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  • The Case of William Seabrook: Documents, Haiti, and the Working Dead
  • Susan Zieger (bio)

In 1930 in Paris, the avant-garde journal Documents published photographs of a head and neck wearing an eyeless black leather mask and studded collar. (Figure 1). As the accompanying article, “Le Caput Mortuum, ou, la Femme de l’Alchimiste” by Michel Leiris notes, the mask was conceived and commissioned in New York by the American adventurer and writer William B. Seabrook.1 Seabrook also took the photographs, though they have often been incorrectly attributed to Man Ray or his assistant, Jacques-André Boiffard.2 Seabrook sent Leiris the photographs from Toulon, where he was writing Jungle Ways (1931), an account of his travels in French West Africa among the Yafouba, Habbé, and Gueré people, whose rituals featured masks and restraints. Musing on the mask, Leiris wrote of the “exciting metamorphosis” by which man “overcome[s] his narrow confines by donning another skin.”3 The photographs suggest not only the transformative identifications of bondage, but of racialized subjectivity, a theme central to Seabrook, to the negrophilia that had energized Parisian and New York avant-gardes in the 1920s, and—through rather different invocations of maskedness—to black diasporic culture.4 They extend a process of fetishization at work in the mask’s making, and before that, of Seabrook’s travels, undertaken for the purpose of witnessing a human sacrifice or committing cannibalism in a racially authentic setting. The photographs, like Seabrook’s writings and persona, constellate several cultural transitions: from nineteenth-century travel writing to modern ethnography; from comparative anthropology to the racial desires of primitivism; and from the mingling of eroticism and death at the colonial periphery to a new fantasy of transgression [End Page 737] as subjective obliteration. Seabrook has been missing from this critical picture, but his influence on Leiris and his presence in Documents, as well as the striking affinities of his work with the early work of Georges Bataille, deserve critical analysis. The degree of Seabrook’s direct influence on Bataille remains a matter of speculation; he is more intriguingly positioned as the performative locus of what would become Bataille’s concept of heterology, and thus as a case study of modern transgression.

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Fig, 1.

William Seabrook, “Le Caput Mortuum.” Documents no. 8 (1930), 21. Published with the permission of William K. Seabrook; original copyright holder was William B. Seabrook.

As a lay anthropologist, sadist, cannibal, paranormal researcher, dabbler in black magic, alcoholic, sensational journalist, and suicide, Seabrook (1884–1945) specialized in violation. His most famous book, The Magic Island (1929), recounted his participation in vodun rituals in Haiti; the follow-up, Jungle Ways (1931), featured his cannibalism, purportedly experienced among the Gueré. Asylum (1935) chronicled his stay in Bloomingdale Mental Hospital to cure his acute alcoholism, and Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today (1942) reported his blend of mysticism and bondage. [End Page 738] Seabrook cast himself as an intrepid adventurer willing to try anything and committed to reporting it objectively; this openness to experience most commonly emerged as a desire to shed his whiteness by participating in black rituals. He proclaimed that for Adventures in Arabia (1927), he had “turned Arab and liked it”; later, that he had become “an apprentice African witch-doctor”; and that Yafouba villagers had dubbed him “Mogo-Dieman,‘the-black-man-who-has-a-white-face.’”5 For Seabrook, a Freudian, the mysteries of Haitian and African magic reflected the enigma of his own deep subjectivity; in this way psychoanalysis redirected the Victorian ideal of imperial exploration inward. Seabrook also located his black origins closer to home, in the legacy of slavery: He claimed “deep black roots” because his white grandmother, Piny, “had been nursed by a black Obeah slave-girl from Cuba, had been fey, had had visions and powers since her plantation childhood.”6 A racial dialectic animates Seabrook’s writing: He abandons himself to impassioned, magical, “savage” practices, cultivating a black identity, but as an emissary from white modernity, he retains the privilege of Enlightenment rationality. White male immersion in and rule over black, feminized cultures also interested Seabrook in the famous “d...


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pp. 737-754
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