Tydskrif vir Letterkunde
Print version ISSN 0041-476X
WYNCHANK, Anny. In the wings of the ethnography stage: Michel Leiris' scientific pursuit and existential quest. Tydskr. letterkd. [online]. 2011, vol.48, n.2, pp. 186-197. ISSN 0041-476X.
This paper analyses the attitude of a French surrealist writer and ethnographer, Michel Leiris, who accompanied the expedition led by Marcel Griaule, from Dakar to Djibouti (1931-33), as the archivist-secretary of this official "mission". In fact, Leiris participated actively in the ethnographic activities of the team. He kept a detailed account and recorded the methods used to acquire the objects collected. These methods were not always honest, but Leiris attempts to exonerate the team by pointing out that they were acting for the advancement of science and knowledge. Later, he ascribed ethnography an important role: to revalorise cultures which had been unjustly underrated. Leiris expected that his participation in the expedition would also allow him to encounter a different reality and meet the Other, hence to reduce his introspective tendencies and existential malaise. Realising these expectations were unfulfilled, he chose for his book the title Phantom Africa, which denied "full existence" to that continent. However, his account is of great interest to us because it reveals the mentality and attitude of an early 20th century surrealist ethnographer.
Keywords : Afrique fantôme; Michel Leiris; travel writing.