Sunday, October 19, 2014

Washed out exoticism

‘If in a hundred years we have not established contact with some other planet (but we will), or, next best, with the earth’s interior, humanity is finished.’ This dramatic prophesy was made by Henri Michaux, a Belgian-born experimental writer and artist, in a diary he kept while on a trip to Ecuador in the late 1920s. He died 30 years ago today, but is remembered as much for his books on mescaline as for his poetry and painting.

Michaux was born in Namur, Belgium, in 1899, the son of a Catholic lawyer, and raised in Brussels, being educated at a Jesuit school. He planned to join the priesthood, but, after a religious crisis, took up medicine before dropping his studies altogether in favour of a life at sea in the French merchant navy. He travelled widely in Europe, in the Americas, and in Asia. He was inspired to write by reading the poetry of Comte de Lautréamont, and attracted some attention with his poems Qui je fus (Who I was) in 1927. Through meeting artists such as Paul Klee and Max Ernst in Paris, he also took up painting and held his first one-man exhibition at the Librairie-Galerie de la Pléiade in 1937. In time, he took up residence in Paris, and became a French citizen.

In 1941, the French writer, André Gide published a study that made Michaux’s poetry popular for a while. According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Michaux’s view of the human condition is bleak; his poems emphasize the impossibility of making sense of life as it impinges on the individual. Against the futility of real life, Michaux sets the richness of his imagination, and the contradictions of his surrealistic images serve as a foil to the absurdity of existence.’

Following the death of his wife in a fire in 1948, Michaux began experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs; and in the 1950s published several books dealing with his experiences of taking mescaline. His painting at this time was also affected by these experiences. A large exhibition of his works was held at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in 1957; and a retrospective was organised in Frankfurt/Main in 1959. In 1966, he published the autobiographical Les grandes épreuves de l’esprit et les innombrables petites, translated into English in the 1970s as The Major Ordeals of the Mind and the Countless Minor Ones (Secker and Warburg). Michaux died on 19 October 1984. Further, somewhat scanty, information can be found at Kirjasto, Wikipedia, the Poetry Foundation, the Tate, Art Directory, and Moma; and there is an interesting article on Michaux by the Mexican writer, Octavio Paz, freely available at The Guardian.

Early on in his travels, Michaux tried out the diary form on a trip to Ecuador, and this became one of his earliest published works - in 1929. It was reissued in 1968, and then translated by Robin Magowan and published in English with the title Ecuador: a travel journal. Some of this can be read freely at Googlebooks, otherwise secondhand copies can be bought for around £15 at Abebooks. Here are a couple of extracts.

22 January 1928
[After Panama] ‘The sea resolves all difficulties. It brings on few. It’s a lot like us. It lacks the earth’s hard, pulseless heart, and, be it ever so prompt to drown, we have only to take against this eventuality reasonable precautions for it to be once again our friend, quite brotherly, and understanding us perfectly.

It does not offer us these unmatched spectacles wherein the earth excels (provided we journey a few hundred miles), spectacles that make utter strangers of us, as if we were newly born and unhappy.

Who knows one sea knows the sea. Its anger, like ours. Its inner life, like ours. What is more, it does not like the earth offer in a single vista thousands of independent, different, and personal points - trees, rocks, flowers.

To the Ancients these personal points were not negligible, and it was My Lord Rock, Madam River. The professors, after the Jews and Christians, ruined all that.

Who can speak fittingly of a grove?’

1 February 1928
‘No, I have already said it elsewhere. This earth has had all the exoticism washed out of it. If in a hundred years we have not established contact with some other planet (but we will), or, next best, with the earth’s interior, humanity is finished. There is no longer a means of living, we explode, we go to war, we perpetrate evil of all sorts; we are, in a word, incapable of remaining any longer on this rind. We are in mortal pain; both from the dimensions as they now stand, and from the lack of any future dimension to which we can turn, now that our tour of the earth has been done to death. (These opinions, I know, are quite sufficient to have me looked down upon as a mind of the fourth order.) ’

‘A countryside or foreign city may be set apart as much by what it lacks as by what is uniquely its own. One explanation is this: as you can say about a work of art, ‘Oh, that’s very lovely, but it’s not alive, there are too many vital details left out’; in the same way you cannot wholeheartedly accept a new town, and if the trip there takes too little time, nothing remains and you end up exclaiming, ‘This trip passed like a dream.’ Exoticism has played a trick on us.

Despite the three weeks or so I have been here, Quito does not yet seem to me completely real, with that kind of naturalness and homogeneity a city we know well has (however varied its aspects may be to a stranger). What I miss in a foreign scene - and I am saying foreign - is never grandeur, but smallness.

Let’s examine my impressions calmly, then, and I will tell you what I miss in both Quito and its surrounding countryside. I miss pushcarts, pine trees, ants. There is not one tree (aside form the eucalyptus), not a single click of wooden wheels, no cart of any description, or cats during the day (by the way, the wheel was not invented by the Incas).’

The Diary Junction

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