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Thousand Times Broken: Gillian Conoley on the Works of Henri Michaux

Henri Michaux (1899–1984) was a Belgian writer and artist (later a French citizen) of startling originality. Associated with the surrealists, he charted an independent path into the unknown, travelling widely across the globe as well as deeply into the interior of his mind. During an eleven-year period, he augmented his interior travels with the use of mescaline, achieving a kind of "profane illumination" (to borrow Benjamin's apt phrase) that expressed itself in complementary sets of art and writing. The first of these sets, Miserable Miracle (1956), perhaps remains Michaux's best-known work. Now the American poet Gillian Conoley has brought three works, written during the period of Michaux's mescaline experiments and never before translated into English, into view in a single volume, Thousand Times Broken, published this year by City Lights Books. I discussed these works with the translator in an email interview.

Andrew Joron: Thousand Times Broken is actually three books in one volume. How did you come to translate these three books, and how do they relate to one another?

Gillian Conoley: Six years ago I was preparing a talk for Poet’s House in New York on Henri Michaux, who was one of the first poets I loved as a young poet, so I was returning to him. I had become especially interested in the relation between word and picture in his work. Strangely, for many years most critics tended to separate Michaux’s two concurrent prodigious activities, writing and visual art. A critical book, Henri Michaux: Poetry, Painting, and the Universal Sign, by Margaret Rigaud-Drayton, published in 2005, begged to differ.

It was in reading Rigaud-Drayton that I came across mention of Quatre cents homme en croix (Four Hundred Men on the Cross). I was intrigued because Four Hundred Men on the Cross was described as the book in which Michaux goes the furthest in “graphic writing” (Rigaud-Drayton’s term). The book contains poems formed into shapes or partial shapes. The shapes are sometimes fully, other times partially identifiable as crucifixions; additionally there are shifts in fonts. You don’t see the visual coming into the verbal anywhere else like this in Michaux’s oeuvre. I wanted to translate the book because I wanted to read it in English, I wanted to enter it in that way, and see what it was doing. So I started to work on it, on the back burner, while writing my own poems at the same time. At some point I finished the book I was working on at the time, and turned my full attention to the translation. Four Hundred Men on the Cross was 36 pages, not long enough for a full-length book, but I sent it to City Lights anyway, and they expressed interest, and suggested I look for other books written at the same time period that would make sense to publish alongside it.

The next books I found were two other mid-century books written close to the same time, Vigies sur cibles (Watchtowers on Targets), a collaboration between Michaux and surrealist Chilean painter Roberto Matta, and Paix dans les brisements (Peace in the Breaking). All three of these books were written between 1956-1959, all are considered mescaline texts, written during Michaux’s 11-year experiment with mescaline, and all cross boundaries between the pictorial and the poetic that we don’t see anywhere else in Michaux.

Additionally, in terms of how they relate to one another, all are populated worlds with active landscapes, all of which seem located in the activity of “becoming;” they lie somewhere between origin and actual, something I think you could say about all of Michaux’s work. For example, in Four Hundred Men on the Cross, there are many figures—several Christ figures of course, but also a gnat, a small black angel, and others who appear then vanish from the cross as icon. Watchtowers on Targets has characters that appear, speak, and disappear. Peace in the Breaking, the most “mescaline” of these mescaline texts, has white vermin, gothic cathedrals, swallows, fountains, photons, and what Michaux called “a vibratile carpet” on which images and words appear and disappear.


AJ: If each of these books engages in some kind of transaction between the verbal and the visual, we have to wonder if Michaux regarded each form alone as insufficient to his purpose. What is the relation between the visual and the verbal elements in each of the three books?

GC: One of the things that fascinates me the most about Michaux is that right at the very beginning, in 1924, when he starts to make art—just two years after he starts writing—his first visual work, “Alphabet,” is asemic writing. He makes marks that look like alphabetic letters and yet they aren’t, and they move left to right as in a Western writing system, and with gaps between as in paragraphs. This seems like an action or point in one’s work that one might arrive at, after having worked with the mediums of visual art and writing for a while, and becoming frustrated with them, etc. But it’s where Michaux starts. Michaux wanted to find a universal language somewhere between writing and drawing, and he knew this right away. That, and a desire to delve into the unconscious, give his work an extraordinarily consistent singularity of vision.

Michaux claimed to find both writing and drawing as being overwrought, conscious constructs with conventions and agendas of their own, and therefore problematic in accessing or representing anything, much less deeper levels of consciousness. This is the trouble he has with the French Surrealists, who were attracted to his writing and wanted him to join their group. He arrives in Paris from Belgium in 1924, the year André Breton publishes his first surrealist manifesto, which at its center champions automatic writing. Michaux, who wrote a critique of Breton’s Poisson soluble in 1925, had two problems with automatic writing. One was that he didn’t believe the human hand could move fast enough to capture human thought, and in particular, the speed or accelerations of whatever might be going on in the unconscious. The other was that he didn’t think language as a construct or system was quick enough to access thought either. For Michaux, it seems that automatic writing would look like something closer to what he was doing with “Alphabet,” marks which could move faster since they didn’t concern themselves with either language or straightforward representational gesture.

He seems most interested in thought before it finds expression, in origin. Particularly among these three books, it seems that Michaux’s disappointment with his tools (both writing and drawing) is perhaps the strongest in Four Hundred Men on the Cross. Thematically, failure in recovering his lost faith acts as a metaphor for his failure to represent Christ in either drawing or writing. In Four Hundred, at the point where he becomes a sort of “master seminary director” in command of a group of draftsmen who are all failing miserably at their attempts to draw crucifixions, Michaux calls their drawings (his “drawings,” whether visual or verbal) “blasphemies.” The only good the failed representations do is perhaps provide a kind of catharsis: “MIGHT these drawings sometimes serve as a purging? Who knows? Freed of images that had maybe long been blocking their way and view of the erstwhile cherished face, they would thus find themselves able to return to it, etc., etc., if there is still time.”

One finds a disappointment in both mediums throughout Thousand Times Broken, and throughout his entire oeuvre. For example, in Peace in the Breaking, he disrupts a train of logic by saying, “But let’s abandon this. Languages all so strong, so possessing.”

In each book Michaux creates entirely different transactions between the verbal and the visual. To return to Four Hundred Men on the Cross, not only is it the only book in his oeuvre in which he shapes poems into visual forms, either in a direct, sort of concrete way in the shape of a cross, which is a sign in and of itself, but there is also the sense of the cross as broken mark or alphabetic letter. So it’s the most direct mixing of mediums, the closest to a kind of pure graphic writing. He inserts text within text, as though he’s carving the wood, sometimes placing Christ inside the cross itself. Pierre Bettencourt, a master printer who also published books by Artaud, Dubuffet, Ponge, many others, published this book—it was among the last Bettencourt did. In many ways we might look at Four Hundred as a kind of collaboration between Michaux and Bettencourt (who, like Michaux, was also a visual artist and writer), though neither called it that. Bettencourt often played around with fonts, shaped poems. Regardless, it’s in this book that the two mediums break down and actually enter one another most fully for Michaux.

In Peace in the Breaking, the book begins with 14 spine-like, seismographic drawings that also contain remnants of what appears to be handwriting. As they progress, these drawings grow larger and larger until they dissolve, in the last drawing, into a sort of dust of signs, like beats of wings without birds. Then follow two prose pieces, “Meaning of the Drawings,” and “On the Subject of Peace in the Breaking.” Michaux often did this in individual books—mixed poetry and prose. The titles of those two prose pieces are interesting in that they sound removed, academic, critical—as though Michaux is being sly, certainly inventive/skeptical in writing about his own writing, about the act of writing about writing itself (one thinks of Pessoa). The titles are both tied to and pulling away from the prose that follows, which is simultaneously sort of expository and poetic. In “On the Subject of Peace in the Breaking,” Michaux tells us, “I have not, in this writing followed or attempted to follow the tumbling down, the haste, the acceleration of the appearances, the visions, the impressions, the impulses, the thoughts” of the mescaline experience. And then in the title poem “Peace in the Breaking,” that’s exactly what he does. It’s a gorgeous poem, full of acceleration and occasional squalls or pauses as it tumbles down the page, its stanzas shaped like the spine-like, seismographic drawings with which the book begins. Michaux wanted this book to be published in an unending scroll, but the closest he got was a book that was shaped “a l’italienne,” (on the smallest side of the rectangle), a book bound on top rather than on the left, like a legal pad. The result was that one could experience two of the drawings at once by lifting each page, and also experience two pages of the seismographically shaped title poem at once as well—so a sense of flowing, of movement, was built materially into the experience of reading and seeing (original printing Éditions Flinker, 1959).

Peace in the breaking

What’s unusual about this poem is that it’s the only time in Michaux’s oeuvre in which we get pure ascent. In all his other work there is a rhythm of ascent and descent, what Cole Swensen called “the dressage” of his pacing. Critic Reinhard Kuhn called the poem “Peace in the Breaking” a peak or point of rupture in Michaux’s oeuvre, a gesture “that modifies not only the direction but also the substance itself of Michaux’s poetic enterprise.” It’s a crucial poem, and its connection to the drawings that precede it feel inevitable and seamless.

In Watchtowers on Targets, we get a quickly paced collaboration between Michaux and the Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta, the painter with whom he felt the closest affinity. Probably to maintain the speed and quality of the collaboration, the text is unedited and unrevised. The writing is wild and without the usual narrative links we usually see in Michaux. The book begins with a plot, a crime is committed, but this quickly dissolves, and characters appear, speak, and disappear. What remains central and steady in both Michaux’s writing and Matta’s etchings is the unusual perspective, that of a watchtower that has sprouted on the human eye, and on the watchtower, an observation post, and in the post, an observer who is looking back at the human eye. So the whole question of perspective, of subject and object, is called into question continually.

Roberto Matta

Matta and Michaux set up the following rules for their collaboration: for the first two thirds of the book, Michaux would respond to Matta’s etchings/aquatints, and for the last third, Matta would respond to Michaux’s drawings. It’s unknown as to who came up with the title, but Matta, who died in 2002, 18 years after Michaux, would often speak of how he still experienced Michaux’s writing “playing around in his head.” As the anecdote goes, Matta explained, “Death interrupted me, I was counting so much on his presence, on the watchman. He was vigilant against my enthusiasm that could be a little too spontaneous at times, he restrained me and that was friendship. Now I am an orphan of this vigilance and I am becoming a target exposed to everything.” This book was originally published in a wooden case, with loose leaves for both Michaux’s writing and Matta’s drawings, as though they had been placed down like cards. 68 pages, 8 Matta etchings/aquatints. It was unusually large, about 13” by 10”. Within the book Michaux writes a section called “Correspondence” (one can’t help but think of the correspondence between the visual and the verbal), and within this section we get a series he titles “Card I, Card II, six in all. These read like postcards, inherently a verbal/visual form of communication, and are the only epistolary writing Michaux was to compose.

AJ: How does Michaux's attempt to bring together, or even to unify, the verbal and the visual in these three books relate to his quest to access, through mescaline and other means, a more "primal" level of experience?

GC: In terms of the primal and the primitive, we might look at his disavowal of early experimentation with language to a move toward utter simplicity in language. In his earliest work, Who I Was (1927), Michaux invents words playfully, a bit aggressively. In Ècuador (1929), he gives his seafaring journeymen and companions a language mixed from German, Spanish, English, and French, a ‘lague quadrupède,’ in which words are chosen for sonority as much as meaning.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that the structures of Michaux’s own early experience with language are a mix of Flemish, formal French, and a French dialect, Walloon. His early writing indicates a desire to upset the French linguistic order. He mixed languages, he disrupted syntax. Both Flemish and most especially Walloon (the dialect of his mother, who was from Wallonia, a southeast region of Belgium) were considered to be inferior languages to French. Walloon was outlawed from schools in Belgium in the 1950s, just as Spanish was outlawed in the US around the same time period. For one reason or another, the French have “looked down upon” the Belgian people and their culture. So Michaux’s relationship to French is complicated to say the least. From the very beginning, there is, in Michaux, a desire to escape each of these languages, to find some other form of expression. As with Mallarmé, there is a desire to correct “le défaut des langues.” But with Michaux, he’s much more driven to move away from language as a construct since there is no language he feels at home with. After his experiments in the early 1920s, he begins to write in the most transparent way possible. Perhaps this is due to his distrust of and discomfort with all languages available to him. An aesthetics of simplicity begins to become apparent in his work, as does a use of the aphoristic and of ellipsis, of a falling away of language completely. As Rigaud-Drayton points out, this adoption of simplicity was a common twentieth-century phenomenon connected to a quest for the primitive in both art and writing, what she calls “a modernist quest for the universal primitive.” In an early (1922) Michaux essay called “Chronique de l’aiguilleur,” (“Chronicle of the Switchman”), Michaux writes about the simplicity of primitive art forms and the quest for simplicity in his writing and in his peers, what he sees as the 20th century modernist situation: “Our libraries are familiar with the anthologies of all countries, inspiring thousands of styles. The way to push all these bumps-processes? But we, in literature, painting, “THE HOUSE IS FOUR WALLS, A WINDOW, A DOOR, AND THE REST I AM CRAZY . . . Excellent hygiene! Cubism, in painting and in sculpture, is born of the same current need of universality and simplicity as Esperanto.”

AJ: In Peace in the Breaking, Michaux refers to Chinese pictographic writing as "natural" in comparison to other written languages. How important was the Chinese ideogram to him?

GC: While there is no categorical evidence that Michaux read The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, written by Ernest Fenollosa, edited by Ezra Pound, he was not immune to the notion that the ideogram was a purely visual and pictographic sign, an ethnocentric idea that persisted well into the 20th century. Michaux was intensely attracted to the ideogram as part of his desire for a universal language, where image and word could unite. However, unlike Pound, Michaux did not view the ideogram as immediately transparent. In A Barbarian in Asia, Michaux writes of the difficulty the Western mind experiences when reading or looking at an ideogram: “there are no five characters that we can guess at first glance.” This contrasts pretty starkly with Pound’s assertion that sculptor Gaudier Brzeska could read much of Chinese writing because he was, as a sculptor, adept at “looking at the real shape of things.” The influence of ideograms on Michaux’s asemic writing can be seen in his drawings in Facing the Locks and in Movements, where, though the pull of the eye moves from left to right as in a Western writing system, the gestural, calligraphic style of Michaux’s India ink figures carry, or seem haunted by, the ideogram. In Ideograms in China, published in 1975, Michaux writes an annotated prose poem, a meditation on the development of the world’s oldest living language, a book beautifully translated by Gustaf Sobin. While Michaux begins Ideograms in China by bemoaning the loss of the earliest, primitive ideograms, what’s interesting is that he ends the book—which includes an examination of a dozen forms from ku-wen to running script to k’ai-shu characters—with an appreciation and a championing of contemporary Chinese inscription. It is the gesture that draws Michaux to the ideogram to begin with. The mark.

Michaux scholars seem to agree that le geste is central to his drawings and writing. So it makes sense that at the end of Ideograms in China Michaux writes with enthusiasm about how each calligrapher gives new shape, new meaning to modern ideograms. For Michaux, calligraphers are more like visual artists than scribes, “And the perfect page is one that ‘seems traced at a single go.’” Again, we see Michaux seeking origin. The last line of the book reads: “Calligraphy around which—quite simply—one might abide as next to a tree, or a rock, or a source.”

Another influence of the ideogram can be seen in the poem “Peace in the Breaking,” where the individual drawings act as signs, and move not left to right, but top to bottom, as in Chinese writing. The title poem also has a downward pull in its design (even though it is a poem of ascent), as does the entire book, originally published as it was in a more kakemono, scroll-like style. In “Meaning of the Drawings” in Peace in the Breaking, Michaux writes of how the Chinese “conceived and used a type of writing that follows thought from top to bottom along its natural outlet,” and then follows that with a qualifying footnote: “If the natural is what seemed to me as such.” He goes on to praise the Chinese ideogram for having “little or no syntax” and being “close to thought, the original appearance of thought.” But ultimately, Chinese, along with all other languages, Michaux disavows with that quote I mentioned earlier: “But let’s abandon this. Languages all so strong, so possessing.” Still, it seems undeniable that the Chinese ideogram came as close to crossing the acts of inscription and drawing Michaux would find.

An interesting aside: Pound, in his final years in Venice, became interested in translating Michaux’s Ideograms in China, and began work on them, but with failing health, eventually abandoned the project. So eventually Sobin completes the work, with the book finally available to English readers in 1984. The book was published under the Poundian imprint of New Directions, who called the book “a work that now stands as an important complement to Ezra Pound and Ernest Fenollosa’s classic study, The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.” Interesting that Pound, at the end of his career, began to turn once more to the ideogram, which he first worked with in 1913 through Fenollosa’s manuscript.

AJ: Michaux seems to be caught at the intersection (hung on a cross?) between not only words and pictures, but also between rational and irrational states of mind. In your introduction, you state that Michaux is "desirous of vision," yet "detached" and "scientific" in his approach to the visionary. Does Michaux ever achieve a reconciliation of these opposites, or does he have to accept his suffering upon the cross?

GC: He’s no martyr, that’s for sure. I keep thinking about Ernest Hello and how at one point he lies down prostrate on the floor—and about Michaux reading that as a young man—the ardency in that gesture. Hello can be so pedantic and moralistic and damning as a Christian mystic that while reading him one can become annoyed, even anxious for a vision, but it’s all the more incredible when he throws himself onto the floor. Also Pascal—I think you can see some pretty direct influence from Pascal’s Pensées on Michaux—the short, aphoristic prose, the skepticism and equivocation. So a mystic, yes, but not a martyr. Michaux’s willing to suffer in his quest, but he’s too interested in movement to stay anywhere for too long.

I wonder if a reconciliation of the rational and irrational and words and pictures was really what Michaux was after. I think he wanted to chart the course, he wanted come back to report what he experiences of the irrational—so the rational mind had to be taking note of whatever visions or chambers of consciousness Michaux was experiencing. With words and pictures, it’s the notion of a universal language he seems after, a sort of Esperanto. So while he’s a “double artist,” in that he’s practicing two arts, he’s also got dual preoccupations, and they complicate one another.

Overriding it all, though, is that Michaux isn’t just playing some intellectual game with language and the pictorial, nor is he playing scientist. There are high stakes here, and he demands that we go along with him. Each book is a journey—to Asia, to Ecuador (though it’s really a state of mind), to worlds of imaginary creatures or beasts, to mescaline trips we go—and the quest is to catch a glimpse of the unknown residing within human consciousness, to somehow bring that forth. To make the unknown known, if only for an instant. That Michaux is so skeptical and rational only makes us trust him more.

Throughout each of his books, Michaux is an explorer, a guide. The demand he makes on us is that we go with him. If we’re reading him, we’re going along, and he’s not afraid to make us uncomfortable.

As far as his tools go, while he continually complains about them, he’s quite decisive and incisive in his use of them. Not a word is wasted. No prettification of language or image. His dislike of French as a baroque language is pretty evident. His portraits of the human face are critiques of portraits of the human face, as if to say, let’s not let appearances get in the way. There is so much opposition in Michaux, so much tension in his materials, content, and their relation to one another. His mescaline drawings can be almost exquisitely painful to look at. He’s at odds with it all, but his desire to explore being and the further reaches of consciousness is relentless.

His output is prodigious—over 30 books, and, from what I understand, over 20,000 drawings alone, not counting the goaches and paintings. I’m traveling to Paris this spring to see as much as I can at a foundation there, a center dedicated to his work. I think to really understand Michaux, we have to gain an understanding of both the literary and the visual work, as one has to do with Blake.

As to whether he achieves a kind of uniting between the irrational and the rational, between word and picture, I think the closest we get to that is in Peace in the Breaking, where, as the title implies, all breaks down, and there is pure ascent. Everything else falls away, his tools, and that ever-present division between the conscious mind and the unconscious (the watchman) completely dissolves by the poem’s end. Translating that book in particular, and also Four Hundred Men on the Cross, changed the way I read Michaux.

And then there’s Plume, the character he creates in Un certaine Plume, his most famous book, in 1930. Monsieur Plume is thought of as a sort of Michaux alter ego. The book is composed of fifteen short prose sketches. Plume wakes in a house without walls, he has all sorts of adventures, but mostly he sleeps and floats in and out of a waking state. Horrible things happen, but his reaction is to sleep, to wake and sleep. Michaux says he got the idea for Plume’s name from Edgar Allan Poe’s story, “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Feather.” “Plume”—Michaux names his alter ego a pen! No wonder he’s such an uncooperative, unreactive character.

Peter Schjeldahl called Michaux “a master of equivocation.” The shocks and pauses and accelerations of being, of existing—one senses that quite strongly while reading Michaux. The sense of being between states, as your question points out. And movement. And gesture.

Originally Published: November 18th, 2014

Born in San Antonio, poet Andrew Joron was raised in Germany, Massachusetts, and Montana. He earned a BA in the philosophy of science at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied with anarchist philosopher Paul Feyerabend. Addressing the trajectory of his work in a 2010 interview with poetry blogger...