Thousand Times Broken by Henri Michaux
Thousand Times Broken is comprised of 3 never-before-translated books by Henri Michaux, originally written between 1956-1959. Undertaken while the author experimented with mescaline, ‘Peace in the Breaking’, ‘Watchtowers on Targets’, and ‘400 Men on the Cross’, reveal the creative output of a deeply experimental artist and writer. Gillian Conoley’s translation is accompanied by a thoughtful introduction, and all three of Michaux’s visionary works are in both their original French and in new English translation.
Belgian-born Henri Michaux (1899-1984) is difficult to classify as a creative person, he crossed avant-garde boundaries, and turned his hand to both drawing and numerous forms of writing, including poetry, travelogues, and essays. Consistently, however, his work was an exploration of consciousness, or rather the liminal edge zones of consciousness, and although his experiments in finding a universal language – a combination of marks, signs, words and alike – was ultimately seen by the artist as a failure, his work is an insightful adventure into possibility.
“As in all his work, in these three books we find Michaux seeking to wrestle himself from the familiarity of his own consciousness through an adopted or induced experience: travel, mescaline, journeys into imagined worlds of creatures or beasts, Western or Eastern spirituality. These ventures into consciousness are relentlessly explored from his first book to his last” (Michaux 8)
Michaux spent 11 years, on and off, experimenting with mescaline. The dominant scientific paradigm during this period – 1950s – for understanding the action of hallucinogens was the psychotomimetic, literally ‘to mimic psychosis’. In literary terms, Michaux also followed the grander French tradition of drug writing and examined the effects through a sensory confusion, a derangement of sensory understanding. These two styles perfectly underpinned Michaux’s mescaline projects – 6 books on the topic in all – and also stretched out into his project to capture consciousness. Peace in the Breaking, the first featured book in this collection, comes directly from his mescaline experimentation, and like his more famous work Miserable Miracle, is a combination of drawings, prose, and poetry:
“Fragmented thoughts that will remain so, individual, ungovernable, unusable, intractable, impermanent, apparitional, lost as quickly as they appear, not remaining, not preparing anything, impossible to direct, to resume, to place otherwise, to find again, to dream over, impossible to note within their wild ejection, sometimes malicious, but always innocent, never strategists, impudent, but incredibly dazzling, clarifying, thoughts that pass into a syntactical nothingness, which one does very well without . . .as long as one does not attempt to write” (Michaux 47)
There is an overarching fluidity that, in one sense, Michaux tries to capture as an essence of consciousness, often facing the past and the future and making the present elusive. On the other hand, it is this observation of fluidity that ultimately makes Michaux’s project futile as a method of capturing the experience. There can be no static conception of a consciousness forever in a state of becoming, which has serious Bergsonian overtones. The result is a form of expressionism that is multi-levelled in terms of method – prose, poetry, and drawing – and that in itself becomes most valuable as a work of art, a cultural and personal expression that links the mescaline experience across disciplinary boundaries, and makes a serious attempt at breaking new narrative ground.
The second work translated by Gillian Conoley, Watchtowers on Targets (1959), is an extension of Michaux’s inter-stylistic approach. Michaux and his friend Roberto Matta, a Chilean abstract surrealist, collaborated on the project, with the latter providing images from which Michaux would write, and vice versa. Conoley notes: “What remains central throughout the book is the activity of the eye in the flux of perception, in the rapid-fire correspondence between the visual and the verbal as supplied by Matta and Michaux” (Michaux 16). In terms of the consciousness project, the collaboration begins to explore the inter-subjective, which is neatly shadowed by the drawing/text combination. It reveals an intricate emotional resonance between the watcher and the watched.
“260: A litte black angel, no bigger than a slowworm, a tiny body with seven delicate whips (no need for wings, he’s so crazily swift), and so devilishly alert, hanging in the air, the little angel, fit, casual, hyperactive, has appeared behind the cross. Into the ear of the crumpled figure, he mutters the Secret of Life. With a deft tremor, the message is transmitted. It is done. Now, it is for the crucified man to decide, for fate . . .” (Michaux 147)
The above quote is taken from the final translated work Four Hundred Men on the Cross (1956). The text, structured via a series of small prose passages, is described as being amongst his most “haunting and enigmatic”, and displays various snap shots of the crucifixion. The human body is central to the exploration, but within the fleeting conceptions of consciousness, the body-image becomes distorted and unfixed. The reader is asked to switch between seeing and reading, and the effect is to keep the mind alert to the shifting nature without letting any single image become too static. As a portrait of Christ, in which Michaux stands within a long literary tradition of depicting, there stands up foremost a personal, immanent Christ, as opposed to simply a transcendental symbol, or abstraction. The effect is extremely engaging.
Ultimately, Conoley has done a very important service to English students of literature and the drug writing tradition by translating these works for the first time. A fantastic effort that, by displaying the original French as well, leaves the text as open as perhaps Michaux always intended his works to be.