In April I agreed to read and write about Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle for the Spotlight Series tour on the NYRB Classics. The book is the first of four about the author’s experiences following self-administered doses of mescaline, a hallucinogen. Although easy enough to read (unlike Octavio Paz, who introduces the book, Michaux is not a show-off), Miserable Miracle demands an unsettling intimacy from its readers. With but a few shifty, though powerful, characters (principally Michaux and mescaline, but also hashish), and sparing concrete context, “you” too (however sober) will stand on the tracks and take measure of the locomotive. There, in the misery, “the whole theater … breaks up” and seizures are “suffered in every part of one’s being” (69).
What can one write about a book, in an orderly manner, when its author insists: “Multiplicity and overlapping are at work in you”? (69). Here, I try merely a few riffs (of thousands) on the letter “M”.
M is for Mescaline
Typically derived from the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii), mescaline is a psychedelic alkaloid. People often puke after consuming mescaline; Michaux imagines the body frantic to rid itself of the poison. Like other psychedelics (LSD, PCP), mescaline plays havoc with the uptake of serotonin (see: NIDA InfoFacts: Hallucinogens). Michaux writes, at the end of an addendum to Miserable Miracle: “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” (179). My serotonin system is already shot; I know enough of how I’m doing. Perhaps reading the book every four years is a safer alternative. Perhaps.
M is for Miserable
Even after the puking, mescaline makes Michaux miserable. Early on, he warns us: “[I]n my journal, during all those incredible hours, I find these words written more than fifty times, clumsily, and with difficulty: Intolerable, Unbearable” (8). He is miserable in being overwhelmed. The drug, Mescaline, personified with a capital “M”, rushes Michaux. Even prior to the overdose, it is a rapist, overpowering him, robing him of his will. He is barraged with lights, attenuated shapes, rhythms, colors: green, pink (“pink enough to make you howl, unless you had the soul of a whore and took a flabby pleasure in yielding to it”), and “mad, exasperated, shrieking” white (32, 12). The misery is all the more apparent when Michaux compares mescaline with hashish. Indian hemp is at worst a mocking demon; it accompanies the author and mocks him … “Ha!” is for the deity “Hashish.” While mescaline is a rushing train, hashish is a pony “capable of surprises” (95). Michaux, however, does experience a kind of joy (is this the “miracle”?), but typically this joy appears after recovering from the drug. He writes, three months after a trip: “And all my strength has returned. Who would have believed it possible? My strength! With what adolescent joy I feel it coming back” (85).
M is for Manuscript
Miserable Miracle includes several of Michaux’s mescaline influenced line drawings. These appear to be recollections of his experiences (not unlike much of the text itself), the drawings are metaphors for the experience. Breaches, fault lines, part reptilian, part infinite abyss, the drawings are inimitable, but recognizably Michaux’s handiwork. The book, however, also includes thirty-two pages of illegible manuscript. Michaux’s attempt to write during hallucinations; Mescaline the amanuensis. These are frightful, but also (as Michaux suggests) the most honest witness to his experience. (After all, one might fake a narrative account of a drug trip, but what genius would ever try to forge Mescaline’s perseverating manuscript?) Mirroring the manuscript, he writes: “having settled on the letters ‘m’ of the word ‘immense’ which I was mentally pronouncing, the double downstrokes of these miserable ‘m’s’ … iMMense terremoto Mense” (11).
M is for Miracle
Miraculous that Michaux endured; the book is without a doubt a great feat of physical and intellectual athleticism. But a “miracle,” too, in that here the author breaks from what comes to him by nature. Without mescaline Michaux’s writings are wonderfully strange, but Michaux hides and Michaux controls. While Michaux would construct, mescaline prefers “covering ground” (64). It “diminishes the imagination. It castrates, desensualizes the image” (61). Though miserable, mescaline is a step toward an infinity; the “miracle”: “against my natural instinct, I had accepted infinite fragmentation, the teeming state composed of what is smallest, which divides and overruns everything” (70).
M is for Michaux
If the experience, for Michaux, is so miserable, why does he take the drug? Some people do not trust their god; others suspect the government, stand apart from their cultures, or feel betrayed by their tongues, but Michaux fears the self. It is for this reason that I have long admired Michaux’s “poetry” … his short prose writings are really a genre of their own. I am mostly drawn to his self-doubting, his hiding and tricks of persona. Michaux is not dishonest (he is unsparingly honest), but he hides. Doubting the existence of a sober, direct voice, Michaux prefers the distortions. The madness that possesses us confirms the honesty of these distortions. In this chaos, which of the self, which of the wills, are we too choose?
In Miserable Miracle, Michaux is at times (as he is nowhere in the “poems”) transparent. In the trauma, in the illnesses and the narrow recoveries, Michaux finds himself at home in his skin. Misery is a price he willing pays for this “paradise” (8). A paradise in which mescaline obliterates both narcissism (“My drug is myself, which Mescaline banishes”) and (“I am being hollowed out”) the accuser with all its masks (85, 12). In return, whatever is left of Michaux experiences a kind of wholeness. This wholeness is painful at times, as he writes in a note remembering the overdose: “The terrible cyclone caught us, me and myself, united so idiotically, so indissolubly, and from that moment, instead of watching them, I received all the blows” (125n).
But at a high price, he persisted “in offering the best [he] had, the most intimate, the most Henri Michaux … like a man whose arm has been caught in a revolving belt and who in spite of himself is drawn toward the center of the machine which in no time will tear him to pieces” (129). Yes, it is a miracle that he survived, that after such thorough self mutilation, he should endure to write this book. In returning, he is found by infinity and he finds the world, and with it (although expressed a decade later) joy:
Suddenly a word came to me, found me. Myriads was the word. Myriads, Myriads. Everything can be found in it … This world that can only describe itself in terms of myriads, I had a share in it, too. A magnificent sense of fulfillment took root in me. Joy! (168).
M is for Me
Will I read this book again? Yes, but next time with friends. Madness is lonely, and I am not one in need of an “experimental psychosis” (81). I know the “ruses of the madman” all too well (133). Next time I aim to share with Michaux his myriads, but not so much his misery.