henri michaux’s vision of art-as-exorcism

From Ordeals, Exorcisms  

The title of this little collection of poems and prose texts (121 pages in the original edition) could define much of Michaux’s work. Its Preface is particularly important: in it, he explains the function of art-as-exorcism and its reason for being: “to ward off the surrounding powers of the hostile world.” As in Facing the Locks, a collection he published almost ten years later, some of the texts in Ordeals, Exorcisms reflect, more clearly than usual, a reality outside the self—in this case, the Nazi Occupation of Europe. If Michaux’s basic situation is one of exploring the sicknesses of the self inside a room, there are times when the outside world will come to resemble the prison of a sick man’s room: from 1940 to 1944, all of France seemed to be transformed into a prison or a hospital.  

  

This work also reflects the poet’s continuing preoccupation with inner space, the field of consciousness, the imagination and its monsters . . . Most of it could have been produced at any period of Michaux’s career.

 

—from Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927–1984. Selected, translated, and presented by David Ball. University of California Press, 1994.  

  

 

  

Preface 

It would be truly extraordinary if perfect harmony emerged from the thousands of events that occur every year. There are always a few that stick in your throat; you keep them inside yourself; they hurt.  


One of the things you can do: exorcism.
 


Every situation means dependency, hundreds of dependencies. It would be unheard-of if this state of affairs were perfectly satisfying or if a man—however active he might be—could really fight against all these dependencies effectively.
 


One of the things you can do: exorcism.
 


Exorcism, a reaction in force, with a battering ram, is the true poem of the prisoner.
 


In the very space of suffering and obsession, you introduce such exaltation, such magnificent violence, welded to the hammering of words, that the evil is progressively dissolved, replaced by an airy demonic sphere—a marvelous state!
 


Many contemporary poems, poems of deliverance, also have an effect of exorcism, but of exorcism through subterfuge. Through the subterfuge of our subconscious nature that defends itself with an appropriate imaginative elaboration: Dreams. Through planned or exploratory subterfuge, searching for its optimum point of application: waking Dreams.
 


Not only dreams but an infinity of thoughts exists in order to allow us “to get by,” and even some philosophical systems were essentially exorcistic, although they thought they were something else entirely.

Their effect is similarly liberating, but their nature is quite different.

Nothing here of that rocketing surge, impetuous and seemingly super-human, of the exorcism. Nothing of that kind of gun turret that takes shape at those moments when the object to be driven away, rendered as it were electrically present, is beaten back by magic.


This vertical, explosive rush upward is one of the great moments of existence. The exercise cannot be recommended enough to those who despite themselves live in unhappy dependence. But it is hard to start the motor—only near-despair will do the trick.

The understanding reader will realize that the poems at the beginning of this book were not made out of hatred of one thing or another, but to shake off overpowering influences.
 


Most of the following texts are in a sense exorcisms through subterfuge. Their reason for being:to ward off the surrounding powers of the hostile world.
 

Voices 

I heard a voice in those unhappy days and I heard: “I shall reduce them, these men, I shall reduce them and already they are reduced although they don’t realize it yet. I shall reduce them to so little that there will be no way of telling man from woman and already they are no longer what they once were, but since their organs can still interpenetrate they still think themselves different, one this, the other that. But so terribly shall I make them suffer that there will no longer be any organ that matters. I shall leave them only their skeletons, a mere line of their skeleton for them to hang their unhappiness on. They’ve run enough! What do they still need legs for? Their movements are small, small! And it will be much better that way. Just as a statue in a park makes only one gesture, whatever may happen, even so shall I petrify them—but smaller, smaller.”
 
 

 

I heard that voice, I heard it and I shuddered, but not all that much, because I admired it, for its dark determination and its vast though apparently senseless plan. That voice was only one voice among hundreds, filling the top and bottom of the atmosphere and the East and the West, and all of them were aggressive, wicked, hateful, promising a sinister future for man.  


But man, panicky in one place, calm in another, had reflexes and calculations in case of hard times, and he was ready, although he might generally have appeared hunted and ineffectual.
 


He who can be tripped up by a pebble had already been walking for two hundred thousand years when I heard the voices of hatred and threats which meant to frighten him.
 

The Letter 

I am writing to you from aland that was once full of light. I am writing you from the land of the cloak and shadow. For years and years, we’ve been living on the Tower of the flag at half-mast. Summer! Poisoned summer! And since then it has always been the same day, day of the encrusted memory . . . 


The hooked fish thinks of the water as long as he can. As long as he can, isn’t that natural? You reach top of a mountain slope and you’re hit by a pike-thrust. Afterward your whole life changes. One instant smashes in the door of the Temple.
 


We ask each other for advice. We don’t know any more. One doesn’t know any more than the other. This one is frantic, that one nonplussed. All of us at a loss. Calm exists no longer. Wisdom lasts no longer than an inspiration.
Tell me: with three arrows shot into his cheek, who would walk around looking natural?  
 

 


Death took some of us. Prison, exile, hunger, hardship took the others. Great sabers of shuddering slashed through us, then everything base and sneaky passed through us.
 


Who on our soil still feels the kiss of joy in the very bottom of his heart?
 


The union of wine and the self is a poem. The union of self and woman is a poem. The union of heaven and earth is a poem, but the poem we have heard has paralyzed our understanding.


Our song in unbearable grief could not be uttered. The art of carving in jade has stopped. Clouds go by, clouds shaped like rocks, clouds shaped like peaches, and as for us, we too go by like clouds, full of the vain powers of suffering.


We no longer like the day. It howls. We no longer like the night, haunted by worries. A thousand voices to sink into. No voice to lean on. Our skin is sick of our pale faces.


Vast events. The night, too, is vast, but what can it do? The thousand stars of night can’t light a single bed.
Those who knew no longer know. They jump with the train, they roll with the wheel.
 

 


“Stay within oneself?” Don’t even think about it! On the island of parrots, no house is isolated. In the fall, villainy showed its face. The pure is not pure. It shows its stubbornness, its vindictiveness. Some can be seen yelping. Others can be seen ducking out of the way. But grandeur is nowhere to be seen.
 
 

 

The secret ardor, the farewell to truth, the silence of stone slabs, the scream of the knife victim, the world of frozen rest and burning feelings has been our world and the road of the puzzled dog our road.


We could not recognize ourselves in the silence, we could not recognize ourselves in the screams, nor in our caverns, nor in the gestures of foreigners. Around us, the countryside is indifferent and the sky has no purpose.
 
 

 

We have looked at ourselves in the mirror of death. We have looked at ourselves in the mirror of the sullied seal, of flowing blood, of decapitated surging, in the grimy mirror of humiliations.
 
 

 

We have gone back to the glaucous springs.

Labyrinth

Life, a labyrinth, death, a labyrinth
Labyrinth without end, says the Master of Ho.

      Everything hammers down, nothing liberates.
The suicide is born again to new suffering.

      The prison opens on a prison
The corridor opens another corridor:

      He who thinks he is unrolling the scroll of his life
Is unrolling nothing at all.

      Nothing comes out anywhere
The centuries, too, live underground, says the Master of Ho.

After My Death

I was transported after my death, I was transported not into a closed space, but into the immense vacuum of the ether. Far from being depressed by this immense opening in all directions as far as the eye could see, in the starry sky, I pulled myself together and pulled together all that I had been and all I was just about to be, and finally all I had planned to become (in my secret inner calendar), and squeezing the whole thing together, my good qualities too, and even my vices, as a last rampart, I made myself a shell out of all this.
 
 

 

Around this nucleus, energized by anger, but by a clean anger no longer based on blood, cold and whole, I set about playing porcupine, in a supreme act of defense, in an ultimate refusal.
 
 

 

Then, the vacuum, the larvae of the vacuum that were already extending their soft pockets tentacularly toward me, threatening me with an abject endosmosis—the larvae, astonished after a few futile attempts on this prey that refused to give in, retreated in confusion and disappeared from view, leaving alive the man who deserved it so much.
 
 

 

Free, henceforth, on this front, I used my power of the moment, the exaltation of the unhoped-for victory, to weigh towards Earth, and repenetrated my motionless body, which the sheets and blanket had luckily prevented from growing cold.
 
 

 

With surprise, after this struggle of mine which outdid the efforts of giants, with surprise and joy mixed with disappointment I came back to the narrow closed horizons where human life, to be what it is, must be lived.

In the Company of Monsters

It soon became clear (from my adolescence on) that I had been born to live among monsters. For a long time they were terrible, then they ceased being terrible and after great virulence they weakened little by little. Finally they became inactive and I lived among them in serenity.

 

 

 

 

 

This was the time when others, still unsuspected, began to form and one day would come before me, active and terrible (for if they were to come and spring up only to be idle and kept on leash, do you think they would ever come?), but after filling the whole horizon with darkness they began to weaken and I lived among them in serenity, unperturbed, and this was a fine thing, especially since it had come close to being so hateful, almost fatal.

 

 

 

 

And they who at first had been so excessive, repulsive, disgusting, took on such delicate contours that despite their impossible forms, one would almost have classed them as a part of nature.
 
 

 

Age was doing this. Certainly. And what was the clear sign of this inoffensive stage? It’s quite simple. They no longer had eyes. With the organs of detection washed away, their faces—although monstrous in form—their heads their bodies were no more disturbing than the form of the cones, spheres, cylinders or volumes that nature displays in its rocks, its pebbles and in many other domains.

The Monster Lobe

After my third relapse, through inside vision I saw my brain all sticky and in folds, macroscopically I saw its lobes and centers, none of which were functioning any more, and instead, I expected to see pus or tumors forming inside there.
 
 

 

As I was searching for a lobe that might still be healthy, I saw one, unmasked by the shrinkage of the others. It was at the height of its activity and a very dangerous activity too, for it was a monster lobe. The more I saw it, the more certain I was.
 
 

 

It was the monster lobe, usually reduced to an inactive state, which, given the failure of the other lobes, suddenly, by a powerful act of substitution, was supplying me with life; but it—the life of monsters—was welded to mine. Now, all my life, I had always had the greatest difficulty in keeping them in their place.
 
 

 

Here, perhaps, was the ultimate attempt of my Being to survive. In what monstrosities I found support (and in what way!), I would not dare relate. Who would have thought that life was so precious to me?
 
 

 

From monster to monster, from caterpillars to giant larvae, I kept on clinging . . . 

The Monster on the Stairs

I met a monster on the stairs. When you looked at him, the trouble he had in climbing them hurt terribly.
 
 

 

Yet his thighs were impressive. He was even, so to speak, all thigh. Two heavy thighs on plantigrade paws.
 
 

 

The top did not seem clear to me. Little mouths of darkness, darkness or . . . ..? This being had no true body, except just enough soft, vaguely moist zones to tempt the dreaming penis of some idle man. But perhaps that wasn’t it at all, and this big monster, probably a hermaphrodite, crushed and bestial, was unhappily climbing a flight of stairs that would no doubt lead him nowhere. (Although I had the impression that he had not set out just to climb a few short steps.)
 
 

 

Seeing him was upsetting, and surely it was not a good sign to have met up with a monster like that.
 
 

 

You could see he was vile immediately. But in what way—that was not at all certain.
 
 

 

He seemed to carry lakes on his undefined mass, tiny lakes, or were they eyelids, enormous eyelids?

In the Hospital

The pain is atrocious. They have given me a room in the hospital at some distance from the others.
 
 

 

I share it with a coughing woman.
 
 

 

No doubt they expected that with the screams my suffering would soon wrench out of me I would destroy the sleep of all the patients in the ward.
 
 

 

No! Every morning I examine my strength on the one hand, and the progress of my pain on the other, and I decide as firmly to hold on today as,irrevocably, the next, to let myself give in to the screams of my infernal suffering that I can now only hold back with extreme difficulty whose overflow is imminent, imminent, if it has not already been reached. Yet the next day again I resist the growing pressure that is well beyond what I thought I would be able to stand.
 
 

 

But why, oh why did they give me a coughing woman who lacerates my rare moments of peace and is shredding to pieces, disastrously, the little continuity I can still manage to keep, in this terrible harassment of pain?

 

—originally published in Epreuves, Exorcismes 1940–1944, Gallimard, 1945; new edition, 1967.)