What follows is a shortened version of a lengthy letter to a friend that engages with Lorca’s two essays on ‘duende’, and then wrestles with a new insight concerning its meaning. This came to me as I read these essays, and listened again and again to Lorca’s own selection of the flamenco artists he thought most possessed by the spirit of duende. I realised that duende is the point where east and west meet, the point where Oriental impersonality is overcome yet not replaced by the occidental ego; the real meaning of the ‘ex-stasis’ of the ‘personal’ is revealed in what Lorca calls ‘the battle on the rim.’ This clarifies the hidden drama behind statements such as these= Tia Anica la Pirinaca– “When I sing as I please, I taste blood in my mouth.” Felix Grande– “These songs, to be born, must come from the singer after fighting his own voice and falling into an ecstasy.. that will draw everyone around him into a vortex of feeling, ..surging down the dark line that runs from nothingness to nothingness through life.” Jose Moneleon– “Flamenco is tragedy in the first person.”

Dear John,

It may be too late for any further quotation on duende for the new book you are writing, but having read Lorca over this Christmas, I am moved to send you some more of his material, and my attempt to enter into dialogue with it. Lorca’s essays on deep song grab a person at the level on which duende exists, well below the neck, and his gypsy poems convey it with even more power. Though not explicitly religious, he has none the less grasped the essential ‘heart’ of the human condition out of which our deepest  spirituality must emerge, or be lost forever; duende is make or break for the profoundest spirituality, the spirituality of the heart… Duende is nothing to do with Nous [what Lorca calls the ‘angel’ of light, who gifts us with seeing]. Duende is nothing to do with Soul [what Lorca calls the ‘muse’ of beautiful form, which gifts us with harmony]. Duende is an ecstatic and twisted agony, a flamenco dance and fight with the cape against the horns of the nameless dark force, “on the rim.” Duende is to do with the heart, it is the break down or break through moment for the passion of the ‘deep heart.’ Lorca says this duende can only be awakened “in the remotest mansions of the blood.” All religions which transcend duende are using what they term ‘spirituality’ to climb out of the heart, and escape the heart’s destiny: to be bound hand and foot to the world, so that however much its spirit began in the sky, it ends subject to the earth. In the duende, the spirit in the heart cannot rise above, but must carry, the weight of the earth, and it must undergo and be affected by, riven by, shorn and torn by, everything that the flesh of the earth is ‘heir to’ — it is either simply killed by this, or killed and resurrected from it. Duende is what happens to the heart when its passion is staked to the ground, and there is no running away. We are in a room from which there is no exit, and the floor of this room is poised over an unfathomable abyss. Everything ‘worldly’ is a protection racket designed to cover up that abyss. The “bitter root” of human existence is “the pain which has no explanation.” Duende reminds us it is too late to protect ourselves.

But no one accepts it. No one wants to face it. Our light shuns its darkness, our happiness shuns its pain, our rationality and control shuns its irrationality and vulnerability, our calmness shuns its trouble. Thus duende becomes, as Lorca says, identified with the disreputable, the derelict, the soiled: its natural abode seems to be that of the drinking tavern, the brothel, the gambling den, the gutter– it is not allowed into the polite drawing room, the intellectual academy, the pious church. But in fact, duende dwells in the most awful and sacred temple of the human heart; that is why all these ‘despoiled’ locales are in fact the faces of the gods guarding that hidden temple. Rightly have many authentic spiritual traditions claimed that the heart is not ordinarily accessible to us, and must be searched for if ever it is to be truly lived. The duende is the only way in to the heart. Duende encompasses two things: passion, and the woundedness of passion. “The black pain in the deep heart” is what relocates us superficial, formulaic, safety seeking, invulnerability wanting, humans in that heart which is terrible and wonderful at once. This is what we most want and what we most resist; we flee it and are drawn to it. But when the duende seizes us, it knocks us off the fence, and plunges us in. In short, it destroys our prevaricating by destroying our life, destroying our heart. It invades. This is but the first of its blessings.

Duende is identical to ‘the wound inflicted by the Daemonic God.’ Lorca was also aware of this link to the old Greek understanding of the Daemonic [not demonic, but equally, not angelic]: “The duende resembles what Goethe called the Daemonic.” Only the duende stops church from becoming churchy, the ultimate protection racket. We lose God in the duende, not only the churchy god of authority and security but equally the mystic’s god of ecstasy without agony, and light without darkness. Yet at stake in the duende is the stark contrast between there being no god at all, and a different God— the truly ‘unknown God’ the Greeks acknowledged. This unknown God– not yet found, and lived by us cowardly Christians– is the God whose spirit is born only in the earth, through the pain and loss of the earth. This unknown God– not yet tested in us nor proved by us– is the God only raised to heaven from hell. In the duende, it is only the absent God who can become the God who is present, truly ‘with us’ because he dwells in the abyss of the human heart, and is only released upon the world by this human heart. This is the mystery and paradox of the duende.

F. G. Lorca, born in 1899, was executed by fascist thugs in Granada in 1936. He was just 37 years of age. Had he lived longer, he may have gone further in understanding duende from the existential rigours of his own life; the amazing body of work he left may not have pronounced his last word on it. Yet there is something right about his account stopping just where it did: it captures forever the crucial and central core of the lived experience of duende, which is that of being stretched on its rack. In Granada two rivers, one of tears and one of blood. In the duende, we are immersed in the in-between.

I want to take a further step, but it is an arrow only shot from the bow Lorca’s poetry and essays draw so taut: “..deep song knows neither morning nor evening, mountains nor plains. It has only the night, a wide night steeped in stars. ..It is song without landscape, withdrawn into itself and terrible in the dark. Deep song shoots its arrows of gold right into our heart. In the dark it is a terrifying blue archer whose quiver is never empty.”

We are not only deepened by accepting this, but we are also drawn into a fight where we do not simply passively submit, but actively wrestle with fate: “The true fight is with the duende.”

We are in a drama, and it is not only that we do not know, cannot know, ‘how it will turn out’, we also do not know, cannot know, ‘what is at stake in it.’ Its tension cripples us and makes us electric; thus we only know what is at stake must be at once terrible, yet immense. The tension twists us out of any rational, balanced shape; its very intensity makes us ugly to behold, too stark, too naked, too extreme. Yet this very tension of anguish and yearning moves us deep within, and readies us to move outwardly to make some action in the drama required of us and crucial to it.

‘Drama’ and ‘action’ have the same root meaning in Greek.1 The strangled cry of the human heart is also the shout that is the prelude to action, action in a drama, action on an edge, action in a gap, action within a Koan and on a Cross, action stretched to breaking point and released, to explode outward into the world. Action electric, action charged with energy, because the drama contains something that electrifies all who are caught up in it. Not by sun light, still less by artificial light bulbs, is this drama illumined; only lightning tearing the veil of night lights up its mystery, its dark deep, and candle flame, and the slight shift in the air in the hour of the wolf that heralds the dawn. A dawn is coming, but it has not arrived. We sense the dawn in a subtle shift which we feel, sense, even hear, before it can be seen. This dawn cannot be rushed. It may leave us in the in between for what feels like a time that does not end, a time endlessly suspended. Yet this is the time for us to act. If we fail the tension, if we waste the intensity by refusing the tension, we will feel regret. Regret we did not use the time. It was our time. It was the time of our action. If we funked our action, and withdrew from the drama, it is as if we refused our part in its story. Refused to be moved by it and thus unable to move it along, as it asked from us: play your part, do not demand to know the whole, the whole is not yours to know or command, only play your part, because only by that do you serve the Whole.

In flamenco’s deep song, duende comes with arrows, a knife, and zig zag lightning. It comes with electricity. It brings danger, and threat, and some indescribable aggressiveness; the threat is aggressive, yet the energy it raises up to meet it, the energy strung tightly and released by it, is equally aggressive. Lorca tells of a flamenco contest in Andalusia won by an old Gypsy woman. Her rivals were young, beautiful women dancers and singers, full of angelic effortless grace and the muse’s fluid, attractive movement. The old woman took the stage, and performed one gesture= she threw her head back, and in an explosion, raised her arms. Then she stood and stared. The audience was silent. When their stunned quiet passed, they erupted in chants of ole! Duende had come.

The spirit of duende is hugely threatening: the Daemonic God is not nice, not reasonable, not decent, not negotiable. He has come to put us in a drama not of our making or choosing, a drama he imposes on us. In this drama, the hero never wants to act, and has to be ‘forced by circumstance’ into action. Yet, it moves us inside our guts and bowels and marrow of our bone as nothing else. It needs only to make the slightest gesture, and we are riven, electrified, awakened: as if the rest of our life we had been asleep, dreaming, drifting, vacant, and this was the moment we were waiting for, the moment of encountering our destiny. The old woman didn’t pout and strut, she didn’t in the least dramatise herself; nor did she just explode in anger. She acted with exquisite self control, and timed her move. She opened herself to the duende and let that dramatic, threatening, endangering spirit place her on the edge. Her leap, followed by her stand in silence, brought electricity. The drama was set. The time for action was invoked. The issue at most fundamental risk in life, the hidden issue most powerfully and dangerously at stake, was suddenly and dramatically present. She did no more, this was enough. Everyone recognised that the human heart they all were bearing and enduring had ascended the rim of the well, to act in the drama darkest and deepest to this existence: the deep dark well that can be glimpsed and felt only on the rim, the well of death and life, the well of forgetting and remembering, the well of nullity and flowering. For the drama fights on the rim of the well. If the fight is lost, the well swallows all. If the fight is won, the well renews all.

It is not just that the true fight is with the duende; the duende contains the true fight for everything. The danger, yet aggression, electric in the duende is to fight the true fight, the fight of God on the rim of the well, the fight of humanity on the rim of the well. The fight in the deep dark. The fight in the heart.

The fight which is the destiny of the heart in this world; the fight for which it was born, the fight to which it is summoned.

If this fight were merely for evil ends, it would have no drama so charged in its depth and dark. If the fight were only for the ego, its consumptive greed, its posturing vainglory, its ambitions and achievement motive, again the drama of ‘whether the ego gets what it wants or not’ would be lit up with no lightning. In much music and story telling these days the attempt is made to inject drama in to it, but usually this fails; one gesture by an old Gypsy woman contains more drama than all these heated up and overheated attempts will ever reach.

Passion is warm, but keeps its cool.
Emotion is cold, but blows hot.

Nor is the drama of duende present in the religious ethos of the ‘fight of good against evil’ in western dualism. It is not difficult to hear with one’s own ears and heart that the combative and triumphalistic martial music of dualism is as far from the fight with and the fight in duende as it is possible to get. Duende creates existence’s ‘true fight’; and for many fundamental reasons, that fight cannot be captured in the ethos of purely ‘western’ culture and spirituality. But equally, duende is absent from the ethos of the culture and spirituality of a ‘pure’ Orientalism. The metaphysics of oneness, of monism, of unity with God, or unity with nature, permit no fight. In the far west: the wrong fight. In the far east: no fight. Sufi ecstatic music, and the qawwali of Pakistan, are closer to flamenco: their ecstatic yearning for and opening out to God is neither dualist nor monist, for it implies a separation yet the possibility of a union between God and man. But the ecstasy of Sufi, and qawwali, do not have the fight, with its electric drama, that exists in flamenco. They have neither the pained ecstasy, the ecstatic agony, nor the threatening, dangerous, aggressive force held in tension and generating dramatic intensity in flamenco. Yet flamenco came from the East and went west; its parentage is wholly Oriental. In this paradox lies hidden the revelation about duende.

Duende needs a certain kind of Oriental element and a certain kind of western element. It is the east of the west, or the west of the east= an east moving westward, and a west looking eastward. Duende dwells in between east and west, strung out on an almost invisible thread that links them.

Scholars may nowadays dispute Lorca’s origins of flamenco in precise detail, but again, whatever the literal specifics, his account contains a more subtle precision. He believes three Oriental religious traditions nurtured the rise of flamenco: the gypsy music of Hindu India, probably Rajasthan; Eastern Orthodox Christian liturgical chanting in the Greek Byzantine church of Asia Minor; the Islamic music that the Arabs brought with them in their march westward into southern Spain. All of this is sacred music, yet ‘indigenous music’ that comes directly out of the experience, the sorrows and joys, of ‘the people.’ As such, this music does not recognise the distinction between sacred and secular which has come to define the west since the European Enlightenment.

The invisible thread that created the paradox of flamenco’s duende starts in the east [Hinduism], then gathers momentum in the middle east [Greek Christianity, and Arab Islam], before passing through Egypt and North Africa into Andalusia. What is this ‘east’ of the duende? Why is it important?

Lorca comes close to stating it in his comparisons of Islamic poetry, especially Hafiz in Persia [but the same would most probably hold for Rumi in Turkey], with Gypsy cante jondo lyrics. The point could be stated more musically. The ‘Orientalism’ needed as the parentage of flamenco is the ecstatic quality heard in Hindu, Byzantine, Islamic music. There is in this ecstasy an opening of the finite toward the Infinite. Qawwali can be the key example; this music is, in its ecstasy, self-transcending and joyful, even at times rumbustuous. As the word ecstasy says in its Greek meaning, we are taken out of the self, beyond the self. In ecstasy, the human is moved out of itself and in movement toward the divine: the divine is pulling the human toward itself, as St Gregory of Nyssa describes. The joyousness, indeed celebration, in this kind of ecstasy is the experience of the human’s destination in the divine: the finite is being drawn in to the Infinite. This is a mysticism of mankind’s ‘return to God’, or the revelation that our real root is in God.

It is also, especially in Byzantine and Islamic traditions, a mysticism of God as the lover and humanity as the beloved. There is awe, worship, gratitude, devotion, hope, élan, in such music. But there is no pain of the kind which flamenco has. Yet, there is a hint, a beginning, of such pain in the yearning in this ecstasy. This yearning implies separation, postponement of union. Thus a motif in Islamic mystical poetry is often God’s hiddenness, a crucial and even more pronounced aspect of Judaism. But the Islamic lover of God often yearns for God as any human lover longs for their beloved, and suffers the disappointment of ecstasy’s union not being consummated. The union is possible, indeed the very foundation of human life, yet it is not direct, not straight forward. Even in the most mystical Islam, God is a lover but a difficult lover. Somehow the possibility of union, so close, must remain far off. Pain starts creeping in to this. Yearning, desire, ardour unfulfilled, hurt the lover who cannot be in ecstatic union with the beloved. Thus a paradox opens up here, which becomes in other climes a veritable chasm: God calls us, draws us, we have tastes and touches of real unity, but union as such is not yet. To yearn for ecstatic union, to feel it and taste it and touch it yet not be able to realise it: this is the fate of the lover of God, who is also the beloved of God. This is not because of sin; thus it cannot be fixed by purity or enlightenment. Created for marriage with God, yet the soul waits for the divine bridegroom. Like eros with psyche in the ancient Greek story, he comes, then goes away. He is gained, then lost. There is some bigger, but hidden, ontological reason why we cannot go back to God, return to God, in happiness. God wants it, but not yet. Why the delay?

Certainly, in ecstatic mysticism the Infinite transcends the finite, and cannot be reduced to its categories. Ecstasy is apophatic, not cataphatic, a way of negation, not a way of positive affirmation. But the ecstatic Love that creates a marriage of union between Infinite and finite cannot ever be impersonal: it is no melting, no death of small into Large, no ontological disappearance or extinction of the personal into the Impersonal. An Infinite which is, in Lorca’s Moorish image, ‘an ocean of Love’, is not an Impersonal divinity that swallows up all personalness of humanity, such that the tiny drop fades away in the vast sea. Ecstasy tells us this scenario will never happen. Union is not ontological dissolving. It is neither dualist nor monist, but ‘non-dual.’ It unites but holds a distinction; therein is its joy, a joy of meeting and sharing and interpenetration.

This ecstasy contains two elements crucial to the development of flamenco:
[1] it accepts an ontological distinctness of God and humanity [Creator and creature], and [2] discovers the beginnings of pain in their love relationship, through the acceptance of some kind of deferred marriage, creating the tension of an intense yearning that strains after this union and wants it to come quicker, and more straightforwardly, than God will allow it to do. Even the Oriental musical scale accentuates this yearning, for unlike the western scale which has balance and thus closure, the eastern scales are incomplete, lack closure, and thus always open out to something beyond. They strain after resolution, but it is not attained.

Yet for all this, the parental ecstatic Oriental music does not contain the immense anguish and black pain, nor the drama that accompanies this, present in its flamenco offspring. Indeed, some Oriental ecstatic music is without pain of any kind= it confidently aspires to and celebrates the coming union of the human with the divine. In other examples, there is pain starting to come in. The personal cannot resolve its dilemma just by being swept up in God= there is some reason, not disclosed, why it must wait, on earth, through time. The betrothed awaiting the bridegroom= the union is not yet. God intends the union, but not at the beginning, only at the end. What comes in between matters, even though it puts the marriage entirely at risk. Joy: height. Suffering: depth. The union is rejected in the height, and made subject to depth.

This, then, is the secret of the literal and spiritual geographic route of flamenco going from east to west. Without the ecstatic opening out toward, and encompassing sense of, the Infinite, inherited from the Orient, the cry of pain in flamenco would just be the plaints of our small, finite being, and as such, would lose depth. It would be mere ‘complaining’, and it would mean little somehow. If the finite were ‘all there is to it’, if the personal were just some egoic boil on the ass of a vast, indifferently constituted cosmic elephant, then its little plaints would have no power.

This is why duende is absent in the west, even in Johnny Cash and the Blues, which come closest. The west has lost all Oriental ecstaticness, through rationalism, puritanism, capitalism. Its radical pursuit of individualism imprisons the individual, and so when this individual cries out, all he expresses is missing out on his share of the pie. There is no depth or drama in this. Why? Because in the cosmic scale of things, the individual doesn’t matter. All his individualistic, egoic, self oriented, sufferings are simply petty: he didn’t get what he wanted, life isn’t fair, he dreamed of infinite pie but got less than he aimed at. So what? An individual, living on the surface of life, contained wholly by the parameters of materialism, is a being of no passion, and this being’s fate does not move the heart. Any heart. His heart. Your heart. My heart. Our modern tragedy is we have no tragedy. We laugh about this, pretending to immense sophistication and irony, but post modernism’s laugh is hollow, its sneer empty. Its heart too is just another pig feeding at the trough, getting more and more empty the more it fills up.

The ecstatic dimension is necessary to flamenco, even though flamenco’s ecstaticness is a ‘scorched yearning’, as a friend put it in Lorca vein; an agonised ecstaticness, born of pain in the heart, deep pain, pain about
what is deep.

In going west, height is subjected to depth. Joyfulness is subjected to grief. Light is extinguished in darkness. What we seek has to be lost to be found; given away to return. The lovers have a task in the depth before they can be reunited in the height.

In going west, flamenco did not simply confront the depth as the pained root of the relationship between Infinite and finite. In doing this, it also discovered a new value that the Infinite places on the finite. The sufferings and raptures of the finite suddenly matters, to an unbearably and unendurably moving degree, because the Infinite has to be incarnated, or embodied, in the finite through the finite’s heart= its freedom to accept or refuse passion. Here emerges the finite as hero [existential courage], and as sinner [existential cowardice], because the finite is allowed by the Infinite to either co-operate with or block the hugeness of the Infinite’s coming in and through its ‘small’ heart. The drama requires both Infinite and finite in a perilous dance, and fight, right on the rim.

God will not unite with humanity except through the duende.

Thus the duende is God’s foolish, or foolishly wise, risk of ‘the personal.’ The unique personal heart is all that stands between heaven or hell coming to earth, rising from the depth, through the soles of our feet.

In the ecstasy of joy, God is make or break for humanity.
In the ecstasy of suffering, humanity is make or break for God.

Vamos ya!

The Spanish call death “the Intruder.” Though much of the rest of Europe adopted in the wake of the enlightenment a bland optimism, a kind of glibness and facileness in the face of the ‘abiding’ sadness of human things, Spain has never been able, or wanted, to remove the constant, uneasy sense of the Intruder loitering near by. He may be banished from polite company, and even mocked in the well lighted drawing room, teaching hall, or laboratory, but in the darkness at the margins he forever lurks. ‘The margins’ are where the human heart is most open to, and defenceless toward, every gaping hole in existence that has the power, whether literally or spiritually, to ‘kill’ us. These margins exist in every single person, but also are visible in the groups of people ‘pushed to the margins’ in an entire society. The outcasts, the bereft, the lost, the poor, are all rejected, feared, denigrated, attacked, because they carry the mantle of the tremors and terrors of the Daemonic depth of existence which ordinary people, successful people, the bright and beautiful and powerful, will not ‘own.’ Those who suffer explicitly have to suffer not only on their own account, but for those who won’t suffer, like the Jewish scapegoat sent into the desert, burdened with the people’s failings, so that they need never confront them either inside themselves or spread through out society. Existential vulnerability aches too fiercely; it is unacceptable, and that is why passion is disavowed as immoral, crazy, or intemperate. To be passionate, we must be vulnerable to existence’s wound. Only suffering gives depth.

Somehow, the Intruder in Spain is charged with a metaphysical significance both horrendous and decisive for everything of ultimate value. In his faceless and nameless person – I awoke to him once in Crete on a moonlit night, standing in the doorway onto the balcony, peering at my sleeping body – is constellated the whole drama of the heroism and poignancy of the frail human vessel, destined either to embody something unimaginably vast, or to really founder, come to the end of its venture, smashing on rock at the bottom of the chasm. This feeling of death, its tragedy yet its strange spiritual necessity, is impossible in cultures that have given up on any ultimate importance for humanity, and this world, and have placed all importance in God: death is reunion, and thus liberation from a veil of tears. Equally, there is neither numinous fear, nor mercy and tenderness toward the little vessel, in cultures where nature is the only God, and life and death is but a natural cycle like the leaf leaping up and falling back. The Spanish fascination and horror toward death, like that in existentialism, encompasses both meanings of the old English word awful: there is awe in death, and real awfulness. Thus a new spiritual meaning marks this Intruder. “The duende only comes if death is a real possibility”; but it is death in this haunting guise, as the enabler and the killer of something the human heart ventures.

It is because of this peculiar meaning of death–a meaning not as a matter of interpretation but part of death’s Intruding Presence—that the heart has not only passion but also pathos. This venture of the human heart both passionate and pathetic is ‘personal.’ It is the personal which is called to action, to risk and loss for the sake of something at stake and requiring its action, in a drama played out only on the rim where death awaits the slightest false move, and at the same time generates the most exquisite poetry and the most electric power.

But the personal is not the individual. Personalness is neither the Oriental return of the human to God, nor the western assertion of the human as an end in itself cut off from God. Personal is not the individual dissolved, nor the individual accentuated. Person is ‘in relation.’ Person is ecstatic. Thus the personal refers both to the unique, particular, singular, unrepeatable person, and to the community of persons living together. Though each particular person contends with their own death in the duende, ‘the people’ as a communal reality are also immersed in this wrestling. Hence deep song is indeed always the ‘voice’ of the whole body of mankind, especially when such a communal body honours its root in the earth, and creates no division between tower and pit, preferred and marginalised, insider and outsider, because all the people are aware of being in the exact same dilemma. Yet, in particular persons, not standing apart from the communal, but none the less distinct and alone, the real intensity of facing death in the duende is made apparent; certain ‘exemplary’ persons seem able to reveal what everyone is battling, at depth. This utterly particular personal quality, within the universal dilemma of all, is precious. Lorca’s duende was preciously his; yours is preciously yours; mine is preciously mine; I am listening constantly, currently, to El Loreno Pepe Nunez, and to La Paquera de Jerez, and being riven by something particular in the voice and heart of this particular man and this particular woman. These particularities are not divided off from the universal, the common, but articulate it in different ways that reveal the universal, the common, more strikingly. Anyone who loves flamenco is honouring the long history, wanderings, and survival of oppression and murderous attacks of the gypsies [Hitler exterminated many gypsies simultaneously with the Jews]. There is even a valuable difference in the duende of one culture as compared with another.

But neither of these senses of personal really fully capture this term. The passion of the heart is risked or withheld, hoped of or despaired in, given away or retained, as a personal deed of the heart. It is the heart’s deed in existence that is ventured. This deed is personal because it is something a heart must ‘do’ or not ‘do’, and this deed is done on the rim, and it is done by some-one, and it is therefore always down to them whether it gets done or is funked.

In the duende, the personal is trusted and put at risk: this is the death always haunting the heart’s deepest, truest, most passionate action.

What we hear in the music that has duende–which we cannot hear in either the joyful ecstasy of the Orient nor in the self preoccupied little triumphs and disappointments of the caterwauling self sufficient individual–is something new and utterly shocking, something heartening yet paralyzing, something that alters all cosmic order, and turns moral niceties upside down.

We hear the real edge, the real danger, the real at stakeness, in the real drama of existence.

We hear a new spiritual situation. We hear ecstaticness, but an ecstasy of a new kind. It risks the personalness of the heart’s passion, not only as the ultimate relationship of God and humanity, but also as the foundation for saving or losing the whole world.

At last, the human heart, with all to play for, has ascended the life and death stage commensurate with its fragility and its nobility.


The duende is harshly realistic, full of sadness, and a cosmic loneliness. This “loneliness without rest”, as Lorca called it, is not just because we are fallen, cut off from God. On the contrary, it is the very precondition of God’s new approach, not through height but through depth, not through light but through dark, not through eternity but through time. It is all on a slender thread which could snap at any second. But this slenderness is the crucial lynch pin by which depth raises up a new height, dark illumines a new light, time incarnates a new eternity. Fallenness merely obscures this. A friend wrote me today of a dream, in which to right and left, the devil raised up colours to persuade him to abandon his wounds. His wounds were in the centre and constituted his path ahead. That ‘left and right’ is fallenness. Our wounds belong to God: were there no ecstatic dimension in existence, there would be no such wounds. These wounds however are severe, real, grave; they either destroy us, or they create through death a new kind of ecstasy, ‘the ecstasy of the personal.’ The ecstasy of the God who suffers for humanity, and the ecstasy of the humanity who suffers for God. The ecstasy of God’s heart in man, and the ecstasy of man’s heart in God. For, God and humanity will only finally be joined in the duende common to their tortured but passionate relationship.

Only in death, life.
Only in the black pain, the final joy of victory.

The duende is the suffering and struggle of the personal= this is its agonised ecstasy, its going beyond itself. It is compelled, and moved, and summoned, to do this for the sake of what is at stake in all of existence. Only its tears, its sweat, its blood, is the seed that fertilizes the rocky and barren ground poised over the chasm.

Only in time, eternity.
Only in strife, the peace that passes all understanding.

Lorca echoes this paradox, in which death raises the personal to its supreme importance and yet threatens to extinguish it utterly, in all his writing. In fact, we face death because we are going to lose the fight on the rim next to the abyss. But, though we must lose to death, and let it truly extinguish the personal, in another more strange and hidden sense, the meaning of this rests on how we face and fight death: how we die, which is really what we die for. The manner of our death is crucial. This led to the insight that suddenly seared my heart over Christmas. The duende calls for a sacrificing of the personal that, alone, secures existence at depth. Each death is for all.

Lorca doesn’t make this as explicit as I am doing here, but to me it is implicit in all he says about death and the nature of our battle with, and final loss to, the Intruder on all our schemes, petty hopes, and wishful dreams. For Lorca scorns the recklessness of those who seek death, as a way of ending the tension: they squander the intensity on the edge. Equally, he has no respect for those who die idly in bed: they relax and by this never gather the energy needed for heart action. In the eleventh round, after the wounds of our existence in this world have for all intents and purposes finished us, we get up to come out for the 12th and last round. The duende summons us to die on our feet, in that life and death moment, that oddly elongated time which stretches out endlessly yet is over in a flash, that time the Greeks call kairos, when all is lost yet there is still everything to play for. This is when the truest spirit in the passion of the deep heart makes its truest, most exquisitely and achingly vulnerable and most aggressively and generously bold, heartrending move. This is the time when everything can change in the deep. This is the time when God makes his move and the human heart moves only to that. This is the moment of final defeat for everything that truly matters, or the moment when redemption has come.

Thus, death has to be challenged. What one writer calls the grey, anonymous death that just overtakes us, as we run away, must be overcome. To die well requires strength: and all the heart virtues, honed only under duress, create such strength. Thus all of our life we must be engaging our death, so we are ready for this last moment. Lorca says that to risk our life for something worthwhile, and die doing that, “honours” you and gives “sense” to you losing your life. All creation groans until this honour of passion’s duende is grasped.

of the oil lamp
and the sorrow.
of the deep well shafts.
of the eyeless death
and the arrows.

Even violent death is better than mere expiring:

Dead he was left in the street
with a dagger in his breast.
Nobody knew him.
It was early dawn. No one
could look at his eyes
wide-open in the hard wind.
And dead he was in the street,
a dagger in his heart,
and nobody knew him.

This poem was meant of someone whose body Lorca encountered in the street. The poem evokes Christ after the crucifixion. No one could look at his eyes, no one knew him, no one knew why he died, no one knew his honour. The same poem will be said of all those of us who die in the duende. No one will know our honour. But it doesn’t matter. Earth, old earth of the oil lamp and the sorrow, earth of the deep well shafts, earth of the eyeless death and the arrows, she knows. She will mourn us, quietly. She will sing gently on the wind, and in the rain that brings new creation out of our blood, she will pray for us, and honour us with her gratitude.

Death is the real extinction of personal existence. Death makes the personal rise up and take its stand in order to leap, to act, and yet death is going to really kill this very personalness. Will the going of our personalness be a seed for everything in the whole of creation that needs its tears, its sweat, its blood; or will personalness merely lament, perhaps regret, its brief flickering? Will it console itself by believing in an impersonal whole that wraps it up in ontological safety? Or will it really die, and really make the give away and sacrifice that only death can call forth, letting God and the earth dispose, between themselves, of the fruitfulness of our pain for everything. For only God, our father, and only earth, our mother, can bring colour out of our blackness. We can’t. We must die as we lived: naked, poor, riven, stark, radical.

Something in passion, something deep in the heart, can only find joy at the extremity, in the situation where it senses its death ‘is for something worthwhile.’ Then, the hero, however broken by wounds, however pushed to the margins in himself and in the world, knows his time has come, the time for which he was born. In this time the final and ultimate question is put to his heart: the passion which has already struggled and suffered through the test, and is ready for the final risk, is the heart’s reply. For, in this final moment, the heart takes the greatest and deepest risk: it is joyful to die for the sake of what is at stake in existence, even though it cannot know what this is, and why its going will help to redeem it. It must die in faith, and with trust, to die well.

Only the personal’s give away and sacrifice redeems the risk. Though there is no way to know this for sure, no guarantee, no solace on the edge, something deep in the heart knows ‘this is it’; it all comes down to this moment, and this death. The battle we have fought now must be lost; but it all comes down to what we lose, and what we lose it for. Deep in the heart, we know suddenly and at last, why the depth had to wound us. With our final cry and shout, we dive in. We make the stand. We make the leap. We die for love, and just as death exterminates us, we know only this love is deeper than death.


God has come.

Only God conquers. But God only conquers in man.

Ole! means not only God has come. Man has come. Behold the man.

This was Christ, but it is also all of us.

Only the earth knows. She is still sorrowing, but from her gentle rain, the deep well shafts fill up. A new time is coming. It is not visible yet. It is still night. There is no dawn. But the air has changed.

The deer is already awake, peering from greenery. The wolf knows what is changing is already on the air, and he howls.

The new deep song of duende will be “the sufferings and raptures of the spirit.” The raptures that let duende test and prove ‘the deep things of God and the deep things of humanity’ through suffering, the duende who risked the personal.

What Unamuno said of Lorca is the truth of Christ nobody wants to know; and it is true of us, who follow Christ’s passion to its end: “He was gained by the truth of death for the cause of life.”

The poet Antonio Machado commemorated Lorca’s murder in a poem still famous in Spain.

The Crime Was in Granada

He was seen, surrounded by rifles,
moving down a long street
and out to the country
in the chill before dawn, with the stars still out.
They killed Frederico
at the first glint of daylight.
The band of assassins
shrank from his glance.
They all closed their eyes,
muttering: “See if God helps you now!”
Federico fell,
lead in his stomach, blood on his face.
And Granada was the scene of the crime.
Think of it–poor Granada–, his Granada.

He was seen with her, walking alone,
unafraid of her scythe.
Sunlight caught tower after tower,
hammers pounded on anvils,
on anvil  after anvil in the forges.
Federico was speaking,
playing up to Death. She was listening.
“The clack of your fleshless palms
was heard in my verse just yesterday, friend;
you put ice in my song, you gave my tragedy
the cutting edge of your silver scythe;
so I’ll sing to you now of your missing flesh,
your empty eyes,
your wind-snatched hair,
those red lips of yours that knew kisses once…
Now, as always, gypsy, my own death,
how good being alone with you,
in these breezes of Granada, my Granada!”

He was seen walking…
Friends, carve a monument
out of dream stone
for the poet in the Alhambra,
over a fountain where the grieving water
shall say forever:
The crime was in Granada, his Granada.

The paradox most wounding is: if the personal has ultimate value, why does it end in death?

The inescapable and irresolvable koan of the personal: its life and its death.

The personal is the struggling and suffering of creation.

This is what must be redeemed, in its ruin, that the risk should be proved worthwhile.

If the personal lives only to avoid death, it comes to ruin, and ruins the world. This is the origin of all the sins. Then, the personal knows in the blood and marrow that nothing it has pursued in life and held precious will survive death.

And this is so: what the personal has ruined by refusing death will be swept away. Many religious people see this as punishment, or karma, for ill spent life, but it is God’s mercy.

We feel death as numinous because we know it is going to blot out the   personal, and this holds for all of us. But there is a different death. This is when the personal lets its death be the seed that only by dying can go into the ground and bear fruit, for if it does not die ‘it remains alone’ and bears no fruit [John, 12, 24]. Passion is asked by death to spend its blood, to give away its life, for the sake of something it senses is as stake in the whole world and needs its gift of self offering, its sacrifice, but will never know why.

Martin Buber: “I do not consider the personal to be either the starting point or the goal of the human world. But I consider the human person to be the irremovable central place of the struggle between the world’s movement away from God and its movement toward God. ..the decisive battles in this realm.. are fought in the depth, in the ..groundlessness, of the person.”

This other death of the personal is no less an extinction, a total annihilation. There is no ghost that slips out of the body, and flits off. Death is the dark darker than night, and this numinous dark truly puts out the flame of the personal that is the flickering of our life. But, in this death there is a letting go, there is an incipient knowledge and an incipient joy. That death, for love, is passionate: it is willing, it is given, it is not taken. The loss is just as poignant, the end of the personal just as comprehensive. There is no reward for passion. The reward is intrinsic, not extrinsic: passion has attained its deep song.

Don’t tell me you have an answer. It won’t survive death. Sing me your deep song.

The stench of death is real. But in that odour, a miracle waits to come forth.

In Christ, duende kindles a new Daemonic power.

The power of love to suffer for love and prove only love is deeper than death.

To prove only suffering love is deep and great.

Even in killing Christ, the murderous cowards mock him with, ‘where is your God now?’

The reply?

My death.

God is in my death.

It is not forced on me. I give it.

My death, Ole!


  1. The more common Greek word for action is ‘praxis’, which is used to talk about everyday practical activity: ‘practice makes perfect’, ‘the doctor asked me to call in at his practice’, ‘that is an odd practice they have in that country’, are all examples of this. Aristotle distinguished such concrete, practical action from ‘theoria’, or abstract, even visionary, thinking; he also distinguished the process of praxis from whatever it produced: ‘techne.’ And he noted that vocational and complex practical activity is driven not by top-down theoretical vision, nor by fixed and inflexible mechanical technique, but by bottom-up practical wisdom, or ‘phronesis.’ By contrast, the Greek word ‘drama’ is not used in the everyday for action; it refers to action under special and limited circumstances: a deed, an office or duty one fulfills; an action represented on the stage [a performance], a drama, especially a tragic drama. The root ‘dra’ in the Greek ‘dranos’ has the sense of ‘a doing, a deed.’ Thus, putting all this together, it can be asserted that in Greek there is a kind of action which signifies a ‘deed’ that is ‘dramatic’– a deed that is arresting, a deed with significant consequences for all involved, a deed that shifts the world, a deed in the public eye that will move those who witness it. This kind of action is realized directly in, and has powerful consequences for, the world—rather than being something just thought about or contemplated in the mind, or imposed on the world by the mind’s scheming and calculating.