Thursday, February 01, 2007


A couple of years ago, I came across the Spanish word, duende. At the time I took it to translate into something like: "the presence of the dark understanding of death." This concept stuck with me, and it's something I've been trying to achieve in my writing ever since.

Looking through the notes on my current novel, I saw this quote again and decided to look it up. Almost like the word 'noir' it is not quite definable and yet we all seem to know instinctively whether something is 'noir' or not.

From Wikipedia, "Duende is either a mythological character, or difficult-to-define phrase used in the Spanish arts, including performing arts." The mythological character sometimes appears as a fairy or goblin, like the grumbly fellow in the picture, but I'm more interested in the other definition.

Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish artist of a number of disciplines, gave a lecture in 1934 called Theory and Play of the Duende. If you follow the link and read the text, you'll find that even his understanding of this term seems somewhat vague.

Why am I interested in duende?

Art is such an inexplicable thing that I cannot help wanting to find some structure or method behind it, with the hope that there must be more to the seemingly random process of creativity. What makes great art? Various people over the centuries have come up with their own definitions and attributes, but I think that art can be defined like this:

"Goethe, who, in effect, defined the duende when he said, speaking of Paganini: 'A mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain.'"

Which of course doesn't help me or any other artist when it comes to our struggle. I use the word struggle because, for me, pulling out every word of every story is exactly that. Lorca's lecture used it as well: "The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a struggle and not a concept."

Sometimes I look at concepts like duende as mentors, guides in the process of creating art. In the isolating world of the writer, it can be hard to find a real-life mentor, and of all the arts it seems to be the one in which we must all walk the path alone. Sometimes, though, a kind word from a respected peer or a line of inspiration can give the learning process a gentle shove.

In October 2005, I wrote a review of a concert by Diamanda Galas. She stumbled across it and asked me for permission to use the review as promotional material. We emailed back and forth some, and one thing she said struck something within me, something linked to duende.

She said: "Fear is your business."

At the time, it wasn't. At least I didn't think so. I was having fun writing a self-indulgent, silly romp through my own corner of the P.I. universe. But that phrase stuck in the soil of my mind and spread its thin tendrils throughout my views on writing and art.

There's one last component of my personal definition of duende that comes from the review I wrote: "The old bluesman, Skip James ... would tell the audience that his music existed solely to inspire dread. It was not for dancing." I've seen a video of Skip James in action and you can see this in the faces of the people standing around him, watching him belt out his most famous tune, Devil Got My Woman.

Duende, like all words that attempt to define the indefinable, is for me a combination of fear, dread, and death. But even that seems to me to be too thin a definition. I can only hope that, in the future, duende will come across in my writing and that will be explanation enough.


Sean Lindsay said...

Thanks for the edification. I thought duende was the Spanish term for a certain sex act that is quite difficult to film, near impossible to light.

"The Understanding of Death" could be the title of a noir novel. Needs an adverb, though.

anne frasier said...

daniel, this is such a fantastic post. thank you.

anne frasier said...

oh wow. just read the Frederico Garcia Lorca link.

this really hit home:

"These black sounds are the mystery, the roots that probe through the mire that we all know of, and do not understand, but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art."

Christa M. Miller said...

If the definition is unclear, then I think what matters most for those of us who seek to perpetuate duende is to steep ourselves in the arts we most identify with that quality. Dennis Lehane's version is quite different from Cormac McCarthy's or Max Brooks', but all are valid... as is Skip James'.

And maybe that's the importance of being widely read when you are a writer - the ability to take from one for one story, from another for a second story - yes?

Daniel Hatadi said...

Sean: The real meaning is probably closer to 'sex while doing the flamenco,' which I'm sure takes many years of practice. Funnily (there's an adverb!) enough, I was thinking of calling my current novel "The Appearance Of Death".

Anne: Glad you enjoyed it. I love the way Lorca's words flow. There is so much to duende, like noir or soul.

Christa: And I could agree or disagree with you and that would be valid as well. Personally, I'm all for the wider palette, but I know that some artists prefer to isolate themselves.

I really must read some McCarthy and Brooks.

Hmm, sounds like a clothing label. :O

angie said...

Crap. Now I've got to go check out Lorca.