Book Review – Darger’s Resources

Moon, Michael. Darger’s Resources. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

J. Keith Vincent

Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a reclusive Chicago janitor who spent six decades writing and illustrating a sprawling, 15,145-page narrative about seven glamorous and gutsy little girls leading a child slave rebellion against an evil empire. By all indications Darger seems to have produced 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 in order to satisfy his own creative and psychic needs. He had almost no relationships with other people and never made any effort to publish his work. We know it today only because his longtime landlords happened upon it after Darger moved to a nursing home and recognized its beauty and importance. Despite his social isolation, however, Darger’s work was deeply intertextual. His writing incorporated snippets of popular texts ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Frank Baum’s Oz series, and the figures in his paintings were mostly stenciled and collaged from magazine advertisements and comic strips such as Little Annie Roonie and Mutt and Jeff.

Readers of Mechademia may also know Darger as the inspiration for Saitō Tamaki’s groundbreaking account of Japan’s otaku culture in Beautiful Fighting Girl.[i]  Saitō devotes a full chapter to Darger’s apparent ability to inhabit virtually a fictional world of his own making. For Saitō, Darger was the paradoxical American ur-otaku, combining an intense form of isolation from “normal” sociability with an equally intense engagement with various forms of media. Add to this his fascination with what Saitō calls “phallic girls” (Darger’s little girls all have little penises), and it becomes easy to see why Darger’s work fascinates Saitō, who is one of Japan’s leading experts on both otaku culture and the phenomenon of social withdrawal (hikikomori).[ii]

When Dawn Lawson and I were translating Beautiful Fighting Girl, I mentioned it to Michael Moon, who I knew was writing a book on Darger. Moon had already heard of Saitō’s book and was an early and enthusiastic reader of the translation. Moon’s book, Darger’s Resources, has now appeared, and scholars of Japanese media, literature, and popular culture should not miss it. Moon reads Darger’s work not as the product of a tragic, pathological, or romantic isolation, but as a way of being in the world that is “highly relational and even in some ways collaborative” (1). Moon’s refusal to pathologize Darger and his appreciation for the imaginative power and relevance of his fictional world provide a model for anyone working on media culture along the hikikomori-otaku continuum.

In the Realms of the Unreal[iii] has been called the world’s longest novel,” but Moon shows how inadequate the term “novel” is to describe Darger’s baroque narrative. While novels advance towards closure, usually in the form of a marriage or the death of a main character, Darger’s project was expansive and open-ended. It seems to have “depended for its continuation on the recurrence of one massive disaster ( . . .) after another” (10) – disasters which alternate with pastoral scenes of calm in which “the next thunderstorm or cyclone [is] moving inexorably toward the center of the picture” (11). Critics including Saitō have seen in this alternation between crisis and calm the imprint of Darger’s traumatized youth as an orphan raised in a home for “feeble-minded children,” but Moon finds its origins also in classic serial narratives from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Cervantes’s Don Quixote (both of which Darger owned) to more recent serialized children’s fiction such as The Bobbsey Twins and The Banner Boy Scouts. One point such narratives have in common is a tendency for relationships among characters to ramify beyond the romantic couple or the nuclear family into “expansive and flexible social and emotional networks…[of]…virtual parents, offspring, or siblings” (6-7). Trading in the marriage plot for what Moon calls “a volatile mode of sequelation” (11) makes it possible for Darger not only to imagine this wider spectrum of alliance and affiliation, but also to enact what Moon calls “a range of sexualities…that are not very highly object driven, but more inclined to the intense enjoyment of certain atmospheres, both spatial and narrative, than such more normatively adult sexual pleasures as penetration, consummation, and climax” (21).

As should be clear from this passage, Moon is a queer theorist with an interest in forms of sexuality that fall outside what is considered the “normatively adult.” His work on Darger is part of a larger project of “recovering the lost histories of the freaks, perverts, alleged crazies, and radical do-it-yourselfers…who produced much of the most vital culture of the past century” (3). Darger certainly fits comfortably into this queer crowd, but Moon’s take on Darger is also queer in so far as he focuses not on Darger’s identity as an individual but on the forces and resources that shaped him as a subject. If you think Darger’s interest in “pious stories about the torture and execution of angelic little girls” (26) is “weird,” it will appear less so once you have read Moon’s account of such violence in Chapter One (“Darger’s Book of Martyrs”) as an “indispensable feature” of Catholic virgin martyr plays dating back to the earliest years of Christianity. Such plays enjoyed widespread popularity in the United States up to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, and Moon himself remembers acting them out as an elementary school student in rural Oklahoma in the 1950s. Darger was a devout Catholic, and the lines of influence here are clear. In pointing this out, however, Moon is not simply saying that Darger’s fascination with martyred girls was only as bizarre as that of the Catholic Church. He also shows how Darger made use of these sources in creative and reparative ways in order to “explore what may have often seemed to him to be potentially overwhelmingly strong feelings, desires, or memories” (29). At the end of the chapter he draws a comparison between Darger’s work and Walter Benjamin’s book on German Trauerspiele, seventeenth-century plays that not only represented the horrors of war and genocidal violence, but provided a vehicle for extravagant and unsublimated complaint about the results of that violence.  In Darger’s work, the deaths of the child martyrs in wartime settings are similarly met with uncontrollable weeping and lamentation by his girl heroines, providing not just cathartic release but a means for both memorializing and monumentalizing experiences of violence and devastation.

In Chapter Two, “Rotten Truths, Wasted Lives,” Moon draws a comparison between Darger’s work and the juvenilia of the Brontë siblings, focusing mostly on the writing of Branwell Brontë, the only boy in the family and the only one of the Brontës who did not have a successful career as a writer. Like Darger (and like the archetypical otaku), Branwell has been represented by critics as someone who refused to “give up childish things” and went on writing “juvenilia” into his late twenties. In Moon’s reading, which refuses this normative gesture, the imaginative creation Branwell made in collaboration with his sisters — of an intricately imagined fantasy world called “Angria” wracked by war and violence — was a way of working through the early losses of their mother and their elder sister Maria. At the same time, for Branwell in particular it was a way of registering the terror of a newly militarized masculinity into which he was being recruited along with every other British male of his generation. Despite the decades that separated their births, Branwell Brontë and Henry Darger were both born into a world of conscript armies and racialized and imperial violence. Moon shows how they processed the shock of this experience in their writing.

Chapters Three and Four continue Moon’s project of citing Darger’s sources, specifically such early twentieth-century comic strips as Mutt and Jeff and the work of pulp writers such as H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian). The cumulative effect of these contextualizations is to revise the traditional impression of Darger alone in his room, obsessively creating work out of the depths of his own private pathology.  Instead, we see him in the context of a vibrant working-class cultural sphere, actively engaged in the emotional and aesthetic working-through of the traumas of his historical moment.

To write with empathy and subtlety about Darger as Moon does entails no small risk in our current media climate, where the borders between fiction and reality are both increasingly confused and vigilantly policed. Darger’s writings and paintings include scenes of horrific and “only partially sublimated sexual violence” (34) being committed against children, particularly little girls. Combine this with the image of Darger as someone who worked in complete isolation when he was not shuffling around his neighborhood talking to himself, and you have the makings of a frightening figure–one that Darger’s narrator himself described as “a maniac of the queerest kind” (36). Many, if not most, critics of Darger have read ominous signs in all this, and those who have expressed admiration for his work have left themselves open to accusations of (as Moon puts it) “somehow aiding and abetting a pedophile serial killer, either actual or would-be” (ix).

The stakes, then, could hardly be higher nor the discourse more charged. This makes it all the more powerful an experience to read Moon’s calm and careful appreciation of Darger’s work not as that of an isolated and pathological individual, nor as evidence of crimes contemplated or actually committed, but rather as the life’s work of an artist who registered with great fidelity what Moon calls “the terrible ordinariness of violence in the history of the twentieth century — especially violence against children, and specifically against girls” (ix). In Moon’s reading, Darger was not a pedophile waiting to pounce, but someone whose own experience as an institutionalized orphan, a lifelong wage slave, and an active participant in the “rowdy and gaudy proletarian public sphere” (20) of the early twentieth century in the United States made him exquisitely sensitive to — but as an artist never defeated by – the violent and exploitative culture that surrounded him, and which surrounds us still.

But to say only that Darger was processing the violence he saw around him would be to miss what I take to be the most important part of Moon’s argument, especially for those of us in Japanese studies. As Moon points out, liberal pieties encourage us in the belief that violence and aggression are things that impinge from the outside upon an “ostensibly innocent subject” (109). It is this projective belief that makes it possible to think that violence is something that one can simply be “against,” and that consequently inspires aversion towards and even censorship of work like Darger’s. But for Moon the value of Darger’s work lies in its fidelity not only to the external, but also the internal sources of violence. This is the world described by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein in her work on “the furious infant that hallucinates invading its mother’s body and wreaking havoc on it” (109). In this angry infant Klein saw the sources of aggressive urges that we all harbor and that we ignore at our own (and others’) peril.[iv] Moon describes Darger’s work as being, like the pulp fiction that inspired it, “a kind of vast elaborative literature in which we can imagine at least to some degree owning some of our own violently emotional impulses rather than altogether disavowing and denying them” (109). It is in this regard that Moon has the most in common with Saitō, who also saw Darger’s work not as the product of a diseased mind but as compelling art in which those who are willing to look seriously will see – to quote Saito – “the shadows of our own desires.”[v] In the context of recent moves by the Tokyo Municipal Government to censor even drawn depictions of subjects in manga and anime judged to be harmful to youth, Moon’s book comes as a timely and eloquent argument for the importance of maintaining the sphere of fictionality as a space in which artists, writers, and readers can all work through, and begin to “own,” some of our more violent desires[vi] – a thing perhaps better achieved in the “Realms of the Unreal” than in reality.

J. Keith Vincent is Assistant Professor of Japanese and Comparative Literature at Boston University. He is the author of Two-Timing Modernity: Homosocial Narrative in Modern Japanese Fiction. (Harvard Asia Center, 2012).

[i] Saitō Tamaki, Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki (Tokyo: Ōta shuppan, 2000); translated by J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson as Beautiful Fighting Girl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[ii] It was Saitō who first identified this syndrome in his book Shakai-teki hikikomori: owaranai shishunki, (Tokyo: PHP Shinsho, 1998); translated by Jeffrey Angles as Social Withdrawal: Adolescence Without End (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, forthcoming).

[iii] I follow critical convention here in abbreviating the title in this way (rather than as The Story of the Vivian Girls). Moon calls it simply In the Realms.

[iv] For Klein’s view of the world of the infant, which she saw as alternating, not unlike Darger’s narrative, between the destructive “paranoid/schizoid” and the “reparative/depressive” positions, see Melanie Klein, “Criminal Tendencies in Normal Children (1927),” in Love, Guilt, and Reparation, And Other Works, vol. 1 of The Writings of Melanie Klein (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002), 170-185. See also Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s reading of Klein in relation to the history of queer theory. “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes,” in The Weather in Proust, ed. Jonathan Goldberg (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 123-143.

[v] Saitō, Beautiful Fighting Girl. 65.

[vi] I refer here to the revision to the Tokyo Municipal Ordinance for the Wholesome Development of Youth (Seishōnen no kenzen ikusei jōrei) passed in December 2010.  This revision explicitly forbids drawn images in manga or anime that depict “sexual or pseudo-sexual acts that would be prohibited by law in real life or among individuals whose marriage is prohibited in real life.” For the ordinance itself as well as a statement and articles condemning it by a group of manga and anime artists, see this website.