“This book essays praise for artistic inspiration, for the dark dictations and struggles that get embodied in works of art. It is a hymn to the irrational triumphs of art, to romantic imagination.” With these sentences, the author, Edward Hirsch, summarizes the purpose, content, approach, and presentation of this book, which explores facets of inspiration for artistic creation and expression. Although it is used as a verb in this context, the word “essays” is also descriptive of the book’s organization in a series of forty-two short essays. These essays, are, in fact, hymns that probe, praise, and investigate how feelings and ideas emerge from the artist’s soul to be embodied in a work of art. Hirsch emphasizes the dark and irrational side of artistic creation. These essays focus on the artistic struggle from which Hirsch believes that “art is born.” Hirsch finds romance within the way this soul-searching struggle ignites the imagination.
Hirsch looks at the ways that two types of spirit, the demon and the angel, fuel artistic inspiration. In both cases, the demon and angel are understood as figurative symbols of something deeply personal within each individual. As Hirsch puts it, they are figures that validate and summon to the light “the imaginary realms that dwell deeply within us.”
Of the two, this book focuses most intensively on the demon, specifically on the concept of “duende.” Hirsch traces the roots of duende to the Greek concept of the daimon, a mediating spirit that dwells within each soul but seeks to connect with transcendent realms. It was a supernatural spirit who could be called forth by magic or the occult. Although originally the daimon could be good or bad, in the Judeo-Christian tradition it eventually became associated with forces of evil: the demon.
In Spanish culture, duende arose, in part, from this demoniac heritage. Duende shares with daimon or demon the sense of supernatural possession. It carries powers that can be both troubling and exhilarating. It seems to rise from the earth, to seize a person, to court death. It pushes the imagination to its limit and even beyond.
Throughout the book, Hirsch uses the life, poetry, and literary theories of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca as the primary exemplar and guide to understanding the meaning of duende. García Lorca was from Andalusia in southern Spain, where the folk culture of the gypsy, the expressive sound and movement of flamenco, and the symbol-laden spectacle of bull fighting combined with the ceremonies, customs, and beliefs of Roman Catholic Christianity to produce an approach to life that embraced the extremes of the human condition from life to death with great intensity. García Lorca imbibed this Spanish spirit of duende. He considered Spain to be a culture that opened the doors on death and brought death into the midst of life. García Lorca himself was obsessed with death, even enacting his death and funeral as a performance on several occasions. His life, poetry, and beliefs all exemplified his view of duende as “artistic inspiration in the presence of death.”
Hirsch begins the book by introducing García Lorca’s lecture on duende under the published English title “The Play and Theory of Duende.” Ideas from this lecture, along with examples of García Lorca’s poetry, weave throughout these essays on artistic inspiration. While García Lorca provides the scaffolding for exploring duende, Hirsch examines the works of many other artists including poets, visual artists, and musicians to probe its nuances. For instance, darkness, night, and black depths are the settings where duende resides, where the imaginative encounter occurs. It is not surprising that Hirsch finds the force of duende in the works of several American abstract expressionist painters of the mid-twentieth century such as Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), who cultivated the use of the color black as their expressive vehicle. Rothko, for example, painted a series of large paintings for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas, that are large, simple, rectangles in subtle shades from very dark maroon to pure black. Rothko said that these paintings dealt with “the infinite eternity of death.” Their somber quality is imbued with that wellspring of duende that pushes the artist to confront the reality of death and the unfathomable eternity that lies beyond.
By contrast, other artists come to a similar confrontation with death through inspiration that seems to descend from angelic presences who evoke a keen awareness of the distance between the human and the divine. In the preface to this book, Hirsch pairs Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth...
(The entire section is 1939 words.)