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|Henri Michaux (1899-1984)|
Belgian-born French painter, journalist, and poet, who explored the inner self and human suffering through dreams, fantasies, and drug-induced experiments. Michaux's work show his interest in Surrealism, but he never joined the movement, and his writings avoid all classifications. Often Michaux narrated his suggestive prose poems in the first person and warned and advised the reader. However, Michaux leaves the question open, whether his images – steel prisons, labyrinths, slashing sounds, demons, dragons, snakes, camels and other animals – refer to the unconscious or outside world.
The constant widening of the thinkable whereto I was called, successively
To translate, to pursue, to follow...
(in 'Saisir', 1979)
Henri Michaux was born in Namur, the son of a catholic lawyer. "I Was Born Full of Holes," he said in Ecuador (1929). Michaux was educated at Putte-Grasheide and at a Jesuit school in Brussels. "Five years in boarding school. / Poor, tough, cold school. / Classes are in Flemish. / His classmates, sons and daughters of poor peasants. / Secretive. / Withdrawn." ('Some information about fifty-nine years of existence', in Darkness Moves, 1994) He intended to join the priesthood but was dissuaded from this by his father.
After a religious crisis, Michaux started his medical studies at Brussels University. Rebelling against his parents wishes, he dropped his studies and traveled in North and South America as a ship's stoker in the French Merchant Marines. Later Michaux's journeys led him to Africa, India and China – basically he traveled to reject the word and identity imposed on him from the outside. He once concluded: "There is not one self. There are not ten selves. There is no self." (afterword to Plume, 1938)
In 1923 Michaux started to write for Franz Hellens's magazine Le Disque Vert. When his parents did not approve his way of living, he moved to Paris. Michaux supported himself by working as a teacher and secretary. He began to paint – especially he was interested in the works of Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Giorgio Chirico, and Salvador Dali. "The Surrealist supernatural is a bit predictable," he said, "but given the choice between supernatural and anything else, I would have no hesitation. Long live supernatural!" Encouraged by Jean Paulhan and Jules Superville, he published his writings in avant-garde reviews, such as Commerce and Bifur. After his poems appeared in 1926 in the magazine Nouvelle Revue Françoise, one reader complained that they were not literature.
Among Michaux's friends was the photographer Gilberte Brassaï, with whom he had long discussions about literature. Brassaï was impressed with Michaux's poetry, "the powerful and solemn voice of a driven man, ill at ease with himself" as he said. Michaux did not like being photographed, but Brassaï's portrait of him in 1945 shows him relaxed, looking straight to the spectator. Michaux has a cigarrette in his hand, but years later he told Brassaï that he is totally allergic to tobacco. When his photo was published in 1959 in Arts, covering the whole page, Michaux protested. Portraits, which Michaux himself executed, were often faceless.
In 1927 Michaux traveled from Amsterdam to South Africa and published his account of the disappointing trip in Ecuador. A more successful trip to Asia produced Un barbare en Asie (1932), a poetic, self-analytical travelogue. In Calcutta he noted that "Never, never will the Hindu realize to what a degree he exasperates the European. The spectacle of a Hindu crowd, of a Hindu village, or even crossing a street where the Hindus are in their doorways, is irritating and odious." This journey also inspired him to study Hindu mythology. Ailleurs (1948) was about imaginary journeys.
Michaux used the pen to write and draw, and explored the boundaries of different forms of expression. With his prose poems Michaux continued the literary form developed by Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Jacob, who had published his manifesto of the new idea of poetry in the preface of Le Cornet à dés (1917). In 1940s and after Michaux become known for automatic images; Surrealists had already experimented with automatic writing in the 1920s and André Massonn had executed automatic drawings in 1924. When Michaux had an exhibition in New York in 1949 with Otto Wols and Georges Mathieu, a critic described him as "obsessed by the imprecise forms of his larval world".
Michaux's most famous book, Un certain Plume (1930), contains fifteen sketches of his alter ego, Monsieur Plume. He is an antihero, who confronts the world in tragicomic adventures. Michaux has said the the character was born during his visit to Turkey and "died" when he had to return. In the title story the hero wakes up and falls asleep several times. Meanwhile his house is stolen, and he is brought into trial after his wife is found in eight pieces, but Plume himself has not noticed anything. Plume continues again his sleep.
Plume appeared also in Plume précédé de Lointain intérieur (1938) and 'Tu vas être père (d'un certain Plume), which Michaux wrote in 1943. The word 'plume' means 'feather' but it refers also to a penman (un homme de plume). According to Michaux, Plume got his name from Edgar Allan Poe's short story 'The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather'.
From 1937 to 1939 Michaux edited the mystical magazine Hermès. In 1937 Michaux held his first painting show. As a writer he gained fame in the 1940s. His work interested among others Andre Gide and Lawrence Durrell, whose book on Michaux was published in 1990. Among Michaux's other friends was the Mexican writer Octavio Paz, whom he gave an anthology of poems by Kabir, when Paz was transferred to India.
During World War II Michaux fled to southern France to escape
the German occupation of the country. Nous deux
encore came out in 1948. It depicted Michaux's life with
Marie Louise Ferdiere, whom he married in 1943. After her death in a
fire in 1948, Michaux concentrated on his painting and on writing
accounts of his experiments with drugs – at the age of fifty-seven
he had started to use mescaline, a drug which alters the perception of
time and creates visual hallucinations. Michaux has told, that he had
"for hours, especially in the beginning, the most vivid images. Eyes
closed, as in a vision, I saw a sort of vertical torrent descend."
After taking accidentally an overdose, he experienced the total
destruction of his self, an experience which he did not particularly
enjoy. These later, drug-induced works include Misérable
Miracle (1956), L'Infini turbulent (1957),
and Paix dans les brisements (1959).
In the 1960s Michaux also made a film about hashish and mescaline. When the film was shown in the Salle de Géographie, it was completely packed. Michaux's friend Brassaï watched it while lying on the floor. In 1960 Michaux received the Einaudi Prize at the Biennale in Venice, but five years he refused to accept the French Grand Prize for letters – he had become a French citizen ten years earlier. Michaux's autographical book, The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, appeared in 1966. Michaux died in Paris on October 17, 1984.
For further reading: Henri Michaux by R. Bertelé (1946); Michaux by R. Brechon (1959); Henri Michaux ou une mesure de l'être by R. Bellour (1966); Henri Michaux by K. Leonhard (1968); Henri Michaux by M. Bowie (1973); The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones by Henri Michaux (1974); Henri Michaux, esclave et démiurge by M. Béguelin (1974); Henri Michaux by P. Broome (1977); Creatures Within: Imaginary Beings in the Work of Henri Michaux by F.J. Shepler (1977); Henri Michaux: the Poet of Supreme Solipsism by Lawrence Durrell (1990); Henri Michaux, peinture et poésie by Henri-Alexis Baatsch (1993); Henri Michaux ou le corps halluciné by Anne Brun (1999); Henri Michaux: Poetry, Painting, and the Universal Sign by Margaret Rigaud-Drayton (2005)