Lorca: Society, Longing and Duende

First Published: 14/10/2020

Author: David L.

Born in 1898 in Andalusia, Spain, Federico García Lorca is remembered today as one of Spain’s greatest poets and playwrights. Author of poem collections such as Gypsy Ballads and plays such as The House Bernarda Alba, he worked on a variety of artistic projects before his death on the 19th August 1936, when he was assassinated by a Nationalist Militia. Since then, many poems, books, plays and pieces of music have been written about him, and recently his life was turned into a graphic novel. Recognised as an artist from the generation that introduced the styles and tenets of European artistic movements such as Surrealism and Futurism, Lorca is rightly remembered as an innovator who worked towards revolutions in poetic and dramatic terms. But he was also a socialist, one whose political beliefs were intrinsically linked with his artistic ones. He was not just working towards an artistic revolution, but a political one. It’s important to look back then, and see how these are linked.

Throughout his career, Lorca’s work, and particularly his plays, consistently focused on marginalised peoples. The poem collection which brought him to prominence, the previously mentioned Gypsy Ballads, focused on the Romani People in Spain and their culture, the oppression they faced, and many other aspects of specifically Andalusian culture that could be found in these people. The use of Romani culture to spread a message would certainly raise eyebrows now, and it is not unfair to say that this early work is appropriative. However, this perhaps naive expression of solidarity and empathy would develop into a more sensitive handling of the experience of the oppressed in his later works. As a gay man in a deeply Catholic part of the country, Lorca expressed intense empathy with those also repressed by these cultural values, especially working class women, who would go onto the become most of the protagonists in his plays. As he himself said: ‘I will always be on the side of those who have nothing and who are not even allowed to enjoy the nothing they have in peace.’ But for Lorca, it was not enough to create content involving those marginalised, but to discover forms of representation that were suitable for portraying their attempts to fulfil their desire.

As result of his focus on this desire that continues to exist under extreme repression, a profound sense of longing pervades much of Lorca’s work. The struggle to be one’s authentic self is a recurrent theme. In Yerma, the titular character struggles to conceive a child, a stressful position considering society’s expectations for women that were prevalent at the time (and still do, though in different forms). She cannot leave her husband to find someone who will give her a child, but still she is desperate to have one. This sort of struggle, both on a personal and artistic level, provided the basis for Lorca’s thoughts on the artist, and what art they should make. This all can be summed up in a single word: duende.

In a traditional understanding, often associated with flamenco dancing, duende is a heightened state of emotion. But Lorca’s understanding and use of it goes beyond that. For him, ‘the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought’. As one article puts it in artistic terms, ‘we write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely’. It is a sense of danger and heightened awareness of one's own death that might arise from following one's own desire. A prime example of this is Blood Wedding, which is a play based on a real life incident where an honor killing took place after an elopement from an arranged marriage. There is an understanding from the first scene amongst some characters that something bad is going to happen. Arifa Akbar describes it thus: ‘Tribal vengeance is as compulsive as lust here and, more than a story of love, this is about land disputes and the generational cycle of grudge and revenge that perpetuates factionalism’. Eventually the lover of the bride, who she eloped with, and her vengeful bridegroom, both kill each other in a knife fight, and she is left with nobody. In a repressive society, being true to oneself carries a lot of risk. But to follow society’s rules? That too can bring death, one that is a living death by forcing yourself to suppress the desire that motivates your entire being.

This dichotomy, between the dangerous fidelity to one's inner life and societal norms, can be seen in even the use of imagery in Lorca’s other works. Nature is dominant as both a theme and a resource of symbolism. For Lorca it is symbolic of life, and power. In Yerma, the main character is often compared to mustard flowers and water, which match her strong desire to produce life through bearing a child. Even a seashell is capable of stirring powerful emotions in one of his poems:

They’ve brought me a seashell.

Its depths sing an atlas

of seascapes downriver.

My heart

brims with billows

and minnows

of shadows and silver.

They brought me a seashell.

Lorca emphasises the importance of a strong connection with the environment, the land around you. As he elaborated his theory of duende, he insisted on the necessity of being connected to a nation's land:

The hut, the wheel of a cart, the razor, and the prickly beards of shepherds, the barren moon, the flies, the damp cupboards, the rubble, the lace-covered saints, the wounding lines of eaves and balconies, in Spain grow tiny weeds of death, allusions and voices, perceptible to an alert spirit, that fill the memory with the stale air of our own passing. It’s no accident that all Spanish art is rooted in our soil, full of thistles and sharp stones[...]

In contrast to Fascism, this connection is not a situation of the domination of territory by an reactionary, dominant social group trying to return to mythical old ways. Rather it is a site of creation, and making something new. And it is worth noting that the ambiguity, the danger of duende exists still within his portrayal of nature. Nature cannot be understood entirely in relation to human beings, and its forceful character exists somewhat outside of our understanding. Heavenly bodies such as the moon are potent symbols of mystery, a hinting of a greater force existing beyond our comprehension. In Blood Wedding, the moon even speaks as if it were a human being. This, in part, was the strong legacy of Lorca’s symbolist and surrealist influences finding those symbols and artistic techniques which hinted something beyond material reality.

Whilst it can be said that the political element in Lorca’s work consisted of implicit critiques of societal repression, this is not to say that he was not actively and openly socialist. After the forming of the Second Republic, Lorca took an appointment as director of the theatre company Teatro Universitario La Barraca. This company went around the countryside performing classical Spanish theatre to rural audiences for free. Lorca argued passionately for theatres importance, stating ‘Outside of Madrid, the theatre, which is in its very essence a part of the life of the people, is almost dead, and the people suffer accordingly, as they would if they had lost their two eyes, or ears, or a sense of taste. We [La Barraca] are going to give it back to them.’ For Lorca, theatre and in a general sense art were essential to a human beings life if they wanted to have dignity.

Overall, whilst the struggle to inhabit oneself is fraught with danger and death, it is ultimately a necessary struggle to artistic and human existence. Duende is a struggle with almost overwhelming emotion within yourself, a tension created by facing the inevitability of one's death. But it is a tension that ultimately proves to be a creative one. Through the overthrowing of oppressive social rituals and beliefs, and the class system as a totality, human beings can create a space where their creative energies can truly be free. As Lorca himself put it:

The day that hunger is eradicated from the earth there will be the greatest spiritual explosion the world has ever known. Humanity cannot imagine the joy that will burst into the world on the day of that great revolution.