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By MICHAEL MOON
Duke University Press
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One DARGER'S BOOK OF MARTYRS
There is much to say about the fact that it is little girls who open themselves to this game and these hostilities.... empirical violence, war in the colloquial sense (ruse and perfidy of little girls, apparent ruse and perfidy of little girls....
—Jacques Derrida, "The Violence of the Letter"
Henry Darger's fascination with pious stories about the torture and execution of angelic little girls—strangled, disemboweled, or crucified—may seem remote from most people's experience nowadays. Yet I, born sixty years after Darger, grew up in the 1950s in an environment similarly saturated with the bloody and extreme, if highly stylized, violence of Roman martyr theater, still considered at the time of my early education—at a parochial school in a small Oklahoma town, staffed by members of the Felician Sisters order of Lodi, New Jersey—to be an obvious source of edification for tender Catholic sprouts. Ancient adherents of the cult of Adonis, who celebrated by reenacting his fatal goring by the boar and his glorious rebirth each spring, had nothing on us Catholic schoolchildren a couple of millennia later who, under the nuns' tutelage and the gazes of our doting parents, celebrated the end of the academic year each May by performing a Roman martyr play. Imagine my excitement as a kindergartener when I was cast as the pagan idol to whom young Saint Agnes (played by the most glamorous girl in the eighth grade) would righteously refuse to offer incense! An untimely case of the measles did me out of my chance (never to be offered again) to wear a tiny toga and sandals and stand perfectly still on a pedestal during this tense encounter between Agnes and the cruel emperor. To my deep disappointment, I got no role at all in the following year's martyr play, only to be cast as a singing and dancing teapot in a babyish musical number.
A few years later I remember our third- or fourth-grade class reading and discussing a rendition of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes in the Catholic comic-book Treasure Chest that we received at school. The comic's main ongoing feature, titled This Godless Communism, is available in its entirety on the Internet. Although the publication promoted itself as a wholesome and even godly alternative to the trashy stuff we were supposedly reading at home (the favorite comics of my siblings and me were Donald Duck and Classics Illustrated, but such preferences may have been far from typical), it employed some of the same artists who produced the most sensational and (in some quarters) reviled comics of the time, including E. C. Comics' Tales from the Crypt. In scenes depicting the tortures the girl Agnes underwent for refusing to abandon her Christian faith, we children may well have found Treasure Chest more macabre, grotesque, and frightening than the ordinary green-ghoul fare our guardians worried about our consuming.
But in spite—or because—of its undeniable scariness, the legend of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes fascinated some of us children. I recall our being less taken with the next year's all-school play, The Martyrdom of Saint Tarsicius, the story of a pious Roman boy who allowed a mob of pagan males to beat him to death rather than give them the ciborium containing consecrated hosts that he was conveying to an underground cell of his fellow Christians. Given that the new plot was as weird and violent as the previous year's, our failure to embrace Saint Tarsicius's story as our own suggests that there were other factors in play for us than the story's high proportion of religious sadomasochism. I wonder if we might have been reacting to the insidious word "sissy" in this martyr's name. Even without the lexical nudge, it might have been hard for us not to feel that there was something sissyish (we didn't yet know the word "priggish") about Tarsicius's unyielding piety—as well as about his death at the hands of a mob of bullies. (Proper martyrs were burned, beheaded, or thrown to wild beasts, not bullied to death—a fate that struck far too close to the school playground.) So much of childhood bravado and self-respect depends on at least sometimes disobeying one's mother's orders not to allow oneself to be waylaid in the performance of one's errands that it may have been hard for us not to see Tarsicius's story as one that had been chosen to please not us, but the mothers and nuns who were our taskmasters.
The Second Vatican Council, which took place around the time I was finishing parochial school, worked its transformation on the church even in places like rural Oklahoma, making our youthful conscription as actors in grim and gruesome dramas of martyrdom seem almost unbelievably antediluvian. Only a handful of years, after all, separated our childhood performances as cruel emperors, pagan idols, and virgin martyrs from our early-adolescent renditions of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and the Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn" at guitar masses. In those later years I occasionally wondered where our teachers had procured the scripts for those grade-school martyr pageants.
These little dramas were evidently a tributary of the torrent of mass-produced and mass-distributed Catholic devotional art—illustrated books, painted plaster statues for churches and homes, rosaries, holy cards bearing the images of Jesus and the saints, bottles of holy water, crucifixes, religious jewelry, medals, and scapulars—that began in the middle of the nineteenth century to be sold in dozens of shops in the immediate neighborhood of the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, still, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale, a center for the sale of such objects today. Rather than continuing to import these items from France, purveyors of "religious goods" in the United States began to produce and market their own versions around 1865; Barclay Street in lower Manhattan became "the American Saint Sulpice." The cultural historian Colleen McDannell writes: "By the end of the nineteenth century, l'art Saint-Sulpice became the international style of Catholic church art. From Ireland to Mexico to India to the United States, local art was replaced by goods either imported from France or copied from French standards." But, she observes, well before then the denizens of both Saint Sulpice and Barclay Street had come under sustained attack for the alleged vulgarity and false piety (evident in the term "plaster saint") of the styles they purveyed—for their dissemination of what would come to be known as Catholic kitsch. The controversy between alleged sentimentalists and avowed modernists raged on for over half a century, until the Vatican itself undertook to criticize l'art Saint-Sulpice and its imitators around 1950 (171).
But even official disapproval from the highest place in the church could not immediately undo the fact that, as McDannell puts it, "for at least a hundred years, from 1840 to 1940, Catholic devotionalism and l'art Saint-Sulpice were closely aligned" (167). In response to the revolutionary and republican politics that had reemerged in every European generation since 1789, the church had in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth sponsored a massive proliferation of new and revived Catholic devotional cults and paraliturgical rituals, attached to the veneration of the Sacred Heart, Our Lady of Lourdes, the Miraculous Medal, and such popular new saints as Joan of Arc (canonized in 1920) and Thérèse of Lisieux (the Little Flower of Jesus, canonized in 1925). Among Catholics, signs of these cults became ubiquitous features not only of church ritual but of work and home environments: "With each new devotion," McDannell writes, "the symbols of that devotion were made into statuary, medals, pendants, and pictures. If Catholics could not manage to get their special saint or Virgin into the church, they could place visual reminders of their devotions in church meeting rooms, hallways, hospitals, or homes" (170). A lively market in saints' images flourished: a Barclay Street advertisement from 1908 eagerly offers "special statues of any Saint sculptured on short notice" (quoted on 169). Even small Catholic congregations labored to make their altars splendid with polychrome statues, candles, flowers, linen, and lace, to give themselves a foretaste of their communities' vision of heavenly glories, and many church members erected little altars and shrines at home or at school.
Henry Darger was in many ways an entirely typical participant in this densely materialized devotional culture. He collages holy-card images of the Sacred Heart and various manifestations of the Virgin Mary into some of his drawings, and he organizes some of his narratives around special rituals such as the veneration of the Blessed Sacrament in Benediction or the Forty Hours devotion. Photographs taken of his room soon after he vacated it show a small mantelpiece crowded with home-size statues of Jesus, Our Lady of Lourdes, and a chromolithograph of the Infant Jesus of Prague, alongside various items of nondevotional bric-a-brac and photos. Similarly, next to his worktable, the upper half of a door is covered with illustrated religious calendars, Catholic magazine covers, and images of Jesus and the reigning pope, alongside pictures of children and dogs. One notes the same kinds of juxtapositions among his small collection of books, which included some of the most popular children's books and some of the reigning classic depictions of modern childhood and orphanhood available in English: the Wizard of Oz and its sequels, Heidi and its sequels, The Old Curiosity Shop and Great Expectations—but also The Pious Guide, St. Basil's Hymnal, The School of Jesus Crucified, and Blind Agnese; or, The Little Spouse of the Blessed Sacrament. One of the rare features of Darger's work is the extensive use by a highly intelligent, disciplined, and artistically gifted person of such popular religious narratives and images to explore what may have often seemed to him to be potentially overwhelmingly strong feelings, desires, or memories.
I began this chapter by recalling my own immersion as a small child in the rather demonic heroics of virgin martyrdom in order to remind myself as well as my readers not only that Darger's world of martyrs may not be as remote from our own era as we may tend to think it is, but also to remind ourselves that his apparent fascination with femininity and scenes of extreme cruelty and violence, far from having been (or having been only) some personal eccentricity of his, was the result of his having very much been a product of the devotional and spiritual tendencies of the Roman Catholic Church of the first half of the twentieth century. In repeatedly adverting to figures of youthful femininity, exposed and curiously gendered bodies, and scenes of intense cruelty visited on the very young, Darger may be understood to have been a participant in an extremely long-established set of cultural practices—ones that for well over a millennium constituted one of the most prestigious and highly respected modes of literary and visual representation. This was the narrative of martyrdom of female virgins, which preoccupied and inspired a number of long arcs of cultural production, ranging from the Acts of the virgin martyrs of the third and fourth centuries (circulated by the cults of Saints Felicity, Perpetua, Agnes, Catherine of Alexandria, and Thecla, among many others) to many of the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and Chaucer's "Second Nun's Tale," and well beyond.
It may surprise even many students of English literature to learn that, far from disappearing from the English theater at the time of the Reformation, virgin-martyr dramas continued to be written by influential playwrights and poets into the modern era, including Thomas Dekker's The Virgin Martyr of the early 1620s, which is about Saint Dorothy, and John Dryden's Tyrannick Love; or, The Royal Martyr of 1670, which is about Saint Catherine of Alexandria. And far from disappearing from English literature in the later modern period, the virgin-martyr narrative was once again taken up by some of the key architects of early mass culture for Christian readers—most notably in Cardinal Wiseman's Fabiola (1855) and John Henry Newman's Callista (1858), both of which were designed by their respective prelate authors as models of the use of popular historical fiction (which had been pioneered by Sir Walter Scott and his contemporaries a generation before) for new modes of mass religious pedagogy. Well-worn copies of both of these Victorian virgin-martyr romance novels still survived in the modest lending libraries of the small Catholic churches that my extended family attended in northeastern Oklahoma into the 1960s. Darger the omnivorous reader might have easily come across copies of these and similar books in the libraries of the Catholic hospitals where he worked and the neighborhood church he attended. The magazines and pamphlets he picked up there participated actively and enthusiastically in maintaining and transmitting the veneration of the virgin martyrs, from those of the Roman persecutions of the early church to such highly publicized cults as that of the twentieth-century Saint Maria Goretti (a "martyr for chastity" at age twelve in 1902, canonized in 1950), who had been born only a year or two before Darger was.
Although the violence with which Darger depicts Glandelinian soldiers martyring many of his heroines will probably remain unequivocally appalling to almost all his readers, becoming aware of the persistence of gory details of extreme cruelty and violence as an apparently indispensable feature of martyr narrative in general and of virgin-martyr narrative in particular may make some difference in the nature and quality of one's response to it. In her 1999 study of the popular medieval "theater of cruelty" of the martyrs and their legends, the cultural historian Jody Enders surveys and critiques the extensive scholarship on the "special effects" that were used in staging the frequent scenes of the tortures of martyrs, of the bodies of saints being beaten, broken, stabbed, burned, dismembered, and roasted alive, in performances of the execution of Saint Lawrence, or "deprived of [their] breasts," in the martyrdoms of Saints Agatha and Barbara. In performing such central scenes from the life of Christ as Herod's Massacre of the Innocents, practitioners of medieval and early Renaissance stagecraft employed "fake blood, soft clubs, dummies, dolls, and mannequins ... [in order] to render violence, torture, and death as realistically as possible." Darger's substitution of his Glandelinian hordes for the stock tyrant Herod, European theater's ubiquitous villain from the medieval to the baroque stage, in his own recurrent revisions of the massacre is perhaps the most obvious point of contact between his "martyr theater" and earlier ones, which similarly depended on devotional narrative and liturgical ritual for much of their matter and manner. Even the disemboweling on which Darger's scenes of martyrdom often focus—something that may strike most readers as all but unrepresentable onstage—had been fully anticipated by earlier martyr plays; other historians of the medieval and early-modern theater refer to such scenes as having been enacted in martyr plays about Saints Barnabas and Denis.
Excerpted from DARGER'S RESOURCES by MICHAEL MOON Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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