Interesting Ideas

Henry Darger: Desperate and Terrible Questions

Henry Darger In The Realms of The Unreal
By John M. MacGregor
Delano Greenidge Editions, New York, numerous black-and-white and color reproductions, 720 pages, 2002. ISBN-0-929445-15-5

Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum
By Brooke Davis Anderson, with an essay by Michael Thevoz
American Folk Art Museum and Harry N. Abrams, New York, many color plates, 128 pages, 2001. ISBN-0-8109-1398-4

It is testimony to Henry Darger's isolation that his most extended intimacy with another human being probably happened after he was dead. We now have the fruit of that intimacy: John MacGregor's authoritative 720-page study Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal.

A Canadian art historian and psychotherapist who made his name with his 1989 book The Discovery of the Art of the Insane, MacGregor spent a dozen years wrapped up in Darger's voluminous writings and art -- and in his actual living space, on Webster Avenue in Chicago. His fascination with Darger and awe at his genius obviously kept him engaged, but also fed his unease at Darger's weirdness. While raw artistic talent made Darger's work magnificent, his life, its troubles and eccentricities, made what he did with his talent problematic. On the one side is beauty. On the other is not just odd behavior but abject horror.

Darger's pictorial accomplishments, which mix delicate innocence with extreme violence, have been widely known for years. Now, with this book and Michael Bonesteel's Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, his written work is finally gaining similar exposure. The texts provide important context for the pictures while representing an immense achievement in their own right -- physically, in their thousands of pages, and intellectually, in their originality.

MacGregor presents the writing in small doses via numerous excerpts, making them somewhat more approachable than the longer passages in the Bonesteel book. Both books demonstrate that Darger's writing, though not as immediately appealing as his pictures, contains the same flashes of creative fire. Even with his unpolished grammar and often-childlike descriptions, Darger displays great clarity and invention.

Darger picture "Only now, after he is gone, is the richness of his being unfolding in the world, in ways and to an extent he could never have imagined -- and never desired," MacGregor writes. The recent publication of not two but three books, also including Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum, is the ultimate revenge of "Crazy," as he was dubbed in his youth.

MacGregor ascribes a "near hallucinatory intensity" to Darger's creative process that could be taken to corroborate that label, but there also is a self-awareness and lucidity that may surprise those whose understanding of Darger pigeonholes him as an eccentric loner. Among other striking excerpts:

  • He recognized himself. "To make matters worse now I'm an artist, been one for years...."

  • He understood something of his own peculiarity. Here's how one of his Vivian girl heroines refers to his endlessly repeated images of little girls: "Probably he had them to use as company, as he was childless.... He must have been a very odd man."

  • Subject to recurring rages, he comprehended their excessiveness. His diaries repeatedly describe struggles with temper tantrums, and in this quote from his magnum opus he refers to a devastatingly extended tantrum, over the loss of a treasured photo. His rage kept him from ending the great war that The Realms of the Unreal describes: "'The man must be a nut for how cold the loss of a picture be responsible for the disaster?'"

  • Here is how he briefly but eloquently mourned a lost, and terribly deprived, childhood. "The tender secret influence that passed ... into him and other children could not rise again, no never."

  • He understood something of the nature of his devastated upbringing, and one can sense the reflections of a man who spent most of his youth institutionalized. In a paraphrase of the Declaration of Independence, he writes of children's right "to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night's season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart."

  • Finally, he mourned life itself, in the last entry in his diary before his 1973 death: "January 1, 1971. I had a very poor nothing like Christmas. Never had a good Christmas all my life, nor a good new year, and now.... I am very bitter but fortunately not revengeful, though I feel should be how I am...."

    Darger's room This all makes for poignant biography, and MacGregor draws a revealing portrait of Darger, especially when combined with close readings of his art and methods. The many years of research seem justified as his exploration of historical documents and interviews with those who knew Darger reveal both his intelligence and his painful difficulties coping with ordinary society. His obsession with the weather, for example, made it one of the few subjects that could engage Darger in conversation. But his daily weather diary shows how he could take an ordinary concern and turn it into something more monumental than most people with their casual assessments could ever imagine or want.

    Personally isolated as he was, Darger was well versed in popular culture, especially the comic strips that were the source for much of his visual imagery. He read widely, as evidenced by both the books in his library and the citations in his writing. L. Frank Baum's Oz stories are a significant, and appropriate, influence. Characters from Oz, as well as Uncle Tom's Cabin, even show up in Darger's own fantasy realm. Add those to the Dickens he also read and strong resonances abound in his epic story of oppressed child slaves, their rebellion, repression and liberation.

    Despite the biography's impressive detail, large gaps remain in what can be known about someone who remained so aggressively obscure in his lifetime. Much as Darger began writing an autobiography that spun out of control into a bizarre extended fantasy about a devastating tornado, MacGregor starts out grounded in Darger's life and art, but after the first hundred or so pages of solid biography he starts taking flight from the mere facts.

    "In thinking about Henry's relationship to images, it is essential to lay aside all of our normal assumptions about 'art' and the creative process in the artist," he writes. That special pleading is a big warning flag. Along with the "normal assumptions," MacGregor abandons real engagement with Darger's creativity as a psychiatric frame of reference traps him in a vicious circle. The abnormality so evident in Darger's life and work begs for a psychiatric explanation. But once viewed through the lens of psychiatry, it becomes hard to see anything except more evidence of pathology, especially since the horrific content is easier to take as symptom than as art.

    While stating that the brutal accounts of torture and massacres represent no more than 1 percent of Darger's text and illustrations and thus "should not be exaggerated," MacGregor proceeds to do exactly that. Faced with a case like this, it seems the psychiatrist cannot help but focus on its most pathological manifestations.

    But although it took a disturbed personality to envision the graphic horrors Darger depicts, a Freudian focus on the erotic overwhelms MacGregor's struggle to comprehend the most difficult material. Darger might claim to be appalled at the violence he depicts; MacGregor mostly just sees sexual excitement.

    When you get to the chapters discussing the most provocative elements in Darger's work -- the bepenised little girls and, especially, the mind-boggling gore -- you pretty much know what's going to come. But the psychiatric speculation has been layered too thick. Four small examples among many that sap the reader's interest:

    Darger Blengiglomenean serpents picture

  • MacGregor identifies the horns, and the very bodies, of Darger's great Blengiglomenean serpents as -- surprise -- phallic, even though in many cases they seem instead phalangic.

  • Disappointed that Darger did not name any of the Vivian Girl heroines after his mother, Rose, he suggests that "perhaps it is important that two of the children do have names derived from flowers."

  • While recognizing the great creativity Darger brought to the tracing techniques that were the basis of his art, MacGregor finds Darger's very manipulation of traced images to be "sadistic" in its aggressiveness. This amounts to pathetic fallacy, with inanimate drawings made the victims of the artist's act of creation.

  • Darger avoided sexual encounters because he feared an unknowing liaison with a sister given up for adoption shortly after her birth (a birth that also robbed Darger of his mother when he was four).

    Darger's losses undoubtedly deeply structured his personality. His immense fantasy involvement with little girls seems clearly associated with the yearning for a lost sister. The death of his mother, not to mention his later institutionalization, had to have contributed to a deeply traumatized personality. Indeed, they supply plenty of context for his depicting the enslavement and torture of children without requiring implausible diagnoses.

    But MacGregor seems driven to do exactly that, especially as he takes on the question of violence. Most disappointingly, he lards his book with sensational allusions to serial killers and, occasionally, arson. Although both in this book and elsewhere he is careful to disclaim actual allegation of crime, his most sustained argument is that Darger was a serial killer in effect if not fact. Darger was "posed on the edge of violent and irrational sadistic and murderous activity," he says. "Whether or not they were acted upon, these are the ongoing fantasies of a serial killer."

    This claim is repeated again and again:

  • MacGregor feels "obliged to move out beyond the norms of psychological explanation and experience, into the rarefied mental history of the serial killer."

  • "I know of nothing in art to equal the defiant aesthetic of this monstrous vision, only in the psychopathology of the serial killer do we encounter such calm, such ordered madness."

  • "From a psychological standpoint, the split-off 'Glandelinian' portion of Darger's psyche is arguably the mind of a serial killer made visible."

  • "That Darger's sexual life, confined it would seem to fantasy, was characterized by extraordinarily violent sadistic drives cannot be doubted.... Nor do we know whether, at some point in his life, 'he joined with the Glandelinians,' acting on these impulses in reality."

  • "The possibility that Darger committed the 1911 murder [of Elsie Paroubek, the basis for his Annie Aronburg character] should not be dismissed without examination." A lost newspaper photo of Paroubek is what sparked the rage at the heart of the unending war.

    MacGregor goes so far as to say, in a footnote, that Darger's more "violent writings are ... of particular interest in making visible the psychological makeup of the serial killer, to a far greater degree than is possible through interviews with such rare individuals." More insight may be gained from studying someone who wasn't a serial killer? This is plain far-fetched, but it reflects the depth of MacGregor's distress at what he deems Darger's "lust, grown monstrous" and the disingenuous of his claims that he's not actually accusing Darger of anything.

    It appears that the only factor preventing an outright murder conviction is MacGregor's belief that had Darger killed once, he would not have been able to stop himself from killing again. In that event, Darger would unlikely have devoted his prodigious psychic energies to his art and writing, nor is it likely that he would have remained at large.

    A bigger problem than MacGregor's speculations is his focus. He defends his psychiatric approach with the argument that Darger's vast writings constitute diagnostic material as exhaustive as anything that could be provided by a living patient. But while Darger's biography (and psychobiography) may be interesting enough, and they do shed some light on his work, it's the work that really matters. To his credit MacGregor weaves Darger's own writings and pictures through his text, but his relentless psychologizing quickly ceases to illuminate Darger's breath-taking private world. Instead, they encase it, and the biography ends up obscuring the art, as happens so often with outsider artists.

    Darger picture MacGregor himself offers a far more interesting, and non-clinical, interpretation at the end of the book, leaving the reader wishing the previous 11 chapters had been similarly enlightening. "The Realms is an obsessional presentation of the reality of evil, an endlessly elaborated vision of hell on earth," he writes. "It was, in part, a desperate and terrible question addressed to a passive and silent God," a God in which Darger had absolute belief. As MacGregor describes it: "Where is God. Why does God allow these things to happen? How far can he be pushed before he will intervene?"

    If Darger was attempting to outrage god into reacting, it makes sense that he would create the most awful scenes he could imagine -- the gruesome, explicit torture of little girls that still outrages audiences today, whatever its effect on God. Retreating into psychiatry is the easy way out. It reduces Darger's most profound, if disturbing, imagery into its lowest possible denominator: psychopathology. Of course Darger could have been pathological AND extraordinarily sensitive to the problem of evil. But MacGregor's single-minded prosecution of Darger's lust-driven sadism does not mesh with the far more engaging, and ultimately convincing, portrait of a man at war with God.

    MacGregor, in a moment of insight, puts it best himself: "Nothing in Darger's psychic content is either unique or inhuman. Everything we encounter in The Realms of the Unreal is also encountered in human history and in the human mind in extremis." As he notes, "the tortures Darger invents ... bear a striking resemblance to those used in the martyrdom of saints." More to the point, "pathological sadism and murderous rage" is a prominent characteristic of the century in which Darger was writing. It would be hard to minimize the effect of the horrible devastation in the Civil War just a few decades before Darger was born, the Great War that he had just lived through, and World War II, which was looming as he wrote his saga and which preceded much of his artwork. In the end, Darger's admittedly sadistic fantasies can be read as na´ve (and naively inappropriate) attempts to capture the all-too-real horrors of the human condition as well as his immense rage at his own stunted life.

    Darger picture Because Darger happens to be weird, however, this content in his work constitutes a symptom rather than a subject. It is MacGregor himself who writes that "The tendency to engage in clinical reductionism ... could have seriously obscured for the reader Darger's astonishing uniqueness as a personality and an artist." He obviously believes he resisted that tendency by waiting some 650 pages before discussing a literal diagnosis (autism, specifically Asperger's Syndrome). But reductionism is present throughout the book and explicit in his own statements: "All of these narrative-constructs, however objective they may initially appear, are reflective of subjective psychological content, shifting moods and elemental drives." Or put another way, "The flow of content in Darger is controlled, not by the logic of the narrative, but by internal necessity."

    Perhaps MacGregor was overwhelmed by Darger's massive work. The reader is "buried beneath an avalanche of overwhelmingly obsessive and oppressive detail," he writes. The reader of Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal may be forgiven a hint of the same feeling. It is testimony to the quality of MacGregor's scholarship that his reductionist psychology often contrasts with richer and more revealing insights about the man and his work. Despite that, and the pleasures afforded by the numerous reproductions, it is a chore to make it through this book. The lack of an effective editor is apparent from a text that is far too long and lazily argued to make its own case effectively.

    An editor might also have toned down MacGregor's dubious hyperboles. References to uniqueness in the history of art and to the longest piece of imaginative prose ever written beg for rebuttal, since this book offers no proof that they are true. Yes Darger's output is singular, but so is any great work of art. And yes The Realms is long, but did MacGregor really survey world libraries and manuscript repositories before declaring it the longest ever (a claim already being repeated as fact by journalists whose highest authority is the first clipping they happen to see)? In the end the book reads something like a disillusioned spouse running through the flaws of their mate. You know there is a good deal of detailed truth underlying the claims, but you take the exaggerations and harsh judgments with a large grain of salt.

    While this volume remains mandatory for anyone with a significant interest in Darger, those less ambitious have two good alternatives. Michael Bonesteel's book, reviewed previously in these pages, presents a more balanced if somewhat less detailed portrait of Darger and includes instructive extracts from The Realms, Darger's diary and other texts. Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum collects images from the museum's recently acquired authoritative Darger collection. Although some depict a mild level of violence, and nude little girls abound, the selection represents a relatively low-key cross-section of the work and includes a number of pictures not featured in the MacGregor book. An essay by Michel Thevoz mounts a brief but potent argument for why Darger matters, making this a decent starter package as well as a supplement to MacGregor's work.

    A version of this review originally appeared in The Outsider magazine, published by Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.

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    Copyright William Swislow 2002