“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 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.

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?

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