Fragility Itself: Henri Michaux’s Meidosems

(The Cosmic Impulse in Literature, part III)

As suggested by the title of the book into which the 20th century French poet and artist Henri Michaux incorporated his account of them, the strange beings he called the Meidosems exist in the folds. That is, folds are where the world collapses upon itself, bringing together what is otherwise apart; and withdraws from sight into the hidden-away. Likewise, unconnected multiplicities are what gather to become Meidosems. A Meidosem can be composed of any assortment of objects, undetached fragments, or even edges and surfaces—the limits of things. Some among a mass of bubbles; a tangle of vines twined about a tree, together with the veins of sap within; a nest of wires shuddering with electricity; even a scribble of lines cut through pure space—all of these can be Meidosems. Aristotle would have called them ‘mere heaps’:

Some bundles fallen from a cart, a dangling wire, a sponge that’s absorbing and already almost full, a phosphorescent trace, look carefully, look. Perhaps it’s a Meidosem. Perhaps they’re all Meidosems…seized, pricked, swollen, hardened, by a variety of feelings.

Life in the Folds, p.99 (ellipses in original)

As such, they pass unnoticed in the everyday world, concealed from view simply through lacking any unity or essence of their own. Their elusiveness is only heightened by the fact that they’re ever-shifting heaps—capable of meandering, not by moving their constituents, but by trading the ones they have out for others. Thus, spotting Meidosems requires aberrant forms of attention. As in the above passage, Michaux points a number of times to some random configuration of matter and space we encounter in our everyday affairs, and tells us to look: it just might be a Meidosem, or a herd of them in a jumble.

One common way in which fantastical literature takes up worldbuilding operations characteristic of myth and folklore is by creating such imaginary creatures. Some of these are simply adapted from ones found in preexisting storytelling traditions. This is, for example, a typical maneuver in fantasy, with its elves, dwarves, djinn, and dragons. Others are invented out of whole cloth: e.g. the vast menagerie of alien races from science fiction. Either way, one distinctive pleasure to be found in such literature lies in witnessing the author construct their fictional creatures, usually by providing a clear and compelling image of their distinctive characteristics—a pleasure that’s been operationalized (and in many cases, rendered banal) in any number of bestiaries, gaming manuals, and fan wikis.

In contrast, because of their peculiar character, one would be hard-pressed to formulate a stable image of the Meidosems. However, this isn’t due to any failing on Michaux’s part. Quite the contrary: their vague ephemerality is, in fact, his text’s principal theme, and the central fact of their lives. Nothing ties the Meidosems together except the torment to which they’re subjected by their lack of substance, and their consequent search for intensity and elevation.

Plate from _Meidosems_ (1948) p.17.

Michaux captures their pained striving in a series of lithographs that were published alongside his text in a 1948 livre d’artiste, simply entitled Meidosems. In these images, the Meidosems are blurs emerging from background obscurity. At first blush, they can easily be mistaken for mere smears or scrawls. Upon closer examination, though, we see hints of strained, afflicted animation, so that they become apparitions of uncertain form, burdened by an absence of being that threatens to fade into pure nothingness:

That herd that’s coming, like slow pachyderms, advancing single file, their mass is and is not. What could they do about it? How would they carry it? That heaviness, that stiff gait is only something they’ve taken on to escape their lightness, which eventually terrifies them.

And so goes the procession of enormous bladders, trying to deceive themselves.

Ibid, p.100.

Consequently, the Meidosems struggle to be encased in the weight of more substantial things. At the same time, though, they find such enclosure imprisoning, so that their longings also drive them outward, and eventually upward. They pore over maps to find a way out of the walls that surround them. They climb up into the tips of tree branches, or up poles and ladders. They concoct fantasies of being untethered to the solidity of the ground:

To converse with the vultures and with the eagles who pass over high above, they build large trees of firm matter, higher than any other tree, much higher, and capable, they believe, of making the birds themselves dream and of making them understand directly how alike they are, Meidosems and birds.

Ibid, p.122.

The paradoxical desire of the Meidosems suits their paradoxical nature. And, in devising such protean beings, Michaux gives himself maximal poetic license: the text takes the form of a string of brief, mercurial chunks of prose that defy summary—prose poems, really. However, when Michaux, in 1949, included his text on the Meidosems into a larger work—La Vie dans les plis (Life in the Folds)—he called it “Portrait des Meidosems”. Appropriate to this, what we find amidst all of the unstable imagery isn’t mere contradiction, but rather a precisely crafted portrait depicting forms of life whose disarray is what makes them, not quite fragile, but something else altogether stranger—that makes the Meidosems images of fragility itself.

Plate from _Meidosems_ (1948) p.43

What’s fragile is susceptible to damage or destruction. Through the impact of decomposing forces, the form in virtue of which it persists in the world can, that is, be erased. Thus, it would be wrong to say that Meidosems are fragile: what has no essence or unity of its own can’t, of course, be deprived of it. Yet, in another sense, they’re more fragile than fragile—in being, so to speak, rather than existence. What’s always under threat for a Meidosem isn’t whether it is but what it is, whose shifting makes it a specter. At the same time, as beings that are spectral in this sense, the Meidosems’ longing for rest is effectively a longing for their own destruction. To become something in particular is Meidosem death:

The extreme elasticity of the Meidosems, that’s the source of their joy. Of their unhappiness as well.

Ibid, p.99

When, at the end, the Meidosems are uncoupled from the stability of the earth, they thereby achieve something like salvation:

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.

Silence. Flights.

What the Meidosems have so desired, at last they’ve reached. There they are.

Ibid, p.125

However, if the firmness of ground is what promises to tether the Meidosems to substantial being, the vertiginous skies above are what ensure their never achieving it. In their seeking and eventually being unleashed into the firmament, then, we find a vision of salvation that stands in stark contrast to its more common, Christianity-inflected sense. Heaven; the afterlife; transcending our fallen earthly existence: what’s usually meant by such things is the achievement of a condition in which we are freed of our fragility. In stark contrast, the Meidosem empyrean is one in which they’ve behind left such aspirations—which all along had been the chains that bound them—and found freedom in the play of their own frailty.

Works consulted

  • Michaux, Henri. Life in the Folds, trans. Darren Jackson. Cambridge: Wakefield Press, 2016.
    • Meidosems, trans. Elizabeth R. Jackson. Santa Cruz: Moving Parts Press, 1992.

2 thoughts on “Fragility Itself: Henri Michaux’s Meidosems

    1. Mandel Cabrera

      I discovered Wakefield Press through a volume of essays. Out of curiosity, I searched through their catalogue, and bought a pile of their titles on the basis of their ad copy. So far, I’ve only read two out of the pile, but both (this book and Unica Zürn’s *The Trumpets of Jericho*) have been fantastic.

      Liked by 1 person

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