A response to readings on Henry Darger
I have a friend in San Francisco. Call him Jim. He lives â€“ but really one must find a verb that expresses every possible tense â€“ he had lived, lived, lives, will live, will have lived (never lived?) â€“ 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 oneâ€™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 â€“ as if in the background of each person one had found a perspective from which to view the peaks and valleys of oneâ€™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 Jimâ€™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 Iâ€™d seen him â€“ but only in the sense that a rock in a stream gets worn by the water rushing over it â€“ 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 â€œliveâ€? 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 â€œThe Dudeâ€ 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 â€“ 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 oneâ€™s premium, or to rob oneâ€™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 oneâ€™s existence. Somehow it both comforts me and makes me tremendously uneasy, knowing that Jimâ€™s there in his eternal flat, existing. Iâ€™ve come to need him there, doing that, even though I could never do it myself, to aspire to and differ from.
Thereâ€™s something elemental about a life lived in such steady isolation and devotion, and to me that has always been the point of Henry Dargerâ€™s fascination with the weather. He is the weather, storming in his room, throwing his â€œtantrums,â€ declaring war on the little girls and the men in the pages of his novel and canvases. Then becoming gentle and â€œsaintlike.â€ 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.