Monday, March 05, 2007

In Defense of Difficulty

Adolf Wolfli,
Mental Asylum Bandhain,

A talk given as part of "In Defense of Difficulty" panel at the 2007 AWP conference held in Atlanta, Georgia.

In 1895 a thirty-one-year-old man was sent to Waldau Clinic in Bern, Switzerland, after attempting to sexually molest a three-and-a-half-year-old girl. Judged “mentally ill, unaccountable for his actions,”1 Adolf Wöfli was to live as a patient at the clinic until his death in 1930. An often-violent inmate who was constantly plagued by hallucinations and voices, Wölfli would calm himself by drawing and writing. During his thirty-five years at Waldau he wrote 25,000 pages of text and created over 3,000 illustrations, which he bound into large folio-sized books. Although his work is quantifiable and has been sifted through and examined by a number of experts—both psychiatric and artistic—his position in the world as an artist and a man remains mysterious because of our social need to define and evaluate the visual and verbal work of artists: to place that work in some hierarchy of creative legitimacy.

In his writings on Wölfli, art critic Carter Ratcliff defines the logic behind this hierarchy: “At the apex, stands the genius: he can flirt with madness, even embrace it, so long as familiar definitions of art suffer no substantial change. But madness occupies a place too low for reciprocity. Art can be mad but madness cannot be art.”2

In 1908, after almost ten years at Waldau during which the self-taught artist evolved not only a method of drawing and writing but a set of symbols, icons, and musical notation, Wolfli began his first book: From the Cradle to the Graave. Or, through work and sweat, suffering and ordeals, even through prayer into damnation. In this 2,615 page hand-written narrative Wölfli retells his childhood, and transforms its unbearable realities: his brutal and drunken father’s abandonment, his mother’s inability to keep her children, especially her youngest Adolf, from fierce and shameful poverty, Adolf’s hiring out as a laborer at the age of eight, and his mother’s death when he was nine.

In his retelling of his childhood from the age of two to eight, his family not only remains intact—gaining two imaginary female children—it becomes part of a group of traveling relatives and scientists: the Swiss Hunters and Natural Explorer Traveling Society. Among the travelers are princesses and dignitaries, all humane in their treatment and alliance to the young Adolf, or as he is nicknamed, Doufi. The family travels through the cosmos, and Doufi is able to buy planets as well as countries, which he outfits with a host of utopian structures. His story is filled with lists, for the universe that Wölfli creates is densely populated—like his drawings—with materiality.

“…endless eternity is neither round nor square, has absolutely no limits. On a stretch of absolutely not less than about: 420,000,000 German miles or 1,680,000,000 hours along which, in 1868, with my very own beloved parents, brothers and sisters, friends, under the constant presence of God Almighty the Fatther, I traveled in the infinite spaces of creation by the most manyfold means of transport, as for instance gigantic and majestic carrier, luxury and transport birds, island-mothships, giant-fountains, lightning serpents, omnipotence-moths, etc. etc., always in quite comfortable riding information, I saw during every staar-bright night a chaos of staars of the most manyfold kinds such as the most skillful writer’s hand is unable to describe and explain.”3

Just three years before Wölfli was confined, Henry Darger was born in Chicago. Like Wölfli, he would lose both his parents—his mother through death and his father through illness and poverty—by the time he was eight. When his father entered St. Augustine’s Poor House, Henry was institutionalized in a Catholic boys’ home. A doctor, who claimed that the fractious young Darger’s heart was “in the wrong place,”4 had him transferred to the Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois when he was twelve.

A recluse who attended Mass sometimes four and five times as day, the adult Darger was a janitor at local hospitals. At night, sequestered in his room, he worked on an epic story about an imaginary world in which Christian countries battled to defeat Glandelinia, a country that trafficked in the violently abusive slavery, torture, and murder of children. The heroes of his story were the seven dazzlingly beautiful, often naked and hermaphroditic Vivian girls, who were aided in the child-slavery wars by adult male soldiers and a genus of innocence-loving, butterfly-winged serpents.

During the course of his life Darger would write, illustrate and bind into books over 15,000 pages in The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.

Filmmaker Jessica Yu, who made a documentary of Darger in 2005, explained the reasons behind making the film In the Realms of the Unreal: “. . . there was something about the combination of strange subject matter and innocent presentation, the total lack of irony in his bizarre imagery, that stuck with me . . . I was drawn to tell his story finally because he created this world of images only for himself. I kept asking myself, ‘Can imagination be enough? Can one replace real human relationships and community with those invented in one’s mind?”5

Darger’s ability to function in the world, no matter how minimally, has been used as an argument for his being a more “legitimate” artist than Wölfli. But in the world of art there is in fact little difference between Wölfli’s madness and Darger’s “innocence.” Both remain on the margins of literature and art.

A more interesting parallel between Darger and Wölfli was their need to move inward, to create an intricate, complex world in which they could somehow heal the injustices that had occurred to them as children. Any writer can identify with this impulse to move inward to create other worlds; it’s an essential imaginative form of the practice, and one that both writers and readers delight in. Perhaps it functions as a form of healing for most of us, if not an exploration of possibilities.

Louis A. Sass, a professor of clinical psychology at Rutgers, brought forth the topic of schizophrenia and literature and art in his meticulous and wide-ranging study, Madness and Modernism. Sass likens the symptoms of the disease to practices of perception and techniques in art developed in the early twentieth century and in use today. He does this, he claims, not to “denigrate” or claim that modernist and post-modernist art is schizophrenic, or to “glorify schizophrenia … as conducive to artistic creativity” but rather to “clarify” what has been named the “quintessential form of madness in our time.”6

Schizophrenia, writes Sass, begins with changes in perception, the first of these is an experience of the external world as an “unreality” in which “Reality seems to be unveiled as never before, and the visual world looks eerie and peculiar—weirdly beautiful, tantalizingly significant, or perhaps horrifying in some insidious but ineffable way.” The perspective includes experiencing the very existence of objects in reality as unbelievable and as fragmented: “objects normally perceived as parts of larger complexes may seem strangely isolated, disconnected from each other and devoid of encompassing context.”
Sass finds “such experiences can be akin either to the exalting feeling of wonder, mystery and terror inherent in what Heidegger considers to be the basic question of metaphysics—“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Finally, “a certain abnormal awareness of meaningfulness or of significance” accompanies the individual’s new perceptions of the surrounding world.

As one moves deeper into schizophrenia, the trend is for unremitting self-awareness, an increasing sense of isolation, and solipsism. Sociologist Brigitte Berger’s explains Sass’ thesis:

“. . . both the modernist artist and the schizophrenic are characterized by a pronounced thrust to deconstruct the world and to subjectively reconstruct human experience without reference to objective reality. Layers of reality exist side by side, frequently fusing into each other, and the acute self-awareness Mr. Sass calls hyperreflexivity, as well as a profound sense of alienation from the empirical world, run rampant.
And there is the crux of this provocative book [Madness and Modernism]: the contention that there is a tenuous, though clearly discernible, connection between modern culture and madness.”7

Wölfli, in his schizophrenia, claimed that he was “only copying what he had drawn before at God’s bidding, during his travels round the cosmos before he was eight years old.” What kind of truth we as readers and observers attach to his words, however, is somehow irrelevant. By saying that I’m ascribing to neither an ideology of inwardness nor to one of laissez-faire creation and interpretation. What I’m reaching for is something closer to what the German psychoanalyst Hemmo Muller-Suur suggests when he states:

“With his art Wölfli mastered his fate with a naïve but deep earnestness, imperturbably devoted to his artistic mission. And just as for him this art contained the task of ‘commemoration,’ it contains this task for us as well . . . We understand it only when we also consider how in this art the theme of Wölfli’s being insane is developed as a human fate, and we thus experience therein something of the mysterious essence of being insane.”8

We also understand something more of the essence of being human, the core of its fragility. Wölfli and Darger lie at the extreme end of the spectrum of writing and art. However, wayward their impulses may seem to us, writing served to save them. Who would deny them this? And if we allow that their writing has validity, not simply to themselves but to all of us who struggle with the dilemmas of writing and living, then how can we not extend that validity to others? If we make an exception in their cases, give them legitimacy because their work is directed by an inner need that seems to endow them with a less rhetorical and purer motivation than that of a writer who seeks an audience, then we undercut the legitimacy of the rational writer. Can we also designate experimental and difficult writers as less legitimate because their writing is less accessible? Perhaps even less accessible than either Wöfli or Darger’s writing? Why would we do that? Why would we deny validity to any writer whose work comprises one more intensely human act; who, in concert with other writers, forms the human community?

My thanks to Dr. Robert Ehrlich for pointing the way.


1. Carter Ratcliff, “Adolf Wölfli,” from the catalog The Other Side of the Moon: The World of Adolf Wölfli (Philadelphia: Moore College of Art, 1988) accompanying the exhibition at the Goldie Paley gallery, 17.

2. From the Ratcliff essay cited above, 25.

3. Harald Szeeman, “No Catastrophe without Idyll, No Idyll without Catastrophe,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 63. Quotes from Adolf Wöfli are from this catalog unless otherwise noted.

4. From the introduction by Michael Bonesteel, Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, (NY: Rizzoli, 2000), 9.

5. From the PBS site:

6. Unless otherwise stated, all the quotations referencing this book are from Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism (NY: Basic Books, HarperCollins, 1992), 9, 44-49.

7. From the review of Madness and Modernism by Brigitte Berger, “Schizophrenia: Chicken or Egg?” New York Times, December 13, 1992.

8. Hemmo Muller-Suur, “Wölfli’s Art as a Problem for Psychiatry,” from the catalog Adolf Wölfli (Berne: Adolf Wölfli Foundation, Museum of Fine Arts, Berne, 1976), 105.