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Light and Dark, Writing with Duende

I have been under forced confinement for an injured ankle for many months this winter and spring. I was finally getting back to myself and my routines and starting to reclaim my optimistic nature when—

Anthony Bourdain killed himself.

Killed. Himself.

I know. You’re probably sick of the topic by now.  I’m not alone in being devastated, all the social issues, the memorials, blah, blah, blah.

But, honestly, I was wrecked. For days and days, unable to think about it without crying. It was a bewildering reaction. I’m not really into celebrity culture, and it’s not like I knew the guy.

Except, like a lot of people, I did. He was my friend. He helped me with my cooking and my writing, and I was really looking forward to the day I could tell him that, maybe ask a question I’d been saving up. I admired his work in the world as an ambassador, a man brimming with a lust for life, and I loved his writing.  Mostly, I just loved that sharp, droll, incisive mind.

In those first raw days after his death, I remembered something a friend said to me once as we took a break from dancing at the Harlequin party. “Sometimes I think about all the memories I’ve collected,” she said “all the things I’ve seen and learned, and it’s such a waste that when I die it will all just disappear.”

I kept thinking about Bourdain’s mind and memories and what was lost—all those moments of laughing with some old man in Africa somewhere, or walking up a mountain with a shepherd in some village. The first taste of goat stew. That mouthful he’d always remember.

Tragic that we couldn’t download that mind and all of those memories before it was lost forever. All of it, the big mix.   We have his work, of course, the books and articles and television shows, but it’s not the same as the catalogued memories of his travels and life, all of it, the ordinary and sublime and crass and disgusting. 

Obviously, we would have to download the darkness in him, too. It’s part of the fabric of what made his work great. Bourdain had duende.

Duende, says Federico Garcia Lorca in his lyrical essay on the subject [1], is ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’

“Seeking the duende, there is neither map nor discipline. We only know it burns the blood like powdered glass, that it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand, that it shatters styles …The great artists of Southern Spain, Gypsy or flamenco… know that emotion is impossible without the arrival of the duende.”

What is this mysterious force?

Maryanne Nicholls at the Joy of Living [2] writes, Duende means having soul, expressing authenticity with passion and with no apology.  In the flamenco world, it is a spirit that temporarily possess us, an essence that shines through us and is more than us.  It begins with our own passions and beliefs that are turned into dance and song and music for the eyes and ears of everyone, expressing the spirit or genius, not of that person, but for all people who are touched by it.”

Duende is the dark magic, the force of Other, that enters the work and turns it from something interesting, maybe even really good, into something transcendent. It is born of the knowledge that death walks among us, that sorrow will mark you with her handprint, that we are all doomed to be forgotten.

The world will never remember that I sat this morning beneath the boughs of a pine tree, looking at a garden I planted inch by inch. The daylilies are blooming orange above the red rose I planted for my friend. A spray of little red-orange flowers bloom midlevel. On the far edge is a delicate wall of asparagus and a lush pink climbing rose. The minute I rise, the time I spent here will be erased, never to be seen again.

Even when we determinedly try to avoid it, we know that death walks among us. 

This knowledge is partly what drives our need to post everything we see and eat and touch on Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and everywhere, everywhere. It’s the thing that drives me to journal, trying to somehow hold on to the days that slip through all of our fingers like mist. (What days do you remember? Really remember? Only a few of thousands and thousands.)

In trying to heal that wound that never heals,” Garcia Lorca says, duende creates “the inventiveness of a man’s work.”

Bourdain’s work is graced with the inventiveness of his struggle. Death and duende walked very closely beside him, and it gives his work an extraordinary sheen. In one of his most powerful episodes of No Reservations, he visited Beirut, way back in 2006. He laughed with people, sat at cafes, enjoyed this little piece of the world, illuminated it for all of his viewers.

And then the war broke out. While they were in the streets of Beirut. The crew had to be hustled off to a hotel outside the city, but they were stuck there because the airport was closed. In one scene near the end, he’s standing on a high patio overlooking burning Beirut in the distance, where only days before he’d been laughing and filming a free, robust society.

He saw the darkness. He let us see it, too. In that instant, the duende imbued his work with a far greater power than the man and his cameraman held together. In the silence, in the image, all the wars of all time, all the stupid violence the world has known, were contained in the stark video of a city we’d all seen in full life and joy being destroyed.  The futility is crushing, embodied in the form of Bourdain, watching from his high post.  (You can watch the episode here [3].)

Leonard Cohen’s writing is also soaked with duende. His work is woven with the knowledge that time doesn’t wait for us, that love requires sacrifice, that sometimes our greatest joy leads to our greatest despair. “I caught the darkness drinking from your cup.”  The half-mad Suzanne, seducing with “tea and oranges that come all the way from China.” And the very famous “Hallelujah,” when he, the musician with his powerful gift, sings to someone, “But you don’t really care for music, do you?”

Romance writer Laura Kinsale also writes with duende. Her characters are nearly all broken in some way, and falling in love doesn’t fix everything, but it makes it possible for them to continue on a better plane than what they had before.

You know duende when it fills you. It’s when you suddenly get lost inside the book and it takes over and becomes somehow more than what you would have given—or been able to give. It’s when you write something you didn’t know was going to be there and it makes the work so much better you can’t believe you didn’t have it there before.  It’s when you see how the webs connect, when you can’t stop writing because you can’t leave the world you’re in.  It doesn’t matter what kind of writing it is, or who you’re writing for—duende is what makes your writing burn. 

What do you think of this idea of duende? Have you felt it overtake your work, or can you pinpoint a moment in your writing when it became more than you ever imagined, when a force took over and wrote for you? Can you think of at time you saw it happen in a performance?  Let’s talk in the comments.

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].