September 5, 2016 sebastianmarincolo

Henri Michaux and The Flying Carpet: Cannabis Explorations of an Unique Mind

„Everywhere I go I find that a poet has been there before me.“

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

He was admired by many of his contemporaries both for his poetry and writing as well as for his unique paintings. The French writer Andre Gide was so fascinated by his work that he wrote a book to promote him entitled Let’s Discover Henri Michaux. The eminent German Poet Paul Celan, who translated Michaux into German, thought that Michaux’s work was just as enigmatic and hard to decipher as Kafka’s writings. The art critic Peter Schjedahl wrote about him in the New York Times:

„He strikes me as being one of the most palpably authentic of post-war European artists. Influenced by Ernst and Klee, he created an art of energized ideograms and meandering calligraphy, of figures evolving haphazardly out of weltering chaos, or of the chaos asserting itself to wipe out anything recognizable.“[1]

 

Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing 1961 Henri Michaux 1899-1984 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00577

Untitled Chinese Ink Drawing 1961 Henri Michaux 1899-1984 Purchased 1963 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00577

 

Michaux was born in 1899 in the small Belgian town of Namur, the very town where the French writer and poet Charles Baudelaire died. Like Baudelaire and the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, Michaux experimented with several psychoactive substances including hashish to explore what he would call the “space inside.” Baudelaire, Benjamin, and Michaux certainly belong to the most vigorous, proficient, and brilliant psychonauts ever.[2]All three of them were prodigious literates and explicitly set out to self-experiment with hashish determined to express their journeys into the inner realm of consciousness.

Like Baudelaire and Benjamin, Michaux left us with incredibly perceptive, poetic and sometimes cryptic descriptions of the effects of cannabis on the human mind. Michaux is much better know for his writing on his mescaline experiments – he also created many of his more famous paintings under the influence of this substance – yet his writing on hashish is just as profound and insightsful. Like the writing of Baudelaire, and Benjamin’s protocols written under the influence of the hashish high, Michaux’s writing needs decoding and interpretation. But from all we know about the cannabis high today we can say that he beautifully and accurately described many of the most amazing effects of the cannabis high in meticulous detail.

The three dedicated psychonauts often experimented with very large ingested doses of hashish, which led to much more pronounced effects on their mind and body than those experienced by most modern recreational users after having a few tokes from a vaporizer or smoking a few joints. This allowed them to make observations on some extreme effects, which help to understand the nature of the marijuana high. It is especially interesting to see in how much vivid detail Michaux described many interesting cognitive and perceptual enhancements of the hashish high.[3]

 

A Sense of Wonder, Hyperfocus, and Stereovision

In his book “Miserable Miracle”, Michaux notes:

“Anyone who takes hashish as an experiment witness after taking mescaline leaves a racing automobile or a long distance electric locomotive for a pony.”

He adds in a footnote: “A pony, however, is capable of surprises not to be looked from a locomotive.”[4]

During a high, Michaux finds many surprises – and he follows their trail.

Myriads of cannabis users have reported that a cannabis high makes them feel as if they would perceive something for the first time; whatever comes to their attention often comes with a strong feeling of awe and curiosity. This is certainly one of the great enhancements a high can bring. For the philosophers Aristotle and Plato, the feeling of awe and amazement towards something perceived or contemplated is the very beginning of all philosophy. If we feel this, we do not take something as given anymore and we wonder about it, we start our investigation. Many cannabis user had this feeling of awe seeing an landscape, hearing music, or experiencing a kiss as if it was for the first time.

In his book Miserable Miracle, Michaux writes:

“(…) whatever Hashish displays interests me. I follow it all the way. I want to know the end. I want to know where it is taking me.”[5]

Looking at a photograph, he writes: “And I so devoured this colored landscape with a new eagerness. How wonderful looking it is! A new youth came back to me, one of the subtlest, the youth of the eye.”[6]

Michaux also observes that the hashish high focuses his attention (I have often called this the “hyperfocus”-effect of attention during a high):

“With Hashish in me I am a falcon. If I give a circular glance it will be only once, as one makes a general survey, not to be repeated. I am against dispersion. I look for an object in order to follow its trail. (…) Nothing can distract me.”

When looking at a photography during a high, Michaux notes a that he can see with ‘marvelous optical dexterity’. He describes and names ‘stereovision’ of a photograph – which makes him see the photo better ‘in depth’– and also describes ‘stereoaudition’ of sounds.

An enhanced ability for stereovision has also been reported by other cannabis users, such as an anonymous planetary geologist to Lester Grinspoon’s collection of anecdotal reports of marijuana-users. This scientist reports that planetary geologists rely on two stereo image photos of planetary landscapes taken from two slightly different angles by satellites and that usually, one needs a mechanical device like a stereo-opticon to judge depth perception from those paired photos:

stereo-photography, vision

“An early stereo image photo which can create the illusion of depth with a mechanica aid. The illusion can also be created with an animated gif using a rapid succession of such stereo images: See for instance: http://stereo.nypl.org/view/21724”

„But one evening we smoked some especially potent marihuana, purely for pleasure. I amused myself by looking at a pair of stereo photographs that had been left in the room. Suddenly the two pictures merged into a single three-dimensional view. It was like a gift from God.“[7]

 

Altered Body Image Perception and The Flying Carpet

Interestingly, Michaux also notes a drastic change in his perception of his own body. Many users have times again reported that they have intensified body sensations during a high. Under very strong dosages, users report body image distortions (such as feeling that one’s foot must be 3 meters away) as well as ‘loosing their body’ completely. Likewise, Michaux writes:

“At the time I did not know that the sensation of floating in the air, of being weightless, was one of the characteristics of hashish. The flying carpet is not just a legend, but an old reality in Persia and Arabia where for centuries Indian hemp made people float on the air and travel through the skies.” [8]

 

Flying Carpet

Enhanced Episodic Memory, Imagination, and Transforming Imagery

Apart from those perceptual changes, Michaux describes the enhancement of his episodic memory retrieval during his high:

“Later on at home I begin vaguely going over in my mind a scene of a motion picture seen a few days before, when suddenly the noises and the voices from the episode – “burst out” and violently throw themselves at me. A memory revived, but stronger than the original expression.”

His experience with an intensified imagery during a high supposedly comes from ingesting a large dosages of hashish which can cause visual ‘trips’:

“These images were distinct, stayed quietly in place. I had enough time (just enough) to see them clearly. It was like a series of very short scenes in color, very well composed (…).”[9]

Interestingly, Michaux also notes how these images went through associative transformations, a process which can easily be seen to be a rich source of creative exploration for an artist:

“A rope I was watching, coiling there, suddenly ended in the red muzzle of a little feline, (a sort of ocelot, it looked to me, (…) its neck being made of rope, although its muzzle was very life-like and menacing). (…) Another time a complicated assemblage of metal pieces I am examining suddenly turns into a machine gun pointing at me.”[10]

 

Enhanced Empathic Understanding

We have countless reports from inspirational users of marijuana about how a high helped them to empathically understand others, to better imaginative to be in the situation of somebody else and to feel this person’s feelings. For a few years now, adults as well as children with various forms of autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) have been reported to profit immensely from consumed cannabis. Under the influence of a high, they seem to be better able to understand the emotions and needs of others around them.[11]

Reading a text during a high, Michaux finds that hashish can help to understand and “feel” the author’s personality:

“You can hear the authors in person (….) Words no longer play any part. The man who is behind them comes out in front. (…) The text, at whatever point you pick it up, becomes a voice, (…) and the man speaks behind this voice. The man who wrote it is there. Hashish opens the inner space of sentences (…). The author thus unmasked never altogether recovered his mantle or his former retreat ”[12]

In another passage, Michaux indicates that during a high his thinking is what other users have described as “almost telepathic.” Michaux writes he is

“(w)ith a look that thinks, thinks and goes through the other person’s head”. [13]

One another day, Michaux is walking on the street and his attention is arrested by voice of a girl passing by. Again, he feels as if he could “read” the girl’s mind, only through that short, fleeting experience of listening to her talking:

“I continued to dwell in it amorously – a voice, hardly mature, and genuinely shy, that made you forget everything else, a voice that implored protection, so wary of the phenomenon of speech, advancing so cautiously like a foot at the edge of a precipice, or fingers held out towards the fire. (…) I really should have turned back, caught up with her, (…) got to know this girl, so elegant in her apprehensions, so touching and distinguished in her tiny boldness, which must have seemed enormous to her, so delicately adventurous in her loss of reserve as she took her first tentative step.”[14]

Is it really plausible that Michaux can read all this from the mere sound of a voice of a girl he did not even see? In my book High. Insights on Marijuana I have argued that a cannabis high can indeed lead to various cognitive enhancements such as a hyperfocus of attention and an enhanced ability for pattern recognition, which could explain why Michaux could read that much from her voice in just a few moments. He focuses strongly on the voice and recognizes patterns he has heard before in other voices; typical sound patterns similar to those of other people he experienced as expressing insecurity, boldness, and shyness.

Modern ‘simulation’-theories of empathic understanding stress that it is absolutely vital for us to imaginatively put ourselves in the place of others in order to understand them better; it is as if we would simulate another person in his situation, feeling the feeling he is going through and thereby understanding him. [15] Michaux describes clearly how he feels that during a high his enhanced ability to empathize with others in this way. He looks at a photography during a high and observes:

“I was looking through a magazine at some photographs of those amazing divers of the New Hebrides who, held back by long lianas, leap head-first from a rustic tower fifty feet or so high, landing on the ground slowed down … I was conscious of the distances, I estimated as though I were up there o the top of the tower, myself the man, (…), even having the sensation of dizziness, and even after turing the page, still feel myself on top of the tower, still at that terrifying heigh.“[16]

Landdiving, Indonesia

Image “’The Tower’, Pentecost Island Vanatu”, by Paul Stein”

 

Poets, Psychonauts, and the Value of Anecdotal Evidence

The majority of past scientific studies designed to research the cognitive and perceptual changes during a cannabis high were seriously flawed. Usually, the participants of those experiments had no previous experience with the substance, came with negative convictions and did not know what to expect. Most of the resulting anxious reactions were caused by a sterile clinical set and setting in which observing scientists would control the set-up and their dosages. Usually, the participants of those studies had no special abilities to observe and report their own mental states.

More than forty-five years ago, the Harvard psychiatrist Lester Grinspoon and the Harvard psychologist Charles Tart came to the conclusion that therefore, they could better study the effects of marijuana on the mind by collecting and analyzing anecdotal reports of habitual marijuana users. In his seminal book Marijuana Reconsidered (1971), Lester Grinspoon was bold enough to include and evaluate many reports from writers and artists like Fitz Hugh Lludlow, Baudelaire, and Michaux. Another great compilation which included a selection of literary and imaginative papers on cannabis was the book The Marijuana Papers edited David Solomon already in 1966.

Lester Grinspoon reminded us that we have to carefully evaluate these reports. Poets like Baudelaire would for instance sometimes use opiates or other substances along with their hashish, so some of the effects reported could not really be attributed to the ingestion of cannabis alone.

Many of the writers featured by Grinspoon and Solomon left us an incredible treasure with their poetic and yet oft highly detailed and precise descriptions of the cannabis high, which some of them had set out to explore.

Michaux, like other writers and fellow psychonauts, left us beautiful and rich descriptions of many of the perceptual and cognitive enhancements that the cannabis high can bring, including stereovision, stereoaudition, a hyperfocus of attention, an enhanced episodic memory, an enhanced imagination, and an enhanced ability to empathically understand others.

Many of his observations have been supported by countless detailed anecdotal reports of other inspirational users and, also, by experiences of innumerable medical patients like those with autistic spectrum syndrome who profited from the use of cannabis. It is time that scientists of various fields now start to take another look at these reports to better understand how consumed cannabis can effect our mind and bodies – and, connectedly, to understand which role the endocannabinoid system might play in those highly developed cognitive processes.

 

This article first apeared on my expert blog for Sensi Seeds here:

https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/henri-michaux-cannabis-flying-carpet-part/

https://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/henri-michaux-cannabis-flying-carpet-part-ii/

 

[1] Quoted from Douglas McGill, „Henri Michaux, Poet and Artist“, http://www.nytimes.com/1984/10/23/obituaries/henri-michaux-poet-and-artist.html

[2] In his book “Approaches to Drugs and Intoxication” (1970), the German author Ernst Jünger coined the term “psychonaut” for someone who explores the inner realms of his consciousness by means of consciousness-altering substances.

[3] For an overview on some possible cognitive enhancements during a high see my Essay “The Ten Most Useful Mind-Enhancements During a High”, http://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/the-10-most-useful-mind-enhancements-of-a-cannabis-high/

[4] Henri Michaux, „Miserable Miracle“, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Anonymous, „Cannabis and Planetary Surfaces“, in: Lester Grinspoon (ed.), „marijuana-uses.com) 2016, http://marijuana-uses.com/cannabis-and-planetary-surfaces-by-anonymous/

[8] Henri Michaux, „Miserable Miracle“, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[9] Ibid.

[10] Henri Michaux, „Miserable Miracle“, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[11] Compare my essay „Marijuana, Empathy, and Severe Cases of Autism“, http://sensiseeds.com/en/blog/marijuana-empathy-severe-cases-autism-part/

[12] Henri Michaux (1961), Light Through Darkness, Orion Press, New York pp.124-127.

[13] Henri Michaux, „Miserable Miracle“, Chapter 4, Indian Hemp http://www.lycaeum.org/books/books/miserablemiracle/chap4.html

[14] Ibid, p.7.

[15] Compare for instance Alvin Goldmann (2006) Simulating Minds: The Philosophy, Psychology and Neuroscience of Mindreading, Oxford University Press, USA.

[16] Ibid.

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