The Duende: Theory and Divertissement
by Federico Garcia Lorca
Whoever inhabits that bull’s hide stretched between the Jucar, the Gaudelete, the Sil or the Pisuerga – no need to mention the streams joining those lion-coloured waves churned up by the Plata – has heard it said with a certain frequency: “Now that has real duende !” It was in this spirit that Manuel Torres, the great artist of the Andalusian people, once remarked to a singer: “You have a voice, you know all the styles, but you’ll never bring it off because you have no duende.”
In all Andalusia, from the rock of Jaen to the shell of Cádiz, people constantly speak of the duende and find it in everything that springs out of energetic instinct. That marvelous singer, “El Librijano,” originator of the Debla, observed, “Whenever I am singing with duende, no one can come up to me”; and one day the old gypsy dancer, “La Malena,” exclaimed while listening to Brailowski play a fragment of Bach: “Olé! That has duende !”- and remained bored by Gluck and Brahms and Darius Milhaud. And Manuel Torres, to my mind a man of exemplary blood culture, once uttered this splendid phrase while listening to Falla himself play his “Nocturno del Generalife”: “Whatever has black sounds has duende.” There is no greater truth.
These black sounds are the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art. Black sounds: so said the celebrated Spaniard, thereby concurring with Goethe, who, in effect, defined the duende when he said, speaking of Paganini: “A mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain.”
The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist, a true virtuoso, remark, “The duende is not in the throat, the duende comes up from inside, up from the very soles of the feet.” That is to say, it is not a question of aptitude, but of a true and viable style – of blood, in other words; of what is oldest in culture: of creation made act.
This “mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain,” is, in sum, the earth-force, the same duende that fired the heart of Nietzsche, who sought it in its external forms on the Rialto Bridge, or in the music of Bizet, without ever finding it, or understanding that the duende he pursued had rebounded from the mystery-minded Greeks to the Dancers of Cádiz or the gored, Dionysian cry of Silverio’s siguiriya.
So much for the duende; but I would not have you confuse the duende with the theological demon of doubt at whom Luther, on a Bacchic impulse, hurled an inkwell in Nuremberg, or with the Catholic devil, destructive, but short on intelligence, who disguised himself as a bitch to enter the convents, or with the talking monkey that Cervantes’ mountebank carried in the comedy about jealousy and the forests of Andalusia.
No. The duende that I speak of, shadowy, palpitating, is a descendant of that benignest demon of Socrates, he of marble and salt, who scratched the master angrily the day he drank the hemlock; and of that melancholy imp of Descartes, little as an unripe almond, who, glutted with circles and lines, went out on the canals to hear the drunken sailors singing.
Any man – any artist, as Nietzsche would say – climbs the stairway in the tower of his perfection at the cost of a struggle with a duende – not with an angel, as some have maintained, or with his muse. This fundamental distinction must be kept in mind if the root of a work of art is to be grasped.
The angel guides and endows, like Saint Raphael, or prohibits and avoids like Saint Michael, or foretells, like Saint Gabriel.
The Angel dazzles; but he flies over men’s heads and remains in mid-air, shedding his grace; and the man, without any effort whatever, realizes his work, or his fellow-feeling, or his dance. The angel on the road to Damascus, and he who entered the crevice of the little balcony of Assisi, or that other angel who followed in the footsteps of Heinrich Suso, commanded – and there was no resisting his radiance, for he waved his wings of steel in an atmosphere of predestination.
The Muse dictates and, in certain cases, prompts. There is relatively little she can do, for she keeps aloof and is so full of lassitude (I have seen her twice) that I myself have had to put half a heart of marble in her. The Poets of the Muse hear voices and do not know where they come from; but surely they are from the Muse, who encourages and at times devours them entirely. Such, for example, was the case of Apollinaire, that great poet ravaged by the horrible Muse with whom the divinely angelic Rousseau painted him. The Muse arouses the intellect, bearing landscapes of columns and the false taste of laurel; but intellect is oftentimes the foe of poetry because it imitates too much, it elevates the poet to a throne of acute angles and makes him forget that in time the ants can devour him, too, or that a great arsenical locust can fall on his head, against which the Muses who live inside monocles or the lukewarm lacquer roses of insignificant salons, are helpless.
Angel and Muse approach from without; the Angel sheds light and the Muse gives form (Hesiod learned of them). Gold leaf or chiton-folds: the poet finds his models in his laurel coppice. But the Duende, on the other hand, must come to life in the nethermost recesses of the blood.
And repel the Angel, too – kick out the Muse and conquer his awe of the fragrance of violets that breathe from the poetry of the eighteenth century, or of the great telescope in whose lenses the Muse dozes off, sick of limits.
The true struggle is with the Duende.
The paths leading to God are well known, from the barbaric way of the hermit, to the subtler modes of the mystic. With a tower, then, like Saint Theresa, or with three roads, like St. John of the Cross. And even if we must cry out in Isaiah’s voice: “Truly, thou art the hidden God!” at the end at last, God sends to each seeker his first fiery thorns.
To seek out the Duende, however, neither map nor discipline is required. Enough to know that he kindles the blood like an irritant, that he exhausts, that he repulses, all the bland, geometrical assurances, that he smashes the styles; that he makes of a Goya, master of the grays, the silvers, the roses of the great English painters, a man painting with his knees and his fists in bituminous blacks; that he bares a Mosen Cinto Verdaguer to the cold of the Pyrenees or induces a Jorge Manrique to sweat out his death on the crags of Ocaña, or invests the delicate body of Rimbaud in the green domino of the saltimbanque, or fixes the dead fish-eyes on the Comte de Lautréamont in the early hours of the boulevard.
The great artists of southern Spain, both gypsies and flamenco, whether singing or dancing or playing their instruments, know that no emotion is possible without the mediation of the Duende. They may hoodwink the people, they may give the illusion of duende without really having it, just as writers and painters and literary fashion-mongers without duende cheat you daily; but it needs only a little care and the will to resist one’s own indifference, to discover the imposture and put it and its crude artifice to flight.
Once the Andalusian singer, Pastora Pavon, “The Girl with the Combs,” a sombre Hispanic genius whose capacity for fantasy equals Goya’s or Raphael el Gallo’s, was singing in a little tavern in Cádiz. She sparred with her voice – now shadowy, now like molten tin, now covered with moss; she tangled her voice in her long hair or drenched it in sherry or lost it in the darkest and furthermost bramble bushes. But nothing happened – useless, all of it! The hearers remained silent.
There stood Ignacio Espeleta, handsome as a Roman turtle, who was asked once why he never worked, and replied with a smile worthy of Argantonio: “How am I to work if I come from Cádiz?”
There, too, stood Héloise, the fiery aristocrat, whore of Seville, direct descendant of Soledad Vargas, who in the thirties refused to marry a Rothschild because he was not of equal blood. There were the Floridas, whom some people call butchers, but who are really millennial priests sacrificing bulls constantly to Geryon; and in a corner stood that imposing breeder of bulls, Don Pablo Murabe, with the air of a Cretan mask. Pastora Pavon finished singing in the midst of total silence. There was only a little man, one of those dancing mannikins who leap suddenly out of brandy bottles, who observed sarcastically in a very low voice: “Viva Paris!” As if to say: We are not interested in aptitude or techniques or virtuosity here. We are interested in something else.
Then the “Girl with the Combs” got up like a woman possessed, her face blasted like a medieval weeper, tossed off a great glass of Cazalla at a single draught, like a potion of fire, and settled down to singing – without a voice, without breath, without nuance, throat aflame – but with duende ! She had contrived to annihilate all that was nonessential in song and make way for an angry and incandescent Duende, friend of sand-laden winds, so that everyone listening tore at his clothing almost in the same rhythm with which the West Indian negroes in their rites rend away their clothes, huddled in heaps before the image of Saint Barbara.
The “Girl with the Combs” had to mangle her voice because she knew there were discriminating folk about who asked not for form, but for the marrow of form – pure music spare enough to keep itself in the air. She had to deny her faculties and her security; that is to say, to turn out her Muse and keep vulnerable, so that her Duende might come and vouchsafe the hand-to-hand struggle. And then how she sang! Her voice feinted no longer; it jetted up like blood, ennobled by sorrow and sincerity, it opened up like ten fingers of a hand around the nailed feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni – tempestuous!
The arrival of the Duende always presupposes a radical change in all the forms as they existed on the old plane. It gives a sense of refreshment unknown until then, together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the miraculous, which comes and instils an almost religious transport.
In all Arabian music, in the dances, songs, elegies of Arabia, the coming of the Duende is greeted by fervent outcries of Allah! Allah! God! God!, so close to the Olé” Olé! of our bull rings that who is to say they are not actually the same; and in all the songs of southern Spain the appearance of the Duende is followed by heartfelt exclamations of God alive! – profound, human tender, the cry of communion with God through the medium of the five senses and the grace of the Duende that stirs the voice and the body of the dancer – a flight from this world, both real and poetic, pure as Pedro de Roja’s over the seven gardens (that most curious poet of the seventeenth century), or Juan Calimacho’s on the tremulous ladder of tears.
Naturally, when flight is achieved, all feel its effects: the initiate coming to see at last how style triumphs over inferior matter, and the unenlightened, through the I-don’t-know-what of an authentic emotion. Some years ago, in a dancing contest at Jerez de la Frontera, an old lady of eighty, competing against beautiful women and young girls with waists as supple as water, carried off the prize merely by the act of raising her arms, throwing back her head, and stamping the little platform with a blow of her feet; but in the conclave of muses and angels foregathered there – beauties of form and beauties of smile – the dying duende triumphed as it had to, trailing the rusted knife blades of its wings along the ground.
All the arts are capable of duende, but it naturally achieves its widest play in the fields of music, dance and the spoken poem, since those require a living presence to interpret them, because they are forms which grow and decline perpetually and raise their contours on the precise present.
Often the Duende of the musician passes over into the Duende of the interpreter, and at other times, when the musician and poet are not matched, the Duende of the interpreter – this is interesting – creates a new marvel that retains the appearance – and the appearance only – of the originating form. Such was the case with the duende-ridden Duse who deliberately sought out failures in order to turn them into triumphs, thanks to her capacity for invention; or with Paganini who, as Goethe explained, could make one hear profoundest melody in out-and-out vulgarity; or with a delectable young lady from the port of Santa María whom I saw singing and dancing the horrendous Italian ditty, “O Marie!” with such rhythms, such pauses, and such conviction that she transformed an Italian geegaw into a hard serpent of raised gold. What happened, in effect, was that each in his own way found something new, something never before encountered, which put lifeblood and art into bodies void of expression.
In every country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes down. But not in Spain! In Spain the curtain goes up. Many people live out their lives between walls until the day they die and are brought out into the sun. In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country of the world: their profile wounds like the edge of a barbers razor. The quip about death and the silent contemplation of it are familiar to the Spanish. From the “Dream of the Skulls” of Quevedo, to the “Putrescent Bishop” of Valdés Leal; from La Marbella of the seventeenth century who, dying in childbirth on the highway, says:
The blood of my entrails
Covers the horse.
And the horse’s hooves
Strike fire from the pitch
to a recent young man from Salamanca, killed by a bull who exclaimed:
My friends, I am dying.
My friends, it goes badly.
I’ve three handkerchiefs inside me,
And this I apply now makes four.
There is a balustrade of flowering nitre where hordes peer out, contemplating death, with verses from Jeremiah for the grimmer side or sweet-smelling cypress for the more lyrical – but in any case, a country where all that is most important has its final metallic valuation in death.
The knife and the cart wheel and the razor and the singing beard-points of the shepherds, the shorn moon and the fly, the damp lockers, the ruins and the lace-covered saints, the quicklime and the cutting line of eaves and balconies: in Spain, all bear little grass-blades of death, allusions and voices perceptible to the spiritually alert, that call to our memory with the corpse-cold air of our own passing. It is no accident that all Spanish art is bound to our soil, so full of thistles and definitive stone; the lamentations of Pleberio or the dances of the master Josef Maria de Valdivielso are not isolated instances, nor is it by chance that from all the balladry of Europe the Spanish inamorata disengages herself in this fashion:
“If you are my fine friend,
Tell me – why won’t you look at me?”
“The eyes with which I look at you
I gave up to the shadow.”
“If you are my fine friend
Tell me – why don’t you kiss me?”
“The lips with which I kissed you
I gave up to the clay.”
“If you are my fine friend
Tell me – why won’t you embrace me?”
“The arms that embrace you
I have covered up with worms.”
Nor is it strange to find that in the dawn of our lyricism, the following note is sounded:
Inside the garden
I shall surely die.
Inside the rosebush
They will kill me.
Mother, Mother, I went out
But surely death will find me
In the Garden.
Mother, Mother, I went out
But surely death will find me
In the rosebush.
Inside the garden
I shall surely die.
In the rosebush
They will kill me.
Those heads frozen by the moon that Zurbarán painted, the butter-yellows and the lightening-yellows of El Greco, the narrative of Father Sigüenza, all the work of Goya, the presbytery of the Church of the Escorial, all polychrome sculpture, the crypt of the ducal house of Osuna, the death with the guitar in the chapel of the Benavente in Medina de Río Seco – all equal, on the plane of cultivated art, the pilgrimages of San Andrés de Teixido where the dead have their place in the procession; they are one with the songs for the dead that the women of Asturias intone with flame-filled lamps in the November night, one with the song and dance of the Sibyl in the cathedrals of Mallorca and Toledo, with the obscure “In Recort” of Tortosa, and the innumerable rites of Good Friday that, with the arcane fiesta of the Bulls, epitomize the popular triumph of Spanish death. In all the world, Mexico alone can go hand-in-hand with my country.
When the Muse sees death on the way, she closes the door, or raises a plinth, or promenades an urn and inscribes an epitaph with a waxen hand, but in time she tears down her laurels again in a silence that wavers between two breezes. Under the truncated arch of the Ode, she joins with funereal meaning the exact flowers that the Italians of the fifteenth century depicted, with the identical cock of Lucretius, to frighten off an unforeseen darkness.
When the Angel sees death on the way, he flies in slow circles and weaves with tears of narcissus and ice the elegy we see trembling in the hands of Keats and Villasandino and Herrera and Becquer and Juan Ramón Jiménez. But imagine the terror of the Angel, should it feel a spider – even the tiniest – on its tender and roseate flesh!
The Duende, on the other hand, will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility of death, if he is not convinced he will circle death’s house, if there is not every assurance he can rustle the branches borne aloft by us all, that neither have, nor may ever have, the power to console.
With idea, with sound, or with gesture, the Duende chooses the brim of the well for his open struggle with the creator. Angel and Muse escape in the violin or in musical measure, but the Duende draws blood, and in the healing of the wound that never quite closes, all that is unprecedented and invented in a man’s work has its origin.
The magical virtue of poetry lies in the fact that it is always empowered with duende to baptize in dark water all those who behold it, because with duende, loving and understanding are simpler, there is always the certainty of being loved and being understood; and this struggle for expression and for the communication of expression acquires at times, in poetry, finite characters.
Recall the case of that paragon of the flamenco and daemonic way, Saint Teresa – flamenca not for her prowess in stopping an angry bull with three significant passes – though she did so – nor for her presumption in esteeming herself beautiful in the presence of Fray Juan de Miseria, nor for slapping the face of a papal nuncio; but rather for the simple circumstance that she was one of the rare ones whose Duende (not her Angel – the Angels never attack) pierced her with an arrow, hoping thereby to destroy her for having deprived him of his ultimate secret: the subtle bridge that links the five senses with the very center, the living flesh, living cloud, living sea, of Love emancipated from Time.
Most redoubtable conqueress of the Duende – and how utterly unlike the case of Philip of Austria who, longing to discover the Muse and the Angel in theology, found himself imprisoned by the Duende of cold ardors in that masterwork of the Escorial, where geometry abuts with a dream and the Duende wears the mask of the Muse for the eternal chastisement of the great king.
We have said that the Duende loves ledges and wounds, that he enters only those areas where form dissolves in a passion transcending any of its visible expressions.
In Spain (as in all Oriental countries where dance is a form of religious expression) the Duende has unlimited play in the bodies of the dancers of Cádiz, eulogized by Martial, in the breasts of the singers, eulogized by Juvenal, and in all the liturgy of the bulls – that authentic religious drama where, in the manner of the Mass, adoration and sacrifice are rendered a God.
It would seem that all the duende of the classical world is crowded into this matchless festival, epitomizing the culture and the noble sensibility of a people who discover in man his greatest rages, his greatest melancholies, his greatest lamentations. No one, I think, is amused by the dances or the bulls in Spain; the Duende has taken it on himself to make them suffer through the medium of drama, in living forms, and prepares the ladders for flight from encompassing reality.
The Duende works on the body of the dancer like the wind works on sand. With magical force, it converts a young girl into a lunar paralytic; or fills with adolescent blushes a ragged old man begging handouts in the wineshops; or suddenly discovers the smell of nocturnal ports in a head of hair, and moment for moment, works on the arms with an expressiveness which is the mother of the dance of all ages.
But it is impossible for him ever to repeat himself – this is interesting and must be underscored. The Duende never repeats himself, any more than the forms of the sea repeat themselves in a storm.
In the bullfight, the Duende achieves his most impressive advantage, for he must fight then with death who can destroy him, on one hand, and with geometry, with measure, the fundamental basis of the bullfight, on the other.
The Bull has his orbit, and the bullfighter has his, and between orbit and orbit is the point of risk where falls the vertex of the terrible byplay.
It is possible to hold a Muse with a muletta and an Angel with banderillas, and pass for a good bullfighter; but for the faena de capa, with the bull still unscarred by a wound, the help of the Duende is necessary at the moment of the kill, to drive home the blow of artistic truth.
The bullfighter who moves the public to terror in the plaza by his audacity does not fight the bull – that would be ludicrous in such a case – but, within the reach of each man, puts his life at stake; on the contrary, the fighter bitten by the Duende gives a lesson in Pythagorian music and induces all to forget how he constantly hurls his heart against the horns.
Lagartigo with his Roman duende, Joselito with his Jewish duende, Belmonte with his baroque duende, and Cagancho with his gypsy duende, from the twilight of the ring, teach poets, painters, and musicians four great ways of the Spanish tradition.
Spain is the only country where death is the national spectacle, where death blows long fanfares at the coming of each Spring, and its art is always governed by a shrewd duende that has given it its distinctive character and its quality of invention.
The Duende that, for the first time in sculpture, fills the cheeks of the saints of the master Mateo de Compostela with blood, is the same spirit that evokes the lamentations of St. John of the Cross or burns naked nymphs on the religious sonnets of Lope.
The Duende who raises the tower of Sahagun or tesselates hot brick in Calatayud or Teruel, is the same spirit that breaks open the clouds of El Greco and sends the constables of Quevedo and the chimaeras of Goya sprawling with a kick.
When it rains, he secretly brings out a duende-minded Velasquez, behind his monarchical grays; when it snows he sends Herrera out naked to prove that cold need not kill; when it burns, he casts Berruguette into the flames and lets him invent a new space for sculpture.
The music of Góngora and the Angel of Garcilaso must yield up the laurel wreath when the Duende of St. John of the Cross passes by, when
The wounded stag peers over the hill.
The Muse of Góngora de Berceo and the Angel of the Archpriest of Hita must give way to the approaching Jorge Manrique when he comes, wounded to death, to the gates of the Castle of Belmonte. The Muse of Gregorio Hernandez and the Angel of José de Mora must retire, so that the Duende weeping blood-tears of Mena, and the Duende of Matinez Montañes with a head like an Assyrian bull’s, may pass over, just as the melancholy Muse of Cataluña and the humid Angel of Galicia must watch, with loving terror, the Duende of Castile, far from the hot bread and the cow grazing mildly among forms of swept sky and parched earth.
The Duende of Quevedo and the Duende of Cervantes, one bearing phosphorescent green anemones and the other the plaster flowers of Ruidera, crown the alter-piece of the Duende of Spain.
Each art has, by nature, its distinctive Duende of style and form, but all roots join at the point where the black sounds of Manuel Torres issue forth – the ultimate stuff and the common basis, uncontrollable and tremulous, of wood and sound and canvas and word.
Black sounds: behind which there abide, in tenderest intimacy, the volcanoes, the ants, the zephyrs, and the enormous night straining its waist against the Milky Way.
Ladies and gentlemen: I have raised three arches, and with clumsy hand I have placed in them the Muse, the Angel and the Duende.
The Muse keeps silent; she may wear the tunic of little folds, or great cow-eyes gazing towards Pompeii, or the monstrous, four-featured nose with which her great painter, Picasso, has painted her. The Angel may be stirring the hair of Antonello da Messina, the tunic of Lippi, and the violin of Masolino or Rousseau.
But the Duende – where is the Duende ? Through the empty arch enters a mental air blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, seeking new landscapes and unfamiliar accents; an air bearing the odor of child’s spittle, crushed grass, and the veil of Medusa announcing the unending baptism of all newly-created things.