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Ghost in the machine

January 4, 2008 | 12:19 pm

I was an admirer of Theresa Duncan; her blog, the Wit of the Staircase, was one of the smartest, least predictable aesthetic experiments on the Internet, a mash-up of intellectual rigor, artistic attitude and fan-girl obsession, filtered through a world-weary yet endearing voice. After Duncan committed suicide last July at age 40, Wit remained online as something of a virtual memorial, a ghost-like reminder of what could have been.

Yet Duncan, it turns out, seeded the site with two posthumous entries--the first, an odd and disturbing anecdote about Basil Rathbone and the spirit world that posted just before Halloween, and the second, an extended excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s "East Coker," which went live on New Year’s Eve under the title "New Beginning."

It’s impossible to look at either of these items without the suffocating sense that Duncan knew exactly what she was doing, that she was using technology as a way of talking to her readers from beyond the grave. But if on its own that’s just a gimmick, what makes it all so affecting is what she chose to communicate. The Rathbone story involves a friend of the actor who dies in a car crash and delivers the following message through a medium: "Traveling very fast. No time to say good-bye." And then, "There are no dogs here."

The Eliot, on the other hand, is both more hopeful and (as a consequence) more heartbreaking, the reflection of someone standing in the middle of life, looking back at past experience and ahead at all that’s left to do. "And so each venture/Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate," the excerpt begins. It continues:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate,
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our

Exactly. For us, there is only the trying. How sad that Duncan could not see it that way.

David L. Ulin