AFICIÓN AND AFFINITIES: ON EXHIBITING AND PUBLISHING LEIRIS
For the best part of the spring and summer (April 3–September 14, 2015), the Centre Pompidou-Metz is hosting Leiris & Co, a show curated by Agnès de la Beaumelle, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Denis Hollier, editor of the recently published second Pléiade volume of Leiris’s writings. We spoke to him, and to a number of artists, about their perception of this singular literary figure and his enduring influence. You prefaced the Pléiade edition of Georges Bataille’s novels in 2004, and you edited the two volumes of its Leiris series published to date, La Règle du jeu in 2003 and L’Âge d’homme preceded by L’Afrique fantôme, just out. You show—as you also did in your book about the Collège de Sociologie (1)—how Leiris needed, in a way, to emancipate himself from Bataille. Would you say that it is the same path that led you from Bataille to Leiris? Does Leiris need to be considered with Bataille? Without him? Or even, against him? I met Leiris after Bataille’s death. I had read
Le Coupable and Le Bleu du ciel. Several of the obituaries mentioned the Collège de Sociologie, which I’d never heard of. I was a student at the time and I offered to write a thesis. Leiris received me, very cordially, partly because he didn’t have much to say on the subject. In fact, he wondered if there
was anything to say. Clearly, he did not feel really a part of the Collège de Sociologie. It was essentially conceived and organized by Bataille and Roger Caillois. Bataille must have asked him to join at the last minute, like Alexandre Kojève. He would have liked Leiris to talk as an ethnographer about his first-hand experience of sacrifices among the Ethiopian possessed, about the sense of the sacred he felt when animals were put to death. I’m not sure Bataille was expecting Leiris’s contribution to take the autobiographical turn of “The Sacred in Everyday Life,” which seems to have come more from the exchanges with Colette Peignot.(2) In fact, Leiris was very busy with his relatively new profession of ethnographer and by the transformation of the Musée d’Ethnographie into the Musée de l’Homme, which had made him a museographer. Basically, Leiris was the first writer Bataille met when he got back from Madrid. Leiris had an interest in the avant-garde that Bataille found it difficult to share. I’m not sure that Bataille showed the first versions of “Dirty” (the famous W.-C.) to many other people besides Leiris. It was through Bataille that Leiris became interested in bullfighting, and also that he read Marcel Mauss, especially his essay on The Gift. We should not forget that L’Âge d’homme and
Le Bleu du ciel were exactly contempora- neous, both published in 1935. Both affirm a pathological dimension and it took them years to get published. Bataille and Leiris were writers who found it hard to integrate, or accept being integrated. Their relationship was extremely close, Dostoevskyan, and, as you’d expect, full of tension. But the influence may have been a bit one-sided. Bataille influenced Leiris more than the other way round.
What approach did you take to the publication of Leiris’s work in the Pléiade? Why was La
Règle du jeu, which came after L’Âge d’homme, published before it? These are not the complete works. The volumes are not numbered. That La Règle du
jeu was published first is relatively minor. Without reviving the question of “What is an author?” a complete works would immediately have come up against the question of his ethnographic writings, like La
Langue secrète des Dogon de Sanga and Contacts de civilisations en Martinique et en
Guadeloupe, which it’s hard to imagine in the Pléiade. In reality, though, I didn’t hesitate. Why start with La Règle du jeu? Because it is Leiris’s magnum opus and, moreover, a very great book, an immense autobiographical opera with breathtaking changes of scene. I actually spoke to Leiris about the idea of publishing the four books that comprise La Règle du jeu ( Biffures,
Fourbis, Fibrilles, Frêle bruit) within one cover but La Règle du jeu was never published as such in his lifetime. It was important to bring out both the unity of the project and its thematic and formal metamorphoses, volume after volume. The whole enterprise was developed in the search for a total object, a whole that can be held in the hand, a compendium, a vade mecum. Indeed, Leiris published them under that general title. Finally, in each one he makes a progress report on the project, its development, its transformations, the way it changes in the course of his life. You have L’Âge d’homme cohabit with L’Afrique fantôme, in a kind of autobiography or self-portrait in which Leiris questions his sexuality, and a travel journal which is more or less ethnographic, reporting on the expedition he is on. These, you explain, are two forms of personal writing; two uses of the “I” with their resemblances and differences. One of the effects I wanted to achieve by publishing L’Afrique fantôme and L’Âge d’homme in the same volume was to emphasize that, whatever the role of ethnographic surveys, L’Afrique fantôme was not a book of ethnology. L’Afrique fantôme was already the centerpiece of the volume of Leiris’s writings about Africa assembled by Jean Jamin in Miroir de l’Afrique. It
was a good thing to publish it alongside
L’Âge d’homme, that is to say, to inscribe it in a synchronous cross-section rather than in a diachronic, disciple-based sequence. The table of contents also shows that the Dakar-Djibouti mission was like a break between the beginning and the continuation of L’Âge d’homme. The three texts assembled in this volume ( L’Afrique fantôme, L’Âge d’homme, Miroir
de la tauromachie) were written between two key dates, 1929 (the year of the great crisis that led to Leiris’s break with Surrealism) and 1939 (the outbreak of war, Leiris’s mobilization and the beginning of what was going to become La Règle du jeu. L’Afrique fan
tôme and L’Âge d’homme are also two texts where Leiris engages with writing in the first person. But each does it in a very different way, L’Afrique fantôme being a textual collage published without corrections, and
L’Âge d’homme a textual collage that Leiris would describe as a photomontage.
PERVERSION OR PARESTHESIA?
We know the famous preface to L’Âge
d’homme, “De la littérature considérée comme une tauromachie,” [published as the afterword, “The Autobiographer as Torero,” in the English edition], where Leiris evokes the shadow of the bull’s horn, which he saw as indispensable to any authentic form of literature. In this regard, there is another text in the volume, “Miroir de la tauromachie,” introduced by Francis Marmande. How do you see the connection between this text and the other two? Leiris viewed the world of bullfighting as a subculture: you had to know in order to understand, you had to know the code, to be initiated, to know its rhetoric so as to know and name its figures. The Essay on the Nature
and Function of Sacrifice by Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss was his interpretative grid. At an early age, he decided to make it the object of an ethnographic study on bullfightng. This project was always on his mind, and when he thought of settling in Spain, in 1935, he had in mind that this would be the right place to carry out his investigation. Another thing that needs to be said is that for Leiris, in the 1930s, ethnography meant, primarily, the study of institutions in societies that were disappearing—a mixture of archaism and exoticism. And it was from this angle that he verbalized his afición, his passion for bullfighting. An institution without a future, an archaic survival. I don’t know what debates there were about bullfighting in Spain at this time. Seen from France, it would seem they soon turned political. Opposition to bullfighting must have been from the left, even before Franco’s coup d’état. Certainly, Leiris was aware of it during the Dakar-Djibouti mission (the elections that had installed the Republic in Spain had taken place a few days before his departure). He was worried that bullfighting wouldn’t survive the victory of the Republic. This context makes his exchange with Maurice Heine even more interesting. Heine was, so to speak, the founder of Sadology, an unconditional Sadophilia that was both erudite and passionate, and scientific to the point of fetishism. Leiris sent him a signed copy of Le Miroir de la tauro
machie. It is clear from this that he took his support for granted, as if it was obvious that the first publisher of the Hundred Days
of Sodom and apologist of the bloodiest and most macabre paresthesia would recognize himself in the mirror he held up to him. The exchange that followed was extremely strange. Heine thanked him in a very courteous letter in which, against all expectations, he dissociated himself completely from Leiris’s afición. He reduced bullfighting to what he contemptuously called “zoophilia” (in the sense that we also say necrophilia, pedophilia, scatophilia, etc.), refusing to grant it the glorious title of what Freud would have called perversion. He preferred the less normative name of “paresthesia.” From that there arises a kind of paradoxical sadistic humanism, or anthropocentric humanism: sadism is kept exclusively for relations between human beings (Kojève is not far away here, although Heine surely had no inkling of that).
LUCRETIA AND JUDITH The exhibition Leiris & Co presents Leiris, particularly in terms of his relation to art. Visitors will not see the famous “double painting” by Cranach picturing Lucretia and Judith, which inspired Leiris’s Lucrèce, Judith et Ho
lopherne— which you are publishing for the first time, and which was the seed of L’Âge
d’homme. You explain at length how these two figures determine—in differing ways—Leiris’s erotic and aesthetic imaginary. Would you say that other works in Metz have what it was that Leiris found so fascinating in Cranach? The Cranach painting will not be there in person, for it is no longer with us: it was lost in the bombing of Dresden in 1944 (although there is a rumor that it simply “disappeared”). But a likeness will be there, in black and white, in the room dedicated to L’Âge d’homme. It will resonate thematically with many of the artworks and ethnographic material exhibited in other rooms, the ones about the journal Documents, and the Dakar-Djibouti mission, in relation to the circumcision ceremonies that Leiris investigated (as L’Âge d’homme required), but also with works by Giacometti, by Masson, and of course in the bullfighting room. The initiative for this exhibition came from the two curators, Marie-Laure Bernadac and Agnès de la Baumelle, who had been thinking about it for a long time. Several recent shows intersect with this project, one at London’s Hayward Gallery about Docu
ments, another in Seville about the DakarDjibouti mission—nothing you could compare with Leiris & Co, which is both more focused on Leiris and more open to the last century. Witness the remarkable works by the great painters he knewwell (Picasso, Masson, Miró, Giacometti, Lam, Bacon), the manuscripts (the famous file that was the basis for La Règle du jeu), a very big selection of photographs taken on the Dakar-Djibouti mission, and the African objects that Leiris dialogued with. It will also evoke his successive passions, for jazz, for opera, and his activist postwar trips to the West Indies, China and Cuba. Among the many very interesting texts you present in the appendixes of the Pléiade is an article published in the NRF in 1938. Written on the occasion of the opening of the Musée de l’Homme, it constitutes a very stimulating reflection on museology, which you must certainly have had in mind when conceiving the exhibition. It raises the problem of what a “living museum” might be. Yes, together Georges Henri Rivière and the team of the future Musée de l’Homme, he did effectively give some thought to what a “living museum” should be. That was the leitmotif of the museological reconfigurations linked to the creation of the Musée de l’Homme. Ethnologists in those days did not expect to save the societies they were studying. They knew it was too late, that they were doomed to disappear, either by destruction of assimilation. But they didn’t want all memory of them to be lost as well. When Alfred Métraux traveled to Easter Island, for example, he knew that what he was seeing was merely vestiges of the past. It was with the same melancholy that he studied voodoo in Haiti. Ethnography was justified in almost humanitarian terms, by the feeling it was saving societies or institutions that, without its testimony, would disappear into absolute nothingness. Study and collecting objects would, it was hoped, save them from total death. Something would remain at the Musée de l’Homme thanks to the new museographic techniques and the latest versions of Rousselian resurrectine.
Translation, C. Penwarden (1) Denis Hollier, Le Collège de Sociologie, Paris: Gallimard, 1995. (2) Writer Colette Peignot (1903-1938), whose pen name was Laure, was close to and had an affair with Georges Bataille. Denis Hollier is Professor of French at New York University.
Joan Miró. « Baigneuse ». 1924. (Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris © Successió Miró). “Bather”