Film Review: The Devil and Daniel Johnston

It’s always a good time attacking the Enlightenment. You can find firebrands on the right (Peter Leithart) and on the left (Michel Foucault) launching diatribes on constructions of “rationality” that have polluted the modern world, contributing to all sorts of modern problems for us modern people.

Many of these commentators point out that the rational/irrational dichotomy is actually harder to make than has been generally assumed (but not necessarily impossible). We run into issues with all the “irrational”: children, the insane, criminals, coerced persons, even animals.

This is, in a way, the basic issue taken up by The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary about the life of the titular subject – but from the perspective of creativity and genius. Daniel broke onto the Austin folk/rock scene in 1985. This West Virginia native weaseled his way, uninvited, onto an MTV special, on which he became the most memorable act. Daniel’s fame rose in spurts until the early 1990s, when Kurt Cobain took to wearing a Daniel Johnston t-shirt at many of his public appearances, giving national exposure to a folk singer/songwriter who was often compared to Bob Dylan.

Major recording labels rushed to sign Daniel at this point. A complicating issue arose, however, from the fact that Daniel was currently spending time in a mental institution. Despite the hindrance, Daniel signed a major deal … from which he was quietly released two years later. The story of Daniel’s life – well, the story of the documentary – are the glimpses of creativity that are caught by the underground music scene around him, and Daniel’s periodic bouts of manic-depression. These latter included obsession about a women he never dated, constant warnings about the spiritual world, and crashing a small plane after a successful concert.

Daniel’s apparent detachment from reality contributed heavily to his cult appeal. Honesty and innocence seemed to stream out of his lyrics. What can be learned from madness? According to Foucault, we have typically defined ourselves against such irrational people, but we might see more shades of gray connecting us. Others see the pure human being, unfettered by social apprehension. The Devil and Daniel Johnston would defy both though. The issue is not “shades of rationality,” as Daniel clearly loses touch with the world as it is; and Daniel just as clearly feels his connection to family, friends, and beloveds.

In many ways, the issue is what normal people do with a madman in their midst. Friends of Daniel struggle: who would have restrained Van Gogh? And yet they feel they must do the same, sending off an artistic genius to a concrete institution. The Johnston family, fundamentalist Christians, struggle with the weird art of an uninterested Daniel, and later with his perceived Satanic struggle.

During the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, “fools” were gradually removed from the community and separated into their own facilities. Foucault called this a false sanitization of humanity. We might, however, take a more spiritual perspective: love is hard. Sometimes people spin out of control, and our reaction may say less about an epistemological control of identity, than it does about willingness to love people.

Theologian Henri Nouwen finished his career by leaving Notre Dame, committing the rest of his life to a community of mentally handicapped adults. Or regarding the poor, Hannah Arendt quotes John Adams: “Mankind takes no notice of [the poor man] … To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable” – and that is his real predicament, in Arendt’s critique of Marxist revolution. The solution is not correctly assessing “irrational people,” but engaging them.

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