The Endless Baptism of Freshly Created Things
Garcia Lorca’s Duende, Creativity, and Ophiocordyceps
Where does good art come from? Is it ontologically primary to our own minds? Or does it arrive externally? Many, struggling to explain that slippery moment of creative conception, focus on the docile muse. But for others, creative expression is something more intimate, and more uncomfortable. I am speaking of those spasms of the soul that Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca famously characterized as the “duende” or “goblin” as it could be loosely translated to in English. For Garcia Lorca, the angel sweetly “guides and grants”, the muse gently “dictates and prompts”. Both of these influences come externally, herding us like velvet-mouthed sheepdogs, into creativity. But the duende is different. It pulses up from the feet and the roots. It is an internal surge, but its origin is in the ground. It penetrates and infects us with “the spirit of the earth”. This is no gracious angel. No. Garcia Lorca explains that the duende, “is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought.” It is the art that gurgles, arrives on tides of bile, and “won’t appear if he can’t see the possibility of death, if he doesn’t know he can haunt death’s house… the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.”
Perhaps the muse is the companion of Romanticism; of financial security, inheritance, and languor. The muse is a privilege. An abstraction. The muse is even Cartesian, a dualism. We, the artists, are the generative, disembodied mind and muse is the dumb, yet beautiful materials of the world. The muse is the world at a remove.
The duende is the dissolution of dualism. It is “not form but the marrow of form”. It smears the boundary between ground and feet, body and mind. In a moment when advances in biology trouble ideas of individuality through research into mutualism and intersubjectivity, perhaps the muse no longer serves as an artistic catalyst. Philosopher Andreas Weber asserts that “Life has a tendency to transform all available resources into a meshwork of bodies”. This meshwork of bodies’ goal is aliveness of the whole, and not aliveness of the individual. An aliveness that “in its innermost core carries the plea that there be more life, not that I am fine. Putting the desire that there be life first might even provoke my own destruction.” To be alive is to be “enmeshed” in a “mess that must be constantly negotiated”. To be alive, is as Garcia Lorca, explains it, to “invite” the transformative and terrible power of the duende to the edge of the wound to dance. The Duende does not care if you live or die, but it cares deeply about “aliveness” generally. It uses you as a channel of “gesture and dance”. It spasms and deforms and surges through you. Art is transformative. But no one ever said it was safe.
I am reminded of the fungus Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis and the carpenter ant of the tribe Camponitini, popularly known as the zombie fungus. Once infected with the spores of the fungus, the ant’s nervous system and body becomes an extension of the fungal need to reproduce. With great precision, the infected ants ascend up plants to a specific altitude and microclimate around ten inches from the ground, and perform a “death bite” into the central vein of a leaf on the north side of the plant. They do this almost always at solar noon. Extraordinarily, fossilized remains of leaves show us that the “death bite” of the infected ant goes back at least 48 million years. Once latched onto the plant, the fungus erupts from the body of the plant, producing a fruiting body from the head of the ant that releases spores. In a discovery that is equal parts disturbing and fascinating, infected ants in a lab, once dissected, showed that the fungi colonized the body and musculature of the ant and did not, in fact, take over the brain. Using the power of imagination, we can try to imagine the experience of a hijacked consciousness. What does it feel like, to still have your mind, but to feel it being compelled, chemically, and bodily, toward a purpose not specifically tailored to your own life and needs? We’ve all had times in our lives when intuition and circumstances compel us to make choices that seem absurd. We say we are guided by “god” or “ancestors” or “madness”. And, in regarding the making of art, we say we are inspired. We are serving the godhead, Hermes, the imaginal realm, the collective unconscious, the “aliveness” of the world.
What does it mean to become a channel for another species? Another strange type of reproduction? What does it feel like? Is it terrifying? Is it pleasurable? Does it feel like death? Or does it feel like art? Does it feel like both? I think it might feel like duende.
Human stories are not the only stories. Human art is a small portion of the world’s art. Human stories, asserting their sterile primacy, directly impinge on the aliveness of the whole. They are used as the inspiration behind clearcutting, colonialism, ecocide, and monoculture.
What does it mean to be an artist in an age of extinction and ecological collapse? I think it means inviting the duende to dance at the edge of the wound. I think it means opening up the door to another species. Yes, I want to tell stories, but they do not need to be my stories. They don’t even have to protect my body and promote my own aliveness.
My stories must promote the aliveness of the whole. They must surge up from the ground into my feet. The duende shows us that to be a channel of good art, is to allow for radical transformation. This transformation is not personal. It isn’t even human. The carpenter ant and the Ophiocordyceps fungus beg us to ask what it means to become the artistic and creative vehicle for another species?
Garcia Lorca quotes a Spanish ballad at the end of his essay: “The lips I kissed you with / I’ve given to earth below.” Only when we surrender to “struggle” and dance with something that wants to create “through” us and not “for us”, can we open to what Garcia Lorca calls “the endless baptism of freshly created things.”This seems, to me, to be the creative imperative of this moment. How can you become the vehicle of another species' story? How can you creatively and dynamically contribute to the total aliveness of the world, perhaps even at the cost of your own personal narrative?
When a friend asked me how I have produced so much writing in such a short period of time, I responded: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I think I’m infected with something. It hasn’t been comfortable.” The art that is necessary right now won’t be comfortable. It will be spasmodic. Unpredictable. And if we are doing it right, we probably won’t understand what we are doing. Like the infected carpenter ant, we will only know that our bodies and our creativity is behaving strangely. Suddenly we know we must approach a certain blade of grass, and filled with duende, we must begin to climb.
Enlivenment: Towards a Poetics of the Anthropocene by Andreas Weber
Theory and Play of the Duende by Federico Garcia Lorca
Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves by Francisco J. Varela
Ant-infecting Ophiocordyceps genomes reveal a high diversity of potential behavioral manipulation genes and a possible major role for enterotoxins
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
Zombie Fungus Takes Over Ant's Body by Ed Yong.
Some upcoming news and events.
I’m happy to share my recent conversation with Brie Stoner about Composting Christianity on the Unknowing Podcast.
I’ll be giving a talk on Myth & Mycelium for The Central Texas Mycological Society at 8 pm EST this Thursday, December 15th.
I’m excited to dialogue with Zaya & Maurizio Benazzo of Science of Nonduality about trauma, evolutionary biology, and symbiotic embodiment on December 28th. You can read more and sign up here.
The Flowering Wand: Rewilding the Sacred Masculine has just arrived! You can order your copy from any online bookseller or local bookstore.
My first novel The Madonna Secret recently went up for pre-order! You can read more about the book here and pre-order from any online bookseller.
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I am overwhelmed with gratitude by how many of you have showed up here (and throughout the past year across platforms). As someone struggling to balance chronic illness (and just how expensive it is to be sick in America) with writing, know that you are very practically keeping me alive, keeping me afloat. Thank you deeply. I love you all so much.
I have been at a loss to describe what I've been feeling and why I seem immobilized and unwilling to create using the tools that are familiar to me. Something in me is reaching toward something I cannot yet see and I feel the transformative dance. While there is euphoric joy at times, it would be dishonest to say the experience has been pleasant.
There are other reference points throughout history to the creative process you describe, such as Michelangelo's depiction of the Ignudi in the Sistine Chapel, but duende (and how you describe it here) is very illuminating and comfortting. Thank you for this.
Thanks, again and again Sophie. You have helped me clear up what my art ought to be, and that I must allow it by stepping out of its way.