Life in the Folds
By Henri Michaux
Reviewed by Dan Shurley
While John Waters was promoting his book, Role Models, he often riffed about what might have become of him had he not found in filmmaking an outlet for his obscene predilections. Would he have shaved his head and joined a murderous cult, like Leslie Van Houten, the former Manson girl still serving a life sentence for crimes she committed as a troubled teenager? Unlikely, considering Waters' self-possessing nature and talent for getting people to buy into his subversive vision. The director of Multiple Maniacs and his crack team of collaborators may have stopped short of murder, but Waters apparently found the Manson family's early antics—they got their kicks breaking into suburban homes, rearranging the furniture and leaving without taking anything—sympathetic enough to form the basis of an enduring friendship with Van Houten, on whose behalf he regularly advocates. Waters, too, desired to have his revenge on a square world that tried to saddle him with its tyranny of good taste and puerile taboos on sexual expression. Except, of course, he didn't kill anyone. Well, there was that old man he ran over, but the guy literally threw himself in front of his car. Fortunately for Waters, a police officer witnessed the whole thing and so spared him the headache of having to defend his character (and aesthetics) in court.
In "Satisfied Desires," a prose poem from Henri Michaux's Life in the Folds, the speaker confesses, "I haven't done much harm to anyone in life. I've only desired to. Soon I no longer desired to. I had satisfied my desire." He no longer desires to crush the skulls of his enemies because he's devised a way to do so in his mind, as often as he wants, to his exact specifications, and at no risk to his personal liberty. He's found what you might call an outlet. The piece falls under the section called "Freedom of Action." It ends with an uneasy truce, or is it a taunt? "My heart periodically emptied of its spite opens up to goodness, and you could almost trust me with a little girl for a few hours. Probably nothing unfortunate would happen to her. Who knows? She might even be reluctant to leave me . . ." The choleric humor signals that the speaker isn't to be taken too seriously. Sure, he's villainous, but at least he's honest. Of course humor is often used by bad people with bad ideas to disarm and deflect. (I'm thinking of Donald Trump 'refusing' to say the incendiary thing he's just blurted out, because he "always insists on being politically correct.") You'll be relieved to know that Michaux is as viciously funny and incorrect as Donald Trump is, but infinitely smarter and, it goes without saying, more refined. Here's an example of what I mean, from "Advice and Response to Some Requests for Advice":
"Should I pin up the babies?" writes J.O. No, I'm not going to respond to this insidious question. I no longer feel safe, and were it just about a butterfly, I still wouldn't respond, even if it were flying in a singularly irritating manner, that "Here I come, here I don't" sort, and displayed on its wing a gaudy, overly conventional decorative art, no, you won't expose me on that either.
The Belgian-born poet of psychic discomfort dispenses with his adversaries (as well as his misguided admirers) with mordant wit and, he assures us, "with the requisite care and disinterest (without which it isn't art)." Without which, I would add, these studies of impotent rage and vindictiveness taken to absurd lengths would be alarming and sad only. Our anti-hero invents ingenious ways to get even with his perceived enemies. There's the sausage cellar for pompous military officials, plaster for loudmouths, apartment thunder for noisy neighbors, the skewer for dinner guests who've outworn their welcome and, my personal favorite, the man-sling:
Yet it's difficult to shoot them far enough. Quite frankly, they never get shot far enough. Sometimes they come back forty years later, as you're thinking you can at last feel at ease, when they're the ones at ease, returning with the even step of someone in no hurry, someone who could have been there five minutes ago and was to return right after.
This Monty Python-like combination of absurd analytical rigor and shocking violence—deftly translated by Darren Jackson—never fails to make me laugh. But the playful mood doesn't last very long. In the sections that follow, Michaux turns his powers of invention squarely against himself, starting with the destruction of his body. A body besieged by abstract assailants, a barely self-contained body on the brink of "subjectless horror" is no laughing matter. The pieces that make up "Apparitions"—the longest part of the book—read like the diary of an experienced psychotic gamely weathering another mental break. The 'patient' finds himself on the receiving end of a succession of strange and invasive surgical procedures involving buzz saws, sabers, and flesh-sculpting lasers. For variety there's the constellation of pinpricks, the demolition workshop, and the sea of breasts. These bad trips suggest a fetishized view of the body as a mere repository of suffering, filled with organs that can and will revolt. Yet it's not the pain itself but the potential for pain—amplified by runaway reason—that plagues the subject of "The Danger of the Association of Thoughts" and "Circulating Through My Body":
So I circulated through my panic-stricken body in anguish, provoking shocks, arrests, groans. I woke my kidneys and they hurt. I woke my colon, it pinched; my heart, it unsheathed. I would undress at night and, trembling, inspect my skin, waiting for the pain that was going to pierce it.
Michaux's ideas about the permeability of the body and the physical manifestations of psychic discomfort find their purest expression in "Portrait of the Meidosems." Written in the style of an otherworldly travelogue, it describes the dismal lives of a group of ectoplasmic beings called Meidosems. The Meidosems inhabit a nightmarescape which barely permits their existence. To move about is painful, and they are never allowed repose. This kind of material is amenable to facile symbolic interpretation, so I'll try to do it justice. A Meidosem is about as corporeal as a bundle of nerve endings. At any given moment a Meidosem might take the form of a mesh of live wires, or a waterfall, or fire. As in a dream, these transformations are as deeply felt as they are inexplicable. Despite their alien appearance, the Meidosems do exhibit a range of recognizable emotions: fear, vexation, greed, hope, and, occasionally, satisfaction. They cling desperately to whatever form they have, hoping alternately for liberation and resigned to their suffering. In the world of the Meidosems (and their indifferent onlookers) suffering is the cost of living, of having "substance," of moving about, and of wanting to transcend this interstitial condition. "What meidosem landscape is without ladders?" our guide asks. In the last passage the Meidosems finally take to the sky. Many of them fall to the ground and die, but many more of them take flight. Their flight is flight itself, hard-won and cautiously optimistic: "Wings without heads, without birds, pure wings of every body flying toward a solar sky, still not resplendent, but fighting to be resplendent, drilling a path through the empyrean like a cannon-shell of future bliss." Look up. There they are, on their way to becoming pure symbols.
As nebulous and fantastical as the Meidosems are, their existential condition is consistent with that of the more familiar humanoids haunting this volume. In a poem from "Apparitions," a four-legged animal, "more sand than man," struggles to walk upright until it acquires, through painful exertion, a pair of stilts with which it can move freely and gracefully. "The infernal effort to always remain a man, and here I am liberated from it," the sandman exclaims in disbelief. When Michaux's avatars express joy—as infrequently as that is—it feels unexpected, almost begrudging, and it always has to do with freedom, a certain levity of carriage. Life in the Folds shows that Michaux had it, that ability to float above the carnage, and then he lost it, abandoning humor for the horrors of too much introspection. At least he never killed anyone.