The Play and Theory of the Duende

Federico García Lorca

Ladies and gentlemen:

From 1918 (when I joined the Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid) until 1928 (when I left it, having finished my studies of Philosophy and Letters) I attended, in that refined salon where the old Spanish aristocracy went to repent for its frivolity on French beaches, almost a thousand lectures.

I have been so bored, so starved of air and sun, that upon leaving I felt I was covered with fine ash about to turn to itching powder.

So no. I do not want that terrible botfly of boredom, that threads all heads together on a slender strand of sleep and puts little clusters of pinpoints in the eyes of its listeners, to enter this room.

Simply, then—with the register in which my poetic voice has neither gleams of wood nor twists of hemlock, nor sheep that suddenly turn to knives of irony—I'm going to see if I can give you a simple lecture on the secret spirit of aching Spain.

Anyone who finds themselves on the bull's hide stretched between Júcar, Guadalete, Sil or Pisuerga (not to mention the tributaries that meet the the lion-yellow waves of the Plata) often hears the phrase this has much duende. Manuel Torres, the great artist of the Andalusian people, would often say when someone sang for him, you have a voice, you've got style, but you will never make it, because you have no duende.

All through Andalucia, from the rock of Jaén to the conch of Cadíz, people speak constantly of the duende and point it out as soon as it appears, with instinctive certainty. The marvelous singer El Lebrijano, creator of the debla, used to say on the days when I sing with duende, no one can touch me; the old Gypsy dancer La Malena once exclaimed, on hearing Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, Olé! That has duende!—but she was bored by Gluck and Brahms and Darius Milhaud. And Manuel Torres, a man with more culture in his blood than anyone I've ever known, spoke, upon hearing Falla himself play his Nocturno del Generalife, this splendid sentence: All that has black sounds has duende. And there is no greater truth.

These black sounds are the mystery, the roots that cleave to the muck that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which we get everything in art that has weight. Black sounds, said the common man of Spain—in agreement with Goethe, who defines duende while speaking with Paganini, as a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher explains.

So, then, the duende is a force and not an act; it is a struggle, and not a thought. I've heard an old master guitarist say the duende is not in the throat; the duende comes up inside through the soles of the feet. Which is to say, it's not a matter of ability, but of real living style—that is to say, of blood—that is to say, of ancient, ancient culture, of actual creation.

This mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher explains is, in short, the spirit of the mountains, the same duende that gripped the heart of Nietzsche, who sought its outer forms on the Rialto Bridge or in the music of Bizet, without finding it and without knowing that the duende he was chasing had leapt from the mysterious Greeks to the dancers of Cádiz and the decapitated Dionysian scream of Silverio's seguiriya.

Now, I don't want anyone to confuse the duende with the theological demon of doubt at whom Luther, with Bacchic feeling, hurled his inkwell in Nuremberg, nor with the Catholic devil, destructive and mindless, who disguises himself as a whore to get into convents, nor with the talking monkey carried by Malgesí in Cervantes' Casa de los Celos y Selvas de Ardenia.

No, the duende I am talking about, dark and shivering, is descended from that joyous daemon of Socrates, all marble and salt, that clawed him indignantly the day he drank the hemlock, and from that other melancholy imp of Descartes, small as a green almond, who, weary of circles and lines, went out to the canals to hear the drunken boatmen sing.

For every man—every artist as Nietzsche or Cézanne might say—every step one climbs in the tower of perfection is won through the ongoing fight with a duende—not with an angel, as some have said, nor with a muse. It is essential to make that fundamental distinction. It is at the root of the work.

The angel guides and gives like Raphael, defends and wards like Michael, and forestalls like Gabriel.

The angel dazzles, but flies over man's head, exists up above, shedding his grace, and the man, without any effort, achieves his work or his sympathy or his dance. The angel on the road to Damascus, or the angel who entered through the slats of the balcony in Assisi, or the angel who haunted the footsteps of Suso, orders, and there is no way to stand up to his light, because he beats his steel wings in the atmosphere of fate.

The muse dictates, and sometimes prompts. But relatively little, because she is so far off and so tired (I have seen her twice) that it seems her heart is half marble. The poets of the muse hear voices and don't know where they're coming from. But they are from the muse, who encourages them, and sometimes devours them. As in the case of Apollinaire, a great poet destroyed by the horrible muse with whom the divine, angelic Rousseau painted him. The muse awakes the intellect, draws a landscape of columns and fake laurels—and intellect is very often the enemy of poetry, because it imitates too much, and because it elevates the poet into a realm of lofty abstractions and makes him forget that soon the ants will eat him or a giant poisonous scorpion will fall on his head, against which the muses that inhabit monocles or the tepid lacquer roses of drawing-rooms can do nothing.

Angel and muse come from outside; the angel gives light and the muse gives forms (Hesiod learned from these). Gold bread or folds of tunics, the poet receives instructions in his little forest of laurels.

By contrast, one must awake the duende in the ultimate abodes of the blood.

And reject the angel and spurn the muse, and lose one's fear of the fragrance of violets that the poetry of the eighteenth century exhales, and of the great telescope in whose glass the sickly muse of limitations sleeps.

The real fight is with the duende.

The ways to seek God are known, from the crude path of the hermit to the subtle path of the mystic. With a tower, like Saint Teresa, or with three roads like Saint John of the Cross. And though we have to proclaim with the voice of Isaiah truly, thou art a hidden God, finally, in the end, God sends his primordial thorns of fire to those who search for him.

In the search for the duende there is neither map nor rite. We only know that it burns the blood like a poultice of glass, that it consumes, that it rejects all the cloying geometry we have learned, that it shatters style, that it makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers, and pinks of the best English painting, paint with his knees and his thumbs in horrible bitumen blacks, or that it strips Mosén Cinto Verdaguer naked in the chill of the Pyrenees, or sends Jorge Manrique to await death on the moor of Ocaña, or dresses Rimbaud's slender body in the green costume of an acrobat, or leaves Lautréamont glassy-eyed in the dawn of the boulevard.

The great artists of southern Spain, Gypsies or Flemings, who dance or play or sing, know that no feeling is possible without the arrival of the duende. They can fool people and give the appearance of the duende without there being any, just as you are fooled every day by authors or painters or literary stylists without any duende; but you only have to wake up a little, and not be carried off by indifference, to discover the fraud and send it fleeing.

Once, the Andalucian singer Pastora Pavón, the Girl of the Combs, a melancholy Spanish genius equal in her power of fantasy to Goya or Rafael el Gallo, was singing in a little tavern in Cadíz. She played with her shadowy voice, her voice of molten tin, her voice covered in moss, and tangled it in her hair or dipped it in chamomile, or lost it among dark faraway rockroses. But nothing; it was useless. The audience remained silent.

Ignacio Espeleta was there, handsome as a Roman tortoise, who was once asked Why don't you work? to which he replied, with a smile worthy of Argantonius, why should I work, if I'm from Cadíz?

Eloísa was there, fiery aristocrat, the harlot of Seville, the direct descendent of Soledad Vargas, who in '30 didn't want to marry a Rothschild because she wasn't noble enough. The Floridas were there, who people call butchers, but who are actually thousand-year-old priests who persist in sacrificing bulls to Geryon. And, in a corner, the imposing cattle rancher Don Pablo Murube, wearing the expression of a Cretan mask.

Pastora Pavón finished her song amid total silence. Only one little man, one of those dancing dwarfs who pop suddenly out of bottles of schnapps, said sarcastically, and in a very low voice, _Viva París!_ As if to say, Here we don't care about talent, or technique, or artistry. We care about something else.

Then the Girl of the Combs rose up as if she were mad, broke off like a medieval mourner, and drank at one gulp a huge glass of Cazalla like fire, and sat down and sang without voice, without breath, without nuance, with a burning throat, but... with duende. She had managed to tear down all of the scaffolding of the song to make way for a furious and abrasive duende, friend of sand-laden winds, that made the audience tear their clothes with almost the same rhythm with which the black Antilleans tear theirs in the ritual, huddled before the image of Santa Bárbara.

The Girl of the Combs had to tear apart her voice because she knew that refined people were listening who demanded not form, but the marrow of form, pure music with a body succinct enough to hang in the air. She had to rid herself of talent and reassurances—that is, she had to distance herself from the muse and be helpless, so that her duende would come and deign to fight hand to hand. And how she sang! Her voice wasn't playing anymore; her voice was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand, as if reaching toward the feet—nailed down but full of fury—of a Christ of Juan de Juni.

The arrival of the duende always depends on a radical change in all forms. It gives old concepts a wholly unprecedented freshness, the quality of a newly-created rose, the quality of a miracle, that brings with it an almost religious enthusiasm.

In all Arab music, dance, song, or elegy, the arrival of the duende is greeted with vigorous cries of Allah, Allah!—so close to the olé! of bullfights, they might even be the same; and in all the songs of the south of Spain the appearance of the duende is followed by sincere cries of ¡Viva Dios!, deep, human, tender cries of a communication with God through the five senses, thanks to the duende that shakes the voice and the body of a dancer; a true and poetic escape from this world, as pure as that achieved by the singular seventeenth-century poet Pedro Soto de Rojas through seven gardens, or by Juan Clímaco's trembling ladder of tears.

Of course, when this escape is achieved, everyone feels its effects: the initiated, witnessing how style overcomes poor material, and the ignorant, in the who knows what of authentic feeling. Some years ago, in a dance contest in Jerez de la Frontera, a woman of eighty won first place against beautiful women and boys with liquid hips, just by lifting her arms, throwing back her head, and stomping with her foot on the floor. But in the crowd of muses and angels that were there, beautiful bodies and beautiful smiles, the winner had to be—and was—that dying duende that dragged its wings of rusty knives behind it on the ground.

All of the arts of capable of duende, but where we find it most often, naturally, is in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, since these need a living body to interpret them, and because they are forms that are perpetually being born and dying, twisting their contours around an infinitesimal present.

Very often the duende of the composer surpasses that of the performer, but at other times, when the composer or the poet is not as great, the duende of the performer—and this is interesting—creates a new marvel that has in its appearance nothing but primordial form. Such is the case of the beduended Eleonora Duse, who sought out hopeless works so that she could make them triumph thanks to her innovations—or the case of Paganini, who made deep melodies sound from true banalities—or the case of a delightful girl from the Port of Santa María, whom I saw sing and dance the horrific Italian pop song O Mari! with rhythms and pauses and an intention to turn that Italian rubbish to a hard, poised serpent of gold. What happened was that, effectively, they found something new that nobody had seen before, that put living blood and knowledge into vacant, expressionless corpses.

All of the arts, and even all countries, are capable of duende, of angel, and of muse, but just as Germany has (with a few exceptions) the muse, and Italy has the angel, Spain is at all times moved by the duende. Like a country with millenium-old music and dance, where the duende squeezes lemons at dawn, and as a country of death. Like a country open to death.

In all other countries death is an end. It arrives and they close the curtains. Not in Spain. In Spain we open them. Many people there live indoors all their lives until the day they die and are carried out into the sunlight. A dead person in Spain is more alive than a dead person anywhere else in the world: their profile cuts like a barber's razor. Jokes about death, and the silent contemplation of death, are familiar to the Spanish. From El sueño de las calaveras, de Quevedo, to the decaying bishop of Valdés Leal, and from the Marbella of the seventeenth century, dying in childbirth in the middle of the street, who says:

The blood of my entrails
covers the horse
the hooves of your horse
throw off fires of tar...

to the young man of Salamanca, gored by a bull, who cries:

Friends, I am dying
friends, I am done for.
three handkerchiefs in me
and this one makes four...

there is a balcony of saltpeter flowers, where a nation gazes out to contemplate death, with jeremiads on the bitterer side, and fragrant cypress on the more lyrical side; but a nation where everything that is really important has the final, metallic weight of death.

The priest's robe, the wheel of a car, the razor and the pointy beards of shepherds, the stark moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the demolitions, the saints covered in lace, the limestone, the wounding line of eaves and balconies—in Spain these all have tiny sprouts of death, allusions and voices that are perceptible to an alert spirit, and that fill our memories with the rigid scent of our own passing. All of the Spanish art that is linked to our land, full of thistles and particular stones, is not a coincidence; the lament of Pleberio or the dances of the great Josef María de Valdivielso are not isolated examples; it is no accident that of all European ballads, this Spanish love song stands out:

—If you are my sweetheart,
why do you not look at me?
—The eyes I used to look at you
I have given to the shadow.
—If you are my sweetheart,
why do you not kiss me?
—The lips I used to kiss you
I have given to the earth.
—If you are my sweetheart,
why do you not hold me?
—The arms I used to hold you,
are covered in worms.

Nor is it strange that at the dawn of our lyric poetry this song rings out:

In the orchard
I will die
In the rosebush
they must kill me
I left, my mother,
to pick roses,
I will find death
in the orchard
I left, mother,
to cut roses,
I will find death
in the rosebush.
In the the orchard
I will die,
In the rosebush
they must kill me.