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 continually explores in his writings the conflict between inner and outer worlds. Fantasy, surrealism, and comic grotesquery all come together in his works. The Chaplinesque Monsieur Plume is one of Michaux's more interesting creations. Of late, Michaux has concentrated on his painting and his drawing. (See also CLC, Vol. 8.)
[Michaux's Qui je fus] consisted of prose stories, aphorisms and poems; and contained most of the stylistic features that characterize subsequent writings:—verbal humour and ingenuity; all almost Rabelaisian gusto in using words and inventing new ones; a tone at once half-playful and profoundly serious; frequent and abrupt changes from violent direct attack, and prophetic imprecations in the biblical manner, to the deceptive tranquillity of statements pitched in a completely different key; and, in addition, an inexhaustible range of fantasy and imagination….
Most of Michaux's preoccupations, which he later develops as subjects or themes, or as an endless pattern of relationships, are also evident [in Qui je fus]: the one and the many; the slowness of speech and the rapidity of thought; immobility and metamorphosis; unusual customs and beliefs; the façade or mask, and what it conceals and reveals; the origins of things and of human beings; and, above all, the relationship between the body and its inhabitant, or rather its inhabitants. (p. 41)
Among the richness and strangeness of his literary explorations, the stories in Un Certain Plume come almost as an interruption, an interlude of light relief even, in the perpetual self-questioning and self-searching. Yet this slight work is usually singled out by critics for special and, one might say, affectionate mention; and it is as 'the author of Plume' that Michaux has become best known. This is perhaps not surprising, for he is one of the few poets who (like Baudelaire with Samuel Cramer, and Valéry with Monsieur Teste) have created a figure at once autobiographical and imaginary, personal and universal—the kind of figure that we sometimes loosely describe as legendary or mythical. In the work of Henri Michaux, Plume is the only character. In that sense he is unique, while at the same time being as representative of our own age as the dandy-hero was of the age of Baudelaire.
Plume has often been compared with Chaplin, and there are many resemblances between the two figures. It seemed indeed not unreasonable to suppose that Chaplin might even be the inspiration of Plume, for Michaux's interest in the cinema, and in particular in Chaplin's films, was intense in the years before the publication of Un Certain Plume. (p. 42)
The arrangement of [the] Plume stories cannot be compared with the 'architecture' of Les Fleurs du Mal, nor with that of the Teste cycle. They are simply a collection of stories which the author has added to, grouped, and modified so as to produce an interesting and varied sequence. And the changes Michaux made in the text show that he was mainly concerned to cut out anything explanatory, such as subtitles and epigraphs; to tone down incidents that tended to be sentimental, melodramatic or gratuitously violent; and to achieve a concrete and dynamic presentation. By elimination, compression and under-statement he made the stories not only more incisive, but also more humorous—and more sinister. In their final form they are the stories of a writer who has travelled a long way since he admired the stiff and artificial 'style rêve' of Franz Hellens's Mélusine . They are not all equally successful, but...
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at least five are minor masterpieces that relate Michaux to Rabelais, Voltaire, Swift, Poe and Kafka.
As the name suggests, Plume is a slight, diminutive creature, a kind of anti-hero, the 'little man', the pilgrim in a materialistic and hostile world. In many of his later works Michaux shows the absurdity of life indirectly, through the kaleidoscopic pictures of his imaginary worlds; but in these stories he shows it in a more direct and realistic manner. Plume is presented as a recognizable person, with certain normal characteristics. He is a Dane, young, in perfect health, married. And he moves in a recognizable if topsy-turvy world—he travels in a train, eats in a restaurant, dances, is ill and goes to hospital.
The interest and the humour of the stories spring from incidents and situations, from Plume's adventures and misadventures, and not from his character, which neither changes nor develops. He is composed of extremes of timidity and aggression, an emotional equipment that invariably causes him to be at odds with life and to behave abnormally; and it is this that provides the grim humour, and emphasizes the terrifying contrast between the weakness of the individual and the power of society…. [Whatever] he does, whatever precautions he takes, however he behaves, whether he meticulously seeks to avoid trouble, as in Plume à Casablanca, whether he talks too much, as in Plume au restaurant, or too little, as in Un Homme Paisible, whether he acts like a Brobdingnagian or a Lilliputian, he is always at fault, always in difficulty, always apologizing. His very anxiety to do right leads him to do wrong; and his timidity, passivity and self-effacement are so extreme, or of such an unusual nature, that they too are seen as acts of aggression and provoke in others a chain of violent reactions. (pp. 43-5)
The insistence on [Plume's] courage and stoicism, which at times are even touched with hope, is important. It is generally assumed that Michaux's world is as confined, as hopeless, and as tragic as that of Kafka; but … he has also written 'pour en sortir', has repeatedly proclaimed his 'inétouffable espérance.'… (p. 45)
From a long and serious account which Michaux gave me of his life, it was clear that Plume represented many aspects of his creator's character, in particular the inability to be, or seem to be, like other people, to conform, to live 'normally'; and also the whole gamut of conflicting feelings, attitudes, and states of mind which accompany that inability and protestation. (pp. 45-6)
When I asked [Michaux] if he thought he would revive Plume (as Valéry did Teste) and write about him again, he said he thought not; for Plume … belonged to the past. He no longer needed Plume; he had evolved, and was now, he believed, a different person. This remark referred more especially to the change in himself and his writings since 1956, when he had begun to experiment with mescaline and other drugs. He seemed quietly proud of these experiments from both an aesthetic and a moral point of view. Mescaline had, after all, inspired four unusual books, Misérable Miracle, L'Infini Turbulent, Paix dans les brisements …, and Connaissance par les gouffres, and these works were, he insisted, evidence that he had carried something through to a conclusion, and that he had at last assumed full responsibility for his 'voyages en soi'.
When one recalls some of the reasons that Michaux has given for writting—to arouse, to provoke, to attack, to defend, to keep at bay the hostile forces of the world, to escape, to exorcize, to search, to find, to invent, to examine the invisible, to extend the means of self-exploration, to re-establish relationships, to be truth's musician, to encompass the whole of 'la médiocre condition humaine'—one realises that he could not long be content with anything as slight and as rigid as a 'character'. This invention of a character was in fact a warning, for it meant, as Michaux himself said, that he was perilously near to becoming a writer, a professional writer. But there were other reasons why he rejected the first and the only character he had created. When Michaux invented Plume, he was in a relatively light-hearted mood, and had begun to do something other than write about himself, his malaise or mal. He had discovered a character—a temporary refuge—and was able to amuse himself … by projecting his emotions on to Plume. But this half-real and half-imaginary figure, was at best a compromise in whom Michaux was neither fully expressed nor satisfactorily disguised. He needed a more complete escape or a more complete self-fulfilment. Plume did not serve either of these purposes, and he now belongs to the past of someone, febrile and ever-changing, who has admirably defined himself by the title of one of his first books Qui je fus. (pp. 47-8)
[The fluid, mobile attitude that Michaux's recent work expresses which has] taken him into new and uncertain realms where literature and science, pathology and psychology meet, has prevented, or perhaps saved, him from becoming attached to any literary movement or school. Declarations such as 'La volonté, mort de l'Art', and his firm allegiance to that 'copain de génie', Lautréamont, may suggest affinities with the Surrealists; but he clearly owes more to Baudelaire than to any other single writer of the last hundred years. He has not the same stature as a poet, but he has surpassed his great predecessor in one minor domain—writings inspired by drugs—for his mescaline texts are more authentic and more valuable as human and literary documents than the Paradis Artificiels…. Michaux is, in fact,… a significant and central figure, standing in much the same relationship to our nuclear 'civilisation' as Baudelaire did to the age that saw its beginnings in the Industrial Revolution. (p. 48)
C. A. Hackett, "Michaux and Plume," in French Studies, Vol. XVII, No. 1, January, 1963, pp. 40-9.
The block of [Henri Michaux's] works written under the influence of drugs and usually referred to as the "mescaline cycle" is composed of five works. Misérable miracle (1956) represents Michaux's "first knowledge as an observer" … and consequently recounts the learning experience of a neophyte who successfully attempts to maintain an intellectual distance from the matter which he is studying. He carefully analyzes after the fact the effects of mescaline and attempts to give an approximation of the actual experience by typographical devices and by the reproduction of samples of the handwritten notes and designs which he composed in the state of intoxication. In L'Infini turbulent (1957) this distance is lessened; the result is a depiction of the initiatory stage in which the poet prepares himself, "like a priest," for the encounter with infinity, the "Great Whirlwind."… These two works then are primarily discursive and descriptive. Paix dans les brisements (1959) is the poetic product of the preceding observations and initiation and consists of a series of drawings, followed by two poetic essays and a long poem. These four parts form a single artistic unity, a Book in the Mallarmean sense of the word…. With Connaissance par les gouffres (1961) Michaux reverts to a depiction of experiences and dreams but does intersperse a few smaller poems, followed by his own explication of them. In Les Grandes Epreuves de l'esprit (1966) he limits himself, as in his first work, to analysis and description…. This extensive opus is the outcome of Michaux's struggle against what is the greatest menace which the artist confronted with drug-induced visions faces, the danger of succumbing to autism. The accelerated tempo of the drug-induced spectacle makes it all but untranslatable…. What made it possible for him to achieve a victory over his ataraxia was his ability to exploit the immediate post-hallucinatory stage. Without succumbing to the temptation of "the excess of mastery, the overly great utilization of the guiding power of thought," he was able to employ his rediscovered intelligence while simultaneously maintaining contact with "the subconscious, the unknown, the mystery."… (pp. 133-35)
The six years during which Michaux experimented with drugs represent a period of intensive investigation, and the scope and seriousness of his explorations surpass similar efforts by other writers. Furthermore, his sensitive reportorial imagination enabled him to record with minute accuracy and insight what he had found. But a more important distinguishing feature in his attempt may be discerned in the very nature of the relationship which he established with drugs and what he expected of them…. Michaux is not in search of paradises, artificial or otherwise, which he curtly dismisses in Connaissance par les gouffres with the words: "Drugs bore us with their paradises … We are not a century for paradises"…. His is a quest for knowledge, and of a very particular type. He wants to discover not the product of thought, that is to say ideas, but the very process of thought, the marvelous mechanism which makes knowledge possible…. For Michaux drugs represent nothing more or less than a heuristic device, a valuable tool which in clumsy hands can be dangerous and even destroy the one who manipulates it heedlessly. (pp. 135-36)
In the process of reconstituting his experiences with mescaline, Michaux destroys a number of myths concerning the effects of drugs. He refuses the notion that they are creative when at the most they are revelatory…. An artist can only create with what he already possesses. A mediocre imagination, no matter how stimulated, cannot surpass its own mediocrity. There are no medications to enrich the phantasy, to raise the level of intelligence, or to transform sterility into creativity. At best pharmaceutical agents can produce an ambience favorable to artistic endeavor. (p. 136)
Scattered throughout Michaux's reflections are notations which indicate his disappointment. Drugs are incapable of fulfilling man's expectations and their effects are as often as not actually negative. The use of drugs can be deleterious: far from stimulating the imagination, they significantly diminish its powers…. In addition, drugs and Eros are incompatible…. With the impoverishment of the imagination and the banishment of love, poetry as we know it becomes impossible. This is the conclusion which Michaux reaches in Misérable miracle: "Thus it [mescaline] is the enemy of poetry, of meditation and especially of mystery"…. [Mescaline] does create images, but of an abstract type not usually associated with poetry. They are "one hundred percent pure" and "so perfectly stripped of the comfortable fur wrapping of sensation … that they are the springboard of the pure mental, of the abstract and of demonstration."… In other words, although deprived of sensuality, of the poetic aura, the images produced by drugs might be capable of revealing the structures of the mental processes which Michaux seeks to discover. (pp. 137-38)
Michaux [admitted] the impossibility of reconstructing the moment of "gratuitious grace" and [turned] his attention instead to another phase of the drug experience, the one which Cocteau had described as "the unique moment of a detoxication when the hallucinatory faculty still functions a little and coincides, by accident, with the return of the ability to comunicate." As Michaux relates in Les Grandes Epreuves de l'esprit, this moment of intense suffering and joy contains a wondrous sequence of experiences which reveals "the unique nature of thought, its sudden birth"…. After the disintegration and chaos of hallucination, it is the ecstasy of rediscovered unity…. Michaux transforms this moment into the work Paix dans les brisements, which is at the same time a poetic reconstruction of the post-drug period, a depiction of thought coming into being and a mystic hymn. The concrete details of the text describe the psycho-physical symptoms of drug withdrawal, which, taken together, present an almost clinical depiction of the detoxication syndrome. There is the distortion of temporal and spatial perception, the shattering and reintegration of internal structures, the inhuman chill of the body, and in general a sense of instability. Simultaneously, the same details recount the steps of the via negativa which leads to a vision of the transcendent…. [Michaux's poems] convey the physical sensation of coldness and the feeling of dispossession which are familiar signs of the incipient convalescence of the body deprived of the chemical stimulants on which it had come to depend. They also communicate the process of destruction of the inessential, of the self, symbolized by the vacating of the body, which is a prerequisite for the encounter with the void and the eventual discovery of nirvana. (pp. 139-40)
The problems posed by fragmentation, the desire for unicity, the importance of extraordinary phenomena, all of these elements are already present thirty years before Michaux ingested mescaline for the first time. So his basic project was not transformed, but rather reinforced, by his experiments with drugs…. With the help of drugs Michaux had succeeded in modifying his … internal architecture to such an extent that he could express a vision present in seminal form from the very start. This modification did not cease with the termination of the drug experiments, and its effects can be seen in all of his subsequent works…. (pp. 140-41)
Reinhard Kuhn, "The Hermeneutics of Silence: Michaux and Mescaline," in Yale French Studies (copyright © Yale French Studies 1974), No. 50, 1974, pp. 130-41.
Scattered about the landscape of Michaux's far-off domain are the poems, seen by most commentators not as megaliths which could supply us with clues towards the understanding of an ever-vanishing kingdom but as beautiful and sometimes monstrous totems, protected from the graffiti of passing tourists by the awfulness of their inherent magic. It is as if these poems were … strangely biased signposts pointing to nowhere and indicating nothing, or artifacts which the poet has brought into existence at the same time depriving them willfully of all significance: meaningless being. Understandable as such an uncritical attitude may be, it does not lessen the distance which separates us from a foreign universe nor does it serve the reading of Michaux's tantalizing enigmas. And it certainly does not seem to accord with the poet's own stance, unambiguously described in his most recent work and summarized by the phrase: "My first quest: signs." These "signs" are not symbols of a static reality or surreality but the images of the creative and destructive processes…. [The] actual existence of poems made up of such signs is secondary to their coming into and going out of existence…. Because the mechanisms of thought are far more marvelous than the thought which they engender, Michaux's goal is to "reveal the complex mechanisms which make of man first and foremost an operator." (pp. 187-88)
Michaux, like the erstwhile practitioners of automatic writing, tends to question the role of the poet as unique creator of his own work. "Anyone can write 'Mes Propriétés,'" he said of the work in which he comes closest to defining in allegorical terms his very personal vision of reality. And in his afterword to the recently revised edition of Plume he addresses the reader directly with the statement, "Reader, you are now holding in your hands, as happens so often, a book which the author did not make, although a world participated in its making. But after all, what matter?" (p. 188)
Michaux is in search … of a marvelous of the depths, a profundity as diverse and transient as the reality to which it gives birth, a marvelous common to all men which he can find only in that momentary eternity of peace amidst the breaking of the waves….
The early essays of Michaux, despite their occasional nature and a certain superficiality, are revelatory. They accurately predict that Michaux's work to be will consist of a successful attempt to go beyond surrealism to achieve what so many poets have sought after in vain. The driving erotic force behind the explosive poems of Breton is surpassed in Michaux's works by a multiplicity of forces which are maintained in a state of constantly suspended animation. They thus contain that terrible basic force which Artaud perceived in the plague, the force of the ever-virtual as opposed to the actual. The influence of this equilibrium maintained under pressure on the very texture and dynamics of Michaux's style is apparent. While Breton's poems are orgasmic, those of Michaux are pulsative. (p. 189)
In the early fifties Michaux found his ["preparer of feasts"]: mescaline. Six years later he dismissed this servant who had become the master of so many of his contemporaries in order to compose Paix dans les brisements. This work occupies a place apart in the total production of Michaux because it is the first and only one in which the poet, the prose writer, and the graphic artist join forces to create what is truly a Gesammtkunstwerk. In Connaissance par les gouffres prose commentaries follow the poems, which are interspersed among descriptions of drug experiences. In Emergences-Résurgences drawings serve as illustrations of the text. But in Paix dans les brisements drawings, essays, and the poem form a whole which should be indivisible. (pp. 190-91)
The designs themselves seem to be sheets of brief lightning flashes, some connected, some disconnected, sometimes rushing together in a swirling motion to form vortices, sometimes seeming to fly apart in a barely contained explosion which is really an implosion. The initial impression is one of total disorganization. But, as in a seismograph, one senses an underlying organization on the verge of upheaval. (p. 191)
[Images] and words serve a double function: they are the containers of forces and consequently the creators of tension; at the same time they are the signs which record the constant fluctuation of these forces, just as an encephalogram records the ever-changing brain waves. The sign-covered pages could thus be called an eidogram, a transcription of the patterns of the imagination.
Words and images in Paix dans les brisements refuse the limitations of their functionality and succeed in transcending their instrumental role. In the relationship which exists between them can be found the very tensions which they create. The lines of the drawings are constantly striving to become words and are sometimes on the verge of breaking through their own matter. (p. 192)
[Later in the poem, Michaux says that] only is the poet time, but he is what contains time ("le sablier") and what measures it ("le sable"). And a higher order of magnitude is reached as the trickling of the sand becomes the rush of a mountain torrent. In different form, in images rather than in words, this is precisely what we have already seen in the drawings, where the lines are measure, measured, and container of the measured. Like the grains of sand, the minuscule lines form a wild cascade. In the poem the words which emerge soon after the marriage with time are also a verbal representation of the lines. (pp. 196-97)
Michaux has always been fascinated with wings, and in La Vie dans les plis he had conceived of headless, even bodiless wings, pure wings which can rise up beyond serenity toward a region of future felicity where there reigns a peace beyond peace. The question as to how to calm them does not really call for an answer but suggests the inward tranquility of acceptance. And in fact, simultaneously with the inception of this upward motion, peace is discovered…. This peace is constructed upon the elements of disintegration, for it is achieved by the "ground grain" with its biblical connotations of fruitfulness achieved through destruction: the grains must be crushed between the millstones just as the poet had earlier been dismembered by space. At the same time these potentially fruitful seeds recall the dry grains of sand pouring through the narrow neck of the hour glass. This tranquility of the soul is achieved only slowly and through patience…. Furthermore, this inward harmony can be realized only within the framework of self-reconciliation suggested by the ambiguity of the verse "dans une douceur de soie" ("in the softness of silk") which could be read just as well "dans une douceur de soi" ("in the well-being of the self"). Nor is this word play merely fortuitous. (pp. 197-98)
Peace within the ascensional movement leads to that spiritual union for which the poet had longed. It is the recompense for the long period of human solitude and loneliness…. He has achieved this pantheistic identification of the self with an animistic nature by divesting himself of all of his "privileges," that is to say of those human attributes which distinguished him from non-human natural phenomena, sources of that hostility which originally existed between him and the universe.
This gradual elevation toward the ether, toward "la région où vivre" from which Mallarmé's swan is forever exiled, is momentarily interrupted by the first and only climactic outcry in this work. In fact, this is the only consequential climax in the entire work of Michaux. It is true that the surface tension of his poems is often punctured by brief expressions followed by an exclamation mark, those superficial indications of a moment of crisis. However, they are but the occasional bursting bubbles of an unchanging and ever-simmering fluid and the transformation from liquid to gaseous form is an always reversible one. Prior to Paix dans les brisements it is impossible to find a radical and irreversible break which changes not only the direction but the very substance of the poetic enterprise. Here there is true rupture, an emergence followed by an irrevocable resurgence after which nothing will ever be the same again. And so the drama of the moment is accentuated by its very unexpectedness…. For Michaux there is no regret, no looking backwards. He has divested himself of his body because he no longer needs it. Without it he becomes infinite expansion and can live the "life of the temple" to the exclusion of all else. (pp. 199-201)
[Michaux ends his book Paix ans les brisements with mention of "the incline which aspires the marvelously simple irresistible ascension."] This is not the natural incline which Gide had urged everyone to follow upwards. It is the supernatural incline of the via mystica which once found can never again be abandoned and which leads to a simple marvelous far beyond that revealed by the subconscious of the surrealists. The last two pages of the designs had already given pictorial expression to this irresistible ascent…. [They] sweep out of the darkness, disintegrating into ever fewer and smaller lines and even dots, as they move inevitably towards the blankness of the last half of the page. They are tending towards a ["région du primordial"]…. In this "région du primordial" reigns the primeval marvelous, the "normal marvelous" …, which, with the help of mescaline, Michaux had been able to perceive and which, with the help of his artistic and poetic genius, he was able to express. (pp. 201-02)
Michaux's entire work is a thousand times broken poem whose fragments suddenly fall into place in a kaleidoscopic pattern, ever reconstituting themselves within the infinite reflection of the prism of Paix dans les brisements. (p. 202)
Reinhard Kuhn, "Prismatic Reflections; Michaux's 'Paix dans les brisements'," in About French Poetry from Dada to "Tel Quel": Text and Theory, edited by Mary Ann Caws (reprinted by permission of the Wayne State University Press; copyright © 1974 by Wayne State University Press), Wayne State University Press, 1974, pp. 186-203.
Henri Michaux's early publications reveal the same concerns of his later works: problems of communication, the absurdity of the self as a single unit, the subconscious as a means of knowledge, psychoanalysis, the deformation of shapes, the mechanism of things, the exploration of the fantastic to explain the everyday. His first work, Les Rêves et la jambe (Dreams and the Leg, 1923), deals with incommunicability and physical fragmentation…. The dream [as he maintained in this first work], because it disorients and distorts the conscious real, gives value to the experience of the conscious, a value that would in all probability have remained undiscovered except through the instrument of the subconscious, here the dream.
While this fascination with the dream and the subconscious may seem to border on Surrealism, Michaux does not share the Surrealist interest in the processes of the subconscious. On the contrary, he views the dream as a means of access to a terrain of man's existence: inner space which alone can explain—deductively and logically—how a self, a personality, is born and gains meaning. At no time does Michaux fully give himself over to the subconscious, just as he never adopts Surrealist practices such as automatic writing and dream recitation. For Michaux, the dream has a purpose; its utility lies in the experience of awakening…. Disengagement of the familiar—the leg, for example—and loss of shape are hallmarks of Michaux's repudiation of the world of reproduction; and, by 1923, his fascination with the problem of man's formation and subsequent formulation was established. (pp. 21-2)
Qui je fus (Who I Was, 1927) contains in germ form the various artistic adventures which Michaux has undertaken. In this volume of prose and free verse, he openly declares his war on form, externalizes inner conflicts, and confronts the problem of formation. As the title indicates, Qui je fus is the autobiography of a poet; for Michaux's first terrain of exploration is always the self. (p. 24)
Of especial interest in the poems of Qui je fus is Michaux's continued refusal to engage in anecdote. Anecdote implies agreement, decoration, submission, and habit; it is serious, devoid even of the emotion of dispute. Emotion is clearly Michaux's chosen terrain. To this end, spoofing, satire, words of motion and change, imaginary people and places, fantasy, whimsy, and other active modalities alter exterior signs which are easily recognized and accepted by the intellect in an effort to free the internal reaction. (p. 27)
With La Nuit remue [Night on the Move, 1935], Michaux's pattern of juxtaposing prose narratives with texts generically labeled "poems" is firmly established. Moreover, the section designated as "poems" is in quantitative terms smaller than the preceding prose renditions, while qualitatively the poems are summary capsules which contain the full impact of the potential suggested in the prose explorations. The prose texts pose various possibilities, while the poems demonstrate their realization. This distinction between formal prose and poetry continues to characterize Michaux's work. Night or potential—regardless of the written collection in question—stirs up poems. The unformed prose (unformed as unclassifiable except as opposed to a basic visual form called poetry) awakens the inner self and prepares the self for the onslaught of light. Poetry becomes the specific result of these inner activities, for it reacts against the mechanical, oppressive day. Prose, on the other hand, is nocturnal in its anticipation of means to counter the prevailing diurnal order, but poetry is what is agitated within at night in order to maintain the inner terrain of the self during the daytime of limitation, localization, and multiplicity.
Hence, the Michaux poem is a text of the inner self projected outward. It scorns and defies outer space, as it refuses to imitate the real and rejects all concepts of commitment to the real. Michaux's poetry is consistently identified by him as poetry. Consequently, the reader has no trouble recognizing stylistically and generically, even descriptively, the Michaux poem. The Michaux poem is diurnal; it has shape, prescribed limits, demonstrates awareness, and is mulitple in that it is either in free verse (in the widest sense of the term) or in prose. On the other hand, Michaux's prose cannot be described; it is night, and, as night, it is formless because it assumes all forms and all potentiality of form.
In one sense, Michaux's separation of prose and poetry goes counter to contemporary writing which tends to fuse genres and which claims that all writing is a poetic, unformed compository and repository of the best of human creativity. Such a concept of the role of poetry in the modern world is, indeed, alien to Michaux's universe of inversion which repudiates confrontation with the real, but which at the same time finds no salvation in the imagination. If anything, Michaux is a poet-actor, never a poet-spectator, who uses the imagination as a means to discover the attitude of offensive action which makes diurnal (or real) existence bearable. He never pretends to ennoble or even better the human condition. His sole effort is directed towards resistance and self-protection. Only the unformed night or prose can arm man sufficiently to oppose the spectacle of day. (pp. 47-8)
The need to establish and recognize a true base is clearly presented in several texts [of La Nuit remue], which describe and interpret the significance of some pencil drawings made earlier. This text represents Michaux's earliest known example of writing on his own plastic art as a means to reveal the inner self countering the real. None of the sketches evoked can be said to be authentic reproductions of outer space…. But each sketch is a form of intervention through the imagination. (pp. 49-50)
Every text since 1923 is in some way directed towards the liberation of the pure self and the expression of its outward projection. Consequently, all forms—verbal and visual, written and painted—abound in his work. The usage of multiple modes of expression is inherent to Michaux's view of the multiplicity of man; there is no set definition of man, just as there is no set definition of what constitutes a text. While Michaux's adoption of every form of expression may indeed give rise to his being labeled a practitioner of non-generic writing and a destroyer of form, such a description tends to ignore the actual structural pattern which his non-generic technique creates. All modes, written and plastic, are not merely part and parcel of the Michaux universe; they are the Michaux universe, a universe which denies referentials and creates energy where there was no energy….
Energy is the power of self-generation of the space within. The invention of energy is what constitutes and defines art for Michaux…. His written and plastic experiments deliberately incorporate elements from known forms of expression (prose poem, verse poem, fable, story, diary, essay, aphorism, dialogue, sketch, portrait, water color, landscapes) in order to displace representative forms, to permit the birth of form, to create energy—art. (p. 76)
For Michaux, the creation of energy, its release, and the generation of motion in the space within are evidence of life itself. In his post-war works,… Michaux continues to exorcize the stagnation of outer reality with a vocabulary of change, movement, speed, circulation, power, provocation, mutation, expulsion: motion. Whereas up to the end of the war his work is dominated primarily by visual and auditory imagery, after the war his texts increase in motile images. The concentration of active words on the one hand produces texts which aggressively attack the situation of outer space in a release (exorcism) of inner dynamism. These verbal attacks are further marked by terms of negativity and dissolution…. On the other hand, the matter-of-fact tone which accompanies these combative terms gives a detached quality to Michaux's war on the paralysis of reality. His injection of invective is countered by his objective direction of rage…. The attack on the structure of the real does not create confusion. On the contrary, it eliminates disorder by uncovering the unity of inner terrain. Life is, indeed, in folds which must be straightened out (La Vie dans les plis) [Life in Folds, 1949], just as facing bolts and locks to the inner domain (Face aux verrous) [Facing the Locks, 1954] provoke the need for ways to open them, and the revolt against the hostile situation (Quatre Cents Hommes en croix) [Four Hundred Men on the Cross, 1956] leads to the counter-anger of resistance. It is not being which is the focal point of Michaux's work, but the passages of being.
The five major sections of La Vie dans les plis are characterized by passage, not by a movement from one given point to another, but actual movement itself. The plis are constantly yielding to the force of energy in an on-going disclosure of the elasticity of inner space. Unfolding the difficulties of the outer situation eliminates the "pleats" or "wrinkles" caused by the real world and reveals in their place the harmony of inner terrain. Michaux's very choice of the term plis reflects the plasticity which he finds to be the salient characteristic of man's essence. Plis does not refer to flexible objects, but, paradoxically, it is a flexible term, which can be applied to physiological traits (wrinkles, the bend of an arm, the hollow of a leg), to the physical condition of inanimate things (folds, marks from a pleat), to geological features (underground undulation), even to performance (tricks in cardgames); in addition, plis can be used to indicate a protected covering or an obstacle, and it can also be an independent object: a letter or an envelope. All these meanings can be applied to Michaux's La Vie dans les plis, for it is the all-inclusiveness of the term, as its appearance in the plural further suggests, which reveals man's ability to respond to the situation, master it, and ultimately refuse it. (pp. 93-4)
Michaux finds that the oppressiveness of outer space lies in its structure of fixed forms, which so dictate man's acts, thoughts, and language, that they affect man's very essence. But refusal to accept the structure of the real and its inherent stasis is only the first step in opening the locks to the inner self, which consists of on-going passages of involuntary, albeit frequently conflicting, impulses, desires, and appetites. The movements within represent man's power to effect change; his multiformity and fluctuating instincts contradict the conformity of his environment. These inner gestures of the unformed (multiform) are the responses of natural energy which function in the world.
Facing the locks of form in Face aux verrous, Michaux turns to what he describes as "écriture directe" ("direct writing"): words themselves are locks, fixed by others in outer space for external confrontation. According to Michaux in his 1951 postface to Mouvements, words are fixed thoughts and reflect the architecture of the irritating situation. It is not sufficient to unstructure the situation, unless at the same time certain approaches to the situation—thoughts, words—are also eliminated. Consequently, he initiates a new language of new signs. (pp. 98-9)
It is significant that Michaux purposefully violates his chronology of composition and publication by placing Mouvements at the beginning of the [twelve-part Face aux verrous] in order to emphasize thinking in signs as the way to overcome obstacles (verrous) to the space within. It is also important to note that the original publication of Mouvements marks simultaneously a decrease in Michaux's poetic productivity and an increase in his interest in painting. (p. 99)
Mouvements is, perhaps, Michaux's most inclusive work in terms of generic expression. Its composition is multiform: sixty-four pages of "taches" ("ink blots"), seven pages of a free verse poem, and a two-page postface. Moreover, it has two companion pieces. The first is the 1954 essay, "Signes," in which Michaux places Mouvements in the perspective of his own search for a new language; the second is a work of art, Par la voie des rythmes (Along the Path of Rhythm, 1974), which is entirely wordless, yet not wholly a work of painting. In fact, the "toile-poème" which Mouvements inaugurates finds its fullest expression in Par la voie des rythmes, which is composed solely of the signs ("taches") which conquer the inadequacy of language. (pp. 99-100)
One of the frustrating aspects of Michaux's years of drug experimentation is his recognition of a dependency factor. Even years later, he is not free from the effects of drugs…. Access to a glimpse of the Absolute is tarnished by the need for an external stimulant, which reduces self-mastery. Yet effective dispersal of self-consciousness under the influence of drugs does reveal a dynamic inner space which counteracts external situations. Cognizant of man's history of fascination with dreams as a means of transforming his relationship with the world, Michaux undertakes an exploration of dreams as a possible terrain for responding to outer space exigencies. Written with the same detached scientific style which characterizes his drug texts, Michaux's dream studies … offer a dispassionate analysis of the various categories of dreams. But, unlike his drug texts, the opening pages of this work are marked by skepticism as to the subject matter at hand. Admitting his own reluctance to relate and explain his dreams, Michaux confesses that it is the optical quality of the dream experience that leads him to undertake such an examination. In other words, Michaux informs his reader quickly and from the outset that there are no possible affinities with the Surrealist attitude towards dreams. (pp. 122-23)
For Michaux, the dream world is dependent upon the affective memory of the dreamer…. While dreams may be revelatory, they do not offer any new discoveries, a conclusion already drawn from the drug experiences…. [He fails] to discern any creative possibility in dreams: the images tend to be prosaic because they are directly related to regular images in his own life. On the other hand, he is struck by the magical rhythm which characterizes daydreams … and, in contrast, reinforces the mediocrity of his dreams and their lack of movement.
Dreams reflect the ordinary events of daily life. While they may change the order of the events and even confuse them, they remain part of the order of the material real world. (p. 124)
[In his] prose study, Face à ce qui se dérobe (Facing What is Disappearing, 1975), Michaux returns to the problem of referential structures which so characterize outer space that they tend to modify inner space. Because this work is based on the same displacement-replacement pattern which identifies Emergences-Résurgences, Face à ce qui se dérobe may be said to represent a résumé of Michaux's written passage from rupture to reassembly. (p. 130)
[In that work, contemplation] emerges as the final ring in Michaux's spiral…. By facing what is disappearing (limits, forms, recognizable shapes), Michaux also suggests what is appearing, for exorcism of the parts does not destroy; it displaces and rearranges them. The final return to base is the regaining of self-sovereignty, the ultimate Michaux destination in his artistic adventure. While perhaps only the design of the mandala adequately expresses the experience of the absolute, nevertheless, Michaux's work captures through a continuous pattern of disintegration and reintegration the substance of life in all its forms. The design of destiny is the contemplation of human expression of self in all its possibilities: prose, painting, poetry. (pp. 132-33)
Virginia A. La Charité, in her Henri Michaux (copyright © 1977 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1977, 148 p.