Michel Leiris. Phantom Africa. Translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Africa List Series. 720 pp., 37 halftones, 3 fascimiles, 1 map. Calcutta, London, and New York: Seagull Books, 2017. $60 (cloth)
Editor’s Note: This essay—an extended commentary on the recently published translation of Phantom Africa—is HAN’s first joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. The Editors welcome and encourage future submissions that combine reviews of recently published works with reflections on the history of anthropology.
Phantom Africa is the diary that French writer and ethnologist, Michel Leiris, kept for almost two years, from May 1931 to February 1933. During this period, he was the secretary-archivist of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, an important ethnographic expedition financed by the French government, supported by several private donors, and organized by the University of Paris and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The main goal of the mission was to collect a large number of ethnographic objects in order to renew the collection of the museum. The years between the world wars were a critical period for French anthropology because it was the moment of its emergence as an independent discipline. As a highly publicized event attached to the Trocadéro, the Dakar-Djibouti mission in particular played an important role in this process, paving the way for other ethnographic expeditions throughout the 1930s. The original French edition of the diary was published by Gallimard soon after the mission, in 1934, and now it has been published in English, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards.
A few letters among Leiris’s papers housed in the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale in Paris tell a fragmented story about an earlier attempt to publish the diary in English on both sides of the Atlantic. This story is particularly interesting for two reasons—besides the fact that it is not mentioned in the bibliography on Leiris. First, it reveals a crucial, if odd, feature of Phantom Africa: the will to expose subjectively every detail of Leiris’s experience during the mission in order to attain objectivity, which was in sharp contrast to the scientific orientation of French ethnology. Secondly, it offers a glimpse of the challenge presented by archival research itself, which is to grasp a knowledge of the past from the inevitably partial point of view of the researcher. In the next pages, as this story unfolds, the failure of Leiris in presenting entirely his subjectivity mirrors in a certain way the very impossibility of a total knowledge of the past.
The first of these letters is dated September 1950 and is signed by Robin Chancellor, who was translating Phantom Africa for Robert Hale, a well-established publisher in London since 1936. He wrote to Leiris that he was sending his translation of the first part of the diary without any corrections; he also suggested a meeting once the work was done, to revise it together. Chancellor finished his inital translation in March 1951 and announced to Leiris that he would soon begin the revisions. For the English edition, he asked for more photographs—in addition to those already included in the original Gallimard edition—and requested that Leiris author a new foreword for “the modern reader.” He planned to travel to Paris in May, where he and Leiris would discuss the work in person, but the meeting was postponed until the following month because Leiris fell ill. The letters do not confirm whether any meeting ever took place, but among the documents in the archives there are several undated notes in Leiris’s handwriting on the translation into English of expressions and words extracted from Phantom Africa.
In any event, at this point a new character enters the story. Adele Dogan, an editor in New York, wrote to Leiris to tell him that her firm, William Morrow, had long had a great deal of interest in Phantom Africa. Although Gallimard had granted Dogan’s American publisher a three week window within which they could option the diary for publication in the United States, Dogan explained that she would like to read Chancellor’s translation before deciding whether or not to accept Gallimard’s offer. Dogan knew that the translation had been completed; she also knew there were two copies of it: one with Robert Hale in London, the other with Leiris. In Dogan’s own words, Gallimard was “very anxious” for a decision, so instead of waiting for copies of proofs of Hale’s edition to be prepared, she expressed a desire to see Leiris’s copy. Chancellor subsequently explained to Leiris that while neither he nor Hale had any copyright on an American edition of Phantom Africa, Hale would undoubtedly appreciate the opportunity to sell the translation which he himself had financed. Chancellor nevertheless gave his permission to Leiris to send his copy to Dogan. He reminded Leiris, however, that the translation was still just a rough draft, hence any decision of Dogan’s should be based on the content of the diary itself. At the end of 1951, Dogan acknowledged receipt of Leiris’s copy of Chancellor’s translation.
Meanwhile, the publication of the British edition advanced. In March 1952, Hale insisted for the second time that Leiris send him more photographs for inclusion in the translation, which he wished to publish as soon as possible. The following month, he informed Leiris that the “descriptive blurb” was ready and requested specific information about him in order to publicize the diary. All seemed to be progressing, and yet, one step away from the publication, the ground fell out from underneath their feet. It is not clear what exactly caused it. In an undated letter, Hale simply referred with few details to production difficulties that made it impossible to establish a specific date of publication. There was, however, a suggestion, repeated by Hale to Leiris in July 1952, which casts some light on the problem. He asked Leiris to grant him permission to reduce the length of the diary on account of high production costs, which, Hale alleged, had already prevented several American editors from publishing it. The task, Hale wrote, would be assigned to Chancellor. A few months thereafter, an editor from Gallimard informed Leiris that Hale had never received the photographs needed for the diary’s publication. This is the final letter extant among the collection of Leiris’s papers that pertains to those first attempts to publish Phantom Africa in English. Despite all the information that they do offer, many of the most salient aspects of this story remain unknown. One thing is certain: the diary never went to press in the United Kingdom or the United States.
In a note from the extensively detailed introduction to his recently published translation of Phantom Africa—covering a substantial portion of the bibliography in French and English on Leiris—Brent Hayes Edwards provides valuable information that fills in some remaining gaps in this story. Edwards cites a letter Hale sent to his printer that confirms that the length of the diary was indeed one of the problems that prevented its publication; the other was the nature of the content itself, particularly the parts Hale describes as “‘schoolboy’s lavatory wall dirt.’” This missive certainly referred to Leiris’s recurrent and explicit reflection on scatological issues throughout the diary. In a letter from Leiris to Hale dated July 1952, Leiris refused to abridge his diary, which apparently led the project to a dead end. As to the American edition, Edwards cites a letter from an editor of Gallimard to Hale informing him that William Morrow had rejected the diary; the motive is not mentioned, but it was probably similar to that of Hale.
It is indeed very strange that such objections from Hale appeared so late in the process of publication. Was he unaware of the length and content of the diary, the translation of which he had himself encouraged? In any case, neither of these features were enough to impede the publication of the original French edition nor the six others that have followed it in different collections by Gallimard, tracing a path that French anthropologist Jean Jamin calls “the metamorphosis of Phantom Africa.” This metamorphosis brings out the unique character of Leiris’s diary, always slipping through the labels one tries to impose upon it. At best, one can say it belongs to a category that Vincent Debaene calls “the double book of the French ethnographers”: on the one hand, the scientific thesis; on the other, a book presenting the experience of the fieldwork to the general public. Another example of this double book is Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, which has inspired generations of anthropologists, as has Phantom Africa. The second edition of the diary came out in 1951, which is precisely when Chancellor was working on his translation. The most recent edition, edited by Denis Hollier, was published just four years ago in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, together with Manhood and some of Leiris’s other notable texts.
But this longevity does not mean that the diary was well-received in 1934. In fact, with the exception of just three reviews in English anthropological journals—each of them far from enthusiastic—the anthropological community as a whole publicly ignored Phantom Africa. In France, however, Leiris’s fellow anthropologists did not fail to reprove him behind the scenes; the diary even provoked a rupture in the relationship between the author and the leader of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, Marcel Griaule.
Some of the motives for such reprovals overlap with Hale’s disgust at the many scatological passages of the diary. For instance, Leiris writes on 5 November 1932: “An improbable accident last night. I dream that a prophetess, during a fire, waves a branch of half-withered leaves; this causes a great many people to go blind. I wake up to find that I have just soiled my bed. The talla [Ethiopian beer] I drank yesterday, no doubt.” Edwards’s formal translation softens the strong vulgarity of this sentence; in French, Leiris writes “pet foireux,” which means literally “shitted fart.” Another example of what may have repulsed Hale appears in his entry from 8 August 1932: “I’ve always more or less regarded coitus as an act of magic, expected from certain women what one may expect of oracles, and treated prostitutes like pythonesses… So I think of this old mystic procuress with a respect mingled with affection. What a pity that ritual prostitution no longer exists in our day and in our countries!”
These passages surely may have shocked readers, and Leiris was well aware of this possibility. A true modernist, Leiris knew exactly the narrative power in what Peter Gay calls “the lure of heresy”: the shocking nature of these passages does not lie in their subjects per se, but in the very possibility of writing about them in the way Leiris does. His task was indeed to challenge contemporary artistic, cultural, and social conventions. As such, he was counting on the shock in order for his writing to have some resonance. After all, it is not a coincidence that two of the most recurrent themes throughout Phantom Africa are dreams and sex. These are traditionally surrealist subjects, and Leiris was, up until the dissidence of 1929, a member of the group that composed the first formation of French surrealists. Soon thereafter, while working for the modernist magazine Documents edited by his friend Georges Bataille, Leiris became acquainted with Griaule, who subsequently invited him to be a member of his team in the Dakar-Djibouti mission. Sick of the Parisian literary and artistic life, and looking for a regular métier to earn his living, Leiris accepted Griaule’s invitation. When Leiris left Europe, he lacked entirely any ethnographic experience; the mission was his first step towards its acquisition, which made him, eventually, an ethnologist. Upon his return from Africa and the publication of Phantom Africa, Leiris’s entire professional career as an ethnologist took place in the Trocadéro—soon to become the Musée de l’Homme. But he never put literature aside, and, most of all, he never ceased to be a modernist.
In Phantom Africa, Leiris does not only write about his dreams and his sexuality. For each day of the almost two-year-long expedition, he not only records everything that he has thought and felt—the heat, the conversations with his colleagues, the difficulty in dealing with the natives, the very experience of writing the diary, and so forth—he also chronicles the expedition itself from his own subjective perspective. As one entry follows the next, the main subject of the diary itself unfolds: the elusiveness of the places he travels and the peoples he meets, hence the phantasmagorical character of his Africa. The Africa he found along the way never met his vast expectations of this continent and his contact with Otherness; no place actually could, for it was a product of the imagination—an exotic, Conradian fantasy. There is no naïveté here; on the contrary, Leiris repeatedly gives proof of an acute conscience of this limit, deliberately playing with it. In June 1932, for instance, he makes a list of African imagery that includes Rimbaud and the Zulu war, Prester John and the Battle of the Pyramids, Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique and the death of Livingstone, and so on. In December of the same year, planning to write a tale about his experience in Africa, he puts himself in the shoes of Axel Heyst, the hero of Conrad’s Victory. In the end of the mission and also the diary, his dismal conclusion was that no one can flee from himself or herself, and that his attempt to do so was the genuine source of his problems. Neither his experience in the mission nor the writing of Phantom Africa could durably resolve Leiris’s more existential dilemmas.
Nonetheless, before fully drawing this conclusion, the issues Leiris dealt with from the first day of his diary reached their peak in Abyssinia, the only independent country along the route of the mission. Crossing the border into Abyssinia marks structurally the passage to the second part of Phantom Africa. Abyssinia was where Leiris and his colleagues spent most of their time, around nine months, from April 1932 to January 1933. The team of ethnographers then split up in order to cover more ground. Leiris spent most of that time in Gondar, where he studied the beliefs and practices of the native “cult of genies known as zar,” with the aid of a native man of letters called Abba Jerome. He soon became infatuated with Emawayish, the daughter of the chieftess of the zar. This led to a flirtatious, self-interested relationship, in which his sexual desires towards her never materialized—all of which began to affect his own fieldwork. For instance, on 23 July 1932, Leiris writes: “I would rather be possessed myself than study possessed people, and I would rather have carnal knowledge of a ‘zarine’ than known her ins and outs scientifically. Abstract knowledge will never be anything for me but a last resort.”
Although the scatological episodes that would disgust Hale in the 1950s certainly bothered Leiris’s fellow ethnologists in the 1930s, it was nonetheless passages like the above that might have especially incited reprovals of Phantom Africa. This passage went far beyond a mere break of propriety: it harmed the very core of the French ethnological project. In a talk delivered just a few months before their departure, Griaule characterised the Dakar-Djibouti mission as a scientific enterprise, which meant that what really mattered was indigenous thought, rather than the wonderings and feelings of the ethnographers. In other words, the aim of the expedition—and of French ethnological science between the wars—was never to advertise the subjectivity of the ethnographer in the field; instead, its aim was to objectively understand the native life. To put it bluntly, the real focus was the native Other, not the European Self.
Why, then, had Leiris insisted on tirelessly presenting his subjectivity day after day? On the 4th of April 1932, working on a draft of the preface for his diary, he writes: “Thesis: it is through subjectivity (carried to its paroxysm) that one attains objectivity. More simply: writing subjectively, I augment the value of my testimony, by showing that at every moment I know what to confine myself to, with regard to my value as a witness.” There is no doubt that Leiris shared with his colleagues the scientific ideal of objectivity; however, his method of attaining it was the exact opposite of theirs. In his pre-expedition talk, Griaule had explained that the subjectivity of the ethnographer would be filtered through indigenous thought and any error would be avoided by the possibility of all data collected by an ethnographer being verified by any of his or her colleagues. In contrast, through his diary Leiris tried to expose completely his subjectivity in order to achieve objectivity. The more he revealed of himself, he hoped, the closer to objectivity he would find himself. Towards the end of his life, in an interview with Jamin and American anthropologist Sally Price, published in 1988 in the journal Current Anthropology, he would call this procedure “the calculation of error.” Since subjectivity is always present, one has to find a way to distinguish it from objectivity, which is the real aim of anthropology, he explained; and his way of doing so was, in his words, “to lay your cards on the table.” So, even when this project proved itself unattainable he could not depart from it because doing so would consequently mean giving up on his ideal of achieving objectivity as well: “A curse on this diary (which—whatever I do—will end up no longer being entirely sincere),” he writes on 27 December 1932.
The end result of this process, the attainment of a pure objectivity sharply distinguished from subjectivity, would hardly have been the same objectivity as that sought after by Leiris’s colleagues, for the means undoubtedly modified the ends. One can only wonder at what kind of knowledge it would be. But to a certain extent, no doubt far below the ideal goal pursued day after day by Leiris, his objectivity was partially attained due to the diary’s auxillary function as a chronicle of the mission. Amidst Leiris’s thoughts and feelings the reader follows the activities of the expedition with its moments of difficulty and discovery, boredom and amazement. Once again, Leiris never fails to mention anything he deems worthy of description, a characteristic openness which on the one hand enriches his chronicle, but on the other caused some serious problems for himself.
This is particularly true of some very controversial actions taken by the team of ethnographers. Perhaps the most notorious episode described in Phantom Africa was the team’s stealing of the kono fetish. This fetish belonged to a Bambara secret society charged with the maintenance of order and good relationships in its neighbourhood. Any contact with this artefact was forbidden to women and non-circumcised boys, for it was a sacred, and hence dangerous, object. “We are burning with desire to see the kono,” Leiris writes on 6 September 1931. The Bambaras tried to stall for time in order to avoid the terrifying sacrilege, but eventually Griaule menacingly evoked the colonial administration. He proposed taking the kono in exchange for ten francs, a trifling amount. Since no native would dare to bring the fetish out of its sacred hut, Leiris and Griaule went themselves, “wrapping the holy object in the tarp and creeping out like thieves while the devastated chief flees and, some distance away, drives his wife and children into a hut with heavy blows of his stick. We cross through the village, now completely deserted, and reach our vehicles in dead silence.”
Despite the fact that episodes like this one may certainly be used in a critique of colonialism, this was hardly Leiris’s intention when he described it a few hours after it took place. His words convey unequivocally the gravity of their action; and whether or not he and his colleagues had second thoughts, it did not impede them in stealing the fetish. Three days after this notorious episode, the mission reached a nearby region where there was no more konos to collect; Griaule and Leiris felt sorry for that: “But for different reasons: what compelled me was the idea of profanation…” The description presented by Leiris was not a deliberate critique of colonialism; it was a by-product of his calculation of error. The Dakar-Djibouti mission was itself a colonial enterprise; besides the collection of ethnographic objects to renew the Trocadéro, one of its aims was to produce knowledge that would aid the administration of the colonies. It must be mentioned, however, that after the war Leiris did take an anti-colonial stand. But even when Phantom Africa was first published, before the anti-colonial movement took off with full force, this episode put Leiris in a bad place among his fellow ethnologists, who did not appreciate his willingness to circulate stories about how they had in truth attained some of the objects on display in the ethnographic museums.
The calculation of error coined by Leiris was a kind of experimental knowledge; after the mission, he did not use it for his own scientific articles, which were written following the positivistic method described by Griaule. In the long run, however, after this method had reached its limit and subjectivity returned to the anthropological debate, the appeal of Phantom Africa increased considerably. This is what explains, at least partially, the present English translation, as well as the Brazilian translation published eleven years ago. Readers of these new translations should nonetheless keep in mind that even though Leiris deals openly with the modern conundrum of knowledge, science, and subjectivity, as a modernist laying his cards on the table, his aim had always been to access a pure form of objectivity. Subjectivity must be faced because it is always present in all kinds of knowledge, and no one in the humanities can guarantee a purely objective perspective. But that does not mean that one should abandon any attempt to achieve objectivity, at least partially. All knowledge is incomplete and fragmented, subjective even when it reaches for objectivity, as Phantom Africa and the story of the earlier attempt to publish it in English are here to remind us.
 On the Dakar-Djibouti mission, see Jean Jamin, Le cercueil de Queequeg: Mission Dakar-Djibouti, mai 1931-février 1933 (Paris: Lahic/dprps-Direction générale des patrimoines, 2014). Any reader interested in this topic may consult BÉROSE, the online encyclopaedia of the history of anthropology edited by Christine Laurière and Frederico Delgado Rosa. On the Trocadéro, see André Delpuech, Christine Laurière, and Carine Peltier-Caroff, eds., Les Années folles de l’ethnographie: Trocadéro 28-37 (Paris: Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, 2017).
 Letter from Robin Chancellor to Michel Leiris, London, September 1, 1950 (Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, FML.D.S.01.02.002).
 Letter from Chancellor to Leiris, London, March 29, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02. 004).
 Letter from Chancellor to Leiris, London, June 3, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.006).
 Letters from Chancellor to Leiris: London, March 29, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.004), London, April 29, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.005), London, May 15, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.007), London, June 3, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.006).
 LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.029.
 Letter from Adele Dogan to Leiris, New York, October 18, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.024).
 Letter from Chancellor to Leiris, London, October 26, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.008).
 Letter from Dogan to Leiris, New York, December 6, 1951 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.025).
 Letter from Robert Hale Limited Publishers to Leiris, London, March 25, 1952 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.009).
 Letter from Robert Hale Limited Publishers to Leiris, London, April 15, 1952 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.010).
 Letter from Robert Hale Limited Publishers to Leiris, London, s. d. (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.013).
 Letter from Robert Hale Limited Publishers to Leiris, London, July 11, 1952 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.011).
 Letter from D. Mascolo to Leiris, Paris, October 15, 1952 (LAS, FML.D.S.01.02.012).
 Jean Jamin, “Les métamorphoses de L’Afrique fantôme”, Critique 37, no. 418 (1982).
 Vincent Debaene, Far Afield: French Anthropology between Science and Literature, trans. Justin Izzo (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014). The main scientific works Leiris produced from his fieldwork experience during the Dakar-Djibouti mission are La Langue secrète des Dogons de Sanga (Paris: Institut d’ethnologie, 1948) and La Possession et ses aspects théâtraux chez les Éthiopiens de Gondar (Paris: Plon, 1958).
 See F. W. H. M., “L’Afrique fantôme. By Michel Leiris,” Journal of the Royal African Society 33, no. 132 (1934); Natalis De Cleene, “L’Afrique fantôme. Par Michel Leiris,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 8, no. 2 (1935); E. E. Evans-Pritchard, “L’Afrique fantôme,” Man 35 (1935). On the reception of the first French edition of Phantom Africa, see Denis Hollier, “Notice,” in M. Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, 1039-43.
 Leiris, Phantom Africa, 611.
 Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, 600.
 Leiris, Phantom Africa, 468.
 M. Leiris, Phantom Africa, 453. Leiris writes: “la possession par les génies qu’on appelle ‘zar’” (M. Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, 442). In French, “génie” means “spirit,” “supernatural being”; thus, it is a little strange that Edwards has chosen to translate it as “genie,” for this word in English has connotations of magic, as in “the genie is out of the bottle,” which gives it an exotic sense.
 Ibid., 456.
 Marcel Griaule, “Buts et méthodes de la prochaine mission Dakar-Djibouti,” in Marcel Griaule et al., Cahier Dakar-Djibouti, ed. Éric Jolly and Marianne Lemaire (Paris: Éditions les Cahiers, 2015), 101-19.
 M. Leiris, Phantom Africa, 319.
 Griaule, “Buts et méthodes de la prochaine mission Dakar-Djibouti.”
 Ibid., 173.
 Leiris, Phantom Africa, 677.
 Ibid., 152.
 Ibid., 154.
 Ibid., 157.
 See Alice L. Conklin, In the Museum of Man: Race, Anthropology, and Empire in France, 1850-1950 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013).
 See James Clifford, “Tell about Your Trip: Michel Leiris,” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).
 Michel Leiris, A África fantasma, trans. André Pinto Pacheco (São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2007).
Luis Felipe Sobral: contributions / website / firstname.lastname@example.org / Luis Felipe Sobral is a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil, and a researcher of the Bérose team, directed by Christine Laurière and Frederico Delgado Rosa at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie et d’Histoire de l’Institution de la Culture (Lahic) of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), in Paris; he has been studying the works and archives of Michel Leiris since 2008.