Report from Sirius B

Jeremy Harding

In L’Age d’homme, his early excursion into autobiography, Michel Leiris recalls his mother warning him to beware of ‘bad people’ in the Bois de Boulogne. He imagined the predators in the woods to be ‘satyrs’, and later, cannibals: he had been struck by an exotic colour illustration in Le Pêle-Mêle, a humorous weekly, of ‘savages’ eating an explorer. Leiris (b. 1901) went on to become an ethnographer, though he is much more famous for his lifelong self-investigation in a series of startling autobiographical works. L’Age d’homme, which began to take shape in 1930, was the first. By then, he had finished his military service, abandoned his studies in chemistry and was moving in a world that suited his tastes and interests. He had married Louise Godon, daughter of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, the connoisseur, gallery owner and dealer who championed many of the great artists of his day, including Picasso, Juan Gris and Braque. Leiris seemed to know everyone without having scurried from soirée to soirée: the dumbwaiter simply arrived at the floor where the most illustrious guests were dining and he was delivered up for their inspection. André Breton made a meal of him but in 1929 he broke away and joined the team of Documents, the short-lived dissident Surrealist periodical edited by Georges Bataille. Leiris was both a marginal and a promising figure. Dangerously self-obsessed, fatally inclined to turn his hand to anything that passed for literature – in 1925 he published a volume of verse with illustrations by André Masson – he was struggling bravely against the pull of drink and sexual torment.

Around the time he joined Documents, he took up with Bataille’s psychoanalyst and embarked on a hybrid psychotherapy of his own. He had barely begun the long march through the unconscious when he decided to pack his bags and strike away from Europe. Towards the end of L’Age d’homme, he describes the moment in an offhand way: ‘On the advice of my doctor and thinking I could do with a touch of the strenuous life, I seized the chance to take a long trip and left for nearly two years in Africa as a member of an ethnographic expedition.’ The passage is deadpan to the point of superciliousness: we could be reading the memoir of an astronaut who alludes to a moon landing in which he took part, but fails to mention the space programme.

The expedition in question was a weightless walk across Africa, already conquered, claimed and administered by its European masters but underexplored for the wealth of its precolonial civilisations. The mission, put together by the ethnographer Marcel Griaule, would cross the continent from west to east, setting out from Dakar, in Senegal, in May 1931 and heading home from Djibouti in February 1933. It was one of the great 20th-century outings, a royal progress by a scientific vanguard of white men, approved by a vote in the French parliament and funded by subscription: Raymond Roussel, the wealthy author of Impressions d’Afrique (1909), was one of the donors. The ‘Mission Dakar-Djibouti’ was arduous. It took longer than Cook’s first journey from England to Australia two centuries earlier. Leiris was 29 when he was hired as ‘secretary-archivist’. The story goes that Luis Buñuel turned down a place on the mission, leaving an opening for the new candidate.

Leiris already had an ethnographer’s cast of mind when he signed up for the mission in 1930. With the help of psychoanalysis – isn’t the ‘doctor’ who advises him to go to Africa his analyst? – he had made promising contact with his own tribe of symptoms and begun to understand how they worked: bingeing, anomie, wild dreams, fantastic notions of the feminine other; impotence and a yearning for debauchery. An observer-participant on the Dakar-Djibouti run, Leiris turned out a fascinating journal of its highs and lows as it headed slowly east. Phantom Africa, which he published in 1934, is a double ethnography, both an assiduous record of the mission’s findings and a set of field notes for an ethnography of the ethnographers. It is also about the author and his many preoccupations.

Leiris could easily see himself in regressive series: a person looking at a version of that person looking at another version still. In Phantom Africa we can imagine him sitting in a tent, typewriter on his lap, writing up the day’s business; sure enough, as we read on, we encounter the image of a writer in a tent etc. L’Age d’homme supplies a famous example of this mise en abyme – Leiris borrowed the term from Gide – in the form of a cocoa tin. Cocoa, Leiris explains in L’Age d’homme, was the ‘raw material’ of his childhood breakfasts. The tin showed a figure holding the very tin on which she’s depicted in the same attitude holding the tin, and so on back in a dizzying rush to nowhere – or ‘infinity’, as Leiris thought of it. More than once in Phantom Africa, he hints that the Dakar-Djibouti mission is foundering in self-replication, obeying orders that it issues to itself, and evolving into its own miniature as the vastness of the Sahel looms at the outskirts of the encampment.

Good anthropology, as it’s said of charity, begins at home. As the expedition’s scribe, Leiris was ready to encounter societies far more nuanced, far healthier – and by a margin less exotic – than the object of his ongoing inquiry: Michel Leiris. He may not have enjoyed logging potsherds, or pilfering fetishes and low-tech agricultural tools for the mission as it worked its acquisitive way east, sending artefacts back to the Musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro. But he was a diligent clerk and, as he understood soon enough, an apprentice ethnographer. His journal is now available in an elegant translation with notes and an introduction by Brent Hayes Edwards, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia.

It is a magnificent book. Edwards has kept the apparatus of the key French editions, including Leiris’s own footnotes – many, as Edwards says, added by way of ‘curt self-deprecation’ – for a second edition in 1951 (the first had fallen foul of the Vichy censor ten years earlier). He translates Leiris’s preamble to a 1981 edition and includes fascinating passages from letters Leiris wrote to ‘Zette’ (Louise Godon) during the journey, which appeared in a 2014 Pléiade edition. Edwards is an excellent guide to the issues that Phantom Africa raises. Is it fair to call Leiris’s sensibility ‘primitivist’? Not really, Edwards thinks. Can the journal be described, as the historian James Clifford argued in a famous essay in 1981, as ‘ethnographic surrealism’? Hardly. Was Leiris really in pursuit of the exotic ‘black Edens’ he had glimpsed with the arrival of jazz in Paris after World War One? Pretty much: they led him to Africa in the first place, he explains in L’Age d’homme, ‘and beyond Africa, to ethnography’.

His journal reads as a midwife’s notes on the birth of French ethnography, a twinkle in the eye of French sociology when Leiris was in his late teens. Marcel Mauss, who can justly claim paternity, co-founded the Institute of Ethnology in Paris in the mid-1920s; Leiris attended a few of Mauss’s lectures before he left for Africa. Mauss and his colleagues at the institute trained students in ‘descriptive ethnography’, stressing the core skills: the ‘inquiry’ (how to find reliable informants, what to ask them); the inventory (collecting and cataloguing oral testimony and artefacts); a working knowledge of source languages; and crucially the field notes, followed by the monograph (strictly, what ethnography amounts to). Marcel Griaule, trained as an engineer, and then an air force pilot, was one of Mauss’s students. With the rudiments of Amharic and an older, liturgical Ethiopian language, Ge’ez, he took off for Ethiopia in 1928, shortly after Evans-Pritchard set out for Sudan. Mauss had sent up a lone flare and waited with bated breath. Griaule, it turned out, was good: he was obviously the figure to head the mission that would assure ethnography a place in the French human sciences.

One of the Dakar-Djibouti expedition’s outstanding successes was in Gondar, Ethiopia, where Griaule had already led the way. Leiris followed up, in the closing stages of the expedition, by steeping himself in local possession cults, working with charismatic healers – exorcists and propitiators of the spirits that inhabited their patients. He fell in love with one of the healers, he writes in L’Age d’homme: she had syphilis, apparently, and had undergone FGM. Was this a homage to participant-ethnography or pure delirium on Leiris’s part? In any case, he’d found a perfect love object, dangerous and indifferent, to languish over at a distance. His Virgil in Gondar was the Ethiopian scholar Abba Jérôme Gabra Moussié, who led him through his descent. The spirits in question were known as zar; they could take possession of their victims on a whim. Leiris, who liked to come face to face with his own demons, was at home with the zar. Abba Jérôme and Leiris worked painstakingly through several media – from utterances at the consultations to written versions in Amharic and then to French – as they rendered the ceremonial songs for the archive in Paris.


At the time of the expedition, Griaule was contemplating a long spell of fieldwork in Ethiopia as the next assignment. Mussolini’s invasion, two years after the mission’s triumphant return, would throw him off course. He fell back on the founding Dakar-Djibouti discovery: the Dogon of Mali, a relatively isolated people with dazzling origin myths and a fastidious, poetic sense of interaction with the ancestors – real and mythic – which came to a pitch of expression at funerals and mask festivals. Deaths among the Dogon, a poor, unmedicated farming community, were common; Leiris and Griaule had many opportunities to see the ministrations that had failed the living lavished on the dead, in displays of drumming, dancing, drinking and recitation; above all, in the performance of spectacular masked ceremonies. Leiris – and Griaule, who published a study of the masks in 1938 – set about trying to identify their personae, like characters in an alien Commedia dell’Arte, and ascertain the secrets of the Dogon universe.

The journal is a good insider’s record of the mission’s objectives, routines and setbacks, the attitudes of its members to the European officials on whom they relied for logistical support – the mission was a profoundly colonial venture – and to the ‘Africans’ they encountered, on whom they depended even more: interpreters, fixers, chiefs, performers, keepers of sacred space, all of whom might come together in the planning and execution of a large funeral for a senior clan member. Mistranslations across languages and cultures are as common as engine trouble with the car, botched appointments, rivers unexpectedly in spate or bouts of fever. On the whole, Leiris is well disposed to his African counterparts. There is good and bad behaviour on both sides, but when the mission misbehaves – thieving is one of Griaule’s weaknesses – Leiris is sympathetic to the host cultures, who would sooner keep sacred objects in their villages than see them shipped to Paris by a party of Caucasian intellectuals in shorts. In Mali, the mission makes off with a ceremonial artefact from the premises of an initiation cult: a suckling pig, about the size of a pillow, fashioned from coagulated blood and beeswax, ‘which Griaule found by slipping surreptitiously into the special hut’. It’s now among the African masterpieces in the museum at Quai Branly. In Porto-Novo, capital of modern-day Benin, Leiris records that a colonial official has put together a hoard of objects for the mission, ‘which we carry off immediately with the cynicism of businessmen or bailiffs’ – the team, he reckons, is turning into ‘a removals company’. Elsewhere he speaks of the mission’s ‘piracy’, and later of ‘looting’.

The journal brings us up against the person Leiris had hoped to leave behind in Europe. He was the first to admit that his adventure hadn’t done the trick. He had his own way of going deep into the interior and his entries tell us as much about himself as they do about colonial Africa. He is the explorer whose image he had seen as a child in Le Pêle-Mêle, devoured by his own inner savages, and he is never less than lucid when they pull him apart. His journal labours around the virtuous circles of ethnography and psychoanalysis, returning often, as both propose, to the place from which he set out. ‘To hell with psychoanalysis,’ he writes at one point, utterly exasperated. His dreams are outlandish; his wet dreams are inexplicable to him (‘the abrupt reappearance of sex, when I believed I wasn’t thinking about it in the least’). Helplessness can engulf him at any moment. ‘I’m nervous and depressed,’ he writes within a week of arriving in Dakar. ‘The goals of the trip are growing dim, too.’ With 610 days still to go, it doesn’t bode well. In Ethiopia in August 1932, about 420 days in, he is undone by ‘gloomy thoughts … To go home; to be old … How many occupations I will have to struggle to find, to keep myself from going mad! How can I ever live in France again?’ This inwardness is the deep space of Leiris’s male abjection, which he did to a tee. He was anxious throughout the mission about himself and the destiny of Europe, where the disaster of an earlier war looked increasingly like the prelude to another. In Mali, he thumbs through press agency bulletins at a local post office and notes: ‘The stock markets are closed in several capitals, England is well on the way to ruin … It is more and more obvious that the West is collapsing – it is the end of the Christian era.’

Bleak premonitions of this kind may not have reached epidemic proportions in France, but they were shared by many of Leiris’s contemporaries. Paul Nizan wrote in the same vein in Aden Arabie, an explosive polemic in which he ascribes his departure for the Middle East at the age of twenty to a disgust for the ‘molehill’ of Europe, ‘with its piles of clinker, and slag heaps from worked-out mines’. Nizan’s professors, he wrote, had sounded off about Europe’s decline, and philosophers had already signalled ‘the decadence of the West’. Aden Arabie appeared in 1931, the year Leiris set out for Dakar. In Nizan’s Bolshevik odyssey – framed in Homeric terms – he comes home to find Ithaca as corrupt as it was when he left: France and Europe must be finished off in a blaze of revolutionary purification – ‘we should no longer blush about being fanatical.’ Nizan found it easier than Leiris to externalise the European disaster. Leiris, for his pains, was trying – and failing – to ingest it whole. In Phantom Africa we can’t tell where or how his body will erupt next: in profuse sweats, wet dreams or sores on his feet. Only a stubborn orientalist would blame his afflictions on the tropics.

When Leiris looks around him, there is no better journalist: frank to the point of insolence, often very funny, with an eye for detail and, though he never stops writing, a knack for concision. In Ethiopia he records the moment when Abba Jérôme joins the team in Gondar and pays his respects at the Italian consulate. In the same brief set-piece he catches the imminence of fascist rule in Ethiopia and the challenges that beset a local philologist: ‘With his brown skin, bald pate, and professorial beard, [Jérôme] gives the fascist salute, bumps his head against the light, and sits down. The great scholar … has had a fair number of setbacks during his journey. He tells Griaule and me how he had to traverse a forest on all fours, as the shifta [bandits] had cut down the trees.’

There are good, comic vignettes of Griaule. In Mali: ‘In his fevered state, Griaule dreamed that he had to bring lions back for a museum.’ In Central African Republic: as Leiris is left on his own with an importunate crowd asking him to treat a case of sleeping sickness, ‘Griaule chases butterflies along the road.’ Earlier, in Cameroon: ‘Griaule has acquired two female striped hyenas for the museum’; they are kept in the guest house and have ‘a strong, musky smell’. Two days later: ‘The hyenas are smelling worse and worse … Griaule dreamed that his bed was full of snakes (by association with the smell of the snake house at the Jardin des Plantes).’ The thought of France is never far away: both a place of venomous danger, festering between two wars, and the great repository to which all cultures must pay tribute by yielding up their cherished objects and divulging their religions.

With his taste for profanity and desecration, Leiris was quick to recognise sacred space wherever he set foot. Fumbling for clues to the spirituality of the Dogon and moving around between promising locations, he notes in one that ‘the sacred spreads out in every direction, like puddles after rain,’ and in the next that ‘it is relegated to the highest point of the village … the granaries, the various hiding places.’ By contrast, disposable junk from ‘the profane world’ is thrown onto a garbage dump. Six months later, entering Cameroon after a dull journey through the Christianised regions of the British imperium, he writes: ‘The sacred – of which we had been deprived for so long – reappears … Little archways of leaves and branches simulating doorways, a large, trimmed branch (planted in the ground and hung with animals’ jawbones).’ These – I’m guessing – were spirit dwellings, tended by spirit mediums, not unlike the zar negotiators he was about to encounter in Ethiopia. ‘No more wooden crucifixes,’ he records with a sigh of relief.

Leiris was not alone in thinking local African religions more authentic, and worthier of study, than the percolations of Islam and Christianity. The Dogon proved him right, although it was only after World War Two that he published his own findings, and Griaule unfolded the Dogon universe before a large, non-academic public in Dieu d’eau, a bestseller in several languages, based on intensive conversations with the blind Dogon elder Ogotemmêli. This was a great moment for French ethnography – all ethnography actually – and Phantom Africa is the preface to it.

Leiris had returned to France in the 1930s with field notes from Sanga, a French colonial district in Dogon country, on the hermetic language of the Dogon mask societies (or ‘men’s societies’, as they were known). This language, spoken by elders and initiates, was known as sigi so, or Sigui. It differed from Dogon vernaculars, of which there were several, and required a careful apprenticeship: learning and listening were helped along with a concoction of millet beer, sesame oil and black chilli, poured in an apprentice’s ear before a session. Leiris’s La Langue secrète des Dogon de Sanga contained an essay on Sigui grammar, a Sigui vocabulary, and many ritual texts proper to mask ceremonies and funerals, transcribed from recitations with the help of two interpreters: one to render the texts from Sigui to everyday Dogon, the other to get the result from there into French. The force and economy of these funeral orations, and exhortations to masked dancers, are remarkable in French, and hold up through a third transposition into English; for instance, this exhortation to dancers wearing gazelle masks:

Bush goat, greetings!
You’ve fed on beans, your belly is full
A good man takes a shot at you
Blood flows on the earth
Everyone looks on
The hare looks on
The dove looks on
It screeches

Stir your legs
Stir your head
Red, red, red! Everyone looks on

Griaule had made several trips to Dogon country in the late 1930s and returned after the war with his colleague Germaine Dieterlen. Bombarded with questions, his Dogon sources tended to reply with what they called ‘la parole de face’, or off-the-peg answers. Then, in 1946, as Leiris was preparing to publish his book on the secret language, Griaule was introduced to Ogotemmêli. Clearly the guardians of the sacred had resolved to up their game, and over 33 days of conversation, the blind hunter took Griaule through a crash course in Dogon cosmology. It gets off to an illustrious start when Ogotemmêli remarks in passing that the stars, which were formed from pellets of earth flung into space by the creator, were ‘taken down’ from the sky by women who gave them to their children. ‘The children put spindles through them and made them spin like fiery tops to show themselves how the world turned. But that was only a game.’ Then, in more serious tones, Ogotemmêli went back to the origin of things, explaining that the Dogon universe began with a false start, when the creator copulated with a form he had made from mud, and the form gave birth to a jackal. Later the jackal committed an incestuous act with its mother form, and acquired speech – ‘the first word’.

The creator started over, making two new beings, twins: a fishlike pair of water gods, each with two souls, male and female From this couple, eight fishlike beings were born: the primal Dogon ancestors. The emergence of language is one of the most striking aspects of the origin myth. As the lone jackal prepares to wander the world and whisper the future to diviners, language undergoes a further evolution, when one of the eight ancestors spits threads through his teeth to create a warp, and uses his tongue to move a weft to and fro across it: the fabric emerges from his mouth as ‘the breath of the second revealed word’. And so it goes on, until a shift from supernatural to natural is brought about by a Promethean blacksmith and the structure of the universe, modelled on a granary, is revealed, finding its symbolic echo in the granaries built into almost every Dogon household when Griaule was doing fieldwork. He finished writing up his notes in 1947 and a few months later got word that Ogotemmêli had died. Dieu d’eau and Leiris’s monograph appeared in 1948.

Griaule died in Paris in 1956. A few weeks later the Dogon laid on a second funeral for him. He was represented in effigy, or rather twin effigies, one placed on the roof of a house, the other borne along to a burial site by a large procession. The documentary filmmaker Jean Rouch filmed the Dogon mourners honouring their de facto elder and initiate. Le Renard pâle, by Griaule and Dieterlen, appeared nine years after Griaule’s death. It was a broader exploration of Dogon cosmology than Dieu d’eau and differed from it in important ways. It brought the Dogon resounding fame by suggesting that they had identified Sirius B, the invisible dwarf star and companion of the Dog Star – now known as Sirius A, the brightest star in the night sky. Le Renard pâle raised eager speculations about space alien dockings in central Mali. The Dogon later morphed into New Age visionaries, with androgynous ancestors at home in water, earth and air.

Like Leiris, Griaule and Dieterlen presented a community in terms of its intellectual achievements without much attention to the empirical details of life in Dogon country. Dogon civilisation bore a striking resemblance to the civilisation that wrote it up: ‘unmistakably French’, Mary Douglas said in 1967, ‘so urbane, so articulate, with such philosophical insight’. Mutterings came to a head in 1991, when the Belgian anthropologist Walter van Beek decided to take Griaule and Dieterlen apart: they had forced their material, and Griaule had leaned on his informants, including Ogotemmêli. Whatever he thought of the fieldwork, van Beek regarded the Dogon as a regional one-off. Griaule and Dieterlen, who felt they were exemplary, had in van Beek’s view been under an illusion, and French ethnography had been stranded on Sirius B all along.

But Griaule and the Dogon have kept their status in the French humanities. The Dogon are no less intelligible in France than their best-known competitors, the Cathars of Montaillou, introduced to the public by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in 1975. Not even the brilliant reductionism of structural anthropology, which stressed the grammar of kinship and exchange over the exotic utterances of unfamiliar cultures, could quite do for the Dogon. In 1989 the Bandiagara escarpment, with its impressive Dogon villages built into the cliffs, became a Unesco world heritage site. Islam has since gained ground, though it was present in Griaule’s day: he simply ignored the dreary beliefs of Dogon Muslims and Christians. The Dogon must also weigh their tourism revenues against the neglect of their habitat: their mud and straw houses and decorated clay granaries require constant attention, but skilled repairers have been drawn away from this work to become full-time tour guides. Recently the appearance of modern, internationalised jihad in the Western Sahel has seen fewer tourists venturing into Mali. Neither of these intrusions would have seemed likely to Leiris, an intruder himself, as he headed home on a steamer across the Mediterranean in 1933, steeped in the works of Joseph Conrad.