Henri Michaux, poet, painter and explorer of imaginary tribes, was also a psychonaut. We deal here with this last facet, perhaps the least known. His advantage over other explorers of the psyche is that he has the gift of expression (he was a magnificent writer) and took the trouble to describe his experiences in detail. With the mind you can not swim and put away clothes. It is not something that can be seen from the outside (protected in a laboratory) by scanner or microscope. Their knowledge demands audacity, to engage one's own body. Michaux did. Fascinated and obtuse, he dived into altered states of mind. Sometimes by overdose, on one occasion he mistakenly swallows a 600-milligram capsule of mescaline. Like the ancient explorers, he risked his skin and heart in his inquiries. There is no other way. When we talk seriously about the mind, the colored image of the brain of an functional magnetic resonance imaging is laughable.
Michaux is interested in psychiatry, walks the corridors of provincial hospitals and refers to this issue on several occasions. Psychiatrists themselves, before their patients, mice or spiders, are the ones who should experiment with these substances. He has sailed and knows the storms of the mind. Like William James, he is interested in the spirit in its pitiful condition, in those who have had serious difficulties with it, sick, tardy or schizophrenic. "More than the too excellent 'knowing how to think' of the metaphysicians, what is truly called to discover are the dementias, the delays, the delusions, the ecstasies and agonies, the no longer knowing how to think." Of those hells, of those dark angles, he deals with admirable courage. He believes that mescaline should be taught at the university. Any other procedure is not serious. The mind is an essentially practical matter. What to do with it is the question. To compartmentalize it into areas, as if it were a physical space, is to not understand its nature.
All trips are trips to the interior. Michaux travels alone and without guides, both in the jungles and in the labyrinths of the psyche. He travels through Asia or the Amazon, ingests substances that provoke disconcerting images and audible signs. Get to know first-hand the failure of the modern project. Look for a lost truth. Their struggle is a disembodied struggle, a struggle to be waged by dreaming. "A whole life is not enough to unlearn what, naïve, submissive, you have allowed yourself to put in your head." He is a radical empiricist. In the fifties he began his psychedelic research. The beat generation is at its peak, but Michaux (like Huxley) is not beat. It does not seek paradises or delights. Nor is he a junkie. "Some will judge my work as that of a drugged. I'm sorry. I belong rather to the water drinking type. Never alcohol. Nothing exciting. For years, no coffee, tobacco or tea. Every now and then a little wine."
"The human being is a vast organism in which there is always an area that watches, that kneads, that has learned, that now knows, that tastes differently." We cannot imagine how much a body knows, the decisions it makes, the defenses it activates, the deliveries. For bodies, like souls, sometimes surrender. Matter is pregnant with immateriality. That's why she's alive, that's why she's breathing. Longing, desire, aspiration, are the immaterial forms of matter. The modern project, with its mechanical matter, inert and without aspirations, is a failure. Today's science has not just freed itself from the straitjacket imposed on it by Newton. A shirt that old Kant buttoned. Poets have always known this, but they look the other way. Michaux is an exception. He devotes much of his life to the observation of these immaterialities, of those secret intentions of matter. His microscope: mescaline, LSD and Indian hemp.
The Normal Wonder
With the psychedelic experience, Michaux aims to reveal the "normal", the enormity of the normal, its wonderful mechanisms: evoke, calculate, shuffle figures and symbols. The abnormal has been made known to him. That abnormal is the experience of hashish, lysergic acid or mescaline. Then the spirit sees his thoughts as particles, appearing and disappearing at a prodigious speed. That's when he captures his "catch." This unfolding produces a singular revelation. The psychoactive substance unmasks the traitor, "reveals mental operations, adding consciousness where it did not exist and, at the same time, removing it from where it had always been." A mismatch, a movement of the anchor point of the normal state. "As one who, after a stay abroad, no longer possesses his national innocence."
Under the effects of mescaline, the simple act of speaking is a desecration. Language seems like a big, clumsy, clumsy machine that spoils everything. Feel the temptation of silence. It seems idiotic to him to cling to words. When the effects of the substance subside, the mental speed changes, and the words become convenient. They do their job. As long as the mental speed is that of the pedestrian. Then words serve to collect, acquire, read, calculate, examine, retain, study. "The pragmatic, the useful, the adapted returns, the ego returns, its milestones, its authority, its annexationism, its taste for properties, for hoarding, its pleasure in imposing itself. And that seems natural!" Thought, subjected to language, becomes communicable and useful. And their socialization is dangerous. A danger that arises from excess dominance. "That is the particular idiocy of the great studious brains, who know no other way to think than directed thinking (voluntary, objective, calculating), while omitting to leave intelligence free and keep in touch with the unconscious, with the unknown, with mystery." Macedonio Fernández would agree: erudition is a bulky way of not thinking.
Indoor starspace (Indian hemp)
Whoever tastes hashish after mescaline notices that he changes a locomotive for a pony. Hashish is not delivered soon, it is more reserved. However, a pony can give many surprises. Hemp omits, erases, overlooks (the accessory). It's a great suppressor. Gladly forge hybrid beings: Ganesha, Anubis, Lolita. Contrary to cold mescaline, he is interested in women, in uneven, wrinkled, hard skin. Hashish allows you to be asked questions, solves problems. With it you can go outside. He likes the street, passers-by, the tram. Michaux mentions experiments in which hashish is inoculated into spiders. His fabrics are then incomplete. And it ends with a rhetorical question, the convenience of which we subscribe to: Would it not be better if, before spiders, psychiatrists were the ones who submitted to these experiences?
'Untitled', a 1940s play by Henri Michaux. colaimages / Alamy
Ideas gravitate like planets. Light and sound are the garments of the finite. Space, of the infinite. The first penetrating inquiry into the metaphysics of space is found in the upaniṣad. Michaux has experimented as a young man with ether (seven and eight times), but the sidereal journey will occur later, in full intellectual maturity. "I sank vertiginously to the top." He describes the experience in The Great Trials of the Spirit (1966). He has climbed to high altitude to contemplate, under the effects of Indian hemp, a mountainous horizon. He ingests the substance and does not experience anything special. The mountains maintain their usual appearance. "Maybe my health is too strong." Dismayed by the failure, he settles on the terrace of his room, not knowing what to do. Raise your head. The black and starry sky surrounds him. "I sank into it. It was extraordinary. Instantly stripped of everything, like a coat, I entered the space. I felt projected to him, rushed into him, thrown. Violently grasped by him, without resistance." What he experiences has little to do with admiration or amazement. He feels carried on high, dragged "by a wonderful and invisible levitation." Space has no end. The experience could be frightening, but it is dazzling. "The static, the finite, the solid had passed into history. Stripped of everything, I fled, projected; stripped of possessions and attributes, of all reference to the land, evicted from all location, incredible nakedness that seemed absolute, unable to find anything that I would not have stripped myself of." Words recall the dark night and the nakedness of Fray Juan de la Cruz. He warns that, until that moment, "I had not seen the sky. I had resisted it, looking at it from the other side, at the edge of the earthly, of the solid, of the opposite."
At last he maintains relations with heaven. "I received heaven and heaven received me. I was in an extraordinary expansion. The space spaced me out... invading me up to my ears." Rocked under the stars, distant and moving, similar to the lights of ships that, during the night, can be seen in the distance. "Space was permanent, but not invariant." There is an echo of Buddhist cosmology here. Space as an endless geography of diverse environments, created by the beings that inhabit it. Serene and hostile environments, of joy or misfortune. To contemplate these spaces is to be received in them. "The sky was no longer a vault. The earth was no longer a foundation. They no longer had to unite. No temple was needed." And at this point he points out some words that are perfectly understood in the light of Hindu metaphysics. "The traveler was dazzled. The participant was moved. And the incorruptible observer, meanwhile, attended. Those were the three faces of whom, however, no longer felt like a person."
"Space was my only reality. Had it not been for some treacherous downward glances I might have believed I had been transformed into space... would I ever let my being be covered with matter? It seemed impossible. The unexpected and incredible affinity with the imponderable revealed, perceived, felt so convincingly, was to last forever." The psychonaut remains, at the same time, "perfectly destitute and full", "grateful, filled with an ever greater contentment, with an unusual enthusiasm, and with a fervor only comparable to that granted by the miraculous dissipation of heaviness". And he confesses: "He who did not know what to believe had just received the spatial sacrament. As if infinity, in order to manifest itself, had taken space as a simple and sufficient revealer, a space converted into a sign and hymn. The mummy that I was, suddenly awakened, was open again."
The palisades of the physical dejected. Michaux seems to repeat passages from the upaniṣad Chandogya. Ecstasy of space, space as purification and blow of spirituality. In the face of space, "even light or sound become painfully excessive, for they are not equally good for infinity." When it lands, "dualizing consciousness returns, it is the pluralizing, the plurilocalizing." For an admirable few hours he has been invested with space. "The spirit, collecting equally "he" and "non-him", in a monism of fact. You will have the "revelation" of him. But it can also have the revelation of Maya, the universal illusion, since here it has its evident manifestation. You can also have the revelation of the Absolute, of the Spiritual without limits. And even, if it is of a loving nature, it can have the revelation of a love, the only universal reality. And of what is called, recklessly, cosmic consciousness."
It ends with a reference to India. "It is not absurd to think that, especially in India, metaphysical experience (by direct action on the body) preceded the great metaphysical systems, which were first built on its foundation, to give it a place." Michaux reissues the radical empiricism of Śaṃkara, Berkeley and William James. Matter as experience of the mind, liberation from duality, wise detachment from one's own actions and behaviors (theme of the Bhagavadgītā). Unusual stripping and expansion, ineffable lack of duality.
What mescaline allows you to see
Each substance offers a landscape. But that landscape is not only hers. It is a participatory landscape, created by the mind of the psychonaut as he navigates in the mind of the world. The fungus is astral, the fundamental liana, the geometric cactus. They should not be called drugs, but psychoactive substances. They are not exciting or tranquilizing. They do not create addiction. The natural place of the fungus, which lacks roots, is the starry sky. Its nature is firmamental. Ayahuasca, like the liana, seeks roots and depths. Delve into the past, into the world of the dead. The cactus is a chaste, antierotic plant that favors the dominance of the abstract. "Mescaline diminishes imagination. Castrate the image, desensualize it. It is also the enemy of poetry, meditation, and above all mystery... Mescaline is a disorder of composition. Write by enumeration. Draw by repetition. It is the terrain and the triumph of the abstract, of the fast abstract. It's impossible to stop."
Everything is vibrant and full of reality in the psychoactive state. One becomes extraordinarily receptive. You can recognize anything in the crowds. There is also a style of mescaline, which will immediately recognize those who have tried it. Strident reds and absolute greens. An optical drama. Multiple vibrations. At first almost fulminant. Fantastic lengthening of images. "When you get punched, you see silver stars, not a soot tipper or a scene from Shakespeare. The same goes for mescaline." It arouses certain visions. Blinding or lightning-cleaved images, fire ditches, distant and tiny people, animated by rapid movement. Lots of crystals. Great fields of colors, points of color, crowds agitated like marching caterpillars, thin minarets, columns like spires. Huicholes and Tarahumaras gather to ingest peyote. The gods are invited to the solemnity of the sacrament. Gods of fire and rain, volcanoes and crops. It is enough to pronounce their name for them to appear. Mexican arts (Zapotec, Toltec, Aztec), become eloquent and significant. The mind that mescaline reveals is not only physiological, it is anthropological, cultural and historical. It is the experience of a shared world.
'Untitled', 1956, by Henri Michaux. colaimages / Alamy
Diagnose the failure of the modern project. "The Westerner has long since ceased to believe in the gods. What he perceives is infinite relativity, the endless cascade of causes and effects, of precedents and consequentials, where everything is wheel that drags and wheel dragged. These passages from one wheel to another are annoying to the spirit, which aspires to unite. Because they don't like that speed, unable to fly, they go to sleep as they would on a train." He remembers a sensational Sunday, in which he was given a change of time. New time. The immeasurable is the natural. New approach to radical empiricism, to the world made of qualities. Irony about the quantification and self-complacent blindness of the data.
Mescaline allows us to glimpse the divine tension. "Coming out of mescaline we know better than any Buddhist that everything is nothing but appearance. This was nothing more than an illusion of normality. What it was during the effect was the illusion of substance. We are converted." And it also transforms his vision of art. "The beautiful pages of literature seemed to me uninteresting, blind, greedy, petty." It abandons its natural reserve. For the first time in his life, he finds it more attractive to divulge a secret than to keep it. As if the mystery of the world were inexhaustible. He goes to others open, pleased to open up and to see others open ("angry disposition that I hope to change soon"). Three months after the experience, he recognizes himself again and orients himself. "I stay away from that drug that doesn't suit me. It's me, my drug, that she takes away from me." A lack of knowledge. Until that moment he had been unfair to the will, now he is glad to have recovered it. "There must be more Mescalinian temperaments than others, perhaps races and societies as well." The mind in its collective and anthropological aspect.
By carelessness, ingest 600 milligrams of mescaline. The journey is terrifying. Fight relentlessly. He can't afford to panic. Eat sugar cubes (to cushion the impact). Phone a doctor friend. Speak with clama. "Excessive dose. I think I was wrong. It's hard to bear. I would need a counterpoison." You have turned on the light to telephone. The lamp is next to a mirror. He has seen a head he had never seen, a furious madman who would terrorize a criminal. Extraverted, frighteningly photogenic, a head of energy, of maddened furious unable to listen to anyone. When internal trepidations and destructions become intolerable, the madman has to express them by destroying, burning, wounding, killing. He feels he must claim a straitjacket, but he does not want to lose what little independence he has left. He incites himself to courage, to weather the storm in solitude. Ask a friend to come to your house and stay in the next room. He thinks (naively) that in the hospital there is salvation.
It notices a truth of nature. "Without fixity, there is no more certainty. Permanence is certainty. One-second certainty is worthless." He has discovered the key to modern thought. Newton and his fixed lattice of spacetime. An axiom that sustains three hundred years of engineering, of engineering vision of the world.
He lies down. Lots of crazy ideas. He dare not abandon himself to sleep. Needle-like shapes, like compass legs, pale violet. He begs for sleep to come and appease his inner tear. He doesn't come. On the other hand, he is suspicious of sleep and remains on guard. Find the antidotes. In music and in the mountains. Weeks after the overdose, when he draws, he incessantly traces parallel, rapid, numerous, manic features. The night of the six blisters he didn't know what to hold on to to get rid of the fatigue in his head. It saved him to set a rhythm with his fingers on the wooden wall. The shaman's drum. Its slow, unexpected pace lifted him out of his misery. Visualization of rhythm, sound revelation, Vedic. The health of the spirit consists in maintaining the mastery of mental speed. Now he understands the old Chinese saying: "The object of music is to moderate."
The mountain, its altitude, also protects it from mescaline. "That's where the angels appear, that's where God speaks to his own. The mountain excludes the obese, rejects flattery and softness, the silly and uniform feeling of the capitals. The mountain arouses a kind of elemental courage. It forms not the man of the guts but the man of the lung-heart couple, the man of courage and impetus (and idealism)." The mountain is an invitation to walk, to become a good pilot of yourself.
Al día siguiente decide salir al campo. Visitar a un amigo fiel. Cuatro días más tarde continúan los efectos. Entra sin saberlo en el horror del sueño. Desciende al submundo. En el noveno subterráneo empuja la puerta de una celda que se cierra a su paso. La llave cae por una rendija del enlosado, perdiéndose en el abismo. Vienen a buscarlo y lo conducen a una habitación inferior, que también es calabozo. Está atrapado. El miedo se ha hecho intimidad. Y en lo íntimo el miedo se ha desbocado. La razón es impotente. Cuando intenta ponerle coto con argumentos de la lógica, le invade cada vez más deprisa. Juego vertiginoso. “Usted está encerrado, se ha hecho enteramente abstracto. La prisión donde está encerrado es la esencia de la atadura. Puertas y llaves resultan superfluas. El loco tiende a la esencia, a la fascinación por la esencia. Es peligroso indagar la esencia de Dios. La religión es el infierno de los escrupulosos. A ese ser infinito, que no llegan a concebir y que los moviliza y los arroja en las tendencias infinitizantes, responden con la conciencia de su falta infinita, de sus pecados. Viven infinitamente en falta”.
En una nota escribe: “Tener una religión no es creer en una divinidad al contrario de los que no creen en ninguna. Es una donación que deseamos irresistiblemente hacer a alguien que se encuentra muy por encima de nosotros. El amor no postula más la existencia de una mujer de belleza perfecta. Es una donación de sí, es la necesidad de hacer esa donación, y el más eunuco puede desearlo de modo irrefrenable. El narcisismo sólo es posible si uno se hace esa donación a sí mismo. Y en ello también, es curioso, hay que creer (creer en sí)”.
Muchos ateos y teófobos de occidente manejan una visión semítica de lo divino. Pero lo divino admite otros modelos, que no siguen la dialéctica pecado-redención-juicio característica de nuestra tradición. “Hay un temperamento que quiere adorar a Dios, pero no puede y al que Dios enloquece. ¡Cuántas personas se han hecho ateas para reconquistar la paz del espíritu!”. Raimon Panikkar confirma la intuición de Michaux: la forma contemporánea de espiritualidad es el ateísmo.
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