For the book of essays, Useless: Critical Writing in Art & Design, Royal College of Art, 2012, pp. 79-95.

 ‘Leaking the Squalls’: The Art and Letters of Henri Michaux

If in these moments I write, useless, it is never more than a resumé. Still, alas, it is my lucid optimum.                         (Henri Michaux, Ecaudor: A Travel Journal, 10th May, 1928).

Delirium is the opposite of lucidity.  The delirious mind is said to be ‘disordered…resulting from disturbances in the functions of the brain…incoherent…frenzied…restless…maniacal.’  It is not a loss of the mind, a loss of the ‘functions of the brain,’ but a passing lack of control, a temporary repositioning of what constitutes the absurd and the banal.  Surely such moments of the carnivalesque are inherent to creation.  The painter Jean Dubuffet, the unwitting augur of Red Bull, believed such madness ‘gives [man] wings and helps him to attain visions.’  Laudanum addict Thomas De Quincey vaunts the ‘knotty problems,’  ‘enigmatical entries’ and ‘sphinxes riddles’ presented by ‘eloquent opium,’ in his vivid Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ (1821).  Even children’s programme Sesame Street parodies the ‘Mad Painter’ amid flights of fancy: heavy-lidded, mute, and shaggy, he paints and repaints numbers on any surface he can spatter, from bald heads to clinic walls.

And yet can such delirium ever exhibit criticality?  How may such maniacal meanderings be purposed, tooled to any kind of aim?  Between aesthetic epiphany, drug-hazed transcendentalism, and the frenzied machinations of the creative mind, it is one thing to experience delirium, another entirely for it to be represented.  It is at this point, at the observable breakdown in art of signification and sense, that mimetic depiction becomes an accusation of largesse as opposed to a creative anxiety. How to realise disorder, without seeming false?  How to realise disorder, without seeming deliberate?  How to realise disorder, and be deliberate?

Asemic writing inhabits the peripheries of such scholarly concerns.   Emanating from Surrealist experiments in automatic writing in the 1920s, it is often disparaged as a nebulous phenomenological endeavour, in its expressive attempt to reflect immediate experience; the errant tics of disengaged minds.  Having no specific semantic content, it adheres to the behaviours of language, and yet does not deliver recognisable meaning.  This quite clearly serves, as often observed, as a critique on language itself as a fallacious system of meaning: as a mode predisposed to imparting gathered ‘truths,’ what happens when it falls away slack-jawed and reeling at the perversity of the utilitarian objective?   Something much more caustic, and much more rigorous.  The American writer, Lynne Tillman, notes with chiastic exactitude that, ‘Out of nothing comes language and out of language comes nothing and everything,’ ending her most recent book Someday This Will be Funny.  Language, as rent from the ether, may be meaningful by default, but gathers meaning in that departure.  Nonsensical worlds may be constructed in a nonsensical script of encyclopaedic detail, as in Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus (1981); calligraphic lines can bleed and steep across the page, as in CoBrA founder Christian Dotremont’s ‘logogrammes’; the sigilizations of chaos magic will depict the magician’s desired outcomes, as in Victorian artist Austin Osman Spare’s programmatic glyphs.  Indeed, meaning is infinitely malleable as marks move with runic significance.  Yet, in every case, nonsense depends on an assumption of sense.

By no means the most exemplary example, but certainly the most sardonically complex, to unassumingly dislocate the creative and the critical acts, to expose language as ‘nothing and everything’, is French poet and painter Henri Michaux (1899-1984).  He sought to ‘decondition’ himself from language, leaking the squalls of his frantic pen across multiplying ‘illegible’ tracts.  The first of these idiosyncratic marks were made throughout the 1920s, preceding the flowering of French existentialism, as seen in works such as ‘Alphabet’ and ‘Narration.’   Incapable of being read, but decipherable, these marks are signs, influenced by the Surrealist’s experiments at the time in automatic writing.  Inked curlicues and fuddled lines recall those found in ancient ideogrammatic parchments or inscribed across tomb walls.  This ‘new language,’ however, is entirely his own.  These taches d’encres (ink blots) have none of the fluid lyricism of his later watercolours; they are terse scratches eked across a page in which he apes the lacquered sweeps of Japanese characters, the figurations of Egyptian hieroglyphics, and the doodlings of psychosis.  His ‘signs’ even adhere to all of the conventions of language; arranged in lines across the page, left to right, and interspersed by paragraph breaks.

The signs themselves, however, remain elusive.  The ideogram is a sign expressive of an idea, imagistic rather than instrumental of the sound of the word it represents.  In this sense, it makes a return to that creationary impulse to depict, not only maintaining a fidelity to the look, but also the ‘feel’ of the object in question.   In so far as this collapses mark and lexis, Michaux himself discerned a distinction in his work between the quality of expression in drawing and the quality of expression in writing:

The drawings are quite new in me, especially these, in the very process of being born, in the state of innocence, of surprise; but the words, the words came afterwards, afterwards, always afterwards…and so many others.  How could they set me free?  On the contrary, it is through having  freed me from words, those tenacious partners, that the drawings are frisky and almost joyous, that their movements come buoyantly to me even in exasperation.  And so I see in them a new language, spurning the verbal, and so I see them as liberators.

(‘Mouvements,’ 1950-1)

He envisages a point of ‘relief’, a ‘disencrustation’ of expression, in which one will be able to ‘express himself far from words, words’, flaking away that gathered roughcast of ‘the words of others.’  Those ‘tenacious partners,’ can only terrorise in their inert fixity and wail with all prior usage, whereas the generative ‘innocence’ of the line is born every moment pen touches paper.   In spite of the overblown rhetoric of aesthetic communion surrounding Michaux, it does at his more fluid points seem apt.  Where language compromises spontaneous correspondence with feeling, drawing for him is comprised of that very possibility.  Where language is rendered impotent – ‘hygenic’ – in its inevitable delay, unable to ever truly convey experience, the mark, the line, the stroke can be performed to the moment.


In this sense, Michaux’s drawings could be considered as his most critical act; he needs no operative, underpinned system through which to communicate, as he imagines an expanded field of meaning composed at the point between ideogram, hieroglyph, line, and character.  Then, it is also his most delirious act.  His drawings are manifestations of this attempt to ‘liberate’ expression; records of moments of movement in meaning.  The unidentifiable character is invested with intent, put to an esoteric use.  Thus it is not meaning that is left out in Michaux, but a solid ground of referent.

This reaches its most obvious apotheosis in his now infamous Mescaline Drawings of the late 1950s.  Following his first experiments with Indian ink, the ‘blots’ of which he found ‘abhorrent’ and ‘really only blots, which tell me nothing,’ he needed to push beyond this material quibble to show the inner phrase, the wordless phrase, the sinuous strand that unwinds indefinitely and is intimately present in each inner and outer event. I wanted to draw the consciousness of existing and the flow of time. As one takes one’s pulse.’               (‘Vitesse et Tempo’ Quandrum III, 1957)

Drug-use was used as a critical exigent, a self-induced derangement intended to interrogate the limits of expression.  One may speculate endlessly as to what impels the use of drugs; whether it is to discover untold ‘paradises’ as envisioned by Baudelaire; to mechanise the ‘mental kitchen’ with a ‘labour-saving device’ as related by Benzedrine-user W.H. Auden; or whether it is simply to get high, to ‘systematically derange’ the senses, in Rimbaud’s phrase.  All, however, are an age-old phenomenal attempt to attain greater knowledge, whether or not that knowledge may be put to use.

Thus, in a brusque monochrome, these small drawings, produced either under the influence or during the fading of its effects, try to relate all the uncontrollable tremblings and torrid apparitions of a mescaline trip, teeming with zig-zags, loops, furrows, pinnacles, fissures, maniacal lines, and even letters, landscapes, eyes, and faces.  And yet, that is all there is to it.  Ironically, in the effort to expose the untrammelled depths of what he called ‘l’espace du dedans’ (that Ballardian inner space; the space within), these drawings in their obsessions actually betray the nervy hold the drug induces on movement.  Where his marks and swathes of ink were seen as a ‘new language,’ used as ‘liberators,’ they now all follow a neurotic schema; scratches overlap one another again and again in agitated lines, waves do not swell and fall but are tersely scrawled in viral vacillations, frittered cellular patterns follow some tight symmetrical authority.  Michaux was aware of this; ‘Mescaline upsets the composition’ he states in Misérable Miracle, ‘it develops idiotically, it is very basic, defective and senile.’  This ‘awful, convulsive experience’ threw off his ‘tempo,’ and whilst the drug produced visions ‘marked by streaming, sparkling, extreme seething,’ his hand is stultified by its ‘rapid abstract’ grip.  The drawings don’t evoke apparitions, but timorous molecular abrasions – the universe ground down to its particles.  Michaux even conceives of the drug as a separate performative entity: ‘Linked with space and forms, it [mescaline] draws by repetition and symmetry (symmetry by symmetry).’

Converse to expectation, mescaline is of greater purpose when conferred through language: ‘Linked with words, it writes by enumerating.’   Where the pictures repeat in bland admonishment, the writing enumerates – it separates and specifies, refracting the multiplying visions under the drug.  The assumed freedom is reversed.  Therefore, language is not the impotent coda it once seemed, repeating known clichés, but spools away in metaphoric brilliance and hysteric clauses.  The drawings may be more visually direct, but the writings of Misérable Miracle (1956), L’Infini Turbulent (1957), Paix dans les Brisements (1959), Connaissance par les gouffres (1961), and Les Grandes Epreuves de L’Esprit (1966) are fantastical written reflections on his mescaline experiences, achieving something closer to the explosive hallucinations of colour, light, and sound.  Here, he divines, as opposed to merely channelling, the drug that makes everything different, unrecognisable, insane, that causes everything to overshoot itself and flash by, that cannot be followed, that must be followed, where thoughts and feelings now proceed like projectiles, where inner images as much accentuated as accelerated, bore and drill with violent, unbearable insistence, objects of an inner vision from which it is no longer possible to detach oneself, luminous like burning magnesium, agitated by a to-and-fro movement like the slide of a machine tool, infinitesimal, and which vibrate, shudder and zig-zag, caught up in an incessant Brownian movement, images where the straight lines invested with an upward momentum are naturally vertical, cathedral lines, that have no upper limit but go on mounting indefinitely, where the broken lines in a continual seism crack, divide, crumble and shred, where the curved lines get lost in extravagant loops, twists, and twirls, infinitely intricate lacework patternings, where objects seem set in tiny, dazzling troughs of boiling iron…

(‘To Draw the Flow of Time,’ 1957)

The critical capacity of language here is stretched, with all the causal snap of elastic.  There is no static repetition, but a generative anaphora and a violent grammar.  As distanced from the tightening limpid loops of intoxication, Michaux recalls with urgency.  Lacking the hyperbolic pretensions to immediacy and relating experience proper, language is able to play in the disconnect, using that fractious distance from the experience as illustrative of the fractious experience itself.

And yet, delirium is surely all about the disconnects.   This is not delirious criticism, it is a critical reflection on delirium.  Such poetic afterthoughts can never be more than bit-part summaries, as Michaux himself recognises, a critical ‘resumé’ of an experience.  What of colour?  What of sound?  The form may be fractured, but it logically follows function, and comprehensively represents the surge of trippy turns.  The above extract is highly tooled; Michaux’s furtive wit is deployed in every syntactic and lexical convulsion.  He may be ‘frenzied… restless… maniacal’ but he is not ‘incoherent.’  In fact he is at his most sublimely coherent, and perhaps this is the problem.  Delirium in criticism cannot suppose a directive, can never suppose a use, it is too bewildered and beleaguered. It is the ecstatic to which the critic turns.


The beatific reverie, recapitulated throughout the history of aesthetic theory as the sublime apex of apprehension, is also one of the most elusive.  Hounded by the philosophising connoisseur, it itself becomes of little use.  Although ‘use’ is never the point – the festishized sublimation to the work assumes an instinctual understanding, beyond academic doggerel – it is a cliché, which contemporary art critics have attempted to reinvigorate through various devices.  Historian T. J. Clark’s ‘experiment’ in art criticism, The Sight of Death, records his intensifying daily observations of the same two paintings; highly literary art critics, such as Dave Hickey and Peter Schjeldahl, rhapsodize in loose-limbed, poetic essays; art-writing journals affect a ‘magpie politics’ of amassed, but disparate, titbits.   In relinquishing oneself to the onslaught of theory, philosophy, politics, and purpose, ‘disturbances in the function of the brain’ are inevitable, if not necessary.  In the incapacity for linearity or inevitability, a prismatic ‘outsider’ criticism becomes the only enlightened response, formed by what Michaux was to figure as divided ‘epiphenomena.’  Meaning is elided; fictive devices are used, collage is expected, responses are lyrically disjointed.  What are we left with?  All this plumage?  Is all critical practice to a certain extent ‘asemic’; only understood in all its constructive complexities by the author?

‘Qui plume a, guerre a.’[1]  François-Marie Arouet bestowed the pen with a rare militancy.  Bemoaned throughout the history of literature for its both its cogent might, as in Cervantes’ quill as ‘the tongue of the mind’, to its cruel impotency, as in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s flung ‘useless pen,’[2] Arouet’s immortalisation of the pen here resonates beyond that quivering nib scratching out his letter to Marie-Louise Denis, on 22nd of May, 1752.   Is this a war waged against or on behalf of the author?  The pen may be a loaded gun, but one must put it to use.  Criticality was born of his pen.  As a prominent Enlightenment polemicist and poet, this wasn’t the only ‘plume’ with which Arouet was to do battle.  Better known by his illustrious nom de plume, or pen-name, Voltaire, he also fought against his own identity, most frequently adopting this anagram of his Latinate forebear AROVET LI, as well as 177 other assumed names.   La plume, particularly in the French intellectual imagination, thus often takes on a mystical quality.  As both sturdy ‘pen’ and delicate ‘feather,’ it is an evasive strategy in nom de plume, as commonly envisioned in ‘plumes of smoke,’ or puffed-up as the ornamental ‘plumage’ of the peacock. The phrase voler dans les plumes à quelq’un literally means ‘to fly at somebody,’ in the sense of a riotous attack.   La Plume was also a Parisian literary and artistic review, set up in 1889 by Léon Deschamps, featuring impressionist motions of Maurice Denis, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Pisarro, Signac, Seurat and Redon.  The plume is seductive – toying with the capacity for power and play.  What issues can be madness or divinity, passion or reason, tenacity or tolerance.   What may be puff of smoke, may also be an attack.   Thus la plume becomes mercurial; braced between decision and occlusion.

And it is again Henri Michaux to use the plume with critical temerity.  It is within his poetic work that the bite of the critiquing character is most achingly realised, in his ill-at-use figure of Monsieur Plume.  By no means without precedent but doubtless the most acerbically realised, Michaux’s peculiar fools recur throughout his entire working life, in painting, prose and poetry, and were the first figurative and colour-saturated pieces to be produced after his pared ‘signs’ of the 1920s.  The characters, usually anonymous, all fall loosely into one of three categories; the clown, the magician, or the onlooker.  All comment on the twisted reality that surrounds them; swollen heads loom out of crumbling walls, unknown fevers produce hellish flotillas of rotting animals, fires rage yet cannot even burn ‘the strand of a cobweb.’   They, however, are immobilised.  They are capable only of averting their eyes, the eyes that ‘remain great requisition blanks of terror.’  It is the figure of Monsieur Plume, Michaux’s tractable clown, that is the most enigmatic, and the most horrifying.  Forced to participate in nightmares to which he has little or no connection, the clown is never fully realised, except as a helpless Charlie Chaplinesque caricature.  He seems to emerge from nothingness into the horror of blame and blood, to then coolly oblige ‘Bien, bien’ (‘Alright, alright’) to those who cruelly abuse him.  The Plume tableaux are marked by the sole refrain ‘Plume s’excusa aussitôt’ (Plume apologised immediately).   His wife is even carved into numerous pieces, a fact he plainly acknowledges, and turns back to sleep.

The asemic is exhibited in the character.  Abstracted to a dithering dumbrel, Plume makes no meaning of the world, and contributes no meaning to the world.  He is a daub in a plane of action.  But ‘je plongerai’ (‘I dive’).  That enigmatic final motion in Michaux’s poem ‘Clown’ (1938) harks Monsieur Plume’s one decisive moment, in the paradox of losing himself ever further. Already ‘Lost in a far-off place (or perhaps not), without name, without identity,’  he desires final oblivion.   This is a liberating nullity however; only by being ‘et ras…/ et risable’ (and blank…./ and laughable….), may he ‘open’ himself to that ‘new and unbelievable dew’ of promise.  This scrubbed nihilism plays out again and again; Plume never takes the plunge.  For all its abstraction, this is the most cruelly critical, but most subtly figured, ploy Michaux devises.   Plume’s ambivalence to the horrors he witnesses renders him both morally culpable and morally absent, as it obscures both Michaux’s authority and guile.  There is delirium in the device; the ping-pong flatness of this character’s world stupefies our sympathies.  The difficult demands difficulty.   Just as it dawns on Madame Realism, in Lynne Tillman’s similarly supine tract, ‘Madame Realism: A Fairy Tale’ (1988), or as it was ‘impressed upon her’; all ‘explanations were as complex as what they are meant to explain.’   And surely that is the difficulty in ambiguity; it’s all relative.  Laughable in the dark.

[1] ‘To hold a pen is to be at war.’

[2] ‘The Broken Oar’; 14. (1878)


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