Tag Archives: Michaux

“M” is for Michaux; “M” is for Mescaline

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle.

Henri Michaux. Miserable Miracle: Mescaline. New York: New York Review Books, 2002.

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, pg 44: manuscript page written under influence of mescaline by Henri Michaux.

Miserable Miracle, pg 44

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

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

Henri Michaux, by Claude Cahun, 1925

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.

Rereading Michaux

Michaux: a writer I have tried to dislike–self-absorbed, self-fascinated, tripping on mescaline, driven to the semi-silence of the sign, flippant, sliding in and out of mockery, in and out of savage honesty, cloud writer of seamless syntax, a shape shifter, flight straight out of costume, writing the human nude.

Michaux. I am reading Michaux again.

If you are new to Henri Michaux, two translations of selected writings are readily available. David Ball’s Darkness Moves (U. of California P, 1994) provides a wide selection, including excerpts from the mescaline chronicles and a couple of notes on ideograms and art. Ball can be more accurate and more plain spoken, but I still prefer Richard Ellmann’s Selected Writings: The Space Within (New Directions, 1968). New Directions Paperbooks are the perfect size for my poetry reading habits. Unassuming white, black, and gray tone covers; 5×8 inches, and less than an inch thick; this is the measure of a book that you can carry around, one thumb in the spine, until the pages come unglued. I also enjoy the en face translation; with the French on the left page and the English on the right page, the reader can be a full partner in the translation … or at least, one can presume to be one. A left eye for the French, a right eye for the English, a nose for the bridge.

Ball’s Darkness Moves is a fine translation, and it’s not his fault, but I hold a grudge against California Press for having rendered Mallarmé’s Collected Poems as a coffee table book. Like the cover, the translation is full of pastels and cloying sentiment. Although not nearly as large as the Mallarmé book, Darkness Moves is also too big and likewise burdened with too much commentary from the translator. I prefer poetry at a slow walk and Ball’s translation is just too unwieldy for a single hand. It’s a read-it-on-the-couch book. Ball can be too serious as well. It’s a difficult quality to put your finger on, but it’s there, a wooden tone. The diction is fine, but Ellmann’s translation is warmer. Ball reports the poems in English; Ellmann lives them.

The beginning of Michaux’s “Intervention”:

Autrefois, j’avais trop le respect de la nature. Je me mettais devant les choses et les paysages et je les laissais faire.
Fini, maintenant j’interviendrai.

Ball’s translation of the above:

In the past, I had too much respect for nature. I would stand before things and landscapes and let them do what they wanted.
That’s over and done with: now I will intervene.

And Ellmann’s translation:

In the old days I had too much respect for nature. I put myself in front of things and landscapes and let them alone.
No more of that, now I will intervene.

I read French with a dictionary, which is to say, I do not read French. So, maybe the original shares Ball’s want of humor. How would I know? And why should I care? Sometimes, however, Ball wins for clarity. From the beginning of “Nuit de Noces”:

Si le jour de voces Noces, en reentrant, vous mettez votre femme à tremper la nuit dans un puits, elle abasourdie. Elle a beau avoir toujours eu une vague inquiétude…

Ball’s translation of the above selection, “Wedding Night”:

When you come home on your wedding day, if you stick your wife in a well to soak all night she is flabbergasted. Even if she had always been vaguely worried about it…

And Ellmann’s, “Bridal Night”:

If on your marriage day, returning home, you set your wife in a well to soak for the night, she will be dumbfounded. No comfort to her now that she has always had a vague uneasiness…

So Ellmann is stranger and Ball is plainer. At any rate, if you want as much Michaux as you can get in English you’ll need both translations. Ball retranslates only “thrity-three pages” from the Ellmann book and leaves much of the early Michaux writings (the really fun stuff) untouched.

Not many people can be a Richard Ellmann, but I hope, someday, an equal talent will take on a few of the single Michaux volumes and translate them as entire books. If you’re reading this and you think you can write, please start with Mes propriétés (1929). By my count, Mes propriétés includes fifty-nine poems. Ball and Ellmann together translate only twenty-four of these. “Intervention”, quoted above, is from My Properties and so are many of my favorite Michaux poems. Because I’m lazy (“The soul loves swimming”, see Michaux/Ellmann’s “La Paresse”/”Laziness”) and I’m getting tired of this, I’ll end with a few sentences from “A Dog’s Life”, also from My Properties, the Ellmann translation, of course:

As for books, they wear me out like nothing else. I don’t leave a single word in its own sense or even in its own form.
I trap it and after some struggling I uproot it and turn it finally away from the author’s flock.
In a single chapter you have thousands of words all at once in front of you and I have to sabotage them all. I feel I must.


Michaux, Henri. Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Selected Writings: The Space Within. New York: New Directions Pub. Corp, 1968. WorldCat | Amazon
Mallarmé, Stéphane, and Henry Weinfield. Collected Poems. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. WorldCat | Amazon
Michaux, Henri. Mes propriétés. Paris: J.O. Fourcade, 1929. WorldCat