Brent Hayes Edwards’s monumental translation of Michel Leiris’s puzzling, infuriating, and thoroughly fascinating Phantom Africa makes available to a new—and newly critical—generation of students and readers a crucial document of colonial ethnography with profound import for literary history and modernism and surrealism in particular. Originally published in 1934, Phantom Africa is as generically wild as it is ideologically fraught, veering from essayistic critiques of the imperial object-gathering enterprise in Africa to rapturous fantasias that imagine cross-cultural knowledge-gathering in terms of radical eroticism and psychic revolution.
In the simplest terms, Phantom Africa is an impressionist’s diary, written by a man disillusioned with the literary culture of Paris, and recounting in granular detail his experience of the Mission Dakar-Djibouti (1931–1933), financed by the French government as its first ethnographic expedition in sub-Saharan Africa. As the mission’s “secretary archivist,” charged especially with documenting each object requisitioned as booty for display in Paris, Leiris was both faithful to this mission and deeply invested in his own position as an outsider to it, oftentimes in what now read as unappealingly heroic and salvific terms. At the same time, the book is marked by a desperate and accelerating sense of melancholy, a growing conviction that the cultural and linguistic abyss between the European observer and the Africa he is charged with grasping is too wide, too cavernous, and too ontologically destabilizing to bridge. There is also the tedious reality of bureaucratic travel: “All these days remain hollow,” Leiris writes, “my motions are purely mechanical. Again, I am being driven to hate my companions.”
Given the purpose of the mission, one doesn’t have to venture many guesses as to why. In preparation for his journey, Leiris writes of the “white mentality” that perceives everything other “in an entirely phantasmagorical way.” Displacing this mentality is, for him, a way to “undermine . . . racial prejudice, and iniquity against which one can never struggle enough.” Phantom Africa, and the non-specialist ethnography it both invents and records, attempts to reckon with this habit by way of a strict empiricism turned most energetically on the writer himself. The journal is infused with Leiris’s own sense and obsessive tracking of the observer’s subjective particularity. Like a latter-day Montaigne, he writes of his heartburn, his Rabelaisian lunch. And his own reflections become, in the later prefaces to the work, the subject of his scrutiny once again. As Justin Izzo suggests in his response, “What results is a mise en abyme of selves, different versions of Leiris (Leiris 2.0 or 3.0, we might say) who critique the political positions of earlier iterations and cause the journal’s original self to recede and become phantomlike.”
These moments and meta-moments within and between the publications of the text confess the science’s non-objectivity a form of accusation, illuminating the mission’s total co-optation into the projects of imperial resource extraction. Nevertheless, the “Africa” that appears in these pages is stubbornly ghost and ghosted. As in many earlier travel narratives attached to the requisition and management of far-flung territories, the epistemic interval Leiris constantly confronts and attempts to bridge amplifies what Amiel Bizé calls in her essay “ethnographic desire”—a “passion” “for speaking of what he does not know,” the “ethnographic bug” that bites him. For Bizé, this desire, offered in the mode of confession, both motors the narrative and constantly threatens to undo it.
Edwards’s introduction and apparatus illuminate these tensions and problematic self-positionings in ways that will be and already have been incredibly productive for students and scholars of imperial and literary history. In this way, Edwards’s Phantom Africa is a gift not only to an English-language readership, but to anyone interested in Leiris’s legacy and the discursive history of a continent that—in the hands of its Western observers—is continually and purposely made to fade from view. Leiris was not the first to stage such an erasure in the terms of keenly documented unknowability—what Keugro Macharia refers to as scholars’ cynical deployment of “the problem of the inexpressible, the untranslatable, the undecipherable, and many other negating prefixes: in-, un-, de-, imp”—nor would he be the last. As Chinua Achebe notes in his indelible repudiation of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the modernist and surrealist canons in particular trade in the coin of obscurity and obfuscation when it comes to Africa. For Achebe, Conrad is “engaged in inducing hypnotic stupor in his readers through a bombardment of emotive words and other forms of trickery.”1 Such an “adjectival insistence upon inexpressible and incomprehensive mystery”—terms Achebe borrows from F. R. Leavis—are at work in Leiris’s text as well, and Edwards is a detailed and clear-eyed guide in revealing and interrogating this particularly grim expression of colonialist looting’s aesthetic burnishing. For these reasons and more, Edwards’s introduction is in itself an enormously important piece of scholarship, laying out rich context for the development of interwar literary aesthetics, French anthropology, Leiris’s own body of work, and those he influenced.
Particularly enriching is Edwards’s inclusion, as beautifully laid-out sidenotes, of Leiris’s letters to his wife, Zette, with whom he corresponded voluminously during the mission, his mother, and more—Amah Edoh rightly called the decision “inspired.” The letters offer a valuable and fascinating picture of the literary and observational decisions that shaped Phantom Africa, peculiar as the outcomes or these writerly choices may be in generic and tonal terms.
Vast, uncomfortable, historically essential—the appearance of this work in English almost a century after its publication raises fraught disciplinary and affective questions for its readers. In addition to Bizé’s useful meditation on ethnographic desire, and Izzo’s reflections on Leiris’s ontology and the limits of contemporary discursive barrier policing between literature and anthropology, this dossier contains perspectives that foreground in affective terms the challenge of reading a text as “new” in a present in which the arrogance and racialized injustice in and behind Leiris’s writing is nowhere near eradicated. Kaiama Glover’s essay frames these issues in terms of spatial, temporal, and linguistic translation, beginning of course with Leiris’s own project of translating what he saw and what he heard for the mission and for the broader readership he imagined. For Amah Edoh, “Phantom Africa brought about (to my dismay!) moments of intense recognition and resonance . . . the overwhelm; the beginner’s faith in the promise of ethnographic research as a mode of and means to definitive knowing” but also ambivalence, “points of disjuncture” that are “momentous.”
Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa,” 1785.↩