Phenomenological Psychology

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Two Whacky Couples

March 16th, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 3 Comments


There have been a number of great lovers in history, including: Paris and Helen of Troy; Troilus and Cressida; Antony and Cleopatra; Romeo and Juliet; Dante and Beatrice; and Kierkegaard and Regina. New additions to this roster are the post-modern couples Theresa Duncan and Jeremy Blake; and, Jocelyn Kirsch and Ed Anderton.

The sad tale of Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake is recounted by Nancy Jo Sales in “The Golden Suicides,” Vanity Fair (Jan. 2008). Evidently these two were New York artistes and latter-day hipsters. They killed themselves seriatim – first her, then him.

Most likely, he did it out of love for her. Like a latter-day Kiergegaardian, he defined himself in terms of her artistry and creativity. With her gone, his mission had been accomplished. There was nothing left for him to do. In a manner akin to a latter-day skeksi from the movie “The Dark Crystal,” she had sucked all the life out of him. Now nothing more than a hollow carapace of self, he simply carommed like a billiard ball, running into the most convenient obstacle, until he became too bruised and battered to continue.

The explanation for her, though, is more complex. There is nothing particularly noteworthy in her upbringing or environment, to compel this outcome. She lived a life of creativity that most people would envy.

In my experience, many people who want to kill (or succeed in killing) themselves, basically have the right idea. They are unable to comport themselves within the structure of our mutually-shared world. They cannot cope, in any meaningful way, with the conventions and protocols imposed by culture and society. They have failed to reconcile themselves to the situation in which they find themselves, even as they inhabit it and are a part of it. Not in the sense of “understanding” it, or even having any insight into it. And, not in the sense of “overcoming” their situation, or improving themselves, or even maximizing their grip on it, however tenuous.

They simply lack the practical skill of how to navigate through their life. They don’t have what colloquially might be referred to as “common sense.” They could just as well be from another planet, or an alternative universe. Everything makes sense there, whereas, it doesn’t, here.

What is flawed, though, is the means by which they choose to express themselves. Killing yourself certainly isn’t the answer. Rather, they need to re-direct their energies. To be alive is to express the meaning of your being. It’s not trying to “answer a question,” like Hamlet does when he asks, “to be, or not to be.” It’s how you’re oriented towards your environment, how you respond to the solicitations and affordances offered by the world in which you find yourself, and how you move forward in time and respond to the future’s possibilities. Your life is an adventure, like a work of performance art or spatial theater. You are constrained by the world, even as you overcome it.

Given their intelligence, energy and creativity, most people like Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake have what best might be described as a hyperthymic temperament. This frequently disposes them to mood disorders, including depression and mania. They are not cognitively impaired. Rather, they are neurochemically imbalanced. They have an illness, which is every bit as serious as heart disease, or cancer. We do them a grave disservice, if we view them any other way.

The somewhat more frolicsome tale of Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Anderton is told by Sabrina Rubin Erdely in “The Fabulous Fraudulent Life of Jocelyn and Ed,” Rolling Stone (Mar. 20, 2008). [Unfortunately, Jann Wenner, Rolling Stone’s publisher, does not seem to recognize the phenomenon of the internet, so there is no internet link. This is particularly ironic. Before it became a generic “lifestyle” magazine, Rolling Stone was a publication of record in the music business. Now, however, it appears to have succumbed to the malaise of that industry. Nothing Rolling Stone prints is on line, and their push e-mails are particularly irritating and uninformative. Good for Vanity Fair; too bad for Rolling Stone.]

Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Anderton took the concept of self-invention to new levels. Rather than developing their own identities, they literally appropriated that of others. Theirs was a bizarre form of kabuki theater, in which nothing was as it appeared. They were adroit and skillful in creating a plausible alternative universe. Better yet, they were adept at persuading others to be a part of it. This enabled them to steal money, live an extravagant lifestyle, and realize, however imperfectly, their fantasy of being jet-set celebrities.

Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Anderton make an interesting contrast with Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake. The former’s behavior has a texture of being far more intentional. Without question they were self-absorbed, and probably had a narcissistic personality disorder. Arguably, their exfoliated notion of self was caused by neurochemical imbalance. This hypothesis is reinforced – not contradicted – by the elaborate nature of their scheme. It was festooned, crenellated with detail. This level of elaborateness would not be possible without complete absence of insight. Chameleon-like, they slipped easily into their constructed personalities (Ms. Kirsch, in particular).

Their level of manic intensity is comparable to one of those old circus stunts, or county fair stunts, you’d see on the Midway. A guy would get on a motorcycle, and star riding around a cylinder, about 10 feet in diameter by 10 feet tall. Pretty quick, he’d achieve a level of centrifugal force, enabling him to ride perpendicular to the wall, parallel with the ground. Spinning like crazy.

This being so, Ms. Duncan’s and Mr. Blake’s issues have the feel of being far more tactile. They were enmeshed in a set of circumstances entirely beyond mental control. Their situation was exacerbated by their artistic temperament and creativity. They were fully deployed, fully engaged. Their orbit simply didn’t intersect with what others might consider to be “normal.”

Like square pegs to round holes, they couldn’t “fit in.” They had both poor positive fit, and poor negative fit. The former, in that they were unable to comply with the strictures and mandates imposed by their milieu. The latter, in that their observable behavior was bizarre and inappropriate, even accepting the premises of that milieu, as being so. Their level of cognition was comparable to that of a lizard, and I don’t mean this in anything other than a complementary way. Unlike Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Anderton, Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake weren’t like chameleons, because they couldn’t change color, in order to adapt. Rather, they were more like poikilotherms. A poikilotherm regulates its body temperature by moving into the heat, or shade. Similarly, Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake functioned on instinct alone. Not intuition – because that implies a level of introspection, they simply didn’t have.

It would be interesting to speculate on the insights they might have had, had they had any. It would be like Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of those “Terminator” movies. He tries to respond to a question. Rather than simply giving an answer, he has to scroll through a mental Rolodex of equally-implausible alternatives. Similarly, it is not hard to envision Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake in the balcony of the theater of their life, observing it like a pair of critics, commenting ironically on the action below.

Let us go a step further, and hand each couple of a sheet of glass. What would they see? To Ms. Kirsch and Mr. Anderton, it would reflect back their faces, like a mirror. They would smile and mug for the camera. For. Ms. Duncan and Mr. Blake, on the other hand, it would be completely transparent. They would not see themselves – rather, what was behind it. Or, it might be completely black – the would see nothing at all. This distinction between opacity and transparency is the key to evaluating their different modalities for being-in-the-world.

Like Jim Morrison of the Doors sang, “People are Strange, When You’re a Stranger.” He didn’t mean that you engaged in an act of recognition, and “knew” they were “strange.” You don’t “reject” them. Rather, they are like apparitions, or ghosts. The “Faces Come Out of the Rain.” Environmentally, they simply are incomprehensible. The “Streets Are Uneven, When You’re Down.” It is the world that is the imposition – not the other way around.

Blake and Duncan

Jeremy and Theresa

Jocelyn and Ed

Jocelyn and Ed