I Know It When I See It: Lorca’s Theory and Play of the Duende

Posted by on Sep 10, 2013 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Duende—What It’s Not:

Manfred Mann, “Doo Wah Diddy”

Though he has a voice and understands style, Manfred Mann probably didn’t understand the theory and play of Lorca’s duende (which might explain why, though being forerunners of the British Invasion, the band never managed to eclipse The Beatles. The White Album has duendeQuinn the Eskimo, though a great song…not so much.)

So what is this ephemeral duende that Lorca believes makes a piece of writing truly spring to life? The duende of writing seems to fall into that category where a person tries to categorize an observable fact, event, or quality, when the thing that they’re attempting to describe is subjective and lacks clearly defined parameters or criteria for classification. Defining duende seems as nebulous a task as defining obscenity–in 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said, “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description…and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it,” and this seems to be very much the indescribable quality of Lorca’s duende, as well.

Whether or not we’re able to pin down what it is, we can easily identify it when we see it, read it, or hear it—or when it resonates within us—though work that to one reader may have duende may not communicate the duende to another reader and their unique aesthetic sensibilities. Understanding where readers find (or fail to find) duende is part-and-parcel of working for a literary publication—there are poems, essays and stories that I have absolutely fallen in love with, which do not always have the same impact on the other staff readers—and here is where understanding duende comes into play. By finding a way to articulate the thing which cannot be defined that brings a piece to life, you do a service to yourself as a reader, and a service to the author, for being able to coherently discuss why their piece is compelling.

Lorca writes, “…’All that has dark sounds has duende‘. And there’s no deeper truth than that.” With that idea in mind, ask yourself if the duende  is “The Muse” that we all call upon when we sit down to write, and that we are seeking to find when we sit down to read? Are each of our souls dark? How do we then approach writing that has duende and reaches us on a plane of inexplicable joy? Are we, the humans-as-writers, afraid of surrendering ourselves to joy and happiness, because it reminds us of our own smallness within the world—should we question whether this is a form of darkness, a form of duende? This approach to the question might explain why sometimes, we read something that is so beautiful, it moves us to tears—though we are happy, we sometimes experience that happiness with an action associated with sorrow—a variant of darkness. Or is it only because in order to have darkness, to know darkness, you must also have known light? After all, darkness means nothing to those who have never seen the sun.

On  Lorca’s next intriguing point, I’ll draw a parallel—with punk music. Lorca describes that “…..’a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’…the duende is a force not a labor, a struggle not a thought.” and follows this by stating, “It’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive.” Much like pinpointing the mysterious duende of creative writing, in the nascent days of punk music, it was the desire to make music and the force motivating this desire that was more important than the actual ability to make music—many punk musicians were (and are) unskilled musicians who can’t read music or only know a few chords—take The Sex Pistols, for instance. But regardless of actually having the skills to understand music on a craft level, those same punk musicians created a movement that revolutionized music, and you can argue that the landscape of music has never been the same since punk hit the scene—because punk music has duende.

Likewise, in poetry, everyone has had the experience of reading a poem that’s well crafted, thought out and executed flawlessly, where you can find no actual flaws in the workmanship, images, syntax, or grammar…and yet it does nothing for you emotionally, and the poem is forgotten as quickly as you read it. No duende. I would argue that every reader (and writer) has had the experience of reading poems (or writing them) which may be messy, all over the place, have serious craft issues and imperfect executions—and yet, they reach deep into you, stay with you, and become the poems you go back to over and over again, because they have duende, and the emotive quality of the writing supersedes the writing itself.  In a sense, the flaws become the features. What may not be harnessed in structuring or craft, if you find the right combination of words, or write something in a way that someone feels it in their soul—you’ve achieved duende, whether or not you know how you did it (and likewise, whether or not you know how to repeat that magic.)

On re-creating the magic of duende in your work, Lorca writes: “Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline.” Here again, I’ll draw a pop-culture reference to illustrate his point— in the play/film Amadeus, based on the Pushkin play Mozart and Salieri, the central conflict between Mozart and Salieri is over the duende. Though a trained, competent musician, Salieri’s work does not have the ephemeral soul—the duende— that the works of Mozart have. And worse, because he is a trained musician, he knows  that they don’t. Salieri is horrified that God would grace a boorish pig like Mozart with the gift of duende, when Salieri himself has remained devoted to God, and therefore is deserving of the gift of duende, the importance of which he understands on a level that Mozart, who has had it all of his life, cannot—like darkness means nothing to someone who has never seen the sun, someone who has never been in the darkness before cannot understand the cloistering fear of it, and the panic at the thought of never seeing the sun again. Refer back to Lorca’s words, here: “the Muse inspires them and sometimes makes her meal from them.” Who hasn’t encountered another writer, where it just seems to come so easily to them? Have we not all felt that burning pang of jealousy, knowing that there’s a quality to their writing which we cannot learn in any class? That on some level, they were born into a higher skill set than we have been, and that no matter how hard we work at it, we will never be “on their level” because of duende? DON’T YOU HATE THAT? In Death in Venice, Thomas Mann wrote, “Do you know what lies at the bottom of the mainstream? Mediocrity.” For those of us that understand the duende, and who seek it out in the arts—this is the true punishment, the doubled edge of the sword which cuts both ways—once you have seen the sunlight, who can be satisfied with the dark? Once you’ve experienced duende—either in your own writing, or in someone else’s—the worst part of it is that everything you read afterward falls horrifically short, or everything you write afterwards is complete crap—and you know it—because it’s missing the duende. On this point, I think it’s important to draw a modern author’s words into the discourse, to remind us of what we’re seeking when we go looking for the duende, and why the search is every bit as important as the quarry. When speaking with NPR on the gap between a writer’s taste (knowing the duende when they see it) and their work (re-creating the magic of it), Ira Glass had this to say on the subject:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you.”

We all sit down and scratch out our first stories, poems, or essays as absolute beginners. We have felt the magic of the duende and we have heard the song of the Muse, tickling in our ears, and we know that we have been called to this. As we continue our journeys as readers and as writers, we understand that this calling, hearing that song, feeling that spark of magic, is a blessing and a curse—and we know that we may very well “curse before we bless,” because the duende is fickle, liquid, ever-changing as we change, and the tools we have gathered may only work some of the time. On this, Lorca writes, “…the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator at the edge of the pit…in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work. The magic power of a poem consists in its always being filled with duende, in its baptizing all who gaze at it with dark water, since with duende, it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and the communication of that expression in poetry sometimes acquires a fatal character.” Basically, Lorca is telling us that duende is a total bastard, uncooperative and evasive, that will taunt you mercilessly—because once you know it’s out there, you can’t NOT see it, and you can’t be satisfied with less. He is telling you that duende will have no problem taking you down as you struggle to capture it, because it’s like Nitzche’s abyss— yes, you are looking into it–but it is also looking back into YOU. It is a beautiful monster, a terrible angel, and once you conjure it from heaven or hell, you may not be able to control it (see Plath for examples.)

Lorca closes his essay with the observation that “…the toreador who is bitten by the duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget that he is constantly throwing his heart at the horns.” This, I believe, is the very core of why writers write, why readers read, and why reading and writing feed off of each other’s energy.  I’ll call on yet another pop-culture reference to illustrate this point— If our lives as writers were drawn parallel to the plot of Wes Anderson’s film, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, then we can look at the duende as though it were Zissou’s elusive jaguar shark—once bitten by it, we may spend our whole lives as writers trying to track it back down, wondering if it “remembers us”— or like Ahab, once we find the white whale again, it may sink our ship and drag us down to the bottom of the ocean, harpooned to its back.

Before you sit down to write—or read—again, let the dark muse of Lorca’s duende sit on your shoulder, and ask yourself: Where have you found duende? What are the works that inspire you the most—and can you pinpoint why? Where have you found authors, musicians, or pieces of art where some part of you deeply understands what the artist has communicated to your soul—where is that duende? Where have you harnessed it in your own writing? Lorca closes his essay with the question, “Where is the duende?”

I can’t map it, but I’ll know it when I see it. How about you?

-by Allie Marini Batts

Allie Marini Batts is a New College of Florida alumna, meaning she can explain deconstructionism but cannot perform simple math. She is currently a dual concentration MFA candidate at Antioch University of Los Angeles, leaving all hope for mathematical comprehension utterly lost in the ether. Her work has been published in over 200 print and online publications that her parents haven’t heard of, but they pretended to be impressed when she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Awards. She lives in Tallahassee, Florida, with her husband, a Black Mouth Cur named Bean, a herd of tame raccoons and opossums, and the treefrogs that somehow always manage to break into the house (she thinks it must be the sticky toes.) In addition to reading for Spry, Allie is also the business manager for Antioch University’s Lunch Ticket magazine, and reviews books for The Bookshelf Bombshells. You can find links to her work on her blog, and you can find her on FacebookGood Reads and Twitter.


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