Had trouble again with twine. Mad enough to wish I was a bad tornado. Swore at God. Yet go three morning masses! Only cooled down by late afternoon. Am I a real enemy of the cross or a very very Sorry Saint? Used abusive words at Angels and Saints (not paints). –From the diary of Henry Darger
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life,” wrote George Eliot. So it is with Jim Elledge’s H, a poetry-diary-chronicle of the life of posthumously acclaimed outsider artist Henry Darger. This is not the Darger of fantastical childhood and slaughter and eviscerated girl-saints, but the man who spent most of his life alone, who went to ten masses a day and never spoke to anyone, who went muttering to and from work in anonymity. It is, in so many words, a chronicle of dailiness, fascinating and moving in the feeling it gives us of being casual witness to the artist’s actual, uncelebrated physical life, like color film suddenly being found against the laws of physics in a Renaissance century where there was nothing but portraiture. It is the story of the pre-fame and therefore pre-death Darger, whose smeared rainy face was seen on Chicago streets millions of times, and never noticed: a face that might have gone on being anonymous always until it suddenly came alive by stumbling—by chance—into the lens of a great street photographer like Robert Frank or Henri Cartier-Bresson; it is an incidental salvaging of a visage that is suddenly profound only when seen in the context of a larger art (in Darger’s case, his own.)
Darger has become so iconic by now that writing anything about him (criticism-wise) that hasn’t been written before is difficult. Thus, the miserably cinematic and tragic details of his early life are well known, but recapping them nonetheless seems essential to any review. His mother died giving birth to his sister; the little girl was put up for adoption; the children’s father fell into debilitation and ill-health that would eventually prove fatal; and the young Darger was sent to live first at Chicago’s Cook County Insane Asylum (Magdalene Sisters-ish in its horrors, by all accounts) and later at the almost equally abysmal Asylum for Feeble Minded Children. In Elledge’s book, Darger’s childhood often slips into his reveries in ways that are horrifying and poignant:
Fret vt. [<O.E. fretan, to devour] “Wake up, Wittle Haat,” H dreams his dead momma croons in his ear. “Open your wittle eyes, Wittle Haat,” H dreams his lost sister coos in his ear. “Get up, up, Sweetie Pie,” H dreams an attendant at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children whispers into his belly button, his tongue digging in and wriggling for awhile before it slips lower. H wakes, startled, sweating a little, his dreams vanished, his arms empty, the emptiness an ache, the ache a hole in the universe into which he falls, into which he dives.
As many have suggested, it could well have been these tenebrific formative years—and particularly the absence of his little sister, whom he would never find—that contributed to Darger’s empathetic obsession with Elsie Paroubek, a five-year-old immigrant girl who was killed while coming home from visiting a relative. Paroubek’s story, accompanied by her photo—blanched, snowy, mournful, looking almost like a tragically faked ghost picture created by an unscrupulous medium—appeared in The Chicago Daily News; and Darger (who had once tried to adopt a child) cut the photo from the paper, writing of Paroubek that “the huge disaster and calamity of [her] death will never be atoned for, but it shall be avenged to the uttermost limits.”
That vengeance would come in the form of the wondrously illustrated Realms of the Unreal, which is the story of the Vivian Girls: seven honey-haired little sisters—and their brother, Penrod—engaged in hallucinatory, graphically violent, incandescent battle with the forces of evil. The children hail from the Christian planet of Abbieannia, which is like earth but more paradisiacal; their foes are the Glandelinians, who enslave and murder children. It is into this narrative that the fallen Paroubek is radiantly resurrected, transmogrified into the text as a Joan of Arc like figure who symbolizes the resistance against the Glandelinians; and it is into this narrative that Darger and a host of characters from classic children’s literature reappear, cast in new forms or roles.
With their hellish and lurid depictions of battlefields and atrocities, the Realms paintings have often been compared to works like Guernica, or to Goya’s darkest war etchings. In truth, however, the paintings are more similar to Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ in the ways their beautiful use of light transcends the perceived “obscenity” of their subject matter in completely unexpected and sublime ways—ways intoxicating enough to render the “vulgarity” of medium or subject matter almost beside the point. Such light, to the very religious Darger, may be the light of the world, or of the holy trinity: the light of justice. “Montaigne says: ‘To kill a man there is required a bright shining and clear light,’ but that was spoken of the conscience toward another man,” Djuna Barnes wrote. Here, then, is the aureity of Darger.
The light from the blondeness of the girls comes as much as from the sun as from the gold of the paintings’ battlefields. The giant, pterodactyl/angel wings of many of the sisters are golden, as are the fiery hands of evil that appear in the air and try to destroy them; and everywhere in that blondness is blood, like mortality splashed into light. The girls’ eyes are often blacked out in pencil, which may reflect the other, dead side of the war they’re alive in, the dimension that is the reel of life still running on in a void the life has been extinguished from, or ripped out of…“an allegory whose other side is blankness,” as the poet TR Hummer wrote in his collection Walt Whitman in Hell. Yet, as with all such theories, this runs the risk of being far too overwrought and Freudian. A simplified—and more likely—explanation would lead us to The Mind of the Maker, in which Dorothy L. Sayers likened the author’s needing to let his or her characters live or die, randomly, to God’s giving humankind free will. As such, by not letting himself see the girl’s eyes, Darger was perhaps able to save himself from the pain of their destruction, even though he knew, as artist and chronicler, that it was his duty to record it. Elledge would perhaps concur:
Gauche adj. [M.Fr. gauchir, to become warped] On the walls of his room, H pinned pictures of children he scissored from magazines, icons that opened like windows on your secrets, but they stared holes in him for years and years until he finally broke down, colored in their eyes with a #2 pencil, and hid the rest of his life in their blindness.
Quaint adj. [<L. cognitus, known] …On nights when the moon’s face is Elsie’s at the canal bank—eyes bulging and empty, mouth open and emptied, her throat bruised with handprints—H sits statue-still in his room, his hands over both ears, his eyes slammed shut, the coat tree and the commode swapping dirty stories with The Unseen.
Here we meet the The Unseen, a figure who hovers above the book, engaging in everything from transcendental ESP to, in Robert Lowell’s phrase, “bullying, half-erotic rollicking.” Sometimes he is Darger’s silent male lover, or the boys from school who used to torture Darger, or his father and mother and little sister tenderly calling him back to the nostalgia of a childhood that never happened. Mostly, he is just God’s phone ringing off the hook. “The Unseen does not play board games,” Elledge has Darger think at one point—an observation that distinctly echoes Einstein’s “God does not play dice with the universe.”
H loves The Unseen, would lick It head to toe every chance he got if he could, but shakes his fist in its face daily anyway, blaming It for aches in his knees, hair loss, bad breath, his hernia, erections (not resurrections) at the wrong time. I see him in the alleys when I take out the trash, his fist in the air, his mouth full of blasphemies, his glasses as brilliant with the sun as a prophet’s eyes with the LORD. For days, I smelled his stale scent haunting the stairwell as he came and went. Night after night, I heard him through the walls engulfed in tantrum and torture—his voice sometimes a man’s, sometimes a woman’s.
Note the way the word “LORD,” in all caps, suddenly rises up from the text like a sun of clarity—like an unexpected dawn, as if The Unseen had suddenly appeared after a lifetime of hiding behind clouds (“bad and insulting towards God because he is holding back the rain,” Darger—who throughout his life was obsessed with the weather, and storms—once wrote). We can think of the final shot of Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, when we look up through the fog and see heaven’s bells; or of the final shot of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, when the camera pans overhead out of the fog to reveal a planet perhaps not so unlike Abbieannia, with its reappearing characters and its appropriations of dreams:
East adj. [<I.E. aues-, to shine, dawn] H follows the Unseen down alleys behind and near his three-flat, all the way up to Belmont, others’ junk his treasure—and his treasure glitters. H trails the Unseen beneath the L tracks that throw shadows all over the place. H wanders down sidewalks that line three-flats, red bricks in the fog (not dogs on a log), bas-relief flowers at second and third stories. He stands on the sidewalk, in the middle of a fog bank, looking up: petunias bloom overhead everywhere.