RSS Feed

Michel Leiris’ Manhood as Misread by Susan Sontag

July 27, 2012 by Fan

       On June 12, 1961, a cool early summer day in Paris, a 28-year-old Susan Sontag jotted down in her diary a list of books she intended to buy:

Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme
George Bataille, L’érotisme
Robert Michels, Sexual Ethics
Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man
Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity
Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions
Jean Wahl, Défense et élargissement de la philosophie
Le recours aux poètes : Claudel
Husserl
L’ouvrage posthume de Husserl : La Krisis
R. Caillois, Art poétique

      The first entry, Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme was crossed out, presumably after she bought it on a later day. It’s not known if she bought or read other books. Nevertheless, this list presents a coherent intellectual milieu enwrapping Sontag (and Paris) at the moment. Robert Michel, who wrote about sexuality, is also the founding father of moderation theory that leads to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Thomas Torrance is a Protestant theologian paying attention to the relationship between science and theology. Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack tried to trace the essence of Christianity beyond the Roman world to the Greek world. Brooks Adams is a radical American critic of capitalism while Claudel is a conservative French poet with a penchant for ritual sacrifices. Wahl and Husserl are earlier existentialists from France and Germany respectively. George Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michael Leiris are all Surrealist artists associated with Marcel Mauss with different tendencies: Bataille focused on eroticism’s universal transcendence; Caillois, the founding father of gaming theory, tried to lead Surrealism out of narcissism to “play”, performance, and communal solidarity; Michel Leiris, the only full-time ethnographer in the group, experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.
       Most of those writers flourished between the two World Wars, or, between the tragic aftermath and the looming uncertainty. This was a time when the familiar suddenly looked strange. The expansion of the colonial empire with its bureaucratic machinery and the influx of immigrants, especially those from Africa, on the other hand, made the strange and the exotic familiar.
      Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, captured a total Parisian excitement at this particular moment in his little book A Moveable Feast. Sontag’s book list, written down some 40 year later, appears to be more fragmented – or may I say, “postmodern”. Nonetheless, a set of related key words or phrases can be dug out: Christianity; antiquity; poetics; self and others; mythology, ritual and ethnography; existentialism; aesthetics; Surrealism; eroticism; social reform.
      If I, as an outsider, take ethnographic liberty to speculate on things that might appear to be random and unrelated for those from inside, the concerns of those authors and books as a whole can be delineated into five threads: (I) an intention to trace modern European life to antiquity via Christianity – this is the temporal and self-contained line of inquiry; (II) a desire to expand outside the West – this is a spatial line of inquiry going beyond the self-constraint to the territories of others; (III) an tension between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity; (IV) a dynamic process from intellectual endeavours to socio-political engagement, and vice versa; (V) the interplay between the individual self/personhood and the world/worldview.
      Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme is the only entry Sontag crossed out in her diary. From her review of the book published three years later in the New York Review of Books when its English translation (with the amusing title of Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility) first appeared in the US, she didn’t appear to have read other books on the list. In any case, she didn’t incorporate any of the five threads listed above into her analysis. Her reading is entirely rooted in her very own milieu, America in the 1960s. However, Sontag’s indifference to history is probably exactly what Leiris’s book is really about – it also explains why my assumed review of Michel Leiris’ book begins not with Leiris but Sontag.
      Let me outline (and sample) the actual contents of L’Age d’Homme, or as it will be called in the following pages, Manhood.
       Manhood is Leiris’ autobiography which he began to write in 1930 when he was 34. Quickly skimming through the book, a casual reader might well be puzzled and annoyed by torrents of trivial and banal details about Leiris’ rather uninteresting personhood and life.
      He opens the book by telling us about his unattractive appearances: average height, receding hair, big and protruding head that makes him look like a ram, small and hairy hands, legs disproportionally short, and hunched back. Sexually he is not abnormal – just cold and impotent and “not endowed”. He dislikes babies because “the diapers smeared with excrement”. Death intrigues him a lot more than life since his childhood. In fact, suicide fascinates him. The book is an inventory of his timidity, failures, boredom, lurid behaviours and physical injuries he suffered. But there are moments of absurd hilarity: when a 7-year-old Leiris accidentally cut himself, his panicking mother tripped herself in the living room and was unable to get up. His father was out-of-town and his bed-ridden uncle could do nothing but looking at the boy’s blood flowing on the floor while the boy himself was meditating with a certain coolness his own imminent death. There are also moments sacred profanity – or profane sacredness – such as when Leiris tells us that:

“In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating”

      Back to Paris from ancient Greek ruins, he tried celibacy in an asexual arrangement of ménage à trois, experimenting existential boredom by wandering around Parisian streets purposelessly with two friends (or rather comrades). But he finally was intrigued by a young woman named Kay. After a three-year relationship, Leiris decides that Kay is emotionally fake (not unlike Swann’s wife Odette in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). More sexual misadventures, a fascination with the onset of Parisian black culture and Jazz music, and his psychoanalysts’ advice that he need to “get away from civilization” in order to cure his impotence, encourage him to join the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an  ethnographic mission to the heart of Africa under the leadership of Marcel Griaule from 1924 to 1929. Upon return, however, Leiris discovers that Africa and Paris are one and the same. The only way to escape trivial follies, he declares in the end of the book, is to subject himself either to dream or to ultimate emptiness – death.
      Leiris’ story is not told in chronological fashion. Rather than a linear narrative of a life story, Manhood is a set of montage or collage. For already offended readers who were expecting a good (and morally uplifting) story, this is like adding salt to injury: bad contents badly written. For people who are willing to take a second or a third look at the text, however, the organization of the autobiography could be viewed as an intention to elevate trivial profanities of individual experiences to the height of sacred mythology. In fact, Leiris’ disappointing personhood and life are classically embedded in a system of cultural references. Leris and his milieu hold a belief that, as James Clifford points out, “… beneath the dual veneer of the real [there is] the possibility of another more miraculous world based on radically different principles of classifications and orders”. It’s this underlying set of classification and orders that turns autobiography’s banal details – indeed autobiographic writing itself – into a ritual performance, a rite of passage.
       Leiris delineates the life-cycle themes in Prologue when he put his trivialities under headings such as “Old Age and Death”, “Supernature”, “Infinity”, “The Soul”, and “Subject and Object”. The following chapter is entitled “Tragic Themes” in which he relates Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Tales of Hoffman: he was able to connect, through his childhood memories, themes of Christian devotion (in Wagner’s case), pagan knowledge (in Goethe’s case) and vision and knowledge induced by intoxication (Hoffman’s tales are generated by binge drinking). The next chapter about Hellenic femininity manages to end with a section called “Brothels and Museums” – in other words, Leiris sees that the sacred and the profane are one and the same in pagan civilization (remember his seminal “offering” on Olympus?). But the subsequent chapters are entitled with Biblical heroines: Lucrece, Judith. However, the fascination with the sacred femininity is always accompanied by unfortunate incidents proving to Leiris that he is nothing but “the head of Holofernes’. He left for Africa, only to find the same gender antagonism.
      The biblical scale Leiris imposes on his trivial autobiography in this short book creates a certain ambiguity. This ambiguity is the entry point for future readers who intend to look beneath the surface. In fact, Leiris himself took advantage of this ambiguity to reframe the meaning of the book in 1940s. During that period, he was gradually more involved with Sartre’s political activism. In 1946, Leiris published what he considered to be the definite preface to the book, claiming the dark humours and “profound boredom” expressed in the book are actually not about Surrealist aesthetics but an inquiry into authenticity – the writing itself was a ritual performance of selfhood necessary in connecting the personal to political praxis. The book is thus a political statement renouncing Bataille’s aesthetic approach in favour of Sartre’s communalism. The autobiography, along with all its talk about suicide, is thus a ritual suicide of selfish selfhood.
      Those are not the impressions Susan Sontag got from the book: she considers it an exercise in anti-literature by clinically documenting the author’s mental aberration. Revealingly, she points out that the book’s English translation suddenly appears in the US in the early 1960s, the age of anti-hero. The book immediately became a bestseller despite the fact the unknown French author (even to the educated Americans) was not introduced in the translation. In the company of contemporary American writers such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, the shamelessness is all Sontag could see in Leiris.
      My reading of Manhood is neither the same as Leiris’ early Surrealist nor late Sartre-influenced interpretations. I also find Sontag’s interpretation crude and uninspired. In any case, it’s sufficient to say here that I have respect for any of those interpretations.
       The book, as the Michel Leiris intended, is a recreation of mythology. Mythology, as Claude Levi-Strauss contended, functions on different levels and intends to evoke multitudes of reactions. The writing of the book – and by extension, the reading of the book – is a ritual performance of a mythological text. A particular individual at a particular moment in a particular place gets his or her particular meaning. To fully grasp the gravity of this very trivial text, one needs to go back all the way to the five threads mentioned early, and it requires a major treatment.

 

Michel Leiris as an ethnographer of Dogon culture:


No Comments »

No comments yet.

You must be logged in to post a comment.