My Drug is Myself:
Henri Michaux Chants Entirely for You
by Henri Michaux
Review by Jeffery Beam
translated by Louise Landes Levi
Shivastan Publishing, $15
Paper, 87 pages
Henri Michaux's birth in a small Belgian village in 1899 belied nothing of his eventual
rise to prominence in international literary and artistic circles. At his death in Paris in
1984 Michaux had become not only the renowned author of exploratory hallucinogenic
works, but also a painter of revolutionary cosmic scratches - calligraphic disturbances
on the visual cortex rendered onto paper and canvas.
Michaux's writings rest in the realm of dreams, fantasies, and phantasm in which
he not only described psychological states through image, but also through the creation
of invented landscapes, personas, species, and histories that demonstrate rather than
describe the human muddle. He wrote from an interior void in which quantum
contradictions comfortably coexisted. As he states in the poem 'Double Life',
'I have allowed my enemy to grow within me.' The photographer Brassai, who was
a close friend, described Michaux as 'the powerful and solemn voice of a driven
man, at ease with himself.'
Michaux's bold experiences with mescaline and other drugs made him a champion
to the Beats, but he eschewed their path as he did that of the surrealists, a
movement which also deemed some claim on him. Michaux's confrontation with
the Other, with the unconscious, and the perils and revelations of dislocation and
disassociation rely on different approaches than either group. Perhaps it is more
truthful to say the depth of his work owes more to Buddhism, Vedanta, and a
gentlemanly 'Asian' restraint, than to any western literary movement. In fact,
Michaux used his explorations and his mind as objects to facilitate emptying
himself, just as mindfulness meditation leads one to be in the world but not of it,
and to be able to observe one's ego and self from a Gnostic distance. In the
western tradition one can easily compare Michaux to outsiders and visionaries
such as Kafka, Vallejo, Celan, Beckett, Inoesco, Andrade, Porchia, Rilke, and
even Genet and Artaud; but never Breton, Aragon, Ginsberg, or Kerouac. His
work embodies the poetic act in its purifying aspects. Antonio Porchia states it
aptly, 'He who has seen everything empty itself is close to knowing what
everything is filled with.'
Michaux liked the phrase 'monastery of the mind' by which Louise Landes Levi
once described his work to him. Levi's translation of Vers La Complétude
(Toward Totality), a selection of Michaux works personally compiled by Levi
with input from Michaux, Claudio Rugafiori, and even his archivist Franck
Lebovici, intends to illuminate his role as spiritual scientist, and even perhaps as
master. It's important to note that Michaux, himself, would clearly have refuted
any attempt to call himself a spiritual master, and Levi, in her writings, is careful
never to give him that nomer. It's an elegant image to use, however, for one who
could write in the poem 'Yantra', 'where the void itself is tied/where totality is
tied/where time and undivided space is tied/and the Original Egg floating on the
waves of/the Formless is tied.'
Whereas the surrealists and the Beats peered into the Other through a disordering
of social mores and a rebellion against authority, Michaux romanced Chaos with
the determined focus of an alchemist, and through a scientific and ordered study
as conscious and applied as Heidegger, Nietzsche, Rudolf Steiner, Linnaeus, or
the ancient Vedic sages. He strode confidently into the unknown, experimenting
with the language of the psyche and alienation as explained in the preface to his
For those who have understood, the poems at the beginning of this book are
made not in precise hatred of this, or that, but to deliver myself from
bondage, to keep in check the surrounding powers of a hostile world.
Sounding the fruits of his research, in 'We Others' Michaux affirms his role as
metaphysical outsider and mystical hero-explorer: 'To take the void in one's
hand/ - To be stripped of everything,/To sweat one's own heart/Rejected in
the desert.' After the death of his wife in a tragic fire, he plunged even more deeply
into personal physical suffering and psychic displacement in order to grasp what he
called in the poem 'On the Street of Death' 'the Opaque'.
Metaphysics and mysticism certainly occupy a place in the surrealist and Beat
philosophies, but Ginsberg's or Breton's transcendence, born from a revolutionary
aggressiveness uncharacteristic of Michaux, embraced the cult of personality - and
the public enthusiasms propelling it. Their transcendence, born of overflow,
contrasts with Michaux's, born of attrition and extraction. Aside from the Beat stream
that gave birth to Snyder, Whalen, and Alan Watts, one is hard pressed to think of
any surrealist or Beat in whom ego did not lustfully blaze. Perhaps Watts is the
closest to Michaux among the Beats, but then Watts virtually became more of an
eastern mystic than Beat psychologist.
Michaux's apotheosis, however, was discerningly self-aware, humane, humble,
practically self-denying - even Buddha-like - in its confrontation with ego and
inner light. Yet Michaux never did become solely eastern in his outlook,
remaining quintessentially western. Notoriously protective of his privacy,
Michaux's suffering is never a re-making of self, but rather a revelation of the I
Am. In 'I Am Gong' he asserts, 'I have not, in fact, become hard but
striped -/I am gong and cotton and snow-like song.' And in the poem 'In Truth',
much like the Buddha he utters, 'I am the good road that turns back no one.'
One realizes that these declarations are not braggadocio or grand-standing, bur
rather sincere and forthright assessments of his personal ethics.
Levi's loving translation gives us a Michaux certainly under-acknowledged
by most other translators and critics. One notable exception is L. A.
Velinsky in From the Gloom of Today to New Greatness of Man
(Vantage Press, 1977) which is perhaps the most complete work in English so
far to attempt to understand and explicate Michaux's complete works, and gives
credence to Levi's mystic Michaux. Velinsky sums up Michaux thusly:
Where does he take us from the dust of passivity, apathy, and mediocrity?
- Toward the myth of a new man, who will emerge from the cruelties,
absurdities, and mediocrities of our unhappy era. He dreams about a man pure
and free of all vermin, strong in heart and dream - not only in brain and body –
a man in harmony with nature, the earth, the universe, and himself…which
he often sums up by the expression 'the essential.'
Levi met Michaux in the mid-1970s when he was 76 years old. She arrived at
his door after an invitation in response to a letter she had written him.
Neighbors, a friendship developed, and she eventually shared with him
decades of accumulated translations, including many of his poems. He hired
her as an English teacher while encouraging her in translating René
Daumal and Mirabai - both which eventually brought recognition to her skills
as poet and translator. They found a mutual ground in a love of Sanskrit and Pali
(Theravada Buddhist) chant. He frequently asked her at the end of a visit to
sing refuge chants (chants in which the supplicant seeks refuge in the Buddha
or certain precepts of Buddhism).
During this time, too, he made additional suggestions of his poems for Levi to
translate, including the choice of 'Yantra', using a complete selected works in
French as a model. In a sort of unofficial introduction to Toward Totality,
'How I Came to Meet and Work with Henri Michaux', that appears in the online
magazine Milk [www.milkmag.com] and was solicited by Nancy Peters of City
Lights, Levi states, 'I translated Michaux with Michaux in his beautiful room on
Avenue Suffren. Michaux and Claudio Rugafiori accepted me and transformed
my eccentricity and sensibility into a pure literary concentration.' Michaux once
said of her that, 'others bring knives to the house but you bring roses.' If not
actually shepherding Levi through the translations of his works, he nevertheless
advised and sometimes edited them over twice-weekly conversations. Over the
years she continued to rework them. Her first publication of them, three days after
his death in 1984, came too late for Michaux to enjoy. He had agreed with most
of Levi's selections for the book, added others, while Levi retained some of the
poems he had not selected. This edition of Toward Totality includes
facsimiles of some of Michaux's handwritten corrections to Levi's translations.
There are some, I suspect, who won't appreciate, and might even take issue with
Levi's Michaux in Toward Totality. But Michaux would, I think, have
been the first to encourage as many views of his writings as possible - with
insect eyes - so to speak. This fits with his dictum, as stated in the title poem,
Michaux's great paean to non-duality and masterpiece of spiritual seeking, 'A
space is given / when all spaces are withdrawn'.
Michaux's hermeticism, conceived in the dissonant recognitions of being,
pulled from experimentation with drugs, through adventure and traveling in alien
countries, formed diagrammic sentences of wonder. He ultimately considered
his experiments with drugs as a dead end, stating in Miserable Miracle, one
of his works on his mescaline experiments translated by Louise Varèse,
'My drug is myself, which mescaline banishes.'
Always attracted to the eastern intuitive sciences of consciousness, in the end he
seemed most illuminated within its open calm of perennial silence and it-ness
- while his surfaces continued to teem with the thousand things, the rack and
discontinuous engorgement of the senses, and their dissection. Michaux
exemplifies what we so much lack in American poetry or refuse to celebrate,
infinity's embraceable you - the contradictions of dissolution and resurrection –
cosmogony liberated by mind. From the poem 'Saint':
And circulating in my cursed body, I came upon a region where parts of my self
were truly rare and where in order to live it was necessary to be a saint…/I would
have had the possibility, yes! But to be backed into it, that is unbearable to me.
Michaux's work is singularly without theatrical show or excess and contains an
abundance of good-natured humility, self-deprecation, humor, and common sense
even when he is inventing other worlds and beings. The poems' freshness is
never deliberately obfuscating. His mysteries are the mysteries of a simple man,
a primitive aesthete. However, his work is hard to explicate and must be
discerned, as true with many spiritual texts, by a radical and intuitive opening of
mind/body/heart. Thus the translator's job may lead to some puzzles, since
Michaux's writing are so deliberately imagination-bound that they work, they
reveal themselves, only personally through the reader and the reader's interpretation.
Levi sensitively conveys the cloudy edges of Michaux poems - their black holes,
their opening into voids. The long title poem 'Toward Totality' although more
abstract that much of Michaux's work, begins 'To receive/To receive/The
enchantment of receiving/secretly without end/the Impalpable to
receive/BIRTHDAY OF THE ILLUMINATION.' It closes declaring
'Omniscience in all consciousnesses / perceiving the perpetual.'
Toward Totality is a lovely little book, patterned after many other
Shivastan publications, and designed to specifications agreed upon years
ago with Michaux for an earlier failed planned edition. Craft-printed on
handmade paper in Nepal, hand sewn, limited, and numbered, it feels modest
and treasure-like. However there are a few production values that are troubling -
some dates appear haphazardly given, and there are too many typos, dropped
letters, extra spaces, and punctuation problems – all, I imagine, complicated by
being printed in Nepal. But these quibbles seem minor compared to the contents
therein. The frontispiece shows Michaux at about the age of ten with a toy
hoop - the future sage holding the world circle in hand. The book includes
facsimiles of Michaux's own corrections to some of the translations, and some
drawings from the original French edition of Miserable Miracle.
The cover of Toward Totality quotes the poem 'Short Cut Ideas' and
asks, 'Will we soon bomb the angels?' The later poems, such as 'Yantra' and
'The Days, The Days, The End of Days' are, as Levi acknowledges in her
afterword, visionary and magnetizing; but I think the poem 'To Act I Am
Coming' from the 1950s sums up the liberating impulse behind Michaux's
Like a deep chant
This chant holds you
This chant lifts you
This chant is animated by many streams
This chant is nourished by a calmed Niagara
This chant is entirely for you
No more tongs
No more dark shadow
No more fears
There is no more trace of them
There are no more to be had
Where there was punishment, there is wading
Where there was dispersion, there is soldering
Where there was infection there is new blood
Where there were bolts is the open ocean
The carrier ocean and the fullness of yourself
Intact, like an ivory egg.
I have bathed the face of your future.