Henri Michaux was born May 24, 1899 in the small Belgian town of Namur, the very town where Charles Baudelaire died. The family moved to Brussels when Henri was two years old. Henri attended a boarding school where he was an indifferent student and felt alienated from the other students. He had no interest in the typical amusements of children, which only increased this sense of alienation. In his early adolescence, he found consolation for his enduring sense of alienation in literature, languages and religions. Michaux's university education was delayed two years by the nazi occupation of Belgium. He spent this period reading a variety of literature, everything from the lives of saints to avant garde poets.
Henri considered entering the priesthood, but eventually yielded to his father's wishes to study medicine. Tired of medicine, Michaux dropped out after one year and joined the crew of a merchant ship in 1920. Michaux traveled to various ports throughout North and South American and left the ship a year later, only days before it was involved in a fatal shipwreck. Michaux worked a number of miserable jobs while working on his writing and considered himself a total failure. His first poem was published in 1922 in the Le Disque Vert, the literary journal of Franz Hellens, who became an early supporter of Michaux.
Shortly thereafter, Hellens hired Michaux as co-director of Le Disque Vert, where Henri edited the journal and several poetry collections by the authors who had appeared in the journal. He was an illustrious traveler, becoming very acquainted with Latin America (resulting in the travelogue Ecuador) and Asia, which inspired, among other books, his Un Barbare en Asie. In 1948, he published Still Us Two about his relation with his wife and the aftermath of her accidental death. Other books by Michaux include Life in the Folds, Miserable Miracle: Mescaline, Infinite Turbulence, Light Through Darkness and The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and Countless Minor Ones. He is also remembered as a major 20th century painter.
Excerpt from Hitch-Hiker in Hades
Throughout my trip in South America, along with maps, guide books and dictionaries weighing heavily in my pack, was Ecuador by the Belgian painter-poet, Henri Michaux. Still relatively unknown to many literary circles in the USA and elsewhere, Michaux is one of the most enlightened European artists of this century. That his existence is not as apparent as that of Picasso is because, unlike el rey, he dwelt in the shadows and shunned all publicity, furious that several of the rare photographs of his face were published by his editors, against his will. Ecuador is the journal de voyage of the young Michaux written in 1928, when he undertook a two-month long voyage from Rotterdam to Guayaquíl, Ecuador, day-dreaming of roller skating over the solid Atlantic. With a heart ailment and a serious sinus infection, he nonetheless started out on an exhausting trek from Quito, over the Andes on horseback, four days of tramping through muddy swamps in the rain forest of eastern Ecuador, down the entire length of the Rio Napo in dug-out canoe, and then down the Amazon to arrive at the river mouth incredulous: "Mais ou est donc l'Amazone?" (Where then is the Amazon?)
Like another H.M. (Herman Melville), Henri Michaux became a merchant seaman at twenty-one, and, like the author of Moby Dick, deserted ship with other crewmen – not in the Marquesas Islands – but in Rio de Janeiro. (The rest of the crew suffered a shipwreck twenty days later, south of New York.) He too barely tolerated what Melville called "the Dark Ages of Democracy", and often wrote of the mass lunacy that plagues modern democratic life with tongue-in-cheek humor. In Ecuador Michaux stayed with the Ecuadorian poet Gangotena: full of misfortune, dying young, and never living to see all his poetry burned in an airplane crash and disappearing forever. With no poetry bequeathed to posterity, he remains known as Michaux’s good friend.
Idly reading in my hammock as I journeyed upriver towards Manaus on the Miranda Dias, I passed Michaux going downriver to Pará on the Victoria, separated by fifty-two years of yellow water. A ghostly passing in Hades, like that of Odysseus and Tiresias, made vivid not only by the written word, but by the subtle timing in reading it at the point where my path crossed his. I was never obliged to slaughter over a hundred large hairy spiders in a bamboo hut with a machete before being able to close my weary eyes for the night, but belligerent Brazilians did on occasion interrupt my sleep.
It has now been five years since Michaux died – actually he did not die, but evaporated. I read in the newspaper that he had made it very clear in his last days that he wanted no flowers at his funeral. At the funeral service in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, however, a do-gooder brought flowers anyway. Michaux's friends put them on Apollinaire's near-by sepulchre instead. Later, I went to Père Lachaise to visit his grave. I asked in the office where Henri Michaux's tomb was to be found. It was not in their necrologic files. Not only had his body disappeared from the sepulchre, but the sepulchre had disappeared as well! A white lie. There never was a sepulchre – the funeral took place at Père Lachaise, but he was cremated and his ashes strewn elsewhere –everywhere. In Ecuador, the young Michaux thinks with longing into the centuries to come, and speaks to a reader far off in the future:Ne me laissez pas pour mort, parce que les journaux auront annoncé que je n'y suis plus.[...] Je compte sur toi, lecteur, sur toi qui me vas lire.
(Don't leave me for dead because the newspapers will have announced that I am no longer.[...] I am counting on you, reader, on you who are going to read this.)
This rings like Villon's 500-year-old appeal, "frères humains qui apres nous vivez," a desperate appeal from one ensconced in a perishing society whose main occupations are misery, war and stupidity. Although separated from Michaux's "evaporation" by only five years, and not five centuries, I have understood his "I am counting on you, reader" as directed to me personally – such is my egoism. And with similar desperation, I presently pass the buck to you, reader, and repeat: I am counting on you.
back to The Dying Yucca
Photo Gallery of poets
cited in The Whetting Stone
Home | Books | Sheet music for guitar | Visual arts | Biography | Syukhtun