The Blue Raccoon

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Lady Vanishes: Theresa Duncan (1966-2007). Posted on her blog,
The Wit of the Staircase, November 21, 2006

Seven Different Kinds of Denial Just to Get Out of Bed

A several-part examination and contextualization of the deaths of Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake.

The answer you cannot make, the pattern you cannot complete till afterwards it suddenly comes to you when it is too late. –Theresa Duncan, defining “The Wit of the Staircase,” the title of her online arts and culture journal.

We don’t want to see things that aren’t there. But when they’re there, are we crazy for seeing them? – Jeff Wells Rigorous Intuition (V.2.0)

Self-indulgent, already a man of the world, “yet terribly sad in his precocious worldliness,” [Hugo von] Hofmannsthal was a combination of Edwardian Werther and Viennese Dorian Gray.”
-- Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower

I. Private eyes, watching you

“You know what’s funny?” the snaggle-toothed woman with wild dreds and big eyes at the bus stop asked me, as though we knew each other. She continued in an annoyed yet weary manner, “They have pen cameras in my house. Pen cameras in my house! That’s not right. That’s my stuff!” And she wandered away shaking her head.

Living in a city I’m accustomed to odd proclamations by random street folks I encounter except that this one was more original and matter-of-fact. I realized she must’ve seen the writing pen poking out of my shirt pocket. This observation put her into the mind of the domestic spying she believes “they” are conducting on her.

She’s delusional and paranoid, either on meds or off her meds, or needing meds, but her declaration doesn’t to me seem all that strange. Among the people I know, there is an increasing tendency to ascribe devious implications to almost everything seen or heard in the media that references the government or corporations.

And often, I don’t think they’re too wrong.

The present social and political environment is conducive to conspiratorial turns of thought, what with wiretapping for national security reasons, and the monitoring of Internet searches and the examination of e-mails, and omnipresent closed circuit security cameras, those

“Private eyes, watching you.”

This may be so. But I don’t have to like it.

II. Paranoia, The Destroyer

Paranoia seems to us an absolutely patriotic duty at the moment.” -- Theresa Duncan, The Wit of the Stairacase (blog).

On a recent Saturday morning my wife turned to me and said, “Have you heard about the artists in New York who killed themselves?”

I learned by a quick scan of her screen that the couple was Theresa Duncan, creator of the roving and imaginative Wit of the Staircase online journal, and Jeremy Blake, of whose work I knew only through Punch Drunk Love. The first thing I thought of was Duncan’s screed involving photographer Anna Gaskell [go to July 25, 2007 entry] and the vehemence of her remarks against the military-industrial what-sis, and my second thought was: this was a set-up job.

As the poets sang: Paranoia, the destroyer.

What is the state of our world--or perhaps more to the point, my world-- that while standing in my breakfast nook next to my wife on a fine late morning, and upon hearing the news, that I assign immediate dark implications to the deaths of a writer and an artist, both being jobs that have a disproportional high rate of such fatalistic activity. OK. So, maybe it wasn’t “the government” but brutes acting on the authority of some cultish don.

Or maybe two despairing people chose self-extinguishment over living in a volcanic darkness they couldn’t see out of.

Jeremy Bake and Theresa Duncan, Venice Beach Cal.,
May 31, 2005, from Yo! Venice, Flickr

I am a resident of Richmond, Va., distant from the white hot intensity and hipper-than-thou crowds Duncan and Blake moved in L.A. and New York. I tripped on Duncan’s staircase searching for the very expression after which she'd named her site, and I returned every now and then, entranced by the imagery and imagination, and Duncan’s wonderful turns of phrase. That incandescent photo of her, (taken behind the Chateau Marmont in her favorite garden), regarding me unsmiling, with her head at a tilt, as though wondering who this is who should come here to ramble about in her thoughts.

At times, she seemed to be channeling some 1920s social columnist, going to glamorous parties with famous friends, and yet retaining a certain world-weariness, and a restless curiosity about the odd nooks and crannies of culture. Her word choices, when she was really taking her time, remarkable. Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a firefly." Duncan’s prose was, when she was firing on all cylinders, exquisite.

Brevity was the soul of Wit. A striking image of art or fashion photography with an accompanying provocative quote, and a link or two, often constituted a single entry. I hesitated visiting too often because Wit of the Staircase resembled that long hall Alice finds when she falls into the rabbit hole. One could’ve spent hours there meandering between references to art, the occult, politics and Kate Moss. I didn’t follow her Quentin Tarantino obsession, or her fashion fascination.

On my occasional visit, I noted how few comments were cleared for posting, and this intimidated me from ever leaving one. Well. It was her staircase. She could do what she wanted. Duncan possessed wide-ranging tastes and she could write with sharp clarity about her considerations, and this distinction earned a small but devoted readership.

Quality writing is surprising when you find it in the blogosphere, where so much is slipshod and given to the mundane or to strange accusations, like that lady at the bus stop.

Darkness was forming around the edges of Wit, though.

The third person reference to “Wit and Mr. Wit” – which I found rather charming and not off-putting. Then came the Gaskell thing.

Here a picture of Francis Ford Coppola, I think joking on the set of Apocalypse Now, with a gun to his head, used to illustrate a piece about how he or his minions were harassing Duncan—she said-- due to a review she wrote about one of Sofia Coppola’s movies. [Ed. note: due to the Internet's variable nature, and Duncan's decease, how long Wit will remain accessible is unknown].

There the nude torso of Bijou Phillips holding her own dead head, in part of the ad campaign for Hostel Part II. Duncan describes the poster as “funny,” which in this ghoulish, callous, unsentimental post-9-11 world, a headless young woman may qualify to some people as amusing.

2009 Update: Don't know if Duncan knew of this image or the Japanese Provoke magazine school of photography, but obviously QT's graphic designer took this course in grad school. And that early-to-mid 1960s period of art and culture fascinated her. Image by Hosoe Eikoh, Man and Woman #6, 1960, via The Daily Beast.

One of Duncan’s marginalia notes was a culling of proverbs for paranoids derived form Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. She admired Pynchon, and I admired her for admiring Pynchon. The first one is, "Paranoids are not paranoids because they're paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations."

Coming soon: Part III. “The Worms and Passions Writhing Within” that undertakes to examine and find cultural cognates and resonances between the United States today and Wilhelmine Germany (1890-1914), how artists sensed a coming cataclysm, and how Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake fit into all that.

No, really. I'm serious.

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At 5:44 PM, Blogger zipthwung said...

Funny I Wikipediaed (?) Goethe and Got Werther - and the suicides he inspired (maybe 2,000).

On Donald Kuspit wote a long art related thing that mentioned Werther. Dunno if its interesting.


El Topo:
"The mole is an animal that digs tunnels under the ground, searching for the sun. Sometimes his journey brings him to the surface. When he sees the sun, he is blinded. "

At 8:07 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Thanks for visiting, Zipthwung, and the essay by the gray-uht Mr. Kuspit. Puts me to thinking about the notions of extended adolescence in the U.S. and redefinition of adulthood, combined to ambition, the great machine of popular culture that invites in everyone but rewards but a very few -- then again, why is it that so many people desire to be rich and famous? As we can see, this insures one of nothing. All these idealistic expectations--how do these people's heads get jammed up with this bogus bunk anyway? I can blame the media, somewhat, in this case, and art schools, too, who need to turn out a few who do well in order ot fatten the endowment. Thing is, nobody knows what will hit.

Graduate level art is all about making connections and the artist finding his/her feet in that world. Artists of all disiciplines have a history of giving in to both depair and their personal demons.

Which is why you should wonder, when someone who isn't a "rock star" is referred to as a "rock star." What's so great about that? Your most productive years are the earliest when you may have great technique but not much world experience, then when you're not salable through MTV, you're burnt out, addicted and addled, and fit for a "Behind The Music' mini-documentary that is part tabloid TV and part eulogy. Whatever happened to just making good music for people who can appreciate it?

If everything is a commodity, nothing has value. This alone is enough to cause "The Sorrows of Young Werther."

An artist of my acquaintance here, who has achieved quite a summit in his 38-year career, made it point very early on not to sell his paintings. He had a sinecure in academia, and he spent that money traveling and having a good time for himself, wife and friends, and encouraging other young artists.

A recent retrospective of his work filled three and a half floors of the university gallery. You'll never know of him, probably. But he's come to mean what art is to many people where I'm from.


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