becomes irritated easily. His appetite for the work will wax and wane, as will his commitment to personal growth. His letters home provide a deeper level of reflection, as he confesses to Zette feelings he won’t even include in his journal. As the Mission progresses deeper into Africa, his spirits are buoyed, particularly in Mali where they encounter the Dogon people. With their elaborate masks, colourful rituals, and complex system of ancestor worship, he feels he has finally found the “exotic” he was anticipating. However, it is also a place where the tactics of the ethnographic team are particularly egregious. Leiris’ unvarnished accounts of looting are disturbing, but they form an important documentation of the extent of the cultural exploitation that existed under colonialism. And he willingly partakes in the deception, although not without some uncomfortable awareness of the unacceptable power imbalance. Frequent raids are made on shrines, caves and holy sites. In one such incident Leiris reports:

In the next village, I spot a kono hut with a ruined door. I point it out to Griaule and we decide to take it. Like the last time, Mamadou Vad [the interpreter] announces brusquely to the village chief, whom we have brought to the hut, that the commandant of the Mission has ordered us to seize the kono and that we are prepared to pay compensation of 20 francs. This time I carry out the operation alone and slip into the sacred retreat carrying Lutten’s hunting knife in my hand in order to cut the cords of the mask. When I notice that two men—not at all threatening, to be honest—have entered behind me, I realize in a dazed stupor, which only later transforms into disgust, that you feel pretty sure of yourself when you’re a white man with a knife in your hand…

He will struggle with the incongruity of being a swashbuckler with a conscience. His disdain for all aspects of colonial administration will grow, as will his concern for the conditions of the colonised. Yet, Leiris’ mood is regularly revived whenever they are furthest from “civilisation”, where the “natives” are living in traditional communities. Even better, where magic, sacrifice and cannibalism might be found. Following such a close, day-to-day account, one sees that Leiris is a mess of contradictions, a fact he does not endeavour to hide. He realises that the Africa he seeks is elusive—one sense of the phantom of the book’s title—but he continues to romanticise it, while, even though he sought escape, his life in Europe begins to weigh heavily on his mind. He misses his wife, naturally, but he is also deeply disturbed by news from home. Even in 1931, rumours of war are in the air.

The pace of the second half of their journey is slower; as they leave the French territories of central Africa and pass through Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, complications with transport and permits hamper their progress. At the Abyssinian frontier, everything nearly grinds to a halt. Not subject to colonial control, political turmoil and unrest within the Ethiopian Empire add a host of new challenges, delays and dangers. Without official support, Griaule and his team have to advocate for themselves, a process that almost threatens to dissolve into a tragic comedy of errors. Held up for weeks at the border, endless diplomatic wrangling is needed to secure the permissions they require. While they wait, Leiris occupies himself with rewriting the official Mission report, reading English novels and scrutinising his litany of personal insecurities. When they are finally granted leave to enter, the journey proceeds with donkeys and mules. The terrain is difficult, political interference continues, but Leiris proves himself capable of managing a team of drivers ferrying most of the expedition’s equipment on his own, while exercising a healthy amount of sarcastic humour, caution and adventurous spirit. It is possible, he writes, “that the imbroglio in which we have been involved for the past month have made me excessively suspicious … But how I like this country, where one feels so alive, because one can be sure of no man!”

Their arrival in Gondar, with its castles, ancient Christian churches, and a culture richly infused with the beliefs and practices of the zar possession cult, marks the beginning of the longest settled period of the entire expedition. They will stay from the beginning of July through the end of November 1932. While most of the team dedicate themselves to copying, replacing and removing murals from churches, Leiris, with the assistance of Abba Jerome, an Abyssinian priest who acts as his interpreter and scribe, sets his attention to studying zar culture.

He becomes deeply involved with the family of Malkam Ayyahou, a powerful local healer and host to a number of important spirits, and, for a long time, fancies himself developing an attraction to her daughter Emawayish. He enters a soap opera filled with colourful local characters, complicated rites and traditional methods of healing. Part of his non-religious self, raised Catholic and long disillusioned, is drawn into this world where the belief that possession by spirits explains all misfortune. A practice that is at once pagan, yet adopted by both Christian and Muslim adherents appeals to him. He allows himself to overlook the pure poverty and shabbiness of their lives for a time, and actively partakes in blood sacrifices as if he almost wants to believe that their charms and spells have a demonstrable effect beyond the panacea of faith. But he is aware that his involvement has crossed the accepted norms of ethnography as practised by his compatriots:

For without a doubt, the unfamiliar, the bush, the outside world invade us from all sides. Either we are hunters who repudiate everything, dedicate ourselves voluntarily to the outside world so as to be imbued by, to draw sustenance from, and to take pride in certain powers—great like the blood that beats in the heart of a beast, great like all inspiration, inevitably diabolical, great like the green of leaves, like madness; or we are the possessed, doomed sooner or later to be overwhelmed by this same quagmire of the outside world, and who, at the cost of a thousand torments which sometimes bring death in their wake, acquire the right to sign once and for all a pact with the eternal, imaginary demon of the outside and the inside which is our own spirit.

I am far from indifferent now. Some would say, perhaps, that I am indeed showing signs of possession. No doubt they would rebuke me, too, in the name of “scientific objectivity”…

In his zeal to understand the zar, Leiris invests in a romantic ideal, especially in his attraction to Emawayish. Slowly this is stripped away, leaving him feeling disillusioned. “The terrible thing about magic,” he will write home to Zette, “is that it doesn’t succeed.” He bemoans the fact that magic inevitably crosses over into deception and exploitation because “beautiful things are false, and true things are flat”. His gradual process of emotional distancing is complicated. As he comes to realise that his informants are using him as much as he is benefiting from the knowledge they share, he will ultimately blame himself—and more specifically his masochistic tendencies—for overindulging his fantasy and allowing these women to treat him with such contempt.

This is just one of many instances over the course of this extended journey across the African continent where Leiris distinguishes himself from any number of rugged explorers and travellers who have passed before him. He regularly measures the extent of his own manhood and finds himself lacking. He is celibate for the entire passage, not for lack of opportunity, but because he harbours a deep sense of sexual inadequacy. Even his own erotic dreams disappoint him. Toward the very end of the expedition, with some time on his hands, he sketches out the plotline for a story with a character inspired by Conrad but endowed, or rather burdened, with his own insecurities and baggage.

Michel Leiris

It may be hard to imagine how a narrator whose moods run from joy to depression so quickly, and who is so prone to dwell on his own self-failures could be such good company, but that is exactly what Michel Leiris is. This is an account that paints an extensive, important, if less than complimentary portrait of ethnographic activity at the height of French colonial occupation. However, the author’s poetic talents shine through, even amid the more prosaic parts of the narrative where a lesser writer would not have been able to hold the average reader’s attention. Meals with colonial officers, for instance, which he tends to find dreary affairs, are commonly described with gently sarcastic humour:

The official dinner was extremely amusing. A long series of colonial tall tales, performed by Mouchet and a veterinarian. A flood of people, living and dead, whom we met, or might have met, or with whose relatives we nearly took the steamer, without ever, in the end, having known either the person in question or his relative; a stupendous web of relations which might have been, of intersections of possible trajectories, of imaginary human equations.

In other words, it is Leiris himself, the anti-hero of his own recorded adventure, that inadvertently gives Phantom Africa its heart.

And what does Africa give him in return? By the end of the journey, Griaule has his novice ethnographer more or less convinced to study for the papers he would need to join the profession properly. He does, and will spend the rest of working life employed at the Musée de L’Homme in Paris. More importantly, it is over the course of maintaining his journal that Leiris truly becomes a writer. This text, with its increasingly open and honest self-exploration, sets the foundation for the literary contribution he will make as a pioneer of a unique and critical form of autobiographical writing. Reading it one can see the evolution of the same type of personal, introspective tone that dominates the autobiographical works he will go one to write—Manhood and the four-part Rules of the Game—but those works are more structured and elaborate in style. Phantom Africa is raw, unmediated. His syntax is looser, retaining the sense of a first draft. He leaves the constructions as recorded to remain true to the way his impressions and recollections come to mind, but over the final months of the expedition he becomes more intent on unfolding and analysing his thoughts and emotions until he is writing almost exclusively about himself. It is this intimacy, this willingness to be vulnerable, that one misses most when the journey, and the book, comes to a close.

With a life that will span eighty-nine years, from 1901 to 1990, Michel Leiris will become one of the most important French cultural figures of the twentieth century. When he returns from Africa, just shy of his thirty-second birthday, he may think that he hasn’t changed in the way he had romantically envisioned at the outset. He is looking forward to seeing Zette, taking her dancing, enjoying life a little. But if he is disappointed that he has not been able to escape himself, he will learn that the subject about which he despairs the most is the very subject that will dominate his greatest literary works.


JM Schreiber

Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Roughghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His reviews and essays have been published in a variety of literary sites and publications including Numéro Cinq, Minor Literature[s] and The Quarterly Conversation.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 26th, 2017.