Art is born from struggle and touches an anonymous center. Art is inexplicable and has a dream-power that radiates from the night mind. It unleashes something ancient, dark, and mysterious into the world. It conducts a fresh light.
These felt thoughts first began to form in my mind more than thirty years ago when I thrilled to the discovery of a lecture on artistic inspiration by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, and then stubbornly paired it in my mind with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” Nothing in my education had suggested that I should put the two pieces together, but for weeks I walked around with the dual provocations—one an intuition of Spanish genius and high Modernism, the other a triumph of American Romanticism—reverberating in my head. Something about Lorca’s joyful darkness seemed to counter and match Emerson’s ferocious light.
“Whatever has black sounds, has duende,” Lorca declared: “These ‘black sounds’ are the mystery.”
“Art is the path of the creator to his work,” Emerson affirmed:
Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, “It is in me, and shall out.” Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.
This book seeks metaphors for artistic inspiration. It brings together Lorca’s black sounds and Emerson’s white fire as it tracks the intuitive process—the mysterious force, the volcanic path—that leads from the creator to the finished work.
The Demon and the Angel serves, I hope, as the next chapter after my book How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry. It takes up where that book left off and suggests that what we choose to call inspiration—a force from within, or below, or above—is also a necessary ingredient in our thinking about art. (“Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms,” Emerson attests in his Journals.) There is something rich and strange in all genuine or top-level works of art. This enigmatic power is a crucial element in making art what it is: an irreducible experience, an essential form of being.
Several key figures are interwoven throughout these pages—Emerson and Lorca, Rainer Maria Rilke and W. B. Yeats, Walter Benjamin and Paul Klee, among others—and this study is meant to be, at least in part, a testament to them. These creative spirits serve as guides to the vast precincts that art opens within us.
I begin by characterizing Lorca’s notion of duende. The duende gives a local habitation and a name—a Spanish one—to that indefinable force which animates different creators and infuses their deepest efforts. The duende offers us an entranceway. “But there are neither maps nor disciplines to help us find the duende,” Lorca said, and yet he has stimulated and incited me to search out the duende in many places, to detect its hidden vibrations whenever possible, to fathom its unfathomable presence. He has been an initiating presence, a Virgilian guide, and I call upon him often for insight, while also daring to widen his focus and extend his ideas, to apply his vision to a variety of creative figures—especially poets—from different periods of time. It seems worthwhile to tease out some of the implications of his intuitions, especially in relationship to the American arts. As Emerson writes in one of his finest essays, “Circles”:
The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety, to lose our sempiternal memory, and to do something without knowing how or why…Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm. The way of life is wonderful: it is by abandonment.
From his Spanish vantage point, Lorca viewed North American culture, perhaps a little naively, through an overly bright Whitman-like lens, and this served to deepen his rage when confronted with the harsh realities of American urban life. It might have been a lesser shock for him had he entered America with Hawthorne or Melville or even with Poe under his arm. Using Lorca’s notion of duende as a starting point, I find myself compelled by moments when American art gives up “the optative mood” and takes a downward swerve, a darker turn, when it abandons itself to unknown forces, and suddenly finds itself confronting death itself. Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Martha Graham’s ballet Deaths and Entrances, Jackson Pollock’s black pourings, Robert Johnson’s Mississippi blues, Miles Davis’s modal approach in Kind of Blue—all serve as primary examples.
Lorca has provoked me to find the duende in individual works, and, sometimes, to locate it at particular turning points within these works. The duende is an enabling figure, like Freud’s idea of the uncanny or Proust’s perception of involuntary memory, because it makes something visible that might otherwise be invisible, that has been swimming under the surface all along. It is life-giving and life-enhancing. One finds it in works with powerful undertow. It surfaces wherever and whenever a demonic anguish suddenly charges and electrifies a work of art in the looming presence of death.
The duende has a strong kinship with the more universal figure of the demon. It can be traced backward in time to the Greek idea of the daimon (or in Latin daemon, which forms the etymological link to demon). The figure of the daimon—of a true undying self—is a distant ancestor of Lorca’s duende. W. B. Yeats offers us a guide here, since he worked out an entire mythology around the idea of an internal artistic conflict with one’s daimon. The relationship between the daimon, the demon, and the duende—three external figures (three names) for the artistic night mind—is one of the subjects of this exploration. Another underlying theme is the relationship between reason and unreason, between rational and irrational elements in works of art. A variety of figures—from the Sufi Master Ibn ʿArabī to John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe—offer convincing testimonies to the plasticity of the creative imagination, to the notion of a reverie in which consciousness is still active.
The angel is the necessary counter-figure to the demon, and its luminous presence floods many exemplary works of art. It seems worth investigating what happens when the angel, a pure being, falls out of the celestial spheres (or is evicted) and becomes a terrestrial presence, entering our impure human terrain. Rainer Maria Rilke is a primary model here, an extraordinary modern guide. There are striking likenesses between the rising duende and the falling angel when they enter works of art, yet there is also a key difference. Whereas Lorca’s figure bursts up from below, from the earth itself, Rilke’s figure descends from above—it drops down from a transcendental source.
The duende (or the demon) and the angel are vital spirits of creative imagination. They are anomalous figures. They come only when something enormous is at risk, when the self is imperiled and pushes against its limits, when death is possible. They embody an irrational splendor. I have wrestled with them often, and invoke them here with a sense of their enduring power. Awe bears traces of the holy. It is both rapturous and terrifying, because it puts one in the space of the transcendental, the world beyond, and thus also in the presence of death. The demon and the angel are two external figures for a power that dwells deep within us. They are the imagination’s liberating agents, who unleash their primal force into works of art.
This book is meant to be a tribute with wings.