Sunday, June 8, 2008


The poet Dante famously fell in love with Beatrice the first time he saw her, at age ten. He later wrote:
At that very moment, and I speak the truth, the vital spirit, the one that dwells in the most secret chamber of the heart... spoke these words: Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi. ("Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.")
Dante only met Beatrice once more before she died at a young age, yet he devoted most of his life to writing poetry in her honor. She was his inspiration for La Vita Nuova and he gave her a starring role in his epic masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, as the person who guides him to Paradise.

Dante and Beatrice at the gates of Paradise, by Dore

The artist Henry Darger (1892-1973) led an agonized childhood. Born in poverty and orphaned at an early age, he was sent away at age 12 to the Asylum for Feeble Minded Children in Lincoln Illinois, a brutal place where children were abused and mistreated. At age 16, he escaped to Chicago where he found work as a janitor and lived a reclusive life, writing and drawing alone in his shabby apartment at night. In 1911, Darger became transfixed by a photograph in the Chicago Daily News of a young missing girl, Elsie Paroubek.

He kept this picture among his treasured possessions. He painted Elsie's portrait and built a small shrine for her in a nearby barn. After a month long search, police discovered the murdered girl's body in a drainage canal.

Devastated, Darger developed a story based upon Paroubek. He made her the leader of a child rebellion against evil adults who practiced child slavery. In his story, the adults (called "Glandelinians") murdered the young girl, but her martyrdom led to an epic war between the forces of good (children) and evil (adults).

Darger's story grew into a 5,145-page masterpiece which consumed most of the rest of his life. He called his chronicle The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The Vivian girls were sisters who led the war against the Glandelinians, a struggle which grew to involve armies of naked young girls, typhoons that wiped out nations, a winged monster called "a Handsome Dude," and the massacre of thousands of cities of innocents. I find Darger's illustrations extraordinarily beautiful:

Despite all the horrors detailed in his lengthy war, Darger insisted that the "assassination of [Elsie's character] was the most shocking child murder ever caused by the Glandelinian Government."

He became so obssessed with Elsie's photograph that he risked eternal damnation by confronting God over it. Darger lost his precious photo and became convinced that God had taken it to test him. When Darger could not find it anywhere, he began to threaten God that the Glandelinians would win the war unless the photo was returned. "In case of no return by March 1916, the Glandelinians will not be forced into submission but shall progress better than before..." Darger kept extending God's deadline but after many years, when God failed to comply, a livid Darger made his counterpart in the story, a Captain Henry Darger, defect to the side of the Glandelinians.

How could an artist such as Dante or Darger draw a lifetime of inspiration from such a brief glimpse of a girl? I've always liked this famous scene from Citizen Kane, where an elderly man describes how in his youth he caught a glimpse of a girl in a white dress and thought about her for the rest of his life:

You never know when they will happen, those little moments that can be mined forever. Often they seem to depend upon just the right errant breeze passing through the hair of just the right person. But if a single glimpse can sustain a lifetime of artistic devotion, it tells you something about the untapped potential for all those other moments that fly by unheeded.