Translated by Richard Sieburth

“Plume,” 1938

I have, more than once, felt my father “pass” through me. Which immediately raised my hackles. I have lived against my father (and against my mother and against my grandfather, grandmother, and great-grandparents); having never made their acquaintance, I have not been able to fight against my more distant forebears.

In so doing, what unknown ancestor have I allowed to go on living within me?

For the most part, I did not follow the beaten path. In so doing, what unknown ancestor’s path might I have followed? What group, what ancestral average might I have followed? I was constantly changing directions, sometimes it was I who gave them the runaround, sometimes vice versa. A number of them barely had the time to 
appear in a flash, then to vanish. Some would only appear in a given climate, in a given place, in a given position, never elsewhere. So 
numerous, so rapid, so conflicted was their appearance — another major problem — that I never knew exactly whom to lean on.

One is born of too many Mothers. — (Ancestors: simple chromosomes, bearers of moral tendencies, what does it matter?) And then the ideas of others, of my contemporaries, everywhere telephoned through space, and my friends, my attempts to imitate or “to go up against.”

I would have nonetheless wanted to be the respected head of a laboratory, to be someone considered as having successfully overseen the operations of my “self.”

Dispersed, in tatters, I held my own, and there was never anybody in charge, or if there was, I immediately dismissed him. He irritated me right off the bat. Was it he who let me drop? Was it me who told him to get lost? Was it me who held myself back?

The young puma is born with spots. After which, he moves 
beyond his markings. This is the force the puma exercises against his ancestors, but he never moves beyond his hunger for meat, his 
playfulness, his cruelty.

For too many thousands of years, he has been dealing with his 

self makes itself up out of everything. A shift of inflection within a phrase, is this another self attempting to make its appearance? If the yes is mine, is no a second me?

Self is never more than provisional (changing as it does when faced with somebody else, an ad hominem self changing when set in another language, another art), always bearing within it a new 
persona, a new character which the slightest accident, the slightest emotion, the slightest blow to the head will liberate to the exclusion of the previous self and which, to general astonishment, often emerges, formed instantaneously — therefore already having taken complete shape beforehand.

One is perhaps not made for a single self. One is perhaps wrong to cling to this. One takes unity for granted. (Here, as elsewhere, it is our will that impoverishes us, sacrifices us.)

In a doubled, tripled, quintupled life, one would be more at ease, less corroded, less paralyzed by the hostility of the subconscious toward the conscious (the hostility of all those other “selves” that have been dispossessed).

What wears one down the most over the course of a day or a lifetime is the effort and the tension necessary to maintain an identical self faced with the continuous temptations to alter it.

One wants too much to be someone.

There is no single self. There are not ten selves. There is no self. self is but a point of equilibrium. (One among a thousand others, always possible, always at the ready.) An averaged “self,” a crowd movement. In the name of the many, I sign this book.

But was this something I wanted? That we wanted?

There was pressure (vis a tergo). A force from the rear.

And then? I threw it out there. I was somewhat disconcerted.

Every one of the tendencies within me had its own will, just as every thought that presents and organizes itself has its own will. Was this will mine? Many wills inhabit me, this person, that person, a friend, a great man out of the past, Gautama Buddha, many other figures, many lesser figures, Pascal, Ernest Hello? Who knows?

The will of the majority? The will of the most cohesive group?

I did not wish to be devoid of will. What I willed, it seems to me, went against myself, given that I didn’t wish to will and that nonetheless I did will.

...    Crowd, I managed as best I could amid the movements of my crowd. Given that everything is a crowd, every thought, every instant. Everything past, everything interrupted, everything transformed, 
everything is something else. Nothing ever definitively circumscribed, nor susceptible to being so. Everything: a relation. Mathematics, symbols, music. Nothing fixed. Nothing on the order of property.

My images? Relations.

My thoughts? But thoughts are perhaps precisely that which runs counter to the “self” — losses of equilibrium (phase 2), or recoveries of equilibrium (phase 3) within the movement of “thinking.” But phase 1 (equilibrium) remains unknown, unconscious.

The true, deep flow of thinking no doubt takes place without conscious thought, and without image. The perceived equilibrium (phase 3) is the worst, the one which after a while strikes everybody as loathsome. The history of Philosophy is the history of the false points of conscious equilibrium that have been adopted in succession. And then: is it by the tip of “flames” that fire is to be understood?

Let’s be wary of following an author’s thought (even though this author be of the stripe of Aristotle),* let’s rather attend to what he has in mind, what he is getting at, the mark that his desire to dominate and influence, however well hidden, attempts to impress upon us.

Besides, what does he know about his thought? He is quite ill-informed about it. (Just as the eye knows not what composes the greenness of the leaf which it nonetheless sees with such clarity.)

He does not know the components of his thought; he might sometimes be aware of the initial ones; but the second ones? the third ones? the tenth ones? No, nor the distant ones, nor the surrounding ones, nor the determining ones, nor the “AHAs!” of his era (which the lowliest high school teacher three hundred years down the line will recognize as obvious).

His intentions, his passions, his libido dominandi, his mythomania, his irritability, his need to be right, to triumph, to seduce, to astonish, to believe and make others believe in whatever he so pleases, to cheat, to deceive himself as to his appetites and his disgusts, his complexes and his entire life tuned, without his even knowing it, to his organs, to his glands, to the hidden life of his body, to his physical deficiencies, everything remains unknown to him.

His “logical” thought? Well, it circulates within a casing of paralogical and analogical ideas, a path striking out directly by cutting though circular routes, seizing (one only seizes by cutting) the bloody stumps of this so richly vascularized world. (Every garden is rough on trees.) The false simplicity of primary truths (in metaphysics), followed by an extreme multiplicity, which remain to be conveyed.

At a single point, willpower and thought flow together, inseparable, and falsify each other. Thought-willpower.

At a single point as well, the examination of thought falsifies thought, just as in microphysics the observation of light (the trajectory of the photon) falsifies it.

All progress, each new observation, each thought, each creation seems to create (along with light) a zone of darkness.

All knowledge creates fresh ignorance.

All consciousness, a new unconsciousness.

Every new contribution creates a new nothingness.

Reader, what you hold here, as is often the case, is a book not made by its author, even though an entire world went into it. And so what?

Signs, symbols, élans, pratfalls, departures, relations, discordances, 
everything figures within it — to pick oneself back up from the ground, to go on looking, to seek further, elsewhere.

Amid these things, refusing to settle down, the author grew a life.

Couldn’t you also perhaps try to do likewise?


*Thought is less crucial than the perspective from which it arises.
Translated from the French

“Postface” is from Plume by Henri Michaux © Editions Gallimard, 1963. Translation © Richard Sieburth, 2018. Published in English by NYRB Poets.

Source: Poetry (May 2018)
More Poems by Henri Michaux