Phantom Africa

It is in Africa that a droit/gauche distinction first emerges in Leiris’s writings, and it is from this formative period in his thinking that we particularly owe the category of the sacre gauche that informs his ideas. Leiris’s understanding of a sacred bifurcation of right and left reveals itself through the ideological struggle fought out within his ethnographic experience as archivist-secretary for the 1931—1933 Dakar-Dijbouti expedition under Marcel Griaule. As recounted in L’Afrique fantome, the journal that resulted, Leiris’s vision of Africa is marked by a polarity of interests, shifting from high thoughts of intellectual endeavour to practical concerns for self-preservation, from scientific scrutiny to selfexamination, from a detached observation of others to the observance (in a quasi-religious sense) of his own practices and responses. Early into the mission, Leiris recognises that the subject of the journal will be the ethnography of the ethnographer and that it is a sacred rather than scientific impulse that motivates him, even if that sacred as yet remains undefined. Indeed, it is only with this realisation of subjectivity’s centrality, even in the most objective of ethnographies, that the ethnographic work can truly begin. This ‘writing the self’, as Sean Hand (2002: 55) calls it, offers us a portrait of a left-handed ethnography. The right hand of ethnocentric observation, colonial partiality, analytical detachment and scientific rigour loses, in Leiris’s text, its habitual preeminence when confronted with an Africa that redefines all his expectations. In a sense it initiates another kind of refocusing, one that from a certain conventional viewpoint constitutes failure. Indeed, his friend and colleague Jean Jamin says that L’Afrique fantome could be considered as a kind of ‘epistemological gaffe’, one that respected neither the conventions of anthropology nor those of conventional narratives (1981: 102).4 Perhaps this stumbling gaucherie can be attributed to youthful inexperience. But it was also indicative of Leiris’s critical attitude towards the clumsy blundering of Western ethnography itself in the pursuit of knowledge, vulnerable as it is to distortions, misreadings, ethnocentric bias, errors of judgement, preconceptions and misperceptions. Certainly, as the mission progressed, his own methodological doubts were exacerbated by a growing realisation of the perverse correlation between anthropology and colonialism. Consequently, even if (as was Griaule’s complaint) L’Afrique fantome’s value as a piece of ethnographic field research was fatally flawed, as an act of demystification it offered ‘a brutally honest testimony of the encounter between Europeans and colonized peoples’ (Richman 2002: 155). Whatever the pros and cons of this argument, Leiris himself admits the futility of his role as ethnographer, rapidly becoming aware of the incommensurable gap between the object of ethnographic observation and the ethnographer’s ability to translate that observation into ethnographic knowledge. Even in those rare moments of genuine participant-observation, when he finds himself included in the rituals of the tribe he is studying, Leiris is aware of little more than his estrangement from the events unfolding around him, culturally, linguistically and personally. This is the spectrality that haunts this phantom Africa. Leiris had anticipated an immersive baptism into the enigmatic ‘true spirit’ of black Africa. Instead, he encountered only a semblance of that imagined land, which all but evaded him. Although appearing, every now and then, in tantalising flashes of apparently ‘genuine’ encounters, these are all too quickly dissipated in the general apathy of disillusionment. However much Leiris had sought to lose himself in the utterly exotic, he found the threads binding him to ‘civilisation’ resisted severance; if he had desired to press through the screens separating him from ‘real life’ that contact with an ‘authentic’ Africa eluded him; if he had imagined he could break out of the intellectual straitjacket of his culture he discovered the implacability of that enculturation.

It is precisely this conflict of desires that produces such remarkable writing and generates the tension between left and right in his work. In the face of such obstacles, the only honest response seems to be to resist the right-handed objective authority of the mission and embrace instead the subjective left, while recognising that the longing for immersion can never be satisfactorily fulfilled; there is always a return of ethnography, of observation and writing. Ethnographic clumsiness is therefore employed as a deliberate offence to conventional thought and method in an effort to rethink and reapply the rules of ethnography to their object of study. Certainly, in Jamin’s text it seems clear that in the African field and later on home ground, Leiris’s gaucherie was deliberately cultivated, as Clifford suspected, intentionally overturning convention and disarticulating good sense. As such, Leiris condones his own infraction of ethnographic conventions. But if he disregarded one set of rules, it was in preference for another. As Guy Poitry observes in an issue of Le Magazine Litteraire devoted to Leiris, it was out of respect for ‘une autre regle’ that Leiris behaved as he did (1992: 29). It is this ‘autre regle’ that is of interest to us.

In an interview given shortly before his death, Leiris acknowledged that his affinity with surrealism and desire for the Africa of his imagination had been motivated by a rebellion against Western civilisation, an opposition to an orthodox (right-handed) symbolic rationalism, or, as he put it, ‘a hatred of ways of thinking and ways of being which were accepted as a matter of course in our own society’ (Price and Jamin 1988: 161). Traditional anthropology, for example, had been constructed upon the assumed superiority of civilised to so-called savage societies, a Western-orientated and hierarchical distinction that surrealism had claimed to oppose. In validating the irrational and exotic, therefore, surrealism appeared to elevate the left-handed elements of experience and yet, as Sally Price contends, as rebellions go, even surrealism seems to have been an unusually ‘civilised’ one, as if this left-handedness were still operating within the limitations of the right (Price and Jamin 1988: 162). Leiris’s response, as an attempt to escape the co-ordinates that orientated his place in the world, was to resort to what one writer has called his ‘barbarisms’ (Thomas 1975). What prevailed in his African experience and carried over into (we might even say contaminated) his later writings was a conscious registering of a personal code or law, which we have been calling gauche. This was a law which could not be confUsed with that of any established social body, and moreover one that was instituted as an assault upon civilisation’s codes, whether literary, ethnographic or ethical, but from within rather than without. This barbarous left-handedness exercised from within the cultural conventions of the right, this wilfUl ‘inability to fit’, was his challenge to such codes and becomes the guiding motif of his literary career, evident in the idiosyncratic form as well as the idiomatic content of his writing. To that end, his oeuvre persistently arrogates, in the face of scholarly expectations, contracted obligations or literary conventions, disrespect for the rules of the game. All of this is done, says Jamin, not without conscious awareness of the pitfalls that await the writer/ethnographer through such provocations to the academy of literature or science. For just as the clumsiness of childhood, forgiven as natural in a child, may be dismissed as obtuse in an adult, his deliberate offence to good writing, acceptable in autobiographical reminiscences as personal quirks of style, provokes consternation and disparagement when surfacing in official documents like the archive of a scientific-anthropological mission. His scruples of truth to himself did not, however, permit him the security of retreat into more acceptably conventional forms. In all cases, Jamin concludes, this maladresse is a necessity, the indirect path to an opening, possessing what he surprisingly calls a civilising virtue even while upsetting the natural order of things (1981: 111).

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