December 3, 2022
Henri Michaux (Belgium) 1899-1984
Henri Michaux (Belgium)
Henri Michaux was born in Namur, Belgium in 1899 to a middle-class family. From early childhood, Michaux demonstrated some of the tendencies which were to define his entire life: food disgusted him, and he shunned games, amusements, and other children. He also suffered from anemia. Also in those early years, as throughout his life, he became interested and terrified by his dreams, particularly his dreams without images or words, what he called "motionless" dreams.
In 1906 his was sent to the country, to a little village in Campine near Holland. His classes were in Flemish and his classmates were the sons of poor peasants. He remained secretive, withdrawn, and, mostly, ashamed─ashamed of being who he was and ashamed of everything around him.
At age 12 he moved to Brussels, attending a Jesuit school. But here he felt more at home, and discovered the pleasures of the dictionary. With his father's prodding, he became interested in Latin and in music. The five years of German Occupation in World War I, however, continued to isolate him, and he retreated into a world of reading: bizarre writers, the lives of saints and mystics such as Ernest Hello and Ruysbroek.
In 1919 he attended medical school, but did not show up for the final exams, and abandoned a medical career. The following year, Michaux shipped out as a sailor on a schooner, beginning the travels which would continue throughout his life. Throughout 1920 and into 1921, he traveled throughout the world, visiting the ports of Bremen, Savannah, Norfolk, Newport News, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York. His return to Brussels in 1922 brought on a new sense of despair and disgust, and at the end of that year he moved to Paris, where he began writing.
Michaux's writings and art are all set against literary and artistic stereotypes, as he sought in his work a visionary focus which followed the inner movements of the unconscious and, at times, hallucinatory world. His first book, Qui je fus (Who I Was) is just such a work in which Michaux explored enigmas and apparent contradictions in his own life. Mes propriétés of 1929 is, in many ways, a precursor of Beckett in its presentation of alienated man, its absurd humor and its struggle with the psychologies of its characters (presented in both poetry and prose).
In the same year, Michaux traveled to Ecuador, recounting in his book of that title, his journey from the Andes to the Amazon. The result was an often-times abrasive and unillusioned presentation of what romantics and exoticists had expressed before him. Un Barbare en Asie (A Barbarian in Asia), is, on the other hand, a joyful and rhapsodic recounting of his encounters with the various Indians, Malays, Chinese, Indonesians, and Japanese of his voyage.
In 1938 Gallimard published his Plume, précédé de Lointain intérieur, continuing the adventures of his comic, absurdist hero, Plume, who awakens in a room without walls, dines on food not on the menu, and travels─despite being thrown off a train and into the ship's hold─feeling fortunate for his ability to do so.
During World War II, he and his wife suffered from the shortages of food, which he had once found so disgusting. His wife contracted tuberculosis, and throughout the next couple of years, they traveled to Egypt and elsewhere in hopes of a cure. Then, in 1948, his wife died suddenly "as a result of atrocious burns."
Perhaps his masterwork is Ailleurs (1948), written the same year. It is a work described by the author as "buffer-states" situated between external observation and interest obsession. This trilogy is reminiscent of the works of Swift, Huxley, and other dystopian works.
In the early 1950s, Michaux withdrew for a while from writing, spending more time on his painting. But in 1954, he published one of his major works, Face aux verrous (Facing the Locks), which contained a long prose poem on the death of his wife and several works that, in their hallucinatory quality, foretell of his later experimentation with drugs. Michaux's book of aphorisms and other texts, Poteaux d'angle (1981), was published in English as Tent Posts by Green Integer in 1997.
He died at the age of 85.
BOOKS OF POETRY
Qui je fus (Paris: Gallimard, 1927); Mes propriétés (Paris: Fourcade, 1929); Un Certain Plume (Paris: Carrefour, 1930); La Nuit remue (Paris: Gallimard, 1935; revised, 1967); Plume, précédé de Lointain intérieur (Paris: Gallimard, 1938; revised, 1967); Au pays de la magie (Paris: Gallimard, 1938; revised, 1967); Épreuves, exorcismes 1940-44 (Paris: Gallimard, 1945); Liberté d'Action (Paris: Fontaine, 1945); Apparitions (Paris: Point du Jour, 1946); Ici Poddema (Lausanne: Mermod, 1946); Ailleurs (Paris: Gallimard, 1948; revised, 1967); La Vie dan les plis (Paris: Gallimard, 1949); Poésie pour pouvoir (Paris: Drouin, 1949); Passages 1937-1950 (Paris: Gallimard, 1950; revised, 1963); Mouvements (Paris: Gallimard, 1952); Face aux verrous (Paris: Gallimard, 1954; revised, 1967); Paix dans les brisements (Paris: Flinker, 1959); Vers la complétude (Saisie et dessaisies) (Paris: GLM, 1967); Moments: Traversées du temps (Paris: Gallimard, 1973); Choix de poèmes (Paris: Gallimard, 1976); Chemins cherchés, Chemains perdus, Transgressions (Paris: Gallimard, 1981); Déplacements dégagements (Paris: Gallimard, 1985).
ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATIONS
The Space Within: Selected Writings, 1927-1959 (New York: New Directions, 1951); Henri Michaux: Selections, trans. by Teo Savory (Santa Barbara, California: Unicorn Press, 1967); The Selected Writings of Henri Michaux, trans. by Richard Ellmann (New York: New Directions, 1968); Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984, trans. by David Ball (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Toward Totality: Selected Works, 1929-1973, trans. by Louise Landes Levi (Shivastan, 2006); Yantra-As Insert to Tantra Song, trans. by Louise Landes Levi (Siglio, 2011); Thousand Times Broken: Three Books, Gillian Conoley, trans. (San Francisco: City Lights, 2014).
For another biography and a selection of his poems, go here: