Henri Michaux Michaux, Henri (Vol. 8) - Essay

Michaux, Henri (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Michaux, Henri 1899–

Michaux is a Belgian poet, prose writer, and artist who writes in French. A unique and independent artist of international stature, Michaux is continually exploring the conflict between inner and outer worlds in his writings. Fantasy, surrealism, and comic grotesquery all come together in the works of this enigmatic author. Of late, Michaux has concentrated on his painting and his drawing. The Chaplinesque Monsieur Plume is one of Michaux's more interesting creations.

The clown has become one of the chief heroes of modern art…. Most of the paintings of clowns and harlequins have revealed the tragedy behind the comic mask, but Michaux, while exploiting this association, has given the subject a different interpretation.

Michaux's clown is not the tragic man behind the mask. The grotesque mask of the clown is the real man, the whole man shorn of all pretensions and rationalizations, the man as he really is, "ras … et visible." There is nothing behind the mask.

Indeed, this is the main source of originality in ["Clown"]. Michaux takes a step farther than the painters in the direction of metaphysical anguish: his clown does not even possess tragic dignity. The absurd figure he cuts is the true picture.

Even more important than the poet's realization of his utter insignificance is his inability to assume his true role as clown before the world…. He still clings to his main source of gratification: the fact that a number of people consider him an important man…. The real confession in this poem, then, is that of the poet's inability to admit he is a clown. The indefiniteness of "someday" and the future tense gives him away. (p. 153)

"Clown" is the poet's commentary on himself to himself. But the uncomfortable feeling that the poem creates in the reader suggests that the self-directed irony has been subtly generalized. The phrase "mes semblables, si dignes, si dignes mes semblables," for example, leaves no doubt as to Michaux's opinion of the rest of humanity.

"Ma misérable pudeur" is highly suggestive. It reinforces the lack of courage implied in [the line: "Avec la sorte de courage qu'il faut pour être rien et rien que rien"] and foreshadows the appearance of the Clown. "Pudeur" recalls Plume's timidity and Charlie Chaplin's embarrassment. This is not an implicit allusion to either necessarily, but there is nevertheless a connection. One cannot help thinking of the awkward sad smile that Plume undoubtedly assumes while he lets people step on him and of the smile that Chaplin holds too long.

This poem can be easily read at another level. The death-wish is implicit in nearly every line. The insistent repetition of "être rien et rien que rien" and the violent "Vidé de l'abcès d'être quelqu'un" are denials of existence. It is only as non-being that the poet will partake of the "espace nourricier" and the "incroyable rosée" of the grave. In fact, death is the only logical link between these disparate images. It is only by death that he will shake off all ties with his fellow men. The "totale dissipation-dérision-purgation" is not only death but decomposition—a suggestion that reinforces the imagery. The real clown is the dead man whose absurdity is proven by his death….

The courage required by the poet on this level, then, is the courage needed to kill himself.

The overture of a prose poem always presents a problem for the poet. The reader must be warned that he is dealing with poetry and not with strict prose. Michaux solves this problem by opening with two startling stylistic devices. "Un jour" is a verbless sentence with a single term. (p. 154)

These truncated sentences translate an intensely personal reaction, a spontaneous explosion of affectivity, and are addressed to no one in particular other than the poet himself. This device flows effortlessly into the stream of consciousness. At the same time the poet has given his reader a prior conditioning so that the rest of text will be read as poetry, i.e., language invested with a high degree of organization and style. The reader's reaction is a conditioned response.

Strangely enough, the second line attenuates the first despite the repetition. If the double "Un jour" is fairly aggressive, the phrase "bientôt peut-être" suggests procrastination and indecision, as if the poet were actually trying to convince himself. Throughout the rest of the poem there is an interplay of aggression and reluctance. This tonal fluctuation is consonant with all three themes, the poet as clown, the inability to admit it, the death wish. (p. 155)

The frequency of the compound words is the most obvious of the ironical devices employed by Michaux…. In Clown abstract nouns are linked in such a way that human pretension to knowledge seems to be parodied: "idée-ambition," "infini-esprit," converging with the normal, "sous-jacent," and the triple-decker, "dissipation-dérision-purgation," have a generalizing as well as a comic effect. (pp. 155-56)

Michaux's clowing with language is appropriate for several obvious reasons.

Like Le Bateau ivre, the first section of Clown is organized around a boat metaphor and likewise ends with the longing for a new energy in the form of "drinking anew of nourishing space," which would be a release from the stifling atmosphere surrounding the poet hemmed in by his own defense mechanisms. The shocking metaphor, "l'abcès d'être quelqu'un," is a generalization that takes us beyond the poet's predicament. The central image is not introduced, however, until the last section, and the typography indicates that the clown represents not only the poet but all humanity stripped of its ridiculous hypocrisies and ambitions. The clown becomes the emblem of the entire human condition. The "espace nourricier" of the opening section is given an implied analogy: "nouvelle et incroyable rosée"—which suggests a feeling of release from the "abcess of trying to be somebody" that can come only from being a nobody.

The thematic unity of the poem is seconded by its structural unity. The use of the future tense throughout (even the past participles are really future perfects) underscores the lack of decisive energy and courage to put on the clown's suit or the shroud. Each paragraph gives a feeling of unattained vacancy: "être rien et rien que rien"; "Vidé de l'abcès d'être quelqu'un"; "dissipation … purgation"; "par vide"; "j'expulserai de moi"; "Réduit … Anéanti"; "sans nom … sans identité … Sans bourse"; "à force d'être nul et ras." The Clown represents the perfect vacuum and anonymity—an unmarked grave. He also represents throughout the poem an unassimilated element in a hostile environment by retaining his traditional comic awkwardness: "ma misérable pudeur … mes misérables combinaisons"; "A coups de ridicules"; "dérision"; "une humilité de catastrophe"; "une intense trouille"; "la risée … l'esclaffement … le grotesque."

The length of each verset is determined by psychological considerations, for the poem is an interior monologue, constructed nonetheless along lines of rational logic. (Sometimes thoughts are not disconnected.) The first two and the last two lines are the shortest; the intensity of emotion builds up to its climax in the middle stanzas and returns, at the end, to the same level as in the beginning.

Michaux's selection of the clown to embody and translate his pessimism is an attempt at mythopoesis, in particular the universality of myth…. The indefiniteness of the poem is likewise an attempt to attain the richness of myth; the poetic ambiguity smuggles in added dimensions. The poem on first reading seems only a self-confession; upon further investigation, it yields a commentary on the human condition, and, finally, an answer to what Camus considered today's most important metaphysical question—Prufrock's "overwhelming question"; suicide. (pp. 156-57)

Lloyd Bishop, "Michaux's 'Clown'," in The French Review, October, 1962, pp. 152-57.

Travel journals are very personal things and, by the same token, not everyone likes to read the same sort of thing while travelling. Ecuador isn't the book for the traveller who wants the disasters of his peregrinations romanticized. Michaux may let his imagination play if it helps him get in contact with his experiences, but he won't let it embellish the realities of malaria, mosquitoes, and leprosy with illusory heroics. But for the reader—real traveller or armchair—who wants self-discovery as well as geographical discovery, Ecuador is a good journey, with an itinerary worth repeating. (p. 182)

Judith S. Ruskamp, in Chicago Review (reprinted by permission of Chicago Review; copyright © 1973 by Chicago Review), Vol. 25, No. 3, 1973.

[Michaux's] drawings, gouaches and watercolors at first seemed to be contributions to the poems in words. But today they appear more independent, a separate means of expression. Like the poems, they are images fearful of taking on a deliberate form, of renouncing the suggestiveness of their lines. The poem and the gouache are the site of a change or a creation taking place, but they do not necessarily reveal the accomplished metamorphosis, the finished art….

Today he appears as one of the truly authentic poetic talents who is taking his place beside those writers who investigate the strange and the unusual and who, therefore, transpose or even upset the literary perspective. The relationship that Michaux establishes between the natural and the unbelievable has created a surreal world that has become the familiar world of his poetry.

Wallace Fowlie, "Henri Michaux," in his French Literature: Its History and Its Meaning (© 1973 by Prentice-Hall, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey), Prentice-Hall, 1973, p. 287.

Henri Michaux has written against the poetic tradition, declaring that he does not care if he is a poet or not. He has used a great variety of styles, and if he has often been elliptical and incantatory, he can also be the opposite: he can write a dry, ironic, agile prose, almost like Voltaire's. All this, however, sprang from a single source, which by its nature was infinitely nearer poetry than were Ponge's objects; for Michaux, it was an inner, if also coenesthetic, experience, full of impulses and phantasms intimately linked with the body. But this "inner space," the space of poetic subjectivity, was depoeticized by Michaux's mode of expression. Thus, Michaux's approach was directly opposite to Ponge's; for as Ponge wrote, he turned what had previously been unpoetic into poetry.

Michaux's work has been unusual, and impossible to classify (it is closest to Artaud's, if one could imagine an Artaud who was in complete control of himself). He began his career long before World War II. Mes propriétés (My properties) was published in 1929, and La nuit remue (The Night in Motion) in 1935. But only since the war has the true, and considerable, worth of Michaux's poetry been recognized. His early works included diaries of actual travels (Un barbare en Asie [1933, A Barbarian in Asia]); logbooks of imaginary voyages in strange lands, such as Voyage en Grande Garabagne (1936, Voyage to Great Garabagne), in which the flora and fauna and especially the customs are described in minute detail; and Un certain Plume (1930, A Certain Plume), the chronicle of the life and acts of a character called Plume (Pen), who is constantly the victim of an aggressive environment. But these fables, these fictions, these utopias were used mainly to reveal and unfold the same inner world with which My Properties was concerned. It is a world of uneasiness and anguish, in which strong external pressures assail the protagonist, who feels out of place but who reacts, struggles, intervenes, destroying what annoys him, trying by force of imagination, by sheer writing, to make up for what he lacks. These works were feverish but simultaneously detached and full of humor. (pp. 154-55)

But Plume broadened his experience. During the war, Michaux wrote poems in a new spirit and a new tone: anathemas, imprecations torn from him by the horror of events. In some of these he achieved a simplicity and a solemn grandeur that reminds one of the Bible (Épreuves, Exorcismes [1940–45, Ordeals and Exorcisms]). Michaux's obsession with death and universal emptiness joined forces with the drama of history. And thus, Michaux's work, so deliberately odd at times that it seemed delirious and even pathological, revealed a universality nonetheless.

Michaux's Plume is ultimately only a more comic version of Sartre's Roquentin and Camus's Meursault: the hero of every poem is continually wounded and disappointed, always lacks something decisive to which he cannot even give a name; he is a "pierced" man who feels only emptiness and absence inside him. Nature's infinite multiplicity weighs him down because he yearns for order and unity; but it reassures him, too, because it constitutes the mask before an emptiness that is still more terrifying. He is "between center and absence," haunted at once by obsessive absence and by excessive presence.

Michaux's work, then, is revelation and testimony. But it is something else, too—witchcraft. His purpose is "to hold at arm's length the hostile forces of the world around us." He writes for reasons of "hygiene" (as he says) and "to find a way out." Abandoning the passive Plume, Michaux has increasingly turned to this force of intervention as the motif and directing force of his works. Some of his titles bear this our: Liberté d'action (1945, Freedom of Action), Poésie pour pouvoir (1949, Poetry to Enable), Mouvements (1951, Movements), Passages (1950, 1963, Passages). The man on the run demonstrates such prodigious agility and mobility that it is impossible to grab hold of him. For Michaux, this gesture, projecting ever further, beyond the reach of all snares, defines existence and life. It is also the definition of the poem.

But in the last few years, an important development has occurred in Michaux. He has begun to identify the liberating gesture with his painting rather than with his poetry. For him, "action painting" reproduces this mobility most closely; it is mobility in action, whereas literature can never do more than describe it at a distance, after the event.

A number of collections published after 1956 have reflected Michaux's recent experiences: Misérable miracle (1956, Miserable Miracle), L'infini turbulent (1957, The Stormy Infinite), Connaissance par les gouffres (1961, Knowledge from the Abyss). Artificially but decisively enlarging the domain of imagination by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, Michaux began to see things he had never seen before. He used his drawings to capture his visions instantly, and the written text tended to be an analysis and commentary on events which had preceded it and which it could never entirely reproduce. In Les grandes épreuves de l'esprit (1966, The Great Ordeals of the Mind) he rendered still more clearly the process from re-creation to exposition, relating the unforeseen consequences of the disorientation brought about by mescaline: the derangement experienced enabled Michaux to rediscover the marvelous in ordinary experience. Ravaged consciousness can reveal what consciousness really is.

Michaux is now in a position to reply to the question, "What does getting back to normal mean?" But he has not asked us to think of normal and abnormal consciousness as opposites: it is an experience of the unity of the mind that is revealed—both in the order that normal awareness introduces into actual diversity and into emptiness—in the depersonalization of abnormal consciousness. The supreme intercession of the spirit has the power of creating a vacuum. All obstacles are flattened; all closed doors opened.

But Michaux's absolute is always shown as an activity: it is less a vacuum than an ability to produce a vacuum, a disturbed, potential vacuum, a "peace in the midst of disruption." In his latest book, Façons d'endormi, façons d'éveillé (1970, Ways of a Sleeping Man, Ways of a Waking Man), he contrasted the passivity and meagerness of the night's dreams to the rich inventiveness of the "waking reverie." Thus, Michaux still seeks salvation, his always-wished-for consummation, in the same direction. But although this latest book still contained the nervous, unexpected, familiar yet dramatic diction that is inseparably Michaux's, it also showed a further development toward analysis and explanation. One can regret that Michaux has reserved the action of poetry mainly to his visual art, important though it may be. (pp. 155-58)

Gaëtan Picon, in his Contemporary French Literature: 1945 and After (copyright © 1974 by Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., Inc.), Ungar, 1974.