What Is Brought Back in Michel Leiris' 'Phantom Africa' Is Not Tangible

by Matthew Snider

25 September 2017

 

Phantom Africa is a mammoth undertaking. At just over 700 pages, it can feel as burdensome as the expedition it documents at times (the diary itself doesn’t begin until page 69). Recorded between May 1931 and February 1933, as Michel Leiris accompanied the ethnographic Mission Dakar-Djibouti, the diary presents Leiris’ thoughts in real time as the Mission makes its way across colonial Africa. The expedition was led by the anthropologist Marcel Griaule, a figure who for the most part shimmers at the edge of Leiris’ narrative.

For the reader, the diary offers a fascinating glimpse into a colonial world nearing its end. When Leiris wrote “The West is collapsing” (although perhaps hyperbolic), it must have seemed true at the time, but more than anything else, the phrase now acts as a reminder of the resilience of the West (even when couched in an archive of some of the West’s worst imperialistic acts). Phantom Africa is from an anthropological lineage and moment that would certainly not survive today. But as the translator writes in his Introduction, moralizing over Leiris’ primitivism serves no real purpose save modern self-indulgence.

More than anything, it’s Leiris’ humanity that comes through most memorably in Phantom Africa. For certain, it’s a humanity wrestling with and perhaps disabled by the colonial world into which the author ventures. There are moments of pure reprehensibility, such as when he describes stealing sacred objects from Yougo. “Taking these objects would be carrying away the very life of the country,” he writes. After they’ve stolen the objects anyway, Leiris playfully explains, “We are buchaneers at heart.” The very next day, in a letter to his wife back in France, Leiris writes, “I will never forgive Europe for destroying, almost for fun, the only countries where it seems to me that I would be able to live.”

Throughout, Leiris suggests that he has come on the Mission to learn something about himself—something he couldn’t learn back in Europe, a world to which he doesn’t feel he fully belongs. It can be difficult not to see the fulfillment of these expectations in the same acts: colonial Africa’s enlightenment and artifacts ripe to be taken away for the fulfillment and edification of this solitary white man. Yet Leiris’ internal moral striving represents the very precipice upon which colonialism was perched at the time.

Still, such a reading would be too easy, too trite. Although Leiris can be reprehensible at times, he can be likable and familiar at others. Phantom Africa evades classification. It’s more than a simple diary. It’s inarguably a study in human nature. The book encompasses two years, day-by-day, each act of ethnography and discovery detailed with as much attention as each daily annoyance and setback. The narrative passes in cycles; days, even weeks may pass with nothing truly noteworthy occurring. Suddenly, a week is spent trying to locate a series of grottoes with cave drawings the expedition simply must see. This entry, July 16, 1931, is the first truly literary inclusion and begins to transform the expedition both in Leiris’ eyes and in those of the reader.

Leiris’ insistence on circling back to make everything about him (or the expedition) often belies his “noble” ethnographic intentions (self-conscious margin notes aside). His ability to justify particularly egregious acts of theft and disrespect under the aegis of education/ ethnography is a lesson in how insidiously exploitation can delude those it advantages. Certainly, Leiris is not always a sympathetic narrator, and his indefensible acts are just that. 

There are times when Phantom Africa can be a difficult book to read. It’s not a novel, and for that reason, not everything or every day is noteworthy or moves the narrative ahead in some meaningful way. Leiris’ comprehensiveness can be tiresome at times, but that’s what makes Phantom Africa so unique and worthy. Somewhere along the way, between accounts of missed connections and bad weather, descriptions of his dreams and of being “devoured by fleas”, the reader joins the expedition and is, in the end, sad to see this journey disbanded.

In an increasingly obdurate world, perhaps it’s impossible to overlook Leiris’ acts of cultural theft. But for the more comprehending, the subtle accumulations in Phantom Africa of good experiences and bad, of slight adjustments to Leiris’ understanding of the cultures through which he moves, and of the simple human grief and joy that occurs in a foreign place over the course of two years, Phantom Africa represents a poignant and beautiful window into something more universal. This is perhaps the most valuable item Leiris brought back. It seems clear that Leiris did not find what he sought in colonial Africa (perhaps he didn’t even deserve to find it, or it never existed as he imagined it), but for the open-minded reader, the diary itself can offer something worthwhile.

Phantom Africa

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