A man in a suit in front of an open garage. He is drawing, standing next to a table with brushes, ink, paper, and a book. According to the photographer, this is the French/Belgian artist Henri Michaux. At work. Photographed in front of his studio-converted garage in Meudon. A Paris suburb. 1950. The sun is shining. Could this be the reason why Michaux has moved his drawing table outside of the garage? Or maybe it was the photographer’s idea?
Michaux is drawing with brush and ink. The drawings look like traditional Chinese calligraphy. The photographer has captured Michaux while filling a sheet of paper with figures or signs, proceeding as though he were writing a text, left-to-right and top-to-bottom. This is not a calligraphic proceeding in the Chinese tradition. If he intended to work like that, he could easily do so. But he does not.
(1950. In the slipstream of World War II, the German thinkers Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno published Dialectic of Enlightenment. 1947. The book is a series of edited conversations they had together while living in exile in Los Angeles during the war. Horkheimer and Adorno saw National Socialism, Stalinism, state capitalism, and mass culture as entirely new forms of social domination which could not be explained within the terms of traditional Critical Theory. They found that thinking was deprived not only of the affirmative reference to science and everyday phenomena but also of the conceptual language of opposition. In their preface to the book, they describe a situation where “no terms are available which do not tend toward complicity with the prevailing intellectual trends, and what threadbare language cannot achieve on its own is precisely made good by the social machinery”. To Horkheimer and Adorno, this situation represents a collapse of reason into something resembling the very forms of superstition and myth, out from which reason had supposedly emerged as a result of historical progress or development. Critical thinking thus had to start all over, self-critically confronting the tireless self-destruction of enlightenment, and refusing to obey any current linguistic and intellectual demands.)
Michaux’s way of drawing is a synthesis of writing and painting, combining alphabetical writing with traditional Chinese calligraphy. Brushstrokes recording signs and symbols. A book, Mouvements, with sixty-four reproductions of what were, all in all, twelve hundred ink drawings, was published in 1951. In a poem written for the publication, Michaux claims that his drawings effectuate a
direct writing for unwinding
from the compact spool of forms
to unchoke, to revoke
to clear the billboard mind of our times of its heavy glut of images
That Michaux refers to his ink drawings in terms of writing corresponds well with the above observations of his proceedings, although what he means when referring to “direct writing” is less evident.
Automatic writing is an obvious association when considering Michaux's notion of “direct writing” insofar as he was heavily influenced by Surrealism in his early work. Initially a Spiritualist procedure, occurring when external spirits or forces operate through the one who writes, automatic writing was adopted by Surrealist writers as a way of letting the subconscious take control of the writing. Accordingly, the one who writes becomes a medium and not an origin of writing, thus transferring the control of writing to sources otherwise neutralized by the conscious self.
If Michaux’s direct writing is going to be considered a version of automatic writing, it is important to note that although Michaux indeed strives to avoid conscious control of what he is doing when drawing/writing, there is no indication at all that he thinks of himself as a medium for external or subliminal sources. On the contrary, the reluctance to consciously control the act of drawing/writing appears to be an end in itself, indicating that the quality of directness is equivalent to an intentional lack of control, a desire to let go. Michaux accordingly refers of the unleashing effects of direct writing as something desirable: how processes of unwinding, unchoking, and revoking effectuate a state of clarity by erasing images from the mind.
Direct writing is thus a mode of writing that counteracts, or neutralizes, the conscious control of writing. In his poem, Michaux metaphorically points out certain controlling mechanisms and the mental constitution they produce when referring to the “heavy glut of images” that wrap up the “billboard mind of our times”. This is a mental state dominated by the image production of a mass culture industry, which is characterized by the compression of form. And, according to Michaux, in order to oppose this domination of the mind, in order to achieve a state of mental clarity, the imagery of the mass culture industry has to be erased through a desire to let go.
But to clear the mind is more of a beginning, a sort of preparation. To Michaux, the effect of “direct writing” has much wider perspectives, and in his preface to Mouvements, he describes his experience when writing/drawing:
… gradually the forms ‘in movement’ supplanted the constructed forms, the consciously composed characters. Why? I enjoyed them more. Their movement became my movement. The more there were of them, the more I existed. The more of them I wanted. Creating them, I became quite other …
The effect of “direct writing” is thus a transformation of the one who writes. By not consciously controlling the recording of signs and symbols, Michaux experiences a transformation of his self and a mental state of joy. Pleasure. In this way, Michaux’s version of automatic writing represents a desire for self-transformation which is indeed a process of automation, self-operation, although it does not effectuate external or subliminal origins of writing. It is rather a displacement of origin into the becoming of the one who writes.
In the photograph, Michaux stands stiff as a board. Becoming quite other. Resembling a typewriter. A printer. A plotter.
(1950. The slipstream. The American mathematician Norbert Wiener publishes The Human Use of Human Beings, which is a popular introduction to the concept and the science of cybernetics. Based on a mathematical study of control and communication in the animal and the machine, Wiener explains that just as people, animals, and plants have the ability to take certain kinds of actions in response to their environments, so do machines have feedback systems in order for their performances to be altered or evaluated in accordance with results. The feedback systems of an organism and those of a machine simply function in similar ways, allowing them to learn from previous actions and to modify themselves accordingly.)
In 1953 Michaux begins his experiments with mescaline.