Henry Darger Source Materials (detail) 2005   

Henry Darger Source Materials (detail) 2005


ARCHIVAL FOLDS: Effacement, Erasure, Disappearance 

Unpublished Manuscript 2013

Introduction: A Porous Self

Near the end of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Woolf describes herself perched at a window in London, looking down at the bustling streets below.  Her description moves through pets and their masters, businessmen and their bags, drifters and their walking sticks, the dead and their processions, coming finally to pass briefly over a woman in a fur coat carrying Parma violets.  What Woolf notices of all these different characters and the movements they make as they take up their morning duties in the sooty light of London is that, “They all seemed separate, self-absorbed, on business of their own.”   

What happens next is a lull in the movement.  Woolf describes a silence, a ceasing of motion, an absence of traffic.  She writes, “Nothing came down the street; nobody passed.”   And in this stillness, Woolf watches a single leaf on a tree at the very end of the street fall, and writes, “somehow it was like a signal falling, a signal pointing to a force in things which one had overlooked.”  At just this moment, a man, a woman and a taxi emerge into the street and come to meet together directly below Woolf’s window; and she watches the couple get inside the cab and be carried away elsewhere.  Of this strange confluence of movements (and her own language is filled with the metaphors of currents, eddies, and rivers) Woolf explains that, although the sight was “ordinary enough; what was strange was the rhythmical order with which my imagination had invested it…”  It was not the lull in traffic or the particular couple entering the cab that seemed odd to her but it was instead the awareness that, in this moment when nothing happened and nobody passed, she was able to see in all things a force that had previously gone unnoticed.  When that force did emerge, it took her with it so that, in the stillness of this one moment, her own mind was able to move inside the movements of others.  The observer had become one with what it was she had observed.

What Woolf goes on to propose is the still almost shockingly contemporary notion that the most suitable mind for creativity and art is a mind that is androgynous.  Out of a series of apparent contradictions grows a mind that is unified enough to produce work with its whole being, holding nothing back, letting nothing irk or grate it, a mind able to make work that can be received and grow in the mind of an other.  This unity of mind does not arise out of singularity, however, nor does it involve nuclearity or separation.  On the contrary, it is a unity that emerges from a radical openness: to the world, to the other, and to the other that is always already inside.  The androgynous mind is one that, Woolf argues, “consumes” impediments—literally taking in what would halt the creative act itself, becoming one with it, allowing it in and so managing to transform its disturbance.  This unity of the androgynous mind is one that arises from within plurality: not only of the sexes but, quite radically, a plurality of all things, all elements that make up a life.  She writes, “the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment; that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided.”  

The androgynous mind is porous: it breathes the world in and out, not clutching to a precious idea of itself but instead releasing, relinquishing, allowing work to happen and holding nothing back.  Without this kind of mind that is in harmony (with difference), the work that is produced “cannot penetrate within;”  and without this kind of mind that is open and undivided, the work that is produced “cannot grow in the minds of others.”   Woolf returns to Shakespeare, citing his work as evidence of just this kind of mind (“the man-womanly mind” ), the kind of mind that, she writes, “does not think specially or separately of sex.”  This is the fully developed mind and indeed, Woolf has given us her own performative example of the way in which this kind of mind does not think especially separately about anything that it breathes into itself.  All the while that Woolf’s narrative has been exasperated at the interruptions her thought encounters as her body moves through a world full of gendered prohibitions, the structure of the text has been incorporating the impediments, breathing them in and allowing them to shape it, and so rendering the impediments unimpeding.  

This seemingly paradoxical relationship of a unified mind being one that actually has “no single state of being” asks us to reconsider the very notion of unity and also that of mind or self.  How can we come to cultivate such a harmony in ourselves if this harmony involves opening up to plurality?  And how may we come to recognize this unity in the world: what modes of being, what kind of appearance does it take?  Of the traditional assertive, expressive gestures—those gestures that crystallize behind the force of the “I”—Woolf herself eschews these as being in danger of shadowing out other growth.  She writes, “…in the shadow of the letter ‘I’ all is a shapeless mist…Nothing will grow there.”  Encouraging us to peer a little more closely at what kind of self this “I” expresses, intriguing us enough to ask the question of what a self is anyway, Woolf allows another apparent paradox to emerge.  As she foregoes the limited possibilities available through the “I” and the assertive gestures that accompany it, we are asked again to consider how we might come to appear to an other without funneling our selves into its narrowing, centralized line.  Somehow, the answer allows for a fullness of expression that the “I” could not hope to attain, but this expression is other than the one we thought we knew.  Woolf writes, “we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.”  

What Woolf alludes to in this curious assessment is a notion of self and a notion of appearance that run in an almost direct contradiction to what we thought we knew.  Somehow, not showing themselves in the expressive gestures, not asserting themselves in the details and intricacies of their lives and feelings—somehow this refusal constitutes a fullness of presence rather than an absence.  Although we cannot claim to “know” either author (we do not know the facts and their stories remain mysterious), the fullness of each of their beings pervades every fiber of the weaving that is their work.  What Woolf’s theory of the androgynous mind seems to suggest is that there is another way of being in the world, another way of coming to show one’s self in it.  Far from being new, this other mode has been operating all along: sometimes noticed and sometimes not.  This other mode of being looks at the plurality of the world and the plurality of the self inside it and says, quite simply, yes.  It says yes to the other in itself, yes to the impediments that might seem to cross it, and yes to its own irreducibility—yes to its having “no single state of being.” 

For this work you are about to enter, and for others of its kind, the question of how we cultivate such a notion of self is pressing; and so too is the question of how we may come to see or know it.  This is what the text at hand explores: how can we come to show through hiding?  How can closing off become the very form of dis-closure of which Woolf speaks?  This kind of exploration requires that we leave our shining lights at home: this work is not to be done by dragging what is hidden into the bright light of scholarship.  In this terrain, we cannot grow too accustomed to standing on solid ground.  Here, movement is required—a movement that asks of us that we reach out our hands into the dampness and feel our way onto its path.  The advice that Woolf offers us is of the essence for our journey.  It is the same advice she offers Mary Carmichael as she reads with bated breath, that “ ‘Chloe liked Olivia.’”   Woolf writes that the only way Carmichael stands a chance of putting this world to words; “The only way for you to do it, I thought…would be to talk of something else…”   
And so it is that here, we begin.   

Part One: THE ARTIST ARCHIVES The Case of Henry Darger

Fickle, chilly May
“Where’s the season they call spring?
eloped with old man winter?

Henry Darger: Weather Reports, May 13, 1959

The Museum

There was a small, well-organized room in the basement of the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, New York that housed part of a remarkable gift bestowed upon the institution in 2004.  This gift was comprised of five hundred sketches, twenty-nine large sized watercolor paintings, thirty-thousand pages of text, fifty children’s books, and all of what the Museum called the “personal effects” of the artist known as Henry Darger.  

The little library, lit yellow by fluorescent lamps, was invisible to the mayhem of the Manhattan streets that rushed above it.  It was invisible also to the millions of people whose feet moved along the sidewalk one story above as they waited patiently to enter the Museum of Modern Art, the vastly more visited museum, just next door.  Special permission was required to access this part of the Folk Art’s collection and a guard was needed to turn the key so that the elevator descended into the ground rather than taking its more routine pathway upstairs to the often empty viewing galleries.  Once below, the elevator door opened onto a narrow hallway.  Just to the right were thick glass doors that held the library, along with its spectacled librarian, inside.

In this basement space, the passageways were narrow and the ceiling was low.  The shelves were few and the stacks were deceptively arranged so that, upon first glance, the library did not look like a place that held too much.  But just as every book is a single object with a solid looking form that opens to reveal tens of thousands of words, all moving together into endless currents of meaning, so too that room.  Small and artificially lit, the library’s form cloaked over the abundance of information—of questions and answers, curiosities and sadnesses—it held inside. 

As is true of many places in charge of holding secrets, that room was not as it appeared to be.  It was not that library that actually held the enormous volumes that Henry Darger bound painstakingly by hand.  In their stead, the library was home to a series of blonde colored cupboards that were neatly lined with wooden drawers.  These cupboards stood discreetly and fit so perfectly into what one expected of a library that they often receded from notice altogether.  One used to stand behind the librarian’s desk, another punctuated a stack of shelves, holding it up as a dam would the flow of a river.  The drawers of the cupboards slid neatly into the grids that framed them and each long, wooden drawer held inside it countless, little, plastic boxes.  Inside each of those was a tiny, sepia reel of tape.  These tightly wound reels were also not quite as they seem.  For it was here that Darger’s thousands of pages of text—a novel that some have marked as the longest story to ever be written, a lesser known sequel to this novel, an autobiography, a strange and wondrous book of weather reports that exceeds five thousand pages—all of these sheets of paper had been photographed and fit onto tiny ribbons of tape that whirred at unexpected speeds through a somewhat antiquated microfiche machine.  

Perhaps due to the inevitable quandary of storage in concentrated urban centers, the bound books were always, in fact, somewhere else.  Somewhere far across the river, there was a much less traveled area where the streets were nearly as quiet as the insides of the buildings they framed, save for the occasional rattling of truck axles on cobblestones.  There, underneath the Brooklyn Bridge (a structure reportedly riddled with secret and unimaginably numerous rooms), Henry Darger’s real pages—the crumbling, destructible, tangible pages—sat in boxes on the shelves of a huge warehouse loft.  In the loft’s muted daylight, the pages were unlikely neighbors to antique totem poles, hooked rugs and sculptures made of bottle caps: the strange and mesmerizing storehouse of the Folk Art Museum, a museum that championed the artists known as “outsiders.”

Two Rooms

Henry Joseph Darger moved into the two small rooms at 851 Webster Avenue  on the North Side of Chicago in 1931.  He was then thirty-nine years old.  He would live there day in and day out, never once going on vacation, never once inviting home a guest, until a snowy day in November, more than forty years later.  On this day, his body badly crippled with age and his spirit having grown angrier and angrier at the God he had once called his own, Henry Darger walked out of his rooms for the very last time.  He was eighty years old and destined to die five months later, bedridden and vacant-eyed in a charity hospital run by nuns—women who had long since devoted their lives to the God against whom Darger railed.  

When he closed the door to his two little rooms, no one could have imagined what they held inside.  Neither his neighbors who shared the rooming house with him, nor his landlords who had occasionally even entered there: no one could have foreseen what his small space would reveal.  What began as a thin trickle of clues toward a larger story quickly became a deluge that pushed open the secret that had been held there for so many years.  Inside those quiet walls, Henry Darger had been accruing what was an entirely private world, both in metaphor and in fact.  What he left behind him were vast accounts of a painstakingly described and illustrated universe in which little girls were warrior-heroines endlessly battling soldier-men who kept children as slaves and committed horrible acts of cruelty and war.  This world was left behind on lengthy scrolls of painted paper and in the form of tens of thousands of words, sometimes hand-written and sometimes typed.  The pages were placed neatly into binders or sewn together with twine or waxy string: bound by the hand that made them, riddled with the fastenings of beautiful, awkward knots.  

Along with the finished paintings and the countless bound books, however, Henry Darger also left behind him something else.  Lacing through the work and through the narrative that he created, Darger left behind him the innumerable traces of the actual making of this other world—a network of the tangible remnants of his process.  These remnants: envelopes from the Kodak enlargement company, notes to himself about the placement of particular images, tracings that show the way he altered found photographs, sheets upon sheets of ditto paper picked out of hospital trashcans—these things attach us to his world while also reminding us that he did once walk through the streets of ours.  Together, these fragments build a bridge that invite us to bear witness to Darger’s creation and to the distinctive methodology he spent decades of his life perfecting.  

What is perhaps most disorienting in coming to know the story of Henry Darger is just how few spindles of attachment kept him here.  By his own account, he had lost his family when he was only thirteen, embarking then on an almost entirely institutionalized adolescence and the alienation it entailed.  The only friend he ever spoke to or kept a record of died in 1959, having already moved far away–from Chicago to Texas–many years before .  He had no family to speak of and he had no friends.  He did the kind of anonymous jobs in hospitals that privileged people are trained not to notice: he was a janitor, a washer of dishes.  These are the jobs so often taken for granted, along with the people who do them: people who are often collapsed into their jobs so that they too frequently go unnoticed.  Without the connections commonly formed as people move through the world and with few strings attached to him of any kind, it is easy to see how no one would have been privy to Darger’s enormous creation.  A life that was invisible opened up the possibility of a passing that might have come and gone just as invisibly: a lonely man, another sorrowful soul, gone forever.  But Henry Darger left behind him these two rooms.

For scholars, the rooms could not have held a richer prize.  Darger saved everything and his space was cluttered with the kinds of remnants, pieces and fragments that someone of a more ordinary disposition might have thrown away.  But things took on a different importance for Henry Darger and he kept his tracings, guarded his mistakes, saved his erasures.  He held fast to order forms, envelopes, pay stubs, newspaper clippings and countless images from a myriad of print sources.  In the end, what survived him were not only the enormous, hand-bound volumes of finished work and narrative, but also thousands of clues that pointed both toward his processes and toward his impulse to archive them.  

In addition to carefully preserving the photographic negatives he ordered and used for the paintings (many of which bear dates on them that allow us to have a sense of their chronology), Darger also saved reams of found paper.  For him, this paper was precious.  What others regarded as waste, the useless and inevitable by-products of daily activity, were for Darger, fields of possibility.  Entirely aside from his works and his drawings, the tangible remains of his creative life bear witness to a system of saving and remembering that ran alongside his artistic production and is, in many ways, a work of its own.  It is here on these countless paper surfaces—pieces of paper he saved and saved well—that we can begin to see Henry Darger separating out an experimenting ground of the image, the copy and the trace. 
To say Darger’s finished work was extensive is a radical understatement.  It is not simply that any one of his written works: the novel, his autobiography, the journals and his miscellaneous notes or the intriguing book of weather reports, often represents literally thousands of pages.  The paintings too proliferate: each one keeps on going, extending across a panorama of pages fixed together and painted upon.  That most of them are illustrated on both sides of the paper adds to the sense that the work multiplies upon itself—and of these paintings, there are literally hundreds.  The quantity of fragments that Henry Darger left behind is equally enormous: the amount of material in the American Folk Art collection alone is overwhelming in its abundance.  ‘Abundance’ bears within it a quality of the too much: it is an overflow, a superfluity; it brings to mind the often unwieldy nature of the plentiful, the messy quality of the copious.  The term grows from two Latin words pieced together: ab which means away from and undare which means to flow in waves.   Like the elements of Henry Darger’s archive, the term abundant has encoded in it a wavelike movement away from the edges, away from the boundaries of containment: passing them, sloshing and spilling over what might have tried to hold them in.

For all its proliferate quality, however, the more we see of Henry Darger’s archive—the more there is to see—the less we feel we know about the work itself.  Like the fragment, abundance has this quality about it: it is difficult to conceive of in terms of a whole.  Just as the fragment implies some piece of a whole that has broken away from it, abundance exceeds the notion of ‘whole’ altogether.  Both ‘fragment’ and ‘abundance’ move through something that is missing.  The fragment leaves us imagining where it might have fit into an absent whole, while abundance leaves us trying to edit, to see only what is important within a field that refuses to be narrowed.  What is not always possible to see is the quality of abundance that is enfolded within the fragment: a fragment can be read almost infinitely precisely because it does not have the trappings, the borders, that hold a reading in.  Likewise, abundance bears within it an element of the fragmentary because what is abundant cannot be glimpsed all at once—and so the views we get of it are themselves, necessarily, fragmented.  

Approaching the abundance of fragments inside the American Folk Art Museum’s Darger Collection, it can be tempting to try and cast a frame upon them all: to fit them all into an idea, to try and make some sense of the mystery by answering the hints with a new theory or resolution.  But this method omits the resonance between fragment and abundance and places answers where perhaps questions ought to remain.  

Before entering the archive itself, a short detour beckons, in order to look at some fragments of writing plucked from another collection and from another man who emerges as Henry Darger’s unlikely partner in thought.  Through the lens of a fragment of writing that is not in fact Darger’s own, the nature of the Darger collection comes into view as remarkably akin to that of a far more studied, far more culturally absorbed archive: one that has most certainly been catalogued, analyzed, written about and picked through.  In the familiar terms of an institution, this other archive calls its contents the “working materials,” rather than the “personal effects,” of the mind and the man that collected them.  By opening up the search to an other archive, an other collection, I hope to double our way of seeing from the start: keeping (at least) two possibilities open at one time.  I hope also that the deviation will serve as a reminder that the way we enter the archive determines what it is that we will find there.  

Beginning Double

In 1929, on another continent and in another guise, a similar mind to that of Henry Darger wrote a note to himself remarking that his lifelong pursuit, his “nameless science,” was essentially the study of the symbol or of what he called, an “iconology of the interval.”  

.   .   .