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 Writer's Desk  ... introducing NCR's mission of faith and justice based journalism

May 9, 2005
Vol. 3, No. 5



Antonia Ryan A complex, beautiful, and really weird opus

By Antonia Ryan, OSB

Lying on my desk -- which is the catch-all place for new books that come in to the NCR -- is Universal Father, a biography of Pope John Paul II by Garry O'Connor. In the preface, O'Connor quotes the late pope: " 'They try to understand me from the outside,' he has said of the many books and biographies written about him. 'But I can only be understood from the inside.' "

In these past weeks of papal biographies, I've been thinking a lot about Pope John Paul, and Pope Benedict, and what were the events of their lives that shaped their philosophy and their faith.

Which leads me to my scattered musings for today:

A couple months ago, I saw a documentary called "In the Realms of the Unreal." I don't go to the movies much, but this title was enough to draw me -- especially when I saw that it was about Henry Darger, who is known in some circles as an exemplar of "outsider art." On the Internet Movie Database Web site, Darger is listed as playing "Himself" in the 2004 film. Which is odd, because he died in 1973. Still, the listing seems to fit. We know Darger almost entirely through the writings and drawings he left behind, which are narrated and animated in the documentary to tell his story.

The bare facts of his life do not reveal much about Henry Darger. He was born in Chicago in 1892 and lived most of his life as a janitor working in Catholic hospitals. He had one friend, who moved away when Darger was a young man. Otherwise, he spoke to hardly anyone. He wore clothes he patched himself. He lived for 40 years in one room in a boarding house, and died at age 81. Only three photographs of him even exist. The movie opened with the voices of tenants of his rooming house saying his name; none of them could even agree on how to pronounce "Darger."

When his landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, cleaned out his room, they discovered thousands of pages of autobiography and a 15,000-page, single-spaced novel called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.

The novel centers on a war between two nations on an unnamed planet. The seven Vivian girls, allied with the Christian nation of Abbiennia, were leading a rebellion of the child slaves who are being held by the godless Glandelinians. Darger illustrated his book with huge paintings, sometimes 10 feet long. He had no artistic training, so he traced photo enlargements of pictures from magazines on to the paper and filled in the lines with colorful watercolors: their world is populated by butterfly-like creatures, dragons, much beauty and also much violence.

Now people speculate about what his opus "means." Why little girls? Why were they naked? Why so much violence in his paintings? No one knows. On a Web site devoted to Darger's work, someone named Matthew Michael writes: "During his lifetime, Darger alone comprised the audience for the Vivian sisters' story. And, although recent evidence suggests he may have considered publicizing his work, that ultimately he produced such a complex, beautiful, and really weird opus entirely for himself is wonderful."

There was one relationship that drove the direction of Darger's Realms of the Unreal.

Darger went to Mass every day, often more than once a day. He petitioned his parish priest to help him adopt a child, but (not surprisingly) his request was turned down. He prayed for a child, could not understand why God would not answer, and wrestled with his feeling that God was denying him. At other times he accepted that the ways of God were beyond his understanding.

Near the end of "Realms," we finally see the finale of Darger's epic battle between good and evil. At first, he seems to end his novel on a positive note. The Christians win the war. Good triumphs. There is much rejoicing.

Then turn the page. The Christians suffer a crushing defeat. Why the double ending? the documentary asks. Was he still angry with God? Was he trying to get back at God?

This little snippet about his double ending was the most fascinating part, to me, of the story of Henry Darger's life. His strange, but persistent prayer for a child, and his subsequent feelings of abandonment, made me think of Psalm 88. It is the only one of all 150 psalms that does not end with an "upturn," a sense that at least maybe God will rescue us. It ends: "I have nothing left but darkness." Yet -- who is the psalmist talking to? Even in the face of his woeful statement, the psalmist keeps talking to God.

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail address is aryan@ncronline.org.
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