Monday, January 25, 2010

journeys into the abyss

Guardian | Henri Michaux published three books between 1956 and 1959 dealing with his experiences with mescaline - Miserable Miracle, L'infini turbulent and Paix dans les brisements. He also confronted us with a disturbing series of sketches - most of them in black and white, and a few in colour - executed shortly after each of his experiences. His prose, his poems and his sketches are intimately related, for each medium of expression reinforces and illuminates the others. The sketches are not simply illustrations of the texts.

Michaux's painting has never been a mere adjunct to his poetry: the two are at once autonomous and complementary worlds. In the case of the "mescaline experience", lines and words form a whole almost impossible to break down into its component elements. Forms, ideas and sensations intertwine as though they were a single, dizzyingly proliferating entity. In a certain sense, the sketches, far from being illustrations of the written word, are a sort of commentary. The rhythm and the movement of the lines bring to mind a kind of curious musical notation, except that we are confronted not with a method of recording sounds but with vortexes, gashes, interweavings of being. Incisions in the bark of time, halfway between the ideograph and the magical sign, characters and forms "more palpable than legible", these sketches are a criticism of poetic and pictorial writing, that is to say, a step beyond the sign and the image, something transcending words and lines.

Painting and poetry are languages that Michaux has used to try to express something that is truly inexpressible. A poet first, he began to paint when he realised that this new medium might enable him to say what he had found it impossible to say in his poetry. But is it a question of expression? Perhaps Michaux has never tried to express anything. All his efforts have been directed at reaching that zone, by definition indescribable and incommunicable, in which meanings disappear. A centre at once completely empty and completely full, a total vacuum and a total plenitude. Michaux's oeuvre - his poems, his real and imaginary travels, his painting - is an expedition winding its way toward some of our infinities - the most secret, the most fearful, and at times the most derisive ones.

Michaux travels via his languages: lines, words, colours, silences, rhythms. And he does not hesitate to break the back of a word, the way a horseman does not hesitate to wind his mount. Language as a vehicle, but also language as a knife and a miner's lamp. Their utility is paradoxical, however, since they are not employed to foster communication, but rather pressed into the service of the incommunicable. The extraordinary tension of Michaux's language stems from the fact that it is an undoubtedly effective tool, but its sole use is to bare something that is completely ineffective by its very nature: the state of non-knowledge that is beyond knowledge, the thought that no longer thinks because it has been united with itself, total transparency, a motionless whirlwind.

Miserable Miracle opens with this phrase: "This book is an exploration. By means of words, signs, drawings. Mescaline, the subject explored." When I had read the last page, I asked myself whether the result of the experiment had not been precisely the opposite: the poet Michaux explored by mescaline. An exploration or an encounter? An encounter with mescaline: an encounter with our own selves, with the known-unknown. A great gift of the gods, mescaline is a window through which we look out upon endless distances where nothing ever meets our eye but our own gaze. There is no I: there is space, vibration, perpetual animation. Battles, terrors, elation, panic, delight: is it Michaux or mescaline? It was all already there in Michaux, in his previous books. Mescaline was a confirmation. Michaux can say: I left my life behind to catch a glimpse of life.

It all begins with a vibration. An imperceptible movement that accelerates minute by minute. Wind, a long screeching whistle, a lashing hurricane, a torrent of faces, forms, lines. Everything falling, rushing forward, ascending, disappearing, reappearing. A dizzying evaporation and condensation. Bubbles, more bubbles, pebbles, little stones. Rocky cliffs of gas. Lines that cross, rivers meeting, endless bifurcations, meanders, deltas, deserts that walk, deserts that fly. Disintegrations, agglutinations, fragmentations, reconstitutions. Shattered words, the copulation of syllables, the fornication of meanings. Destruction of language. Mescaline reigns through silence - and it screams! A return to vibrations, a plunge into undulations. Repetitions: mescaline is an "infinity-machine". Nothing is fixed. Avalanches, the kingdom of uncountable numbers, accursed proliferation. Gangrenous space, cancerous time.

Battered by the gale of mescaline, sucked up by the abstract whirlwind, the modern westerner finds absolutely nothing to hold on to. He has forgotten the names, God is no longer called God. The Aztec or the Tarahumara had only to pronounce the name, and immediately the presence would descend, in all its infinite manifestations. Unity and plurality for the ancients. For us who lack gods: pullulation and time. All we have left is "causes and effects, antecedents and consequences". Space teeming with trivialities. Miserable miracle.