Best known for his reminiscences of artistic and intellectual life in midcentury Paris and for his chronicle of the 1931 Dakar-Djibouti mission, L’Afrique fantôme (1934), Michel Leiris also wrote obsessively about music, turning to imperfectly recalled fragments of song and opera to evoke key moments of early childhood and to explore affective relationships. This article focuses on two episodes from Leiris’s writings to demonstrate that his highly emotional and anecdotal mode of writing about music anticipates, and quite possibly influenced, the more systematic theories of voice, sound, and language of Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Derrida engaged directly with Leiris in his essay “Tympan” (in The Margins of Philosophy), which quotes at length a text by Leiris on the cognitive and relational dimensions of hearing and writing. Leiris’s experience in the 1930s and 40s developing a lexicon and grammar for the ritual language of the Dogon people of Mali, I argue, fundamentally shaped his conviction that both music and language are most communicative when they permeate and destabilize each other.

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