Ladies and Gentlemen,
Between 1918 when I entered the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid, and 1928 when I left, having completed my study of Philosophy and Letters, I listened to around a thousand lectures, in that elegant salon where the old Spanish aristocracy went to do penance for its frivolity on French beaches.
Longing for air and sunlight, I was so bored I used to feel as though I was covered in fine ash, on the point of changing into peppery sneezes.
So, no, I don’t want that terrible blowfly of boredom to enter this room, threading all your heads together on the slender necklace of sleep, and setting a tiny cluster of sharp needles in your, my listeners’, eyes.
In a simple way, in the register that, in my poetic voice, holds neither the gleams of wood, nor the angles of hemlock, nor those sheep that suddenly become knives of irony, I want to see if I can give you a simple lesson on the buried spirit of saddened Spain.
Thus, Federico Garcia Lorca, my favorite Spanish poet, begins the most spectacular lecture of all time, “Play and Theory of the Duende,” which he delivered in Buenos Aires in 1933. This is most likely the most influential writing to my theory of what art is and how it works. The Duende was an impish, mythological creature, perhaps somewhat like our Boogeyman. If a plate falls in an empty kitchen, a mother might titillate her children by saying, “Oh no! It must be the Duende!” Eyes widen in fear and amazement.
But in certain parts of Spain, folks use the word differently. They say, “You have the Duende!”
All through Andalusia, from the rock of Jaén to the snail’s-shell of Cadiz, people constantly talk about the duende and recognise it wherever it appears with a fine instinct. That wonderful singer El Lebrijano, creator of the Debla, said: ‘On days when I sing with duende no one can touch me.’: the old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: ‘Olé! That has duende!’ but was bored by Gluck, Brahms and Milhaud. And Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I’ve known, on hearing Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife spoke this splendid sentence: ‘All that has dark sounds has duende.’ And there’s no deeper truth than that.
Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’
Lorca, with his customary panache and humor, relates a fabulous story to illustrate the power of the duende. I would give anything to ever have been there:
Once, the Andalusian ‘Flamenco singer’ Pastora Pavon, La Niña de Los Peines, sombre Spanish genius, equal in power of fancy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was singing in a little tavern in Cadiz. She played with her voice of shadows, with her voice of beaten tin, with her mossy voice, she tangled it in her hair, or soaked it in manzanilla or abandoned it to dark distant briars. But, there was nothing there: it was useless. The audience remained silent.
In the room was Ignacio Espeleta, handsome as a Roman tortoise, who was once asked: ‘Why don’t you work?’ and who replied with a smile worthy of Argantonius: ‘How should I work, if I’m from Cadiz?’
In the room was Elvira, fiery aristocrat, whore from Seville, descended in line from Soledad Vargos, who in ’30 didn’t wish to marry with a Rothschild, because he wasn’t her equal in blood. In the room were the Floridas, whom people think are butchers, but who in reality are millennial priests who still sacrifice bulls to Geryon, and in the corner was that formidable breeder of bulls, Don Pablo Murube, with the look of a Cretan mask. Pastora Pavon finished her song in silence. Only, a little man, one of those dancing midgets who leap up suddenly from behind brandy bottles, sarcastically, in a very soft voice, said: ‘Viva, Paris!’ as if to say: ‘Here ability is not important, nor technique, nor skill. What matters here is something other.’
Then La Niña de Los Peines got up like a madwoman, trembling like a medieval mourner, and drank, in one gulp, a huge glass of fiery spirits, and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, breath, colour, but…with duende. She managed to tear down the scaffolding of the song, but allow through a furious, burning duende, friend to those winds heavy with sand, that make listeners tear at their clothes with the same rhythm as the Negroes of the Antilles in their rite, huddled before the statue of Santa Bárbara.
La Niña de Los Peines had to tear apart her voice, because she knew experts were listening, who demanded not form but the marrow of form, pure music with a body lean enough to float on air. She had to rob herself of skill and safety: that is to say, banish her Muse, and be helpless, so her duende might come, and deign to struggle with her at close quarters. And how she sang! Her voice no longer at play, her voice a jet of blood, worthy of her pain and her sincerity, opened like a ten-fingered hand as in the feet, nailed there but storm-filled, of a Christ by Juan de Juni.
You see, Lorca differentiates the Muse from the duende, although both are animating and inspiring forces. He also differentiates “the Angel” from the duende. Let’s pretend that we’re sitting in the university lecture hall in Buenos Aires on a hot night of butterflies and listening to how he explains the difference.
When the Muse sees death appear she closes the door, or builds a plinth, or displays an urn and writes an epitaph with her waxen hand, but afterwards she returns to tending her laurel in a silence that shivers between two breezes. Beneath the broken arch of the ode, she binds, in funereal harmony, the precise flowers painted by fifteenth century Italians and calls up Lucretius’ faithful cockerel, by whom unforeseen shadows are dispelled.
When the angel sees death appear he flies in slow circles, and with tears of ice and narcissi weaves the elegy we see trembling in the hands of Keats, Villasandino, Herrera, Bécquer, and Juan Ramón Jiménez. But how it horrifies the angel if he feels a spider, however tiny, on his tender rosy foot!
The duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house, if he’s not certain to shake those branches we all carry, that do not bring, can never bring, consolation.
With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.
The main difference is this: Death. The Muse and the Angel are immortal and cannot relate to death. The duende is, in a way, the spirit of mortality. It doesn’t come down from Heaven to touch you on the forehead so that you’re inspired (as the Muse does). It springs up from the soles of your feet. It lives in the dust and the thorns. It resides in the mortal urgency of your blood. So when La Niña de Los Peines knocks back her burning liquor and invokes the duende, it suddenly seems that when she stops singing, that song will never be sung again, and that maybe no song will ever be sung again!
Death makes each note, each gesture, as meaningful as a first kiss, as rare and as precious as a diamond. This is a preciousness that immortals cannot experience as they do not know death.
Stupidly, two Brad Pitt lines spring to mind that illustrate this perfectly. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden holds a gun to the head of a poor store clerk. He demands to know what the clerk would do with his life if he wasn’t about to die. The clerk, crying, says he wishes he had been a veterinarian. After Tyler Durden allows the clerk to run away, Edward Norton exclaims, “What [the explicative] did you do that for!?” And then Brad Pitt says, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day of Raymond K. Hessel’s life. His breakfast will taste better than any meal you and I have ever tasted.”
In the movie Troy, based VERY loosely on the Illiad, Brad Pitt as Achilles says to Briseis, “Do you want to know a secret? The Gods envy us!”
Every art and every country is capable of duende, angel and Muse: and just as Germany owns to the Muse, with a few exceptions, and Italy the perennial angel, Spain is, at all times, stirred by the duende, country of ancient music and dance, where the duende squeezes out those lemons of dawn, a country of death, a country open to death.
In every other country death is an ending. It appears and they close the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain they open them. Many Spaniards live indoors till the day they die and are carried into the sun. A dead man in Spain is more alive when dead than anywhere else on earth: his profile cuts like the edge of a barber’s razor. Tales of death and the silent contemplation of it are familiar to Spaniards. From Quevedo’s dream of skulls, to Valdés Leal’s putrefying archbishop, and from Marbella in the seventeenth century, dying in childbirth, in the middle of the road, who says:
The blood of my womb
Covers the stallion.
The stallion’s hooves
Throw off sparks of black pitch…
to the youth of Salamanca, recently killed by a bull, who cried out:
Friends, I am dying:
Friends I am done for.
I’ve three scarves inside me,
And this one makes four…
stretches a rail of saltpetre flowers, where a nation goes to contemplate death, with on the side that’s more bitter, the verses of Jeremiah, and on the more lyrical side with fragrant cypress: but a country where what is most important of all finds its ultimate metallic value in death.
It is exceedingly Spanish that Lorca brings up a bullfight. He does so often and with good reason.
[Duende’s] most impressive effects appear in the bullring, since it must struggle on the one hand with death, which can destroy it, and on the other with geometry, measure, the fundamental basis of the festival.
The bull has its own orbit: the toreador his, and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists.
You can own to the Muse with the muleta, and to the angel with the banderillas, and pass for a good bullfighter, but in the work with the cape, while the bull is still free of wounds, and at the moment of the kill, the aid of the duende is required to drive home the nail of artistic truth.
The bullfighter who terrifies the public with his bravery in the ring is not fighting bulls, but has lowered himself to a ridiculous level, to doing what anyone can do, by playing with his life: but the toreador who is bitten by the duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget that his is constantly throwing his heart at the horns.
Lagartijo, with his Roman duende, Joselito with his Jewish duende, Belmonte with his Baroque duende, and Cagancho with his Gypsy duende, showed, from the twilight of the bullring, poets, painters and composers the four great highways of Spanish tradition.
Spain is unique, a country where death is a national spectacle, where death sounds great bugle blasts on the arrival of Spring, and its art is always ruled by a shrewd duende which creates its different and inventive quality.
Have you ever been to a bullfight? I have and it’s actually pretty brutal. My wife and I attended one on a warm evening in Barcelona. We were both excited by the pageantry and the fighters in their spectacular regalia. Old men smoked cigars and hung about the pens evaluate the quality of the bulls and the horses. The band played its rhythmic, brassy fanfares and we took our seats as the first of the matadors entered the ring on horseback to great applause.
My wife, god bless her, has a sensitive soul. She identified wholeheartedly with the poor bull who had never done anything wrong and seemed lost and upset and was being completely tricked by these clowns in their stupid colorful outfits. When the first muleta was thrust into the bull’s hump, she had tears in her eyes for the bull and had to leave. I stayed by myself for all six bulls. Actually, I think the old aficionados would have a deeper experience if they had some of my wife’s sensitivity. Death, even that of an animal, should never be taken lightly.
All of the fights were done on horseback until the kill. The first two matadors were technicians. They were, like La Niña de Los Peines’ first song, perfect in their execution but the danger was always remote. Death was always kept at arms length. Four animal sacrifices were practically wasted. Those deaths were as distant as the multitudes of cows thanklessly slaughtered off-stage for McDonald’s hamburgers.
But the third bullfighter was special. He was the youngest of the three and was exactly what I thought Romero, the bullfighter in Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, must have looked like. He brought his horse in such close orbits to that of the bull that sometimes they seemed as though they were one. In the final fight, the young matador reached back from his horse and placed his hand between the horns on the head of the bull.
When the bull had taken all five colored spears and was swaying and stumbling slightly in the evening dust, the matador dismounted and approached the animal with his sword drawn. I was surprised by how much blood there was. The blood poured from the wounds and dripped from the bull’s open mouth. The young fighter approached the bull slowly, almost tenderly. He got so close that one flip of the bull’s head would have torn his belly open…
Friends, I am dying:
Friends I am done for.
I’ve three scarves inside me,
And this one makes four…
But the fighter knew that the bull’s time had come. He reached his hand out and placed it on the bull’s head. The bull felt this boy’s hand resting on his head. The bull stood panting, as angry and confused as the rest of us, its vision receding back to wherever vision comes from. And then the huge, muscular animal buckled into the dust, dead without the sword.
The crowd erupted.
I felt as though it was me who had died. As far as I could tell, the Spaniards looked at this dashing young matador as a hero, they identified with him as the protagonist of this story. Perhaps, as an American and unused to the dark spectacle of death, I, like my wife, identified more with the bull. Every bull that enters the ring is going to die. This is true for every person who is born. Let’s just hope our death is not wasted on some technician but is delivered to us by a true artist who regards us with respect and tenderness, even admiration, after our fight is finished.
Afterward. I felt excited, inspired, saddened, alive and sick to my stomach. I don’t think I’ll ever go to another bullfight. Not in this life at least. We went out to a Cava bar and ate tapas and got really, really drunk.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have raised three arches and with clumsy hands placed within them the Muse, the angel and the duende.
The Muse remains motionless: she can have a finely pleated tunic or cow eyes like those which gaze out in Pompeii, at the four-sided nose her great friend Picasso has painted her with. The angel can disturb Antonello da Messina’s heads of hair, Lippi’s tunics, or the violins of Masolino or Rousseau.
The duende….Where is the duende? Through the empty archway a wind of the spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odour of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.
Three days before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936, Lorca was traveling home to Granada when he was arrested by the fascists. He was murdered by gunshot to the head at a place known as the Grand Fountain. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave along some dusty roadway. There have been extensive excavations but no one knows exactly where. Gabriel Garcia Lorca would not have been surprised. In one of his best collections, Poeta de Nuevo York (Poet in New York), he writes this:
Then I realized I had been murdered.
They looked for me in cafes, cemeteries and churches,
They opened wine casks and wardrobes,
They destroyed three skeletons to pull out their gold teeth.
Still they couldn’t find me.
No. They couldn’t.