Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What is duende?

I found Lorca when I was a sophomore in college. I was in the theater directing program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. As a result of a project I had done related to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, one of my mentors gave me a scene from Lorca’s play, Yerma, to do for class. I became consumed with that project, and presented it to the class with my Cuban friend/actor, Lourdes, in the title role.

As I was wont to do at that time, I became obsessed with Lorca after our initial introduction. I read every work at least once, and many two or three times. I read what was considered to be the definitive biography (by Ian Gibson), read every biography I could get my hands on of his friends, family, and cohorts (Dali, Buñuel), studied up on flamenco, started to learn Spanish when I figured out the English translations of his work were rather shoddy. I would direct a full-length production of Yerma for my senior project, would visit his hometown of Fuente Vaqueros in my wanderings about Spain, and would continue to discover & re-discover him for years.

You can’t read Lorca, or about Lorca, without learning a little about duende. Actually, in my opinion, to intellectualize it diminishes its power, as well as our power to grasp it. I felt & understood duende the very first time I read the opening scene of Yerma, even though I had yet to hear the word or understand it as a concept. I felt it the first time I gazed upon Manet’s painting, Blue Venice, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and every time since. I feel it in Beethoven’s 9th symphony & Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. It is there in the work of certain contemporary musicians. Patty Griffin, for instance. I felt it when I went to see/hear Eloise Klein Healy read her poetry at Prince Books – in a sense, it is a knowing that this person is doing at this moment exactly what s/he was put on the planet to do. It is also when that is infused into a supposedly inanimate object. It quivers with life. It is a synchronicity of intentions. In short, it is why we want to stay alive. Perhaps, some might say, it is life itself.

When I decided to move my blog, I had at first wanted to name it for the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi, that celebration of perpetual imperfection, transience, & incompleteness. I wanted this because I felt it most precisely expressed both what I would be doing here and what/who I am, and what we are all doing “here,” and what/who we all are. Alas, I couldn’t find a url that hadn’t been used already without bastardizing it completely. I sulked for a while, thinking only wabi sabi would do, and sullenly tested out some other, clearly inferior titles/urls for my blog. I knew I couldn’t start without this most fundamental thing feeling just right. So I shelved it.

And then a chance mention of Lorca in a link that I was sent by a friend – not even a friend, hardly even an acquaintance – and I was reminded of duende. I remembered how, in one of Lorca’s writings, in the Spanish it used the phrase “tener duende” in a rhythmic repetition. As I re-visited that piece in my mind (I couldn’t find the Spanish on the internet, and I don’t have it in any book that I currently own), I realized how it was unclear whether it would be translated as “to have duende,” which sounds rather formal, or in the imperative form, “have duende.” I’m sure it depended upon the context of each repetition (in my experience in Spain, the infinitive was often used to form commands, in case anyone wants to correct me on that), but I prefer to think of it in the imperative, sort of like “Carpe Diem!” For, isn’t it imperative to live with duende if we are not to “end up simply having visited this world," in the words of the great Mary Oliver (who knows duende)?

In spite of saying that to intellectualize it diminishes it, I am the first to understand the desire to do so - and in fact, I don't think it kills our capacity to experience or recognize it, ultimately. So, if you would like to read what Lorca had to say about the matter, here is an English translation of his treatise on duende, as spoken to a Buenos Aires audience in or around 1934. ¡Tener duende!

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