Sunday, 14 March 2010

In the Realms of the Unreal

"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.

- Nathaniel Rich on the outsider artist and writer Henry Darger.

(Full documentary above available on youtube).