Suppose an empty room contains a gigantic apple.
That’s a proposition even more disturbing than Rene Magritte’s Listening Room.
Henri Michaux’s collection of texts from 1949, Life in the Folds, is the oddest of gigantic apples. If unchecked, it inflates into a daunting monstrosity of ambiguous intent. Indeed, the exquisite mind-contortion chambers contained within it defy obvious origin or characterisation: I started to write a brief post about Michaux’s work, so I copied out all the interesting quotes, only to realise I’d copied out chunks from nearly every page of the book.
Life in the Folds consists of over fifty short texts (and a few longer ones); they are mostly prose, with titles such as The Man-Sling, On the Skewer, In Plaster, Never Imagine, The Danger in Associations of Thoughts, The Trepanned Patient, Recommended Instrument: Apartment Thunder.
Some could be considered mini-stories with hints of plot, but perhaps a good label is thought experiments, or—to move a step away from scientific connotations and Einstein—violent thoughts. A longer descriptor would be: uncomfortably fascinating meditation on pain: psychological, physical, abstract, concrete, subtle, searing.
It’s easy to dismiss such material as fodder for psychiatrists, especially when we find out that Michaux’s biography includes both war and his wife’s sudden death, but violent thoughts occur in most fiction regardless, as necessary motivators well-woven into the fabric of plot.
It’s also easy to dismiss such material as extraneous or incendiary because violent thoughts already occur in most of life—surely that suffices?—but the subject is often taboo and so, if unaddressed, can lead to people’s lives collapsing insidiously.
With that in mind, there are at least two salubrious approaches to Michaux:
- As a reader looking for a contained, concrete space to ruminate on negative feelings about others and the self. Perhaps as a springboard for a later discussion.
- As a critic or meta-reader exploring writing techniques that conjure up the weird and the pain-fear-terror-inducing (but not grossly shocking) while observing your own reactions to those selfsame techniques.
Regarding the first approach: Safe exploration of on-page violence, no matter how imaginary or disassociated from heart-rending characterisations, requires mental mettle—if your environment or state of mind isn’t conducive to challenging reading, leave Life in the Folds for another day.
I will focus on the second approach, which inevitably desensitised everything it touches, but please be warned. (This also means I will spoil a fully immersive reading experience for you, both by quoting and by deconstructing the quotes.)
“I don’t want readers to be comfortable,” says John Banville, who won the Booker prize in 2005 for his novel The Sea, and who is otherwise known for his dark, lyrical prose. “I want [the readers] to be interested, I want them to be passionate, all those things, but I do not want them to be comfortable.”
Fiction may ultimately be comforting, but comfortable fiction is boring. From that standpoint, Michaux succeeds splendidly: his texts are designed for impersonal discomfort but their bewildering variety makes it hard to pin down a single reason why.
I’ll try to say why over the next few posts, mostly by tackling the examples I think best showcase writing principles that may be extracted and applied elsewhere.
Personification is a figure by which an animal or inanimate object or idea is given human characteristics. Conversely, when a human takes the form of a non-human entity, while retaining his or her personhood and point of view—as in the following text from Michaux’s collection—I will call this figure reverse personification.
Like the Sea
It often happens that I hurl myself forward like the sea onto the beach. But I still don’t know what to do. I hurl myself forward, I come back, I hurl myself forward again.
My growing momentum will soon take on form. It must. The extent of my movement makes me pant (not with my lungs, but through a uniquely psychic breathing).
Will it be a murder? Will it be a merciful wave over the World? We still don’t know. But it’s imminent.
I await, oppressed, the breaking of a preparatory wave.
Here it is, the moment’s come…
It was the wave of joy that time, the spread of benevolence.
(Translated from the French by Darren Jackson.)
The text is poetic, philosophic, open-ended, also disconcerting, existentialist, modern. The linchpin of such complex form and content is the reverse personification (a metaphorical identification) of narrator with sea.
How the metaphor is implemented:
Metaphors can be introduced in different ways. Here Michaux uses a simile in the first paragraph to compare his interaction with the world to that of a sea hurling itself forward (a reckless, pointless, uncontrollable, imprecise action). His simile is strengthened by the structure of the third sentence which imitates the hurling and retreating movement of the sea’s waves reaching the shore.
The section break that follows—yes, there is a section break in a 100-word text—serves as a transition from simile to metaphor. A notable trick.
In the remainder of the text the narrator is implicitly merged with the wave (and because of the section break, this does not appear abrupt), while remaining himself and describing a state of poised expectation and unanswered questions about where that interaction leads: will he be harmful to others or merciful?
Writing tip: Non-standard metaphors are solid when simply served; tenuous when overwritten (because they signal the writer’s insecurity).
Why the metaphor is unusual:
Sea symbolises as many things as there are people who have lived near a body of water. Sea is a life-giver and a life-taker; it’s beautiful, powerful, destructive, desolate; it’s indiscriminate. Because of its protean nature, sea is an excellent vehicle to carry a metaphor about existential questions.
However, usually, world or events or other grand exterior concepts are identified with sea and they affect the individual, like in this quote from Cartesian Sonata by William H. Gass:
The world rolled through her like a sea, the skin no seawall to it, and no one afloat in that tide could have guessed by a sky change or by any other that they had been swept beyond their body wall and bobbed now in the basin of her brain.
Michaux’s narrator becomes the sea, explores his fear of fate, and ends the text before the believability of his metaphor expires. But because of its distinctly non-anthropomorphic presence, water is a baffling choice for an individual’s embodiment: we cannot map a human body onto it (there are no obvious analogues for limbs, torso, head), hence the disconcerting element of Michaux’s reverse personification.
On the content of the metaphor:
Even though the narrator is the sea (or a wave), he isn’t in control of his body: it’s ungovernable and arbitrary. Fear of fate—anxiety—dominates.
Sea, sky, wind; deep space, deep wells, deep forests; the road travelled, the desert traversed, the mountain climbed. You can be any of those in fiction, and all of them page after page. In fact, you can be all of those daily, in your personal philosophy. You don’t need to write before you can hurl yourself at the world, quivering and in a quandary, to become a spread of benevolence.
This post is part of series on the fantastic grotesque.
- Judging a Book by its Quirk Words: on Léon Bloy’s Tarantula’s Parlour and Other Unkind Tales (1893–4).
- Diabolical Framings: on Jules Barbey’s Diaboliques (1874).
- Urns as Hearts: on Jean Lorrain’s Soul-Drinker (1890s).
- Alone (With Only Your Demons for Company): on Michel de Ghelderode’s Spells (1941).
- Becoming the Sea: Fearing Fate