Visions of the Archipelago: Michel Leiris, Autobiography and Ethnographic Memory

Essay Excerpt

Michel Leiris is known in this country chiefly as the author of L'Afrique Fantome (Phantom Africa), an ethnographic diary, in the style of Bronislaw Malinowski, the author kept during his two years as a member of the first Dakar-Djibouti trans-African ethnographic expedition in 1931-33. For most anthropologists, this hefty volume remains what it was when Leiris submitted it to Andre Malrauxat Gallimard, a fascinating, if only hybrid, example of fieldwork against the grain. The author spends as much time exploring his own motives and emotions as he does the customs and rites, the physical and medical conditions of the various people he and his colleagues visit and live with for long periods at a time. It is significant that the rest of Leiris's oeuvre, ranked today with that of Proust, Gide, Sartre, and Camusat the very top of modem French literature, remains, except perhaps for Manhood, written but not yet published by the time Leiris set out for Africa, and other fragments recently translated, largely unknown in the United States.2 The linguistic difficulty in translating a text full of puns, idioms, and intracultural references probably makes Leiris, like Joyce, one of the most untranslatable authors around. The problem lies as much with Leiris's idiosyncratic poetic prose as with his new approach to the literary text combining in the field of autobiography, or rather of self-portrait, a very powerful form of ethnographic memory with a thorough investigation of all the cultural dimensions of natural language. However, as I'll try to show, this cultural uniqueness of Leiris's more properly literary work not only poses linguistic and literary problems for the translator; it also stands as a powerful example of the challenge the anthropologist must face in the field and upon his return home, when he must pore over a mountain of notes and inscribe into an authoritarian narrative of fixed vignettes, schemas, and tables, what was originally but a lived continuum in the life of a community including himself.  (Blanchard, 270)

About the Author

Marc Blanchard was a professor of Comparative Literature and Critical Theory at the University of California, Davis. Before coming to the UC campus in 1971, Blanchard taught at Yale and Columbia. Marc Blanchard died on Nov. 8 in 2009.

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