We all know the story of how Henry Darger became famous. And because he only became famous after he died, he left the world the same way he came into it—as a nobody. Henry Darger was born 1892, lived in Chicago, never held a job that required anything more than his body, and for all of his adult life had his mind entirely, tirelessly committed to a fantasy world whose scope, whose density, even intensity, has no rival. His very long book 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 managed to do the impossible—it dwarfed Proust's In Search of Lost Time (the former, 15,000 pages; the latter, 3,700 pages). Even the incomplete sequel to The Realms of the Unreal doubles the size of Proust's novel. Darger also produced hundreds of paintings and drawings that visualized the terrifying content of his novel. All of this, Darger's inhuman output, was discovered by his landlord as he died in a hospital in 1973.
The Frye's Henry Darger: Highlights from the American Folk Museum has a number of Darger's sketches and paintings, and also a sample of the actual magazines, comic books, and newspapers that were the raw materials for his fantasies—or, better put, his ruling fantasy. Images of cute girls in family-friendly publications were carefully copied and transported to a world in the middle of a brutal war. Adult males fight girls with boy penises. The adult males are often cowboys, often charging into battle, always creepy-looking; the girls are often naked, often blond, always creepy-looking; and the struggle between these two primal forces happens in a distant country with towering clouds, huge flowers, cartoon animals, and exotic trees. When the girls are strangled, their tongues stick out. Judging from what is in the Frye, the adult men are clearly winning this war.
These are the visions of a madman. That is the observer's first impression and, as a consequence, first judgment. But we don't identify him as mad because the paintings and drawings are irrational—in fact, the opposite is the case: They are too rational. The world Darger constructed over many years in this Chicago apartment makes perfect sense. It has an economy (Darger apparently kept a record of the cost of the war); the girls have a reason for fighting (they are enslaved by adults); even the weather in this realm is not left to chance, but is closely monitored by its creator. At the level of the art, the process of making these girls has the standardized mode of a factory. The repetition of their faces, the repetition of plant colors, the repetition of the animal life, the wealth of repeated details—it is a complete and rational world.
The print jungle of mid-20th-century American popular culture, the wild variety of images in advertisements in magazines and newspapers, the incoherent profusion of superheroes and villains in comic books—the mess of mass media finds perfect order and meaning in The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.
The problem is not rationality; the problem is that the fixed system of meaning fully developed in the head of Darger has no other value but in the head of Darger. We cannot translate the substance of his world into the substance of our world. The teachings of Jesus were universal; the teachings of Darger are completely personal, self-motivated, self-contained, self-referential, self-perpetuated. His life's work needs no followers; his life's work had no audience.
And yet here we are in the gallery looking at Darger's paintings. Why? Not because they are beautiful, or edifying. The paintings themselves do nothing for us. We are here because of the sheer scale of Darger's obsession. What we feel when looking at his works is Kant's sense of the mathematical sublime, the quantitative sublime. The number of girls, clouds, and flowers is too great for the mind to grasp all at once. It is a "magnification to the point of nothingness," to borrow a line from Borges's short essay "From Someone to No One." We find it hard to grasp that so much blood, so many strange battles and children with their holy cause can come out of one mind, one life, one broken soul.