No One Is Untouchable

Not Federico Garcia Lorca, Not Ai Weiwei

by Sean Bell

22 July 2011

Federico Garcia Lorca 

The Anti-Fascist Duende Permeates Art -- and Politics

Fascism is not defined by the number of its victims, but by the way it kills them.”
—Jean Paul Satre

As a dissection of the character of fascism, no work in fiction surpasses Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister. The chimerical nation portrayed therein suffers under a regime that, above all the other human and inhuman qualities and vices ascribed to that most totalitarian of ideologies—monstrous, hateful, paranoid, cruel, ruthless, bigoted, delusional—the trait that defines it most is its stupidity. Nabokov goes to extraordinary lengths to reinforce this in the reader’s mind: Fascists, necessarily, are stupid. Intellectual freedom and development, and the pains, perils and promise they imply, are crippled within the fascist mindset. Artists and intellectuals were, are and always have been the natural enemies of fascism—something, admittedly, the fascists tend to figure out for themselves.

Nick Cave posited that the duende, at the end of the 20th century, was more likely to be found in music than anywhere else: “Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to, he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly [PJ] Harvey.”

But still: what is it, in particular, that authoritarian regimes fear about artists? In those first weeks of the civil war, before it fully took shape, before the Second Republic and a bickering coalition of liberals, democrats, socialists, communists, anti-clericists and trade unionists became a beacon and a battle-field that drew partisans from across the globe, the patterns in the violence had not yet emerged. All seemed to be chaos. Yet the order always comes from somewhere. So why was it decided, in the civil war’s apocalyptic overture, that the poet Lorca was to be among the first taken care of?

Because, quite simply, no one is untouchable.

There has always been a lingering, romantic perception that artists are somehow inviolate; that the unique position they hold in a society renders them as protected as priests. It’s an easily shattered delusion, and for regimes on the wrong side of morality (or even sanity), it’s one they are all too keen to shatter. The artistic response to the Spanish Civil War was huge and profound, from Picasso’s Guernica to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, and while it may do them too much credit, I wonder if the fascists saw it coming. I wonder if they anticipated what an artist might say to a fascist, given the chance—and, quite simply, decided to remove that chance.

cover art

Bend Sinister

Vladimir Nabokov


“Thus the duende is a power and not a behaviour; it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist master say: ‘The duende is not in the throat; the duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means that it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”

—Federico Garcia Lorca, ‘Play and Theory of the Duende.’

Regrettably, I came to Lorca relatively late, having finally arrived at a suspicion of Salvador Dali in all his forms and a teasing fascination with what little I could read and see of Luis Bunuel. Eventually, in university, I spent some time in the library acquainting myself with the poet who kept reappearing in all accounts of the early, white-heat days of Surrealism’s original warring duo. Much of his drama still awaits me. And I must admit—like too many others, I suspect—that I knew of Lorca’s death before I knew of his life and work. His murder had entered myth.

As I read more and more, it was the duende, a concept that hid in Lorca’s shadows, ever-present, sacred and profane simultaneously, that turned those poems into detective work, both thrilling and frustrating. This term—shared freely amongst Spanish art, life and mythology—has ‘indefinable’ almost as part of its definition. For all I know, what Lorca called the duende, Charlie Sheen may call “winning”. The word originates in Spanish fairy tales, the name of a mischievous goblin—a characterisation it has not entirely escaped.

My mistake was to regard the duende as an intricate and elegant puzzle to be cracked. It was a 19-year-old’s reaction, presumptuous and over-analytical: could I perceive, could I understand, could I feel as Lorca did? I decided, almost three quarters of a century after the fact, that I could. The more I read of him, the more I realise there is no puzzle to solve, just “a song reaching the spirit of all things / and the spirit of all winds”. (‘New Songs’). Everything Lorca wanted to say is right on the page. Hear him, and like an echo, you’ll hear the duende.

Lorca wrote that Germany (“with”, he allows with glorious understatement, “some exceptions”) has a muse, Italy permanently has an angel, and Spain has the duende. But although the duende is merely Spanish in character; it is in evidence everywhere. Nick Cave provocatively updated the idea in a 1999 lecture in Vienna, positing the duende, at the end of the 20th century, was more likely to be found in music than anywhere else: “Bob Dylan has always had it. Leonard Cohen deals specifically in it. It pursues Van Morrison like a black dog and though he tries to, he cannot escape it. Tom Waits and Neil Young can summon it. It haunts Polly [PJ] Harvey.”

“To help us seek the duende there is neither map nor discipline,” Lorca assures us. “All ones knows is that it burns the blood like powdered glass, that is exhausts, that it rejects all the sweet geometry one has learned, that it breaks with all styles…” It is what fuels natural talent instead of skill; the mocking argument that does not disprove rational thought so much as make it irrelevant. It is chaotic, cruel and authentic. It is instinct and passion, as familiar and intimate as your home, but tinged with the unearthly and diabolical. The act of Lorca, so sensitive that experiencing the Babylon of New York seemed to cause him near-physical pain, dancing with the duende still fascinates. It is a game played for its own sake, though on 19 August 1936, it seems clear who lost.

Yet what took me years to realise, while periodically checking in on never-dying background arguments over what manifestos Lorca may or may not have signed, where exactly his sympathies lay, whether his death was a tragic oversight or an assassination of considerable importance, was that the duende may have been the most anti-fascist thing about Lorca. It’s not an idea that is easy to hijack politically, nor should it be, but when I wonder what it was about Lorca, in particular, that offended and scared the small and murky minds of fascism, I think of the duende.

Undoubtedly there were other reasons—the Falange and their cronies hated Lorca’s sexuality, his bohemian friends, his avant-garde attitudes, his association with the Republic—but the recognition of a human instinct, not an abstract philosophy, one based in primal imagination and passion and rebellion, seems more and more to be an opposite of all of fascism’s bad faith, regimented sterility and inhuman coldness. There is only one cure for that kind of creative action, that lust for life, and it comes by the barrel of a gun.

“Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?”
  —Groucho Marx

Legacies are almost always tricky, and posterity, for Lorca, was a hazardous place to be. Someone once told a story that each day, someone from the Left will come and hang a red kerchief around the neck of the statue of Lorca that stands in the Plaza de Santa Ana in Madrid, and every day, someone from the Right will come and take it off.

cover art

Little Ashes

US DVD: 26 Jan 2010

Review [4.Feb.2010]
Review [22.May.2009]

Seventy-five years after the fact, even bearing Historical Memory in mind, it can be difficult to understand why the question of Lorca’s politics means so much to some, or why such questions are so necessary. There’s an argument that the quagmires of Lorca’s death and politics have distracted much-needed attention from one of the great legacies in Spanish poetry. However, to establish that the poet supported the Spanish Republic is not to reclaim him for socialism, but for sanity. To disprove any argument for Lorca’s supposed ‘neutrality’ is to prove him as a decent human being, and to deny the ghost of Francoism any further victory over one of a countless number of innocent victims. One of the few successes of Paul Morrison’s 2009 film Little Ashes (which portrays the youthful relationships between Lorca, Dali and Bunuel) was to illustrate just what a shallow, juvenile pose Salvador Dali’s ‘neutrality’ in the civil war truly was. It was not one shared by Lorca.

In the years prior to the outbreak of war, Lorca worked as the director of a university theatre company, funded by the Ministry of Education with the express duty of bringing radical, challenging interpretations of classic Spanish theatre to the outskirts of the country, free of charge. He spent his last years bringing theatre to the people, and was grateful to the government that allowed him to do so.  Lorca fulfilled the intention of every young radical: he never sold out, and grew up to practice his principles in a way that mattered and felt authentic to him. He went out into his nation and spread art, because he honestly felt it was the most worthwhile thing he could do.

While China is hardly the ideal environment for an avant-garde artist, Ai Weiwei could have chosen to remain just that; an artist. Instead he, like Lorca, chose to take an active involvement in the affairs of his homeland, to invoke a ‘jasmine revolution’ that many still hope may come to pass, and to combat totalitarianism with art and humour—two weapons that, time and time again, oppressive regimes have completely failed to understand. Lorca, as has been said before, was never so explicit. I, personally, choose to interpret his work, and the duende that permeates it, as having an intrinsically anti-fascist character. Others may think differently. Because of that interpretation, both he and his work embodied something that scares the worst of us, and appeals to the best of us. To prevent further tragedies from passing, for the sake of art and politics and the future as a whole, and for the sake of Ai Weiwei…

… we cannot forget the murder of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei

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