As others were; I have not seen
As others saw; I could not bring
My passions from a common spring.
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow; I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone;
And all I loved, I loved alone.
And he came to understand that the burial of the broken wasn’t eccentric — this was what people did every day, stuffing their brokenness down, pushing it down, smoothing the surface over, making the surface look like nothing was broken underneath. Because, if people see that you are broken, they will not want to stand with you. They will migrate away from you the way groups of people walking down the street will move aside when a shambling ranting man approaches. They will look at the ground and look away so that such a person becomes invisible.
I used to think I was the strangest person in the world but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.
A man has no ears for that which he cannot access through experience. To take an extreme case, suppose a book contains only incidents which lie outside the range of general or even rare experience—suppose it to be the first language to express a whole series of experiences. In this case nothing it contains will really be heard at all and thanks to an acoustic delusion people will believe that where nothing is heard there is nothing to hear.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is
My kids are starting to notice I’m a little different from the other dads. “Why don’t you have a straight job like everyone else?” they asked me the other day.
I told them this story:
In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, “Look at me…I’m tall, and I’m straight, and I’m handsome. Look at you…you’re all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.” And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, “Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.” So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper. And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.
― Tom Waits
Synkroniciti has quoted Tom Waits before here.
Outsider music is, like outsider art, made by people who are self taught and don’t try to fit in with the mainstream. Meet My Robot Friend, quirky and clever. You can learn more about Howard the Robot and the machines he works with here. Weird and wonderful!
First, the satirical Robot High School, with a fascinating video by photographer Keith Loutit using tilt-shift photography.
From the more thoughtful side, here’s a beautiful animated video by MakeMake for Goodbye, about the impending death of a lover.
Videos via My Robot Friend on YouTube. He’s also got a killer version of It’s Raining Men called It’s Raining Cats, with lyrics entirely made up of meows.
For although nepenthe has calmed me, I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men. This I have known ever since I stretched out my fingers to the abomination within that great gilded frame; stretched out my fingers and touched a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.
― H.P. Lovecraft, The Outsider
We read everyday of outsiders who become violent. Here is the story of an outsider who found another way: art.
When Henry Darger passed away in 1973 at the age of eighty-one, no one knew much about the reclusive man who had worked as a janitor for several hospitals in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. He seemed generally unremarkable to those who met him, although his neighbors found him odd, especially the way he talked to himself in various dialects and voices when he was alone in his apartment. Shortly before his death, his neighbors and landlords opened his small room to discover a hidden world. Darger had created over 300 paintings, some ten feet long, and many of them painted on both sides. These paintings illustrated a novel of 15,145 pages titled 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 and a sequel of over 10,000 pages, Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago. There were also journals of supplemental materials, including hymns which had been given new lyrics for his new world, and an autobiography which told the events of Darger’s unusual life. It was all colorful and eerie, a wild combination of the innocent with the horrifying. This film, In the Realms of the Unreal: The Mystery of Henry Darger by Jessica Yu, reveals the rich inner world of a true outsider in all its facets. Narrated by a young Dakota Fanning, the film is spellbinding and disturbing.
Video via accochamps on YouTube.
The youth of Henry Darger was a tumultuous one. His mother died giving birth to a baby sister who was adopted before Henry could ever meet her; his kind and loving father grew too ill to care for him and died. Attending a catholic boys home in Chicago, Henry was rebellious and made strange noises which upset classmates and teachers. These noises may have been the result of Tourette’s Syndrome, but they resulted in his institutionalization at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois. His treatment there was full of severe punishment, forced labor, and abuse. He eventually ran away from the asylum and found work as a janitor, by which he supported himself for more than fifty years.
His art reveals a simple-minded genius working through the events of a childhood that haunted him for a lifetime. Filled with self-loathing, he was nonetheless industrious and devoted, teaching himself to draw and paint, making collages and saving his money to purchase photo enlargements of figures he clipped from magazines and newspapers. These would become templates for his characters. Possessed with a natural eye, Darger is praised for his composition and the brilliant color of his watercolors. Full of daring escapes and epic battles, his art work is prized in museum collections. On the disturbing side, it is is characterized not only by the juxtaposition of beauty and violence, but by anatomic confusion likely stemming from his early abuse. Many of his paintings feature unclad transgendered girls bearing male genitalia. Whether this comes from lack of understanding, from a desire to impart some sort of masculine strength to his heroines, or from identifying them as a feminine part of himself, the effect is jarring.
Paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence, Darger laid forth a child’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart”. Even with his reduced capacity for human interaction and his mental difficulties, Darger was well-educated and idealistic in his championing of his fantasy children. A man of many contradictions, he is one of the giants of the movement known as outsider art.
I don’t think I am like other people. I mean on some deep fundamental level. It’s not just being half a twin and reading a lot and seeing fairies. It’s not just being outside when they’re all inside. I used to be inside. I think there’s a way I stand aside and look backwards at things when they’re happening which isn’t normal.
― Mori, Jo Walton, Among Others
Outsiders inspire fear and enchantment. What does our reaction to those who are different say about us and our beliefs?
Literature and film contain shining examples of outsiders, but I doubt there are many stories in either medium that contain as many outsiders as John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. The most genuine and endearing element of the book is that every single character seems to be experiencing some form of isolation.
Irving has created a fictional town, bleakly named Gravesend, that resembles his hometown of Exeter, New Hampshire. John Wheelwright, our narrator, is the dyslexic stepson of a teacher who will follow in his stepfather’s footsteps, a lonely boy who hungers desperately to know the identity of his biological father. Owen Meany and many of the more sensational parts of the novel are fiction, but the kernel of John Wheelwright as described above is John Irving himself. What is it that Irving needs to say about his experience growing up in small town America that requires the detailed and loving construction of Owen Meany?
In comparison to the secret sufferings of most of the inhabitants of Gravesend, Owen Meany’s difficulties seem far more obvious. He is small in stature and possessed with a shrill, pre-pubescent voice. His father is in the granite business, considered disreputable and dirty, and his mother is a silent invalid who spends her days sitting by the window, staring away from the outside world. By the time we meet them, a secret belief about the nature of Owen and his birth has already impacted their lives.
Owen creates strange feelings in those around him, feelings that have less to do with Owen himself than they have to do with the person reacting to him. His smallness and fragility inspire others to either become protective of him or abuse him, his “unnaturalness” speaks to those inclined to superstition (including his own parents), and his unwavering faith speaks to those who struggle with their own faith. This effect is amplified as his life plays itself out, a life in which he will be responsible for the accidental death of his best friend’s mother and for a heroic deed which he foresaw in his own dreams. Owen gives those around him a nudge toward believing that which they were inclined to believe, but never could embrace. His life is such an authentic one that it polarizes those who come in contact with it.
What is it that Owen stands for? Perhaps that depends on where you stand. He might be the spirit of an American innocence that was lost forever in the Vietnam War, a Christ like figure who took on the sins of others to protect the innocent, or a victim of the cruelty of society, of chance, or of God himself. Perhaps he is just a symbol of Irving’s own childhood, stunted and lost, or a clever tool which allows Irving to explore not only his own painful experiences, but those of the community in which he grew up. When it comes to being polarized by Owen, we are no exception. Whatever attitudes we bring to this stunning piece of literature will be strengthened by it. John Irving does not force his beliefs upon us, but he provides us with Owen Meany, a mirror in which we may find our own faces revealed. What do you see?