The Blue Raccoon

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box

Seven Kinds of Denial Just to Get Out of Bed

III. “The Worms and Passions Writhing Within”

There is something in the air these days. 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 [is] hate. Everyone hates everyone. The air is heavy with hate and dullness…As I work to achieve what I consider beauty-- the functional beauty of technology-- I hear the voice of the Zeitgeist…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.__I know that if I stopped my work and became a cubicle drone as the age wishes me to become, the voice would go away.
-- ”anuma” commenting on the blog Rigorous Intuition about the Duncan-Blake deaths.

When writing about German culture on the eve of World War I, historian Barbara Tuchman in The Proud Tower, described its cultural preoccupation with violence and unease coupled to complacency. Mark Twain remarked that history doesn’t repeat itself, but if often rhymes, and The Proud Tower period is reminiscent of our own time and place.

Historian Edward Stillman wrote of the period, "Something strange lay beneath the stolid prosperity of the Hohenzollern Age -- a surfeit with peace, a lust for violence, a belief in death, an ominous mystique of war. 'Without war the world would quickly sink into materialism,' the older Von Moltke, chief of the German general staff proclaimed in 1880; and he, his nephew the younger Von Moltke, and the caste of Prussian militarists they represented could presumably save the world from that tawdry fate."

The gigantic ominous orchestral tone poems and bloody operas of Richard Strauss and the viciousness of characters in Frank Wedekind’s plays have evolved in the contemporary United States into the blood and gore fest films that strive for greater, sickening realism, and public humiliation is offered up on television as spectacle. Art, freed from constraints, delves into the psycho-trauma-sexuality of the maker.

Tuchman describes how French writer, critic and pacifist Romain Rolland viewed Germany in 1899. He felt that the nation couldn’t remain all-powerful and maintain its balance for long. “Nietzsche, [Richard]Strauss, the Kaiser—giddiness blows through her brain. Neroism is in the air!” Rolland considered the German “meme” of the day was Disgust. He sensed it in the compositions of Strauss and in their invariable gruesome conclusions, a German “sickness hidden beneath the strength and military tautness.”

Stillman writes, “The malaise was evident everywhere—in the new cults of political violence; the new philosophies of men like Freud, Neitzsche, and Pareto, who stressed the unconscious and the irrational, and who expose the lying pretensions of middle-class values and conventions; and in the sense of doom that permeated the avant-garde arts of the prewar years. Typical of the spirit of rebellion was the manifesto set forth in 1910 by the Italian Futurist painters: it declared that “all forms of imitation should be held in contempt and that all forms of originality glorified; that we should rebel against the tyranny of words ‘harmony’ and ‘good taste’…; that a clean sweep be madeof all stale and threadbare subject matter in order to express the vortex of modern life – a life of steel, pride, fever, and speed…”

Tuchman observes how the “undercurrent of morbidity…increased in proportion as Germany’s wealth and strength and arrogance increased, as if the pressure of so much industrial success and military power were creating an inner reaction in the form of a need to negate, to expose the worms and passions writhing within that masterful, purposeful, well-behaved, orderly people.”

* * *

During the first decade of the 20th century the staple of the German theatre was tragedy. “Social comedies with happy endings were not a German genre. German fun was confined to buffoonery, either painful or coarse.” Sounds like Jackass to me, and a whole slew of films and programs that put the audience into the mind of enjoying the pain of others, but with the not-so-subtle implication that you could be next.

There is the entire subgenre of video games which, in many, but not all cases, are voyeuristic invitations to mayhem. (Duncan was during the 1990s a designer of narrative-driven video games with girls in mind, Chop Suey being the most notable; in his later months, Blake was employed as a graphic designer by game studio RockStar “the house that Grand Theft Auto built,” as one commentator has described).

German theater’s tragedies, Tuchman explains, were not so much curative, as Ibsen’s, nor compassionate like Chekhov’s, “but obsessively focused on mankind’s cruelty to man, on his bent toward destruction and death.”

A cognate of Wedekind on today’s stage can be found in the works of Neil Labute, His characters possess outward sophistication that belie an interior bruitishness. Of interest to this discussion is Labute’s 2003 The Shape of Things. Set at a university, Evelyn, a graduate art student seduces Adam, an English major, into becoming, unbeknownst to him, her thesis project. She alters his appearance and identity until he is almost unrecognizable to his friends and himself. It is Pygamlion in reverse; Evelyn doesn’t love Adam, and wants him just for the length of her experiment.

[In the aftermath of the Duncan-Blake deaths, film producer Bradford Schiel was quoted as saying of Duncan that she'd realized her paranoid behavior had nullified all of Blake's working connections to the art world. "Jeremy was her creation. And she was killing the thing she created, this great, terrific artist. Se realized what she had done. To let him live, she had to go. But in a symbolic relationship, one couldn't last without the other."]

In The Company of Men involves two corporate button-down types who destroy a deaf woman, and Your Friends and Neighbors involve the sexual and psychological dynamics and emotional barbarism of self-absorbed couples. In a similar way, though adjusted (but just) for mass consumption, was the long-running comedy series Seinfeld. Here, thoughtless people committed atrocious acts against one another and strangers without learning anything from their behaviors. Subsequent programs featured individuals more despicable in more bleak situations (Arrested Development, Always Sunny In Philadelphia, etc.), but played for disconcerting and sometimes successful laughs.

These themes flowered in the “Dickensian” Sopranos, which followed the exploits of a murderous but lovable New Jersey crime boss who had sought out psychotherapy to treat depression. In the concluding episodes, the shrink realizes Tony Soprano is just using her to sharpen his rationalizations for his sociopathic tendencies and she throws him out. Like the characters of Seinfeld, by series end, though the Soprano family has had tragedy visit those close to it, the audience is left believing that the characters have grown little, and won’t alter their behaviors because in a greater world that is even more monstrous than the Sopranos, their family values blend in, just like the serial killing investment banker of American Psycho.

* * *

Two novels by Bret Easton Ellis, which operate in the kind of rarefied world that Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake moved in, also strike similar chords to how Tuchman describes German culture prior to World War One. The misogynist killer of 1991’s American Psycho, and “well dressed man” for whom, as ZZTop insists, the girls go crazy, is more interested in getting a good table at a trendy restaurant than human life. He performs heinous acts against many people and gets away with it even after admitting his crimes. The character’s descriptions of an unbelievable horrendous nature isn’t taken with any seriousness – even by his lawyer. His one means of distinguishing his life from those of others whom he abhors, proves false.

The underlying cruelty of the celebrity and quasi-celebrity haute monde is further explored in the 1998 novel Glamorama. Here, models and actors are recruited by a mysterious cabal to commit acts of terrorism. The effects of bombings and torture are described in detail. The premise was played for laughs in Zoolander. A drug and mental-addled haze permeates both American Psycho and most particular Glamorama, which casts doubt on the actions of the characters. Is their universe “real”? It’s a novel, of course, so it isn’t really “real” at all.
Much less violent, and more believable in its tragic elements, is Wilton Barnardt’s 1998 Show World. Barnhardt uses the lives of two women college roommates to show the intersection of politics and entertainment. These books are downright prescient when re-read in the context of 9-11, stolen or tampered elections, the predominance of reality television, celebrity obsession and the erosion of reliable news and information into just more platforms for the loud distractions of bloviating blowhards.

Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, aren’t anything new, but gross latter day iterations of opinion shapers and propagandists aided by advanced technology. Tuchman introduces “the feared and fearless” Maximilian Harden, editor of the newspaper Die Zukunft “of which it was said that everything rotten and everything good in Germany appeared in its pages.”

Harden was on intimate terms with the “malice, intrigue and private vendetta” in the Kaiser Wilhelm II’s circle. When Harden went after somebody, he used the private files of political operative and German Foreign Office diplomat Frederick von Holstein, who “in the method of Byzantine courts exercised power without nominal office. He regarded all diplomacy as conspiracy, all overtures of foreign governments as containing a concealed trick, and conducted foreign relations on the premise of everyone’s animosity for Germany.”

Harden and Holstein sought to bring down a group of the Kaiser’s advisors who were, in their view, more peaceful in their political views, and therefore harmful to Germany. Wild accusations of homosexuality and perversion were made, and from October 1907 to July 1909, the “Eulenburg affair” dominated German newspapers and café conversation. Stage center was the luckless Prince Philip Eulenburg who was condemned for leading a gay coterie among the Kaiser’s advisors. The elaborate, bewildering and dramatic trials resembled a Wedekind plot, with the disgraced Eulenberg wheeled into his final trial on a hospital bed. The whole thing rather backfired as the prestige of the Wilhelm II and his court suffered in the public eye, but not soon nor deep enough. Opinion polls made no difference to the Kaiser. Indeed, writes Tuchman, “Damage to the image of the ruling caste caused its members to swagger more than ever.”

A few years earlier in Britain, academic and journalist Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, a non-Marxist socialist progressive, and social critic, lecturer and writer John Atkinson Hobson, were publishing books that described how neither man nor his social systems were operating very well. Not headline news, for sure, but their work illustrated underlying pessimism in an otherwise heady time persuaded of forward progress.

Tuchman explains that Hobhouse and Hobson were of a group of sociological examiners who were “concerned with man’s curious refusal to behave rationally in what seemed his own best interest.”

The low level in which the populace reacted politically, the appeal of the sensationalist press and the new phenomenon of mass interest in spectator sports were disturbing. Henri Bergson’s idea of man as moved by a force which he called élan vital had stimulated a new science of social psychology to probe the roles of emotions and instinct as the basis of human conduct.

Hobhouse’s Democracy and Reaction (1904) concluded that the average man “has not the time to think and will not take the trouble to do so if he has the time.” His opinions faithfully reflect “the popular sheet and shouting newsboys…To this new public of the streets and tramcars it is useless to appeal in terms of reason.”

* **********************************************************************************

In the German theater of he 1890s and early 1900s, Death by murder, suicide or some more esoteric form resolved nearly all dramas.

In Wedekind’s Spring’s Awakening (revived in New York in the summer of 2006), as Tuchman describes, “the discovery of sex by adolescents conflicting with the prurience of adults produces total catstrophe.” One teenaged character, unable to bear life, commits suicide and in a closing scene reappears in a graveyard with his head under his arm, like that decapitated image of Bijou Phillips used on Duncan’s blog.

[The Chumscrubber, 2005 satire of upper middle class Los Angeles. suburbia features a teen suicide, and a video game hero who “wakes up without his head” in a zombie infested, post-collapse L.A. The self-appointed Chumscrubber carries his head like a totemic device, and in a heroic moment while standing on the hills over the city, holds his head aloft, which then winks at the audience.]

From 1895 on, Wedekind’s plays “plunged into debauch of the vicious and perverse which seemed to have no argument but that humanity was vile.” He introduced the character of Lulu in Earth Spirit (1895) and continued her story in Pandora’s Box (1905). Lulu’s sexuality doesn’t create, but destroys.

A still from the 1928 G.W. Pabst film Pandora’s Box was used in Duncan’s January 12, 2006, entry. This announced the monthly, full-moon meeting of the Los Angeles Lunar Society’s wake for the fake novelist JT Leroy, at which mourning clothes were required. The famous face belongs to actress Louise Brooks, whose own character and Lulu merged. The scene is from a court room appearance in which Lulu is wearing a jet black version of her wedding dress complete with veil, and she’s in the dock to hear the court’s verdict on her role in the death of her newspaper magnate lover.

No one actually loves Lulu, writes Jean-Michel Palmier in Louise Brooks: Portrait of an Anti-Star, “they buy her, they sell her, they trade her. She’s never anything other than a sales item, and object passed from hand to hand. Those who get near her don’t really love her, they are in love with her image. In other words, they are in love with the reality as they see it…Alienated to her very core, even her identity is stolen from her.”

The connection between this period of history and the decades leading to World War I also provided some inspiration for the most recent novel of Thomas Pynchon, titled Against The Day. It is an example of “historiographic metafiction or metahistorical romance.” E.L. Doctorow covered much of this same territory, in a more straight-forward manner, in his Ragtime, in the ancient days of 1975, the year the Vietnam War ended.

Pynchon himself described the massive, sprawling book: “With a worldwide disaster looming just a few years ahead, it is a time of unrestrained corporate greed, false religiosity, moronic fecklessness, and evil intent in high places. No reference to the present day is intended or should be inferred."

Duncan mentioned the book's upcoming publication several times in late 2006, and expressed her appreciation for earlier Pynchon works. An essay written in reaction to the novel didn't deal with the text in specifics, but addressed Pynchon's hiding-in-plain-sight invisibility.

She wrote on May 24, 2007, “The United States itself has become a huge haunted Winchester Mansion.” This was an entry pertaining to a 9/11 videographer claiming that he’d been harassed and threatened, apparently due to footage he made on that day. Her Winchester reference is Blake’s three-part film, graphic and painted piece Winchester (2002-2004) about the bizarre gothic mansion built by armaments heiress Sarah Winchester. She designed the place of scores of rooms and weird staircases to appease the ghosts of victims slain by Winchester guns.

“No doubt we shall never understand it completely,” Stillman says, employing a phrase that is repeated now about the circumstance of the deceased writer and artist. “What is absolutely clear about the outbreak of the First World War it that it was catastrophic: the hetacombs of the dead, the appalling material waste, the destruction, and the pain of those four years tell us that. In our hearts we know that since that bootless, reckless, bloody adventure noting has really come right again in the world.”

The fourth and final part of Seven Kinds of Denial Just To Get Out of Bed is titled “I found this out in a roundabout way,” and analyzes how the news of the Duncan-Blake deaths permeated the Internet, and the varying reactions and formations of theories about the event.

"You fucking hopeless parasites. The world is a violent storm of greed, where the victor takes the spoils, and you are just waking up to it now, saying to your sorry selves, "oh no, they could kill me?"
-- omnimental, commenting on the blog, Rigorous Intuition’s July 25, 2005, entry, “Imitation of Life.”

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Strange Interludes Part the Second

"While from a proud tower in the town
Death looks gigantically down."
From "The City in the Sea," Edgar Allan Poe

"There is so much that goes unanswered, even though the facts of the case are
so well known: how the failing Hapsburgs, impelled by their own unlucky taste for adventure, had seized Bosnia and Herzigovina from the Turks and aggravated the racial imbalance of the
Austro-Hungarian Empire; how the southern Slavs within the Empire felt themselves oppressed and increasingly demanded freedom: how the ambitious little hill kingdom of Serbia saw a chance to establish a South-Slavic hegemony over the Balkans; and how
Czarist Russia, itself near ruin, plotted with its client Serbia to turn the Austro-Hungarian
southern flank. But there is so much more that needs to be taken into account: how Franz Ferdinand, the aged emperor Franz Joseph's nephew, became his heir by default (Crown Prince Rudolph had committed suicide at Mayerling; Uncle Maximilian, Napoleon III's
pawn had been executed in Mexico; Franz Ferdinand's father, a pilgrim to the Holy Land, had
died--most improbably--from drinking the waters of the Jordan): how the new heir--stiff, autocratic, and unapproachable, but implausibly wed in ironic middle class marriage to the
not-quie-acceptable Sophie Chotek--sensed the danger to the Empire and proposed a policy
that would have given his future Slav subjects most of what they demanded: how the Serbian
nationalists were driven to panic, and how the secret society of jingoes known as "The Black
plotted Franz Ferdinand's death: how seven boys were recruited to do the deed, and
how one of them, Gavrilo Princip, on the morning of June 28, 1914, shot Franz Ferdinand and
Sophie dead."

-- "Sarajevo -- The End of Innocence," Edmund Stillman,
Horizons Magazine, Summer 1964

The Ridiculous Regent and the Munificent Minister.

Kaiser WIlhelm II and British Liberal Member of Parliament from Dundee, Winston Churchill, on Sept. 15, 1909, a few years before the end of the world they both knew.

The Kaiser's propensity to drama is, well, self-evident here. At this moment in time, Wilhelm's brash and unfortunate public statements about the German Empire's might and its rightful place in the sun, was scaring the bejeebus out of England's public and damaging his own tenuous credibility.

At this time in England, popular books and plays speculated on the possibilities of a fictional German invasion. Churchill couldn't conceive of an English conflict with their Teuton brethren. Churchill instead advocated for a reduction of naval spending in order to cool the heating arms race between the nations jockeying for empire.

This image distills the future. The Kaiser looks and is
archaic. Churchill's political education is well underway.

Anti-Thesis: Natural-Born Conspirators:
Meanwhile, on the other side of Europe, Balkan intrigue proceeds a
Shown here, like Tony Soprano with his lieutenants, on the far right, is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, code named "Apis" or "The Bee." You
didn't want to get stung by this one.

Dimitrijevic was a member of the vehement Serbian nationalist movement. No coward, the Bee carried in his body three bullets fired into him during the "successful" 1903 slaughter of the autocratic and unloved Serbian King Alexander and Queen Draga. And that's about where the train of reason careened off the rails.

Dimitrijevic in 1911 co-founded The Black Hand terrorist organization that advocated the achievement of Serbian statehood by any means necessary, including assassination. He had the means and resources to conduct covert operations as a respected and courageous leader, he was also chief of Serbian military intelligence.

In the spring of 1914, Dimitrijevic learned of Archduke Franz Ferdinand's visit to Sarajevo and put the wheels in motion to "whack" the unsophisticated and not completely anti-Serb successor to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Some of Apis' colleagues expressed alarm at such an egregious attack. But in a series of pathetic and unfortunate events the main actors stood by as though frozen or they either could not, or cared not to believe what was happening around them. The great disaster occurred, it could be said, because of a failure in procrastination. At any given time the whole process could've been interrupted. The plans moved forward with a strange and implacable sleepwalker momentum to a catastrophic conclusion.

The Last Man: Gavrilo Princip was a young, frail, and idealistic Bosnian who wanted to make a mark in the world for his people. Rejected from regular military service and even other terrorist activity, he fell into the influence of the Black Hand, and became, by simple dint of circumstance, the catalyst that blew over the trembling diplomatic and social house of cards that Europe had built for itself during the prior few decades. He was one of seven trained killers who were in Sarajevo a month in advance of Franz Ferdinand's arrival.

Ferdinand chose to visit Sarajevo to review troops, attend the opening of a museum, and give his beloved Sophie an anniversary trip. His father, the Emperor Franz Joseph, didn't regard Sophie as a royal, though she was a countess though not from the proper side of the aristocracy. He disapproved of their courtship, tried to prevent the marriage, but finally relented, though he didn't attend their wedding. The union was permitted with the catch that any children wouldn't be in the line of royal succession, and Sophie couldn't ride next to Ferdinand, or sit with him in the royal box. That was in Vienna. In the provinces, they could be together like husband and wife.

The would-be assassins hung out until the appointed day, then spread themselves along the Ferdinand's parade route. They bungled almost every part of the plan. A bomb thrown too late blew up the car behind the Archduke's, injuring spectators, and also--quite important to the story-- the man responsible for directing the route of the motorcade. The bomb thrower tried at first to take expired cyanide--it just made him sick--then drown himself in a nearby river, but due to a drought, it was only a few inches deep. He was seized by the mob.

The other terrorists, perhaps thinking their job was done, scattered. Princip blended into the crowd, chatted with a friend, and sat down to eat a sandwich at a café.

The visting monarch nonetheless kept to schedule and arrived at the Sarajeven mayor's offices where Ferdinand expressed his outrage. The spluttering mayor nonetheless kept to his regular welcoming speech. Ferdinand wanted to visit his wounded attaché but the uninformed driver kept to his pre-scheduled course. The chaffeur, realizing his error, jammed the gears of the Archduke's car while putting it into reverse -- in front of the café where Princip sat munching his sandwich. The littlest terrorist saw that Ferdinand and Sophie were quite alive. He pulled out his pistol and fired. Sophie was struck in the abdomen. Ferdinand, bleeding from his mouth, urged her to stay alive for the children. When an aide asked him where he was hurt, he said, "It's nothing. It's nothing."

Princip tried ineffective poison, and almost shot himself, before he, too, was tackled.

Neither the Emperor Franz Joseph nor Kaiser Wilhelm could be bothered to attend Ferdinand and Sophie's funeral.

Four years and an estimated more than 10 million military dead later, 20 million wounded and missing, the otherwise wrecked world was made safe for the cobbled together country of Yugoslavia. We all know how well that worked out.

Princip, who died of tuberculosis in prison six months before World War I ended in 1918, got a plaque in Sarajevo, to commemorate his patriotic duty. It was removed after the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. A less chauvunistic marker is on the site today.

And the hits just keep on coming.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

Strange Interlude: A fine (if haunted) writer speaks of a magnificent filmmaker. Both today are silenced.

Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918 - July 30, 2007)
Theresa Duncan (October 26, 1966 - July 10, 2007)

From The Wit of the Staircase of Theresa Duncan, Dec. 25, 2006

Magic, Wonder, And Even Ghosts: Fanny And Alexander's Christmas

Fanny_and_alexanderWit recommends fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman's Fanny And Alexander for a post-prandial December 25th film rental.

"Certainly the first act, which takes places at a rather vulgar overnight Christmas party at the Ekdahl family residence, is somewhat adult in terms of content. Grandmothers grow old and mourn the passing of their youth, wives forgive the blatant infidelities of their cheery husbands, and ruminations take place on the relationship between the real world outside and the sheltered little world of the theater that belongs to the family, and to which the family belongs. But the narrative is deliberately and delicately filtered through the eyes of the titular children, who watch it all happen...

When Alexander retreats to a darkened bedroom at day’s end, he fires up a magic lantern and entertains the other children by projecting stories onto the blank wall. The smell of paraffin draws his parents into the room, and his father, Oscar, lingers, picking up an ordinary wooden chair and regaling the children with a fanciful story about its alleged origins in Imperial China. This scene, not included in the film’s theatrical version, is important because it gives away the game — it is echoed later in the film, from the mouth of another storyteller, in a way that clearly suggests the narrative has moved inside Alexander’s own mind, where it’s embellished with the presence of magic, wonder and even ghosts."

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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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