Edward Hirsch’s book The Demon and the Angel is devoted to enlightening us, often through the insights of master writers. about the spirit that moves us.
Hirsch reports that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journals, “Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.”
He informs us that Garcia Lorca referred to the spirit he sought, so that he could ask it to inhabit his poems, as the duende. He believed the duende was associated with the spirit of earth, visible anguish, irrational desire and enthusiasm, and a fascination with death. He held that the duende will not come unless he sees death is possible.
Writers seeking Lorca’s duende ought to heed an admonition of Master Jeong, under whom I studied Tae Kwon Do. “Don’t fight unless you’re willing to die,” he warned us. A writer might translate, “Don’t write unless you are willing to die (or risk everything).”
I’d like to know whether Lorca’s duende is a spirit of creation or of destruction. Czeslaw Milosz might ask the same question. Milosz, who attests that poems are dictated to him by the spirit, concludes his ars poetica “with the hope/that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.”
I’m convinced that both good and evil spirits exist. Hirsch quotes poet Charles Simic (from Dime-Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell), “…one needs to believe in angels and demons even in a modern world in order to make sense of it.” And “Making art in America is about saving one’s soul.” I would scratch “in America,” insert “on earth” in its place, and argue that the mythic conflict the Faust legend presents, in which a creative person meets with the temptation to exchange his soul for powers granted by the devil, is a theme present in each of our lives.
Perhaps blues singer Robert Johnson as well as Fredrich Nietzsche, Garcia Lorca, the Marquis de Sade and Charles Baudalaire got inspired by the spirit that granted Faust’s wish. Then the duende could be another name for what Dostoyevski’s Ivan Karamazov calls “the dread spirit.”
In The Brothers Karamazov, Satan is talking to Ivan. “Listen, in dreams and especially in nightmares, from indigestion or anything, a man sometimes sees such artistic visions, such complex and real actuality, even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details from the most exalted matters to the last button on a cuff, as I swear Leo Tolstoy could not create.”
Artists can get addicted to such visions. Emerson confessed, “The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget our-selves, to be surprised out of our propriety, and to do something without knowing how or why.”
W.B. Yeats believed spirits need us as much as we need them. He agreed with Irish folk tradition that the spirit may offer us wisdom but only humans can deliver the wisdom. Which implies the same spirit (or spirits) we’re looking to access is looking to access us.
Maybe all artists are possessed.