Lorca and the Duende

Alfredo Cordal writes about the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and the duende, 'the mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained', particularly in the arts which have a living body as interpreter: music, dance, song and spoken poetry.

If there is a poet who has embodied the duende, 'the spirit of the Earth', causing it to flourish from the deep taproot of Spanish culture, that poet was García Lorca, who was without any doubt the greatest Spanish poet and playwright of the twentieth century. In his life, which was both happy and tragic, we see how the Andalucian poet identifies his fate with both the brightness and the darkness of the duende. That is the only way to explain the force of his Poetic Genius. In the lecture on the duende that Lorca gave in Havana and Buenos Aires, he distinguished between the 'angel', the 'muse' and the 'duende' and declared: 'The duende is a power and not a behaviour; it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master-guitarist say: "The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the feet." For Lorca, in his life and in his death: 'The real struggle is with the duende.' He seeks:

A song reaching the spirit of things
and the winds' spirit,
that comes to rest at last in joy
of the everlasting heart.

If there is a poet who constantly announces his own death in his poems and accepts his destiny with great clarity (as did Cesar Vallejo, John Keats, John Lennon), that poet is Lorca. His Poetic Genius enabled him to foresee his future in the Spain of his day and embrace it with the sense of fatality of one who knows he cannot escape the inevitable. When his friends warned him not to go to Granada to celebrate his father's birthday, because the Spanish Civil War was about to break out, and in fact did break out the day after he arrived home, on July 18th 1936, Lorca replied serenely: 'No one murders poets.' He was right. But that act of lucidity, doubtless inspired by the duende, cost him his life.

He was quickly arrested by the 'black-shirt' militia, a paramilitary fascist organisation in support of Franco in his rebellion against the government of the Republic. He was shot on the outskirts of Granada (Viznar). Not that Lorca was planning the fulfilment of his own prophecies (as Keats said about his own life). Up to the end, Lorca claimed that he was 'a good Catholic' and pointed to his friendship with Luis Rosales, a Falangist who supported Franco, in whose house Lorca took refuge and from which he was forcibly removed when Rosales was absent. He asked his friend, the composer Manuel de Falla who also supported Franco's insurrection, to intercede for him with the provisional fascist government in Granada. But none of this helped him at all. Then the duende took hold of the reins of his destiny, regardless of all Lorca's attempts to stop it. The poet had dreamed of a dark fate, and as he had had already prophesied: 'Everything that has dark sounds has duende'.

Long before his tragic ending, he had written about it in his poetry collection, Poet in New York, perhaps one of the most important volumes of poetry published in the twentieth century. In it, he not only speaks about his own death, but also about the 'disappearances' of thousands of Spaniards during the Civil War and, prophetically, the hundreds of thousands 'disappeared' under the Military Juntas in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in Central America during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. The poet tells us:

When the pure shapes sank
under the twittering of daisies
I knew they had murdered me.
They combed the cafés, graveyards, churches for me,
pried open casks and cabinets...
But they couldn't find me.
Couldn't they?
No. They couldn't find me.

Here we reach the very root of Spanish and Latin American history, both yesterday and today: 'death or the tragic sense of life', not only in the political and social sphere, but also the 'existential being' of a culture and way of looking at life itself. For the Spanish soul, life and death are two sides of the same coin, that is, of living on Earth, on a planet where we know that we are only temporary, although we may aspire to immortality or eternal life, because of our ability to feel that we are infinite, at the same time being fully aware of our finiteness or mortality.

Lorca tells us: 'In every country death has finality,' (and we understand that well in Anglo-Saxon countries where Puritanism has turned death into something taboo, dirty and untouchable, something we have to resign ourselves to or forget about). He continues, 'It arrives and the blinds are drawn. Not in Spain. In Spain they are opened. Many Spaniards live between walls until the day they die, when they are taken out into the sun. A dead person in Spain is more alive when dead than is the case anywhere else.' We may say that at the root of Spanish culture, and thus in the duende, there is an appetite for death that can become a paroxysm of religious fervour, expressed so well in the mystical writings of Saint Teresa of Avila: 'I die because I do not die.'

But beyond or before a Christian culture in radically Catholic Spain, there is an oriental culture that flourished from the seventh to the fifteenth century in Lorca's Andalucia: the deeply sensory and sensual Arab culture, which also has a strong sense of fatality and death. Lorca was faithful to that Arab root more than any other Spanish poet, through his celebration of the Cante Jondo (deep song) , the Gipsy Ballads and his final collection of poems based on oriental poetic forms, the ghazals of the Persian poet Hafiz - short lyric poems - and the Arabic casidas - medium-length poems whose intricate internal structure makes them sound almost liturgical. Lorca transforms them into quatrains with a slow, drawn-out rhythm. Here are the first two quatrains of the Casida of the Dark Pigeons:

In the branches of the bay-tree
sit two dark pigeons.
One was the sun,
the other the moon.
I asked them, 'Little neighbours,
where is my grave?'
'In my tail,' said the sun.
'In my throat,' said the moon.

In all of these, Love contests with Death (the eternal struggle between Eros and Thanatos so essential to Arab poetry). For Lorca, love and death are the two faces of the same duende, which loves life as much as it loves death As he puts it in his lecture: 'In all Arabic music, dance or song, the appearance of the duende, the spirit of the Earth, is greeted with vociferous shouts of 'Alá! Alá!' ('God! God!'), which are not far from the Olé! of bullfighting. And in the singing of Southern Spain, the presence of the duende is accompanied by shouts of 'Viva Dios!' ('Long live God!'), a profound, human and tender cry of communion with God through the five senses.'

The other appearance of the duende that Lorca notes, alluded to in the above quotation, is in bullfighting. Once again, no other poet has written better about this bloody ritual (a 'brutal sport', the English would call it).'It is in the bullfighting,' says Lorca, 'that the duende attains its most impressive character, because, on the one hand, it has to fight with death, and on the other, with geometry. The bull has its orbit, the bullfighter his, and between orbit and orbit there exists a point of danger, which is the apex of the terrible game.' A terrible game indeed, and although I'm not English, I am indeed 'haemophobic' and I personally loathe this sacrifice for its cruelty and bloodthirstiness. Many sociologists and historians see in this bloody Spanish custom or festival from post-medieval times the roots of the bloody Civil War (blood calls to blood) with more than two and a half million dead - thus even more than in the brutal US Civil War, which is saying a lot.

Certainly, in bullfighting there is a sense of sacrifice ('making sacred') and therefore something religious, even mystical. Lorca adds: 'Spain is the only country where death is a natural spectacle.' Later in his lecture he says, 'In Spain (as in the East, where dance is a religious expression), the duende has a boundless field in the bodies of the dancing girls of Cádiz, in the breasts of singers and the whole liturgy of bullfighting, a true religious drama where, as in the Mass, there is adoration and a God is sacrificed.' Lorca's comparison of bullfighting with the Mass is apt. Fortunately, in the Mass Christ's sacrifice (he also foresaw his death) is bloodless and mystical through the bread and wine.

In more than one of my own poems I have compared Lorca in a Spain at the outset of civil war with this 'liturgy' or 'religious drama', in which the poet is the 'bull' challenging fanatical, hypocritical and macho Spain, oppressive and medieval in its relation to women and sexual love. This is characteristic of all Lorca's work, especially his plays. At the same time, the poet is the bullfighter confronting the blind, brutal bull, that was the Spain of that time. In both cases he is a sacrificial victim.

Lorca was born under the sign of Gemini. When the duende takes possession of an artist and identifies with him, it never leaves him, even when they are both dying. Here I remember the wonderful ballet, Cruel Garden by Christopher Bruce, danced by the Ballet Rambert. Interpreting Lorca, Bruce keeps on dancing till the end, when the gunfire can already be heard. He nearly falls to the ground and gets up, again and again, as if expressing with his choreography the final struggles of the poet's agony. At the end, he embraces the Earth he loved so much and falls with the full weight of his Poetic Genius.

And speaking of endings, I want to finish by touching on an aspect which Lorca would doubtless have mentioned, had he lived longer. It is something I discovered by pure 'intuition', through my dramatic poem, A Night of A Thousand Years, in which García Lorca and Pablo Neruda meet after their deaths, in spirit, in Cuba to celebrate the centenary of the Chilean poet's birth.

Everything happens round one of Havana's battered, out-of-tune pianos, which Lorca is playing, although it sounds 'moribund', for lack of spare parts due to the US blockade. I was faced with the problem of reducing a work lasting an hour and a half to a 40-minute play, and I did not want to leave out metaphors and images about Cuban pianos. So I invented a character who turned out to be a sort of duende, to bring the two poets together. This duende begins the play by referring to the 'spirits of the Sky', characters I took from the Popol Vuh, the Central American Mayan creation story. The duende, the 'spirit of the Earth', is a messenger from the spirits of the Sky. The concordance of the Spanish-Arabic and the pre-Columbian culture of the Americas turned out very harmonious. Both cultures have an essentially cosmic dimension that speaks of the 'music of the spheres in the universe', from which the Earth is inseparable. It was here that I discovered the Poetic Genius is born out of the Earth, because it comes from the cosmos and returns to the cosmos. The spirit of the Earth is born from the womb of Mother Earth, fertilised by star dust.

It is interesting to see how such similar cultures have had the same historical destiny. The Christians who expelled the Moors from Granada in 1492 were the same who discovered America in that same year, and then went on to destroy the ancient cultures of both Americas. These same Christians invaded the Middle East during the crusades and lately invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. This conflict, caused by the 'lust for power', is ancient and continues.

Nevertheless, all these cultures - Arab, Persian, Muslim, Judaeo-Christian, together with the pre-Columbian American - also have a humanism in common, revealing the true root from which grew the richness and diversity of our present civilisation in crisis. Perhaps that conflict is also the source of the Universal Poetic Genius, the duende or spirit of the Earth, that cries to heaven today and which, according to Lorca, appears once again 'announcing the constant baptism of newly created things'.

Writien by Alfredo Cordal

Translated from Spanish by the Editor

Chilean poet and playwright Alfredo Cordal came to London after he was exiled by Pinochet's coup that overthrew President Allende in 1973. His play, A Passion in Buenos Aires, was on in London in 2001, and in 2004, his play A Night of a Thousand Years to celebrate the centenary of the poet Pablo Neruda's birth. His most recent selection of poems is published in the bilingual Latin American Literary Anthology (Pablo Neruda Literary Workshop, London 2003).