[ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE NEW REPUBLIC, JANUARY 5, 2005.]
HENRY DARGER WAS A TALENTED BUT TROUBLED MAN.
Storm of Creativity
by Nathaniel Rich
Much of what we know about the life of the reclusive writer and artist Henry Darger comes from his memoir,The History of My Life, which at just over 5,000 pages was one of the shortest things he ever wrote. The first 200 pages relate the story of his troubled childhood. Born in 1892 on Chicago’s north side, he loses both of his parents at an early age, and a sister, whom he never meets, is given up for adoption. At the age of twelve, due to his unruly behavior (many believe that he was caught masturbating at Catholic school), he is sent to the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children, an institution which later attained local notoriety for its staff’s abusive treatment of its patients, in a town over 100 miles south of Chicago. At age 17, Darger escapes the asylum and sets out for Chicago–by foot. He is on this trek home when, on page 206, he observes “a most singular and unbelievable phenomenon,” his account of which tells us more about his personality and his art than any autobiographical detail ever could. The “phenomenon” that Darger sees is a giant tornado tearing across the plains. He does not try to contain his excitement:
It had far more wallop than even a powerful atomic bomb. However stupendous and shocking the many different catastrophes of the past may be, none of them can compare to this storm. It was a wind convulsion of nature tremendous beyond all man’s conception, immeasurable beyond all man’s conception, immeasurable beyond measure.
His description of this tornado, and the destruction it wreaks across southern Illinois, occupies the rest of his memoir–all 4,878 pages of it.
Although he never explicitly mentions it in the pages of his memoir, a different kind of storm did overtake Darger at this time in his life, a torrent of creativity that was itself a most singular and unbelievable phenomenon. Upon returning to Chicago after his cross-state trek he began work on The Story of the Vivian Girls, In What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. At 15,000 pages, it is by far the longest novel ever written. Over the next 65 years Darger would write, in addition to the Realms, an 8,000 page sequel, his memoir, and a number of journals and weather logs–over 30,000 pages in all, most of them typed single-spaced on oversized paper with small margins and few line breaks.
He also produced hundreds of haunting, darkly majestic paintings on scrolls as long as ten feet that illustrate scenes from the Realms. Darger did all of this in total secrecy and solitude while living in a succession of cheap one-room apartments. His neighbors knew him only as a prickly, penniless man who worked janitorial jobs and attended Church several times a day. Otherwise he rarely left his room. When he did, he would often be spotted talking to himself or picking through garbage cans. Whenever a neighbor or landlord tried to engage him in conversation he would not reply directly to their questions but only offer disconnected comments about the weather–particularly about storms and tornados that were headed, he warned, toward Chicago.
After Darger’s death in 1973, his landlord of 40 years, a photographer and artist named Nathan Lerner, discovered the paintings and manuscripts while clearing out his room. In the decades since, and especially in recent years, the artwork has made Darger an international celebrity. His paintings have toured museums around the world, usually under the designation of “outsider art” (art made by unschooled and often mentally disturbed artists). Some of the larger ones have sold in galleries for six-figure prices. He is the subject of three major biographical studies (Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, John MacGregor’s exceptional Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, and the forthcoming The Old Man in the Polka-Dotted Dress: Looking for Henry Darger, by C.L. Morrison), several glossy art books, and now an excellent new film by the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jessica Yu.
The film, In the Realms of the Unreal, tells Darger’s story primarily through his own words, blending together excerpts from his memoirs with resonant passages from his fiction. And while the story of Darger’s life provides a narrative structure, it is the paintings that give the film its magical, hallucinatory qualities. Since Darger’s canvases are crammed with detail and often very large, Yu decided to animate them in the film; this way, we do not lose sight of their intricate designs but are drawn in one detail at a time, with the flutter of a girl’s eyelashes, or a little foot tapping under a table, or a soldier abruptly turning about-face. It is an uncanny and often thrilling style of animation, especially since most of the figures in Darger’s paintings are posed facing outward, gazing blankly at the viewer. It is like watching them awake with a shudder from some long nightmare.
Yet Yu’s most valuable contribution to the understanding of Darger is not the way she relates his life story, nor in the striking animation of his artwork. There is a subtle argument at work in this film, one that is never made explicit but which, like the animated paintings, comes alive in the details. What makes Darger’s strange work so fascinating is not that it reflects the inner universe of someone we might consider to be an outsider (to the art and literary worlds, to society, to sanity), but that it reflects something far more familiar. To understand what this is it’s necessary first to examine more closely, as Yu does, Darger’s primary novel. More than Darger’s paintings, it is his novel that yields the greatest insight into his technique, the sources of his inspiration, and his achievement.
Darger’s In the Realms of the Unreal tells the story of an apocalyptic war that takes place on a planet “a thousand times as large as our own world, and with our earth as their moon.” The war is waged by the good Christian nation of Abbiennia against the barbarous Glandelinia. When the saga begins, Glandelinia has already invaded the peaceful state of Calverinia, massacring its population, conquering its cities, enslaving its children, and forcing it to secede from the union of Christian Kingdoms. Our heroines are the Vivian girls, the seven angelic blond daughters of Abbiennia’s emperor, who possess “a beauty that could never be described” (though Darger does exactly that for many pages at a time). Although they generally do not fight in the hundreds of battles waged over the course of the novel, they do take part in other ways. They cheer on their fellow Abbiennians, they lead secret reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, and they are consulted on important matters of military strategy. As such, they are hated by the Glandelinians, who gleefully torture the girls whenever they can. Yet despite the horrors the girls are forced to witness and endure (many of these episodes read like the last 30 days of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom), their courage never falters. To the girls, war is “fun,” “an exciting adventure,” and “a thrilling time,” as in: “[the Vivian girls] have a thrilling time fleeing through a field of gutted bodies of children, with shells bursting all around.” The girls are braver than the novel’s boys and most of the male soldiers as well. Their masculine nature is reflected in Darger’s paintings, in which the girls, who usually appear naked, have male genitalia–a confusion that has led to fevered, if inconclusive, Freudian speculation about the psychological basis of Darger’s art.
Like most mythology the fantastic world of the Realms incorporates legends and stories from other myths. As convenient as it might be to confer upon him outsider status, Yu’s film makes clear that Darger’s creations lie well within a very specific cultural tradition. Although Christian faith and morality are central to the story of the Realms, there are very few references to Christian legend within its pages. The stories that provide the basis for much of the novel are taken from the history books, comics, and novels that he first read as a child.
The war at the center of the novel is fought between a righteous Union of Christian states against a confederacy of states that practice slavery and seek to secede from the union; the evil Glandelinians even wear the grey uniforms of the Confederate Army. Causes of the war (there are many) include a legal dispute over the rights of a slave who had fled north to the free states–a children’s Dred Scott. The battle descriptions themselves are closely modeled after the meticulously detailed accounts of the Civil War popular in Darger’s day, though often with World War I weaponry and jargon inserted. Some of the scenes depicting the slaughter of children are clearly modeled after accounts of the massacre of Native American tribes: Before one attack, the children are seen as traveling in canoes and living in wigwams, pueblos, and longhouses. Darger’s descriptions of warfare also look forward. Biographer John MacGregor has pointed out that Darger, years before the outbreak of World War II, described genocide committed in concentration camps and massive bombs that, exploding into mushroom clouds, wipe out entire cities in an instant.
Between battles, when Darger becomes occupied with the less grisly adventures of the Vivian girls and their comrades, he turns to his novels for inspiration. (In one scene, Yu pans across his old bookshelves, on which authors of long-forgotten children’s novels share space with Cervantes, Dickens, and Melville.) Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is given particular prominence–at one point, when Darger tires of describing the mistreatment of child slaves, he writes that “hundreds of sad incidents like Little Eva in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ occurred,” and leaves it at that. The Vivian girls’ brother Penrod is named after Booth Tarkington’s fabled child hero, and the Vivian girls at times bear a striking resemblance to Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. A lengthy chapter on the taxonomy of the Realms’ dragons, which includes the “Fairy Winged Gazonian” and the “Handsome Dude,” reads like a fantastical version of the “Cetology” chapter of Moby Dick.
But Darger revered L. Frank Baum more than any other source. Like Darger, Baum lived in Chicago and toiled in obscurity for much of his life before writing the Oz series, another seemingly endless saga starring child heroes in a topsy-turvy parallel universe. Though as Darger wickedly points out, the similarities between the two worlds ended there: “I was just wondering lately what would the people of Oz do if their country had been somewhere in Calverinia … and Glinda would see in her great record book, ‘Great Glandelinian army advancing on the Emerald City, one hundred million strong.'” One can still hear him cackling to himself.
In his paintings Darger followed a similar strategy, using collage to incorporate into his canvases images from the newspapers and magazines he found in the trash. There is a mesmerizing montage in Yu’s film in which she shows how Darger transformed pictures of children from advertisements for baby food and photographs of World War I soldiers into child slaves and Glandelinian soldiers. His literary influences are not as well camouflaged in his novels. Still, the Realms in its current form is, at times, an absorbing fairy tale of cataclysm, slavery, imperial design, childish hubris, and spiritual redemption. It’s impossible not to wonder what the novel might have become under the influence of a ruthless editor, given a cohesive structure, and stripped of its maniacal repetition. Perhaps it would no longer be viewed as a portrait of a man made insane by an inner conflict between childlike naïveté and violent compulsions, but of a nation.
source link – http://nathanielrich.com/darger.html
The Two Worlds of Henry Darger
One day in the year 1912 an unknown thief entered St. Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago and broke into a locker holding the possessions of a twenty-year-old janitor named Henry Darger. A photo of five year old Elsie Paroubek, which Darger had torn from a newspaper, was amongst the items taken:
CHICAGO. May, 11.—A reward of $1,000 has been offered, including $200 by Gov. Deneen, for the arrest and conviction of the murderer of Elsie Paroubek, whose body was found in the drainage canal Sunday.—NY Times, May 12, 1911. Elsie’s case remains unsolved.
The theft of the photo threw the janitor into a panic. Somehow, the loss of the picture of this poor little girl was more than Darger, who had petitioned the Catholic authorities to adopt a child and been refused, could take.
To begin to understand why the loss of a newspaper photo could affect this man so deeply, we must go back to his childhood. At the age of four, Henry Darger’s mother died giving birth to a girl. Henry never met his little sister, who was put up for adoption. At eight Henry’s ill father relinquished stewardship of his precocious book-loving son to The Mission of Our Lady of Mercy Boys’ Home. While there he was sent to one of Chicago’s public schools. The other children and more importantly the teacher found young Henry’s behavior disruptive. A doctor was called in and the child was diagnosed as suitable for the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln. Such children, sometimes referred to as “idiots”, were not deemed capable of academic accomplishments and were therefore not given any opportunity to achieve them. Instead, they were used as laborers. One attempt to escape resulted in Henry’s being lassoed by a horseman and forced to run back to the home on the end of a rope. Finally, at sixteen, Darger managed to escape, hopped a train to Decatur and walked to Chicago. There he began his life as a laborer in various Catholic institutions while residing in an assortment of small rooms, where, every night after work, he picked up a pencil and entered another world. He wrote,
Us children in those days were looked upon as beneath the dignity of grownups, whereas to my opinion all grownups, and especially all types of strangers, were less than the dust beneath my feet.*
Henry Darger became obsessed with the innocence of children and the evil done them by the adult world. “Babies,” he wrote, “were more to me than anything, more than the world.” Moreover, he seems never to have deemed himself a member of the adult world. Neighbors saw in him a childlike innocence, a man who lived a very simple life, talked to no one and just wanted to be left alone. He did what he had to do to survive, and that was it.
One might, with a little effort, write a passing account of the aesthetic qualities of Darger’s visual art, even while admitting the special difficulty of such an attempt due to the relationship of that work to his writing. Very few people in the world are in a position to assess the proper contours of that body of writing; it’s just too enormous. It seems unlikely that his 15,000 page magnum opus, to which the much celebrated Vivian Girl paintings serve as visual extensions, will ever be published in anything nearing its totality, nor his 5,000 page autobiography, and certainly not his ten year weather journal. Even the snippets that are available, in John MacGregor’s biography and in Michael Bonesteel’s Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, are difficult for today’s reader to access, since they are out of print and expensive to purchase. But even admitting such difficulties, a mere aesthetic approach to the art of Henry Darger will be unsatisfactory, simply because the most cursory glance at his work and life cannot ignore the ruckus of questions that surround the man who neighbors saw as both odd and completely ordinary. It is hardly possible to look at Darger’s art with an eye uncolored by one’s personal view of the world.
There is, to begin with, the preponderance of naked little girls with penises. Then there are a number of brutal depictions of children being tortured, which illustrate those portions of the opus which deal with the enslavement, murder and overall oppression of children. These items alone strike the viewer as weird, signaling a realm out of the ordinary, even for contemporary art. When the American Folk Art Museum in New York unveiled a comprehensive exhibit of the work in 1997, Director Gerard C. Wertkin admitted that some viewers were “utterly repulsed.”** In fact, Darger’s only biographer to date, prone to psychoanalysis, dares suggest that the eccentric loner may have murdered little Elsie.
The image of the very real Elsie Paroubek is the lightning rod between the real world of Chicago, scrub buckets and Catholic Mass and the Unreal World of Henry Darger’s room. The writer incorporated her tragic image into the narrative fabric of his magnum opus, making the real-world loss of her photo hinge directly upon the evil done to the Vivian Girls. He wrote himself into the narrative as well. In this and many other ways, Darger showed himself to be a lucid maker in full control of his material.
This does not mean that he was a remarkable draftsman. He was not, and he knew it. His genius was to find techniques that enabled him to make artworks so coveted by today’s collectors. He began by amassing a cache of images wherever he could find them: from newspapers, advertisements, coloring books or from the garbage can. He then assembled the images into compositions through collage or by tracing their outlines and coloring them in. Some of these compositions, done on pieces of butcher’s paper taped together, measure over eight feet long. Sometimes, to get the right size image, he would utilize a photographic innovation at the corner drugstore. Consider this: he would spend three dollars of his twenty-five dollar a week salary on a photo enlargement of an image. This was clearly someone who knew what he wanted and was determined to get it.
Darger divided the two worlds of his life in full lucidity. Many details support this view. No one so much as suspected Darger’s private life as an artist. Other than William Shloder, the only friend he is known to have had, no one ever suspected that Darger took any special notice of children, not even the children who lived in his building. Mary O’Donnell was a cute little girl when Darger came to live in the building her parents owned. She has said that Henry paid no attention to her and her playmates, adding, “Leave me alone, he would say, leave me alone.”* Kiyoko Lerner, Darger’s landlord and inheritor of his estate, said that Darger would not even answer direct questions, and would only talk about the weather. The weather is always a safe topic of conversation, and it seemed that Henry did not feel comfortable talking about anything else, preferring to save conversation for when he was home, all alone. Yet here too he was determined to offer proof of the arrogant foolishness of the adult world. His detailed weather journal kept careful track of the discrepancies between the actual weather as he experienced it and the weather as forecasted by the local meteorologist. It seems clear that Darger divided his two worlds in complete awareness.
The Unreal Vivian Girls were too beautiful for the real world. Darger wrote, “Their beauty could not never be painted had they been seen for real.” So beautiful and so pure were the Vivian Girls that for General Darger to view them,
He must do the same thing as when preparing for Holy Communion—he must be in a State of Grace, never use any profane language, like once in a while he did, and must be in better control of his hasty temper, which generally he had. He did not feel himself worthy enough to approach these fair creatures, and determined to become more clean of heart. And that night while he laid in bed he dreamed that he went to Abbiennia, saw the girls beg him most pleadingly to end their unjust sufferings.—Henry Darger, from The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion
A devout Catholic, Darger built a shrine to the lost photograph and petitioned God fervently for its return. God did not intervene, and in a rage Darger tore the altar down and predicted ruin for the Girls. “God is too hard on me,” he wrote. “I will not bear it any longer.” He caused General Darger to turn traitor and join the forces of the heathen Glandelinian Army. And then, for a time, he stopped writing. In one of the most poignant scenes of the very beautiful film by Jessica Yu, the narration states: “The loss deepens Henry’s realization that all the power he wields in his fantasy world cannot bring him what he yearns for in the real one.”*
Images like this one strike me as being akin to devotional objects
But the Catholic Church was the only home Henry Darger ever knew, and he did not turn his back on God for long, even though he often thought that his prayers were ignored. He resumed his regular attendance to Mass, and worked his repentance into the grand narrative of his opus. Near the end of his life he ended the novel with victory for the Girls. But on the next page he wrote another ending. Here the heathens are victorious and evil prevails. The double ending is perhaps one of the most disturbing details of Henry Darger’s work. And yet I admire its courage, for it is an accurate reflection of duplicitous life as this suffering “sorry saint” experienced it.
Henry Darger is the quintessential artist. And this in spite of what Michel Thévoz advises us to remember: “we have rummaged around in the bedroom of a dead man, a man who seems to have done everything he could to protect himself from our intrusion.”** Darger made art for the purest of reasons: out of a need to transform his sadness and pain into something beautiful and dignified. And so, while he is, in a sense, being loved to death, his work locked away in the name of protecting a world treasure, others, alone in rooms suffering travails that only they can detail, look to him as to a beacon of artistic truth. Let the Institutions protect their treasure. Let the scholars and babblers psychoanalyze him. Henry Darger is for the orphan geniuses among us.
This article is dedicated, with admiration, respect and love, to Chris Al-Aswad
*In the Realms of the Unreal, a film by Jessica Yu. All quotations of Henry Darger are from this film.
**Darger: the Henry Darger collection at the American Folk Art Museum / Brooke Davis Anderson; essay by Michel Thévoz
Artwork by Henry Darger:
Mark Kerstetter writes poetry, fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.