Nietzsche, Plato and the Power of the Duende

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Nietzsche, Plato and the Power of the Duende
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
Nietzsche, Plato and the Power of the Duende:
the shamanic roots of poetry
Nietzsche, Platão e o poder do Duende:
as raízes xamânicas da poesia
Marcel de Lima
Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais (UFMG), Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais / Brasil
[email protected]
Abstract: This article deals with the shamanic roots of poetic
achievement by way of analyzing the ancient Greek art-deities, namely
Apollo and Dionysus, in their sharp opposition of artistic tendencies as
they are presented by Friedrich Nietzsche in his reappraisal of Platonic
considerations on artistic creation. This first analysis is soon followed
by an interesting parallel to the Nietzschean force of the Dionysian that
can be found in the equally mysterious power of the “Duende,” present
in Federico García Lorca’s fusion of Surrealist concerns with his sense
of native Andalusian culture, as a means to show the shamanic roots of
poetic representation.
Keywords: poetry; shamanism; Nietzsche; Plato; Duende.
Resumo: Este artigo lida com as raízes xamânicas da poesia através
da análise das antigas deidades artísticas gregas, a saber, Apolo e
Dionísio, em suas marcadas dicotomias de tendências artísticas tal
como são apresentadas por Friedrich Nietzsche em sua reavaliação das
considerações platônicas sobre a criação artística. Esta primeira análise
é então seguida por um interessante paralelo à força nietzscheana do
dionisíaco que pode ser encontrada no igualmente misterioso poder do
“Duende,” presente em Federico García Lorca quando da fusão de seus
conceitos surrealistas com o senso de sua cultura nativa da Andaluzia, a
fim de se mostrar as raízes xamânicas da representação poética.
Palavras-chave: poesia; xamanismo; Nietzsche; Platão; Duende.
eISSN: 2317-2096
DOI: 10.17851/2317-2096.25.3.161-178
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
Recebido em 30 de outubro de 2015
Aprovado em 15 de novembro de 2015
That for which we find words is something already dead in
our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act
of speaking.1
As part of a general revaluation and re-thinking of the Classical
heritage, which took place in the 19th century, some philosophers
developed critiques of the supposed rationalism of the Greeks: “Let us
anticipate a century; let us assume the success of my onslaught on two
thousand years of opposition to Nature, of the degradation of humanity.”2
These words belong to Nietzsche’s ontological work, Ecce Homo, and
refer to his belief in the strength of his onslaught, in The Birth of Tragedy,
on “the whole of idealism in its typical form.”3 Nietzsche attacks the
opposition to nature in favor of the affirmation of “all that is questionable
and strange in existence” by means of the understanding of the wonderful
phenomenon of the Dionysian in contrast to the Apollonian. One of his
attacks is against Platonic philosophy’s negligent treatment of art in
favor of science. The two art-deities of the Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus,
represented a sharp opposition of artistic tendencies (Apollo being the
God of sculpture and Dionysus of music) before they “appear coupled
with each other, and through this coupling eventually generate the artproduct, equally Dionysian and Apollonian, of Attic tragedy.”4 Nietzsche
describes their worlds as the separate domains of Apollonian dream and
Dionysian drunkenness. By opposing Socrates’s voice of reason and
logic, to the Dionysian voice of forgetfulness and collapse, Plato created
a new anti-thesis. Dionysus, however, was not to be overcome easily,
being already used to contention. Before becoming Socrates’s nemesis
the God of wine, the satyr, had already faced the son of Zeus, Apollo.
NIETZSCHE. The twilight of the idols, p. 530. [Hereafter, quotes that are not followed
by a reference number belong to the one previously numbered].
Friedrich Nietzsche’s words in HUNTINGTON (Ed.). The Philosophy of Nietzsche,
p. 869.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 867.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 951.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
The world of Apollo embraces the human necessity of the dreamexperience, a world in which the beautiful appearance of forms and shapes
is of utmost importance. As Nietzsche recalls: “It was in dreams, says
Lucretius, that the glorious divine figures first appeared to the souls of
men; in dreams the great shaper beheld the splendid corporeal structure
of superhuman beings.”5 Thus one might assert that human beings have
a strong connection to the Apollonian world, stage of subconscious
experiences, wherein not only pleasant images are portrayed but the
dismal encounter of forgetfulness as well. Yet one is never to be found
prisoner of the dangers of dream-life as one is under the protection of
Apollo, the deity of light, constantly reminding the dreamer that it is
only a world of fancy. Apollo’s beauty is never shaken; even under the
influence of anger “the sacredness of his beautiful appearance must still
be there.” The reason for Apollo’s undisturbed nature lies in his solid
faith in what Schopenhauer calls his principium individuationis, that
is, the belief in human ability to account for the cognitive forms of any
phenomenon under the light of reason. This belief brings the joy and
wisdom of the beautiful appearance of the principium individuationis.
Yet, there are occasions when man seems to lose such absolute
control of the faculty of reason, generating the collapse of the principium.
At the very moment of such collapse one is invaded by a “blissful ecstasy
which rises from the innermost depths of man, aye, of nature.”6 Only then
can one be granted an insight into the world of Dionysus. The analogy
of drunkenness helps to understand the effect of Dionysus’s emotions
because they are awakened in order to lead the reasonable believer into the
torpor of self-forgetfulness. Dionysus breaks man’s individual cell and, as
“the potent coming of spring penetrating all nature with joy,” celebrates
festively the reunion between man and nature, with the corollary of
a better understanding among men as well. Dionysus is therefore the
constant reminder of the primitive force which is present in all things,
although often estranged, underlying the veil of reason. The satyr thus
represents a force much stronger than that of the beautiful appearance,
since the latter is shattered by the action of oblivion so that the musical
voice of the mysterious Primordial Unity can be heard in the heart of man.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 952.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 955.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
Similarly, the shaman-poet conveys the Dionysian awe since he
is a man in touch with the world beyond reason. Shamanism is evidently
one of the most ancient forms of religious vocation, to be found in the
prehistoric cultures of Siberian hunters, wherein the shaman, who is
also a magician, medicine man, and poet, takes a magical flight toward
wisdom, healing, and clairvoyance. The manifestation of this vocation
occurs by way of a crisis. As Mircea Eliade has influentially put it,
through a rupture of the shaman’s psychic balance, shamanism operates
as the archaic technique of ecstasy.7 He is not only the link between the
natural and the spiritual realm, but also healer, artist, dancer, and poet.
As a poet, the shaman tells traditional out-of-time-and-space stories,
mythical narratives. As Nicolau Sevcenko shows, the poetic vocabulary
of a Tartar shaman, for instance, contains 12,000 words, in contrast to
the 4,000-word range of an ordinary man of his community.8 Thus, the
shamanic roots of poetry celebrate, as it were, the coming of Dionysus
and his feast of friends: “In song and in dance man expresses himself as
a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and to
speak; he is about to take a dancing flight into the air.”9
As Nietzsche suggests, everything is now broken up under the
charm of music and “the artistic power of all nature reveals itself to the
highest gratification of the Primordial Unity.” The soft dream of Apollo
has been heated and the images seem to disintegrate in the deep forest of
the unconscious. Time has come again for the Dionysian under-current
and the manifestation of the unexpected, through latent, artistic ecstasy.
Nietzsche sees the coming of the Dionysian, in contrast to the vanishing
of the Apollonian, as an artistic celebration: “It is with them [Dionysian
artistic expressions] that nature for the first time attains her artistic jubilee;
it is with them that the destruction of the principium individuationis for
the first time becomes an artistic phenomenon.”10
If the Dionysian phenomenon brings forth such exuberance, why
then was it to be suppressed in favor of the Apollonian culture by the
Greeks, namely Plato and his utopian Republic? The answer to such a
ELIADE. Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy, p. 9.
SEVCENKO. No princípio era o ritmo: as raízes xamânicas da narrativa, p. 134. [My
own translation].
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 956.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 959.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
question may lie in the episode of King Midas and Silenus, when Midas,
after chasing the companion of Dionysus in the forest, asked him about
the best and most desirable thing for man. Nietzsche retells the story:
Fixed and immovable, the demigod said not a word; till at
last, urged by the king, he gave a shrill laugh and broke out
into these words: ‘Oh, wretched ephemeral race, children
of chance and misery, why de ye compel me to tell what it
were most expedient for you not to hear? What is best of all
is beyond your reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be
nothing. But the second best for you – is quickly to die.’11
The Greeks understood the painful horror of existence and thought the
pathos should be overcome, or at least veiled from sight, by the radiant
dream-birth of the Olympians, Apollo included. The titanic powers of
nature revealed by Silenus gave them room to “the Apollonian impulse
towards beauty.” The wisdom of Silenus was reversed and the Greeks
sought shelter from the ultimate suffering of existence “under the bright
sunshine of Olympian gods.” The complete absorption in the beauty
of appearance would find its most sublime epitome in Homer’s naïve
art.12 The wisdom of suffering is thereafter defeated by the Apollonian
illusion of will.
Yet, Apollo’s beauty and moderation are necessarily dependent
on the underlying Dionysian layer of suffering and knowledge. The
essence of music pervades the surface of appearance and “Apollo could
not live without Dionysus. (...) The individual, with all his restraint
and proportion, succumbed to the self-oblivion of the Dionysian state,
forgetting the precepts of Apollo.”13 When Plato banned the poets from
his Republic he aimed at the Apollonian artist because he knew of such
a mysterious union, that is, the interdependence between the naïve art
of Homer and the wise sufferer’s primitive voice of music: “The poems
of the lyrist can express nothing which did not already lie hidden in the
vast universality and absoluteness of the music which compelled him to
figurative speech.”14 Plato was aware of the presence of the primordial
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 962.
That is to say, legendary, in Plato’s terms, philosophically naïve. Poetically, of course,
Homer is highly sophisticated.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 967.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 978.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
pain inside the redeemable appearance of the symbolical dream-picture
and such a presence was not welcome in the Platonic civilized society.
Nevertheless, the pervasive flux of Dionysus neutralized the illusory
will of civilized man to overcome his primordial unity, that is, his ever
latent union with the heart of nature: “the satyr chorus, the chorus of the
natural beings, who as it were live ineradicably behind every civilization,
despite the ceaseless change of generations and the history of nations,
remain the same to all eternity.”15
The Dionysian reality assumes therefore the hidden form of
substratum; it is separated from the world of everyday reality by “a
gulf of oblivion in which all past personal experiences are submerged.”
After having penetrated into the true nature of things and returned to
the world of everyday reality, the Dionysian artist feels it “as nauseating
and repulsive.” This is so because he senses it would be ridiculous to be
asked to set it right once he knows he cannot change “the eternal nature
of things.” The poet then tries to express his feelings through his art.
In spite of the resident mockery of the illusive action, the ecstatic poet
seeks in art salvation from the nauseating and repulsive existence of
everyday reality.
The poet’s awareness of the mockery pervading the sublime
illusion of cultured man gives his art the vision to portray what Nietzsche
calls the “contrast between the intrinsic truth of nature and the falsehood
of culture.”16 Only if able to penetrate the depths of natural phenomena
does one become a poet. The Dionysian shaman-poet reaches his moment
of magic in the velvet hour of the atemporal reality and embraces both sun
dome and the night in his universal communion with the primal forces
of Nature. As Nietzsche puts it: “the poet is a poet only in so far as he
sees himself surrounded by forms which live and act before him, and
into whose innermost beings he penetrates.”17 The eye of the shamanpoet is therefore constantly fixed on the Dionysian abysses, whereto he
goes in search of wisdom beyond ordinary perception, only to return and
express his derision at the ineffability of everyday reality. Inflamed by the
song of Dionysus the shaman-poet’s words dance to reveal their divine
mockery at the swarming “wisdom” of the falsehood of culture. The eye
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 983.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 986.
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 988.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
of the Dionysian poet stares at the heart of the abyss and becomes the
very antithesis of the Socratic eye, “an eye in which the fine frenzy of
artistic enthusiasm had never glowed.”18
In classical Greece, collective religious ceremonies such as
the Bacchantes were repressed as subversive.19 Instead of the wild and
luxuriant Dionysian festivals of the past, the State began to control
religion through pythonesses that used to perform at official temples.
The Greek poet, a true heir of the essential Dionysian shamanism (in
terms of inspiration), was regarded as a possessed man who spoke only
according to a god’s will. If one ever wanted to know truth and justice, one
should never listen to such bards; on the contrary, the answer lay in the
teaching of the philosopher. The poets were, like the shaman, possessed
by something out of this world, something Plato called furor poeticus.
Poetic inspiration was not to be regarded as art as long as it
derived from the divine rather than from man. In the dialogue between
Socrates, the philosopher, and Ion, the rhapsode, Plato states the new truth
as Socrates explains to Ion the possessed nature of poetic inspiration:
“For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems
not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.”20 Socrates wants
Ion to realize that the poets do not profess the voice of learning since
their compositions are the fruit of an altered state of mind:
The lyric poets are not in their right mind when they
are composing their beautiful strains: but when falling
under the power of music and metre they are inspired
and possessed; like Bacchic maidens who draw milk and
honey from the rivers when they are under the influence
of Dionysus but not when they are in their right mind.21
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 1021.
Dionysus’s devotees used to worship their god by means of a wild and frantic cult.
Every two years, in winter, a group of scarcely dressed barefooted women would
climb the snowed mountains, and then they would run and dance under the sound of
the tamboura. After that, in the climax of delirium, they would slaughter a wild beast
and eat it raw. Thus, they would acquire the god’s vitality and achieve the Dionysian
ecstasy, in which their personalities were, for a while, substituted by the god’s.
PLATO. Ion, p. 144.
PLATO. Ion, p. 144.
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Although he is considered a noble person the poet cannot be called an
artist since art, for the Socratic mind, belongs to the grasp of men and
poetry to that of the Muse, that is, the divine power of God: “Many are
the noble words in which poets speak concerning the actions of men;
(...) but they do not speak of them by any rules of art: they are simply
inspired to utter that to which the Muse impels them, and that only.”
Whenever Socrates refers to the poet’s words, he means mostly those by
Homer, “who is the best and most divine of them.”22 Yet Homer is not
that much of a Dionysian poet. As suggested earlier, his verse embraces
much more of the Apollonian features bringing forth what was called
naïve poetry. All the same, the author of The Odyssey is taken as the
paragon of a possessed poet because of the mysterious union between
Apollo and Dionysus, that is, their necessary interdependence in all
artistic expressions, and thus the Dionysian under-current makes itself
present even in the foremost “naïve” poet.
Socrates then tells Ion of the chain of voices which the non-human
songs of poets are to follow: “The rhapsode like yourself and the actor are
intermediate links, and the poet himself is the first of them. Through all
these the God sways the souls of men in any direction which he pleases,
and makes one man hang down from another.”23 Each and every one of
such links is used by the Gods and therefore none of them profess words
of truth and knowledge nor express their feelings by art, as Socrates
reminds the rhapsode: “for not by art or knowledge about Homer do you
say what you say, but by divine inspiration and possession.” Through
the words of his master, Plato, who had to burn his own poems to flee
from unphilosophical temptations and become a disciple,24 set about his
utopian dream of a civilized society where men of reason only were to
achieve the virtue of knowledge and truth, a society that had no place
for those deprived of their right minds by the influence of the Muse. The
time had come for Plato’s unpoetic Republic.
PLATO. Ion, p. 144.
PLATO. Ion, p. 144.
As stated by Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, concerning the strong influence of the
Socratic mind upon his most eminent disciple and the banning of poetry from the Greek
ideal State: “the youthful tragic poet Plato first of all burned his poems that he might
become a student of Socrates. (...) the Socratic maxims, together with the momentum
of his mighty character, was still enough to force poetry itself into new and hitherto
unknown channels”. HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, p. 1022.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
Plato wanted his Republic to be a place of virtue and wisdom,
which were to be achieved by the action of reason, and therefore by the
true source of knowledge, that of philosophy: “is not the love of learning
the love of wisdom, which is philosophy?” asserts Socrates in Plato’s
The Republic, BK II.25 Poetry was relegated to a secondary position as
it praised the deeds of Gods, and the Greek Republic required man to
face his own destiny from then on. The legendary feats were then seen
as mythical dream-like stories. Learning was out of the bounds of poetry
for the Greeks. It was the time of the polis, where a political elite ruled
society in terms of its culture, religion, and education; men no longer lived
in the wilderness, and the musical wisdom of the Dionysian primordial
pain was veiled by the artificial light of reason and civilization.
Poetry, being a true reminder of the wild, could not be of any
value for the one who wanted to be a keeper of the Platonic State; the
noble spirit should care for the truth of philosophy instead: “he who is to
be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in
himself philosophy and spirit and swiftness and strength?” asks Socrates
before being promptly answered by Adeimantus: “Undoubtedly.”26
In his establishing the foundations of his Republic, Plato allows
his master to suppress the quarrels, in effect, to lie (in this case maybe
a “good lie”) to the very ones he wishes to keep from lying. Battles and
quarrels tell of loss and pain and these do not belong in the Platonic
State. The poet, possessed by the primordial cry, was too primitive a
creature to be welcome: “all the battles of the gods in Homer -- these
tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to
have an allegorical meaning or not.”27 Socrates reserved for the literal
a special place, in contrast to the allegorical, lest the latter might exert
too deep an influence on the inexperienced mind: “therefore it is most
important that the tales which the young first hear should be models of
virtuous thoughts.”
True representation was very highly regarded by Plato, so that
God “is always to be represented as he truly is, whatever be the sort of
poetry, epic, lyric, or tragic.”28 Having God as the representative of good
PLATO. The Republic, p. 320.
PLATO. The Republic, p. 320.
PLATO. The Republic, 321.
PLATO. The Republic, 322.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
only, any evil deed ever portrayed by poets can never be credited to the
divine power. Whatever is not good cannot be born of God and must be
forsaken so as not to cause unwanted disorder:
That God being good is the author of evil to any one is to
be strenuously denied, and not to be said or sung or heard
in verse or prose by any one whether old or young in any
well-ordered commonwealth. Such a fiction is suicidal,
ruinous, impious. (...) God is not the author of all things,
but of good only.
That God could ever change into something evil was out
of question since “being, as is supposed, the fairest and best that is
conceivable, every God remains absolutely and for ever in his own
form.” Therefore, evil deeds belong solely to the poet’s verses which
contain mostly lies. What began as mere lies in words becomes the true
lie in the “highest part of men,” which is the soul, because lies bring
nothing but ignorance to the soul, since they veil the truth from the mind
of those deceived: “this ignorance in the soul of him who is deceived
may be called the true lie, for the lie in words is only a kind of imitation
and shadowy image of a previous affection of the soul.” By no means
could the conveyers of such sentiments be allowed freedom of speech
in the Platonic State and Socrates makes it very clear as he addresses
Adeimantus at the close of Book II:
These are the kind of sentiments about the gods which will
arouse our anger; and he who utters them shall be refused a
chorus; neither shall we allow teachers to make use of them
in the instruction of the young, meaning, as we do, that our
guardians, as far as men can be, should be true worshippers
of the gods and like them.29
Despite his wish to place man in the center of the stage where
the gods used to be, Plato cannot help comparing his guardians to divine
creatures. But he would rather have his guardian face only half his image
and, he therefore denies him the very truth he defends so carefully: the
truth that lies in the heart of nature and that speaks to man about not
only the outward beauty of Apollo but the suffering essence of Dionysus;
PLATO. The Republic, 324.
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the truth whose concealment will always keep man from approaching
whatever is beyond the binary dichotomies of good and evil, preserved
in one of the last and only sacred shelters still to echo it: the art of poetry.
“Perhaps what is not intelligible to me is not therefore
unintelligible? Perhaps there is a realm of wisdom from which the
logician is shut out? Perhaps art is even a necessary correlative of, and
supplement to, science?”30 These are the thoughts Nietzsche imagines
Socrates might have had after being visited by a dream-apparition during
his last days in prison. The philosopher who did not write often heard
whispered the words “Socrates, practice music” in his dreams: probably a
visit paid by a deity who brought some good advice to the dialectician at
the end of his days, for, as Nietzsche asserts, “that despotic logician had
now and then with respect to art the feeling of a gap, a void, a feeling of
misgiving, of a possibly neglected duty.” Indeed, Socrates did heed that
dream-vision voice and composed a poem on Apollo as well as verses
from a few Æsopian fables.
Even through the most “despotic logician,” the musical words of
poetry found their way to reveal “the only sign of doubt as to the limits of
logic.” Like a shadow that never fades but only dims before the vanishing
light, no matter how much one tries to keep the voice of Dionysus from
expressing its primal rhythm, it will still get through even if under the
whisperings of a deity in dream.
Another relevant concept to be revived by the Romantic spirit
is that of the sublime, which was to be rescued from the writings of
Longinus. According to the Greek author sublimity is on the one hand
an idea related to the older rhetorical concept of “high style.”31 Like
Romantic writing, whose aim would be the unfolding of extraordinary
realities, “whatever knocks the reader out is ‘sublime.’ It may be a flood
of elaborate diction, as in Plato, or a few simple words, as in the biblical
passage, ‘And God said Let there be light.’32 Longinus stated that it
would be much more a matter of content than form in that any subject,
which can genuinely excite, is capable of being handled in a sublime
way. On the other hand the concept is also related to ethical ideals: “the
wise man knows his place as a citizen of the kosmos, his greatness and
HUNTINGTON. The Philosophy of Nietzsche, 1026.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. xii.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. xiii.
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his limitations, he rises superior to meanness and materialism.”33 The
ideas evoked by the ancient Greek concept are similar to those present
in shamanic activities in general, wherein ecstatic behavior is likewise
to be expected:
Sublimity is a kind of eminence or excellence of
discourse. (…) For grandeur produces ecstasy rather than
persuasion in the hearer; and the combination of wonder
and astonishment always proves superior to the merely
persuasive and pleasant.34
Similar to the Nietzschean concept of the Primordial Unity, itself
deriving in part from Longinus’s ideas, sublimity exerts an invincible
power and force that unlike persuasion we cannot control. As in the
Romantic ideal, the forces of nature should also be present in the literary
text: “In literature, nature occupies the place of good fortune, and art that
of good counsel. Most important of all, the very fact that some things in
literature depend on nature alone can itself be learned only from art.”35
In order to avoid the faults that are so much tied up with sublimity, that
is, to achieve a genuine understanding and appreciation of true sublimity,
teaches Longinus, one should be aware that literary judgment comes only
as the final product of long experience: “real sublimity makes a strong
and ineffaceable impression on the memory.”36
The Romantic vision of the English poets finds undoubtedly some
source in the writings of Longinus, whose words sound as prophetic as a
poem by Blake on the divine spirit: “I should myself have no hesitation
in saying that there is nothing so productive of grandeur as noble emotion
in the right place. It inspires and possesses our words with a kind of
madness and divine spirit.”37
Perhaps the most significant parts, as far as this work is concerned,
within the writings of Longinus, are those related to the shamanic
performance as in visualization, or Phantasia, “the situation in which
enthusiasm and emotion make the speaker see what he is saying and
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. xiv.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 1.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 3.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 8.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 9.
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bring it visually before his audience” and in the Dionysian epiphany,
of which we have two different descriptions in Longinus.38 They both
depict the palace of Lycurgus in its divine seizure.39
Above all men Longinus praises the poet, to whom the powers of
God were given as a divine gift and in whose words the sublime is heard:
So when we come to great geniuses in literature – where,
by contrast, grandeur is not divorced from service and
utility – we have to conclude that such men, for all their
faults, tower far above mortal stature. Other literary
qualities prove their users to be human; sublimity raises
us towards the spiritual greatness of god.”40
Longinus did a service to the men of letters when he wrote in favor
of those possessed by the voice of god at a time the poet was under
suspicion: “greatness of mind wanes, fades, and loses its attraction when
men spend their admiration on their mortal parts and neglect to develop
the immortal.”41
Ladies and gentlemen: I have raised three arches, and with
clumsy hand I have placed in them the Muse, the Angel,
and the “Duende.”42
An interesting parallel to the Nietzschean force of the Dionysian
can be found in the equally mysterious power of the “Duende,” present
in Federico García Lorca’s fusion of Surrealist concerns with his
sense of native Andalusian culture.43 Lorca published his essay on this
daemonic figure based on a lecture given in New York City, during his
most deliberate surrealistic phase in the late 1920’s. As we learn from
Arturo Barea, “Lorca took his Spanish term for daemonic inspiration
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 20.
The first one refers to Aeschylus: “the palace was possessed, the house went
bacchanal.” And the other one to Euripedes: “the whole mountain went bacchanal with
them” (LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 22).
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 42.
LONGINUS. On the sublime, p. 52.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 51.
LORCA. The Duende (1955), p. 154-166. I will be using here the page references from
Rothenberg’s anthology Symposium of the Whole (ROTHENBERG), in which Lorca’s
essay appears, significantly, as part of the range of discourse toward an ethnopoetics.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
from the Andalusian idiom. While to the rest of Spain the duende is
but a hobgoblin, to Andalusia it is an obscure power which can speak
through every form of human art.”44 Accordingly, as Lorca writes, “in all
Andalusia, from the rock of Jaen to the shell of Cádiz, people constantly
speak of the duende and find it in everything that springs out of energetic
instinct.”45 The Duende is the spiritual power of those possessed by
a rage to live and express it in any given artistic terms, the spirit of
Dionysus, as it were, that takes over the artist in the sublime moments of
inspiration, creativity, and performance. It is indeed a mysterious power
that Lorca, in his comments on the presence of Duende in music, links
to the dark (black) side pervading all art, the strangeness that moves us
beyond understanding: “these ‘black sounds’ are the mystery, the roots
that probe through the mire that we all know, and do not understand,
but which furnishes us with whatever is sustaining in art.”46 In his own
words, Lorca defines the Duende thus:
The duende, then, is a power and not a construct, is a
struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old guitarist, a
true virtuoso, remark, “The duende is not in the throat, the
duende comes up from inside, up from the very soles of the
feet.” That is to say, it is not a question of aptitude, but of
a true and viable style – of blood, in other words; of what
is oldest in culture: of creation made act.
As if echoing the words of Nietzsche on the primordial power of
Dionysus, Lorca refers to “a mysterious power that all may feel and no
philosophy can explain.” Lorca indeed acknowledges the Nietzschean
presence concerning matters dealing with such mysterious power, which
“is, in sum, the earth-force, the same duende that fired the heart of
Nietzsche.” Lorca makes clear that his Duende, albeit dark, is not devilish
and hence should not be “confused with the theological demon of doubt
at whom Luther, on a Bacchic impulse, hurled an inkwell in Nuremberg,
or with the Catholic devil, destructive, but short of intelligence.” On the
contrary, Lorca’s struggling power of darkness “is a descendant of that
benignest daemon of Socrates, he of marble and salt, who scratched the
BAREA. Lorca: the poet and his people, p. 3.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 43.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 44.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
master angrily the day he drank the hemlock.” Lorca believes that all
truly creative artists have to face their own inner demons, rather than
their angel or muse, and scuffle them before producing any given artistic
representation of such fight:
Any man – any artist, as Nietzsche would say – climbs
the stairway in the tower of his perfection at the cost of a
struggle with a duende – not with an angel, as some have
maintained, or with his muse. This fundamental distinction
must be kept in mind if the root of a work of art is to be
As Lorca points out, the angel “guides and endows … or prohibits and
avoids … or foretells …the angel dazzles; but he flies over men’s heads
and remains in mid-air, shedding his grace” upon an awe-stricken man
who can never resist such radiance. As to the muse, in keeping with Lorca,
she “dictates and, in certain cases, prompts” the poets who “hear voices
and do not know where they come from.” Surely the “Muse arouses the
intellect … but intellect is oftentimes the foe of poetry because it imitates
too much; it elevates the poet to a throne of acute angles and makes him
forget that in time the ants can devour him.” All in all, Lorca continues,
“Angel and Muse approach from without; the Angel sheds light and the
Muse gives form.”47 That is to say, angels and muses alike soar from
above, but the Duende roar from within and “must come to life in the
nethermost recesses of the blood.”
Like the Dionysian forces that should overcome Apollo’s illusion,
the Duende also faces the challenge of warding off the angel and the
muse in the poet’s heart. As Lorca asserts, the poet’s “true struggle is
with the Duende,” who must “repel the Angel, too – kick out the Muse
and conquer his awe of the fragrance of the violets that breathe from the
poetry of the eighteenth century, or of the great telescope in whose lenses
the Muse dozes off, sick of limits.” True poetic, or artistic, expression
should hence be the result of seeking out the daemon rather than following
the acknowledged paths of God, which, as Lorca reminds us might
range “from the barbaric way of the hermit, to the subtler modes of the
mystic.” In order to face the challenge of struggling with the Duende,
however, “neither map nor discipline is required. Enough to know that
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 45.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
he kindles the blood like an irritant, that he exhausts, that he repulses, all
the bland, geometrical assurances, that he smashes all styles.” In other
words, unless one endeavors, like the shaman in his magical flight, to
access the innermost recesses of the human, that is, to struggle with the
dark mysterious power of the Duende, art will not surface. As Lorca
puts it, “the great artists … know that no emotion is possible without
the mediation of the Duende.”48
The similarities between the shamanic figure and the Duende are
of a spiritual nature that deals with religious awe. The Duende can also
be seen as spiritual possession, which, like the shaman in healing magical
flight, represents a rupture of both the psychic structure of the shaman/
poet and of the physical structure of the world at large. The descriptions
given by Lorca corroborate such a connection:
The arrival of the Duende always presupposes a radical
change in all the forms as they existed on the old plane.
It gives a sense of refreshment unknown until then,
together with that quality of the just-opening rose, of the
miraculous, which comes and instills an almost religious
Lorca uses the power of Duende to describe artistic performances that
possess such transporting qualitites. Both the performer and his audience,
which, as in a shamanic séance, reveal a communal bond that becomes
indispensable for the manifestation of spiritual power, in fact feel the
presence of Duende. As Lorca points out, “naturally, when flight is
achieved, all feel its effects: the initiate coming to see at last how style
triumphs over inferior matter, and the unenlightened, through the I-don’tknow-what of an authentic emotion.” Another similarity that brings
together the possibility of Duende and shamanic practice is that both rely
on the living presence of a performer. Even though, as Lorca claims, “all
arts are capable of Duende,” one will find “its widest play in the fields
of music, dance, and the spoken poem,” which are indeed all features
of shamanic performance. As I have shown before, the shaman dances,
plays music, and recites songs as part of his preparation for attaining
magical flight in the re-enactment of old time rituals.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 45.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 46.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
The concept of death also brings together shamanism and Duende.
According to Lorca, in Spain (homeland of Duende), unlike any other
part of the world, death is seen as a beginning and not an end: “in every
country, death comes as a finality. It comes, and the curtain comes
down. But not in Spain! In Spain the curtain goes up.”50 In Spain death
is a reason to reflect rather than mourn, and the dead “are more alive
than the dead of any other country of the world: their profile wounds
like the edge of a barber’s razor. The quip about death and the silent
contemplation of it are familiar to the Spanish.” On the word of Lorca,
unlike the Muse, who, as “she sees death on the way, closes the door …
or promenades an urn and inscribes an epitaph with a waxen hand,” or
the Angel, who “flies in circles and weaves with tears of narcissus and
ice the elegy we see trembling in the hands of Keats,” the “Duende, on
the other hand, will not approach at all if he does not see the possibility
of death.”51 Thus death as the final curtain does not function in Spain,
or in shamanism, where the initiate has to die and be reborn to become
the wounded healer. Wounded by death itself, the shaman will from then
on heal all that affects life, just as the “Duende draws blood, and in the
healing of the wound that never quite closes, all that is unprecedented
and invented in a man’s work has its origin.” It is my contention that
the spiritual power of Duende in artistic representation is the same as
that pervading shamanic practices and its representations. As Lorca puts
it, “the Duende who raises the tower of Sahagún … is the same spirit
that breaks open the clouds of El Greco and sends the constables of
Quevedo and the chimaeras of Goya.”52 Like the spirit of the shamanic
figure that descends to the nethermost regions of the human psyche and
takes a magical flight to deal with the supernatural beyond the grasp of
reason, the Duende rises from the innermost recesses of man and fights
off the Apollonian rational spirit to yield the sublime jubilation of artistic
creation as a means of unfolding the shamanic roots that lie at the core
of poetic achievement.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 47.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 49.
LORCA. The Duende (1983). In: ROTHENBERG. Symposium of the whole, p. 50.
Aletria, Belo Horizonte, v.25, n.3, p. 161-178, 2015
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