I first discovered Henri Michaux in the 80s, thanks again to Paul Auster’s anthology of 20th Century French Poetry. One of the truly magical writers of the last century, Michaux was blessed and cursed like Kafka with a sense of endless anxiety and dread and the comedic possibilities of both. He shared with Marianne Moore and the Magical Realists the ability to create surreal gardens with real frogs, but added serious warts on them all. He possessed the idiosyncratic and curmudgeonly qualities of E. M. Cioran, Samuel Beckett, and Thomas Bernhardt, along with the vivid, mischievous, almost mad imagination of Hieronymous Bosch. In short, no one was like him in the world of the arts, though many wanted to claim him for their own team. Especially the surrealists, whom he refused.
Michaux was a great poet, painter, aphorist and inventer of words and monsters. Born in Belgium, he wrote in French, and travelled the world, wanting, like so many before him, to break free of Western repressions. Like Rimbaud, he travelled to escape the West. But unlike Rimbaud, I think he found the East, loved it, was moved by it, embraced its art, philosophies, religions and disciplines. Like his elder contemporary, Victor Segalen, he wrote poetry, fiction and travelogues about his experiences. As far as we know, Rimbaud did not write creatively about his own travels.
Michaux also made many an internal, mystical voyage, experimented with mescaline, and studied the trip and the results . . . .
His aphorisms, as well as his poetry, can be riotously absurd:
From Slices of Knowledge:
“At the age of eight, I still dreamed of being granted plant status.”
“Without answering, the Tibetan took out his storm-calling horn and we were thoroughly drenched under great flashes of lightning.”
and profoundly basic:
“He who hides his madman dies voiceless.”
In a similar vein:
“He who has rejected his demons badgers us to death with his angels.”
Michaux was a brilliant absurdist, wonderfully, comically violent . . .
From The Big Fight:
He grabowerates him and grabacks him to the ground;
He rads him and rabarts him to his drat;
He braddles him and lippucks him and prooks his bawdles;
He tackreds him and marmeens him
Mandles him rasp by rip and risp by rap.
And he deskinnibilizes him at the end.
But it is probably for the character of Plume that he will be best remembered. Plume, the man who couldn’t be bothered with staying awake after a train hit his house and killed his wife. A man who couldn’t be bothered with staying awake for his own last trial. Back in my university days, I wrote a truly brilliant and stunning essay about the connections and similarities between Michaux’s Plume and Camus’s Meursault. It was so brilliant and amazing it had to be lost. Oh, well. Perhaps I will always remain a stranger to my own best works, lost in the searing sun, asleep while the judge renders his or her final, absurd decision.
- All translations by David Ball, from his collection of Michaux’s work, Darkness Moves (1994).