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Henry Darger's Internet

By Annalee Newitz

SOME PEOPLE say that the Internet has changed everything—usually their claim has something to do with how it brings far-flung people together: "Without the Internet, I wouldn't have met my circle of friends who like to knit basketballs and formed a gay men's stock-car-racing group!" But then there are those who go the other way. For these types—often with too many advanced degrees—the Internet is just a curve in the long history of the printing press, or possibly even writing itself.

"Oh yes, the Internet—it has a 5,000-year history!" such people will say.

"Everything that's happened online also happened during the time when the Beowulf poet was writing!"

I found myself rehashing this debate with my geeky companion Chris after seeing a queer little documentary called In the Realms of the Unreal. Half biography, half celebration of infamous "outsider artist" Henry Darger, it explores the life of the antisocial janitor whose tremendous body of artistic and literary works was discovered by his landlords after his death in the early 1970s.

Darger, who spent his impoverished childhood in convents and a school for the feeble-minded, devoted his adult life to the secret production of two massive chronicles of imaginary wars. All were copiously illustrated with his surrealistic collages, tracings and paintings of fierce, naked, ambiguously gendered children at war with an evil, child-hating empire of men.

Everyone from art critics to punk zinesters has been drawn to Darger's work—a kind of psychedelic mashup of violent perversity and innocence—because it was created in an artistic vacuum. As far as we know, he never went to museums or art school; he never had tedious discussions with beatniks in coffee shops. He created his work out of pop-cultural detritus: newspapers, cartoons and children's novels.

Cutouts of Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse appear in his collages alongside his own characters, fighting their tragic wars on another planet. His obsession with tracing the bodies of little girls from coloring books, adding tiny penises to them, then incorporating them repeatedly into his paintings, led people to wonder whether he was a child molester or just intensely naive when it came to sex.

All we know for sure is that Darger was a prodigious dreamer and self-taught artist who thought girls could be braver than boys—the heroes of his 15,000-page novel (also called In the Realms of the Unreal) are the seven Vivian Girls, who lead armies and survive extraordinary ordeals. The only people who ever made money on his work were the landlords who found it, one of whom happened to know enough about art to sell Darger's.

But after immersing myself in Darger's world, all I could think about was whether he would have been an outsider in the Internet age. Instead of spending every night furiously counting up (and recording) the names of every soldier the child army had lost, he could have been online in a virtual world, role-playing to his heart's content. Instead of sharing his bizarre, arresting images with nobody, he could have posted them on newsgroups or a website or LiveJournal.

I'm not trying to say that his art would have been any less great, or even that it would have been contextualized in an "art scene." In fact, maybe I'm allying myself with the academics I mentioned earlier, who think that the Internet hasn't really changed anything because it's just an extension of what humans have been doing for thousands of years.

Henry Darger in the Internet age would no doubt have looked exactly the same to his landlords: an eccentric old man who stayed up all night in his room doing something mysterious. But online, he would have had friends who saw the Darger he was in his imagination—given his tremendous output, he would no doubt have been quite popular in game worlds and on social networks. He could have messaged for hours about the finer points of angelic weaponry and alien flags with other fantasy nerds as obsessed as himself. But would he have been less an outsider? I don't think so. In fact, what's so intriguing about someone like Darger is that you get the impression that he already had an Internet in his brain. He was having the kinds of chat sessions with himself that he could have had with other people online. I suppose there are things he would have learned talking to other people online—things you cannot learn on your own. But maybe not.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected])

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From the January 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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