Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake and Descents into Darkness

I found Theresa Duncan's blog of cultural criticism, The Wit of the Staircase while doing a search for the spelling of the phrase esprit d'escalier, "the wisdom of the staircase", meaning the things you wish you'd said after an argument, after slamming the door, on your way down the stairs or a couple of blocks down the street. Being cursed with fierce memory means that I have to make a conscious decision to pack away and dismiss other's (minor) faults and my own (major) sins, or else carry them around with me all day and night. This makes a phrase that describes regret more sympathetically than "coulda shoulda woulda" a useful thing to have.

Now I find out from New York magazine that Theresa Duncan killed herself, that her lover Jeremy Blake followed a week after. At first I was just going to move her link next to Molly Ivins', in memorium, still worth reading, with regrets for another intelligent stranger that shouldn't be dead, but is. People that make the world a better place in small or large ways keep dropping like flies, while shitheels go on crawling like roaches, leaking juices and polluting the world for days, even after being squashed. It must be a part of that plan for the world that says at any given time there are only thirty six tzadikkum, just and righteous people, who hold the world together with masking tape and mud and never know the value of their labor. Poisonous assholes, great and small, never get tired, while nature apparently puts a load limit on virtue.

According to the article, Duncan had been frustrated in her efforts to become an independent filmaker, which if you'd asked me, I coulda told you, Henry Slesar's description of "success in Hollywood" being enough for me. Add to that what Jim Harrison said: that a successful career in the arts faces about the same odds as an unlucky combat platoon, or a retirement community in Florida, with a few survivors breaking through and then attributing their success to inherent virtue and hard work instead of the vagaries of fate. Garrison Keillor wisely sneered at religious pundits who talk about Faith without ever really having to dig for it: "there's no one knows more about faith than an undiscovered artist." There's no one waiting for your next outburst, you have to feel energized enough to do the work, but not so energized you don't want to stay in your seat, you have to and believe that a project's worth finishing even if no one ever sees it, its value to the world roughly less than that fallen sumac tree that no one heard.

As connected as Theresa Duncan was in New York, even after her big break when her animated film The History of Glamour got national attention, it just wasn't enough to get a film made. I knew a guy who had the "option" picked up for a comedy script he wrote, thousands of dollars-- but six years later he was still waiting tables. Filmmaking, if you'da ast me (which you didn't), is art-by-committee: you need a lot of hands and a lot of money, and all kinds of trouble I don't need-- whereas when the power was out in Kalamazoo for more than three days, we managed somehow with a pencil and a flashlight. Theresa Duncan had at least one editor telling her to give up on film for now, and move into prose full time... but it tasked her. Zero Mostel, after he was blacklisted, just said Screw It and went on painting until the wheel turned around again. Worried about that day the Right finally transforms the United States into Chile, and we're all locked up with three hots and a cot in Guantanamo...? I'm the guy muttering, "Finally, I can get some work done."

Apparently for Duncan and Blake, their frustrations started turning into conspiracy theories about Scientologists who didn't want them to succeed. The natural process of finding out Who Your True Friends Are degenerated into making lists of Who Was Loyal and Who Was Part of the Conspiracy. No one can follow from the outside all the dark and lonely convolutions that lead a person to suicide, and according to New York, no one knows exactly when this beautiful couple drove off the main road until they were lost from sight.

Yeah, yeah, I was young and beautiful and doomed once, too. And yet, and yet, as I read on, I was surprised to find out that Theresa Duncan was a sister under the skin, another smart and literate kid from a small town (Lapeer, in her case) in Michigan, another talented writer unable to break into the world dominated by million dollar contracts for celebrity authors, which, in case you haven't figured out, means more than a thousand talented writers who will never be published at all because the corporation blew the budget on Sonnee Tufts' tell-all. She didn't want to be a fly-over, when silly people with much less to say are lionized in the cultural centers of New York and Los Angeles. We are mute, emasculated, unheard, drowned out by the shouting from Madison Avenue until we find some way to break a crack in the rock so the living water can flow through to bring water to the owls and the dragons. Add in chemical, genetic and situational depression, suicidal impulses, the frustration of having one eye in a kingdom of the blind (for example, I see from the papers that Norman Finkelstein was denied tenure by Depaul for getting into a pissing match with the Israeli lobby, his apparent sin being speaking truth to someone who buys ink by the barrellful). Add in the chronic anguish that can drive someone to a hasty decision simply to escape, baby, my credentials are on file. These are the things that Hamlet puts on his list of daily insults to the brain, next to the law's delay and the proud man's contumely.

There's a conversation in Long Day's Journey into Night between the compromised father and the ambitious son:
James: Yes, there's the makings of a poet in you all right
Edmund: The makings of a poet. I'm like a bum who asks for a cigarette: he doesn’t have the makings, he's only got the habit. I could never touch what I tried to tell you just now. I just stammered.

I've been luckier than poor Theresa Duncan (would she have chased those pills with whiskey if she'd known Jeremy Blake would follow her in? Was it an poorly thought-out impulse?) I was lucky enough to have a friend nearby who could warn me when I started to sound like a danger to myself. Non-depressives sometimes forget the nature of the disease: when you're down in a hole (hence, "depression") the only reality you can see is the side of the hole, with the patch of sunlight up above being something reserved for "winners" instead of "losers" like yourself. Reality is filtered through a delusion that even the most despicable human beings-- telemarketers, torturers, dog fight promoters-- are winners in the eyes of the world, while the most noble depressive is unworthy of life. The depressive appears lucid, even cheerful-- how many of us are full of jokes!-- but when those chemicals are acting up, there's a distortion of subjective reality that would make a schizophrenic call us crazy.

So include a little prayer for Thersa Duncan and Jeremy Blake and sad people everywhere, even, reportedly, the actor Owen Wilson, and for all the wayfarers looking for the soul of the world, the hobos Kerouac described as wearing two watches, the sun on one wrist and the moon on the other. Some of the very best people are exiles from the culture at large; you'll eat canned beans with the likes of Diogenes and Chu Yuan. But it's like all those times when you were maybe too drunk to drive but you made it home anyway, or went home with the wrong person but you managed not to drive your life into a ditch. If making a success as an artist requires the happiest of chances, so does being rescued from suicide, encountering this person instead of that, turning left instead of right on some dark corner on one dark night. I can remember a night when a photograph of Isak Dinesen's ancient face saved my life: I said, "she looks like I feel", and with nothing left but curiosity, I went home and read the only story by Dinesen I had in the house, and by chance it was a tale that had a particular blessing for me, and so I was saved. I've been rescued too many times by the luck of floating branches in the rushing current to ever sneer at someone else's nemesis.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

You covered it all, Mike. You of course know of my eventual arm-wrestling match with the reaper, but if I do take im up on it, its not for being pissed off at Hollywood or the book world. It will be because people like you and Kate and Stewart and Sid stop reading my words. Then its time to hit the dirt and snooze.

Samsung CLP-300 toner said...

Theresa Duncan was a wonderful person. Unfortunately i found out she committed suicide through my mother who was a friend of hers.

This was incredibly sad. I really enjoyed Blake's artwork although i didn't know him very well he was a very inspiring man. With beautiful visions for his art and also inspired Theresa to move forward.

May the lord be with them and may they rest in peace.
Thank you for this article,


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Saving this to my reading list (you gotta love the new Safari feature on iOS 5!). Great post.... P.S. Happy Friday, everyone :)