Issue 3 Weather Summer 2001
The Moral Storm: Henry Darger's Book of Weather Reports
He was right on the prediction of snow flurries and becoming very windy today, but the snow was very fine. He said little change in temperature but he was greatly wrong in that. It was 8 below, and 5 above was warmest. And he had said high in the 20s. He was right, though, on West to Northwest wind, but wrong on increasing to 18 to 28 miles per hour. It was between 30 and 40 miles per hour.
For Darger, moral anchoring points pop up now and again amid hundred-page descriptions of hurricanes, land battles and sweeping conflagrations: "Beautiful is the sun, which because of its wonderful splendor and radiance, was adored as a divine being by so many pagan nations. But more beautiful is the form of the Vivian Girls." Realms is full of descriptions of characters breaking down when meeting, or even hearing about, the Vivian Girls. For most readers and viewers, though, it is this very gap between the simplistic moral rhetoric, a rhetoric of pathos and obligation, and the multivalent, pathological detail that makes Darger's work so fascinating, and so disturbing. In "illustrating" his claims (I'm thinking here of his drawings, but one might make a related argument about his text), Darger invents a world whose psychotically proliferating detail—wearing outright its fascination with inventing new ways for grown-men marauders dressed in Civil War outfits to dismember little girls' bodies—renders those very same claims intensely inadequate as an explanation of what one is presented with. This patient rendering of carnage is made all the more unsettling and bizarre by its placement within highly elaborated atmospheric and horticultural settings, which demonstrate Darger's pleasure in cloud formations, lightning patterns, overflowing garden plots, happy diagrammatic houses, and verdant storybook hillsides.
One rationale for Reports may have been as a break from the imaginative demands of Realms. Though Darger probably did not cease work on Realms during the ten-year climatic inquiry, one suspects that his long periods at the typewriter and behind the drafting board were punctuated by hourly trips to monitor the atmospheric equipment at his window. But Reports was no casual hobby or diversion: Darger shaped it into what we might now call a conceptual art project, lasting exactly ten years and concluding with the word "finished." It thus gives a kind of narrative to the weather. And if we see Realms as one kind of visualization, we might in turn imagine Reports as a complementary exercise, one offering complete immersion in climatic consciousness.
At first Darger does not abbreviate anything, as though the exercise of painstakingly writing out the month and all of the verbs and prepositions inside the weather notation would prolong the very state of awareness he seems to be after. Even when writing extremely short entries, he uses a kind of longhand—"Lowest 0. Highest nine above" (1/20/1958). Eventually this formal convention settles into "Low" and "High."
Despite his interest in sensory data, Darger's book is not exactly a rumination on one's experience of the weather. Only occasionally do sentences describing "a minute fall of light rain and wet snow," (5/4/1958) "slight streaks of clouds in the evening" (9/13/1958) or "traces of cirrus cloud" (6/4/1963) even begin to suggest this role. Such a consciousness emerges to some extent in Darger's frequent mention of practical concerns—that it was "almost impossible to walk because of ice on streets and sidewalks because of rain" or that on the next day "you at least could walk the streets" (2/10/1959). But perhaps the most luminous aspect of the weather is the frequent enigmas it opens: "Partly cloudy to clearing. Very Strange haze in the sky. Moon looked yellow green in sky" (8/28/1958). On June 7th, 1959 Darger noted a "Strange mysterious haze in the sky." The following day we learn that the "mysterious haze [is] still thicker."
Darger's attraction to such enigmas seems linked to his prominent use of the word "threatening" as a fixed position on the weather spectrum: for anyone who has read a description of a storm in Realms, "overcast to threatening" takes on ominous overtones: "Saturday August 23 1958. Partly cloudy to threatening in the afternoon. A few drops of rain." One of the crucial differences between narratives that use weather and the weather itself, though, is that "threats" do not inevitably foreshadow dramatic events. One wonders, therefore, how Darger felt about the frequent near-misses he notes: "Thunderstorm passes even northwest. No rain here" (5/17/58); "Two thunderstorms pass by without hitting" (7/13/58); or: "Threatening but no rain after all" (7/20/58). Thunder tends to get registered through its volume: "quite loud thunder, but rain only a sprinkle" (5/5/1959). If each passing storm system presents a structure of expectation, so, of course, does each season. Darger's seasonal expectations range from the mundanely descriptive—"warm out of season," or "below normal temperatures for this month of July"—to the moralizing: "Fickle Chilly May 'Where the Season they call Spring?' Eloped with old man Winter" (5/13/1959).
At the height of his enthusiasm for the project, Darger invents the monthly weather summary: "February was not so cold as January and had far less snow. But it was a bad month because it had two very bad freeze rains, and too much extremes of warm and cold. Very above normal warm weather between the cold. Fortunately no big snow storms so far this winter. How about this coming March?" Perhaps he sensed that the possible scales for such summaries were infinite, and retreated back to the day as a primary unit. In any case, the month summary of February 1959 seems to be the only one. It's clear, however, that Darger did cross-reference and study his previous notations: "O worst storm since two years" he writes on June 25, 1959. And if one suspects this to be a casual, improvised claim, other observations suggest the breadth (and pathology) of Darger's statistical cross-referencing: In January of 1963, Darger writes: "This was the first Friday we had at least two inches of snow. For all other Fridays since 1960 (no snow on these Fridays of 1959 until Friday Jan 11) extend back to 1959."
The depth of Darger's knowledge about his own project, and the character of his own retreat into the carefully fabricated world of his Chicago apartment, both suggest a strange relation to the tradition of Christian visualization and meditation, where withdrawal and focus are fundamental. Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, for instance, offered a structured visualization (administered by priests to subjects on a month-long retreat) of sin, the life and passion of Christ, and the afterlife. By withdrawing, "one separates oneself from many friends and acquaintances as well as from distracting business in order to serve and praise God Our Lord." One's mind is "not divided amongst many things" and thus one is more capable of "drawing near to and reaching our Creator and Lord," and thereby receiving "graces and gifts from His divine and supreme Goodness."
More than a little receptive to such gifts, Darger turns the complicating subtexts of this project into a life practice and a kind of treatise. Interested in this gap between a moral project and its materialization, Roland Barthes points to "the mass of desire which animates [Spiritual Exercises]. The immediate force of this desire is to be read in the very materiality of the objects whose representation Ignatius calls for: places in their precise, complete dimensions, characters in their costumes, their attitudes, their actions, their actual words." For Darger, the Ignatian month becomes 60-odd years. Christ splinters into seven little girls. Fascination with materiality motivates not merely the elaborate detail of the Realms, but the simultaneous project of immersing himself in the particularity of the weather. The goal of being responsible for recording a decade of weather may suggest something of the obsessive nature of Reports. Barthes continues: "The obsessional character of the Exercises blazes forth in the accounting passion transmitted to the [subject who performs the spiritual exercises]: as soon as an object, intellectual or imaginary, appears, it is broken up, divided, numbered. The accountancy is obsessional not only because it is infinite, but above all because it engenders its own errors: being a matter of accounting for his sins ... the fact of accounting for them in a faulty way will in turn become an error that must be added on to the original list."
The Book of Weather Reports is in fact concerned with a kind of endless, self-multiplying error; this error is not Darger's, however, but the weatherman's: "He was all wrong again except the temperature" (4/12/1966); "He says warmer at night. At 40? Yet it was 59 at 6am in the morning" (9/25/1967); "Wrong in all predictions" (11/11/1966). Then there are the partially accurate days: "He said high in 50s. It was. He said north to northwest winds 15 to 25 miles per hour. It was northeast;" or: "He was right on mostly cloudy today and warmer"—before going on to point out discrepancies. In this way Darger's relation to the weather does not play itself out within the typical Christian moral economy. If the weather is often seen as a rich source of Signs, these Signs have been taken, most commonly, to indicate Divine Wrath for human sin; to make one acquainted with the limitless extent of Divine Power; or to prepare one for one's absolute powerlessness at the moment of Judgment. Atmospheric forebodings thus analogize both the limits of our agency and the inevitability of our mortality and final judgment. But none of these models quite describes what's happening in Reports. Though practicing a literal retreat, Darger in some sense preserves his own autonomy by displacing the self-critical aspect of this retreat onto another figure. This pattern can be clarified by a look at Darger's next project after Reports, his Diary: "Over cords falling down, angry temper spell with some blasphemies. Almost about to throw the ball at Christ statue. Blame me for my bad luck in things, I'm sorry to say so. I'll always be this way, always was and I don't give a damn" (4/7/1968). Darger's minute, endless projects of sorting twine and cord give rise to explosions—threats to the icons in his room and curses directed at the saints and heaven—all of which he meticulously documents, but then seldom takes responsibility for: "Tantrums over difficulty with twine and cord. Defied heaven to make things worse. Threatened to throw a ball. And in spite of being at four masses today and communion. Yet I never stood for things going wrong all my life and under any conditions, no matter what the cost, never will" (4/10/1968).
What emerges in this diary is the mechanism, and the form, of spiritual notation without their (usually constitutive) belief in the absolute authority of heaven or the absolute depravity of the human subject. Though we see occasional contrition, assertions of immutable, defiant identity like those above are more common. As his 1959 New Year's resolution, Darger writes in Reports, "I'll do the same next year, as I did this year, and that is final." Earlier, in fact, Darger had directly threatened God that if a favorite lost photograph were not returned, he would take it out on the Vivian Girls. The implication is that God is involved in but powerless over their struggle; he needs Darger to finish the account in the appropriate, moral manner. What emerges is a bizarre pattern of negotiations and displacements of what are typically bedrock givens in religious consciousness.
In Reports the serious work of anticipating and explaining the massive moral storms that punctuate Realms gets projected onto a kind of hour-to-hour calculus of Chicago's climate—and, more importantly, onto the weatherman, in his role as official interpreter of this drama. Book three takes up the weatherman in its title, announcing itself as "Book three of the Weather Reports truthful or contrary of Weatherman's reports." The weatherman is the saint/intercessor who struggles with these daily predictions. His incompletion stems not merely from his innumerable failures, but from the way these failures might evaporate, were they not carefully preserved by another. Thus the weatherman also needs the figure of Darger himself checking and noting the atmosphere and temperature every few hours from his apartment. Darger's regulatory office is not merely earthly, but divine. His project implies a fateful hour at which the sum of the weatherman's predictions will be cross-referenced with Truth. In this scene of judgment, Darger will step forth dramatically and unveil his Book.
In June of 1958 Darger starts to separate days with a blank line. By the end of the journals, days tend to have their own pages. But the increased space tends to indicate not so much an increased attention to climatic particularities as much as an increasing desire to compare what happened with what the weatherman predicted. This movement from direct notation of the weather to a moralizing comparison of these notes with official predictions can be understood as a move from the quotidian and scientific toward the allegorical and divine. At times, even, we get only the predictions without what actually happened. Thus if seasons present structures of expectation that allow for a kind of moral disappointment, the weatherman's predications focus this drama into a daily routine. In Realms, Darger is at once the faithful narrator of an infinitely segmented and complex Christian allegory, and a secret god, bursting through the surface of narration periodically to assert his absolute will.
Though Reports takes place in a continuous present tense, this same dynamic begins: from within the field of quotidian description, increasing consciousness of the moral and spiritual dilemmas posed by the weatherman's activity comes to hijack the notebooks' "scientific" aims, casting Darger as a special prosecutor whose binding judgments stem from his obsessively complete notations.
All Darger quotes are verbatim, including grammatical and typographical idiosyncracies.
Cabinet wishes to thank the Museum of American Folk Art for giving Lytle Shaw access to Henry Darger's Book of Weather Reports. The Reports will soon be part of the Henry Darger Study Center at the museum. The museum is also planning a large-scale exhibition of Darger's paintings and writing in December 2001.
Lytle Shaw co-edits Shark, a journal of poetics and art writing and curates the Line Reading Series at the Drawing Center.
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© 2001 Cabinet Magazine