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Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal by John M. MacGregor
Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum by Brooke David Anderson, Essay by Michel Thevoz translated by Catherine G. Sweeney
J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century by Tom Shippey
Earlier this year, people in New York lined up to gaze upon vivid, large-scale images of a world not unlike our own, populated by a childlike race engaged in an epic battle with the monstrous forces of Evil which sought to enslave them. Dragons, demonic creatures, richly detailed landscapes, carefully wrought battle-sequences and eruptions of cataclysmic weather; all sprung from the imagination of a devout Catholic, born in 1892, whose world reflected a lifelong preoccupation with Christian mythos as well as the dark matter of Twentieth Century war and technology.
Peter Jackson's first installment of The Lord of the Rings? No: the paintings of Henry Darger, the so-called Outsider artist whose massive body of work, painted and written, has posthumously established him as one of the major creative figures---and certainly one of the most provocative---of the last century. Since its discovery in Darger's apartment a few months before his death in 1973, the immense trove of scroll-like paintings and collages, fictional text, and autobiographical material has incited the kind of interest one might expect from the successful translation, after nearly a century of failed effort, of the Linear A tablets from ancient Crete. Yet even as Darger's lifework is embraced by a critical establishment, that of another singular artist, J. R. R. Tolkien, continues to suffer critical condescension and often outright disdain, despite (and no doubt because of) its huge commercial success.
Tolkien and Darger were almost exact contemporaries - born a few months apart in 1892 and dying less than a year apart, Darger in late 1972 and Tolkien in September 1973. Though they lived and died in radically different worlds (Tolkien spent most of his life in England, Darger in Chicago), and had adult lives that could not be more diametrically opposed, their early years have an eerie, almost uncanny symmetry. Both were profoundly affected by early childhood losses. Darger's mother died a few weeks before his fourth birthday; Tolkien's father a few months after his. Both became orphans at an early age. After his mother's death (from diabetes) the twelve-year-old Tolkien and his younger brother came under the charge of a benevolent priest, before being taken in by a relative-by-marriage. In 1900, Darger's ailing father entered a Catholic mission; his son was consigned to a Catholic boys' home, and upon his father's death five years later, the thirteen-year-old Darger was institutionalized (he later escaped). Both began work on their epics around the same time, 1913 for Tolkien, Darger a year or so earlier. Both used visual as well as written forms for their art. And both chose as fictional oeuvres the lifelong creation of a single, epic history of an imagined world: Tolkien's Middle Earth and Darger's Realms of the Unreal.
In Henry Darger: In the Realms of the Unreal, art historian John M. MacGregor has created a magisterial work that at times seems as immense and all-encompassing as the one which it explores. MacGregor is the author of the 1988 The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, a seminal study of one manifestation of the form that has been variously called Art Brut, Folk Art, Self-Taught Art, Visionary Art, but which is now commonly classed under the catch-all term Outsider Art. The elastic phrase has been applied to artists as disparate as the Victorian fairy painter Richard Dadd (neither an outsider nor self-taught but unquestionably mad); Chris Mars, onetime musician for the Replacements, whose paintings deal with the familial fallout of schizophrenia; the folk artist Howard Finster; and the anatomical transcendentalist painter Alex Grey. "Visionary" is probably a more appropriate description, especially if modified with "obsessive" or "obsessional" (which could also be applied to much of Tolkien's written work).
Perhaps the most poignant reaction to such personal, intense forms of creative expression comes from the artist Nathan Lerner, Darger's landlord and the man who, with a student assistant, discovered Darger's monumental accomplishment after his death---
"What made him do all these things that didn't have to be done?"
What indeed? Henry Darger may not have been insane, but he was as close to a poster boy for the Outsider Artist as we are likely to get. A few weeks before Darger's fourth birthday, his mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to a girl. The infant, Henry's sister, was given up for adoption; her history is unknown, but it is clear that her disappearance, following his mother's death and his father's subsequent grief, became the central event upon which the adult Darger constructed his brilliant, severely disturbed and disturbing history of The Realms of the Unreal. After his stint at a Catholic boys' home, in 1904 the twelve-year-old Darger was placed in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children.
Henry remained at the asylum until 1909. The reasons for his presence there were his propensity for aggressive behavior; setting fires; "acquired" self-abuse. This last appears to have been what motivated the assessing physician to pronounced the child insane. Yet whatever severe psychological orders assailed him, the young Henry was not feeble-minded. He was intelligent and loved to read, particularly newspapers and military history (the Civil War was an especial passion). MacGregor suggests that Darger may have suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a comparatively mild form of autism whose traits include difficulty in establishing and maintaining human relationship, obsessional behavior and interests, and often normal or above-normal intelligence and verbal fluency.
Despite Darger's later casual dismissal---"Finally I got to like the place and the meals were good and plenty"---the asylum seems to have been a nightmarish institution, marked by violent outbursts and lacking in any compassionate interaction between its employees and inmates. Summers provided a surcease, when Henry was sent to work on the State Farm outside the city. After several aborted efforts at running away, the seventeen-year-old Henry finally did so for good, returning to Chicago where he found work as a janitor at St. Joseph's Hospital.
"Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a good deal of telling anyway."
So Tolkien muses in The Hobbit. And while the remainder of Henry Darger's life can only with great difficulty be construed as "good," it was certainly without great event, at least to any outside observer. In 1917 he was drafted and a few months later discharged for medical reasons. After that he worked as a janitor and dishwasher at various hospitals. In later years when he grew too frail for these jobs he was given other menial tasks. He seems to have ever had only one real friend. In 1932 he moved into the rooming house where he was to spend the rest of his life, most of it in a single large room. In 1956 the building was bought by the artist Nathan Lerner, an amiably bohemian landlord who created a small floating world of artists, musicians, and students who tolerated Darger's presence and made small gestures of friendship to the lonely old man.
Lerner was an exceptionally compassionate landlord: he neither raised Darger's rent nor complained about his tenant's housekeeping. He and the other residents of 851 Webster took turns helping Darger, providing the occasional meal, assistance with medical care; most important, they provided contact with a world outside the one in Darger's head. For by the 1960s Henry Darger had become one of those lost souls who populate the edges of any urban landscape, usually glimpsed from the corner of one's eye: a furtive, slight man---he was just over five feet tall - he wore the filthy ruins of his Army overcoat and spent hours every day wandering back alleys, poking through trash cans for refuse which he then brought back to his room.
Darger's neighbors often heard him talking to himself, carrying on lengthy conversations in which he took on different voices. He was in fact engaged in the final stages of a lifelong battle with God, a struggle which he had recorded in his vast multivolume epic, and which eventually found its way into his autobiography.
Had trouble again with twine. Mad enough to wish I was a bad tornado. Swore at God, yet go to three morning masses. Only cooled down by late afternoon. Am I a real enemy of the cross, or a very very sorry saint?
Ah yes: the eternal problem of the struggle with twine. And yet what do our lives really consist of, most of the time, but precisely this: life-or-death battles with the shopping, the commute, the boss, the kids, the spouse, the neighbors, the neighbor's dog. God? Each age gets the art it deserves, and no doubt we get the saints we deserve as well; in which case Henry Darger is infinitely worthy of the critical canonization he has received in the decades since his death. The end came a few months after he finally left Webster Street for a Catholic nursing home. He was eighty years old. Not long before he died Nathan Lerner entered Darger's room to clean it. As he said in a personal recollection,
It is a humbling experience to have to admit that not until I looked under all the debris in his room did I become aware of the incredible world that Henry had created from within himself. It was only in the last days of Henry Darger's life that I came close to knowing who this shuffling old man really was.
What Lerner found under the compulsively organized piles of twine and spectacles and newsprint was the eight-volume biography Darger had been working on since 1963---and, in a number of old trunks where they had been stored, the trove of original artwork that has now made Darger world famous. In MacGregor's words,
. . . fifteen volumes, 15,145 typewritten pages, unquestionably the longest work of fiction ever written. In time the room also yielded the three huge bound volumes of illustrations for that work, several hundred pictures, many over twelve feet long and painted on both sides. By accident, the landlord had stumbled upon a concealed and secret life work which no one had ever seen: Darger's alternate world.
That world is a vast nameless planet orbited by our own Earth. The frontispiece of Volume One of its history reads
OF THE STORY OF THE VIVIAN GIRLS,
The Vivian Girls! Seven plucky child princesses who, with their brother Penrod, battle the adult, male Glandelinians, enemies who exist solely to capture, imprison, and especially, torture the child-slaves of the Christian country of Abbiennia. Modelled largely upon the books he loved as a child---L. Frank Baum's Oz books, Johanna Spyri's Heidi stories, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Booth Tarkington's Penrod series---Darger's epic follows the Vivian Girls through an endless relay of scrapes, plots, imprisonments, battles, escapes and cataclysmic storms.
Still, as Darger himself admits in a tone at once wistful and minatory, "This is not the land where Dorothy and her Oz friends reside." Darger seems to have had little innate skill as a draftsman: he created his scroll-like paintings and drawing by means of collage, tracery, photocopying and enlagring pictures, then hand-coloring them, creating an imagistic impasto that is breathtaking, surreal, deliriously funny and very often horrific. The figures of the Vivian Girls and the child slaves are taken mostly from children's coloring books and newspaper cartoons, Disney figures, advertisements, illustrations from The Saturday Evening Post; the malevolent Glandelinian generals from newspaper photos and images of soldiers from the Civil War. There are also the beautiful dragon-like Blengiglomeneans and Blenglins, children with ram's-horns and gorgeous butterfly wings. The landscapes are vast, with Toon Town trees and blue-washed skies; though the usual weather consists of cyclones, tornadoes, hail, fire; the "insane fury of crazy thunderstorm." A sample of Darger's captions read "thrilling time while with bombshells bursting all around," "Children tied to trees in path of forest fires. In spite of exceeding extreme peril, Vivian Girls rescued them," and "Everything is allright though storm continues."
Within Henry Darger's mind, it continued for decades; a firestorm of conflicting impulses. Art critics make much of Darger's luminous use of color and his genius for collage, and certainly many of the paintings in the Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum are gorgeous and genuinely breathtaking: a watercolor of the dragonlike Blengins that resembles an Edenic vision filtered through Klimt; portraits of the Glendelinian Generals that anticipate the dizzy swirl of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python animations; a nine-foot panel that shows the Vivian Girls and their followers in an idyllic, flower-strewn setting that evokes the pastoral beauty of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
But this is not Oz. The girl slaves are usually naked (a good deal of the written text involves getting their clothes off); they often have male, but never female, genitals. There is no real economic purpose for their enslavement: the children exist solely to be tortured, in graphic and appalling detail, by the predatory Glendelinians, who crucify, disembowel, burn and flagellate them. In his exhaustive study, MacGregor compellingly suggests that in Darger's work we have the singular opportunity to gaze into the mind of someone who, under different circumstances, might well have been a pedophile and perhaps a serial killer of children.
Given America's continuing fascinations with pedophilia and serial murder, it's not surprising that there would be a ready-made audience for work that has the seal of approval of a critical establishment. Yet the power of Darger's art doesn't lie in prurience, or even in the voyeuristic sense of looking upon the work of someone who, almost certainly, would have been frightened and angered by our attention. It's too strange for the former---like the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, Darger seems to have been innocent of the facts of human anatomy, and probably of human reproduction and sexual function as well---and too repellent, in many instances, to incite the sustained voyeuristic interest of most "normal" people. Separated from his visual work, his written text has the monotonous banality of the simplest pornography (only without the sex); but taken in toto, The Realms is as excruciating and detailed a portrait of the human psyche that we have seen: brutal, banal, transcendental, and with flashes of the divine. As MacGregor says,
Darger's acute awareness of violence and evil in the world, and particularly in the lives of children, was unmistakably derived from the presence of monstrous drives and desires in himself. By withdrawing from the world, the mystic, far from escaping from temptation, opens himself to the encounter with evil in its purest form as it arises from within. Darger, like the Desert Fathers, was repeatedly overwhelmed by such temptations, but by encountering them in the Realms of the Unreal he defended himself against the danger of acting on them in the world . . . Evil, carried to impossible extremes, surely must attract the attention of God.
In John Crowley's Engine Summer, a race of angelic creatures treasures a crystal globe which has recorded within it the entire memory and experiences of a single human being, a man named Rush That Speaks. In the novel's final paragraphs, the process of reading the crystal is described by an angel conversing with Rush's encoded consciousness---
Interpenetration, yes. With another . . . you'll marvel at the dome, the clouds; and tell your story again. What it is to be you when you aren't here but on your pedestal, we don't know; we only know that sometimes you come . . .
We know nothing else, Rush, but what you tell us. It's all you here now, Rush.
I think that the awe and terror and humility we feel when we contemplate Henry Darger's work is not dissimilar to this sense of interpenetration with another being: it is all you, here; it is all us. The timeless urge to create is what made the profoundly damaged, isolated and lonely man named Henry Darger human. It is also, ultimately, what may make him immortal.
* * *
Tom Shippey's J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century will not be the last book written about the master of Middle Earth, but it may be among the very
best. Shippey, now affiliated with St. Louis University in the US, has also taught at both Oxford and Leeds University; at both places quite literally carrying on in Tolkien's footsteps. His book's title derives from the notorious readers' poll conducted by Waterstone's, a UK bookstore chain, in 1996. The poll was intended to rate the greatest books of the 20th century; over 26,000 people responded, and more than 5,000 of them put The Lord of the Rings in first place. Britain's mainstream literary establishment reacted with the sort of horror that middlebrow, PBS-supporting Americans might evince at the discovery that MTV's The Real World had been introduced into the fourth grade Civics curriculum. In the spirit of fair play, the Daily Telegraph, Folio Society, and UK TV show Bookworm all announced Do-Overs, polling readers again but still coming up with the same terrible news. As Shippey amusingly recounts, "Susan Jeffreys, of the Sunday Times . . . reported a colleague's reaction to the news that The Lord of the Rings had won the BBC/Waterstone's poll as: 'Oh hell! Has it? Oh my God, Dear oh dear, Dear oh dear oh dear.'
There'll always be an England. In the States, of course, people would say "Well at least they're reading something" and be relieved it wasn't sci-fi. After all, Tolkien was an Oxford professor; which here accords him the same awed respect that fans used to show Juillard-trained musicians in rock bands. In 1956, however, Edmund Wilson was not impressed, dismissing LOTR with venomous condescension in his famous "Oooh, Those Awful Orcs" review for The Nation. Five years later UK critic Philip Toynbee observed that Tolkien and his books had "passed into a merciful oblivion."
In yet another cruel example of cultural irony, both Wilson and Toynbee are now known to casual readers for their premature predictions of the death of Middle Earth, rather than for their own contributions to literature. In his book, Shippey does a fair job dealing with Tolkien's critics: their bemusement and often outright hostility towards a successful writer who was outside the modernist canon; a writer who (to use Martin Green's phrase) removed himself from the cultural dialectic.
But Shippey's real achievement is in presenting an extended, careful analysis of Tolkien's work within Tolkien's own purview: philology, and Old English literature. In LOTR and its vast background material (contained in The Silmarillion and the twelve-volume History of Middle-Earth, edited by his son Christopher Tolkien) the author of the century was consciously creating a mythos for all time. Using word-clues from Old Englsh and fragments of English folk belief, Tolkien attempted to create a body of lore that would encompass the ancient, pre-Christian history of England.
Elias Lonnrot had done this in Finland in the 19th century, collecting folktales and ballads and piecing them together into "The Kalevala." A century earlier, the Scottish poet James MacPherson claimed to have found and translated a great lost Scots text, the adventures of Ossian---as it turned out, a fabrication which MacPherson had written himself. A thousand years hence, when all other traces of its literary heritage have vanished, it will be interesting to see if a few of the 50 million-plus copies of Tolkien work survive to become evidence of England's heroic past.
An example of Shippey's scholarly detective-work---in this case, the etomology of Tolkien's Balrogs---defines Shippey's style, at once learned and engrossing. An Old English poem that interested Tolkien was "Exodus", like "Beowulf" a work which Tolkien believed had roots in pre-Christian mythology. The Exodus poet refers to *Sigelwara land," which modern dictionaries translates as Ethiopia. Tolkien disagreed.
. . . he suggested (in two long articles written early in his career, and now ignored by schoalrship) that a *sigel-hearwa* was a kind of fire-giant. The first elements in the compound meant both "sun" and "jewel"; the second was related to Latin *carbo*, 'soot.' When an Anglo-Saxon of the preliterate Dark Age said *sigelhearwa*, before any Englishman had ever heard of Ethiopia or the Book of Exodus, Tolkien believed that what he meant was 'rather the sons of Muspell [the Old Norse fire-giant who will bring on Ragnarok] than of Ham, the ancestors of the Silhearwan with red-hot eyes that emitted sparks, with faces black as soot.'
I will confess to being someone who has read The Lord of the Rings perhaps fifteen times since I first discovered it, thirty-five years ago. I've read The Silmarillon three times, and for the past six months have been working my way through the complete History of Middle-Earth (I have only one volume to go). As an eleven-year-old I was so inflamed by the discovery that *Mordor* was the OE *murder* that I immediately obtained a copy of "Beowulf" in the original and modern translations and painstakingly proceeded to read both.
Alas, there my efforts at philology ended; but Shippey's book gave me that same sense of astonished delight. It also made me wonder anew at the depth and greatness of Tolkien's obsession---"
What made him do all these things that didn't have to be done?"
The Silmarillion, which Shippey refers to as the work of Tolkien's heart, is often "a chaotic palimpsest"; The History of Middle-Earth, twelve volumes of dense text, geneaology, notebooks, revisions and alternate takes; the genesis not just of LOTR but of the lay of Beren and Luthien, Middle Earth's heroically doomed lovers (with whom Tolkien identified himself and his wife, Edith), and the immense tangled tragic "Tale of the Children of Hurin." It does, occasionally, make one yearn for the transparency of *O Elbereth Gilthonial!* But it is also enthralling and, in a strange way, moving: as in the case of Henry Darger, a direct glimpse into the mind and heart and soul of a man of immense and often lonely brilliance.
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