|Goethe describes duende as “a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain,” and Lorca calls it “in sum, the spirit of the earth.” It’s that ineffable force between human and art—whether on the canvas, in the rhythm of a guitar, in the motion of a dance, or in the words of a poet—that takes our breath and gives us chills and cuts through all we know to reinvent art again and again. Lorca links the roots of duende to the same place “the black sounds of Manuel Torre come from,” behind which “live zephyrs, ants, volcanoes, and the huge night, straining its waist against the Milky Way.”
The Black Wing of Duende
By Rita Zoey Chin
As the sun’s trail across the sky drops a little lower and we lean closer to the end of another year, I can’t help thinking of the end of the world. Between the glaciers sloughing into the sea and quiet men mass-murdering people and an increasing population aiming to white-knuckle women’s uteri, while endangered species lists grow and rain forests fall, it’s probably on everybody’s mind a little. But aside from the apocalyptic-prophecy-du-jour, it seems we’re losing our connection to the world on a more subtle level, and by the world, I mean the natural one, the one we came from, the one where, some would argue, duende is born.
Goethe describes duende as “a mysterious power that all may feel and no philosophy can explain,” and Lorca calls it “in sum, the spirit of the earth.” It’s that ineffable force between human and art—whether on the canvas, in the rhythm of a guitar, in the motion of a dance, or in the words of a poet—that takes our breath and gives us chills and cuts through all we know to reinvent art again and again. Lorca links the roots of duende to the same place “the black sounds of Manuel Torre come from,” behind which “live zephyrs, ants, volcanoes, and the huge night, straining its waist against the Milky Way.”
We know that from darkness comes art, but, as artists, how do we “awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood”? I say we step into this place of zephyrs and ants, preferably alone, and get quiet for a moment. I’ve been doing this myself lately, and I’m not sure how close I am to awakening the duende, but I do feel something shifting inside me. It started when I discovered a swath of Massachusetts conservation land: sprawling fields cuffed by trees and traced by a river, with paths moving through it all. Sometimes the fields are lit by wildflowers, sometimes they’re alight with birds, and sometimes they’re the color of honey. Sometimes at the edges of the fields the river glints like tinsel between the trees, and sometimes the water is dark and slow as oil. Often, I am the only person there. And despite the beauty of it all, I felt uncomfortable at first, being there, in nature, alone. But slowly I came to recognize this untouched ancient place, and being alone there began to feel akin to making art—the deep quiet, the listening, the appearance of things laid bare.
Not long ago, I was at a rock concert where several people around me were tweeting and facebooking on their smartphones during the show. Despite the rib-cracking bass and flashing lights and direct proximity to thousands of other people, they were looking into a tiny screen, reaching for a netherworld. Was it loneliness? The inability to experience a thing within the contours of one’s own body? Maybe on some level we’re all trying to say some version of, I’m here, though the gesture itself undermines what it signifies.
Unlike the coordinates of an amphitheater, in nature it’s harder to pinpoint a location—to say, Hey, I’m at The Twenty-Third Pine Tree on the Left, or, I’m at The Bend In the River Where the Snapping Turtle Lives. Like duende, it becomes difficult and, after a while, pointless to talk about. What’s left, then, is to simply be there in the truth of it, and to engage with that truth, which lives not only in the squawking voice of the heron or the mixed scent of algae and sweet grass, but at the core of our breathing bodies.
I have a recluse friend who makes wonderfully bold impasto paintings. Recently, a stranger knocked on her door—a college girl who’d seen her artwork in a small gallery—and she couldn’t help crying because my friend’s artwork made her feel less alone in the world. But the paintings she spoke of were of women alone—blending into lush undulating landscapes. Perhaps this stranger had been touched by the duende.
And I hope, in this next new year, that the duende, dark spirit of the arts, spirit of the earth, brushes its black wing against me. Maybe if, in the words of Mary Oliver, we lie “on the rocks, reaching / into the darkness, learning / little by little to love / our only world,” it will find us there, and we can keep that world a little longer.
Rita Zoey Chin’s writing has appeared in Tin House, The Rumpus, Birdsong, Freerange Nonfiction, and elsewhere. A recipient of a Bread Loaf waiter scholarship and a Katherine Anne Porter Prize, Rita lives in the Boston area, where she teaches writing at Grub Street and serves on the board of Paris Press. Her memoir, LET THE TORNADO COME, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.