Henri Michoux

When we lived in Paris in the early fifties of the last century when I was a little boy of six, seven, maybe eight, my father was a mystery.   For me as a child (and perhaps for all the rest of me as well) everything was mystery. It surged before me in sensory immediacy, just as it was, yet always changing, full at once of caprice and the immutability of actually being.   Looking back I see that we lived well as citizens of a conquering/liberating power, even though we had no refrigerator and the furnace worked intermittently.   We were privileged, an anomalous status for people who belonged to a faith whose remnants were just clinging to life and trembling with knowledge of the once and future terror. The Second World War was not truly over.   It raged on in the heads and hearts of so many who were silent, including my father. The dead had met their deaths by combat, by extermination, by accident, by hidden acts of cruelty intimate beyond naming and yet they were not dead because the living clung to them, scrapped desperately to reach them and failed. The living were thrown back on their own minuscule and diminished resources. This was all they had as their dreams in nights of fitful sleep kept reminding them of the radical amputations they had suffered. Three or four times of a Sunday afternoon my father and I walked along the banks of the Seine.   I had no idea what he was thinking nor even did I have an idea of trying to form an idea of what he... read more

Guabacaste, 2017

I’ve just turned 71. The reversal of the digits from 17 to 71 took 54 long years, 54 short years, 54 inscrutable years.   There is no way to make a map of the way. So many people I’ve loved are dead and gone and yet alive and not gone in my mind. When I was 17 the outer population was greater than the inner population. At 71 it is exactly the reverse – the inner population is greater than the outer population. I don’t have to spill blood libations to court them.   They come in my dreams, looking exactly like themselves from long ago and faraway.   My Great Uncle Manny wears the forty year old blue shoes back again in fashion. He loved them and loved the revolution that brought them back. I loved them because he loved them. That was enough. We get swept up in the currents and eddies of other people’s lives.   That is what love does, also what hate does. But how does the dream machine hold so much – shoes, faces, voices, the banks of the Seine, my father’s pipes and his Latakia tobacco? I appear sometimes as myself with and without a befuddled expression. And women, too, starting with my mother and proceeding from there, I have been listening and listening down the years and down the decades. I have heard voices from outside and voices from inside.   I have heard the voices of some who lived and died before I was born, some long before. Ancients have been my contemporaries. I have tried to make a music of what I have heard... read more

One Note

In the night he played the organ of sorrows whose vast pipes spanned continents and whose music was time, the sea in which he swam and dissolved to become a wail sounding the deep where beginning and end are one note... read more

Tanzania

The strangest thing about Tanzania was how familiar it was to me in February of 2016 after a gap of nearly fifty years. 1. I left Tanzania in 1969. When I was there long ago, I was young and Tanzania was young. Now I am old and Tanzania is still young, very young, with a huge portion of its population under 20. It has an enormous and stunningly diverse youthful population that needs an education, work, a sense of purpose and meaning, pathways to dignity and integrity, pathways not so easy to find in the maze of the modern world in which traditions have been radically disrupted. My very first trip to East Africa took place when I was eight. I travelled through the portal of triangular postage due stamps issued by the Nyassa Company of Mozambique, then a Portuguese colony.   These stamps showed wildlife within their escalloped borders. I remember giraffes and zebras, each with a hint of the savannah behind them. These hints conveyed the vastness of the savannah and so, too, the existence of another world in which I was wholly absorbed. I would have loved to own these stamps, but knew better than to ask because I knew we did not have the money for such luxuries. So they remained in their glass case at Halle’s.   In retrospect this was a stroke of good fortune.   The imaginative experience remained free of the weight of concrete possession.   So it possessed me all the more deeply. I recently looked for these very stamps and found them figured on the internet, even as they still figure in my imagination.... read more

Chungwo

Chungwo, China, Middle Kingdom – but my sense is “Middle Kingdom” may not give the full flavor of the name.   Kingdom that is the center of everything may be better. Or simply center of the world. Bicycles are gone. Urban China belongs to cars in bewildering numbers being driven so assertively that it seems that a twenty four hour game of chicken is being played on the roads.   The pedestrian does not have the right of way and the carnage is considerable. Vehicles collide with vehicles and vehicles collide with people on foot.   You have to be very alert crossing the street.   On the last thirty years China has built a road system that spans the greater part of the nation. This has involved the construction of innumerable bridges, overpasses and tunnels. Much of motor vehicle travel in China feels modern, although there are anomalies.   On a road outside Pingyao a shepherd and his working dog are moving a flock of some hundreds of sheep. This brings to an unhappy halt convoys of heavy trucks headed in both directions. Cars and trucks produce carbon emissions far beyond what bicycles do.   This is not good for the air.   In fact, the air in cities is often miasmatic, obscuring the sky, threatening the health of the lungs that breathe it.   Of course, the burning of coal, often coal that is dirty, is responsible for much of the degradation of air quality. The energy is needed to power development, but it comes with a bundle of costs.   Could development be smarter and slower? “Ah,” says one of our local guides one morning in... read more

Jail

At the very height of the financial crisis as the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst,the federal government was spending some tens of thousands of dollars to send to jail a patient, let us call him Hugo, who had been involved in a piece of financial chicanery to finance his education.   Hugo was guilty as charged,  although he argued that he had been subtly entrapped. Did Hugo lie about a number of things? Of course he did.   Once the indictment came down, Hugo was deserted by almost all those he thought were his friends and allies. There were a few exceptions, for which Hugo was deeply grateful. But he was terribly hurt by  a shunning that deprived him of his social and work milieux.   A man of frail self-esteem to start with, this shunning was devastating and dangerous. It made him think ill of himself against his own will.   The prosecution and the subsequent incarceration were costly. They were justified on the grounds of the importance of protecting against “moral hazard.”   Less than thirty thousand was involved in the patient’s financial chicanery, not billions.  The little man takes the fall. The big guys smile, apologize, asking for permission to do it again, and move on to do it again. Hugo was fully aware of this.   With a rueful smile of his own, Hugo remarked that he had always been a little guy.   Upon conviction, Hugo was suicidal, overwhelmed by sorrow, shame and dread.   He had grown up in the midst of South America’s most bitter civil war . The dead were a part of everyday experience. He was in... read more

The Unfinished

The unfinished stays with us within us, nagging at us in different ways at different times, sometimes with considerable creativity, sometimes just as a subliminal itch. More than twenty-five years ago a patient came to see me with complaints that were in no way out of the ordinary. You will see as we go along that there is no way that I could violate his privacy rights by writing about him. He complained of being ill used at work, unappreciated at home. He wondered why it was his lot always to have to hold up under such a load. There were tinges of depression, even tinges of suicidality. I remarked that he maintained a peculiar subtle distance from all that he said, as if he were talking not quite about himself, yet not quite about someone else. In the fifth session, I had the sense of him fading out just a bit more, so that it was not exactly a surprise to me when he did not come for he sixth session. He did not come and he did not call. I was concerned about him, puzzled about what had occurred in him, what had taken place between the two of us. I waited a week and then started actively to search for news of him. I called the phone number he had given as his home number. The person who answered the phone said she had never heard of any such person, that it was certain that no such person lived at this address. I called the number he had given as his work number. The person who... read more

My Life: Missing

“I think I’ve missed most of my life…”“Say more.”“I’m not who I meant to be, not that I meant to be anyone. I don’t feel I was meant to be who I am or how I am. I think my mother and father would recognize me, if they saw me now. But when I look in the mirror, that person doesn’t seem like me. There is a certain familiarity, but that familiarity is neither intimacy nor accord. It’s a stand off between myself and the one whom I see in the mirror.”“Go on.”“I wonder how this happened. Did I just take my parents’ word for who I was? If we could exhume them from the yellow midwestern clay where they lie next to each other, my parents would protest that they never had any blueprint for me, that they just wanted me to be happy. The sad thing is that that’s just what I would say to my own kids, if I were pressed. But I don’t go into this sort of thing with my children any more than I went into it with my parents. For a long time I didn’t go into it with myself. I suppose you could say that a certain brand of privacy, maybe even isolation is a tradition in my family.”“Mmmm.”“I’m fifty-eight years old. I have enough money. I have a stable marriage and three grown children. It’s not that I dislike my life. It’s a fine life, but it doesn’t fit. It would be a wonderful life for someone else. Over the last two years, a very strange thing has been happening.... read more

Risk

I’m talking with an elderly man who has always been a physical risk taker, so extremely much so that he is convinced that it is genetic and that he has the gene or genes for this kind of behavior. This risk-taking has led to great accomplishments but also to innumerable injuries, both more and less dreadful, some with irreversible and dire consequences. “I’m still a risk-taker,” he says. Together we get to the idea that both thinking and feeling are risk taking activities that many people avoid because they represent threats to their senses of stability and security. If you think, if you feel, you may not turn out to be quite who you took yourself to be. If you think, if you feel, the world around you, including those nearest and dearest, may turn out to be different than you thought. You can sustain thought and feeling injuries that can be as crippling as physical injuries. Of course, if you do not think and feel, as if you do not move, there are opportunity costs. You lose out on opportunities that may heal and help, even inspire, as well as on those that may hurt. Opportunity costs are extremely hard to characterize, becausethis side of realization opportunities are by definition imponderable. To live with an open horizon is not simple, but is a fundamental freedom. Until this conversation, I had not thought to put mental daring next to physical daring.The two are clearly different, but also share basic features. Security and curiosity meldto make daring possible both in the physical realm and in the mental realm. I got... read more

Not How I Drew It Up

“This is not how I drew it up. This is not what the blueprints said. I really don’t know what it is. If it’s my life, I really don’t want it, but I have kids to think about, so that’s why I’m still here. I’m going to go on being here, too. I wonder if I’ll ever get used to myself. I hardly can remember what used to be but I can’t forget it either.” “I feel like I got lost and wandered in to someone else’s life. If they want it back, they sure can have it. I feel like an immigrant. I haven’t learned the language and I don’t really want to learn it.” “I don’t know how I got here. I suppose one thing led to another, but I never had any idea of the destination. I was kind of just along for the ride. I’ve turned in to someone I hardly recognize. The particulars of my life shock me when I stop to consider them, which is why I try not to, which is why I don’t understand what I’m doing here talking with you.” “I don’t like Kafka, but the reason I don’t like him is that he knows too much. He’s too close to truth that is beyond inconvenient. You really can wake up in the morning to discover you have been turned into a huge bug. Some mischief in the night. An accident. Nobody meant you any harm. But how do you learn to live like a bug? And even Kafka is still being polite, because you can be turned into something... read more
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