I recently had the treat of seeing HALLELUJAH: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song. It was a treat not just because it was about one of my artistic heroes, but because it was a movie about the creation and the odd life of one of his songs, “Hallelujah.”
As I watched the movie, I kept thinking of how Cohen created with duende. I say the word duende because Cohen’s artistic hero, Frederico Garcia Lorca, was obsessed with duende because he believed duende is the ineffable something beyond voice and style that defines the most resonant art.
In his famous essay on duende, Lorca offered all sorts of meanings for the “mysterious force” of duende:
He recounts what an old guitar master told him:
“The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.” Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive, Lorca said, meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.
Duende is the very spirit of the earth. It goes beyond any inspiration from the muse. It has “to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood,” says Lorca.
Duende is not form, but “the marrow of form,” Lorca says.
Duende is what I hear when I listen to “Hallelujah.” I hear something beyond what I can understand, and the song was beyond what Cohen could understand. It took him five years to write it. He wrote 150 draft verses. In a writing session in New York’s Royalton Hotel, Cohen is famously said to have been reduced to sitting on the floor in his underwear, filling notebooks, banging his head on the floor.
Lorca also seems to also be banging his head on the floor in order to capture duende. Here are some outtakes, with highlights of my favorite descriptions.
“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 and makes Goya, master of the greys, silvers and pinks of the finest English art, paint with his knees and fists in terrible bitumen blacks…