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The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the…

The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones (1966)

by Henri Michaux

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There is a revealing moment in “Major Ordeals of the Mind” when a hallucinating Henri Michaux confesses to avoiding a female friend who would be concerned and disappointed about his continued drug experiments. At another moment, two of his friends walk into the middle of his trip, linger briefly failing at their interactions before deciding to leave him in perplexing solitude. These events take up less than half a page of Michaux’s book and he does not offer any other context on his life. Accordingly, the remainder of his narrated experiences are accessible to anyone with an interest in drug experiences and their effects on consciousness.

Michaux’s careful and honest observations seem universal—freed of personal baggage and purged of cryptic references—and they are often hilarious, “it was a biscuit wrapping, nothing more. I know that perfectly well. It was also a disturbing, annoying, deceptive being, capable of anything.” His descriptions of dissociation, anxiety, nervousness and disrupted thought (chapters 1-4) moved quickly and resonated best with me. The second half of the book is at once more focused on those with permanent mental problems (primarily schizophrenics) and more absorbed with powerful, transcendent and appalling hallucinations. These were perhaps less universal experiences—though I am in no position to judge. For example, his cosmic launch into outer space and his explanation of losing touch with his body parts, was—for me—less accessible and because of that, less interesting (in the way that a stranger’s dreams are). Chapter 7 however, should not be missed; its discussion of a “table” made by a schizophrenic sheds more light on people with that misfortune than anything else I have read.

I was only skimmingly interested in his bizarre mystic system (“The Four Worlds”) that glorifies the movement from eroticism through fear, towards love and into contemplation. On the whole, the book reads with unusual speed and the first half of it is memorable, revealing, accurate and entertaining. It is fun to see someone so motivated and earnest struggling as all of the world’s small obstacles turn into major ordeals. ( )
  fieldnotes | Nov 11, 2008 |
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