PRINT September 2002


Richard Howard on Henri Michaux

IN THE DECADE BETWEEN 1956 and 1966, Henri Michaux, who had been publishing verse, prose, and drawings since 1927, produced six little books concerning his experiences with mescaline and other, mostly psychedelic, drugs. Several of these volumes, including this first one, are “illustrated” by the author’s astonishing drawings, which frequently afford a more direct account than his discursive writing of the exploratory voyages Michaux inveterately undertook beginning in the late ’20s. These brief texts, often (as in the case of Miserable Miracle) written during the experiments with mescaline and reproduced with the same fidelity as the drawings, which resemble electrocardiograms, indecipherable grass writing, and then word landscapes, are difficult to read and have very little to do with prevailing notions of pleasure and even ecstasy typically promoted in the literature of addiction. I translated the sixth one myself—The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones—and I can testify to the corrugations and anfractuosities of surface which must discourage the reader in search of entertainment and (given the ostensible subject) delight.

Even as he trips, Michaux quite soberly gives us an overwhelming (and distinctly disagreeable) sense of connection with the universe and its inceptions in fire, in earthquake, in oceanic rhythms, and in whistling, shrieking winds. Inevitably with the grudging and painful epiphanies comes a sour echo of all that flapdoodle which blows out of the East. Behind all these accounts of mental process under the effect of mind-altering drugs lies Michaux’s central craving to lift the veil, to reveal the mechanisms of the brain, thereby enabling the mind to realize the veritable nature of thought, to which mere thinking, Michaux asserts, is so uncomfortably unequal.

The literature of addiction is as limited as it is (Baudelaire and Burroughs float to the surface, along with some fragments of Cocteau’s Opium), we discover, because most transactions with these enormous metamorphoses are already on one side or the other of the Abyss. As in most accounts of dreams, as in the Surrealists’ experiments with “automatic writing,” the ecstatic seizure is exciting but not interesting, just as the rational narration is interesting but not exciting. What is exciting and interesting is the transition from excitement to interest, when a writer can seize the monster as it rushes out of the cave and identify it before it becomes, in the open air, no more than a bag of slimy skin with strange tusks and odd-colored strands of hair. This is the triumph of Henri Michaux, and part of the reason why he is one of the greatest French writers (though Belgian) of the twentieth century: His excursions and explorations into and among these substances we have come, so heedlessly, to call psychedelic are a long, deliberate, and frequently painful odyssey through the six volumes of disintegrations and alienations that are the often lurid, often alluring consequences of his clinically ingested and recorded experiences (experiment is also the word for experience in French: both words have peril at the root), and if they are read as a sequential expression (as we read the first six volumes of Proust, say) we come to the redeeming discovery of the final one (as we come to Proust’s Time Regained), of what Michaux calls “the marvelous normal,” that is, the untampered-with human brain, sifting and shifting, choosing and organizing, determining and directing, constantly filtering order out of chaos and duplicating that act of creation which culminates in the command Let there be light. Certainly it is no accident that back in 1935 Michaux published one of his most inward books of poems under the premonitory title La Nuit remue (The night moves).

Of course Miserable Miracle is merely the first of the sequence and will be read in this attractive reprint decisively introduced by Octavio Paz and illuminated by those scary drawings (which are probably the most rewarding records of The Hunt since Lascaux) without the proper sense (as I see it) of the entire trajectory. But most people who read Proust at all have only read Swann’s Way and are thereby fulfilled to the limit of their capacity. Reading Miserable Miracle by itself is a sufficiently grand “experience” indeed and a successful “experiment” without venturing onward, and inward, and (for so culminating is the situation) upward and downward at the same instant. Especially since in this new avatar the editors have added four grim and explanatory little essays written from 1968 to 1971 which afford a kind of cursory coda to even the first of Michaux’s drug books, so that we can traverse the arc to the splendors of the return to an unmanipulated consciousness. I must quote at least a couple of the final paragraphs, which even in this primary exposure reveal where Michaux “comes out”:

Why did I stop taking Mescaline?

Not reliable. Not as pliable as one wants . . .

Over the years, I made progress. I knew, nearing the important states . . . how to direct them (and myself), but not enough, not with certainty, only in an irregular fashion . . . intermittently.

Invisible but always there, behind the extraordinarily excellent states, apparently irreversible, definitive, there is a sudden unveiling of the very, very bad states which you don’t want, or of the chaotic, the bizarre, the extravagant you thought you had gotten past.

Difficulties with getting them back, maintaining them, and in the second case with eliminating them, dismissing them.

Taking some (of these products) every four years, once or twice just to see how one is doing, probably would not be a bad idea.

I’m giving up even that. Let’s just say that I don’t have much of a talent for addiction.

Let’s just say that that is the only talent Henri Michaux does not have.

Richard Howard is a poet and translator. He teaches in the School of the Arts (Writing Division) of Columbia University in New York.


Henri Michaux, Miserable Miracle: Mescaline, trans. Louise Varèse and Anna Moschovakis (New York: New York Review Books, 2002), 179 pages.