Henri Michaux died in Paris in 1984 at the age of 85.
Michaux is a poet of unique style, one that is particularly difficult to pinpoint. He most closely resembles the surrealists, but cannot even accurately be grouped with them. Frederic Sepher pointed out that much of his poetry reads like short stories, although most of it does rhyme. He stated that while Michaux is probably the “least lyric of all contemporary French poets,” and employs few metaphors, “he is brilliantly imaginative, inventive and rythmic. He even verges on the musical in his haunting, desperate litanies with their repetitions and developments.”
Haunting, too, is Michaux’s emphasis on “the strangeness of natural things and the naturalness of strange things,” as Andre Gide once described Michaux’s philosophy. Like Swift, Flaubert, and Lautreament, Michaux created imaginery lands inhabited by equally chimerical creatures. The royal spider, the Hacs, the Emanglons, and the Gaurs are just a few of the inhabitants in what are considered his best works, including Voyage en Grande Garbagne, Au Pays de la magie, and Ici, Poddema. These creatures are portrayed as being more real than human beings. So are their worlds seen as being far less fantastic and less absurd than the one in which Michaux himself lives. As a Times Literary Supplement critic put it, “It is surprising how true much of his poetry is even at the most superficial level.” What has really happened in the thirty-odd years since the publication of Voyage en Grande Garbagne seems more strange than what is in the book, the critic asserted.
Michaux’s world is filled with aggression and hostility. Through his writings he emphasizes fears and anxieties that are most often suppressed by others. As Sepher pointed out, Michaux’s poetry is a form of self-analysis: it exorcises the terrible demons that reside within him. And to absorb blows that life meant for him, he invented a character named Plume. Plume is a weak, pathetic, yet humorous person, resembling Charlie Chaplin, who is constantly being bullied by his more intrepid associates. He embodies the weakness Michaux sees in himself, and in all men.
Michaux’s works are imbued with a sense of alienation not only from others, but from himself as well. He warns that twentieth-century life is dangerous: one must be perpetually on guard for it is too easy to lose oneself, a frightening feeling he often describes. There is an ever-present conflict between one’s inner and outer lives. Michaux contends that by developing stringent social mores that lead to the suppression of the individual by society, it is man himself who is responsible for this conflict. But man’s condition is not hopeless. Michaux combats his own struggle between inner thoughts and the outside world by practicing strict self control, and with a sense of humor that is “one of his most salient characteristics,” as Sepher observed.
While Michaux’s writings are read worldwide and his poetry is currently popular among young people in France, the man himself remains somewhat of an enigma. Introverted and introspective, Michaux has screened much of his private life, especially his early years, from public view. It is known, however, that he felt alienated from his parents from the beginning. He voraciously read the works of mystics, and later was influenced by the writings of Lautreament, Ruysbroeck, Kafka, and Ernst Hello. He also painted, inspired by the modernist artists, most notably Paul Klee.
In his youth, Michaux had hoped to join the priesthood but was dissuaded from doing so by his father. Instead, he pursued medical studies but eventually abandoned them to sail with the merchant marines. As a sailor, Michaux traveled to the United States, South America, and England, and later, on his own, to Asia, where he accumulated material used in writing travel books, such as Ecuador and Un barbare en Asie. But the travels he described were not all physical: even then, Michaux also wrote of the journeys within himself. In New Republic, a critic commented: “Coming upon Ecuador today one cannot, except by an act of imagination, appreciate the revolutionary thing it was when it was first published, nor the risk that Michaux took in those days. But the risk and the kind of adventure in which he engaged deserves to be compared with that of other great innovative writers of our time. Like them, he is powerful, incomplete, shifting, strangely satisfying and dissatisfying.”
Like Aldous Huxley, Michaux experimented with hallucinogenic drugs, primarily mescaline, in exploration of his inner self and of further awareness. He was fifty-seven when he embarked on his first drug-induced voyage. At sixty-seven he gave up drugs at his doctor’s advice, believing he had already experienced all that he could with them anyway. Some of his experiences are mirrored in The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, Miserable Miracle, L’Infini turbulent, Connaissance par les gouffres, and L’Espace du dedans. The latter is “not the kind of book to be read from cover to cover, but one to be dipped into, a little at a time,” a Times Literary Supplement critic noted. Michaux’s “poetry is the result of exploring and, in its most liberal sense, analysing the ‘space within’, the infinite universe of the inner self where the galaxies move and revolve according to laws whose mathematics may be forever beyond our comprehension.”
In recent years, Michaux has devoted most of his talents to painting. That, for him, is another form of exorcism. He has said that he can better express himself through this medium. Many of his books include original drawings and paintings.
In English (see also below):
Ecuador: journal de voyage, [France], 1929, revised edition, Gallimard, 1968, translation by Robin Magowan published as Ecuador: A Travel Journal, University of Washington Press, 1968.
Un barbare en Asie (travel notes), Gallimard, 1933, revised edition, Gallimard, 1967, translation by Sylvia Beach published as A Barbarian in Asia, New Directions, 1949.
L’Espace du dedans (poetry), Gallimard, 1944, revised and enlarged edition, 1966 , translation by Richard Ellmann published as Selected Writings: The Space Within, New Directions, 1951.
(Self-illustrated) Miserable miracle, Rocher, 1956, revised and enlarged edition, Gallimard, 1972, translation by Louise Varese published as Miserable Miracle: Mescaline, City Lights, 1963.
L’Infini turbulent, Mercure, 1957, revised and enlarged edition, Gallimard, 1967 , translation by Michael Fineberg published as Infinite Turbulence, Calder & Boyars, 1975.
Connaissance par les gouffres, Gallimard, 1961, revised edition, Gallimard, 1967, translation by Haakon Chevalier published as Light Through Darkness, Orion Press, 1963.
Les Grandes Epreuves de l’esprit et les innombrables petites (autobiography), Gallimard, 1966, translation by Richard Howard published as The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones, Harcourt, 1974.
Michaux , translation from the French by Teo Savory, bilingual edition, Unicorn Press, 1967.
Peter Broome, editor, Au pays de la magie (text in French; introduction and commentaries in English), Athlone Press, 1977.
Henri Michaux, A Selection, translated by Michael Fineberg, Embers (Norwich), 1979.
Ideograms in China, translated by Gustaf Sobin, New Directions (New York, NY), 1984.
A Barbarian in Asia, translated by Sylvia Beach, New Directions, 1986.
By Surprise, translated by Randolph Hough, Hanuman (New York City), 1987.
Meidosems: Poems and Lithographs, translated by Elizabeth R. Jackson, Moving Parts Press (Santa Cruz, CA), 1992.
Spaced, Displaced, translated by David and Helen Constantine, Bloodaxe (Newcastle Upon Tyne), 1992.
David Ball, editor and translator, Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984, University of California Press, 1994.
Henri Michaux: Whitechapel Art Gallery, 19 February-25 April 1999, Whitechapel Art Gallery (London, England), 1999.
Oeuvres Completes, II, Gallimard (Paris, France), 2001.
Someone Wants to Steal My Name: And Other Poems, Cleveland State University Poetry Center (Cleveland, OH), 2003.
Mes proprietes (poetry and prose), J. D. Fourcade, 1929.
La Nuit remu (poetry), Gallimard, 1935, revised edition, 1967.
Voyage en Grande Garbagne, Gallimard, 1941.
Liberte d’action (poetry), Fontane, 1945.
Ici, Poddema (excerpt from Livre du voyager; also see below), Mermod (Lausanne, Switzerland), 1946.
Epreuves, exorcismes, 1940-44 (poetry; title means “Tests, Exorcisms”), Gallimard, 1946.
Rene Bertele, editor, Henri Michaux, Seghers, 1946, revised and enlarged edition, 1957.
Peintures et dessins, Editions du point du jour, 1946.
Nous deux encore, Lanbert, 1948.
Arriver a se reveiller, L’Air du temps, 1948.
Henri Michaux, P. Drouin, 1948.
Ailleurs (poetry), Gallimard, 1948, revised edition, 1969.
La Vie dans les plis (poetry), Gallimard, 1949, new edition, 1965.
Passages, 1937-1950, Gallimard, 1950, revised and enlarged edition, NRF, 1963.
(Self-illustrated) Mouvements (poetry), Gallimard, 1951.
Nouvelles de l’etranger, Mercure, 1952.
Face aux verrous (poetry; title means “Facing the Bolts”), Gallimard, 1954 , revised edition, 1967.
Quatre cents hommes en croix, P. Bettencourt, 1956.
Plume; precede de Lointaine interieur (poetry), Gallimard, 1957, revised edition, 1967.
(Self-illustrated) Paix dans les brisements (poetry), Flinker, 1959.
Galerie Daniel Cordier, compiler, Henri Michaux, [Paris], 1959.
La Psilocybine, [Paris], 1960.
Situations-gouffres, [Paris], 1960.
Vents et poussieres, 1955-1962, Flinker, 1962.
Henri Michaux, oeuvres recentes, presented by Cordier, text by Genevieve Bonnefoi, [Paris], 1962.
Vers la completude (poetry), GLM, 1966.
L’Espace du dedans, pages choisies (1927-1959), Gallimard, 1966; Henri Michaux, [Paris], 1966.
Bertele, compiler, Parcours: Suite de douze eaux-fortes originales, Le Point cardinal, 1966.
K. Leonard, editor and compiler, Henri Michaux, [London], 1968.
Facons d’endormi, facons d’eveille, Gallimard, 1969.
Poteaux d’angle, Herne, 1971.
En revant a partir de peintures enigmatiques, Fata Morgana (Montpellier, France), 1972.
Emergence-resurgences, Skira, 1972.
Quand tombent les toits (play), GLM, 1973.
Moments; traversees du temps (poetry), Gallimard, 1973.
Bras casse, Fata morgana, 1973.
Par la voie des rythmes, Fata morgana, 1974.
Ideogrammes en Chine, Fata morgana, 1975.
Moriturus, Fata morgana, 1976.
Choix de poemes, Gallimard, 1976.
A Distance: Poemes, Mercure de France (Paris, France), 1997.
Oeuvres Completes, Gallimard (Paris, France), 1998.
A la Minute que J’Eclate: Quarante-tros lettres a Herman Closson, D. Devillez (Bruxelles, Belgium), 1999.
Sitot Lus: Letters a Franz Hellens, 1922-1952, Fayrad (Paris, France), 1999.
Also author of Livre du voyager, Ailleurs, Liberte d’action (title means “Freedom of Action”), 1947, and of poetry includingQue je fus, 1927, Un Certain Plume, 1931, and Apparitions, 1946. Exhibition catalogs: Asger Oluf Jorn, editor, Henri Michaux, Silkeborg Museum (Denmark), 1962;Amsterdam. Stedelijk Museum. Henri Michaux, Staatsdrukkerij, 1964; Henri Michaux, Musee national d’art moderne (Paris), 1965; Henri Michaux: choix d’oeuvres des annees 1946-1966, Le Point cardinal, 1967; Michaux a Venezia centro internazionale delle arti e del costume, Palazzo Grassi, 1967, Rizzoli grafica (Milan), 1967; Exposition Henri Michaux: peintures, 1946-67, text by Bonnefoi, [Rouen, France], 1968; Henri Michaux, bilingual edition, W. Girardet, 1969; Henri Michaux, Kestner Gesellschaft, 1972; Henri Michaux: oeuvres nouvelles, 26 novembre 1974-fin janvier 1975, Le Point cardinal, 1974.
Bowie, Malcolm, Henri Michaux: A Study of His Literary Works, Clarendon Press, 1973.
Broome, Peter, Henri Michaux, Athlone Press, 1977.
Durrell, Lawrence, Henri Michaux: The Poet of Supreme Solipsism, Delos Press (Birmingham), 1990.
Edson, Laurie, Henri Michaux and the Poetics of Movement, ANLibri, 1985.
La Charite, Virginia A., Henri Michaux, Twayne (Boston, MA), 1977.
Leonhard, Kurt, Henri Michaux, translated by Anthony Kitzinger, Thames & Hudson, 1968.
Michaux, Henri, The Major Ordeals of the Mind and Countless Minor Ones, translated by Richard Howard, Harcourt, 1974.
Shepler, Frederic Joseph, Creatures Within: Imaginary Beings in the Work of Henri Michaux, Physsardt (Bloomington, IN), 1977.
Velinsky, L.A., From the Gloom of Today to the New Greatness of Man: Itinerary by Henri Michaux, Builder of New Poetry, Vantage Press (New York City), 1977.
L’Express, January 5-11, 1970; Times Literary Supplement, September 25, 1970, August 6, 1971, May 4, 1973, February 15, 1976; Modern Language Journal, October, 1970; Choice, November, 1970, October, 1974; Art in America, March, 1971; Books Abroad, winter, 1974; Encounter, July, 1977; World Literature Today, winter, 1977; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 8, Gale, 1978.
OBITUARIES AND OTHER SOURCES
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 8, 1978, Volume 19, 1981; Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1984;Times (London), October 25, 1984.