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Escape Routes : DARKNESS MOVES: An Henri Michaux Anthology, 1927-1984, Selected and translated from the Spanish by David Ball (University of California Press: $30; 270 pp.)

August 07, 1994|Christopher Merrill | Christopher Merrill is a poet and the author of "The Grass of Another Country" on soccer

In some literary and artistic circles the name Henri Michaux is synonymous with the verb to explore. Poet, painter and traveler, Michaux was one of this century's most vital spiritual adventurers. Born in Namur, Belgium, in 1899, until his death in Paris in 1984 he spent his long and productive career working against prevailing notions of reality. "I write so that what was true should no longer be true," he declared. "Prison revealed is a prison no longer." His are detailed instructions for those seeking escape from the prisons of the self and society.

The German occupation of Belgium during World War I spurred Michaux's lifelong restlessness. In 1920, having abandoned his medical studies, he took to sea, sailing to Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires--employment he soon gave up when, as he writes, "(t)he big window close(d) once again." Back in Brussels, disgusted with everything, he read Lautreamont's "Chants de Maldoror," which reminded him of his "long-forgotten need to write." A move to Paris, contact with the Surrealists (who would try, in vain, to claim him as one of their own), journeys to Latin America and Asia, all contributed to the development of his strange genius.

He wrote two unconventional travel books--"Ecuador" and "A Barbarian in Asia"--based on real experience, as well as many works devoted to invented places. An anthropologist of the absurd, he took careful notes. Here is an excerpt from his itinerary:

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 28, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 10 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
"Darkness Moves" (August 7), an anthology of Henri Michaux's work, was selected and translated from the French by David Ball.

Surrounding the Land of Magic, tiny little islands: buoys. In each buoy a dead person. This ring of buoys protects the Land of Magic, acts as an alarm for the inhabitants of the country, tells them when foreigners are coming.

Then all they have to do is send them on the wrong course and far away.

Michaux said that his imaginary countries functioned as "buffer-states for me, so as not to suffer from reality. While traveling," he explained, "when almost everything jars me, they're the ones that take the shocks, and then I can see what's funny about them, and have a good time." Thus he created the Lands of the Emanglons, Hivinizikis and Meidosems, the last of whom will not leave the concentration camps in which they live. Although they are beaten and tortured, "(t)hey are afraid that outside, they would get bored." In short, Michaux explored a universe parallel to ours, probing the fissures and crevices in time and reason "in order to arrive: where?" Octavio Paz writes. "At the nowhere that is here, there, and everywhere."

Such a quest could not be confined to verse--much of his best work is in prose--nor even to the word: Michaux's drawings and paintings have been exhibited around the world. He is the true heir to that visionary poet-painter, William Blake. It is, indeed, as if Michaux journeyed through Ulro, Blake's symbolic realm in which mankind dwells, crippled by reason. There he found monsters--"A Certain Plume," a man sexually ravaged by a caterpillar, and one who "went for a kiss (and) brought back a head. Pray for him," Michaux advises, "he rages for you."

After his wife died in a tragic accident in 1948, Michaux adopted a different mode of travel: "Mescaline is the thing explored," he wrote in the preface to the first of four books on the subject, "Miserable Miracle," "Turbulent Infinity," "Knowledge Through the Abyss," and "The Great Oracle of the Mind," each of which is represented here. "Mescaline 'unmasks,' " Michaux says, "with terror, but exaltation too," explains his translator, David Ball. These texts are at once unnerving and exhilarating:

"I was sailing in a sort of nausea that had become a delight, swaying under the far-off, moving stars, which sometimes seemed like the lights of ships you see at night pitching and rolling on rough seas, but here, lights of galactic ships navigating the ocean of boundlessness. This ocean was in all directions; it alone mattered."

With "Darkness Moves" David Ball has made a signal contribution to our understanding of Henri Michaux. This is a large collection of his work, including poetry and prose, his cryptic autobiography and a range of critical reflections; the reproduction of 30 prints illustrates Michaux's success at charting that mysterious terrain where the figure becomes a line emerging directly from the unknown. Ball's introduction and headnotes are illuminating, his translations adequate: it is a shame this book was not published in a bilingual edition. Inexplicably, Michaux's famous "I Am Writing to You From a Far-Off Country" is missing from these pages, and readers may wonder why there is no formal bibliography.

Nevertheless, "Darkness Moves" is an important addition to our literature. The historian and novelist John Ralston Saul suggests that we have come to the end of the 20th Century trapped "in the hands of blind reason." Henri Michaux's monsters and magic tear those hands from our faces, our masks. One of his aphorisms reads: "He who leaves a trace, leaves a wound." Michaux's wounds are maps.

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