So. What is duende?
If I could put my finger on it exactly and explain it to you easily, I suppose I would have already found it. Duende isn’t the kind of thing that has one simple definition. I’ll try to give you a little background, but I don’t consider myself an expert.
The true expert on the subject of duende is Federico García Lorca, a Spanish poet and playwright at the time of the Spanish Civil War. His life, like his work, is fascinating. I would suggest, if you haven’t heard of him before, that your education on Lorca does not end here. Lorca’s artistic life roots itself in the notion of duende, a concept that leaks through the crevasses of every word of his poems. If you want to read more about duende straight from the source, check out Lorca’s In Search of Duende, published by New Directions Publishing Corporation. The specific article that I’ll be referencing in this spiel is entitled “Play and Theory of the Duende,” which can be found on page forty-eight.
In Spanish mythology the duende is a mischievous, sprite-like creature. For the artist, the duende is a source of inspiration entirely different from a muse or an angel. “The muse and angel come from outside us…” whereas the duende lives “in the remotest mansions of the blood.” The muse and the angel avoid death. They’re concerned with covering it up, walking away from it. The duende, on the other hand, “does not come at all unless he sees death is possible.” The duende of the artist isn’t something you can picture in your head. It’s an energy, a spirit, a drive.
Some quotes from the master himself:
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought. I have heard the old maestro of the guitar say ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende climbs up inside you, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning this: it is not a question of ability but of true, living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.” p.49
“But there are neither maps nor exercises to help us find the duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation…” p.51
“The magical property of a poem is to remain possessed by duende that can baptize in dark water all who look at it, for with duende it is easier to love and understand, and one can be sure of being loved and understood. In poetry this struggle for expression and communication is sometimes fatal.” p.58
“The duende’s arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces almost religious enthusiasm.” p.53
Duende isn’t pretty. It isn’t tied up with a nice little bow. It’s dirty, it’s blood and rust and infection and fingernail clippings. But it’s also redemption, passion, hope, the strengthening of muscle after the breaking down. Perfection doesn’t exist. Duende does.