Born in Belgium in 1899, Henri Michaux (1899-1984) defies common critical definition. He was educated at a Jesuit school in Brussels. He contemplated entering the priesthood then enrolled in medical school before abandoning his studies and becoming a merchant seaman. A painter as well as poet, he travelled widely in Africa and Asia and also supported himself in Paris as a teacher and secretary. His voyages inspired two travelogues on Ecuador and Asia. He finally settled in Paris, where he began to write and paint. In 1948, Michaux's wife died after accidentally setting fire to her nightgown: devastated, he began to take mescaline, a hallucinating drug, painstakingly recording his experiences in prose-poems accompanied by distinctive calligraphic line drawings. He has authored more than 30 books of poems, prose poems, essays, journals, and drawings. Whether in poetry or prose, his weird visions seem to emerge as messages from his inner space.
If poetry can be a wonderful tool to render exceptional or extreme experiences, then the hallucinating poems of Henri Michaux will top that list. I have grown fond of reading his outlandish poems. They stick out so sharp and sublime against the dull poems that one regularly encounter that I have the feeling of being reborn when I read it. Henri Michaux is a perfect antidote for the winter blues and I am glad that I chose to read him early this year. He can be an anti-poet, anti-God or a sort of Buddha tossing us into a new awareness. He thus gives us another being, shows us another way of thinking, observing and writing-vital skills that one deeply desire these days.
John Ashberry described Michaux as ‘hardly a painter, hardly even a writer, but a conscience-the most sensitive substance yet discovered for registering the fluctuating anguish of day-to-day, minute-to-minute living’. Allen Ginsberg venerated him as a master and genius. The great Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges liked his writings and considered ‘his work is without equal in the literature of our time’. Without the slightest concern for any ‘ism’, he produced strange but original little fables, apparitions in poetry or prose or paint, pictures of fantastic predicaments and fantastic inventions and desires, coldly objective descriptions of strange voyages and places (as in the celebrated prose poem ‘I Am Writing to You from a Far-off Country’).
Reading Michaux makes one uncomfortable. The world of his poems bears some relation to that of everyday, but it is hard to determine what. If we try to assure ourselves by calling it fantasy, we have to ignore the scalpel which is playing about our insides. On the other hand, the term satire at first seems equally inappropriate, for the point of reference is hidden, and no obvious appeal to law, conventions, or common sense provides a focus for an attack on human ways. And to call Michaux’s world obsessive, neurotic, as we may also be tempted momentarily to do, is to disregard the pervasive wit, a wit which is too keen, and implies too much control, to confirm a psychiatric explanation.
Here are some samples from his oevre.
(Translated by Richard Ellmann)
I can rarely see anyone without fighting him. Others prefer the interior monologue. Not me, I like fighting best.
There are people who sit down in front of me at the restaurant and say nothing, they stay on a while, for they have decided to eat.
Here is one of them.
See how I grab him, boom!
See how I re-grab him, boom!
I hang him on the coat hook.
I unhook him.
I hang him up again.
I re-unhook him.
I put him on the table, I push him together and
I foul him up, I flood him
I rinse him off, I stretch him out (I am beginning to get worked up, I must finish off), I bunch him together, I squeeze him, I sum him up and introduce him in my glass, and ostentatiously throw the contents to the ground, and say to the waiter:<< Let me have a cleaner glass>>
But I feel ill, pay the check quickly and go
In the above poem, the immediate scene is a restaurant; one diner takes a dislike to another; instead of letting his hatred build and struggling to control it, he simply lets go and attacks the man for no apparent reason.
I think Michaux is talking here about the restlessness of human beings and their predisposition to indulge in power games. One can take it is a metaphor for violent emotion, for an emptiness arising out of hate, for dissatisfaction, for needing something "strong" to distract one from existential angst etc. What I like about him is that Michaux is very good in casting psychological insight in physical terms rather than mental terms.
Painting by Hieronymus Bosch
Let us consider another interesting prose poem titled ‘Simplicity’.
(Translated by Richard Ellmann)
What has been particularly lacking in my life up to now is simplicity. Little by little I am beginning to change.
For example, I always go out with my bed now and when a woman pleases me, I take her and go to bed with her immediately.
If her ears are ugly and large, or her nose, I remove them along with her clothes and put them under the bed, for her to take back when she leaves; I keep only what I like.
If her underthings would improve by being changed, I change them immediately. That is my gift. But, if I see a better-looking woman go by, I apologize to the first and make her disappear at once.
People who know me claim that I am incapable of doing what I just described, that I haven’t enough spunk. I once thought so myself, but that was because I wasn’t doing everything just as I pleased.
Now, I always have excellent afternoons. (Mornings I work.)
What man has not fantasized some version of complete sexual freedom as described by Michaux in this poem? Though tongue-in-check blend of surrealism, common sense, and outrageous male egoism, the poet arrives at the ultimate reductive male version of the ‘good life’: good work and good sex. Another underlying theme may be that he wants to eliminate the superficial and artificial and liberate the core of his self from the external problems.
One aspect we can notice from the above two poems is that they are devoid of beautiful phrases and embellishments. Michaux fundamentally distrusted beautiful language.
In the last poem I have quoted here titled “The Jetty”, an old man tosses back into the ocean an entire lifetime’s worth of treasured moments, memories which no longer hold for him any value, but their weight eventually pulls him under the water.
(Translated by Richard Ellmann)
During the month that I was living at Honfleur I had not yet seen the sea, for the doctor made me stay in my room.
But last night, tired of being so isolated, I built, taking advantage of the fog, a jetty as far as the sea. Then, right at the end of it, letting my legs hang down, I looked at the sea, below me , which was breathing deeply.
A murmur came from my right. It was a man sitting like me with legs swinging and looking at the sea. "Now that I am old" he said "I am going to pull up everything I have put there during the years." He began to draw things up by means of pulleys.
And he brought up riches in abundance. He brought up captains from other ages in dress uniforms, chests studded with all sorts of precious things, and women dressed lavishly but as they no longer dress. And as he brought each being or thing to the surface, he looked at it carefully with high hopes, then without saying a word, while his face fell, he pushed it behind him. So we filled up the entire pier. I don't remember exactly what there was, for I have no memory, but obviously it was not satisfactory, in everything something had been lost which he hoped to recover and which had faded away.
Then he began to throw everything back into the sea.
Like a long ribbon it fell and, when it wet you, froze you.
A last piece of junk which he was pushing off dragged him in too.
As for me, shivering with fever, I wonder how I was ever able to get back to my bed.
To conclude, Michaux writings are purposefully impersonal and unembellished. They celebrate every aspect of the self. As the translator Nin Andrews rightly observes - “ It was as if the poems were written by a detached and bemused observer, a witness both above and beneath the normal “I”. No matter what spiritual heights a Michaux character aspired to, there was no depth to which his character wouldn’t plunge, no temple he might not desecrate. Happily, many an “I” was not sophisticated, holy or resplendent. In fact, many were what one might call the unconfesssed “I”, the “I” one might deny, repress, ignore; the “I” who often makes no sense and is logical as a dream , a serious as a clown, as gentle and mannerly as a rhinoceros, loose on streets. The “I” in Michaux’s work was often the socially unacceptable one a person might delete from family photo albums or from memory.”
For some, reading Michaux could be like undergoing multiple weather changes, display of thoughts that might last in their realm for a few days or moments and then vanish without leaving trace. For others, he might be an icon who clearly and clinically presents the algebra of human sufferings in spare, almost antiseptic terms. The truth is that we are enchanted by his writings at every reading.
It is common place to say that great writers augment our experience realm. I have no doubt that Michaux does that more than most.
As Gide rightly remarked, “Michaux excels in making us feel intuitively both the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things.”
1. Selected Writings of Henri Michaux translated by Richard Ellmann
2. Someone wants to steal my name: and other poems: By Henri Michaux. Nin Andrews (Translator)