It appears that the only factor preventing an outright murder conviction is MacGregor’s belief that had Darger killed once, he would not have been able to stop himself from killing again. In that event, Darger would unlikely have devoted his prodigious psychic energies to his art and writing, nor is it likely that he would have remained at large.
A bigger problem than MacGregor’s speculations is his focus. He defends his psychiatric approach with the argument that Darger’s vast writings constitute diagnostic material as exhaustive as anything that could be provided by a living patient. But while Darger’s biography (and psychobiography) may be interesting enough, and they do shed some light on his work, it’s the work that really matters. To his credit MacGregor weaves Darger’s own writings and pictures through his text, but his relentless psychologizing quickly ceases to illuminate Darger’s breath-taking private world. Instead, they encase it, and the biography ends up obscuring the art, as happens so often with outsider artists.
MacGregor himself offers a far more interesting, and non-clinical, interpretation at the end of the book, leaving the reader wishing the previous 11 chapters had been similarly enlightening. “The Realms is an obsessional presentation of the reality of evil, an endlessly elaborated vision of hell on earth,” he writes. “It was, in part, a desperate and terrible question addressed to a passive and silent God,” a God in which Darger had absolute belief. As MacGregor describes it: “Where is God. Why does God allow these things to happen? How far can he be pushed before he will intervene?”
If Darger was attempting to outrage god into reacting, it makes sense that he would create the most awful scenes he could imagine — the gruesome, explicit torture of little girls that still outrages audiences today, whatever its effect on God. Retreating into psychiatry is the easy way out. It reduces Darger’s most profound, if disturbing, imagery into its lowest possible denominator: psychopathology. Of course Darger could have been pathological AND extraordinarily sensitive to the problem of evil. But MacGregor’s single-minded prosecution of Darger’s lust-driven sadism does not mesh with the far more engaging, and ultimately convincing, portrait of a man at war with God.
MacGregor, in a moment of insight, puts it best himself: “Nothing in Darger’s psychic content is either unique or inhuman. Everything we encounter in The Realms of the Unreal is also encountered in human history and in the human mind in extremis.” As he notes, “the tortures Darger invents … bear a striking resemblance to those used in the martyrdom of saints.” More to the point, “pathological sadism and murderous rage” is a prominent characteristic of the century in which Darger was writing. It would be hard to minimize the effect of the horrible devastation in the Civil War just a few decades before Darger was born, the Great War that he had just lived through, and World War II, which was looming as he wrote his saga and which preceded much of his artwork. In the end, Darger’s admittedly sadistic fantasies can be read as naïve (and naively inappropriate) attempts to capture the all-too-real horrors of the human condition as well as his immense rage at his own stunted life.
Because Darger happens to be weird, however, this content in his work constitutes a symptom rather than a subject. It is MacGregor himself who writes that “The tendency to engage in clinical reductionism … could have seriously obscured for the reader Darger’s astonishing uniqueness as a personality and an artist.” He obviously believes he resisted that tendency by waiting some 650 pages before discussing a literal diagnosis (autism, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome). But reductionism is present throughout the book and explicit in his own statements: “All of these narrative-constructs, however objective they may initially appear, are reflective of subjective psychological content, shifting moods and elemental drives.” Or put another way, “The flow of content in Darger is controlled, not by the logic of the narrative, but by internal necessity.”
Perhaps MacGregor was overwhelmed by Darger’s massive work. The reader is “buried beneath an avalanche of overwhelmingly obsessive and oppressive detail,” he writes. The reader of Henry Darger In the Realms of the Unreal may be forgiven a hint of the same feeling. It is testimony to the quality of MacGregor’s scholarship that his reductionist psychology often contrasts with richer and more revealing insights about the man and his work. Despite that, and the pleasures afforded by the numerous reproductions, it is a chore to make it through this book. The lack of an effective editor is apparent from a text that is far too long and lazily argued to make its own case effectively.
An editor might also have toned down MacGregor’s dubious hyperboles. References to uniqueness in the history of art and to the longest piece of imaginative prose ever written beg for rebuttal, since this book offers no proof that they are true. Yes Darger’s output is singular, but so is any great work of art. And yes The Realms is long, but did MacGregor really survey world libraries and manuscript repositories before declaring it the longest ever (a claim already being repeated as fact by journalists whose highest authority is the first clipping they happen to see)? In the end the book reads something like a disillusioned spouse running through the flaws of their mate. You know there is a good deal of detailed truth underlying the claims, but you take the exaggerations and harsh judgments with a large grain of salt.