To Hell With Glandolinia!

A response to readings on Henry Darger

I have a friend in San Francisco. Call him Jim. He lives – but really one must find a verb that expresses every possible tense – he had lived, lived, lives, will live, will have lived (never lived?) – in a Victorian flat on the Panhandle near Golden Gate Park. For most people one knows, it is perhaps not too difficult to imagine their lives running on a separate but more or less parallel track; they have affairs (one imagines), intrigues, jobs, they travel, seasons change, the aging process one notes with chagrin on one’s own face has its distant reflection on theirs, perhaps they get married have children divorce, reach a point of despair, have an epiphany, there is a letter or a late-night phone call or an unexpected visit, and here the two lives converge and one is grateful and relieved to learn that someone else has struggled, been defeated, triumphed, and gone on, in not quite the same but more or less similar ways that one has – as if in the background of each person one had found a perspective from which to view the peaks and valleys of one’s own life, there and only there and for that moment could it possibly make so much sense and be affirmed in the other.

But if I were to re-enter Jim’s flat, not having been there in many years, I suspect that the basketball would still be perched on the mantel in the front room, the wooden shutters still slanted diagonally to the northern light, the darts in the dartboard still stuck in the hard foam at a lazy angle. The TV would still be in the corner with foil balled on the antenna, the futon against the wall, the answering machine, if I called, would speak in the voice of a roommate who moved out many years ago. And if I rang the bell on the front door, Jim himself would come shuffling down the stairs, looking perhaps more worn than the previous time I’d seen him – but only in the sense that a rock in a stream gets worn by the water rushing over it – his smooth features inscrutable until he broke into a familiar grimace or grin that seem to represent the range of his expressions.

Did I say “live”? If to live is to love, grow, change, have passions, breakdowns, make decisions, have plans, then Jim does not live. He exists. He endures. Like “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, he abides. I know that he eats, bikes, goes to a bar and talks to the regulars and plays pool and drinks beer. He owns a car that he hardly ever drives, takes the bus to work, has a sister in the East Bay he visits from time to time. We used to play tennis.

Mostly, however, what he does is write.

Let me take a step back. When I first met Jim, he was not quite like this. There was college, a trip to Russia with a buddy from school, a circle of friends, most of them links in the job he has intermittently had, a crush on a girl, parties, the drugs we all did in our twenties at that time in the City. But the circle dissolved, people moved away, he quit the job to work on his writing, gradually settled more and more into the rut of himself. A year of not working stretched into two or three – somehow he had saved enough, and lived simply enough, to do this. Meanwhile I had various girlfriends, jobs, moved a dozen times in six years, got to know an enormous number of people in various scenes, music, poetry, art, some very few of them crystallized into actual friends as I worked my way through the metropolitan maze of intrigue and acquaintance. Meanwhile Jim stayed in his flat, and I saw less and less of him, there were infrequent phone calls, plans to grab a beer that almost never materialized.

Then one night I got a phone call. From his sister. Jim had been hit by a car while riding his bike. He had been flipped over the car and crashed through its rear windshield on his way down. Otherwise, one supposes, the car might not have stopped.

Somehow even this senseless accident resolved into the pattern of his life. He had been wearing his helmet, and emerged, miraculously, with no damage whatsoever to his head. But his hip and leg were hurt, enough that he needed a couple of surgeries and therapy and still has pains that prevent him from doing anything too strenuous. The accident occurred right at the point where he had been about to go back to work, and although the driver was uninsured, there was some kind of large settlement, such that he was able to put off working another year or so. An extreme version, then, of the idle wish one has to crash an old car and collect on one’s premium, or to rob one’s own house, except of course this happened to him, and it had the added benefit of not only providing him with more resources to keep working, but reinforced and emphasized the physical isolation that is more and more a theme of his life.

Do I sound envious of Jim? At times, perhaps, I am. More often I stand in awe of it, I glimpse it from a distance those moments I am most alone, for that is the only time it comes into focus. When I actually see him it makes no sense and we have almost nothing to talk about. I know that I could not live it. I am too much in need of life, love, a sense of going away from and returning to, the thousands of little interactions and exchanges that both dissipate and feed one’s existence. Somehow it both comforts me and makes me tremendously uneasy, knowing that Jim’s there in his eternal flat, existing. I’ve come to need him there, doing that, even though I could never do it myself, to aspire to and differ from.

There’s something elemental about a life lived in such steady isolation and devotion, and to me that has always been the point of Henry Darger’s fascination with the weather. He is the weather, storming in his room, throwing his “tantrums,” declaring war on the little girls and the men in the pages of his novel and canvases. Then becoming gentle and “saintlike.” To hell with the Glandolinians! I would like to live, love, take a wife, make babies, have a nice Christmas, give and receive gifts, grow old, and die, but let me put it off a little while till I finish this. Perhaps for a year or two. Or a lifetime.

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6 Responses to To Hell With Glandolinia!

  1. Andrew N says:

    I’ll never forget the shock of turning the corner and running smack into a wall length Darger painting at some second-rate museum, in either Fort Worth or Kansas City, I can’t remember which. Remarkable the polarity between his drab outer life (janitor, no friends, daily mass, dumpster diving) and inner. He created the art and wrote the novel, sure, but he also acted it all out. His neighbors thought he had wild parties with guests. Turns out he was just talking out all the roles of his heroines and villains.

    Loved your response. Makes you wonder if JIm’s inner world benefits from maintaining a consistent and simple outer one. And it also fits nicely with a book I’m reading now “The Gutenberg Elegies” about, in part, the difference between the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our lives, how reading books, writing, and contemplation all open up the timeless subjective space, and engaging with the world around us (electronic media, social interactions, etc) ground us in the exterior, objective world, and how readers and writers are always moving back and forth between the two. Some, I guess, let one side atrophy in favor of the other.

  2. Tina. says:

    Andrew, have you seen In the Realms of the Unreal, the documentary about Darger?

    David, this response is intense! I love it.

  3. dhadbawnik says:

    Andrew and Tina, thanks. I think this ties in too with the whole MFA program / community model of writing. Often the writers I’ve wound up admiring most were those on the margins of the scene, if they were in the scene at all. A certain amount of isolation seems desirable, if not necessary. That said, it can go a bit too far — at least for me.

  4. Andrew N says:

    Yeah, I saw Realms of the Unreal. Given a choice in some kind of pre-world entry point, I wouldn’t submit to his life in order to produce that art. I think I would look for a stronger balance between vehicle and art.

    this makes me think, too, of Han Shan, a poet really love. He lived basically in isolation up on that Cold Mountain, though he supposedly had a couple of friend and a nearby monastery who’s monks he taunted. But his work often lambasts the civilized world for being caught up in the snares of the world while he alone has climbed the mountain and found truth and beauty. However, he also talks about being lonely, and poems often feel that way.

    I also just thought of that movie Into the Wild, where, right before he dies, the main character realizes that it’s not in isolation that divnity is expressed, it’s through our connections with other people. If you haven’t seen that movie, basically he goes off to live by himself in the Alaskan wilderness, like a little pretentious Thoreau.

  5. stacy says:

    lovely, sad, pathetic all this talk of loneliness and need. it’s kinda great. let’s make a trip to chicago and check out darger’s place. is it still there? the city’s littlest museum perhaps?

    (andrew, i’m copying for vinny your comment on the “atrophy” of the subjective side. thanks for yr words on what it’s like to live in a space that’s not so “objective.” you’re kin – as, i imagine, we all are if we get real quiet and settle in deep and … let … go.

  6. meghan says:

    may i please ask where that beautiful piece of art came from? is it a piece of yours or… i am very drawn to it.

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