I shared some of Lorca's writing on the spirit of the bullfight yesterday with our Carmen cast as we staged the Toreador song. My program note on Carmen is the post below this essay on Lorca's poetics.
The Spanish poet, playwright and anti-fascist martyr Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) located the essence of his country’s spirit in the duende, “a mysterious power that everyone senses and no philosopher explains.” According to Lorca translator Christopher Maurer, duende is equal parts “irrationality, earthiness, heightened awareness of death” with “a dash of the diabolical.” Lorca found the duende in three particular art forms: flamenco dance, “deep song” and the bullfight.
Though Lorca was suspect of non-native imitations of the Spanish spirit like Carmen, Bizet’s heroine is possessed by the “mysterious power” and enthralls us with her earthy and diabolical allure. Carmen courses with the deep soul of Gypsy song and dance, and pivots around the ritual drama of the bullfight and its direct concourse with death.
“The duende, then, is a power, not a work. It is a struggle, not a thought,” Lorca writes. He quotes a maestro of the guitar saying, “the duende climbs up inside you,” and requires a “true living style, of blood, of the most ancient culture, of spontaneous creation.”
The “ancient culture” Lorca describes was in touch with the “bitter root” of existence, and the “pain which has no explanation,” which is why we have music and drama, poetry and art.
When we hear a performance of technical skill and obvious talent, we may be impressed, but we will leave the theatre unmoved if the invisible presence of this unexplainable pain is missing. “You have a voice, and you know the styles, but you will never triumph, because you have no duende,” Lorca quotes a famed Andalusian maestro assessing a novice.
Lorca’s In Search of Duende has been republished in a slim paperback volume (New Directions, 2010). The collection of essays, lectures and a bilingual selection of poetry is the source for this essay’s quotes.
Carmen’s gypsy songs are examples of Cante Jondo, or “Deep Song.” Portuguese Fado is another. In deep song, “the melodic phrase begins to pry open the mystery of the tones and remove the precious stone of the sob, a resonant tear on the river of the voice.”
Lorca’s poetic gift for vivid metaphor is apparent in his prose. His language approaches that of music. The heightened expressive power of such forms “require a living body to interpret them, being forms that are born, die and open their contours.” This is why opera, for example, has such capacity to move us. By combining music, poetry, drama and dance, opera is an extreme form of expression. If poetry is heightened speech, then music is heightened poetry. If drama is intensified human relationship and situation, and dance is highly expressive movement, then by uniting all these forms, opera is possessed of incomparable range and inimitable force. Though Lorca doesn’t make the case explicit, opera may be the form most informed by his concept of duende.
Lorca hears the influence of deep song in the Russian school of composers, and that “lyrical Argonaut,” Claude Debussy, a “composer of fragrance and of pure sensation” (and a musical nephew of Bizet).
He hears the spirit from Spain to Russia in the “sad modulations…of mysterious bells.” The “melancholy” that French Romantics called Spleen is “wide open to the four winds of the spirit.” It is present in visionary works, from the poetry of Poe and Baudelaire, the dramas of Pushkin and to the fantastic films of Tarkovsky and Almodovar. “The living eternal enigma of death” is too fearsome a presence, and so pop culture avoids it or trivializes it with gratuitous violence. How easily are "foreign" films dismissed as too dark, dense or depressing, when the tragedy unfolding is merely unsanitized and unsettling, too close to the harsh truth for comfort.
Lorca evokes archetypal images from mythology like the Sibyl, the Sphinx, and the Minotaur. Such symbols still carried resonant meaning for Lorca and his contemporaries. The “clash of the titans” of ancient mythology has since been lobotomized to over-stuffed special effects for boys of all ages. What was truly spectacular conflict, the original dramatic “thriller,” has been reduced to mere spectacle. Lorca knew Homer and Dante and probably conversed with them. We have Hollywood. The latter would not be as lamentable if we were more conversant with the former.
Lorca’s singer is “celebrating a solemn rite. He rouses ancient essences from their sleep, wraps them in his voice, and flings them into the wind. He has a deeply sacred sense of song.” The most solemn of rituals where the duende is concerned is perhaps the most remote for non-Spanish peoples, and that is the bullfight. Lorca sees the sacred form of the bull in the very shape of his homeland. Where Italy is a boot and France “an espresso pot… Spain stretches out like the hide of a bull… it has the shape of an animal hide, and a sacrificial animal at that. In this geographical symbol lies the deepest, most dazzling and complex part of the Spanish character.”
Lorca’s description calls to mind mythical images of mysterious beasts, from the cattle of the Sun god to the Minotaur, from sacred cows to the idolatrous Golden Calf. The bullfight is an echo of Theseus battling the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth and reemerges in the Roman Circus of the Gladiators in the Collosseum. In Carmen, Escamillo describes the bullring as a “circus full of blood.”
For Lorca, the “sharp, fleeting black form” of the bull is “one so full of passion it makes us shiver.” His description of the “chain of glorious deaths” of famous matadors bears quoting at length.
…the deaths of Spaniards sacrificed by a dark religion which almost no one understands. That religion burns like a perpetual flame before the gallantry, refinement, generosity and ambitionless bravura of the Spanish people. The Spaniard feels swept away by a grave force which makes him play with the bull. This is an irrational force which cannot be explained… Perhaps it comes to us from the dead, who stare at us from the motionless fence around the bullring of the room. They say that the torero goes to the ring to earn money, prestige, glory, applause…but this is not true. He goes to the ring to be alone with the bull, an animal he both fears and adores, and to whom he has much to say. The torero enjoys the applause, but he is so absorbed in the ritual that he hears and sees the public as though it were in another world. And in fact it is. The public is lost in a world of creation and constant abstraction. It is the only public composed not of spectators but of actors. Each person in the audience fights the bull along with the torero, not by following the flight of the cape, but by using another imaginary one… And thus the torero bears the yearning of thousands of people.
[Manet: The Dead Toreador]
This dramatic spectacle and solemn ritual is not unlike another art form of ritual, spectacle, and a theatre of participation. The audience at the opera house is actively involved in the drama, swept up by it and willingly carried along with it. Like the torero, the actor or singer is completely absorbed and consumed by the dramatic encounter. Though not literally a case of life-and-death as in the bullring, the duende-fueled performer experiences the drama as a palpable struggle, a symbolic encounter and a literal “little death.”
Lorca also touches on one of the temptations for the “star” of any theatre, from the bullring to the sports stadium to the red carpet. The trappings of fame – from acclaim to wealth – corrupt. Lorca has advice for the one who prizes integrity over profit and would rather advance his soul than career. He must follow a narrow path of “ardent struggle” and “endless vigil… fighting his duende,” a spirit which must be aroused “in the remotest mansions of the blood.” Separating the wheat from the chaff requires that “we pay a little attention and not succumb to indifference in order to discover the fraud and chase away their clumsy artifice.” Like the “trouble-maker” agent provocateur Thomas Bernhard, and all his dissident kin, the whistle-blower on fraud and artifice is always in a lonely minority. Lorca was executed for his defiance of Franco’s fascist revolution. That his work was dismissed as the “degenerate” art of a homosexual made the murder less unpalatable for many.
Art is provocative and disturbing by nature. Carmen caused a scandal when it premiered in 1875. “An axe to pick at the frozen regions of the heart,” as Kafka described art, the duende is present in unsettling images from Goya’s madmen to El Greco’s martyrs. The “duende-ridden” canvases of Velazquez inspired Manet (the most Spanish of French artists.) Frequently flamed by the duende, Picasso commemorated the collective death of a city burned by Franco (in the year after Lorca’s murder) in one of the most celebrated of his canvases, Guernica.
The bull looms large in Picasso’s life and work, in all its immense complexities.
The literal encounter with death in the ring is mirrored literally and figuratively in the wound. From the pierced side of Christ to the mythological wounds of Ulysses and Amfortas, this encounter with death is necessary for individuation and wholeness. As Jacob discovered in his wrestling match with the Angel of the Lord, “the duende wounds.” In a line that may have inspired Joseph Campbell, Lorca writes, “In the healing of that wound, which never closes, lie the strange, invented qualities of a man’s work.”
Lorca notes “the duende loves the rim of the wound…and takes it upon himself to make us suffer by means of a drama of living forms.” This is Lorca’s version of Aristotle’s catharsis of emotion, one of the defining purposes of theatre and ritual. It needs a special kind of voice, one that conjures “not forms, but the marrow of forms, pure music.” Lorca said Spain was “open to death” in ways other cultures are not. “A dead man in Spain is more alive than anyplace else in the world.” Lorca is still alive in the duende he found and conjured. And like every character embodying the paradox of being larger than life while remaining true to it, Carmen lives on long after the curtain falls. Her deep songs echo in the chambers of our souls like the spirits of the never-to-be-forgotten dead whose memory urges us forward.