Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, translated by Gillian Conoley
Drug use among artists is no longer much of a surprise. If anything, it's usually taken for granted. Gone are days past when a writer or painter's admission that a particular work was undertaken after ingesting this or that substance might raise any sort of ruckus. In most American cities, a hash brownie snack is accepted as matter-of-factly as would be an apple strudel. The term "Psychedelic Art" handed down to us from the 1960s now appears distinctly antiquated, having more the feel of art commonly found in smoke shops and outdoor music festival booths. There's little expected from artwork so labeled. Henri Michaux's Thousand Times Broken: Three Books may be comprised of writing and art from 1956-1959 centered around his experimentation with mescaline, yet it easily exceeds initial expectations that fact might arouse.
Michaux experimented with altering his consciousness via mescaline in order to bear witness to the effects it might have upon his art. However, he did so with a critical self-consciousness that many of today's likewise experimenters with a penchant for viewing themselves as poets or artists would learn much from. As contradictory as the term may appear, Michaux's approach is one of scientific mysticism. He looks toward art as the opportunity for peeling away at the layers of individual human consciousness for study. His work is evidence of his quest for further depth of self-awareness beyond the mundane everyday experience.
During the recent book release reading for Thousand Times Broken at City Lights bookstore, translator Gillian Conoley focused heavily upon Michaux's visual art, showing several sets of slides from across his career. As she notes in her introduction to the text, late in life Michaux would
begin to work from the model of the Chinese ideogram, ultimately transmuting it into a new language of pure lines. In these pen and ink drawings, the human figure takes on the gestural aspect of the handwritten letter, and simultaneously seems to be running towards the next, in horizontal lines running left to right, as in an alphabetical text. Increasingly, letter, sign, and mark appear as human figure.
It's safe to wager that this aspect of Michaux's visual art serves as a guiding principle behind Conoley's organization of Thousand Times Broken. Although Michaux separately published each of its three books (Peace in the Breaking, Watchtowers on Targets, and 400 Men on Cross) in the years shortly after he completed them. When one reads them together, they do coalesce well as a triptych whose parts complimentarily suit each other as a whole. In this regard, Michaux's mescaline use takes a backseat to his greater subject: exploration of opening up the physical and mental confines of human consciousness as exemplified by visual art and written word.
All three books share in being a mixture of both art and poetry. Peace in the Breaking opens with a half dozen pages of terrifically reproduced line drawings split down the middle, as if a great fissure were being ruptured. In the final drawing, the lines have dissipated to a ghostly scattering of the original form to become the resemblance of a flock of birds alighting. Looking at these opening pages while the recent Israeli bombing of Gaza was underway, I immediately thought of that border war and the arbitrary political boundaries countries erect across landscape and community. Michaux's drawings explore divisions between conscious and unconscious regions of the mind spilling over into the immediacy of the viewer's own associations, ever relevant and active.
Following its opening set of drawings, Peace in the Breaking continues with a brief prose dissertation "the meaning of the drawings" which is then followed by a short statement "On the Subject of Peace in the Breaking" which leads into the poem "Peace in the Breaking" closing out the sequence. The drawings in the next book, Watchtowers on Targets, are not Michaux's, the book being his collaboration with artist friend Roberto Matta. The bombastic, mid-explosive spread of objects in Matta's art is mirrored by the ever-changing subjects, events, and relationships in between dizzily addressed within Michaux's text.
The final book of this triptych, 400 Men on Cross displays Michaux's religious struggle as addressed via drawings and poems manifesting human embodiments of Christ's suffering upon the cross. Along with several drawings of an exaggerated elongation of Christ upon the cross, Michaux engages in using differing typographical size and visual arrangement of text in a strikingly fresh manner to indicate the interrogation over self-identity and purpose at work in the lines. While this is certainly Michaux's personal confrontation with his faith, Conoley also relates that Raymond Ballour editor of the French edition of Michaux's poems "suggests that in this writing Michaux is preparing the body for further experiment in the mescaline texts." As one of Michaux's poems asks "MIGHT these drawings sometimes serve as a purging?", and answers itself "Who knows?", there is no certainty of intent behind the work. Michaux never appears interested in finality in any attainable sense.
For Michaux mescaline was never more than an experimental tool. He sought to determine whether it may be usefully utilized to achieve greater clarity of focus upon his already ongoing artistic pursuits. As Conoley's introduction records, in the end, he came down rather decidedly not much in its favor.
Michaux reportedly did not "like" the drug: "Should one speak of pleasure? It was unpleasant." By 1961, Michaux writes: "Drugs bore us with their paradises. Let them give us a little knowledge instead. This is not a century for paradise." Writing to his friend Octavio Paz, Michaux explains: "Devotees of the simple perspective may be tempted to judge all my writing as those of a drug addict. I regret to say that I am more the water-drinking type."
However, Michaux's experiences with mescaline did alter his perceptions and left him saddened in one regard, which he shares in conversation with poet John Ashbery (collected in Ashbery's Reported Sightings) in 1961: "...since mescaline I can no longer feel a sense of fraternity with animals. The spectacle of my own mind at work somehow made me more conscious of my mind. I can no longer feel empathy with a dog, because he hasn't one. It's sad." And as Octavio Paz comments in his introduction to Michaux's seminal mescaline text MisÚrable Miracle, it is more accurately the case to say that it was "the poet Michaux explored by mescaline" rather than vice versa.
Michaux's work provides a fascinating and unique glimpse of the inner workings of human consciousness yet somehow he himself manages remain at once outside of it. He's not alien, just other.
Thousand Times Broken: Three Books by Henri Michaux, translated by Gillian Conoley, illustrated by Roberto Matta