Henri Michaux Michaux, Henri (Vol. 19) - Essay


(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 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.)

C. A. Hackett

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 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...

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Reinhard Kuhn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Reinhard Kuhn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 2566 words.)