A TURBULENT INFINITY AT CITY LIGHTS: henri michaux
I settle into the prism… tone of solemnity… pulse of the window….
– Henri Michaux
I was on the second floor of City Lights , having a stare-down with Henri Michaux (1899 – 1984). A photo of him in 1924 was projected onto the wall. He looked older than his years, but he had been through a lot by then, including World War I with the Germans occupying the country he was born in (Belgium). He had gone to a grim boarding school, and wanted to be a priest. His father steered him into medical school. He dropped out and became a writer. For the rest of his life he remained private while exploring (I wrote “exploding”) consciousness and the self—with the former thought to be unlimited and the latter not.
He arrived in Paris with no self—not one he wanted to focus on, at any rate. He thought the self was an impediment to a deeper consciousness. That is where he was gravitating, like someone with no personality, just an open wound of being and perception. He was reading the Christian mystics, like Pascal (who wrote in the 1600’s), as well as the not-so-Christian Lautreamont (1846 – 1870) who was a major influence on the Surrealists. Michaux considered the world an apparition and language a failure, a clumsy apparatus compared to thought. He was making up his own calligraphy, the letters growing legs as if they wanted to run away.
He had something in common with T.S. Eliot, who had an Impersonal Theory of Poetry:
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.
Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922 and The Hollow Men in 1925, writing under the influence of French poets. He had serious doubts about Western Civilization, which World War I did not dispel.
Michaux was in Paris when Andre Breton published the First Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). Breton defined surrealism as “Pure psychic automatism by means of which one intends to express, either verbally, or in writing, or in any other manner, the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, free of any aesthetic or moral concern.” Michaux had been writing and drawing for a few years, but was too much of a loner to join the Surrealists, however much they liked his work.
Here are some fragments from a poem in a book called Mouvements (1951):
gestures of the ignored life
of the impulsive life
and happy to squander itself
of the jerky, spasmodic, erectile life
of perfunctory life, of life no matter how
Gestures of defiance and of retort
and of escaping from bottlenecks
Gestures one feels, but which one cannot identify
(pre-gestures inside oneself, much grander than the visible and practical
gesture to follow)
Joy of the motor life
that saps meditating on evil
one does not know to what kingdom belongs
the bewitching ovenful that leaps out
animal or human
immediate, without pausing
already off again
the next one already coming
as in thousands and thousands of vertiginous seconds
a slow day completes itself
Solitude practices scales
the desert, the arabesques
the indefinitely reiterated
Signs of ten thousand ways to be in balance in this moving world that laughs
signs above all to snatch one’s being from the trap of others’ tongues
set to beat you, like a carefully adjusted roulette
which allows you only a few happy rolls
and ruin and defeat in the end
inscribed from the start
for you, for everyone
He supported himself by working on a boat that went to other countries, and later worked as a teacher and a secretary. He endured another occupation by the Germans in World War II, maybe wishing the Nazis were an apparition. In 1948, his wife—who had tuberculosis—burned to death when she set her nightgown on fire (accidentally).
Small wonder that someone would refer to one of his drawings as “another tortured human face.” In the mid-1950’s a neurologist suggested mescaline. Like few have done since then, he tried to bring something back from his trips. (The peyote poems of Michael McClure come to mind—a fragile pioneer in that respect.) Michaux wrote down his impressions while on mescaline, a fragmented stream of consciousness I came across in the early 1970’s in Miserable Miracle (City Lights, 1967).
Sartre took mescaline by injection in 1935, while in 1936 Artaud went to Mexico and took peyote. Aldous Huxley took mescaline and wrote The Doors of Perception (1954). On a personal note, I had a Navajo friend in high school in the late 1960’s who would go to the reservation and bring back peyote buttons. After scraping off the strychnine-laced white fibers we would eat them with cheap red wine. One night we went to a drive-in movie in an old pickup truck to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. I would later have experiences with mescaline, LSD, and mushrooms, but not many times. I haven’t been to a certain gothic cathedral in Paris more than a few times, but it has stayed with me.
Having taken hallucinogens, I wasn’t sure why they made him miserable. I suspected he was trying to intellectualize the process, holding onto a pen and paper and taking notes like an “ink-stained wretch.” That would cast a shadow on the experience. He was feeling the strain of holding onto his conscious mind while observing the unconscious in motion. If he was chained to his desk, it meant he was indoors, where the mescaline may have felt imprisoned. In my experience, it comes into its own in the mountains or at the beach. It is very expansive, which goes along with being cosmic. It would be like trying to read a book while lying in the sensual intensity of a warm afternoon at the beach, with wavelengths from infinity exploding at your feet.
I went to a reading at the Lennon Rehearsal Studios not long ago. An older man walked up and handed me some poems. It turned out he had taken acid a number of times in a controlled environment where he had been an observer. This was back in the 1960’s. I can’t imagine doing acid in those circumstances, not only confined to a room but with a stranger watching me and taking notes.
Hallucinogens are known for bringing out or magnifying what is inside a person, for better or worse. Michaux absorbed a lot of misery in his life, and it would not be surprising if he felt the shadow of it while on mescaline. His sketches while under the influence are a little depressing. You could hook up an electrode to a dead man, put a pen in his hand, and end up with something similar. They are monotonous, and why is that?
One of his big frustrations was in trying to express the inexpressible. That alone would constitute a stone wall, which would leave him banging his head against it and to no effect. I have wondered about the millions of hallucinogenic trips occurring in this country and how few bring something back. It is nearly impossible to write while you are dreaming, and it is hard to remember a dream that went on for hours—or to express in writing the psycho-biological dimension of a mind-blowing drug. On the other hand, that is why we have poets. Whether the language or the writer was more limited, he managed to convey what it is like to be on mescaline.
Meanwhile, back at the bookstore it was standing room only. We were listening to Gillian Conoley talking about Michaux and her translation of three works of his. They were written between 1956 and 1959 when he was taking mescaline. The title of the book is Thousand Times Broken. She said it was an 11-year experiment and the guy behind me thought he was on mescaline for 11 years. Earlier he thought Michaux was a drug addict or an alcoholic, “Look at his eyes.” Michaux didn’t drink.
The three works: 400 Men on a Cross, dealing with a loss of faith; Watchtower on Targets, a collaboration with the surrealist painter, Roberto Matta; and Peace in the Breaking, a poem written while on mescaline. Many years ago I found myself in a wood cabin in the Sierra foothills outside of Rough and Ready. I had taken mescaline with someone else, but that was hours before and they had gone to sleep. I was still going, feeling a bit strung out. It was late at night and I was staring at a kerosene lantern, with the flame turning into a howling coyote (not very big). I managed to scribble a few disjointed phrases which reflected the void that I was feeling at the moment. I was tired, and what I wrote did not capture the more lively and intense phases of the drug when I was too involved to think about writing or to write about thinking.
Gillian read from Peace in the Breaking, and I caught a few phrases on the fly:
Nervous screen… vibratile carpet…
freeing himself from the unwieldy body…
I settle into the prism… tone of solemnity… pulse of the window
silent fire of the photos… violet gusts…
perverse caress of scintillation…
When Allen Ginsberg was in Paris in the 1960’s, he knew Michaux. John Ashbery interviewed him early in his own career, referring to him as “the most sensitive substance yet discovered for registering the fluctuating anguish of day-to-day, minute-to-minute living.” Octavio Paz was a friend, and wrote an introduction to Miserable Miracle.
There was some question of whether Michaux was exploring mescaline, or mescaline exploring Michaux.
He was a practitioner of flash fiction with his short prose pieces. If he had taken more mescaline, he might have been writing flashback fiction. He had 30 books published. His art was respected and shown in galleries and museums. There was a slideshow while Gillian spoke, and some of his eerie, smudgy drawings or charcoal rubbings were shown. As much as I admire his writing, I am generally put off by his weak and dreary artwork.
Following her talk there was a short Q and A. I asked her why the mescaline made him miserable. She wasn’t sure, but said it wasn’t pleasurable for him. He would go through phases of terror while he was on it. There was some mention of his use of the word “swarm.” Someone mentioned Diderot (1713 – 1784), who postulated that the soul is like a swarm of bees swirling around a void. Sometimes the rational is a buzz-kill.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011)
For those who want to pursue this subject into the intellectual stratosphere, I recommend a dissertation by Jay Hetrick entitled “Cine-aesthetics: a Critique of Judgment After Deleuze and Michaux.” http://dare.uva.nl/document/2/146080
The portrait of Henri Michaux at the top of the review is by Jean Dubuffet (1947).