May 21, 2009
posted by Caroline Picard
About a year ago, we released a publication called “Paper & Carriage” to which Mattathias Schwartz contributed. Recently he was featured on Chicago Public Radio for a piece he wrote for the New York Times Magazine about web trolls. Aside from recent accolades, Schwartz started The Philadelphia Independent–a publication that has since folded and is worth remembering.
The Trolls Among Us
by Mattathias Schwartz
pub. New York Times, Aug. 3rd 2008
One afternoon in the spring of 2006, for reasons unknown to those who knew him, Mitchell Henderson, a seventh grader from Rochester, Minn., took a .22-caliber rifle down from a shelf in his parents’ bedroom closet and shot himself in the head. The next morning, Mitchell’s school assembled in the gym to begin mourning. His classmates created a virtual memorial on MySpace and garlanded it with remembrances. One wrote that Mitchell was “an hero to take that shot, to leave us all behind. God do we wish we could take it back. . . . ” Someone e-mailed a clipping of Mitchell’s newspaper obituary to MyDeathSpace.com, a Web site that links to the MySpace pages of the dead. From MyDeathSpace, Mitchell’s page came to the attention of an Internet message board known as /b/ and the “trolls,” as they have come to be called, who dwell there.
/b/ is the designated “random” board of 4chan.org, a group of message boards that draws more than 200 million page views a month. A post consists of an image and a few lines of text. Almost everyone posts as “anonymous.” In effect, this makes /b/ a panopticon in reverse — nobody can see anybody, and everybody can claim to speak from the center. The anonymous denizens of 4chan’s other boards — devoted to travel, fitness and several genres of pornography — refer to the /b/-dwellers as “/b/tards.”
Measured in terms of depravity, insularity and traffic-driven turnover, the culture of /b/ has little precedent. /b/ reads like the inside of a high-school bathroom stall, or an obscene telephone party line, or a blog with no posts and all comments filled with slang that you are too old to understand.
Something about Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.
Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home. “It sounded like kids,” remembers Mitchell’s father, Mark Henderson, a 44-year-old I.T. executive. “They’d say, ‘Hi, this is Mitchell, I’m at the cemetery.’ ‘Hi, I’ve got Mitchell’s iPod.’ ‘Hi, I’m Mitchell’s ghost, the front door is locked. Can you come down and let me in?’ ” He sighed. “It really got to my wife.” The calls continued for a year and a half.
In the late 1980s, Internet users adopted the word “troll” to denote someone who intentionally disrupts online communities. Early trolling was relatively innocuous, taking place inside of small, single-topic Usenet groups. The trolls employed what the M.I.T. professor Judith Donath calls a “pseudo-naïve” tactic, asking stupid questions and seeing who would rise to the bait. The game was to find out who would see through this stereotypical newbie behavior, and who would fall for it. As one guide to trolldom puts it, “If you don’t fall for the joke, you get to be in on it.”
you can read the rest of this article by going here.
Or to listen to the interview:
Merry Young Trolls (On The Media: Friday, 08 May 2009)
Mon, 11 May 2009 20:34 GMT Author: firstname.lastname@example.org (WNYC, New York Public Radio)
On Wednesday, Time Magazine threw a party for the world?s most influential people. One attendee was Christopher Poole, founder of the website 4chan. What set Poole apart from the guests was his mode of entry: he hacked his way in. Mattathias Schwartz has written about Poole and 4chan’s dark culture.
go to this website.
January 24, 2009
As you may or may not know, we are huge fans of one Mr. Henry Darger – hard ‘g’ or not. Not so recently, a a dear friend sent me a copy of a book of essays by John D’Agata, entitled “Halls of Fame.” It’s well worth the read, and I’d highly recommend it. Put out by GrayWolf Press in 2001, you can find more information about it here. Also, we put out an issue of Paper & Carriage last year that featured Henry Darger, including some of his writings, the writings of others inspired by him and a collection of incredible mages, largely contemporary, from the show “Dargerisms” curated Brooke Anderson of the Folk Art Museum in New York. In any case, here is a great essay of the same ilk. Something good for Saturday Winter-Doldrums.
Collage History of Art by Henry Darger
written by John D’Agata
PACK: SOMETHING WITH WHICH TO SEE. Bring trousers as well for the vegetation is thick. Sometimes storms, so a poncho would be smart. Also, war: in which case follow the instructions of your guide. A box lunch is provided. Do not drink the water. Please note the schedule of the moon’s fall and rise as detailed on the back of your itinerary, enclosed. Memorize this. It will be your best friend. It will be on the test. It will be in your best interest to carry wrapped gifts for our hosts—men, women, children, parents, long-lost friends, sleek-winged beasts—but do not, under any circumstances, carry cash on your person. Cameras may be cumbersome but by all means sketch. Ready? Questions? Not now. Go!
HE COMMENCED THE LONG STRUGGLE not to express what he could see, but not to express the things he did not see, that is to say the things everybody is certain of seeing but which they do not really see.
SHE REMEMBERS IT WAS A SATURDAY but can’t remember day or night. The window in Henry’s room was covered with tinfoil and the wallpaper was hidden beneath several hundred faces. She remembers taking a step closer to see exactly whose: girls. Photographs, drawings, cartoons, and stills, from newspapers, magazines, dress patterns, lunch pails. She took a step back. All their eyes were X-ed. I didn’t know if this was a joke or what, she says. Against the wall lay piles and stacks, bundles and bags, trunks and crates and a cage. I found things in there that I lost years ago, the landlady recalls as we walk through the room. Things that smelled rotten, things that looked rare. Henry’s landlady found boxes full of icons from religions she’d never heard of, photographic negatives filed and cross-filed, mounds of wax crayons worn down to a nub. On a large metal folding table in the middle of the room was a collection of arms, legs, and heads drawn onto heavy pink butcher’s paper. The tin ceiling had been painted black and the floor dusted with pencils. There was a chair with a blanket on it, another chair beside that. And against the far wall was a long and narrow bed, covered with what looked like brightly colored children’s sheets. She looked closer: they were paintings. She stepped back: they were landscapes. Beneath the bed in eight neat stacks were the notebooks she had given Henry every year for Christmas. Closer: forty years’ worth. Closer still: all filled. Closely reading some of them over the next few days, Henry’s landlady realized that they were novels, memoirs, histories, prophecies—a hoard of 21,000 pages all type-written and indexed. Over the next few years the paintings and writings would be visited by scholars, psychologists, and curators, all of whom agreed that the landlady’s eighty-year-old tenant who had washed dishes for a living and never spoken a word to her—not of art, not of anything—had left behind the largest collection of outsider art ever created by an American.
HERE’S WHAT I KNOW: Born H. Joseph Darger on April 12, 1892, his father is a tailor, his mother a housewife, and together they lived in a small house at 350 Twenty-fourth Street, Chicago. He is the only child. Later that year, sometime in September, Henry is born to an unwed seamstress in the city of Cologne, Germany. The following year: Brazil. Henry’s given South American name is Dargurius. 1896: due to complications during labor, Henry’s mother and infant sister both die at the Alexian Brothers Hospital, Chicago. The infant is immediately given up for adoption. She comes home in a basket. Enjoys piano and dance. Henry himself is sent to an orphanage. He is sent to an asylum. He experiences a period of unrecorded years. 1896-1900: the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble Minded Children houses the nation’s “most violently deformed and retarded patients under the age of seventeen,” according to a 1901 House Committee Report on Children. Number of beds for 1,562: 900. Henry is there because his father is dead. Because his father is tired. Because Henry was caught setting a warehouse fire in which several hundred dollars worth of prized rabbits were killed. Why is Henry there? “Little Henry’s heart is not in the right place,” according to patient evaluation, 1905. 1906: “Masturbation.” Henry runs away: 1908. Number of attempts preceding escape: eight. Employer number one: Alexian Brothers Hospital. Education: none. Apparent source of Henry’s encyclopedic knowledge of the American Civil War as displayed to his coworkers in the hospital’s gray wards: . Henry begins writing, in 1911, the story known to you as “The Realms of the Unreal.” Full title: 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. Plot: good vs. evil. Fuller plot: war ravages the planet Abbiennia on which a good Christian child-nation is enslaved by haughty men, thus inspiring seven immortal, identical, curlicued blond sisters to rally the good children against the bad men until terrible bloodshed (number of men “killed” during battle: 63,821; number “mortally wounded”: 63,973,868 ) persuades the men to surrender to the sisters and ultimately convert. Abbiennia’s blue moon is Earth.
“HENRY ON THE STAIRS” IS A PHOTO you’ve probably seen. It depicts the artist as a lonely, scary old man. Unshaven, unwashed, unaware of why we’ve come to stare, he’s been somewhere so sad for so long that his eyes, God help him, cannot look up. But earlier than this, in 1910, Henry makes a photograph at the Midway with a friend. He and the boy each pay eleven cents, then climb up a platform before a makeshift set. The object of the photograph, according to the backdrop, is for the young men to pretend that they are at a ball. The huge scrim sinks behind them toward a party. Above their two heads a chandelier is abloom. Henry’s young friend sits cross-legged, hatless, staring us down. He’s taken off his overcoat, rolled up his sleeves. He’s about to reach out and take us for a spin, maybe even ask if we have a cousin for his friend. Henry, meanwhile, looks past the camera’s lens. Not behind it, but beyond. Past the little machinery of make-believe surrounding him, off into the afternoon faces gathered round, the people standing by who are watching as they wait, eagerly anticipating their own turns at pretend. Henry, at this time, is new to “pretend.” He’s eighteen years old and has just escaped from an asylum. His expression, in this photograph, is one of pure shock—his eyes and mouth and whole face agog—as if he’s caught the whole world in the midst of doing wrong.
THERE WAS A GARBAGE STRIKE, a mob war, a great, long Depression. There were things piling up on Chicago’s streets as if the city had orphaned them. Henry could be seen on the sidewalks in the ‘30s pulling dolls out from trash heaps, tiny leather shoes, any magazine in which girls appeared in ads. He even tore the horsehair from an old chaise lounge. He took newspaper clippings of children lost in fires, rusty metal toys, spools of ribbon frayed, comic books, candy wrappers, stout pink bodies of Pepto Bismol bottles. Henry clipped a photograph of a little girl from the Daily News. The headline above it was just one word: GONE! According to Henry Darger, everything could be saved. He kept a list. It grew. Literature originated on clay desert rolls that itemized sheep, wheat, debt; that unraveled into praise for the wealthiest landowner, into law and writs, into myths about chaotic pasts when nothing cohered, made no sense, hadn’t ever heard of a thing called list. Beside the 15,000-paged, typed-and-single-spaced, hand-bound-and-illustrated list of Henry’s world, there were 753 wound balls of twine and fishline and rubber bands and thread that were found in his apartment after Henry was dead. He searched for knotted string in the garbage heaps he scavenged, practiced untangling all of their kinks, tied the pieces together, rolled them into balls.
IN THEIR SLEEP, HENRY WROTE, “which lasted only a few hours without interruption, that had a long and beautiful dream. This was their dream. They had been put into a very large cell, where they wandered around for a very long while, when finally they grew very tired, and sat down on the hard stone floor, just ready to cry, when all at once, a dear child of unearthly beauty, appeared before them, and asked what was the trouble, and why they were about to cry, so they told the celestial child all about it, and she said, Never you mind, we will take good care of you. Don’t be afraid. There is a golden carriage waiting in the street for you. I’ll take you to it, and then I’ll go ahead, and see that supper is ready.”
ONE MUST HAVE A GOOD MEMORY to keep the promises one makes. Art, for example, originally emerged out of the need for good hunts, strong offspring, safe journeys through death. Art allowed the earliest humans to represent things they couldn’t have, hoped to have, had too much of to carry. “Modeling,” scholars call it, the fundamental element of which is the copy. Henry, who was classified retarded and never formally taught, knew as little about art as the earliest humans. Collage is the slowest route between two points.
ONE DAY HE HEARD A VOICE WONDERING, What if. She was sitting on a tuffet, eating curds and whey. Then along came a spider—which Henry erased.
HE WORE A LONG TRENCH COAT, grew a long beard, added small penises to every naked girl. I paint with my prick, Renoir once said. At first this is the most striking element in Henry Darger’s art: that boys don’t exist, and yet the girls all lack vaginas. No place of origin, no real womb. Where did Henry come from? In one painting there is an odalisque in recline in a garden. Flowers all around her are fecund and rotting, producing blooms so fast and so large that nobody bothers to pick them. Instead, the girls in the background, the foreground, all around the woman, play amidst the odalisque’s seduction of the garden completely oblivious, as if her long stretch of mounds across the landscape were the very hills they run up and down. Long trains of girls with outstretched arms carry beach balls, giant strawberries, hats blown off their heads. Some of the girls carry nothing at all but whatever they can see in the distances ahead. Henry Darger’s paintings burst like blooms from thin air. He never studied art—was never shown art—which is why Henry’s girls all look like paper dolls. He cut them out of magazines, then glued them onto landscapes. So often repeated, their origins are moot. Yet where he wants to take his girls is the real question unfolding in all of our laps. Unfolding like a rhyme that Henry keeps repeating. Unrolling like syntax in the midst of translation. It is with my brush that I make love, is also a version of Renoir said.
PROPHETS OF NATURE, WE TO THEM WILL SPEAK a lasting inspiration, sanctified by reason, blest by faith: what we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.
CUMULUS, NOW. THE BLOSSOMING, puffed, low-lying kind. They sweep across the landscape like girls having fun. In his paintings we can see precipitation—but only some. There is just enough for a rainbow. And over there, light drizzle. It falls so lightly, with so subtle a plop, that we look up to see it, hold our hands out to catch it…but then decide we like it, so why bother trying to prove it? In the distance is some lightning, calligraphy on hills. And above the mountain distances are blue skies embracing clouds in full view. If his paintings had windows we could point to what we feel. If Henry’s paintings were a window, would we agree on what we feel? Am I the only one, for example, who sees Shirley Temple? Little Miss Muffet? The Campbell’s Soup Kids? Henry Darger’s paintings feel like something clogged in clouds: not childhood exactly, but the skies that hung above.
COULD THE FLAP OF A BUTTERFLY’S WINGS in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?
WHEN YOU’RE ALL ALONE everything belongs to you. All the good and bad. Every yes and no. Whether to kill that little girl, or not. It was sometime in his late twenties, Henry tells us in his journal, when he lost the newspaper clipping of the girl from the Daily News. He prayed to God to return it, but God never did. Soon, war hung down around him from the towering piles of garbage that he had rescued from the streets. He hung his head over his notebook on the table and roared down at the girls who were playing in his trees. In some of his paintings: notice running. The black clouds hovering. Purple shade down. Yellow cracks severing the nano-strip of sky. An angled craze of fleeing girls is set against a phalanx marching. One soldier reaches and grabs an orphan by the throat. Her green eyes wobble, and then they bulge. One soldier spears an orphan in the spine. Her eyes pop out, replaced by an X. Eviscerations are happening at the feet of hills and trees. Of Henry, of God. The Coppertone baby has been left for dead, the Campbell’s Soup Kids are all running in a pack, Little Miss Muffett is crying, naked, scared. As the children try to scatter the sky presses down, and the whole picture frame, likewise, spreads.
MILLIONS OF SOLDIERS ON BOTH SIDES howled at each other like demons, Henry wrote in volume seven of his novel 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, “striking at each other, pouring a murderous fire at point-blank range, cutting, stabbing, hacking, thrusting, and slashing like wild savages bent on whole-sale butchery, while amid all this was an indescribably tumult of bayonets adding to the riotous din, the Angelinian girls wavered in the furnace of the fire, staggered, broke and ran, but undaunted they regathered again in hundreds of human waves, plunging again into the mighty inferno of fire and smoke, whole gray lines roaring like a trillion cannon blazing like hell and its damnation, the Angelinian girls wavered again, fell back, rallied, swarmed upon the first line of works only to go down in scores of hundreds of thousands, a fourth time beaten back, rallied, swept to the assault, reached the first line of works in the face of the murderous canister and gripped the torn and tottered and bleeding line with their dead piled in windows, only to again rally and rush to the assault like a whirlwind, the tempests of canister and musketry fire withering their many waves, a sixth time they rallied sweeping within a hundred feet of the position, as far even as the second breastworks like a whirlwind of flaming flesh and steel pouring over the bodies of their dead and dying comrades in the face of a withering roar of artillery musketry that now seemed to stun even the heaven and the earth.”
WHEN DID YOU FIRST NOTICE something missing in the world? Henry Darger died and was then brought to life. When his paintings were discovered they were “mounted,” “framed,” and “hung.” They were “lit.” Look at the painting of Henry’s girls in a cave, huddled together beneath the red hard clay, and ask yourself why we bury what leaves. Stalagmites fang around them. The air is lacquered red. Now the soldiers who pursued the girls have stopped to picnic on a knoll instead. As long as the girls are out of sight, the girls are out of mind. Once there was a woman from the Smithsonian Institution who flew to Chicago to buy Henry’s room. Here is a detail: she wanted all of Henry’s paintings, wanted all of Henry’s journals, wanted his novel that’s so long no one has read it, the very walls around everything, the ceiling above everything, the floor beneath everything, and copyright control. She wanted her sound crew to fly up to Chicago, record several hours of interviews with Henry’s neighbors, and then loop their voices through his reconstructed room so museum-goers in Washington could walk through Henry’s life. In the end, however, the deal fell through. Oh, said the woman, when she entered Henry’s room—briefly seeing the Jesus shrine, the boarded window, the hundred some-odd drawings of little girls nude—then departed the same day for Washington. The girls in his paintings have coiled far below the seeded world. Past history, past art, into a vast cavern that’s nearly dark, where their bodies are descending into the sinking red light from polka-dotted dresses, to silhouetted shapes, to gone from our eyes like an opened-up grave. Beginnings, Henry wrote, are hard. He remembered his father first telling him this when he dropped the boy off in the driveway of his new home, the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble Minded Children. Henry’s young mother and unborn sister had just died during a labor that lasted twenty-three hours. Beginnings, Henry reasoned, don’t even exist.
HENRY’S GIRLS—GRANTED—are already dead, but imagine in his paintings that they are living instead. Imagine, for example, how you would kill for art. In order to illustrate his great bloody war, Henry knew he somehow had to gather dead girls. But magazines in his day seldom published such illustrations. This, then, is how Henry first learned about color. Once cut out of magazines and pasted on the page, the girls were surrounded by washes singed with war: black shattered glass, blue melted steel, orange rusted barbs, smoke poisoned red. Henry filled in gaps as if the world would trip without him. Are girls in a wagon in the middle of a war going out to play, or are they going to their graves? Who is worthy to open the book and break the seals thereof?
VAN GOGH USED TO SWALLOW mouthfuls of dried paint. Miró starved himself. Dalí said he performed “autohypnotism” to create. Meanwhile, however, in French mental wards, Adam Christie sculpted with broken glass and nails; Martin Bigsby sewed lacey dolls’ clothes from his skin; and when Aloise Carbaz lost her privileges to paint, she began to draw self-portraits with lily stamen instead. In March 1945, while passing one day, Jean Dubuffet decided that art could happen anywhere if it could happen in sanatoria. Art, he wrote, could be spontaneous, unprocessed, full blown brut, yet still recognizably artful if only we would look. He began that fall to search for it in mental hospitals, prison yards, and soup-kitchen lines, and by 1948 over 5,000 works by 200 artists were gathered in an exhibition he called, “Compagnie de l’Art Brut.” According to Freud’s theory of recapitulation, the development of psychosis in an individual brain follows the evolution of the whole human race. God blew, Picasso said at the opening, and we were scattered.
NOW LET’S PLAY A GAME! When the girls who look like they are picking flowers bend, think to yourself that they are really lifting stones. When the girl mixing cake batter in a large bowl at her waist raises a spoon as if to stir, know that she holds a drumstick instead and is really in the midst of playing a snare. And when the forest animals gather in the clearing to play, be honest with yourself: they have come for the scraps of war. This is the game that Henry likes to play: a gray wash over everything familiar to make the seams around our memories fade. The trees blown bare in the gunfire are gray. The fence and its shadow—like a ladder on the river—gray. Blood streams out of everyone gray. As in the mud that’s made beneath them. And the world that’s stuck around them.
MUSEUMS ARE LIKE THIS ROOM. They’re not arguments and answers, not stories with a meaning, not hallways linking galleries and adding up to plot. This is the place Henry lived in for forty years. A tour group files through the room and stares at nothing but the mess. Where did he sleep? they ask. Oh, there’s the bed! The landlady lifts plastic sheets off the two chairs and bed, the large table and crayons, the four wheel-less tricycles in a corner, red. There are no more paintings in Henry Darger’s room, but there is still a mess. There is still a stack of manuscripts that no one yet has read. Still a search for a patron who’ll take this room off her hands. A Henry Darger original averages 85 grand. Once he is scattered around the world like crumbs, how will Henry Darger find his way back here?
DAY, IN 1913, WHEN HENRY WITNESSES a tornado destroy an entire Illinois town: Easter. When a handwritten draft of “The Realms” is completed: 1916. When Henry is drafted: 1917. When Henry is demobilized: 1918. “The Realms” is type-written by 1922. Number of single-spaced legal-sized pages: 15,145. Volumes: 9. Titles of other literary works of equal of greater length in the
world: . Number of pages occupied in “The Realms” by a single quotation from The Pilgrim’s Progress: 59. Number of accompanying watercolor illustrations: 318. Average painting’s length: 12 ½ feet. Number of first-edition copies of Frank Baum’s Oz books: 7. Moves to one-room Webster Street apartment in fashionable Lincoln Park. 1945: registers of conscription. Income, before taxes, 1963: $1,216.32. Year Henry begins to write autobiography: 1966. Number of pages: approximately 5,000. Number of times, per day, Henry attends mass: 4. Sometimes: 7. Years Henry chronicles the local weather forecasts: 13. How often do you do this: he does this everyday. When do you die: 1973. Number of washed and dried Pepto Bismol bottles discovered inside Henry’s room as logged by the landlady on a clipboard she shows me: “several large black plastic bags full.” Number of black bags filled with twine: 6. Number of broken eyeglasses, magazines, newspapers bundled up blocking the door; of broken toys, sewing patterns, record players, crucifixes, men’s shoes/ladie’s shoes/children’s shoes, plastic Jesus dashboard statues; typewriters, radios, ways to love a girl…How many bed linens, pillows, blankets do you have: for weeks on end I imagine Henry simply couldn’t find his bed.
I’M SORRY IF I MISLED YOU into thinking this would be fun. That a paragraph could stand in for Henry Darger’s room. That this essay could be a gallery you could walk through on your own, that you could get to know Henry on a Sunday afternoon. What I meant to say is that Henry never had any guests. I didn’t mean to say apartment, but maybe stanza instead.
noun, singular, English: poem
noun, singular, French: stance
noun, singular, Italian: room, chamber, stopping place
CHILDREN USUALLY INTER THEIR PARENTS, Herodotus wrote in the earliest History, but war violates this natural order, and causes parents to inter their children. He is sitting there at his table with twelve feet of cave-black crayon covering his hands, trying to recall his father’s face in their night-pitched kitchen after candles ran out, before the war worries of money crept up between them both, before poor little Henry got buried in the past. Henry was never taught about History in school, and so he never learned this word that’s wrapped around him: interred. He looks over at the bed where the first five volumes of his own war lie bound. Does every life have a story? Why am I alone? He picks up volume one: eleven feet of paintings bound tightly together by glue and wire and cardboard and thread and can’t remember for the life of him how this all began, nor why he even bothered, nor what should happen next. Kneeling on the floor he lifts with both hands the front cover up. Midway open the book scrapes plaster and photographs and crosses off the wall—then is jams against the ceiling. His room is too small.
THAT WHICH IS GROWS; that which is not becomes. If Henry had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his lifetime, he most likely would have encountered Dr. Walter A. Freeman, the best-known American psycho-surgeon of the day, and pioneer of the ingenious “ice-pick lobotomy.” Between 1942 and 1952 alone, over 5,000 lobotomies in the U.S. were performed—one-third of them by Dr. Freeman. “Much less intrusive than conventional surgery with a drill,” Dr. Freeman once explained to Time magazine, “my technique, with an ice pick, enters the brain subtly by way of the eye socket.” Already, Time reported in 1945, scores of patients have been saved by Dr. Freeman’s technique. But Henry, in his paintings, depicts giant winged dragons called Blengins saving girls. Henry has known about Blengins all of his life. They are ferocious creatures, but they love little girls. And their sequined long tails hold a secret at the tip: when pierced by one in the breast, a child becomes immortal.
HENRY WRAPPED A GIRL in pink butcher’s paper. He carried her outside, around the corner, and into the local drugstore. On the counter of the Photolab he unwrapped the little girl and asked the clerk to reproduce the drawing in five larger sizes and five smaller ones. Henry has realized, finally, that he can trace instead of cut. It is late in his life. He has hundreds of samples of girls in his collection. He knows that he will never be in search of friends again. From that moment on any girl whom Henry peels off his wall will be exactly the right girl for the space he needs to fill. He’ll trace parts of one girl onto bits of others—arms from someone waving, legs from someone leaning, a dress from Cinderella, wings from birds instead—and thus render all the life happening outside his room, outside in the hallway, outside in the trash, outside where our lives are ready for his taking, moot. At the center of everything is a very small, black room; a heart, let’s say, beating in the darkness.
A CROWD IS NOT COMPANY, and faces are but a gallery, and talk a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.
WHEN HENRY DARGER DIED there was something blowing through the city. A breeze hard to distinguish between the now and the then, making Henry’s life vanish into the rift therein. Trains, for example, arrived on time and didn’t. Trees continued shading Chicago as they grew. The little girls on Henry’s walls traded dolls, dated jocks, raised their children, peddled Avon, posed off and on for advertising photos, felt tired under the lights, blew bangs from their eyes. Upon Henry’s death, no word blew through the city. No letters from pen pals were left behind when Henry died. No family heirlooms were discovered in Henry’s room when he died. No neighbors held gatherings on their front stoops to share, in memorium, anecdotes of Henry’s forty years on their hill. No one even knew that Henry lived on that hill. No obituary was written. No wake sat through. No grave. No history. No life. What to do? There is no history, Emerson said. One biography. In the absence of information then, maybe biographers feel the need to fill their own lives sometimes into history’s gaps—as if their own pasts could illustrate another’s private world. But collage, as Henry wrote, is about collecting trash not dumping it. A biographer may feel the urge to cut from his life divorce. Past it into the essay. Mean by that the war. He may sprinkle in some casualties. Stand back. Wait.
I SPEND A LAYOVER IN CHICAGO in Henry’s small room. At noon his landlady brings a white crusty sandwich and a red bowl of soup. She asks how much longer I think I will be. I like the privacy of Henry’s room with its foil-shaded window and black-painted ceiling and the eyes of his audience X-ed out with pencil. I like anything leadened. I like his paragraphs stacked, quotes amassed, blocks of prose boarding up the windows of his world. I’d like to stay a few more hours if that’s alright, I say. She thinks I’m a reporter. How meticulous you’re being. How thorough, she says. By the time dusks starts dropping I’ve filled a small notebook, read through a few journals, skimmed two volumes of the novel, know exactly what to write. It will all be about Henry’s wall of girls, about all their eyes. The little windows Henry boarded before leaving our world. Evening falls and there are no lamps to see by. I stand and gather my pack of notes. Zip up my coat. Lift my bag onto my back. Cars in the alley flip their headlights on. They come into the room through two tears in the foil. Driving up the ceiling, down the wall of girls. One pair of eyes is caught briefly in the headlights. She winks. Or blinks. Maybe I’m dreaming. Then another pair shines as a car sweeps by. Then more open, more shut. The opposite wall is sighing. I look closer: it’s the lead. I stand back: it reflects. They’re waking up. They’re alive. The girls are waiting for Henry.
COLLAGE IS MADE UP OF THE PIECES in the box that are left after following all directions very carefully.
IT IS ALSO IN THE ACCIDENT on Interstate 89. In the shopping mall, in the family room, in the battlefield, in the stew. In the library, in the ruins, in the championship fight. In the rough draft, the rough cut, the rough-hewn night. In vaudeville, newspapers, attics, trains, the Internet, entropy, rap-song sampling. Collage occurred in the wondercabinets preceding all museums. It happened when scrolls of aphorisms unraveled into essay. When Henry walked past garbage and felt a jolt: create! Surely the heart must break before it can begin to feel.
posted by Caroline Picard, transcribed by Nicholas Sarno and written by Henry Darger
This was originally published in Paper&Carriage no. 3, available here.
Do you think I might be fool enough to run away from heaven if I get there?
I loved to work in the fields. We worked on the farm only in the summer time. During our working days we at night slept in a large place called the Dormitory.
The farm had a regular boiler and engine room, and motor dynamos or other machinery that produced the electric lights.
The farm was supervised by a man whose known name was Allenburger. He had a wife and little girl. They were very good people.
We boys working on the farm were divided into ‘gangs,’ three gangs I believe and under a supervisor for each. Their names were John Fox, Whiliam O’Neil and Mr. West. He was the cow-bow.
At the approach of late fall we were returned to the asylum which Mr. Allenberger ‘termed’ the bug-house. Bughouse. I loved it much better than the farm. But yet I loved the work there. Yet the asylum was home to me.
While back at the home I received a severe shock.
I got the bad news that my father died at the St. Augustine home.
I did not cry or weep however.
I had that kind of deep sorrow that bad as you feel I could not. I’d been better off if I could have. I was in that state for weeks and because of it I was in a state of ugliness of such nature that every one avoided me, they were so scared.
Even when back on the farm the next summer they noticed a change in me.
They heard the sad news however and did not bother me. During the first of my grief I hardly ever ate anything, and was no friend to any one.
I was even very dangerous if not left alone.
I believe I was at the asylum 7 years and during the summers between that time on the farm.
During the early summer of the fourth year it was June I made my first attempt to run away but that farms cowboy caught me in a corn field, tied my hands together on a long rope and made me run back all the way on the rear of his horse.
The second attempt was successful. I with another boy hitch hiked a freight. He got off at Joliet where he lived. I rode on to Chicago.
After a storm I foolishly gave myself up to the police who had me sent back. I stayed then again for more than a year.
What made me run away? My protestation of being sent away from the asylum, where I wanted to stay, as for some reason it was home to me.
During the early summer of the following year, the sixth I believe it was June two boys working on the farm induced me to run away with them.
We then got an actual work for a short spell with a German Farmer.
It was a job driving to the nearest town with a wagon load of something the farmer sold there.
At meal times, breakfast dinner or supper, he said the Our Father, and sang some sort of a German hymn before we ate. He asked why we did not join him.
We answered we do not know any German.
His son and wife answered some parts.
Being short of working conditions he finally had to let us go, me and a stouter boy. We were paid. He kept the other boy. Excuse me I do not remember their names.
With me giving a part of my money to my stout companion we rode on the Ill. Central to Decatur Ill. I again while there wanted to see Chicago again.
You would not believe it, but I then walked from Decatur Ill. to Chicago arriving early in August. Because of unusual warm weather, and hardly able to sleep I walked also many a night.
I had forgot to mention when the time I gave myself up to the police. I was taken by train the poor house at Dunning town. From there after a month stay I was sent to the asylum at Lincoln Ill.
But this hike to Chicago from Decatur was successful.
I knew her address so I went and took refuge at my Godmothers and after some weeks there she took me to St Josephs’ Hospital which was on Burling and then the street called Garfield Ave.
It now is known as Dickens Ave. I prefer it would have retained its original name as Dickens was an English man, Garfield an American and one of our presidents.
I got a job there as Hospital on floor janitor I worked there under Sister Mary Rose and later under another Sister Dorothy. Sister Rose was prim but good. Sister Dorothy was good too, but you could joke with her.
I worked under each of them until I was there for a little over fourteen years.
The name of the head Sister’s were Sister Cephas and Camilla.
Both were good, but Sister Cephas took sick and died less than a year after I arrived. At the earliest of my time, because of an old injury to my right shoulder, I had to be left handed, with the sweeping broom and other things.
All Sisters scoldings could not change me to sweeping with my right. As my shoulder injury was caused by a fight I did not explain to her. She gave up nevertheless and let me sweep as I please I sure know or knew how to scrub all hall floors and rooms as clean as they would come and all on my hands and knees.
And that was not done that way to humble myself. For under no condition would I humble myself and Heaven keep the one who would dare humble me.
One did and was in a hospital for a year. And some how I got away with it too.
But it was on that score 50-50 as I never exulted myself then either. I do now and how.
As I said before and again will write that also because of my injured shoulder I did really find myself unable to use other certain household articles and the sweeping broom or brush.
In my younger days which I forgot to mention when angry over something I burned holy pictures and hit the face of Christ in pictures with my fist. I wonder would I have the heart to do so now? I can’t say yes or no.
I’ve got an awful nasty temper.
Sometime how or other for a time Sister Rose finding out I came from the home of Feeble minded children thought I was still crazy.
I believed she got the information from Sister Nina who was called Sister Seno by others. My Godmother not thinking of the consequences told her.
The whole hospital full of persons soon knew. I was then called crazy. I had I believe more brains than all combined. None of them I found out ever even knew Geography or History. I did. My spelling, figures and reading and writing was more excellent than theirs.
My finding it out, there are many cities in this country and the old world they could not spell or pronounce. I could.
Berlin and Dresden are still the most beautiful cities in the world.
Berlin is largest next to London and New York City.
As I said before I received admonition from Sister Rose because of my enforced left handedness until I could prove it was impossible with my right hand.
Once in searching for something that got lost from me in a very dark enclosure of the out exit on the ground floor behind the dining room, by which you go outside by the rear, I scared some young woman (she was cowardly and timid anyway) out of her wits accidentally.
When Sister Rose heard of it, by someone telling her she scolded me good, and said she surely believed that I am really crazy.
But I could see that while scolding me she also had a hard fight with herself to keep from laughing over it. Yet afterwards by many, that woman was looked on as a Scardy-cat, and “chicken.”
She quit after that. Several times when scolding me for something, whether I did it or not, she threatened to sent me back to the Lincoln Asylum.
I wished then she had. I felt I was a fool for after all running away. I was better off there and never was scolded. But I knew they would not take me back now, and told her so.
On the Christmas midnight mass, a cold snowy one in December 1909 I received in their chapel my first Holy Communion. I was unable to convince them before then, that I was a Baptized Catholic, but in the asylum, I even then knew all things of the Religion but also in the Asylum, and on the state farm, they never even for us all, showed any kind of religion.
They seemed even Godless even in the School there. The only sign of something like religion was in the Asylums main childrens dining room for us when before and after meals the Our Father was recited by the dining room matron only ending the prayer in the Protestant way.
Or on Sunday some sort of Sunday School where only some hymns was sung by the best singers.
Otherwise no sign of religion at all. She said then I did right to run away. My Godmother had me baptized on the snowy afternoon in St Patricks Church on Des Plaines and Adams Street Chicago.
The way it was there as I told her, you’d think there was no God at all. And at first I wanted to stay there. I suppose they had the idea that feeble minded could not at all understand Religious instruction.
Then why were they to go to school? The School building as I wrote before I believe was over two hundred feet north of the asylum.
And there was an under ground tunnel leading to it from the Asylum to be used only in bad weather. All this I told her. I cant say whether I was actually sorry I ran away from the State farm or not but now I believe I was a sort of fool to have done so.
My life was like in a sort of Heaven there. Do you think I might be fool enough to run away from heaven if I get there? Besides for doing it the third time the officials of the state farm would not take me back.
If I have to go back for a few words again about my stay at the asylum because many things do slip my mind. I’m telling the truth there was a night freeze rain lasting till mid morning of the next day followed by the most terrific blizzard storm I have ever seen before and during my life time, even now.
October 19, 2008
written by Kathleen Kelley
This essay was originally published in Paper & Carriage no. 1
$18 Green Lantern Press & ThreeWalls
posted by Caroline Picard
C A M E R A O B S C U R A
It cannot be discovered from the picture alone whether it is true or false.
And then, said Austerlitz, Vera told me how in autumn we would often stand by the upper enclosure wall of the Schönborn Garden to watch the squirrels burying their treasures. Whenever we came home afterwards, I had to read aloud from your favorite book about the changing seasons, said Vera, even though you knew it by heart from the first line to the last, and she added that I never tired of the winter pictures in particular, scenes showing hares, deer, and partridges transfixed by astonishment as they stared at the ground covered with newly fallen snow, and Vera said that every time we reached the page which described the snow falling through the branches of the trees, soon to shroud the entire forest floor, I would look up at her and ask: But if it’s all white, how do the squirrels know where they’ve buried their hoard? […] Those were your very words, the question which constantly troubled you. How indeed do the squirrels know, what do we know ourselves, how do we remember, and what is it we find in the end?
—W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz
This essay does not begin with a photograph of my mother.
To note this, I know, is to transform you from someone who did not expect to see my mother to someone who is wondering why she does not appear. Let me explain; let me offer an apology for your new-founded and already disappointed expectations. In the course of working on this essay I have become suspicious of images in general—suspicious of anything, in whatever medium, that reaches beyond itself—and suspicious, in particular, of photographs of mothers. This suspicion is not of the existence of images but of their powers to convey what they intend or promise: a metaphor may fail to move you across its gap to my meaning, or it may carry you far beyond what I intended; a photograph may capture a past moment for strange and future eyes to see, but it is incapable of holding in itself all that might be seen in it. It is easy enough to make you curious about my withheld photograph: the trick of an opening sentence, a few flickings of my pencil. What I cannot do—and this is why I keep it hidden—is show you what I experience when I am looking at my mother’s photograph. Do I lack the talent? Yes—but only as I lack the ability to walk through walls. I don’t do it, for it can’t be done.
A man named Rinzai once said, “When you meet a master swordsman, show him your sword; when you meet a man who is not a poet, do not show him your poem.” You probably already know this saying. Well, when I was young and callow, when I bought old photographs at antique stores in order to reinvent their images to my own devising purposes, I took it to be about the proud exclusivity of mastery: not everyone can understand your hard-won excellence, and thus you hold it close, revealing your expertise only to those who can recognize it. Now, though, I read it differently: I find in it the loneliness of carrying something whose significance cannot easily be conveyed, the possession of which locks you in a solitude that would take an extraordinary meeting to transcend. Now mastery over swords or words is—arguably—teachable, but memory is our great and untranslatable burden, borne in each of us as an unconveyable, irreplaceable excellence. Who would you meet that could take it up for you, who could even see what you bear behind you?
That I notice and note all this is due to my subject matter: Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida and W.G. Sebald’s last novel, Austerlitz. In both books a son goes seeking a photograph of his dead mother, looking for an image that will be sufficient to his need, but by the end their common roads have diverged. Barthes, who remembers his mother well and seeks an image to anchor his teeming memories, finds the photograph he sought—the winter garden photograph, an old photograph of his mother as a child, before he knew her. He stubbornly refuses to show us this photograph. Jacques Austerlitz, Sebald’s protagonist, seems to have much simpler demands: he cannot remember his mother Agáta at all, and he seeks merely to find any image of her—a photograph, not the photograph that Barthes demands. Practically, his quest is more difficult than Barthes’s, for he goes on it some fifty years after the war that not only scattered him and his memories but destroyed a good deal of the evidence that might have restored his lost past. In principle, however, his task seems easy enough, for he requires no more of the photograph than that it be of Agáta, whereas Barthes sought one that would be able to hold all his memory’s teeming predicates in one single stilled subject. And Austerlitz, too—after much searching and a few lucky coincidences—finds the image he sought; and he, unlike Barthes, is not chary with his precious photograph. He shows it to people who have never met his mother; he gives it away to the narrator, who reproduces it for anyone willing to pick up Austerlitz and turn to page 253. Why is Austerlitz not as cagey as Barthes? Because, after all, his need was greater than he knew: he wanted not only to find Agáta but to find within himself a reverberating memory of her as she was, as he knew her. Thus what he does find is that the photograph he thought he was after cannot in fact hold what he was seeking, that it cannot restore what cannot be recalled. His photograph thus reveals the limit of photography’s ability to preserve the past, and what we see in it is not Austerlitz’s mother but the way the photograph fails to return her to him.
A cursory glance may take each to be the other’s negative: Barthes’s bright winter garden is a pinhole of absence at the center of a dark tangle of meaning and memory; Austerlitz’s image is a single point of reference at the center of his white white expanse of forgetting. So far they align, crisp and clean—but keep looking. They are not photo-negatives but something more intricate. Austerlitz’s is a negative in which all the shades of Barthes’s meaning are lost; worse, if you look too long all that vast whiteness begins to leach the definition right out of Barthes’s print. Forgetting makes everything look like itself. When this essay lists to Barthes’s remembering side, know that this nimbus of obliteration on the horizon is the reason why.
If you have read Camera Lucida well, or recently, you may think me dishonest, a careless reader willing to induce a spurious parallelism for the sake of a tidy introduction. Barthes, after all, went on no quest. He found his significant photograph, the one he protects from our transforming gaze, while leafing through a pile of old photographs one winter evening. There was not even a brief, compacted quest, as the sudden plunge deep into memory when a word goes missing in the middle of writing or speaking; there was no active seeking at all. “I was going through some photographs,” Barthes tells us.
I had no hope of “finding” her, I expected nothing from these “photographs of a being before which one recalls less of that being than by merely thinking of him or her.”
Yet four pages later he contradicts this, and describes himself as having been “looking for the truth of the face I had loved” when he comes across the winter garden photograph, a very old photograph of his mother as a little girl that somehow “collected all the possible predicates from which my mother’s being was constituted” in a single fading image (CL 67, 70). Which Barthes do we believe? The hopeful one, or the mournful one who salts his grief with the images that can only remind him of his mother without returning her to him?
Believe both. Hope and despair are not mutually exclusive but two glosses on the same problem: finding outside what we cannot help feeling belongs within, a piece of essence inexplicably beyond us, its lack felt acutely. They differ only in how they read their chances: hope thinks the long shot will pull through; despair insists that even the favorite may stumble. To sustain both points of view is to maintain a healthy relationship to contingency, to be able to expect without falling into foolishness or pessimism. (Or we could say that both views are pure folly, but tied together they run a good lurching race.) This is the general story, coarse-grained; at a higher resolution we can pick out how Barthes’ looking without any hope of finding developed into the winter garden photograph as his desideratum. More than that: if you take it slow, if I can keep it reined in, we can see doubt become satisfaction without leaving itself behind, as if we left the aperture open and by grace of language watched the light develop right on the plate, no darkroom required. Call it “Long Exposure with Commentary.”
“It often alarms Father—He says Death might occur, and he has
Molds of all the rest—but has no Mold of me.”—Emily Dickinson
The photograph is not an ideal place to go seeking lost loved ones. The image held in memory has more quickness than the photographic one, and the photograph excels not in returning time past but simply in testifying that this moment once was, that all visible light once gathered thus. Beyond this the photograph reveals the depth of experience and self as papery, as creased and collapsible; it thus tends to affirm loss rather than restore what’s gone.
Why? Well, for one, the individual tends to disappear, folded up into the stiff flat pose of the photograph, all possibilities of action and expression now preempted by this too-solid actuality:
“myself” never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed; like a bottle-imp, “myself” doesn’t hold still, giggling in my jar… (CL 12)
Also, the photograph may fail to show anything more than the bare fact of a moment’s having existed. A single image in memory shows its roots in what came before and after; its ‘now’ is mediated and cannot be forced cleanly into itself. Even if before and after are forgotten, the memory of a moment still suggests them, and places itself in a continuity that may not be entirely available to conscious recollection but is nevertheless presumed by it and present without declaring itself completely. This forgetting-as-presence holds its memories like an aspic: transparent, sustaining, and coextensive. The photographic image, on the other hand, may be lifted cleanly out of time, with no trailing roots at all—a ‘now’ become visible, immediate. The shutter razors it away from before and after; it subsists out of time as the memory image does not. It guarantees nothing but the moment, and if the before and after are patched back around it they are restored by the spectator’s memory and cannot be said to be contained in the photograph itself.
These problems are, of course, complementary: because I disappear, the photograph may give evidence of existence and nothing more; because a photograph contains only a moment, all my depth may disappear from it, leaving only a frozen mask. Which is to say, from another angle, that death is always present in the photograph. It can be found there even before the photograph is developed, for at the moment the shutter snaps, multiplicity and movement disappear: “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis)” (CL 14). The photograph, whatever its specific referent, is an image of this becoming still—the subject become object, his movement enclosed and completed in the static image. It is a brief enclosure, and it is, furthermore, a false capture: life overflows the photograph’s fragile parenthesis.
But the photograph is also an image in an older sense, and however much its living subject may trample the appearing stillness it cannot reach the spectre that the photograph has called forth by its pausing: the reminder, memento mori, that though time does not stop, we do. This the photograph captures perfectly, however life may elude it. The little sensation of the future perfect that marks the posing subject—that transformation in which the self posits itself as the image it will become and does so with the knowledge that it will be caught in that image, seeing itself even in the midst of activity as a being that “will have been”—this is the native tense of the photograph. It is induced in both subject and observer, and subsists on multiple planes of time; the parentheticals repeat and echo with the photographic image as motif and souvenir: This moment will have been, this day will have, this gesture, this life, this time will have been. The overridden parenthesis of the photograph’s moment becomes the ironclad future perfect: this will-have-been stands in for all passing time, and marks every moment with time’s inexorable passing. Parentheticals multiply, the equation becomes more complicated than it first appeared. The closing parenthesis, the little death of the pose that the photograph captures, renders visible all the ones that still stand open around it—but we must be careful to get this emphasis correct. It is not that the photograph’s false pause gestures towards life’s motion overcoming the stillness of the captured image, transferring emphasis to all these unclosed parentheticals in which living goes on despite the photograph’s tableau. It is, rather, that the one closing reveals all the ones still standing open as being in essence only yet to close, not essentially ongoing. It shows all being as marked for ending, as will-have-been at its very heart. Thus the photograph supersedes the life that originally surpassed it: the captured moment, which might have been taken for a foothold against time, a way to keep the past blindingly undiminished, reveals itself instead as the visible reminder of the impossibility of such a digging-in.
There is a superposition here: of reality and of the past.
—Camera Lucida, p.76
Two questions here, then: one, how can the photograph come to stand for the impossibility of the preservation that seemed its signal accomplishment; two, how does Barthes manage to find his just image despite the overwhelming odds against such a resurrection?
The first comes about through two double exposures, and in each it can be tricky to see both images, for the second is the absence of the first, hiding behind its own presence in the first capture. One must look askance and elsewhere to see that what’s there is not there—the absence of what’s present. Try it through the prism of these questions: Where and when is the subject of the photograph?
Now on the one hand the photograph is ineluctably of its subject. Narrow it down: it is not of any other subject, and it is not without this subject—“In short, the referent adheres.” (CL 6) The photograph is nothing but, nothing without, the original that it carries with it. Its existence indicates its subject as surely as a shadow reveals the presence of a solid object casting it, and more specifically to boot: not an object, not any object, but this one and none other.
And yet it is equally not this subject, either—for however just and unmistakable the image may be it is still, and merely, an image. The photograph points to its own object and nowhere else, but by its very pointing it reveals the object as elsewhere, uncaptured. Nothing is as clearly not contained in the photograph as the photographic subject itself. (Hence Mr. Dickinson’s worry seems unfounded, Emily’s ‘Mold’ is a telling word: a photograph marks, and unerringly, the contours of what has broken free of its rigidity, and by its steadfast existence can be seen quite clearly as not holding what he would seek in it: the changing face of his daughter. Yet one sympathizes: where else, save in her very self, could he expect to find her?)
Something very similar happens with the ‘when’ of the photograph. It is of no other moment than the one it captures, and yet it does not contain the only time to which it refers. By lasting beyond the moment its continuing existence preserves, the photograph equally attests that this very moment is no more except in the reduced form of the photograph, which testifies without any promise of restoration.
And then, in defiance of all this too-definite absence, Barthes’s mother comes seven-leagueing up out of the past.
But by what impossible path? One constructed, in part, of the very problems that seemed to prevent its existence: the pointed insufficiency of the photograph, and Barthes’s melancholy persistence, “struggling among images partially true, and therefore totally false” (CL 66). What is melancholy? It is a kind of dallying with an object already lost, a way of refusing to acknowledge loss that by its stubbornness already reveals an incipient and painful awareness of lack. It is Barthes on a winter night in his mother’s apartment, shuffling through old photographs and proving over and over again that what’s lost is not found again. Each new partial image makes the absence more acute, adds to his certainty that the search in which he nevertheless persists is futile, yet the partial presence is also tantalizing, promising that what each image doesn’t hold is yet only just beyond it. Hope and despair are both fueled by the images, the repeating ‘almost’ a common possession in which they fuse and feed each other.
But when is melancholy not melancholic? When against all odds and his own presuppositions the melancholic finds his object again. And in fact melancholy may be unsurpassed in setting up the conditions to appreciate its own overturning. It remains attuned to its missing object as the more reasonable mourning does not, and out of its slightly opaque self-awareness it is able to take full measure of its own lack, surveying it with despair’s cold clarity. At the same time it imagines finding its object everywhere, seeking it with all the energy of hope but with that borrowed despairing accuracy, so that for all its eagerness it makes no mistakes, does not convince itself it has regained its object in some photograph or memory that still falls short. The photograph, with its precise inadequacy, is the melancholic’s apt familiar, the sharpening steel to his already well-honed loss.
However, all this is preparation with no guarantee—adornment for grace that may easily, more easily, not arrive. Events may prove the melancholic a fool, for the return he awaits depends not on his preparation but on chance. And by all rights Barthes ought not to find her: photographs are not cut out to satisfy his need; the smart money is elsewhere. His despair seems well-grounded, his hope in excess—and yet, somehow, there is this winter garden photograph. The long shot that wins against all odds.
There are two ways of tracing how this photograph could come to be an adequate image. The one marvels like a new-struck lover at all the fine threads of contingency woven into this unlikely convergence. Barthes might as easily have set the photograph aside; late in his mother’s life, he might not have nursed her through a long illness so that “she had become [his] little girl, uniting for [him] with that essential child she was in her first photograph”; the photographer might have pressed the shutter a moment sooner or later and so captured an image that failed to satisfy (CL, 72). So many moments might have gone wrong or otherwise; it is a marvelous thing that events brought Barthes to the photograph he needed.
Such an outcome is far from certain, and there are two sources of its uncertainty. The first is the necessary gathering of the events that make this encounter possible, as partially represented in the list above: a path of contingency that might have veered at any moment and never made it home. The other—which brings us towards the alternate way of looking at Barthes’s encounter with the winter garden photograph—has to do with the nature of memory’s adequate objects: they lurk, always, in unexpected places. This can be quite pleasant for the casual daydreamer: for one who doesn’t require contingency’s blessing, all coincidence is an excess that gilds the mundane—or rather finds the ore within it. But the situation is often otherwise for one who needs convergence, who actively seeks this unfixable blessing. There is no way of forcing the necessary object to appear; worse, there is no proper procedure for approaching it even as a supplicant, for until it declares its own presence one has no way of knowing where it will be. Seeking it in one corner you risk missing its manifestation in another. (Austerlitz, of course, feels this problem acutely.)
The ideal attitude ignores these limitations and approaches chance like a genteel gambler, expecting to win and indifferent to either gain or loss. But it is hard to mix the elements right, hard to mean it. With cards you can fake this attitude, but bluffing doesn’t cut it when there’s no game between you and chance. Here it is required not as a bluff but as a way of waiting at the ready, poised to recognize the unanticipated as exactly what has been awaited. Neither too sharp nor too vague; a mean that only proves itself hit when it succeeds, with no way of dowsing it before then.
All of which boiled down says: try to be lucky, if you’re in need of luck. Sage advice, but hard to follow.
Yet there is still a lesson here, one that can be learned with more clarity. Significant objects may declare themselves by their own inscrutable and gathering logic, but once they have done so we can seize hold, shake them, and find out what they know. Thus though there’s no predicting or guaranteeing the arrival of a winter garden photograph, after it arrives we can turn it over and over to see why it was sufficient, how it could succeed when photographs by their nature are groomed for failure. This is the second way of tracing the photograph’s adequacy, and the first is incomplete without it, for the truth is that every photograph Barthes examined was present by just such a series of could-easily-have-been otherwise moments. We notice and appreciate the unlikeliness of the winter garden photograph because it has greater significance, not because it has overcome any especially adverse circumstances in order to appear. The other half of the story is the why of it: why this photograph and none other, howsoever it may have chanced across Barthes’s path?
The beginning of its success is in a circumstance I have already mentioned: Barthes came to see his mother as a child in caring for her before her death, so he is able to find her in her child self, as he might not have been had she always seemed older than him. This much is probably necessary; otherwise the winter garden photograph would be too far removed from memory and might well remain flat, inarguably her image but beyond Barthes’s ability to breathe life into it by his own affirmation. Yet the difference between the mother he knew (even as childlike) and the girl in the photograph is equally necessary; it is this slippage that makes the winter garden photograph sufficient where the photographs that overlapped with Barthes’s own memories were not. The photograph, although it is in one sense an image of Barthes’s mother, is for him not an image of her as the other ones are, and achieves its representative quality on another level. It does not pretend to be her as she was for him—as the more contemporary photographs cannot help doing—for it stands beyond Barthes’s memory and therefore beyond the measured realm of the photograph’s inadequacy. By not recalling any specific time or memory, it can remind him of presence without reminding him of its loss, for no richer memory of her ‘as she was then’ can intercede to turn recollection into disappointment. Whether or not Barthes is right in saying that photography in general “aspires, perhaps, to become as crude, as certain, as noble as a sign,” this photograph has risen to that more abstract status (CL 6).
Or rather, for Barthes it has achieved that height. For us, even if we believe Barthes, it is the idea of the winter garden photograph that has been elevated, not the image itself. Which brings one more question for Barthes, the final question, the one that leads back to poor Austerlitz still waiting in the wings: why doesn’t he show us the photograph? Here is his account, given in Camera Lucida as a parenthetical:
I cannot reproduce the Winter Garden Photograph. It exists only for me. For you, it would be nothing but an indifferent picture, one of the thousand manifestations of the “ordinary”; it cannot in any way constitute the visible object of a science; it cannot establish an objectivity, in the positive sense of the term; at most it would interest your studium: period, clothes, photogeny; but in it, for you, no wound. (CL 73)
Nothing untrue here, but as it stands it is not enough to justify the omission. Barthes has been reproducing pictures all book long without the slightest compunction about whether or not they will prick us as they did him: intransitivity alone is not enough to anchor his objections against reproducing this particular photograph.
But note what the winter garden photograph makes acute: when the photograph moves us, this event is an excess that requires our presence. Or, to say it from the other side, the photograph rises out of its flat testimonial by our being able to see more in it than the snap-shot vanishing moment that is its overt content. This is part of what Barthes means when he says “it is not indifference which erases the weight of the image—the Photomat always turns you into a criminal type, wanted by the police—but love, extreme love.” (CL 12) Photographs carry more in them than the pure re-presentation of appearance, but they carry it only for those that have eyes to see. In photographs that are more distant from us, our role in returning them to time and dimensionality may go unnoticed; it is easy to think of, say, Kertész’s “The Puppy” as ‘a moving photograph’ rather than the more accurate and correspondingly less objective ‘a photograph that moves me’. In the winter garden photograph, though, the more accurate description is hard to avoid, for the excess of its image is contained only in Barthes’s memories of his mother. For any other spectator—except, possibly, Barthes’s brother, though this is far from guaranteed—the image would not contain anything beyond what can be read in it by the most casual observer: a little girl and a little boy in old-fashioned clothes in an indoor garden. The power of the image seems almost entirely within him, the status of the photograph created only by the memories that cluster around it—a center of gravity to his memory. As such the winter garden photograph is guaranteed not to move us, since it cannot show what it contains, whereas the other (reproduced) photographs are only beyond such a guarantee, either positive or negative. Reason enough not to show it—but this half of Barthes’s argument having come clear puts extreme pressure on the other side: what objective status could his refusal to reproduce the photograph possibly preserve, when half his reason for hiding it is the entirely subjective nature of its force?
But leave him in this seeming paradox a while, for resolving it involves a digression into the peculiar nature of the photograph—or not so much a digression as a doubling back to a claim made in passing some pages ago: that the photograph is an image in an older sense as well as being a visual image, a representation of its subject. Thus it may suggest more than it contains, as we have already seen: the photograph overshoots its own actuality to suggest itself as memento mori, as the appearing presence of its referent’s absence, as the gravitational center of a lifetime’s memories. This much, I think, is not too controversial; discussion of eidos and eidolon may fall in and out of fashion, and responsibility for this excess may be shifted further onto the subject or the discourse, the photograph being merely the occasion for its appearance rather than bearing it within its plane. Nevertheless there is what is visible in the photograph and then there is everything else that we see and read into it—the second image in the photograph, the light it casts beyond itself to develop anew. Eidolon is one word for this kind of pointing beyond; simulacrum is another, shadow a third; but despite all these readily available terms I have been thinking of it as the photograph’s image-character.
This is in part to distinguish it from the photographic image (the one that develops in the darkroom even if we are not looking) while not allowing them to pretend to be entirely indifferent to each other: the photographic image is by having an image-character, by being a version that both is and is not what it represents; the image-character of the photograph is in part given to it by the particular photographic image within it, and if the photographic image were of something else, the image-character of the photograph would change accordingly. But it would not necessarily change entirely, and this is the force of my emphasis on the only partial determination of the photograph’s image-character by the photographic image it contains, as well as my second reason for preferring ‘image-character’ to more euphonious and time-hallowed formulations: image-character tends to overrun whatever called it forth, bringing forward unexpected associations (as the reminder of death in all the photographs that were meant to be preservation against it); the very clunkiness of ‘image-character’ is no slight guarantee against it having too much image-character of its own. (This runaway quality is also why I am spending so much time talking about Barthes’ memorious success when all I have been thinking about is Austerlitz’s failure in his corresponding quest. When one dallies too long with Austerlitz’s failure to find a sufficient image it begins to echo, gaining significance and reaching beyond itself. Its image-character—gained from the surrounding narrative and not from the photographic image itself, which is nearly indifferent in its particular content and almost entirely severed from its image-character—makes forgetting fall like snow over memory’s small and true monuments, and by its benign but growing silence Agáta’s photograph indifferently (and therefore terribly) sets everything but itself towards disappearing. Small wonder if against all this winter I should try to stay as long as possible by Barthes’ tiny hearth of success.)
But not only is this not controversial, it is not even peculiar to the photograph. All sorts of objects have this doubled, overlapping structure, and exist by being a combination of what they are and what they suggest. My desk is a functional piece of furniture, but for me also an image of the friend who built it; the Ladies’ Waiting Room, in which Austerlitz’s memories begin trickling through the dam that has held them back all these years, is both a room and the significant object that occasions the return of the forgotten, seeming to have harbored lost time during all the years that have elapsed between Austerlitz’s first visit to it and this subsequent one. (Not to mention what it is for the reader, for whom it may represent the spatial dimension of memory, or, considering how Austerlitz stumbles upon its memorious structure by chance, how “[w]e take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious,” or, since the new station is being built within the old one, of Freud’s metaphor for the psyche as a city built atop and among its own ruins (A, 204). Though with the reader in the picture the account gets more complicated: what is the objective status of the Liverpool Street Station we read about, which is both different and not different from the one in which Austerlitz stands remembering?) Again, the source of such extended meaning is debatable, but its presence is not; glancing around my room as I write this, I cannot find a single object that does not carry much more than itself with it. Which is what makes this next claim one that requires some defending: the photograph, unlike every other kind of object, may come unstuck from its image-character and be itself alone.
This is a bold thing to say—too bold, in fact. But though I am going to take some of it back, I wanted to leave the high-water mark of its audacity. Now of course it is an exaggeration to say that the photograph remains within itself and refuses to suggest anything beyond its pure appearance—as if one could find a fully transparent image, free of the 3×5 inch cage that ties it to an ordinary objecthood, projected on the pure aether with no flip side, no before or after. Nothing escapes having some image-character; nothing that registers for us is really just a lump of objective self-containment, a thing-in-itself keeping it to itself. Even the pure reproducable image, the one that can begin again in time through reprinting and thus lose the quality of being cotemporal with all the time that has passed since its development, even this has ties beyond itself, suggests a time period, a storm gathering or burning off, a time of day—a life, however unknown. But try it from another angle. The photograph whose significance we are unable to read remains silent as other objects out of the past do not, as though the accuracy of its evidence hobbled its mnemonic reach.
To see this, think about one of Austerlitz’s small successes. Following up on a mention by Vera (his former babysitter and Agáta’s best friend, whom he finds still living in the same apartment she lived in before the war) of their long-ago visit to see Agáta in a dress rehearsal, he goes to the Estates Theater, “where Agáta made her début in Prague in the autumn of 1938 in the role of Olympia” (A, 160). He spends some time sitting there trying to make some vision of her appear: “before me the proscenium arch of the stage on which Agáta had once stood was like a blind eye. And the harder I tried to conjure up at least some faint recollection of her appearance, the more the theater seemed to be shrinking…” (A, 160–61) This would be but more evidence of the impossibility of forcing a significant moment—except that then someone, unseen, passes behind the curtain and sets it rippling. The motion sets the shadows moving: the orchestra pit fills with musicians and the air with music, and Austerlitz sees, beneath the curtain, “a sky-blue shoe embroidered with silver sequins.” (A, 161) Later that day, he asks Vera about the shoe, and she tells him that Agáta had worn such shoes when she played Olympia.
Austerlitz often fails to regain his past as he lived it: he sees himself as a little boy in Liverpool Street Station with a rucksack on his knees, rather than remembering the station from his five-year-old point of view; he sees himself as his mother’s attendant page at a costume party, “the live tableau with the Rose Queen and the little boy carrying her train at her side,” but cannot regain his position in the tableau itself (A 183–4). Here, though, he has a rare success, and regains a moment of his memory, dreaming it from the inside: he recalls, without prompting, his distress as he waited up for his mother, who has become strange and distant, a part of the role he witnessed her playing, and how he lay awake waiting for her to return and affirm herself as she had always been.
Now imagine that Austerlitz had found that shoe in another form: instead of remembering the orchestra and the shoe protruding beneath the curtain, what if he had found a photograph of the same scene, tucked away in the theater archive? No matter that he hasn’t hauled it up out of his own memory, for he has Vera to confirm his presence at the scene it shows—but even so the photograph is, despite its clarity and inarguable testimony, a shadow of what memory can hold. One cannot imagine Austerlitz having his memory of waiting up for Agáta after finding merely a photograph, for unlike memory—or buildings, or shoes—the photograph does not seem to hold elapsed time, or have ties to its passing. Because of its very precision, its moment’s evidence, the photograph makes any dreaming beyond it seem unreal, a lie in the face of its captured truth. It is in fact the photograph’s precision that makes it insufficient to return depth to the past: it is laced too tightly into its sliver of a moment. Buildings, people, shoes, memory, a carmine-red complete edition of Balzac—all these seem to hold the past they have witnessed, and while it may be difficult or even impossible to extract it from them, it is not hard to feel its presence. The photograph, unless it awakens memory and leaves itself behind, is silent because it does not know what came before or after, and the presence of anything more is excised by the smooth sheer edges of the captured moment—unlike memory, whose ragged edges disappear into an unremembered but palpable before and after. The photograph without memory still has an image-character, but what it calls forth beyond itself is the total absence of anything beyond what it itself contains.
This, after all, is why Austerlitz can reproduce his hard-won photograph of Agáta, why he does not share Barthes’ fear of its particularity failing to move us. Agáta’s image, since it does not evoke any memory in Austerlitz, has an entirely reliable and universal image-character, one that—again—has almost nothing to do with the photographic image itself; it stands not for her being but for the irretrievable loss of it. Agáta’s photograph has a unique and specific image-character for Vera alone, and once Vera is gone all the answers it could have held will fall silent. The photograph cannot restore what we do not already have lying dormant within, and it is this disconnect that Agáta’s photograph comes to represent. It thus stands for the eventual triumph of forgetting over all candled things: photographs do not hold what we wish they would; memory often fails, and even when it succeeds its depths cannot be preserved or transferred.
We are mortal, balanced on a day, now and then
it makes sense to say Save what you can.
—Anne Carson, The Beauty of the Husband
Which brings us back to Barthes and his hidden photograph, returning with a new question: is there a difference between Austerlitz’s Agáta and Barthes’ winter garden photograph? To the spectator, no difference at all—each is an instance of a private, unsharable significance, a representation that does not have in itself the power to call back what is represented. Yet Barthes does not allow this parallelism, for he does not allow any spectators to see his photo. He thus preserves his photograph from contact with such detached significance, keeping its particularity sheltered from the bleaching indifference of forgetting’s universality, from the blank stare of the unmoved spectator, . There is a difference, after all, between Austerlitz and Barthes, and that difference is not nothing: for a moment, for a year or two, Barthes’s mother is not completely lost so long as he remembers her, and nothing Austerlitz or anyone else has forgotten can change that fact. “Not lost yet,” whispers the wind around this sheltering caesura, “not lost completely, yet lost”; but Barthes, protective and defiant, retorts “No, not yet! Not completely!” and turns back to his significant image and his memories. Thus his photograph is, for a little while in time and a little longer through his writing of it, the negative of Austerlitz’s after all, and in its absence stands for all presence, reminding us that to be no longer is never the same as not having been, that forgetting may avalanche over the past but does not for all that undo it completely.
This is the fragile objective status that Barthes shelters with his hidden photograph, saving what he can.
Kathleen Kelley lives in Brooklyn and studies at the New School for Social Research. She would like to gratefully acknowledge Graeme Gilloch’s lecture on Orhan Pamuk, Austerlitz, and Camera Lucida, given at the New School in March 2007, as the original spark of this essay.
October 10, 2008
posted by Caroline Picard, this essay was written by Rolf Achilles, 27 April 2008
and published in Paper&Carriage no. 03
Lincoln, Illinois is celebrated for being the first city in the United States to be named Lincoln, and that in 1853, seven years before its namesake Abraham Lincoln would become President of the United States. Many years later, Lincoln became an important stop on the now fabled Route 66 with its restaurant, the Mill being a highlight. Many thousands of tourists visit Lincoln each year to revel in these facts.
Between these two mileposts stands another one, one that attracts very little attention yet is also of international significance – the Lincoln Development Center, better know to Darger enthusiasts and scholars as The Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children.
The Asylum was incorporated as a permanent charitable institution by the General Assembly of the State of Illinois in 1871. Appropriations for land were made in 1875 and the first buildings were constructed in 1878. Another appropriation in 1899 allowed for the construction of two cottages, one completed in 1901; the other in 1902. By 1905, the institution had a staff of some 500 careworkers for 1,439 inmates. Henry Darger was one of them. He resided in the North wing of the main building. The girls were in another wing out of view from the boys. (rootsweb.ancestry.com).
The Main Building, built in 1875-77, is of brick, three-stories high with both a basement and attic and a slate roof with limestone trimming on dormers, windows and towers. Its length is 395 feet and its greatest depth is 215 feet, with wings of 165 feet. The central tower rises to 100 feet. It faces east to catch the morning sun. In its day, the Asylum was state-of-the-art in its E-shaped to maximize the number of sash-windows for air-flow; and wide, open interior halls into which small rooms opened in a neo-Renaissance palace fashion (though here called modern Gothic). To Henry it was home, a self-contained world secured against the outside by a wide, park-like lawn with fountains and trees.
While visually beautiful, the contents of the Asylum quickly became much more than its stated goal of “to furnish the means of education to that portion of the youth of the state not provided for in any on its other educational institutions …. who are…children between the ages of ten and eighteen, who are feeble minded of so deficient in intelligence as to be incapable of being educated at an ordinary school, and who are not epileptic, insane of greatly deformed….” Admitting Illinois children free of charge quickly helped to transform the Asylum into a dumping ground for any and all children, including much more seriously impaired and disturbed ones. Overcrowding, coupled with a lack of attention, (even though there were 500 on the staff, this included everyone from gardeners to medical to cooks), stifled the experimental education aims that the Asylum was also chartered to undertake. In a word, overall and specifically, Henry’s developmental needs were not met. His autobiographical account of these years reflects this by hardly mentioning the adults he came in contact with and when Darger does mention adults, they are not kind and understanding. When his later drawings show adults as disciplinarians using harsh physical punishment for what seem slight infractions of the rules, they show more than his autobiographical words say. At the time the world’s knowledge was quite limited in the sciences of psychology, sociology and medical needs. Lincoln’s Asylum staff was no exception. They did the best they knew how. In fact, no school at that time met today’s standard, but then many today don’t either….
Henry spent his summer about 3.5 miles away from the Asylum on its farm, some 450 acres of flat land. Darger wrote that:
“The work was not hard we quit at four in the afternoon, started at eight in the morning, after milking the cows, and off again at four. We were off on Saturday afternoon and Sundays. We had our baths on Saturdays before dinner.”
He writes that he liked the fieldwork best. This experience must have given Darger ample opportunity to see the farm’s wooden and brick buildings and watch the skies ever changing composition of light and clouds. Later, Darger clearly depicted the farm experiences in his drawings that include flat country, the several farmhouses, and cows probably much as he had seen them.
The railroad that connected Lincoln to Chicago and other destinations was the Chicago and Alton Railroad. It too, found a place in Darger’s drawings. Never friendly or benign, the train always belches black smoke and is threatening to all those before it, especially those unfortunates on its tracks.
October 6, 2008
posted by Caroline Picard
this was published, after it was performed, in Paper& Carriage
Funeral For A Friend
Fraction Workspace: September 5, 2003 – December 31, 2007
Read by Alex Jovanovich on December 31, 2007 to an audience of many for Fraction’s last night.
You know, as the old chestnut goes: All good things come to an end. This utterly applies to Fraction Workspace.
When Clare and Dov contacted me about eight months ago to host this—their final event—Dov had said
Well, it’s just time to go, and it’s best to go out on top.
Due to the myriad difficulties of exhibiting artwork in Chicago through more commercial venues, the
D.I.Y. exhibition space here simply flourishes. Though more money is spent than ever made at this type of
endeavoring, many people keep plugging along with hopes that carry another kind of weight, different from
commerce: critical attention. This is not to say that money isn’t important—rent, fancy lights, fresh coats of
paint, video monitors, full-color postcards and/or ad spaces are not free. Acknowledgement for your
contributions to the culture, your ideology, what it is that shakes your heart and indeed, other hearts,
however, is the why, in many cases, for funneling one’s energies towards these ends. And mind you, these
alternative spaces do have life spans—for a handful: decades; for others: a year, or maybe five months, a
few weeks; or, in some instances, a couple of hours. In Fraction’s case, it was a little over four years.
I, personally, would never want an art gallery in my home. How people like Clare and Dov, as well as
Kathryn Scanlan and Caleb Lyons, Britton Bertrand, Caroline Picard, Michelle Grabner, Philip von
Zweck, and a whole host of other people (I am either regrettably forgetting or quite in the dark about) have
managed or continue to manage making this a regular aspect in their lives is well beyond me. I am vigilant
about the boundaries surrounding what I call home, and I do not let everyone in. It is too true that not
everyone can, or wants, to do this. We are quite lucky to be surrounded by many that are so willing.
Clare and Dov have managed to do something quite special for a good length of time, and they have
received lots of positive attention for this, too: Fraction has not only exhibited local and national artists, but
international artists as well; artists that have exhibited in Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and The
Art Institute, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Whitney Biennial; and artists that have
received critical response from the likes of Artforum and The New York Times along with numerous local
publications like New City, the Chicago Reader and TimeOut Chicago. Not bad for a little storefront space
and home that didn’t need to bankrupt itself to go where it did. And, as a very special added bonus, Dov
and Clare are sane—or at least as sane as the next sane artist!
When I asked Clare and Dov what their future plans would be, they mentioned the following (which, by the
way, appears in no particular order):
• Catch up on sleep
• Make some room in the house for their own artmaking
• Maybe explore color options outside of white for their walls
• Put up a nice, big bookshelf
Indeed, going out on top has its privileges.
Well done, Clare and Dov. And thank you.