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Reading Michaux’s Portrait of the Meidosems

March 25, 2009 by · No comments

Darren Jackson

Photo: carlsonimkeller

Although it’s been many years since I first escaped into the tormented mythology of the Meidosems, the images still hold me the way the Meidosems’ grip one of their children of the soul, dangled by the ankle “in the wind and the rain” (115)*.

I had moved to the south of France for a woman and, by that time, our relationship had settled into an uneasy truce reminiscent of trench warfare. Both grad students, we dug into our books and were unable, even face to face in that small living room, to share the silence. Somehow I discovered Michaux’s La vie dans les plis at that moment in my life.

Michaux’s Portrait of the Meidosems creates a mythology for the interior life, of us at our most vulnerable. His Meidosems always lean face first into every hardship and hope. They feel their existence intensely, and as a mythology, they present an interior version of ourselves in order to examine the nature of hope and suffering. The poem begins with a deceptively simple statement of the Meidosemmes’ hope**:

Otherwise, like all Meidosemmes, she dreams only of entering the Palace of Confetti. (113)

The Meidosemmes dream of entering a place of joy. At first glance, this passage appears quite dull, yet contrasted with the physical reality of the Meidosems, it becomes emblematic of what is missing:

It’s necessary to say, above all, they live in concentration camps.
The concentration camps where the Meidosems live, they couldn’t live there. But they worry how they would live if they were no longer there. They are afraid of being bored outside. One beats them, one brutalizes them, one tortures them. But they are afraid of being bored outdoors. (171)

Their struggles strengthen them, but do not define them; nor does Michaux suggest that it defines us. The Meidosems reflect our interior conflicts, which so often render us unable to act:

Can thirty-four tangled lances compose a being? Yes, a Meidosem. A Meidosem suffering, a Meidosem who doesn’t know how to hold himself together, how to make face, who doesn’t know anymore than to be a Meidosem.
They’ve destroyed his “a.”
But he’s not yet beaten. The lances that should serve him usefully against so many enemies, he’s passed them first through his own body.
But he’s not yet beaten. (118)

These same beings “take the form of bubbles to dream, [. . .] the form of liana’s to be moved” (119). The Meidosems’ existence, that which they compose and conversely composes them, envisions the inner life as both harsh and beautiful.

At that time in our tiny apartment by the train station, my own life also consisted of unexpected contrasts. I had finally become comfortable with the language and culture of my new home, but at the same time grown uncomfortable with the woman who had inspired that transition.

Somewhere along the way we wounded one another as deftly as the Meidosems wound those they love. Although we spoke each other’s native tongues, we could not find the words to ease the other’s pain and anger at an event neither could remember. We smiled so falsely in public that no one visited for gouté any longer:

She sings, she who doesn’t want to scream. She sings because she is proud. But it’s necessary to know how to hear her. Such is her song, screamed profoundly in silence. (130)

We were as mute as those strange creatures, equally unable to articulate our desires. Yet Michaux’s work creates a fuller picture of the interior life than these passages suggest:

The extreme elasticity of the Meidosems, it’s the source of their joy. of their unhappiness also.
Several bundles fallen from a cart, an iron thread dangling, a sponge drinking and almost already full, the other empty and dry, condensation on a mirror, a phosphorescent trace, look well–look. Maybe it’s a Meidosem. Maybe they are all Meidosems. . .seized, pricked, swollen, hardened, by diverse sentiments. . .(120)

They adapt just as I adapted to my new home, as she and I adapted to our disconnection.
Reading Michaux’s Portrait of the Meidosems makes us uncomfortable because we relate to his creatures even at their most exotic:

Those hundreds of threads filled with electric shudders, spastic, it’s with this uncertain trellis for a face that the anguished Meidosem tries to consider calmly the massive world that surrounds him.
It’s what he has to respond to the world, as a shivering bell responds.
While shaken by calls, hit and hit again, called and called again, he aspires for a Sunday, a real Sunday, not yet arrived. (123)

As I read I was overwhelmed by the immediacy of the imagery and the uncanny correlation of those images to my own life, sitting not five feet from the woman who caused me so much pain, and to whom I probably caused even more. We had been living this way for weeks, composing our faces into masks to avoid confrontation. We were too like the Meidosems for personal comfort, yet I kept reading:

Profiles formed of reproach, profiles formed of the disappointed hopes of young girls, there you are, the profiles of Meidosems.
Concave above all, saddened concave, but not crying.
No acceptance of the tough, no acceptance of tears. No acceptance.
[. . .]. (157)

It felt as if Michaux had looked forward in time to us, sitting there in our carefully guarded silence. Yet if the text never varied, even in such seemingly prescient detail, if Michaux focused only on suffering, I’m sure I’d have been unable to bear it, that I would have put it down and never returned.

He knew the human spirit in its worst moments well enough to know that there is more to existence than misery. Even so, the joys in this text possess their own difficulties:

From a cart of air, or from a small unknown earth dissimulated in some ionosphere descended a small troop of naked Meidosems, attached, some, to parachutes, others to several strings or to a plunging dirt-clod, others not attached at all.
Light, fibers and threads thrown behind, these Meidosems descended obliquely (without doubt drifting), hands at rest, pressed against the leg.
Falling, they prefer to fall wisely, to drift.
No, don’t worry, descend calm, calm, limbs held well, held well. Without a second thought. What good is there in worrying already? They still have several seconds before the crash. (152)

While there is tension here, there is also freedom. The impending crash does not deter the liberty of the moment: after all, “they prefer to fall wisely.” Yet as in much of Michaux’s work, the underlying tensions mediate even these small moments of respite.

I moved to France to follow a woman I had not yet known a full year, certain that I had chosen “to fall wisely,” yet the moment of reading this passage proved to be one of the unhappiest of my young life. Moments of respite do exist, both in life and in Portrait of the Meidosems, and Michaux’s presentation of these moments demonstrates his insight into interior life:

Today’s the afternoon for the relaxation of the Meidosemmes. They climb into the trees. Not by the branches, but by the sap.
What little fixed form they had, fatigued to death, they’re going to lose in the branches, in the leaves and moss and stems.
Drunk ascension, soft as soap entering filth. Quick in the small grass, slowly in the old trembles. Suavely in the flowers. Under the infamous but strong inhalation of butterfly trunks, they move no more.
Then they descend by the roots in the friendly earth, abundant in good things, when one knows to take it.
Joy, joy invades as invades panic, joy as under a blanket. (125)

If the passage were to end here, it would seem to belong to happiness, but Michaux’s sense of the interior won’t allow even that degree of simplicity. The simile “as invades panic” prepares us for a contrast. While the Meidosemmes experience their joy, they must recall the young:

[. . .] who, lost, overcome in the trees, cannot detach themselves.
To menace them, or still to humiliate them. So they return, detaching without grief, bringing them, filled with vegetable juice and resentment. (125-6)

Even joy entails difficulty, particularly for the young. We do not let go easily, and when forced we resent the loss of joy. Back in my apartment in France, frozen by the silence, I wondered if that might be the reason she and I continued on as we did for so long, unwilling to let go of what had once been profound joy. I’m still afraid to engage that question, even now so many years since we said goodbye for the last time.

For the Meidosems, the refusal to let go of themselves, of their hopes, leads them closer to the state of being they sought. Through their perseverance, their fear of boredom, the Meidosems partially transcend their harsh reality:

Wings without bodies, without birds, pure wings of every body flying toward a solar sky, still not resplendent, but fighting to be resplendent, drilling a path in the empyrean like a cannon-shell of future felicity.

Silence. Flights.

This that the Meidosems have so desired, at last it’s arrived. There they are. (184)

I wish I could say that reading Michaux’s Portrait of the Meidosems provided the catharsis necessary to heal my own relationship, but I don’t recall how we finally gave up fighting each other, only that we did. Reading Michaux couldn’t have hurt: escaping into his mythologies entangles the reader in what is fled, which makes the flight all the more worth it.


*The translations here are my own and the page numbers refer to the Editions Gallimard publication of La vie dans les plis (1972).
**To differentiate between the masculine and the feminine, I have chosen to keep the original French forms, which includes the use of the masculine form in plural instances involving both genders.

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