The Blue Raccoon

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Seven Different Kinds of Denial Just to Get Out of Bed: Part V

Theresa Duncan, image from
The Wit of the Staircase entry, January 3, 2006,
"Horror Vacui in Venice," about the fear of empty spaces.

Curiouser and Curiouser
July 24-25, 2007

“Imagination and fiction make up more than three quarters of our real life.” – Simone Weil, French activist, mystic, epigram, Rigorous Intuition. [The quote is from On Science, Necessity, and the Love of God (ed. Richard Rees), “ Some Thoughts on the Love of God,” 1940-42].

Shock and surprise, in other words, were the ultimate chic.
Regardless of attire, the audience on that opening night played, as Cocteau noted, ‘the role that was written for it.’ And what wa that role? To be scandalized, of course, but equally, to scandalize. The brouhaha surrounding Le Sacre was to be as much in the reactions of the audience as to their fellows as in the work itself. The dancers on stage must have wondered at times who was performing and who was the audience.

To turn ballet, the most effervescent and fluid of art forms, into grotesque caricature was to insult good taste and the integrity of the audience. That was the attitude of the opposition. It felt offended. It jeered. Applause was the response of the defenders. And so the battle was joined.

Art has transcended reason, didacticism, and a moral purpose: art has become provocation and event.
-- Modris Ecksteins, Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age

“What everyone is missing [is that] these people hated Bush. They hated what is going on in the world. They were very political. They were very perceptive. That’s the way to situate their paranoia. I think the rest of us may have something to worry about, as well.”
-- Father Frank Morlales, associate pastor, St .Mark’s Church of the East Village New York, quoted in the online version of The Villager, the community’s news weekly, for August 8-14.

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear
There's a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down…

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you're always afraid
You step out of line, the man come and take you away

We better stop, hey, what's that sound
Everybody look what's going down…
--"For What It’s Worth," by Steven Stills and Buffalo Springfield (1967)

This sounds like a particularly confising william gibson novel
can someone condense??
-- Tracer Hand, Tuesday, 24 July 2007 16:18

Not surprisingly, the Real Person behind something you like (blog, album, whatever) is a whole lot more complex and erratic than you might think. I hate thinking that in the 21st century there are still things that lead someone to conclude that suicide is a logical decision, but that's just my knee-jerk reaction to tragedy.
--Elvis Telecom, Thursday, 2 August 2007 22:51

“So why, with this story and the one about the guy whose girlfriend is shacking with Ted Turner, are all these tremendously literate and sensible people gossiping so aggressively about the lives and deaths of these unremarkable artistic and literary figures? It's not that I'd prefer that they concern themselves only with Brangelina, but....

There exists in the heart of a NYTimes-reading humanities graduate a capacity for nose-upturned covetousness which people don't talk about. It's a horniness for the blessings of another man's life. Not for his health, not for his wife, or for his Ferrari... And not even for the career, exactly, just for the odor of his resume... For his reputation of fulfillment.

This looks very strange to those of us who are too illiterate (or otherwise disinclined) to participate.”
-- Crid, August 4, 2007, commenting in Amy Alkon’s Advice Goddess blog, to "Making It Up As She Went Along."

The wolves are out in droves, devouring the reputations of two talented people who deserve better. They claimed the Scientologists were harassing them. They were not alone in claiming to be a target of what is know [sic.] as Scientology's practice of Fair Game tactics. Let's hope truth reigns after the pack settles down. – Formerly Fooled, August 10, 2007

Duncan portrayed herself as a Freudian and a fashionista, an intellectual and a stoner, a political radical with a perfume fetish, and a groupie in a 12-year monogamous relationship. Because of the pliancy of her mind, these seeming contradictions could coexist. She was hungry for knowledge, for answers, for beauty, and she created an online space that was essentially a map of her discovery process -- a "web log" in the truest sense. Wit dug deep, and through her I first learned about the German groupie and left-wing sex symbol Uschi Obermeier, the heiress, social activist and literary muse Nancy Cunard and the L.A. artist and occultist Cameron. Maybe it was just her knack for self-mythologizing, but Duncan seemed connected to the lineage of freethinking women she wrote about.

Duncan was intrigued by beautiful, thwarted women: starlets who never quite reached icon status, like Tuesday Weld, and it can't be said that she wasn't, to some degree, interested in suicide. She asserted that Jean Seberg was driven to suicide by the FBI. She posted photographs by Francesca Woodman, the beautiful self-portraitist who jumped out a window at 22. Hunter Thompson's suicide note, she informed us, was titled "Football Season Is Over." She also posted poems by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Sarah Hannah, a Boston poet who took her own life this May at age 40.

I didn't know her, and it's impossible to tell from reading the Wit of the Staircase to what extent Duncan and Blake might have alienated their friends or burned their bridges toward the end. Her writing was always opinionated and often arrogant. She routinely skewered the establishment (Artforum, she said, was a "fading critical powerhouse") and went after her perceived enemies, including the U.S. government, with claws out.

But none of this explains why she'd swallow a bottle of Tylenol PM (if I had to, I would have wagered on an asp to the breast).

– Steffie Nelson, the Los Angeles Times,, August 12, 2007

David Hunt, Akrylic, April 27, 2006:

"Winchester's 18 minute loop begins with the staticky image of a California Ranch Style house. Sara Winchester, the heir to the Winchester rifle fortune began building this house in the late 1800s. Construction spanned 38 years because Winchester, a deep believer in Spiritualism, maintained the paranoid belief that the vengeful spirits of those killed by Winchester guns had cursed her. She was advised to make additions and improvements on the house in the hopes that the constant building would ward off evil spirits. The resulting mansion is a labyrinthine penitentiary for wandering, pesky ghosts and a kind of sound dampening bell jar for all things that go bump in the night. No haunted, dilapidated Bates Motel on a high winding hill, the Winchester Mystery House -- as the tourist attraction is now called -- is a palm tree shrouded California Gothic with doorways that open up onto empty space and a topiary driveway that would appease any arriviste Bel Air movie star. Blake, however, is not interested in the Speilbergian poltergeist rising from the haunted Indian burial ground to pop out of your television and shake up your appliances. The narrative he seems intent on invoking draws a parallel between American manifest destiny -- the staking out of land and consequent building -- and a kind of comforting manifest destiny of the mind, where hands -- not to mention paranoid imaginations -- are never idle enough for greedy devils, aggrieved ghouls and vindictive goblins to take possession."


“We Love Manifestoes…”

A yawlp of anger and confusion appeared on Blogspot, Tuesday, July 24. The title made the emphatic statement and voiced an opinion caroming at maximum velocity around the blogosophere: "Theresa Duncan’s Fake Suicide."

The writer asked just three questions. They are made as though someone is sitting on a hillside and demanding of the starry heavens a reply.

Fake Suicide?
I think there’s something totally wrong with this story. What really happened? What do we know about this? Please help me out. 1:12 a.m

Was she paranoid or was she in danger?
1:27 a.m

Where is he? Is he really dead or did he go underground?
1:28 a.m.

A short time later, Canadian writer Jeff Wells at Rigorous Intuition sought to live up to his blog’s name. His somber post title was, “After the Amublances Go” and featured the last image Duncan posted. It’s now been studied for every imaginable clue; but to this observer’s knowledge, whatever fashion or photography magazine it came from has yet to be identified.

The Duncan-esque woman in a grey, vested suit, is either putting on or removing a mask, and the frames of two images are like film frames with a subliminal message between them, “A Magic Story.” Some "Duncanologists" viewed in the composition a resemblance, and a possible reference, to another disorienting and paranoid film, Eyes Wide Shut. Although, if this was Duncan's intention, she could've found a still from the film to use.

[As a source material, the film and the novel upon which it is based is full of resonance for Duncan and Blake, their context and the aftermath of their deaths as concerns this writer's analysis. The film’s story is an adaptation of Weimar Era Austrian novelist’ s Arthur Shnitzler’s Traumnovelle. Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described the book as having “dark and decadent undercurrents, and …. it continually and ambiguously crosses back and forth between fantasy and waking reality. But it differs… in having a development that might be described as therapeutic--Schnitzler, a doctor, was a friend of Freud--making Eyes Wide Shut a rare departure for Kubrick and concluding his career with the closest thing in his work to a happy ending.” The film also makes direct connection to a segment of the Duncan-Blake Effect conspiraciati who believe it is about CIA mind control experiments.]


Update: The "Picture of July 10" was identified by Leigh, on Tuesday, August 14, 2007, in a comment appended to the [by summer's end, defunct, Seaword] site. The image is from a photo feature that appeared in the September 1997 Italian Vogue. The photographer was Ellen von Unwerth who used models Kristen McMenamy and Myka Dunkle.

The series of photos was uploaded to a livejournal group called foto_decadent -- on July 9, 2007, the day before Duncan's death.

There are suggestions that rather than Eyes Wide Shut, the July 10 image may refer instead to Jacque Rivette's 1974 antic and surreal film Celine and Julie Go Boating. One of the women is a librarian, and the other a cabaret magician, and both aspects appealed to The Wit's sensibilities. The fashion spread features two women, as in the film, and makes reference to the movie's magic act sequence, hence "A Magic Story" subliminal between fames. Perhaps Duncan, in her mind, was indicating that the story of her death was to be found by reading between the lines.

And there's been quite a bit of that, for certain.

The film, too, pays homage to both Lewis Carroll and Henry James, two other members of the Staircase pantheon. In numerous posts in The Wit of the Staircase, Duncan made references to magic and witchcraft. The mystery of the Staircase has, indeed, cast a powerful spell among a group of people who've proved quite susceptible to such bewitchments.


Duncan had singled out Jeff Wells’ efforts in a soon-to-be-well-known August 20,2006 post, “The Swell Life: Homo Californius And The Return Of The Paranoia-Free Pastoral.”

The subjects were an outsider multi-media artist who hadn’t thought to write up an artist’s statement, or a manifesto of any kind, to which Duncan added, that “we love good manifestoes on the Staircase--nay, we long for them.”

Then there was New Age writer Daniel Pinchbeck, author of 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl. The book delves into the current New Age anxiety about a "global shifting" that is supposed to be predicted by the "Long Count" Mayan calendar that terminates in December 2012. According to an essay by Jay Parker in the Boston Phoenix, Pinchbeck submitted a post-Katrina piece to the magazine Arthur that predicted dire military crackdown scenarios for the nation. Editor Jay Babcock fired Pinchbeck due to the hysterical hypothesis.

Babcock smelled “Art Bell–style” paranoia (referring to the conspiracy-mongering host of radio’s Coast to Coast AM),” Parker writes, “:and wouldn’t print it; Pinchbeck recoiled, hurt. “I think Jay’s aiming more at the mainstream,” he says. “He wants his magazine to be the new Rolling Stone.”

[The nut graph of the Parker article is worth repeating here, because it gets to the mood of the moment: ““In the United States,” wrote novelist and poet Jim Harrison in 1976, “it is a curious habit of ours to wait for the future when it has happened already.” Thirty years on, how much deeper is that swoon of postponement, and how much more pressing the crisis. In weather systems, in belief systems, the planet condenses with rage; the blandest recital of the facts can shake the air like a Yeatsian prophecy. Faces averted, we peck out text messages. At the political level the most complex issues are debated in the style of barking dogs, while at the counter of your local Starbucks a man is placing an order as nuanced and sophisticated as a 17th-century sonnet. And on the street the Hummers roll, driven by small, blond college girls, as if America had invaded itself.”]

Pinchbeck his very own self argues: we are what we think we are thinking, I think. Maybe he's trying to be the 2000's Carlos Castaneda, but he knows well enough Castaneda was...a fake.

"My personal hypothesis is that our consciousness is co-creating reality, therefore we want to be increasingly careful about the kind of thoughts we are allowing to absorb our awareness. If we spend too much time worrying about surveillance and Grey Alien predation and the HAARP Project, it is like we are attracting negative energy and negative vibrations towards us. We are substantiating that kind of material. I don’t mean that one should become polyannaish – one should stay grounded, but one should realize that one is better off practicing an inner ecology on the level of thought, or you will end up in a frothing state of apocalyptic terror, which is what much of our culture seems to be trying to induce."

Duncan wrote she was “alarmed” by Pinchbeck’s rejection. She felt that left Wells and his Rigorous Intuition “to write the legendary crazy screeds stitching the whole awful global web of parapolitics together.”

This followed a statement that became much repeated and struck deep chords in those who followed its chain of thought.

“Paranoia seems to us an absolute patriotic duty at the moment, and Rigorous Intuition is like the incredibly symbolically twisted and bizarre dream you wake up from to realize that the scenario thrown up from the unconscious is actually the expression of some very simple truth you had been desperate to avoid facing. Mom always liked you best; Bush is using his father's CIA (or "contractors" from the Federal intelligence community, like the ones now passing around an FBI file from when I was 19 and a "communist" in Detroit) for a soft (ish) domestic fascist coup, etc.”

This, then, became Duncan’s injunction from beyond the grave: Come and find me, boys. The boys (and a few girls) in the blogosophere hastened to launch their own private investigations.


…The Whole Awful Globe of Parapolitics…”

And so Jeff Wells began to “stitch the whole awful global web of parapolitics together” using Duncan as the nexus.

He began by untangling allegations regarding Blake’s ex-girlfriend, artist Anna Gaskell. This alone proved similar to the task of straightening out sloppy strands of Christmas tree lights that weren’t in proper storage. That any of it means anything in reality is dubious – but what it may have meant to Duncan and Blake is another matter.

Gaskell’s parents died in her youth, and her father’s business partner, Jim Cownie, adopted she and her brother Jon. Cownie, said Duncan, was a huge behind-the-scenes player in right wing politics. And for reasons that Duncan never quite made clear, she felt that minions of Cownie began a campaign of harassment against she and Blake. The artist began remembering odd statements and situations related to Cownie.

Here is Wells quoting Duncan, and his commentary:

Once the harassment of The Wits [Jeremy and Theresa] began, these disparate old Anna Gaskell anecdotes, which up to the late summer of 2006 had been completely unknown to me, began to suddenly bob up in Mr. Wit's memory. Mr. Wit's recollection was further jarred after we repeatedly witnessed Ms. Gaskell's brother Zach mysteriously pacing in front of our Venice California home. Then there were the many cars with Iowa license plates following us around Los Angeles at the time. (We took photos of these, naturally.) Mr. Wit during this time also suddenly remembered that busy Cownie often travelled to South Dakota to attend some of the Midwest's more unsavory biker rallies.

-- " But I guess being friends with ex-con bikers and Vegas mobsters doesn't necessarily point to somebody who would, like, hire thugs to harass, threaten or--wow--maybe even kill people.”

Wells continues, “I don't know how I could begin assessing from here, tonight, the merits of Duncan's story and the legitimacy of the verdict of suicide. I do know it would be indecent to try. We enjoy mysteries. We even revel in the great mysteries that may mean either our destiny or our doom. But God help us if we become a mystery. And I don't want to make one now of Theresa Duncan.

Acquaintances and friends of Wells, he wrote, had suffered strange harassments because of their speaking-truth-to-power jobs. He states, “But both harassment and the delusion of harassment are real, and a paranoid screed can also be one's patriotic duty. Murders and suicides happen all the time, as do murders that mimic suicide, and less frequently the reverse. Advocating for justice and truth and a closure to mystery does not mean forever contending that death must come by another hand. And sometimes we ought to be adamant that we simply don't know.”

The comments that followed were anxious, for Wells’s own safety, and the greater culture. One wrote, “What a world, that provides people with choices like this, and then murders them when they make the wrong one.” Then a few jeered at Duncan’s assertions and Wells apparent willingness to give them some credit.

Paranoia didn't hold much attraction for "et in Arcadia Eve."

"I've poked my nose about as far as you can into that dangerous closet...believe me there's NOTHING to be afraid of. There's nothing to be afraid of about this post either. Paranoia is a complete waste of time.

The only thing to be afraid of is dying with something terrible on your soul. And in that respect Cownie has way more *** WAY MORE *** to fear than anyone who might walk into the ocean and forget to come out."

This is very sad and tragic,"responded The Way It Can Be's Evan Palmer. "It goes on and on and it seems that only strong, continuing resistance will suffice.. to the point of open warfare in some cases..
The free open internet is a key step in that direction.. calling a spade a spade and fighting rampant phony secrecy are other steps.."

Aluda said that the spirit of the age is indeed a dark one. "It is as if the air hates beauty, creativity, spirit... all you read these days in the news, in comments online, and all you hear in friends conversations in hate. Everyone hates everyone. The air is heavy with hate and dullness.

I'm not an artist... I'm a scientist and an engineer. But I feel it just the same. As I work to achieve what I consider beauty-- the functional beauty of technology-- I hear the voice of the Zeitgeist of the present age whispering in my ear "do it!" "do it!" It is, of course, encouraging me to kill myself.

The age does not want creativity to happen. We are all supposed to surrender."

Kimberly Baldwin at her mrsbaldwin was pithier and more personal than these insistent late-night interrogatives. Her post put the artist first: “Jeremy Blake Missing Aftrer Theresa Duncan’s Suicide.” She included an excerpt from Blake’s Round The Bend video made for Beck. She wrote, “I was first introduced to the pair on March 21, 2000 at the opening reception of the Whitney Biennial. Their video collaboration, The History of Glamour, combined the codes of fiction with reality, fashion with art, and animation with MTV.”

A Minnesotan with the tag of Vemrion at his Electric Monkey Pants acknowledged the Wells entry and said that Wells had scared him shitless with a story of “what happens when you cross the wrong ultraconservative, rich, powerful people.”

Vemrion argued that paranoia is a defense mechanism designed to assist individual survival – equating it to something like the innate fight or flight cue. He said that paranoia isn’t a cause for suicide; as this is counterintuitive and he claimed to know. “I am a paranoid nut, but I am as far away from suicide as I could possibly get! I intend to live to be 120 years old, and there’s nothing going to stop me.” He rehashes most of the Duncan-Blake-Cownie-Scientology material. Then Vemrion ends with a remarkable assessment.

“Here I am quoting a dead woman's blog to prove my point that paranoia is not a mental illness. Paranoia keeps you alive, it lets you see the awful truth that the sheep can't see. The price is heavy, but it's not a curse. Instead, "Paranoia seems to us an absolute patriotic duty at the moment."

Damn right, Theresa. May you and Jeremy rest in peace.”

The trail of comments, as was fast becoming the case for these Duncan-Blake related excursis, began to take on the quality of plays, especially since characters—or their names—began popping up from other blogs. Of course, that stalwart Greek, Anonymous, kept busy.

“I appreciate the fact that the death was strange, but as bad as it sounds, there have been stranger. Suicide is very complex and is the result of someone rationalizing unrational behavior because they believe there is no answer.

Theresa was a self-centered, insecure and grasping woman. She clung desperately to Blake's small fame to validate herself. Her last pathetic act was to try and capture the imagination and glamor that was always just out of reach. RIP Theresa.”


“…facts certainly help.”

Enter, Blake Robin, to assail critics of the couple and to reveal his state of mind:

To Anonymous #1: I've been veering back and forth between the thought that there's no possible way she could have done this and the recognition and comfort in the conspiracy-free truths of what you've said. Thank you for those words, they are a pillar for me right now.

To Vemrion: By the same token, I would like to know these things as well, just to know. Humans need closure, and facts certainly help. And there are not enough of them just yet for me to feel fully comfortable with the story. So, thank you for asking the right questions.

To Anonymous #2: Exactly what valuable contribution are you making -- to the discussion, to the circumstances, to the world at large -- via your snark? The irony of your posting anonymously about my friend's insecurity is sufficient proof of your cowardice and irrelevance.

There have been some new developments in the case. Jeff over at Rigorous Intuition is doing a good job of staying on top of this. I've been trying to keep up, but I'm too busy to devote as much time as I'd like.

Still, I managed to read a bit more over at Charm School today, and I must say, the pattern of anonymous comments over there is really disturbing. I've never seen anything like it before. I hate to sound like a nut, but it looks like a coordinated Church of Scientology campaign to discredit Theresa and Jeremy, and tamp down on the rumors circling around their suspicious deaths.

What do you guys think? Were Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake secretly hated by most of their friends? Were they lashing out at anybody who looked at them funny? Were they truly "mentall ill" as so many of the posters at CS have stated as if it were a medical fact?

Formerly Fooled quoted Blake, or Baron Von Luxxury, provided a link to his site, and an excerpt from his entry

Further jarring occurred in the nervous and burgeoning community when Duncan’s site winked out for a brief interval. On Tuesday, July 24, patita said, “Her site is now gone, but the text is available in Google's cache.” But the next day, Elvis Telecom explained that TypePad was knocked out by a San Francisco blackout.

The glitch was tracked--said this tech satire site -- to 365 Main's San Franciso data center. Doofusgumby responding to the assertion wondered aloud to Valleywag's audience, " you sure it wasn't the transformer explosion on mission that knocked out power to around 30,000?" That might've accounted for the interruption, too.

Jane at gamegirladvance headed a July 24 entry with a quip, "The Internets Actually Broke Today," and posted an amusing Onion video, worth the view. At one point in that piece, a White House spokesman tries to explain that there is no back up for the Internet, lamenting that they've been trying to come up with one and that "we're really hating ourselves right now."

Contained within the erroneous assumption that Duncan's Staircase was now closed, due to this Internet lapse, was the kernel of what historian Arnold Toynbee stated many years ago: civilization is but a slender reed. The Internet goes down for some moments, and a social structure built upon its taken for granted presence causes a shuddery social nervousness. Not long ago, sometimes when television networks were switching from national to local feeds, or programming commercials, a brief pause, or an abrupt momentary glimpse of some strange ad or show might pop up. The cessation of video or audio, even for a few seconds, would cause some viewers to get somewhat antsy, perhaps in this idling break contemplate with darkness: Is this it? Is this the EMP before the world ends?

These days, though, cagey advertisers fill those voids with flashing, five-second ads that resemble those subliminal seduction bits that were so controversial a couple of decades ago -- you know, naked ladies in ice cubes and urgings at movie theaters to buy popcorn. Of course, now there's actual commercials fronting the movies and not-so-subtle product placement, making such extravagant measures obsolete.

Given the constant assault on our senses, the roar and tumult of media today, when people came to The Wit of the Staircase, their response was of finding a secret oasis shielded away from the clamor.

Leemoyer on his Livejournal account made an observance in tenor that would become more common, “I worked with Theresa some years ago and while I adored her partner Monica Gesue, Theresa never really seemed content or approachable. Sad tidings and my best wishes to all the survivors.”

On July 24, the SpoutBlog writer on amended a statement made a few days earlier. On July 20, Spout had written about the sketchy information about how Duncan and Blake had died, and that Blake was still missing. “Again, I can't confirm that this is how it all went down (no mainstream outlet has yet reported on either Duncan's death or Blake's disappearance), but if it turns out to be true ... man, what a sad story. Fans of Punch Drunk Love will know Blake's work: he designed the film's psychedelic transitions.” SpoutBlog shoe-horned “non-blog” next to mainstream outlet, saying that Tyler Green and his Modern Art Notes—quoting Green – “are as mainstream as it gets.” By then, too, the dead tree fiber media had jerked into response, too.

While not as declarative as the first statement of in the blogosphere of July 24, Ron Rosenbaum’s title was intriguing: “Bulletin: Theresa Duncan Not Yet Ruled A Suicide.” New York authorities were awaiting a toxicology report that could take at least two weeks to complete. He referred to other information about Blake’s disappearance and other aspects of the case that he hoped to post soon.

That afternoon, Mark Wilson on the gaming industry site Kotaku, made a brief summary of the story so far and illustrated how the story was continuing to permeate into the substratum of the subcultures.

“Theresa Duncan, a game designer who went on to make films, committed suicide last week. Her death has touched many in the industry, even though her more recent interests had more to do with culture on a broader scale.

Harold Goldberg talks about her most famous game in a way most of us would like our work remembered:

Chop Suey wasn't just a kid's game. It was new and different, magical and hip, a game from Duncan's Magnet Interactive that is now considered a classic. And don't tell me that kid's games can't be classic games unless you've played Chop Suey.

Duncan left behind a long-term partner who was last seen entering the surf and hasn't been heard from since. A shame.”


“…it’s extremely suspicious in my mind.”

Darryl Mason at Your New Reality: Weapons of Mass Information quoted Ron Rosenbaum’s latest, and led a tour of various conspiracy and psychological operations theories. More interesting, he provided a glimpse into what was happening at The Wit of the Staircase following the New York Times article and subsequent publicity. His title is telling: "'Suicide' Of Controversial Arts Blogger Theresa Duncan -- Vital Part Of The Story Missing"

Mason said that Duncan’s blog while she was alive received about 800-900 hits a day. After the New York Times story, visits shot up to 10,000. And Mason included a helpful Staircase post-suicide chart.

There are a growing number of blogs, FaceBook and MySpace pages belonging to people who've died,” Mason says, noting a phenomenon that the ephemeral Internet hadn’t counted on. “Often families and friends don't take down the pages, leaving them online as a personal memorial, with farewell messages from loved ones filling the comments. I've been told there are at least 200 or so MySpace pages from Americans, Brits and Iraqis who've died in the Iraq War still online. Permanent portraits of the lives and minds of the dead. As permanent as the internet remains anyway."

Duncan’s blog gives her continuing demi-existence. An blog abandoned by its maker floats like a blogospheric Flying Dutchman, and one left behind by a dead creator is a true ghost in the machine.

The comment stream from Mason’s entry flamed like a comet’s tail. More Anonymouses and more ardent defenders of the couple piled on.

For example:

"The conspiracy theories are by and large false. Maybe some enemies were made along the way and maybe they were harrassed [sic.] a bit. But the bottom line is that these two were deeply, deeply troubled. Mental illness is one of the biggest pieces of information missing here. Too bad friends and family did not step in more assertively. But they made it very, very difficult for people to reach out. (Some people were scared of them and they were paranoid about their most normal of friends.) They were certainly talented, bright and beautiful in many ways and maybe could have overcome or dealt with some of their mental issues. People loved them regardless."


Carmen Alloi said...

"The 'Anonymous' smearers are out in force all over the internet, calling Theresa and Jeremy mentally ill and troubled.

But where's the stories about this from friends and families with real names?

You should delete any comments that are part of this smear campaign.

Clearly Theresa and Jeremy had very real enemies. Now they are getting payback and trying to stop anyone taking a serious look at their claims.

The first 'Anonymous' blames family and friends for not stepping in. We don't even know if there was a need for friends and family to do so.

Disgusting pigs. Dissing the dead. Go back to your 'church' you mindfucking freaks."

Followed by:

"…People are posting anonymously because the art world is a small community and this is a sensitive topic. A lot of people who didn't know the two are driving the conversation instead of the smaller number of people who did. And, honestly, people who disliked them or felt threatened by them are sad now because, yes, they were talented and maybe this could have been stopped with the right intervention by the right people….

And while I may be posting anonymously, I have been contacted by one reporter doing a story about them and have declined to be interviewed. I'd rather discuss general issues of mental health as it relates to this story instead of telling stories -- or, worse, printing out and handing over boxes of emails -- to the mainstream media."

Mason arrived, as happens in these situations, to play peacemaker, but reasserted that all the facts weren’t known and how it seemed odd to him that if Duncan and Blake had a small circle of friends, why were so many anonymous posters showing up on comment rosters proclaiming their wounded affection for them, yet insisting that the two were deranged?

And thus the “They were murdered,” side and the “They were crazy” side warred on with words. Even Vemrion popped up to link to a cruel and pointless comment on his blog, and to say, “I don't know if this is coordinated, but it's extremely suspicious in my mind.”

“Of course it's co-ordinated,” replied Wendy T. “This is standard playbook stuff for Scientology cultists. Check out that BBC documentary where the reporter goes nuts at the ceaseless baiting and ranting by the Scientology 'minder' assigned to him during the making of the BBC doco.

This is why I have my doubts about Theresa's death and Jeremy's disappearance.

Truth Is Life is a bit over the top but nails the basics : Theresa f..ked with the wrong people, very powerful people, and she's probably paid the ultimate price.

I will be happy to discover that I am very, very wrong to think this. But her interview with Father Frank (linked above) chills me to the bone. She did that interview only six weeks before she died, and look what she was making public.

Darryl. Please follow this story up and let us know what you find out.”

Few of the defenders would mention that much of what Father Morales, Duncan and Blake discussed in that infamous interview was available far and wide in the Internet’s varied and sometimes dingy corners, not mention actual books. But conspiracy theories require martyrs. Because they were attractive and perceived to be successful, the anti-establishment rhetoric attributed to Duncan and Blake—as goes the reasoning of the fake suicidists—were considered more dangerous than random postings by otherwise cultish and discredited tin foil hatters.

Theresa Duncan morphed into a Joan of Arc figure, and, it is inevitable that one day, some headline in some publication, or, perhaps a Venice Beach bumper sticker will be seen, merging their names as one sacrificial entity: “Theremy Died For You.”


“So: let’s all try and live clever and
witty lives in her honor, shall we?”

Blake Robin, or, as needs to be said, someone taking the name, appeared on Alison Tuck’s Woman and Child First.

It’s been 3 days since I learned and it’s still impossible to believe it. But so many people have reached out and said nice things on the internet and hit helps. For people who never met her, I can assure you that she was wickedly funny, beautiful, sweet and fiercely loyal. Some people found her intimidating, but I suspect that’s because ones own shortcomings were quickly revealed in her presence. But you can’t shoot the messenger, can you?

For me, for years, she was on a bit of a pedestal, I’ll admit; but then she just made me try harder. She made me want to find a more interesting word when I’d be speaking to her, or turn of phrse when I would email. She made me want to read more so I could frickin’ understand her hyper-referential hyper-literacy. And ultimately her and Jeremy’s example, as a creative couple leading a creative life, inspired me to take the leap and do the same. To dare to believe that making art was a legitimate use of my time, a worthy puruit; a necessary one.

I wish that’s how other people would react to people who challenge them; not with insecurity fear and retribution, but by feeling inspired to do better. Theresa inspired me for 13 years, and Jeremy for 10. They made me want to be smarter, funnier and more original. And while the wind has been knocked out of me for a few days I am confident I will soon go back and keep trying to win their approval.

So, thank you for your helpful words Alison: I read your ‘look forward’ now and just see words. But hopefully I will absorb the meaning tomorrow and live by the creed again on Thursday. So: let’s all try and live clever and witty lives in her honor, shall we?"


“… modern blogosphere noir”
Image: Wit of the Staircase, September 22, 2006, "Was That A Real Footstep In The Hall?"

“I’m not leaping into investigative journalism here,” wrote NB to preface the post for July 24, “but the story is convoluted, chilling and bizarre. thoughtintersect is definitely not a source of news (breaking or broken).”

True to the words, NB gave a series of links and summaries and concluded, “This sort of strange mystery seems like a work of art in its own way. I’m not saying that it was staged as such, but the different layers of meaning in the events (as well as the ambiguity of some information) makes it quite compelling.”

Pro-Duncnanites showed up, slathering on a thick helping of Anna Gaskell-Jim Cownie entries as proof of conspiracy.

Ann-Fray at BigShinyThing expressed her shock upon hearing from a friend the day before of Duncan’s apparent suicide and Blake’s walk into the Rockaways surf. Duncan was an early support of BigShinyThing, and that she recognized Ann-Fray’s effort was a source of validation, then and since. A proposed interview wasn’t ever arranged, and now made impossible.

She wrote, “Perhaps aptly, what has been made public of her death and Blake’s disappearance is shaping up as a modern blogosophere noir.”


“I don’t think anybody can interpret what happened.”

Professional journalism added to the discussions within the Duncan-Blake Effect on July 25. Chris Lee, a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, contributed his “The apparent double suicide of Jeremy Blake and Theresa Duncan: Friends cite strange behavior in the final days of a golden couple in the art world."

The Hot and The Cool: June, 2003, from the LA Times, Patrick

It was one of the first sourced and cited descriptions of the couple’s estrangement from friends due to what was described as their strange change in temperament. The nubbin of the piece – which was destined to be cut, paste, quoted and used for and against the couple in the blogosphere -- detailed what people observed.

Christine Nichols, a colleague and friend of Blake's since 1998, produced two art exhibitions, two books and a record in conjunction with the artist through the New York art gallery she co-founded, Works on Paper Inc. Nichols dates the couple's rising sense of "paranoia" to around 2004, two years after Blake created an album cover for alternative-rock star Beck, who is a practicing Scientologist.

"They thought Scientologists were really harassing them," Nichols said. "They would say, 'They are following us, harassing our landlord.' I did not see any evidence of that.

"But it got to be something that was huge to them -- a 'You're either with us or against us' thing where if you didn't believe them, you weren't on their side. The story they had woven in paranoia and conspiracies took over part of their lives. A lot of us couldn't understand that acting out."

Two other art world sources corroborated Nichols' characterization but declined to speak on the record out of concern that Blake may still be alive.”

The place of Bake in contemporary art was also fleshed out here and how work scheduled for at fall exhibition at the Corocran would not be finished.

“The couple had moved in February from Los Angeles back to New York, where Blake had accepted a job as an in-house graphic designer forvideo game manufacturer Rockstar Games. A source at Rockstar, who declined to be identified for fear of violating company policy, recalled the artist as someone who "looked like a rock star. He wore sunglasses indoors. Sometimes he sipped whiskey at work."

On July 10, the day she was found dead, Duncan, 40, posted a final blog entry, a two-sentence quotation from author Reynolds Price: "A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens -- second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter."

Blake, 35, was well on his way to bona fide star status with museums including Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art; the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collecting his work. Blake took part in three consecutive Whitney Biennial exhibitions from 2000 to 2004.

"He was a pioneer in so many ways," Kinz said. "His works weren't film and they weren't paintings. It wasn't computer art; it wasn't animation. And though it was painterly fine art, it was a hybrid of many things. In the future, I think he'll be considered a first explorer in a new territory of art making."

A Washington, D.C., native, Blake had turned recently to an abstract form of portraiture, doing a piece on Ossie Clarke, a fashion designer from 1960s "swinging London" who is never seen, but readings from his diaries form the soundtrack. Another piece, "Sodium Fox," interprets Nashville poet and rocker David Berman of the band Silver Jews. They had been chosen for an upcoming exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, along with a new piece, "Glitterbest," about London punk rock mogul Malcolm McLaren, that remains unfinished.

Katie Brennan, though, perhaps made the truest statement of the day, and one of the most relevant since the beginning of the Duncan-Blake Effect. She knew the couple from the Los Angeles arts community social whirl, and had exhibited Blake’s work in 2004. Brennan administrates the Sister Gallery in Los Angeles’ Chinatown. She said, “I don't think anyone can interpret what happened. It's a great loss. It tends to happen in the art world more than other areas. It's tragic. They were brilliant, complex people. I think everyone is shocked.”

The piece concluded, mentioning two names now familiar to those who’d been trolling the blogs for any bit of intelligence pertaining to the deaths.

The thing that stands out most is the depth and breadth of her interests," said Jim Ruland, a fiction writer behind the lit-blog and reading series Vermin on the Mount, in an e-mail. "I solicited her for a response to Thomas Pynchon's novel 'Against the Day' and her response was very smart yet felt extremely personal. Her blog was full of that kind of writing: oddly moving prose on a wide range of subjects."

Duncan's reputation as an intellectual firebrand sometimes belied her appearance. "I don't know how glamorous she was; she was pretty, she was sexy," said Kevin Roderick, editor of the media blog LA Observed. "She did put a lot of herself on her blog."

New York police Tuesday said there was no new information on the case. They were alerted late on July 17 by a woman who witnessed the 6-foot-2 Blake walk into the ocean. He was not seen coming out. His clothing, wallet and a suicide note were found under a nearby boardwalk, police said.

New York Magazine’s Arts and Event section, Vulture, and its Newsreel column headed a brief and querulous entry by Drew Pisarra with, “Artist Jeremy Blake’s Disappearance: Suicide? Scientology?” The piece encapsulated the thriller aspect of the Duncan-Blake Effect, down to the “Stay tuned for further developments.”

The image that ran alongside was one of those that were coming to symbolize the two; giving a steady gaze toward the viewer, Blake with his sunglasses, and Duncan’s expression steely, her head at a tilt. This is a less beguiling after image of the Chateau Marmont picture that headed her blog. Pisarra also acknowledges the raucous time out of sight and on the Internet.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the apparent double suicide of video artist Jeremy Blake and his filmmaking girlfriend, Theresa Duncan, have conspiracy theorists, uh, theorizing. A story in today's L.A. Times says that the two “believed they were being stalked and harassed by Scientologists.” Factor in the fact that the couple had been living in a renovated church, plus Blake was last seen walking out in the Atlantic Ocean (and that L. Ron Hubbard once ran his Scientology operations from a headquarters at sea), and you’ve got the early makings of, well, something.

Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum notes that Duncan's death has not yet officially been ruled a suicide. And blogger Your New Reality points us toward a post on Duncan's now sadly silent blog in which she claims the couple were not only being harassed by Scientologists, but by a well-connected Republican donor with ties to the Heritage Foundation too. Stay tuned for further developments.


“an incoherent mystery”

Kevin, living on a New Zealand farm, maintains the blog that measures the growing strength of the oppressor’s grip and the final exhaustion of civilization. And, the Duncan-Blake event was yet another symbol of the advent of freedom’s end. On July 25 he wrote:

“Theresa Duncan announced that she was working on an essay called, “The Devil and Dick Cheney.” Two days later, she was dead and now Jeremy Blake, her boyfriend, is missing. According to legend, he was last seen taking off his clothes and wading out into the ocean. While his body has not been found, his wallet, clothing and a suicide note were found under the boardwalk..”

Eileen replied, “Used to be a thing going round about all of the dead bodies that Bill Clinton left in his wake. In retrospect, that list is Laughable [sic.] compared to all of the “suicides” and somehow unexplainable dead bodies found round the world of persons with info connected to well you name it - drugs, elections, Enron, Iraq, Bush, Rove, and DARTH, and cascading verboten topics related to any and all of the above.

Everyone in world walks the thin line between life and death - but when you “commit suicide” after writing about members of the gay blade, kiddie porn, get off on shoe sniffing cult that no one can mention by name, suicide is not a viable cause of death.

Suicide by pills, take it to the bank, that is NOT a way out. This method rarely succeeds. Its just too painful. You’d probably die from barfing it all up rather than dying peacefully in your sleep.
This is another crime smeared with crap all over it.

But it seems this is now the method of choice. You know, all those weird plane crashes just got to hard to handle.”

Elieen does made one salient point: in none of the accounts thus far—and not that anybody should ever want to read such a thing— is a description of Duncan’s condition at death, or the coroner’s report.
And it is doubtful those in the Cyptogon camp, and otherwise, would believe such an official summary, anyway.

The likelihood is that what Jeremy Blake viewed in the rectory apartment never left his retinas in remaining days of his life; every time he blinked, when he tried to sleep, a traumatizing horrific experience with not just the sights, but the smell, the look of the place. Everything. Carrying that scene around in his head -- an artist, a person who by disposition absorbed then translated the world into images to be seen -- perhaps one can better understand why he walked into the ocean. Yet, as New York Magazine would report, he also had a brief moment of clarity, though to whom he said it isn't credited, "
I am not going down that rabbit hole. No way am I going to follow Theresa.” Another night he told a friend, “I didn’t realize how much you guys love me. Now I know. I get it.”

The narrator of the grim-titled Grand Hotel Abyss was prowling about in Rigorous Intuition when he read of Duncan and Blake. He didn’t know of Duncan, but spent a few minutes researching her, and realized that she’d contributed to Artforum a comparative piece on the films Kill Bill and Lost in Translation that some three years earlier he’d clipped and taped into a notebook that carryied around with him. The entry edges on the conspiratorial and metaphorical, and for that reason is worth perusing. Duncan describes an exquisite corpse experiment of cutting up an article about Nicholas Berg and pasting it into the notebook in which he kept Duncan’s piece.

My reading of the re-assembled, disjointed article issued only one surprise: the frequency with which Berg was recalled by relatives as being interested in repairing electrical towers. “He was a tower guy,” one relative recalled. This means sweet fuck all, of course, and I am, on most days of the week, a rationalist and an anti-cabbalist, though I have been known to frequent occult bookstores, and my adolescent heroes were the PoMo warlocks Alan Moore and Grant Morrison.

Anyway, Berg was a tower guy, and this information sat a few papers’ widths’ from Theresa Duncan’s masterful demolition of Sofia Coppolla’s hymn to the patriarchy …

What does this have to do with the untimely demise of Ms. Duncan? Well, it seems that she was caught up in some spooky shit of her own."

He cautioned that there was no point to his making tenuous connections. “I trawl conspiracy theory websites to scare and entertain myself, and only half believe what I read there. I don’t know what happened to Ms. Duncan; I will probably never know; and to be honest with you I don’t want to know.

There is that famous moment in The Red and the Black when Mathilde de la Mole elects Julien Sorel to be her lover because he is the only man in the room who might plausibly do something daring enough to warrant his decollation by the powers that be. I am not Julien Sorel. My rebellion against society goes only so far as my commitment to spend as much time unemployed as possible. More and more, I lose my public-spiritedness. More and more, I come to think that revolutionaries talk as much rubbish as reformists.

Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG was stunned, saddened and horrified to learn, through a casual email exchange, that Duncan was dead and Blake’s body not yet found.

Manaugh and Duncan had exchanged emails and links, and she encouraged him to read The Visionary State by Erik Davis, and Manaugh conducted a subsequent interview with Davis. Manuagh conceded that Wit of the Staircase was known to contain “paranoiac” columns. But, he argued, to dismiss Duncan’s writing “as mere political ravings overlooks the vast majority of the site's actual content: short observations – often limited to single quotations and photographs – with an articulate precision and interpretive confidence other writers would only dream of achieving. She could be writing about supermodels, the occult, music, 9/11, Percy Bysshe Shelley, perfume, Los Angeles, or the films of Quentin Tarantino.”

Demonstrating the severe swiftness of the online media versus that of the dead tree fiber media, writer John Stodder used his From The Desert To The Sea... to fire torpedoes into the amidships of Chris Lee’s earlier Los Angeles Times piece. Stodder wasn’t impressed by what he termed as the Los Angeles Time’s laggard reportage about the Duncan-Blake event. He described how a “rank odor” arose from Lee’s effort to pull the story into some focus and termed it “a hit piece, disguised by the language of compassion.”

Chris Lee gropes in the dark for explanations that are clearly beyond the facts in his notebook, and in doing so, inflicts needless damage to their reputations.

If someone knows why two talented, popular people with the world on a string would kill themselves, they can choose to tell that story. When it comes to prominent people — and there’s no question Duncan and Blake courted attention — the trade-off between violating the privacy of the deceased and offering a coherent narrative to explain a senseless act tends to favor telling the story. But only if you have a story to tell. Lee doesn’t. He has a hodge-podge of disquieting details that add up to a big, contradictory blob of nothing that perhaps tells us more about Lee than his subjects.

Stodder also, almost unique anyone writing about the Duncan-Blake Effect, reduces it all to a quite logical series of statements, bolded emphasis mine:

It is, frankly, hard to tell how much of what Duncan wrote is relevant to the harassment. Reading it over a few times, it strikes me that Duncan put all this out there in violation of Occam’s Razor (“the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible.”) It could simply have been that the ex-girlfriend carried a torch, and went overboard. Assuming the adoptive father is connected to high-level espionage and secret business, why would he want to risk exposure by having his operatives harass a couple of artists?

But, oddly, the Times’ reporter focuses on the aspect of this story that seems the least subject to challenge. He questions whether the harassment took place at all. He strongly implies it was a fantasy. His proof? Christine Nichols, an art world colleague of Duncan and Blake’s “did not see any evidence of that.” Did Ms. Nichols live with them? What was the extent of her involvement in their lives that would lead Lee to conclude that if Nichols didn’t see something, it probably didn’t happen?

Stodder wondered aloud about why hadn’t an editor, or Lee, at least called the L.A. police to see if there were any records of the alleged harassment, to see what if any credence there was to the allegations. Further, the supposition of Duncan’s that Blake’s involvement with Beck’s Sea Change album sparked a bad run with the Church of Scientology just doesn’t scan.

Why would an uneventful and successful project that benefited a famous Scientology member lead to harassment by the Church of Scientology? Duncan never explains, nor does the Times.

But the Times does add, with an air of authority, an irrelevant comment from the NYPD that the Scientology angle is not being pursued. Why would it be pursued? These are “apparent suicides.” Despite Lee’s best efforts, he fails to draw any connection between the deaths and the harassment — which he cues us to doubt even took place.

Here’s what I think Lee wants to say, but can’t: Duncan and Blake’s paranoia about Scientology was a symptom that one or both of them were losing their grip on reality and going insane, and at the end of that road was suicide. That’s the clear impression he leaves with his floating chunks of data and oddly disconnected quotes. The second half of the story is all about how well their lives were going, and how attractive they both were to “the brainy, moneyed people who occupy the intersection of art and technology.” Lee betrays more than a little envy of both of them. Stuck with a story for which he has few worthwhile facts but a bellyful of jealousy, he tells the world in so many words that both of them were crazy.

Stodder also singled out, in a more positive manner, the endeavor of Ron Rosenbaum. “Rosenbaum might not get anywhere with this. The story might just remain what it is now, an incoherent mystery, an obsession that slams against the walls of privacy until it slinks away, thwarted. But whatever Rosenbaum finds, he won’t stretch it to reflect his own biases and impulses as I believe the Times reporter did. His writing clearly delineates facts from speculation; and all imaginative leaps are clearly marked so we can enjoy them.”

Coudal Partners, a Chicago-based design, advertising and interactive studio, gave a brief and heartfelt appreciation.


An occasional correspondent and link-trader, filmmaker Theresa Duncan, has committed suicide. We didn't know her very well but what we did know was funny and smart. Her site The Wit of the Staircase stands frozen at its last update. The blog's title come from a French phrase that is used to describe that super-witty remark that occurs to you on your way out of the party, where you could have used it. We won't come up with one in this case. -jc.07.25.07

Meanwhile, at Ghost of a Flea, in a posting titled “The opposite of silence,” the narrator indicated that many in the blogosphere were just now learning of Duncan’s death. Her most recent posts had indicated she was going to be traveling soon, perhaps on business. The silence on the Staircase was regarded as unusual, but there must've been a reason.

Fortune’s Pawn commented, “I had just returned from a few days away from home (Milwaukee, WI) and was so saddened to learn not just of Theresa's unfortunate demise, but also that I could easily have attended the services in Lapeer, MI, as I was just a few miles away in Flint as they happened, had I only known.

For all of her skills and insights, it is Theresa's friendly and kind manner which I shall miss most, and of course her wit, polished to a fine sheen, as it was.”

Rockabilly Girlscout learned of Duncan's death by the Ghost of the Flea blog. She said, “I had visited Ms Duncan's blog on a more than daily basis. As she always had yet another thing to say later in the day. I love to read the writings of intelligent, humourous and loudmouth women. She was that and they are often hard to find. It feels so strange to feel so heartbroken at the passing of someone I've only ever encountered online. She always generously returned any email I sent whether it be about who invented which scent for Chanel or how cool is this minaiture [sic.] recreation of Freud's office.”

Marc Parent at Crimes And Corruptions of The New World Order News implied that Duncan’s mentioning the U.S. vice-president’s name in proximity to that of Old Scratch doomed her. He encouraged readers to delve into John Wells’ efforts, who was exploring “the weirder tributaries and backwaters, for those of you who dare to look.”

“Theresa Duncan announced that she was working on an essay called, “The Devil and Dick Cheney,” Parent wrote. “Two days later she was dead and now Jeremy Blake, her boyfriend is missing….That’s just the beginning, but of what, precicely [sic], I’m quite sure we’ll never know.”

He included a link to the New York Times July 22 article, now a bit stale, “for whatever that’s worth.” On that sarcastic note, he was in agreement with most of the bloggers who were part of the Duncan-Blake Effect.

But by now at Rigorous Intuition, the lid was off. The comments section contained yards of cut-and-paste Gaskell-this-and-that implicating the artist in foul misdeeds because her work was, well, weird, and involved twins, and in one picture she sort of looked like Duncan, and Duncan didn’t like her, and her adopted father was a supposed big wheel Republican.


A Poe Pause
Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, made by William Abbott Pratt in Richmond, Va., in the September 1849, a few weeks before Poe's death. From

“What a melancholy death is that of Mr. Poe--a man so richly endowed with genius! I never knew him personally, but have always entertained a high appreciation of his powers as a prose writer and a poet. His prose is remarkably vigorous, direct, and yet affluent; and his verse has a particular charm of melody, and atmosphere of true peotry about is, which is very winning. The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, charged by some indefinite sense of wrong.” --Henry Wordsworth Longfellow

It is worth mentioning, as a brief interlude prior to plumbing into Rigorous Intuition, that Edgar Allan Poe never killed a man (he once had a silly fistfight with a Philadelphia editor), nor tortured cats or beautiful women. The extent of his alcoholism is remains a matter of debate. If he was such an incoherent drunk, he wouldn’t have been able to produce reams upon reams of literary criticism, journalism, poetry, and short stories. Along the way, he developed the first real literary criticism in the U.S., detective fiction, and modern science fiction.

His marriage of Virginia, his first cousin, is seized upon as a hint of the darkness of his soul. But such marryings weren’t uncommon in the South, nor even in Poe’s family, although Virginia’s age at the time, 13, was somewhat unusual. But Poe, living before Jerry Lee Lewis (but quite concurrent with the wild bedswapping of Byron, Shelley and that crew), had few American public precedents. He wrote evil stories, thus, by extension, he must be an evil man. The same confusions that some people make with actors and the characters they play clung to Poe. 

Poe’s bouts with booze must be viewed in context. Tolerance for alcohol in the United States has gone through severe cycles. In the early 19th century one observer branded the U.S. as “the Alcoholic Republic.” Alcohol was also a prime ingredient in many of the so-called medicines for a host of maladies and nuisances to which  mid-19th century Americans were heir. No less eager to make their pains go away then as now, in our pill-popping society, if something with booze would alleviate certain aches and distresses, well, they'd imbibe of it. 

Drinking was then, as now, an accepted social activity but without the constant urgings for restraint to which we, in our contemporary time and its media public service announcements, have become accustomed (even if we don't adhere to them).

Hence, few of Poe’s friends sought to point out his problems to him or try to keep him sober. One instance is the publisher of the Southern Literary Messenger, who famously admonished Poe,  "No man is safe who drinks before breakfast!"  Like many who struggle with this addiction, the best that we can say at this late date is that Poe went through long dry periods, and on occasion, fell of the wagon, and when this occurred, he hit bottom hard fast and hard. 

During the last months of his life,  he joined a temperance organization to impress  the widow Elmira Royster Shelton, his childhood sweetheart whom he sought to marry, that he was serious about quitting.

Poe’s drunkiness was more discussed than observed. Many people recorded his demeanor as polite, correct and almost courtly. Despite his usual financially straitened circumstances he strove to present himself well. He could charm the ladies and impress the men. But in Richmond, once he was thought to have some problems, no matter their extent or cause, he was marked. Writer James Branch Cabell observed that Richmond regarded Poe as “tacky.” He edited a literary magazine in a town that saw such efforts as less than legitimate, indeed suspect; he rarely had a good word to say about any popular writer, or, much nice to say about anything, he didn’t live on the right street with the correct address, and besides, he had a Reputation.

He used laudanum at times, when feeling quite ill or depressed, again, not unusual in Poe's world. (Today there’s a vast pharmacopeia to combat fugues of temper and fluctuations of emotions).

His doleful countenance has become ingrained in our cultural consciousness due to images for which he posed later in his life. The mustache for which he's known wasn't part of his "look" until five years prior to this death. Prior to growing it, he favored long sideburns.

The famous "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype was taken in Providence, R.I., four days after getting rejected (again) in marriage from Sarah Helen Whitman, possibly attempting suicide, and probably having gone on a bender with "friends." They walked him into a photographer's gallery -- somehow thinking this a good idea --  and what we get is this now-stereotypical image. Poe was at one of the most emotionally strained moments of his life. This picture is like the famous Nick Nolte mug shot. Imagine if that was one of the few pictures for which that famous person was known for -- and its resonance in popular culture now calls the shock-haired, drunken visage into people's memories whether they want it there or not. So does this disturbing image of Poe. 

The sonorous poetic quality of his name, Edgar Allan Poe, is a partial misconception (and the middle name often spelled even by those who should know better with an "e" in the second syllable.) Allan was the name of his "non-adoptive unfather" as Daniel Hoffman termed him, John Allan, a hawk-nosed skin-flint merchant.

In surviving correspondence he signed as Edgar A. Poe, E.A. Poe, and on a few occasions, in one-named rock star fashion, "Poe." He was aware of its rhythmic implications though, and perhaps the most famous doubling was used for the protagonist of his novel, Arthur Gordon Pym.

Allan doted on the young Poe, then when the boy went to the University of Virginia, their relationship buckled and in the end, snapped. When Allan died, he left no will, and his considerable estate was divided by a committee. Allan's son by another woman other than this wife received funds. Edgar got nothing.

Poe had aspirations toward becoming landed Virginia gentry. If he'd come into some sudden money, Poe might've evolved not into a poet but the manager of overseers and slaves who instead pottered about in belles-lettres. The South was full of those types in his day. 

And, if he'd not panicked and gotten drunk prior to his interview for a low level government patronage job in the administration of President John Tyler, he would've joined with Hawthorne and Melville whose sinecure of official clerical positions allowed them some financial security.

There'd be longer shelves of Poe works, maybe; and maybe they'd not be as good. It's tough to say. Fact is, Poe wrote like his life depended on it -- because that was the case. He was little suited to any other profession and for seven years the head of a household of three. Still, biographer John Ward Ostrom in the early 1980s estimated that Poe's total earnings from his 14 year writing career amounted to about $56,000 in then-contemporary currency. Poe's financial life was "perpetually precarious," Ostrom says.

Poe further made matters more difficult for himself by annoying people who might've done him some good and embracing others who only wanted to take advantage of him, or otherwise mistreat him. Part of this flaw in Poe's character may have come from how, in his early life, and into his adulthood, almost every major person who meant anything to him went insane, disowned him or died of awful wasting diseases.

Death was a constant companion in the 19th century United States. Outbreaks of cholera and yellow fever caused the quarantine of numerous cities. Tuberculosis, referred to as "consumption," carried away many, including Poe's actress mother and his cousin-wife, Virginia, and Fanny, the wife of John Allan. These misfortunes dug for him a dark well filled with waters that would inspire and drown him.

During the year prior to his death, Poe who was broke, alone and unable even to raise money for a literary publication, wrote a book that purported to explain life, the Universe and everything, though using the faculties and voice available to a 19th century essayist. The 150-page work was titled Eureka and, when he'd finished it in the spring of 1848, he told Maria Clemm, his aunt, sometime caregiver, and former mother-in-law, that with the completion of this book, he didn't care if he never published anything else.

Poe described Eureka as a prose poem, though it is a dense hodge podge and concerned with matters of cosmology.

It is a curious little work that few Poe students have sat down and given serious examination. Some years ago when I had the opportunity to see John Astin perform as Poe, I brought a Poe anthology that included Eureka, for Astin to sign. He'd used pieces of the text in his show. The actor laughed and for a moment got that manic Gomez Adams twinkle. He said, "You and me are the only three people who've ever read this book."

Critics point to Eureka as an indication of Poe's growing insanity; a further extension of his love of hoaxes; the explanation of how his fictional universe operated; a rationalization of the cruel world that stole from him almost everything he loved, however, because of his postulated mulitple universes, another Poe in the next universe over was having a great life. Or, is it a serious treatise on space and time that, given his technological limitations and lack of understanding about the edges of physics, he could be expected to make some errors? Like claiming the moon is self-luminous, for example.

Otherwise, biographers and physicists who've examined Eureka in the light of Einstein and those who came later, see in Poe's rapturous descriptions of cosmological secrets possible descriptions of the Big Bang and the final Big Crunch that Poe believed would mean the rebirth of a universe, but not the same one. Contained within Eureka are also -- it can be extrapolated -- references to black holes, string theory and the standard speculative fiction trope of multiple and infinite bundles or clusters of universes.

University of Cambridge professor John Tresch speaks of Poe's use of "the potent magic of verisimilitude" in his work, in particular that which dealt with the innovations of his era, ranging from hot air balloons to Mesmerism and theories of psychology to an "automated" chess player. Bold emphasis mine.

"In discussing several works of this author, who perhaps more than any of his ‘literary’ contemporaries grappled with the growing dominance of science and technology in his time, this paper shows the potential ambiguity and polyvalence of the rhetoric of science. Poe's writings exploit this increasingly powerful language in a variety of ways: through logical proofs, satires, hoaxes, and the analysis of mysteries, codes and poetry, notably his own. Poe's unorthodox use of scientific rhetoric highlights the importance of historically specific modes of discourse for the consolidation of truth."

Toward the final months of his life, his real and various bedevilments eclipsed his sense. He became paranoid and thought men were after him due to some affair with a woman. At least one author has stretched Poe's hallucinations and other random facts into a murder conspiracy. The bad men in this case are the brothers of Poe’s fiancée Elmira Royster Shelton, the Richmond widow. Due to Poe’s drinking and his poetic sensibilities, the brothers wanted to prevent the union. Circumstantial evidence is stretched out of shape and facts rejiggered to make the argument plausible.

Nobody can give the definitive answers as to how and why the fastidious Poe ended up in soiled, second-hand clothes and comatose in front of a Baltimore tavern. Thus, many have and will continue to give their versions of educated speculation.

An important component of Poe's character, too, is that he was the son of actors, and in a moment of pride once said that he was just as pleased about that lineage as he would've been with an inherited title in European aristocracy. [Poe was engaging in a bit of disingeniousness there; but, one should note that the monument at the site of Elizabeth Arnold Poe's grave in the cemetery of Richmond, Va.'s St. John's Church was provided in part by New York Actor's Equity. The myth that the Episcopal congregation didn't want a member of the theater buried there is hooey, the ceremony was well-attended despite rain and her death was recorded in several East Coast newspapers].

At one point, Poe was even a theater critic. For one such as he who possessed sharp and uncompromising views, this wasn't a good time to be in the audiences of most plays in the United States. Original theater was in its infancy and there was rare careful examination of the shows -- most of which couldn't stand up to much scrutiny. Poe's lancing of productions in New York caused theater managers to stop giving him free tickets.

As a performer himself at readings of his own works, reactions were, it might be said, "mixed."
"Descriptions of Poe's voice tend to emphasize the thrilling feelings over the listener than the qualities of the speaker. More detailed accounts give Poe as very theatrical or very restrained, prone to dramatic intonation or given to quiet sonorities. It is, of course, a mistake to assume that Poe had any single style of presentation. Mabbott notes, "He [Poe] spoke with a slight Southern drawl. Hence he rhymed sister and vista, ha'nted and enchanted. . . . Poe did not drop the final letter of words like hunting" (Mabbott, Poems, 1969, p. xxv). "

Like the pop music one-hit wonder sensation of today, Poe was asked to read The Raven--not his best poem, but the best known--some 58 times in the final year of his life. The poem was his "Free Bird."  At least one audience member said that to hear his presentation of the piece was a transcendent event that people would remember the rest of their lives. It must've raised the hair on people's arms. His upper Tidewater accent would've made "nevermore" into "nevah mow-uh." To hear perhaps a faint echo how he could've sounded listen to how Petersburg, Va.-born actor Joseph Cotten delivers some of his lines, for example, in The Third Man.

Poe's eldritch tales were persuasive, and he also enjoyed hoaxes and puzzles. Poe earned a reputation for both personal strangeness and belligerant flippancy. Poe enjoyed messing with people's heads. Or, as Rebekah Gilbert describes, and, bolded emphasis mine, paying attention to the overarching matters concerning the present essay:

"Where Hoffman takes Poe extremely seriously, Charles E. May contends that "it is often difficult to tell when Poe is being serious and when he is playing. [The reader] is also never sure when Poe is presenting fact or fiction" (39). Poe makes much ado about what seems to be nothing. He is absolutely particular about seemingly irrelevant details, and he creates metaphors out of everyday acts (May 30). Poe treats the central metaphorical predicament in his "A Predicament" flippantly, but much more seriously in "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Masque of Red Death," and "The Tale-Tell Heart." The metaphorical predicament is that the character is being caught by the inevitable progression of time (May 30). May believes that Poe is a self-conscious artist whose aesthetic vision and knowledge of the nature of narrative made him, in spite of the condescension of his critics, the most influential American writer of the nineteenth century (108)."

Poe was also his own unreliable narrator. He fudges and fibs about his age, his lineage, and a fancied life on the high seas in letters and accounts of his life. He filched aspects of a shipboard life from that of his older brother William Henry Leonard Poe, called Henry by the Poes. William seems to have been in the U.S. Navy, or a merchant marine, and he also had a touch of the poet. The Poe brothers didn't get to know each other well because of distance and Henry's travels, and the Allans chose to keep their ward separated from the Poe family.

Henry and Edgar managed some communication and an occasional visit. They were matched in temperament, and afflicted with the Poe curse of alcoholism. When Edgar came to live in Baltimore after his West Point experience, he was just in time to watch his older brother sink into drink and death. Thus, Poe's family was wrecked by the life's blind vicissitudes. 

His father David abandoned his actress wife with three children andperhaps died from alcohol. His mother was a victim of disease, his older brother absent then dead before his time, and his sister Rosalie was affected by some form of mental retardation. Any one of these family troubles or tragedies would've given almost anybody a life time of issues to work through. His background was so pocked by death and displacement that it is small wonder that he developed an ambivalent atttitude toward the "truth" of matters. He relished in the hoax, the puzzle, and codes. Life was an absurd riddle.

Poe, who died before the Civil War’s cataclysm ripped his country apart, perhaps used the dark stream that ran underneath antebellum culture to view himself. The horrific collapse of the House of Usher has been compared to, by more than one critic, as, on one level, his view of the plantation aristocracy South, whose society he was shut from, and which gave his art scant attention. The crack running along the mansion’s side was the fault line of the nation, and when the horror was revealed, the House sank into its moat.

For all its pretentions and earnest yearnings for a world of Sir Walter Scott, where Poe had no place, that world could not stand forever. Well. Maybe. The fissure of Usher could symbolize the fault line running through his own psychology; the yearning dandified Southern gentleman of letters and the Bohemian poet, never really in an acceptable social niche, nor actually predisposed to be in one, and the tension between those two sides created the artist. It also likely fundamentally disturbed him and to ease his constant dissatisfaction with the world, himself, his art, he would on occasion drink, or otherwise partake of drugs which weren't the best thing for him.

And, really, Edgar Allan Poe was a living breathing person, just as you are, and he is allowed his personal failings, his despair, his confusions. Poe was no moralist. He was a fabulist.

Poe's reputation for difficulty and even derangement wasn’t meditated in the least by posthumous deprecations made against him by a literary parasite and sham friend of Poe’s, an epileptic Baptist minister who preached at no church, Rufus Wilmot Griswold. [If in fiction I applied such a name to a villainous character, it would be struck out as being Pynchonian].

Two days after Poe died in Baltimore, Griswold writing under the pseudonym of “Ludwig,” published a front page obituary in the New York Daily Tribune in which he claimed that Poe wouldn’t be much missed and there’d be little mourning because few people liked him. Wikipedia a puts it well, that Griswold “claimed that Poe often wandered the streets, either in "madness or melancholy," mumbling and cursing to himself, was easily irritated, was envious of others, and that he "regarded society as composed of villains." Poe's drive to succeed, Griswold wrote, was because he sought "the right to despise a world which galled his self-conceit." Much of this characterization of Poe was lifted almost verbatim from that of the fictitious Francis Vivian in The Caxtons by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.”

Poe was not without his adherents. By time they published their supporting opinions in journals or magazines, however, the damage was done. They were the bloggers of their day, though without an outlet like the Internet to pump their views into the consciousness of discerning readers.

Griswold became Poe’s literary executor by presenting a sizable sum of money to Maria Clemm who didn't know of Griswold's duplicitous nature, nor the standing enmity between he and Poe. He brought out bound complete sets of Poe’s work while defaming him with an introduction that damned the writer for madness, alcoholism and disrepute.

Griswold’s assessment of Poe influenced interpretations of the writer in the United States almost until World War I. Poe gained great respect in Europe, most vivid in the person of Charles Baudelaire. Poe became his passion and fetish; he adopted his style of dress to resemble Poe in his photographs. Baudelaire translated Poe into French and made him popular there ahead of his native country.

Sarah Helen Whitman, one of his near-fiancées over whom Poe almost killed himself, and a consistent defender of his legacy, wrote Edgar Poe And His Critics. There, she addressed "the weird splendors of his imagination, compelling men to read and to accredit as possible truths his most marvellous conceptions."


"Too cool, too smart, and too brave."

At Rigorous Intuition the lid had not just blown off, it exploded from the boiling and roisterous comments section with maximum velocity. The “Imitation of Life” posting set the stage.

This entry contained a bullet point list of puzzling evidence that had come to Wells by word of mouth. These included that Duncan’s “suicide note” wasn’t handwritten, but typed on a computer; she wasn’t a pillpopper; the woman who witnessed Blake walk into the water off Rockaway Beach was not located or identified; his body was still unfound; the newspapers were notified of Blake’s disappearance ahead of his family, which didn’t receive notification for 72 hours. Finally, the idea of the couple committing suicide was unthinkable to most who knew them and they’d left L.A. after breaking an eight month lease, due to harassment, and receiving no help from authorities.

Wells reiterated Chris Lee’s L.A. Times piece, then launched himself into the briarpatch of extrapolations about the Gaskell connection and citing reviews of her art as though they were clues. After a long description he paused for breath to say, “We don’t want to see things that aren’t there. But when they’re there, are we crazy for seeing them?”

He finishes off with Ron Rosenbaum’s statement that Duncan’s death was not yet then ruled a suicide.

Some 30 comments followed, ranging from citations of mind control operations and government psychological experimentations, declarations of resistance, speculations about Vice President Cheney’s natural endowment, mutterings about the confused initial UPI report that called Duncan the ex-girlfriend of Blake’s, pages and pages devoted to details about Glaskell’s art, sexuality, twins and Lewis Carroll, why Blake waited so long to tell Duncan of past details with Glaskell, and other assorted analysis of conspiracies in universities and government.

Omnimental first wondered if Duncan or Blake even existed, and if so, whether they mattered. He proceeded to whip himself into a spewing denunciation of contemporary U.S. society.

See, you people, with your families in suburbia, whatever, you have gotten so used to all of the violence being done for you so that you can sit there and get all of the resources you want shipped in to your grocery stores and sit back and wax moronically about how "the ends never justify the means." Meanwhile, EVERYTHING that you own is there because America has tortured hundreds of millions of people into the ground and used them for fertilizer for YOUR CONVENIENCE. Now you are going to sit there and tell me about violence and how it solves nothing. If I could spit on you I would. Go fuck yourselves. Then, renounce your place in suburbia and go figure out how to live in the woods without the help of any of the U.S. military's spoils.

Dr. Bombay came up next, saying, “I just checked out Anna Gaskell’s “art work” and found it to be very disturbing. The overtones of forced sexual behavior between prepubescent girls is right there for all to see.” This was brought up as evidence that there was some kind of sexual torture of children going on by Gaskell’s adopted father.

By early July 26, Juke provided these insights about his doubts surrounding Duncan’s suicide.

She was way too cool for this, is my basic stance. Too cool, too smart, and too brave.
Not too brave to kill herself, if that was the heart's next move - too brave to go out weak behind a cloud of suspicion.
She knew she had readers and she was loyal. She had a lot of love. None of that got shown in her exit. What changed?
What happened?
I feel, again, incompetent and cowardly and slothful to the threshold of self-condemnation.
I wish I'd written her, just to say hey, thanks, yes.

But by time Juke wrote that, the largest hunk of actual information had come through the L.A. Times, by Chris Lee.

“Body in ocean thought to be Jeremy Blake’s: Police seek the public’s help in identifying the man found off New Jersey. Dental records are sought."

The gruesome discovery was made by a fisherman some four and a half miles off Sea Girt, N.J.

The sixth and final section will be “Gathering Their Wits About Them.” The Duncan-Blake Effect on the blogosphere mushrooms into all conspiracy, all the time; the L.A. Weekly’s Kate Coe and David Segal of the Washington Post give perspectives, new information, and incite disputes. Blogs flower that are designed to warehouse and sort the issues of the Duncan-Blake effect.

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At 2:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Poe Pause provided perspective...and pause.


At 7:10 AM, Blogger HEK said...

Anonymous, ye of the busy Greek tribe:

Ranks of thanks for your kind words. Actually, I returned to that seciton to tinker and fluff it a bit. You might find some other interesting highlights there.

At 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scientology Faces Criminal Charges
By CONSTANT BRAND – 3 hours ago

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) — A Belgian prosecutor on Tuesday recommended that the U.S.-based Church of Scientology stand trial for fraud and extortion, following a 10-year investigation that concluded the group should be labeled a criminal organization.

Scientology said it would fight the criminal charges recommended by investigating prosecutor Jean-Claude Van Espen, who said that up to 12 unidentified people should face charges.

Van Espen's probe also concluded that Scientology's Brussels-based Europe office and its Belgian missions conducted unlawful practices in medicine, violated privacy laws and used illegal business contracts, said Lieve Pellens, a spokeswoman at the Federal Prosecutors Office.

"They also face charges of being ... a criminal organization," Pellens said in a telephone interview.

An administrative court will decide whether to press charges against the Scientologists.

In a statement, Scientology's Europe office accused the prosecutor of hounding the organization and said it would contest the charges.

"For the last 10 years, the prosecutor has been using the media, trying to damage the reputation of the Church of Scientology and not being able to put a case in court," Scientology said. "As a consequence, this created a climate of intolerance and discrimination" in Belgium.

It added that the prosecutor's recommendations suggested Scientology was guilty even before a court could hear the charges, making it "difficult for the Church of Scientology to recover and properly defend (itself) before the court."

Scientology has been active in Belgium for nearly three decades. In 2003, it opened an international office near the headquarters of the European Union to lobby for its right to be recognized as an official religious group, a status it does not enjoy in Belgium.

A Belgian parliamentary committee report in 1997 labeled Scientology a sect and investigations were launched into the group's finances and practices, such as the personality tests conducted on new members.

Investigators have spent the past decade trying to determine how far Scientology went in recruiting converts after numerous complaints were filed with police by ex-members alleging they'd been the victims of intimidation and extortion.

Justice officials seized financial records, correspondence, bank statements and other papers in their decade-long probe to track the flow of money to Scientology. Police also raided the offices of several consultancy firms linked to the Church of Scientology.

Pellens said that prosecutors expect Scientology to mount a strong legal challenge to the charges at a court hearing, which could come in the next two to three months. She acknowledged that could delay the case for years.

Belgium, Germany and other European countries have been criticized by the State Department for labeling Scientology as a cult or sect and enacting laws to restrict its operations.

The German government considers Scientology a commercial enterprise that takes advantage of vulnerable people.

The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, which is seeking to expand in Europe and be recognized as a legitimate religion, teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. The church, founded in 1954, counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its 10 million members.


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