Weird experiences: ??? (the case of Henry Darger)
This post is a collection of quotes from About Henry Darger, a marvellous review of John MacGregor’s Henry Darger: In The Realms Of The Unreal. It is hard to diagnose Darger, so judge for yourself. (Further reading: Henry Darger on Wikipedia.)
He was a janitor in a hospital. After he died, his landlord discovered that he wrote a 15000-page novel illustrated with 10-meter watercolors. From Wikipedia:
In the Realms of the Unreal is a 15,145-page work bound in fifteen immense, densely typed volumes (with three of them consisting of several hundred illustrations, scroll-like watercolor paintings on paper derived from magazines and coloring books) created over six decades. Darger illustrated his stories using a technique of traced images cut from magazines and catalogues, arranged in large panoramic landscapes and painted in watercolors, some as large as 30 feet wide and painted on both sides.
He also wrote a 5000-page autobiography:
In 1968, Darger became interested in tracing some of his frustrations back to his childhood and began writing The History of My Life. Spanning eight volumes, the book only spends 206 pages detailing Darger’s early life before veering off into 4,672 pages of fiction about a huge twister called “Sweetie Pie”, probably based on memories of a tornado he had witnessed in 1908.
Today Darger is a somewhat famous artist, and his illustrations are sold as standalone works. Here are some:
Here’s a quick sketch of who Darger was, which will hopefully give you an idea of why I find him so fascinating. He was a reclusive man who worked various dishwashing jobs for most of his life. He only had one real friend in the course of his life, and although he occasionally interacted with the other residents of his apartment complex, they just saw him as a peculiar, taciturn eccentric. But when Darger was on his deathbed, his landlord Nathan Lerner began to clean out his room and discovered something incredible. Unknown to everyone around him, Darger had been writing and painting. Writing and painting a lot.
Darger’s novel, In The Realms Of The Unreal
Among the objects Lerner discovered were fifteen massive volumes comprising one continuous fictional work entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In total, the typed, single-spaced text was 15,145 pages long – one of the longest fictional works ever produced by a human being, if not the longest.
In The Realms Of The Unreal is, in some very broad sense, a fantasy novel. It takes place on a planet far larger than Earth, which Earth is said to orbit as a moon. This planet is mostly composed of Catholic nations, of which the most important to the plot are Angelinia, Calverinia and Abbieannia. [...] The story is about a war between the Catholic nations and the atheist nation Glandelinia, which is inhabited by evil, sadistic people who practice institutionalized child slavery.
“In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger”
In the Realms, there are numerous characters named after Darger. There’s a framing device in which the text is supposed to have been written by a journalist named Henry Darger who followed around the Christian troops, though this is often abandoned. There’s a Christian general named Henry Darger, and the leader of a secret society, the Gemini, is named Hendro Dargar. (The names slip sometimes, so that certain characters are sometimes Darger, sometimes Dargar.) There’s also a Glandelinean General Henry Darger. There’s mention of someone named Dargarius, a name which Darger (for some reason) sometimes used in real-world correspondence. These Dargers do not all seem to be distinct in the author’s mind, and it’s often confusing which one is being referred to in any given instance.
“Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls”
Darger’s paintings are filled with prepubescent girls – usually the Vivian girls, but there are also sometimes anonymous child slaves, etc. They are usually depicted naked, even when there is no good reason for this. (This accords with nothing in the text; the Vivian girls lose their clothing from time to time, but there’s no stipulation that they just go around naked all the time.) The little girls usually, but not always, have penises. (They’re pretty clearly supposed to be girls, though, and there’s no mention of genitals anywhere in his writing, much less an explanation for the anomalous genitals he laboriously drew onto each of his female heroines.)
“[Darger] saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking [his newspaper clipping] by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians”
The inspiration for writing the Realms was the loss of a particular newspaper clipping, a photo of Elsie Paroubek, a little girl who had been murdered, and whose murder was all over the Chicago papers for a short time. Darger’s journals express no particular interest in this picture until he discovered that he had lost it. After that, he spent much of the rest of his life in a profound state of anger at God, who he believed had taken the picture from him. He saw the fictional war between Christians and Glandelineans as a way of punishing God for taking the picture by causing harm to millions of (fictional?) Christians. In his mind, Elsie Paroubek and Annie Aronburg seem to have merged: in the text, characters occasionally refer to the loss of a picture of Annie Aronburg, and some of the characters contend that the anger of some man named Darger on account of this loss – rather than the actual death of Annie Aronburg – is the true cause of the war. (The characters are understandably baffled as to how the loss of a picture could cause a war, and they are also confused as to whether the Darger in question is the Christian general or the Glandelinean general. Near the end of the story, it is revealed that the two men both claim ownership of the lost picture.) Again and again in his journal he threatened God, telling him that if the picture wasn’t returned, he might let the Glandelineans win the war. He never found the picture. (There are hauntingly beautiful passages in which the ghost of Annie Aronburg appears to Darger, beseeching him to give up his anger at God. But she never convinces him.)
Darger’s autobiography, The History Of My Life
Darger’s 5000-page work The History Of My Life is putatively an autobiography. However, that word does not accurately describe the vast majority of its contents. The first several hundred pages of the work are indeed an account of Darger’s early life. However, after describing a scene in which his younger self is entranced by the sight of a powerful storm, he apparently gets distracted by the storm and spends the remaining 4000-some pages of the text describing the wake of destruction caused by a fictional twister called “Sweetie Pie,” with no further mention of his own life whatsoever.