Art Press - - DOSSIER 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.


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”

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