In Search of Duende

Norm Gibbons

gypsy dancerDUENDE HAS its roots in Andalusia. The Romani on their long migrations from Northern India centuries ago are credited with bringing the concept to the West. They would not agree however that duende is a concept. They think of it more literally as a power or force.

A fortunate few have seen duende, or heard it, or read it, maybe even felt the power rise from the mysterious dark earth into the soles of their feet, rush through their corpus to their pen (or computer) and watch in dismay as lava rivers of ink flowed onto the pages. This mysterious adventure may have been the case for Jack Kerouac who typed the Beat novel, On The Road, for six weeks on a continuous roll of paper, hardly ever taking a break, living on coffee, his mother’s sandwiches and numerous alcoholic pick-me-ups. Other writers allude to similar experiences. William Faulkner wrote the novel As I Lay Dying each midnight to 4:00 AM over the course of six weeks and claims he never changed a word. And Gabriel Garcia Marquez agonized for eighteen long months over the first sentence – “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – in his famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and then in a matter of six months, completed one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. These stories are legend, but as in most legends a grain of truth resides. Duende is not so stingy as to favour the writer alone.

Duende snatches the brush from the painter’s hand and marks the canvas too, the artist at some level realizing that he or she is a conduit, willing or unwilling, under a new kind of sorcery. Consider the furious architecture in Goya’s paintings, Picasso’s Guernica under the spell of war, or Jackson Pollock with his black drips and splashes colliding into a bare and frightening tabla rasa.

img_0371In the corrida, duende seldom makes an appearance, but when it does, the cape, the toreador, the bull, and most importantly, the crowd, become one. A collective, trance-like emotion pervades the bullring, the dance of death on a Sunday afternoon becomes a ritualized ceremony, the crowd in a frenzy shouts olé, and all participants, even the bull, are controlled by a hot black force. In his non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway explores the metaphysical consequences inside the bullring, the battle between life and death. Readers have come to realize that Hemingway, the bullfighting aficionado, saw the corrida as the venue for the metaphor of creativity to act out this “Jobian” struggle.

In music we hear duende on the frets and strings of a guitar, the heels and toes of the dancer, and in the primal screams of the singer. It is said that when a flamenco dancer nears exhaustion a spirit enters the body and takes control. Then the body shakes and the breath trembles. Flamenco is duende’s homeland and seems to favour this art form more than others. Perhaps, a viewing of this clip gives a sense of the perfect invasion of that force:

The dancer, Soledad Barrio, had this to say in an interview with Andrew Blackmore-Dobbyn: “When you work and work and work, then sometimes everything lines up and comes together. Maybe you had it last night but not tonight. It can happen in the studio when you are alone or on stage with the whole company. You can’t control it. All of the elements have to line up at that same time and that only happens rarely. Lorca abused the word. Einstein said the best thing about what we think of as duende: ‘the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.’”

The word is not easily translatable to other languages. In English dictionaries, duende is a mythological creature akin to a fairy, a goblin, a sprite, and an annoying trickster who ties your shoelaces together or throws your car keys out the window. C. Maurer describes the notion in his book, Architecture of Deep Song: “The duende is a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive, all that the performer is creating at a certain moment. The duende resembles what Goethe called the demoniacal.”

The great Spanish poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, in New York, in the fall of 1929 gave a lecture at Columbia University called, In Search of Duende. This lecture is the most famous discussion of the subject despite Soledad Barrio’s statement above that he abused the word.

lorca_portrait_full3Lorca, who came from Andalusia – where duende is deep-rooted in every man, woman and child, even the wild animals roaming the hills and the birds arching over the dry and hot mountainous countryside of thistles and stones – saw the term as a metaphor for inspiration in art. He makes distinctions about inspiration though – a ranking – a series of rungs on a short ladder beginning with rational thought, an occasional visit by a muse, but she is tired, distant and only dictates, next a dazzling angel as a guide – the bestower of light – and then the final rung, the last step to the duende, where, as he claims, “the real fight begins.”

The fight is about the irrational taking over. Freud’s unconscious gaining the upper hand. Lucifer tempting Jesus. There is a yielding to the dark side of the force.  The terror of the spirit enters the creative process. The fight opens the possibility of death and implies that truth in creativity can only be found in the presence of death. Death watches the artist and may even interfere with the rational intentions of the artist.

The artist fears this fight because a descent into madness, temporary or permanent, opens the way for suffering, solitude and finality. Think of poor Vincent. The artist accepts the fight though, because, this is the rare opportunity to access the ineffable.

None of the discussion above dismisses the need for skill in the craft. Again as Soledad Barrio comments, “In Spain we say that to be considered a good dancer you must have the technique of the zapateado, the braceo and floreo; you must know the whole art: the songs, the music and the guitar; and you must dance with the heart.”

Duende by its nature happens infrequently and can be a singular experience or a collective one. It encourages the mayhem in the creative force. It is both a barrier and an entry point. Duende challenges ego. It says, “Only part of you creates, the other part is me.”

My interest in duende came about while writing Sea without Shores, the second book in the trilogy, Edge of Desolation, which will migrate into the reading world a year from now. A major character in the novel is called Duende. He is a dog. As the narrator, Adam Wilkes explains, “He began speaking to me a few months earlier – a rich baritone voice coming from one so small. I don’t question that this phenomenon is unusual. Perhaps my hermitic existence brought the fact about. At the time of his first visit, it seemed he came riding on a wind, as in a fairy tale, but that fancy I have since dispelled, and now chalk up the distortion to the golden wisdom in a glass, which I moments earlier had energetically emptied into my blood stream. In any case, company is company and I don’t get much of it.”