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pieces i love: federico lorca’s “play and theory of the duende” – an inherited piece.

January 27, 2011

i have written before how i inherit much of the poetry or the prose that i love from people who have been in my life. this piece is inherited from someone.

i had never before read federico lorca until somewhat recently. i met up with someone who i had known briefly once before in my past, when i was  younger. i liked him because he made me nervous and he made unadulterated eye contact, and he was unlike anybody i had ever met before: honest – truthfully nearly cruel in honesty – dominant, well-read, blunt, almost feral in a proclivity for uprooting himself and roving. as he was also a writer, i later attacked his bookcase and then he produced for me lorca’s essay on duende, thought it would be important for me to read as i was a musician as he was – except i had not touched my instrument for years, and i was nervous about that. (sounds like a euphemism.) and he thought that the idea of duende might help me, might appeal to me.

while reading lorca – months later in vancouver – i was rendered speechless. the parts that most affected me are as follows:

“The true fight is with the duende … he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned … he leans on human pain with no consolation … The duende does not come at all unless he sees that death is possible. The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death’s house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation … With idea, sound , or gesture, the duende enjoys fighting the creator on the very rim of the well. Angel and muse escape with violin, meter, and compass; the duende wounds. In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work …

The duende works on the body of the dancer as the wind works on sand. With magical power he changes a girl into a lunar paralytic, or brings an adolescent blush to the broken old man begging in the wineshop, or the odor of a nocturnal port to a woman’s hair …

The duende … where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed grass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.”

© Federico Lorca

to be honest, i have some serious problems with lorca’s essay. he disparages both the “muse” and the “angel”, comparing them to duende. in my mind, there are three characters present: the muse, who is female (lorca describes her as such), the angel, who is male (lorca describes him as such), and the duende, who is male (lorca describes him as such). the muse is apathetic and wispy. she “dictates and sometimes prompts,” is “distant and so tired” (lorca does not describe why this poor woman is so tired. why? why!?).  she is described at one point as having “cow’s eyes.” charming. and then there is the angel. the angel is described in sometimes more effeminate terms – as male but “dazzling”, as something that “sheds his grace.” he seems superficial. he cries at the sight of death. lorca goes so far as to state that the angel is horrified “to feel even the tiniest spider on his tender, rosy foot!”. huh. lorca is biased. he is not giving me anything positive about the muse and the angel, both of which i believe in, both of which can inspire. one is a vapid, grey, exhausted woman, and the other is a flamboyant, shrieking thing with wings.

the duende, on the other hand, is the uber masculine – is described in terms of bull fighting, a la hemingway’s masterpiece of long-cocking and fist fighting. (as the sun also rises). this seems a little ridiculous to me. the duende “wounds” and fights. the duende enagages in hand to hand combat with the writer. the duende is constantly referred to as “he” – is not afraid of death, is active. he is so active. and through this, i truly don’t agree with lorca – why is the duende so straight and narrow and inherently male? why are the muse and the angel so weak and so watered down? i don’t agree that the three of them are so separate. i don’t think it is as easy as that.

but since this is a “piece i love” i should explain what i love. i love lorca’s slick writing, the odd combinations of words – “arsenic lobster”, the images of everyone’s duende looking different – one with “green anemones of phosphorus, [another] with blossoms of … gypsum,” one with “the head of assyrian bull.”

i believe in the idea of hand to hand combat with your ideas. i love the idea of wrestling a muse to the ground in order to tame it, to dominate it, to force it onto the page. it’s a struggle to write with throaty passion and i think that lorca describes that exquisitely.  i also think, however, that the idea of inspiration hovers somewhere in the middle of the muse, the angel, and the duende. it is not all one or the other. inspiration is mutable, mercurial, and depending on the day it is either the raunchy, snapping duende, the willowy, coquettish muse, the glistering and doe-eyed angel. not any of these is better than the other. that is my personal idea of inspiration and the duende.

carmen amaya, photographed by roger wood. major duende.

anyway. it is interesting to think on, and to muse how we receive inspiration from others just through what they suggest for us to read.

chew on that.

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