Henri Michaux Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Apart from his verse and prose poetry, Henri Michaux has written travelogues, essays, drama, and fiction. He is, however, equally well known as a painter. Often merging forms and genres, Michaux’s works traverse the boundaries of real and imaginary worlds, moving from outer to inner space with a constant focus on visual impressions while analyzing the experience. Michaux’s writing cannot be divorced from the visual arts, and several of his foremost collections are combinations of original drawings (gouaches, water-colors, inks, acrylics) and texts. The poems are not merely accompanied by illustrations; rather, the two are simultaneous expressions of analogous themes.

Michaux also wrote a one-act play, Le Drame des constructeurs (pb. 1930, pr. 1937; the builder’s drama), which again reflects his interest in the visual arts. The setting is a lunatic asylum where various inmates, named A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H, play “construction” games. Their guards can be seen in the background; every time one appears, the “builders” disperse. Law and order, Michaux implies, destroy imagination and deprive man of his ability to exist. Furthermore, the character “God” is aligned with the lunatics, whom he absolves and liberates. Ironically, the inmates continue their imaginary building, the guards remain, and nothing changes.

Yet another literary form that Michaux expertly handles is the aphorism. In Tranches de savoir...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Henri Michaux’s achievements integrate both his literary and his artistic worlds. The poetry collection Qui je fus, Michaux’s first work published in France, received considerable critical acclaim. Although he began painting in the mid-1920’s, his first book of drawings and paintings did not appear until 1936. During the next several years, Michaux became a presence in the French world of art, and his premiere exposition of paintings and gouaches was held in the Galerie Pierre in Paris in 1938. In 1941, André Gide published, in booklet form, the controversial panegyric Découvrons Henri Michaux, which revealed the modernity and complexity of Michaux’s creative process. In 1948, the Galerie René Drouin exhibited Michaux’s first collection of wash drawings and, in 1954, his premiere exposition of ink designs. In 1960, he received the Einaudi Award in Venice.

Michaux turned to yet another medium in 1963 and created, with Eric Duvivier, a film titled Images du monde visionaire. The Musée National d’Art Moderne de Paris honored Michaux with a grand retrospective of his works in 1965; in the same year, he was featured by Geneviève Bonnefoi and Jacques Veinat in the film Henri Michaux ou l’espace du dedans. Also in 1965, Michaux was voted to receive the Grand Prix National des Lettres, which he decided not to accept. Both to acknowledge his literary works and to honor his refusal, the committee then chose not to award the prize that year. In 1966, a special issue of the journal L’Herne was dedicated to Michaux, and in 1976, the Fondation Maeght mounted another major retrospective exhibition of Michaux’s drawings.

Imaginary Countries

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Michaux has also created in his poetry/travelogue form extensive accounts of imaginary countries and characters, the best of which—Voyage en Grande Garabagne (1936; trip to Great Garabagne), Au pays de la magie (1941; in the land of magic), and Ici, Poddema (1946; here, Poddema)—are grouped together in the collection Ailleurs (1948; elsewhere). Great Garabagne is a complete civilization; it has tribes, distinct geographical locations, and social and religious customs. In these accounts, Michaux is not concerned with Utopian visions but with a reordering of reality.

He continues in the same vein with the Portrait des Meidosems (1948), in which are presented personages whom Malcolm Bowie, in his 1973 study, Henri Michaux, has accurately defined as “me-images”: shifting, self-propelled forms living in a world of continual flux.

I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country

In another form of imaginary travelogue, I Am Writing to You from a Far-Off Country, Michaux wrote twelve prose-poem segments, supposedly from a feminine writer to a desired partner, thus creating both the author and the reader of the text, who interjects his own commentary. While the faraway country does not exist, its sea, waves, and unusual fauna seem real because they are described personally and because the writer is trying to persuade her companion to meet her on this imagined plane of existence. This preoccupation with travel between real and make-believe worlds permeates all Michaux’s works.

The Plume Persona

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

In his travelogues, as in all of his works, Michaux refuses to imitate the world, preferring to turn it upside down. His first fictional character, Plume (whose name means both “feather” and “pen”), is indeed a lightweight, often pathetic, creature. His form varies from text to text; he has no firm characteristics and little awareness of the world around him. As a representative of modern man, Plume symbolizes the desperate and suffering yet resilient and matter-of-fact person existing in the bleak, often hostile, world of reality. Plume is the antithesis of Michaux’s ideal; he is a victim who does not intervene, a dupe. Michaux uses humor in the Plume prose poems both to distort and to give relief. Plume cannot laugh—or at least, he does not—but the reader laughs at Plume, enjoys mocking him, and anticipates his destruction with glee.

“A Tractable Man”

In “Un Homme paisible” (“A Tractable Man”), Plume awakens to a series of disasters. The first time, he cannot find the walls of his room because ants have eaten them. Unperturbed, he falls back to sleep until his wife screams that the house has been stolen. Plume expresses disinterest and dozes off. Shortly afterward, he thinks that he hears a train, but again sleep overtakes him. When he awakens, he is very cold, covered with blood, and surrounded by various pieces of his wife. Expressing mild displeasure that the train passed by so quickly, he once more falls asleep and is abruptly disturbed by the voice of a judge who cannot decipher the mystery of Plume’s apathy. Plume does not offer a defense, and when the judge plans Plume’s execution for the following day, Plume pleads ignorance of the whole affair, excuses himself, and goes back to bed.

Michaux makes it clear that Plume richly deserves to be judged, condemned, and punished for not taking an active part in life. Each time Plume falls asleep, he repeats the Fall of Man, but Plume’s sin is far worse, because he refuses to act. Michaux’s use of the past tense in this poem expresses pessimism; man was born into a state of guilt (sleep), so he accepts his condemnation (falls back to sleep). Michaux calls upon the reader to attack Plume, to make fun of him—in short, not to identify with Plume’s “peaceful” behavior but, instead, to take charge of life. One can feel no pity for the condemned man who has faced life with total passivity. The reader’s laughter signifies his recognition of the absurdity of life and his alienation from Plume’s apathy. Michaux encourages man to struggle, to fight for existence, even though it may be a futile battle with a hostile and absurd world.

“My King”

The theme of resistance and the attitude of scorn for man’s...

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(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Bowie, Malcolm. Henri Michaux. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973. A critical study of Michaux’s literary works. Includes bibliographic references.

Broome, Peter. Henri Michaux. London: Athlone Press, 1977. A short critical assessment of the works of Michaux. Includes and index and bibliography.

Hellerstein, Nina S. “Calligraphy, Identity: Scriptural Exploration as Cultural Adventure.” Symposium 45, no. 1 (Spring, 1991): 329. A critical comparison of the works of Paul Claudel and Henri Michaux traces each writer’s fascination with Chinese and Japanese writing systems.

Kawakami, Akane. “Barbarian Travels: Textual Positions in Un Barbare en Asie.” Modern Language Review 95, no. 4 (October, 2000): 978-991. Un Barbare en Asie is not so much a collection of Henri Michaux’s views on Asia as the trace of his passage through it. There is a complex relationship between Michaux and these Asian cultures which requires a more subtle explanatory model that the dualistic one of hegemony.

La Charité, Virginia A. Henri Michaux. Boston: Twayne, 1977. An introductory biography and critical study of selected works by Michaux. Includes bibliographic references.