Thursday, March 09, 2006

Michaux's Furrow

Last week I was in Belgium, staying in an establishment which had, rather surprisingly, an enormous collection of books by Belgian poets. Henri Michaux, whose work I have been translating for the past few weeks, was born in Belgium, although he rejected his country of orgin and, as far as I know, never wrote about his childhood there. Nonetheless, his work was well represented in this miraculous library and I was able to browse it at leisure, also leafing through books of his art work (which was very extensive) and a thick biography published by Gallimard.

One book which I found particularly interesting was 'Miserable Miracle', a study which Michaux made of his experiences of using the drug mescaline. The images which he drew while under the influence of mescaline immediately struck me as being very geological and put me in mind of images I had seen of the great Mid Atlantic Ridge which runs from one end of the globe to the other, is several kilometres high and over a thousand kilometres wide. The ridge is offset along its length by transform faults which are exactly the type of structure which Michaux draws offsetting what he calls his 'furrow'.

Reading through Michaux's account of his mescaline induced hallucinations which can be found here, one is immediately struck by the intensely geological character of the experience.

As his trip begins, he hears the words "Krakatoa!" and "crystal" repeated untiringly like a mantra until he feels like a castaway on an island, the word becoming everything to him, staring at the ocean out of which it had just come and out of which he felt he had just come.

Suddenly, preceded by the word "blinding", a thousand dazzling scythes of light, start furiously splitting space open from top to bottom with gigantic strokes, passing furiously from impossible heights into abysmal depths, with the ruptures ever more monstrous, insane...

These strokes create Himalayas that are higher than the highest mountain, sharply pointed, ever more acute, rising to the very edge of space. While Michaux is watching, possessed by intense urgency, he settles on the letters "m" of the word "immense" which he was mentally pronouncing, and the "m" begins stretching to become enormous baroque cathedral arches ridiculously elongated.

The Himalaya producing machine had stopped, but now it starts again and great plowshares plough up a stretch of space. Michaux has the sensation of a fissure which he tries to hide from, wrapping his eyes with a scarf. But there is the furrow, a furrow with little, hurried, transverse sweepings. In it is a fluid, mercurially bright, its behaviour torrential, its speed electric. It seems elastic, swishing, trembling.

Michaux feels as if the furrow were crossing his skull from the forehead to the occiput. It is strange for him that he can see it. It is a furrow without beginning or end, a furrow that seems to come from one end of the earth, passing through him and continuing on to the other end of the earth.

He contains the furrow, except for the extremities which disappear into the distance, and yet it is himself, it is each of his instants, one after the other, flowing in its crystalline flux. In this flux his life advances. Fractured into a thousand fractures. He stands in front of a rock. It splits. Then it is healed. Then again it is split in two. Then once more it is no longer split, and this goes on indefinitely...

The furrow remained the central problem of Michaux's halluginogenic visions. He drew it over and over. Could this trench, which had been so dominant, and so constant for hours on end, and whose existence he found more evident than his own, could it have been a sign? Or was it perhaps only a simple comparison? A word reflection meaning "I am more open". Why did mescaline always come back to this same, or an equivalent, image?

Even twenty days after his mescaline trip, the furrow was still there, passing straight through Michaux's head without paying any attention to the brain, splitting him from one end to the other, joining him to infinity, by an infinite path, a magnetic field linked to what... he knew not.

It was these images of Michaux's that put me in mind of writing about plate tectonics and Mid Atlantic ridges. Reading the description of his experience makes me feel certain that he had some access to a geological model with had fleshed out his halluginogenic experiences. The last part of Michaux's description of his furrow precisely describes Mid Atlantic Ridge formation: rock splitting, healing, splitting, healing again, splitting again, indefinitely. This is how the two sides of the Atlantic spread apart, opening a fissure into which with upwelling magma continuously flowed, rehealing, accreting on either side.

Miserable Miracle was published in 1956, a time when oceanographic research into Atlantic topography had been continuing for some 15 years. Bruce Heezen, Maurice Ewing and Marie Tharp of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory were the scientists who first discovered the Mid Atlantic Ridge while carrying out marine survey work and creating the Heezen-Tharp physiographic maps of the world's oceans. From this citation to Maria Tharp we learn that "in the early 1950s, Tharp found the first evidence for mid-ocean ridge rift valleys and stood by her finding in the face of long-held, deeply entrenched beliefs that continental drift was scientific heresy. Soon after, with Bruce Heezen and Maurice Ewing, Tharp helped establish the existence of the Earth's most dramatic and fundamental geological feature - the globe-encircling, 40,000-mile-long mid-ocean ridge system."

It would seem the timing of this amazing discovery in the depths of the oceans was perfect for inclusion in Michaux's exploration of the depths of his unconscious. And after one hundred and fifty million years of splitting and rehealing, the kind of infinity to which mescaline gave Michaux access, here is what the Mid-Atlantic Ridge looks like today.


Andrea said...

from poets to drugs to plate techtonics,
my dear boy, your brain works in mysterious ways.
I liky

Jonathan Wonham said...

Yes, mysteriouser and mysteriouser...

rsaum said...

for some reason, as of June 2007, this post has upwelled to the top your rss feed - however, I'm quite glad to find it. Michaux has long been a very mysterious and innaccessible figure - your post is useful and insightful.