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.
Michel Leiris and the Secret Language of Song
Mary Ann Smart is Gladyce Arata Terrill Professor in the Department of Music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera and Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Italy. She is currently at work on a book about the impact of new technologies and modes of listening on French theories of language in the mid-twentieth century.
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Mary Ann Smart; Michel Leiris and the Secret Language of Song. Representations 1 May 2021; 154 (1): 87–98. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/rep.2021.154.7.87
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