The Holofernes Complex: a new edition of Michel Leiris’ ‘Manhood’

We know that the interpretation of symbols played an important role in the beginnings of psychoanalysis, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. This practice first appeared as a technique for interpreting dreams, with the goal of filling out the material obtained in the patient’s free associations while recounting a dream. For the therapist, it helped both to overcome mental blocks and to explain Oedipal fantasies to the patient. But psychoanalysts soon extended this practice to interpreting symbols in myths, religions, and literary texts.

L’Âge d’homme preceded by L’Afrique fantôme, by Michel Leiris. Paris: Gallimard, 2014. Edited by Denis Hollier, in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon, Series: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, n°600. 1456 pages, 38 ill., ISBN: 9782070114559.

by Emmanuel Delille

A new edition of L’Âge d’homme (available in English as Manhood) 1 by Michel Leiris (1901-1990), overseen by Denis Hollier, was published by the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade at the end of 2014. It constitutes the second volume of Leiris’ selected works, the first volume being La Règle du jeu 2. The edition presents selected autobiographical texts in addition to L’Âge d’homme, including L’Afrique fantôme. (The latter is often translated into English as Ghostly Africa, but will be soon published for the first time as Phantom Africa in a new translation by Brent Hayes Edwards). 3 L’Afrique fantôme is an essay that is simultaneously controversial and foundational for French ethnology. Hollier’s editorial decision highlights Leiris’ contribution to the genre that we call autofiction, wherein autobiographical materials are rewritten using the techniques of fiction writing – in contrast to the raw journals kept by Leiris between 1922 and 1989. Hollier has proposed the general title L’âge d’homme fantôme 4 to identify this corpus; following Edwards’ new translation of Phantom Africa, an English version of this title could be Phantom Manhood 5

The volume is imposing; for this reason, my analysis focuses solely on L’Âge d’homme, the best-known of Leiris’ books among the general public (L’Afrique fantôme is the object of another review article, in the Japanese academic journal Zinbun). 6 From my perspective, it is not, for all that, his masterpiece; however, this narrative has benefited from its long availability as a mass-market paperback, unlike L’Afrique fantôme. Of Leiris’ books, it is also the one closest to the genre of confessional literature: it reveals the author’s sexual obsessions, the pathological shame he felt, and how he turned to the psychoanalytic interpretation of myths to narrate his experience.

Hollier soberly recounts the book’s context: after a period of anguish and impotence, Leiris began psychoanalysis in 1929 with Adrien Borel (1886-1966), one of the first French psychoanalysts, on the advice of his friend Georges Bataille (1897-1962). He then joined the Dakar-Djibouti Ethnographic Mission (1931-1933) and published a long travel narrative, L’Afrique fantôme (1934). L’Âge d’homme soon followed (1935), although it only really began to take shape after a second series of psychoanalytic treatments (1933-34).

While Leiris was at the very beginning of his scientific career in the 1930s, it is obvious that he drew on two disciplinary genres in order to breathe new life into confessional writing: psychoanalytic and ethnographic narratives. Indeed, as in L’Afrique fantôme, Leiris began with the principle that writing in the subjective mode increases the value of the testimony contained in the book and brings it closer to the truth. Eight chapters tell the story of his childhood and adolescence until the age of reason: marriage, the publication of his first works, and the beginning of a scientific career. Parental figures, his brothers and sister, and his first romantic relationships haunt the narrative, even though the figure of the beloved brother is not as well developed as in The Rules of the Game (La Règle du jeu). Nevertheless, the text is not structured as a family drama in the strict sense; instead, the plot is organized around a painting by Cranach that represents two biblical figures: Judith and Lucretia (Cranach, 16th century). Leiris saw in this diptych a kind of crystallization of his obsessions: two women who personify the two faces, desired and terrifying, of his fantasy. At one and the same time, woman is the object of man’s imperious desire (rape of Lucretia) and triumphant against her rapist (Judith decapitating Holofernes). The influence of psychoanalysis allowed him to identify his fascination with Cranach’s diptych with the concept of the castration complex, which Leiris believed explained his anxieties: “By psychoanalysis, I hoped to free myself from this chimerical fear of punishment, a chimera reinforced by the absurd power of Christian morality – which one must never flatter oneself that one has altogether escaped.” 7 In Freudian psychoanalysis, the castration complex designates the anxiety that results from the Oedipus complex, which is to say the love children have for their mother, as it is checked by paternal power. This infantile fear represents a certain renunciation of the maternal object, but also an irreversible loss: it thus constitutes an existential anguish, which makes it susceptible to displacement onto substitute objects.

Yet one of the most interesting aspects of this new edition is precisely that it draws attention to the biblical personage with whom Leiris identifies: Holofernes. Indeed, in his foreword, Hollier justly stresses the disappearance of Judith and Lucretia in the conclusion of L’Âge d’homme; they are replaced by masculine figures, suggestive of homosexuality, that are designed to be more harmonious with the psychoanalytic theme of castration. 8 He also reproduces some of Leiris’ corrected proofs, one of which is soberly entitled Psychanalyse (Psychoanalysis, December 1930). 9 which Leiris had originally intended to insert before a dream narrative.

From a historical point of view, we know that the interpretation of symbols played an important role in the beginnings of psychoanalysis, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. This practice first appeared as a technique for interpreting dreams, with the goal of filling out the material obtained in the patient’s free associations while recounting a dream. For the therapist, it helped both to overcome mental blocks and to explain Oedipal fantasies to the patient. But psychoanalysts soon extended this practice to interpreting symbols in myths, religions, and literary texts; Freud himself based his analysis of infantile sexuality on Greek mythology and published an essay on the biblical figure of Moses.

Hollier also presents a previously unpublished letter written by Leiris to his wife, dated May 30th, 1932. It explains that Borel’s virtue lay in his having understood that Leiris wanted to play the role of a mythological character: he would stage himself in the form of a new Holofernes 10, in an autobiographical narrative where confession would have a cathartic function. Finally, Hollier observes that castration is also an explicit theme of two texts, contemporary with Leiris’ writings, that were published in 1930 in the journal Documents; this journal was edited by Bataille and lists Borel as one of its contributors.

These materials make a convincing argument that Leiris identified himself with a mythological character. It is unfortunate, however, that the editors chose not to present more context about the appropriation of psychoanalysis by writers of this generation, and that they even forgot to list Borel in their index. This oversight is all the more curious because the very interesting appendices of this new edition contain a Note remise au docteur Borel (Note delivered to Doctor Borel, 1929) 11, followed by Projets de mémoires (Ideas for Memoirs, 1930) 12, extracted from Leiris’ journal and contemporaneous with his psychoanalysis – a corpus of texts which should have been compared with those written by other former surrealists who undertook psychoanalysis with Borel.

And yet evidence indicating that these texts represent collective practices is not lacking, and editors might have remembered that in the Bible, Judith’s victims include not only Holofernes, but his army as well! Because in addition to Leiris and Bataille, we must also take into account Jacques Baron, Raymond Queneau, Colette Peignot (pseudonym: Laure), and Boris Souvarine, all of whom were in therapy with Borel. Moreover, Borel was not only a confidant of but also an intermediary between the members of this group, as their correspondence demonstrates. For example, in 1934, Baron revealed to Leiris that he too had taken the initiative of asking for help: “I’m not joking, but I’m heading to Privas to visit Doctor Borel! Tell no one about this idiocy, but I’m dreaming: I have all of hell in my head.” 13 That same year, Leiris wrote to Bataille: “If you see Borel after receiving this letter, give him my regards and tell him that I am trying hard to be good.” 14 Similarly, in 1943 he wrote him about the posthumous publication of a text by Peignot: “Did you receive the Histoire d’une petite fille? All the copies planned have now been distributed, except Borel’s (but I expect to go and see him within a very few days).” 15 We thereby see how in the 1930s, psychoanalysis was a collective practice, much like automatic writing, introduced in The Magnetic Fields (Les Champs magnétiques) in 1920. 16

This intellectual social scene, enthusiastic about psychoanalysis, also had an impact on academic psychology. For example, after the suicide of the eccentric writer Raymond Roussel (1877-1933), Leiris was tasked with editing How I Wrote Certain of My Books 17 (Comment j’ai écrit certains de mes livres, 1935), a posthumous autobiographical essay. The project led him to contact the psychologist Pierre Janet, a professor at the Collège de France and Roussel’s psychotherapist, in order to reconstruct his illustrious patient’s last days. Bataille would repeat the gesture in consulting Borel with regard to the posthumous edition of Peignot – and that is not all: in 1937, Leiris would join Bataille in founding a Société de Psychologie Collective, with Borel and Janet! This Society’s goal was to study the psychological factors in social facts. While it may be argued that this information is well-known, unfortunately the existing historiography on the crossed histories of psychoanalysis, psychology, and early 20th century avant-gardes reveals that the collaborations between the literary world and academic psychology are relatively unknown. I am thinking in particular of Alexandra Bacopoulos-Viau’s research, 18 which is well documented but too focused on Breton, and where Leiris is literally forgotten. Beyond Borel and Janet, Leiris would consult other psychotherapists after the war, including Julián de Ajuriaguerra (1911-1993), who would later become, like Janet, professor at the Collège de France. To sum up, it would have been interesting to establish the similarities and the differences between L’Âge d’homme and the accounts, diaries, and fictions that Leiris’ contemporaries left on the practice of psychoanalysis.

Emmanuel Delille is a historian of medicine and health, currently Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science. He is an Associate Researcher at the Centre d’Archives en Philosophie, Histoire et Édition des Sciences (CAPHÉS, École Normale Supérieure, Paris) and at the Centre Marc Bloch (CMB, Humboldt University, Berlin). One of his major interests is the history of psychiatry: intellectual networks and comparative history between France, Germany, and North America – particularly Canada. Other research projects include the history of the French psychiatric hospital Bonneval (Eure-et-Loir) and the history of the French scholarly society “L’Évolution Psychiatrique” (created in 1924). His work in intellectual history focuses on epistolary material, above all, letters between scientists involved in scholarly networks.

Notes:

  1. Leiris, M. (1992) Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Leiris, M. (2003) La Règle du jeu, ed. Denis Hollier, in collaboration with Nathalie Barberger, Jean Jamin, Catherine Maubon, Pierre Vilar, and Louis Yvert. Paris: Gallimard.
  3. Available in English in February 2017: Leiris, M. (2016) Phantom Africa, trans. Brent Hayes Edwards. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Hollier, D. (2014a) ‘Préface’, in Michel Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, XI.
  5. I am very grateful to Professor Brent Hayes Edwards (Columbia University), who answered my questions about his new translation and suggested Phantom Manhood as a general title in English.
  6. Delille, E. (2017) ‘Michel Leiris, L’Âge d’homme, précédé de L’Afrique fantôme. Édition de Denis Hollier, avec la collaboration de Francis Marmande et Catherine Maubon, (Paris, Gallimard, Collection: Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, n°600, 2014, 1456 pages, ill.)’, Zinbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University, 47: in press.
  7. Leiris, M. (1992) Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 138. See also: Leiris, M. (2014) L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, 889-890.
  8. Hollier, D. (2014b) ‘Notice: David et Goliath ou la castration’, in Michel Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, 1227.
  9. Leiris, M. (2014) L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, 31.
  10. Hollier, D. (2014b) ‘Notice : David et Goliath ou la castration’, in Michel Leiris, L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, 1229.
  11. Leiris, M. (2014) L’Âge d’homme précédé de L’Afrique fantôme, ed. Denis Hollier in collaboration with Francis Marmande and Catherine Maubon. Paris: Gallimard, 912.
  12. Ibid., 913-915.
  13. The original French text: “Je ne rigole pas, mais je pars pour Privas rendre visite au Docteur Adrien Borel. Ne souffle mot à personne d’une telle idiotie mais je rêve: j’ai tout l’enfer dans la tête.” Leiris, M. & Baron, J. (2013) Correspondance 1925-1973. Nantes: Joseph K., 149. The English translation here, by Marie Satya McDonough, is literal, because Baron’s expressions are not clear in French. We know that he suffered from depression after the War, but we must be wary of retrospective diagnoses. See also: Delille, E. (2016) ‘Michel Leiris & Jacques Baron, Correspondance. Édition établie, annotée et préfacée par Patrice Allain & Gabriel Parnet (Nantes, éditions Joseph K., 2013, 192 pages)’, Zinbun: Memoirs of the Research Institute for Humanistic Studies, Kyoto University, 46: 213-215.
  14. Bataille, G. & Leiris, M. (2008) Correspondence, trans. Liz Heron. Chicago: University of Chicago Press/Seagull Books, 105.
  15. Ibid., 160.
  16. Available in English as The Magnetic Fields: Breton A. & Soupault P. (1985) The Magnetic Fields, translated and introduced by David Gascoyne. London: Atlas Press.
  17. Roussel, R. (2005) How I Wrote Certain of My Books, edited by Trevor Winkfield and introduced by John Ashbery. Boston: Exact Change.
  18. Bacopoulos-Viau, A. (2012) ‘Automatism, Surrealism and the Making of French Psychopathology: The Case of Pierre Janet’, History of Psychiatry 23(3): 259-276.