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Tamsin Smith

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Sketches of Spain

Posted: 08/07/11 06:37 PM ET

What makes a good life? Artistotle put in a plug for happiness, though his is a much more disciplined and nuanced use of the phrase. "Happy" -- ubiquitous in today's overuse of the word -- has become a pale facsimile of its former self. For Aristotle, happiness can only be fully realized at the end of one's life and is achieved irrespective of the emotional indicators that define the notion today. For us modern kids, delight and success sit on the pro side of the happiness divide, with suffering and loss lurking in the con zone. Not so for our forefather from the 4th century B.C., who marks living "in accordance with complete virtue" as the winning ticket. This entails making right choices between short-term desires and long-term needs, including the greater societal good.

Aristotle is schooling us on ethics and, by extension, politics. That is a lesson we sorely need these days. But I started down this path with thoughts of a more personal nature, namely my nature. I am generally cheerful, optimistic, forgiving -- in sum, I bend to happiness. I've always viewed these as desirable characteristics, so much so that when I veer off this course, I compound the negative by struggling for a rational explanation as to why or how I've gone wrong. At the risk of relying too heavily on logic, maybe semantics themselves are my way out of this loop?

When I think of the grand movers in my life, they are: poetry, music, and social impact. All are grounded in the yen to rouse and be roused. The non-parallel planes of joy, sadness, and yearning form this sacred trinity. I evoke muses and angels in pursuit of this trifecta's blessings and have always put joy at the top of the pyramid, thinking that the others were paths to reach it. But maybe there is no correct on-top and all sides truly are equal? Maybe imbalance is a worthy goal?

Whether in poetry, music, or human relations, the exchange of words, tones, and gifts is rooted in feeling, an electric exchange of intense alignment far beyond the edge of mere simpatico. It looks to light and beyond, but beckons from a realm of darkness and dread, fear of being alone, separate, gone. Love and Death -- this is the two-headed creature that walks among all mortal endeavors -- daring us to leap, to act, to create. This is no mere muse or angel, this is the duende, the mysterious, demonic, earthly spirit that brings us full-frontal with our mortality and limitations.

In a lecture on "The Play and Theory of the Duende", the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca first linked the notion of this inexplicable, trembling force that moves through artists into their audiences "like a corkscrew." His theory began with the Andalusian music of cante jondo or "deep song" to the art forms of dance and bullfighting, but certainly his own poetry ripples with this irrational wind, so far from traditional metaphor and sweet artifice.

Duede drives the artist's battle to communicate the inexplicable in human experience. Duende has the power to open the contours of the mind to the black sounds and blue notes of longing. As Lorca points out, it is duende that fights the creator at the outer reaches, when "angel and muse escape with violin, meter, and compass." The duende cuts to the core where the raw burning hulk of the shipwrecked soul find a path from exile. The angel may give light and the muse may give form, but only duende comes from within, from blood that powers the heart.

So, was Leonard Cohen right about the cold and broken Hallelujah? I've begun to think about the verses and songs that burn my own blood "like a poultice of broken glass." I've long wondered why someone with my happy bent returns again and again to works of visceral melancholy. Why does my favorite poem tell the tale of a perfect love "that fled and paced among the mountains overhead"? Why do I roll around so frequently in Nick Cave's pained ballads?

Snap, he'll tell you why. I just discovered a lecture on the love song delivered by Cave himself. In it, he explains that all love songs contain duende -- "for the love song is never truly happy" - it must quiver with weeping and madness. By his definition, most of the pop songs that sugar the airwaves are actually hate songs and should not be trusted. Cave argues that writers who fail to explore darkness can never capture the mystery of love. Cave honors his own definition with songs that truly "resonate with the susurration of sorrow, tintinnabulation of grief" like "Straight to You", "Nobody's Baby Now", and the slayer "Into My Arms".

So what is the purpose of this of saying all this? Shall I pry a reasoned formula for balancing the natural divisions of the self? I think the point is that I should not. I can just say that I simply need hits of pure duende to breathe. Imagination is a human trait, as much as is rational thought. But right now, I'd rather ponder crows floating up from the sand and wild butterflies tearing me to shreds.

It's believed that Lorca was killed by General Franco's troops during the purges of the late 1930s. May he rest (or indulge his ever restless soul) in deep song.

Come loose your dogs upon me
And let your hair hang down

- Nick Cave from "The Ship Song"


the tears muzzle the wind.
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

- Federico García Lorca from "Casida of the Lament"

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

- W.B. Yeats from "Circus Animals' Desertion"

 

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