My Drug is Myself:
Henri Michaux Chants Entirely for You

Toward Totality
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 collection Exorcisms:

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 [] 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 oeuvre:

Like a deep chant
I come
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.