Last night I had trouble sleeping. After reading a bit of The Corrections and drifting off (go figure!), something, I don’t know what, shocked me awake and after that I was fully alert, though a little delirious. Listlessly scrolling through my netflix queue, I finally decided to watchIn The Realms of the Unreal, a documentary about Henry Darger, one of the United States’ best known “outsider artists” and the author of the longest known single piece of writing in existence, standing at 15,000 pages.
How did he manage to write 15,000 pages and a sequel of 8,000 more? Darger lived an especially sad life and these stories were probably his escape–let the body work while the mind flees. As for his story: Henry’s sister was given up for adoption after his mother died in childbirth and for some years following he lived with his father who many speculate was probably a sad-sack a-hole who could barely take care of himself, never mind his son. He was then sent from public school to a hospital for the mentally “feeble.” After escaping from a state work farm requiring hard labor for long hours, he walked a few hundred miles back to Chicago, where he settled at age 17. He worked as a menial laborer for the rest of his life, most often living alone–winding gauze, washing dishes, standing and repeating the same blunting tasks for 14 hours a day.
In short, he had a classically dour, harsh, and storybook-cruel life. What I find the most fascinating is that his story was based around Chicago, which brings it into consonance with many of the other stories I’ve been reading lately: The Devil in the White City and Jimmy Corrigan. All three of these stories, in one way or another, touch on the story of an outsider (sad-sack or serial killer) standing on the edge of the future in the midwest, watching the 20th century gather steam.
The Devil in the White City explores the stunning architectural grandeur of the Chicago World’s Fair as parallel to the birth of a new american type: the serial killer. The spatial mastery of man is forced into comparison with an increasing divide between action and empathy as exemplified in the psychopath. Jimmy Corrigan is also set against the backdrop of Chicago’s World’s Fair. Both stories feature fatherless losers, men born into a childhood they could not navigate emotionally and thus could never quite leave.
Now, in my own imaginary, Chicago and the rest of the midwest stand as a symbol of the promise of modernity’s once-future that has since become the melancholy of the now-past and forever-present. It is a place of longing and loneliness, and to risk sounding cliche, it results from something brutal and monstrous in the grandeur of modernity. The visual style of Jimmy Corrigan is very evocative of this–it features small, simply-drawn figures standing in the foreground of large, complex public architecture. In fact, these figures are not so far off from those that director Jessica Yu uses to fill in the earlier portions of Darger’s story in her documentary–blueprints of institutions and rows after rows of hospital beds. It would seem that Darger’s stories were his Wonderland crafted in response to a world designed by Jeremy Bentham.
I think these stories have such resonance with us from where we stand because they register the psychic shock delivered by modern technology in the 20th century’s start, a shock we are still feeling as we continue to find our emotional lives steamrolled in new ways by the terse, abstract rationality of modern life. It is, for many intents and purposes, the record of struggles particular to our time.
They all work so well, measure this punch so smartly and delicately because in the era they are documenting, the punch is still in its infancy. Like Tacita Dean’s photographs of the closing Kodak factory, a dominant paradigm (whether an era, a form, a medium, or an idea) would seem to be at its most profoundly insightful and expressive when it is recording its own death, its own limits in the face of the neverending onrush of novelty. Here we have sorrowful representatives old era recording its death in the face of a technical and rational revolution.
Darger’s story hits so close to home, I believe, because it is about the subjugation of modern life to the unexpected results of our own technological mastery. So is The Devil in the White City. So is Jimmy Corrigan. It’s about the then-new emotional and psychic bruises left by the rational/emotional divide of modern progress. Which are, of course, bruises that we keep giving ourselves, and with which we continue to struggle.