Miserable Miracle By Henri Michaux
Originally published in France in 1956 ‘Miserable Miracle’ by Henri Michaux explores the author/artist’s experiences with mescaline; an hallucinogenic drug originally derived from the Peyote cactus. Translated into English in 1963 by Louise Varèse, this review has been written from the 2002 New York Review of Books edition and contains an introduction by Octavio Paz and includes addenda.
Henri Michaux (1899-1984) was a writer and artist born in Namur, Belgium. He travelled widely, through the Americas, Africa and Asia before settling in Paris, France. After the freak death of his wife in 1948 he began devoting himself to ink calligraphy drawings and, at regular intervals, he began taking mescaline.
During the post-war years, before the popularization of LSD, mescaline was being used as an experimental drug in clinical, artistic and intellectual circles. Its use spawned several literary explorations, most notably Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, a book that Michaux had already read before embarking on the publication his own book Miserable Miracle. He wrote three books about the mescaline experience of which this offering was the first.
Octavio Paz, in his introduction to the book, notes: “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 component elements.” The book is interlaced with several series of his drawings, the main body of the text is also supplemented by side notes and together the reader is confronted by a woven pattern of understanding. The style itself – this multiplicity of artistic perspectives – is extremely self-reflexive and has the effect of underpinning the very nature of Michaux’s experiences.
Historically speaking, Miserable Miracle is a bridge, of sorts, between the drug literature of the nineteenth century and the explosion of psychedelic literature in the 1960s. Whilst the language (in translation) bears many of the literary fruits of Baudelaire and De Quincey, its drug in question – mescaline – is phenomenologically closer to psychedelics than opiates and hashish. Indeed, to highlight this difference Michaux, in chapter IV, writes on Indian Hemp as “notes to serve as a comparison between two hallucinogens.” His use of ‘hallucinogen’ and references toward “experimental psychosis” is telling of a pre-psychedelic discourse; one that is more akin to psychology and of this transitional period.
Still, there are many phenomenological devices that can be found in both ancient drug texts, psychedelic texts and in Michaux’s writing. For example, the idea of precious stones and their bold colours: “Strident reds pass next to emphatic greens. It is an optical melodrama. The repulsive ones next. Precious stones in quantities, patently false, are an inexhaustible offering.” However, whereas writers like Jane Dunlap might perceive these objects to be highly representative of God, for example, Michaux retains a scepticism for at base his experience is of ‘hallucinations’. This why he can write “the state of schizophrenics should also be examined from this point of view.”
The mescaline-human experience is described as a transience through visual vibrations, fleeting transformations and a kaleidoscope of changing images. This is explicitly stated in many works of drug writing and, although Michaux himself ponders these ideas, it is in the rhythm of his writing that he ultimately best reflects it; with a high use of commas bringing in many ideas into a single sentence and the aforementioned combination of art and writing disseminating the transience into form.
“As for the Westerner today, so long an unbeliever in the gods and now incapable of imagining a form in which they might appear to him, what his mind grasps, the only god he can still conceive, a god it would be vain to worship, is infinite relativity, the unending cascade, the cascade of cause and effect, or rather of what goes before and of what comes after, where everything is driving wheel and follower wheel.”
One can see, from the above quote, how Michaux identifies the difference between Western and, what might be best described as, the shamanic understanding of visions. It was known at the time how Native Americans utilized Peyote animistically but, for Michaux, the psychologically different make-up of the Westerner’s mind proved a force for separation in the experience. For him, it was not about seeing the personification of the drug, or of nature, but rather the knowledge of process, of energy and of empiricism.
What of Michaux himself within the text? The destruction of one’s ego, the empathetic identification with nature and with totality are all important pointers in later psychedelic texts. For Michaux his Self was certainly shattered from its exterior consensual conception, for after three months: “Little by little I am finding myself again. Though not yet fully recuperated, I am getting farther from this drug which is not the drug for me. My drug is myself, which mescaline banishes.”
There are indicators, however, that this ego-shaking is not simply a destruction of Self, per se, and neither simply a literary construct, for the framework retains a point-of-leave. After one high dose, in conversation with ‘S’, he wrote “during our conversation I again noticed my fits of inattention.” To notice your own inattention is slightly paradoxical but it does pin-point the Self as being apart from the ego-shattering from which Michaux slowly finds himself again. Perhaps, speculatively, in an investigation into consciousness, here is identified a literary zone from which to explore it.
Miserable Miracle is beautifully written; its style is engaging and enlightening and coupled with the visual artwork it provides a brilliant insight into Michaux’s experiences with mescaline. The prose reveals a talent for communicating emotion and for revealing some of the phenomenology of the drug experience. Positioned between the drug writing of the nineteenth century and the psychedelic texts of the 1960s means Miserable Miracle is a vital work in understanding the evolution of the literary movement; for knowing its inspirations and its conceptual threads. Top class in every sense.