The Precipice of Non-Existence
By Mario Gerada
23 April 2015
The struggle for life, with death and darkness emerge as powerful themes, both in Duende as a concept, and in Lizzie Eldridge’s novel. Duende is dangerous, and the novel depicts that danger in all of its nakedness. It is within that stark nakedness, that Lizzie Eldridge points towards that which is essential, Love. For Eldrigde, it is Love that is at the core of the meaning of life and the meaning behind the struggle. Even though this struggle can leave us deeply scared, and some may lose their way, or so it seems. It is a struggle which all humans share, yet artists and mystics seem to be more in tune with, and aware of the Duende, they seem to experience it more intensely, or maybe, they simply can articulate that experience better.
The search for the meaning of life, and the struggle with darkness, both with those internal and external forces, seem to be the journey for mortals, and Duende the novel promises us that “If you look hard enough, you always find what you need”, but the price for that is high. Duende asks the reader: are you ready to embark on this journey?
Lorca writes that “The magic power of a poem consists in it always being filled with duende, in its baptising all who gaze at it with dark water, since with duende it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and the communication of that expression in poetry sometimes acquires a fatal character.”
Nayo, one of the two main characters in the novel, expresses his struggle with Duende through his art. He escorts those who view his paintings to walk on the precipice, but as Jose, Nayo’s lover tells him, he never lets the onlooker fall. Later on in the novel we read:
“‘Maybe La Sinfonia poetica was my attempt to preserve you and me,’ said Nayo. ‘To safeguard what we’ve found and share this. To allow for this and celebrate it. Or perhaps it was my escape from things I didn’t want to accept. After all, the sketches were the things that kept me going through it all. But it never felt like a retreat because without them, that exhibition would never have happened. The drawings were the balance I need to counteract the darkness.’”
For Jose, the other main character in the novel, it is philosophy that helps him grapple with Duende. For both Jose and Nayo, it is love that keeps them from falling down the edge, and who knows if Nayo painted discreet, warm rays of light in his paintings, to protect both viewers and himself, from the dark struggle which at times threatens to swallow us into oblivion.
“‘I want neither world nor dream, divine voice,
I want my liberty, my human love,
In the darkest corner of the breeze no-one wants.
My human love!’ [Lorca writes.]
‘The freedom and the right to love. Not an ideal but a basic and fundamental necessity. That which makes us human and through which humanity finds its name’ Jose’ begins his lecture…”
Jose and Nayo love one another, and are in an intimate relationship with each other, within a brutal and oppressive society, which is spiraling down the vortex of violence.
Violence demands the annihilation of the other, or sometimes of oneself, desiring the nonexistence of the other, or of the self, or of both; that other or the self, struggle for life and for existence. It is love that welcomes us into existence. To some degree or another, all human beings experience the tension between living – being fully present within existence, and the danger of fading away, cast out into the dark emptiness of nonexistence, rejection. It is rejection which seems to be the fundamental fear of the human person, by a loved one, or by life itself, and Duende dances, plays on and invites us to struggle and keep moving forward.
The socio-political context of Jose and Nayo accentuate this struggle for existence; the conservatives want to eliminate those who are on the left and liberal, while the left and the liberals want to eliminate the conservatives, and sometimes each other as well, because they are unable to figure out an alternative working model for a functioning political system. All of them desiring the ‘Utopia Society’, yet unable to figure out, the way to found such a civilization, without rejecting the other, murder. Yet again, the butterfly and the cockroach fail to acknowledge their common roots, and for both sides these roots seem to be drinking from that same murderous desire out of which Cain drank, that of establishing one’s own kingdom through the elimination of the rival other, failing to understand, that it is in loving inclusion and not murderous exclusion, that the blessing is found.
“Jose’ also thought of the cockroach’s love for the butterfly and how the pretty butterfly could never see any possibility of beauty in her suitor, vainly oblivious to the similarity of their roots.”
Isn’t this the foolishness that lies at the root of all human murder? Could this be the reason why Lorca’s El Maleficio de la Mariposa, was so forcefully rejected, because it exposed that which is so basic and primal, hidden within our collective denial?
Maybe, it is because I myself am gay, but it seems to me that the experience of Duende is intensified for the gay person, especially for those living in oppressive societies, like we ourselves did a few years back, where existence was not a guarantee within such a context and structures. Being allowed to go through the motions of life yes, but living? fully present in the ‘I AM’ existence? That is only for the chosen few. Being welcomed into life, that is; to be loved and invited to love others, had to remain hidden in darkness, and that big part of you had to remain repressed and tucked away. You are not a child invited to play in the garden, but a creature that has to survive somewhere in the sub terrain, or somewhere in-between. And yet, the roots are the same, those of a shared humanity, and as a number of us recognize today, what was presented as sacred exclusion, was merely a deadly game of shadow projections, and violent scapegoat mechanisms, devoid of anything of the real sacred, as Rene’ Girard and James Alison helped us understand over the years. Duende is not an exclusive experience of the gay person, but gay people articulate this experience often, or at least at an earlier age, and we struggled to get out of that deadly bind, many are still struggling. In some countries this has been achieved, at least at the civil-legislative level, but is the struggle truly over? In reality, this is the condition of anyone fighting with one form of oppression or another, brought about by external or internal forces. The struggle, not only reveals our shared frail humanity, but also our commonly flawed nature, bent towards violence, as Rene’ Girard terms as, “things hidden since the foundation of the world.”
Jose and Nayo, like others similar to them, find a way how to live in-between genuine existence and hiding, in-between the light of love and the shadows of invisibility. However, while they partially hide and partially expose themselves as a couple, they fully expose their radical ideas, their belief in another kind of world, their struggle with duende, through their philosophy and art. They both know that there is something inherently wrong with violence, not matter which camp it’s coming from.
“Nayo began to think about what extinction meant to him and came up with two ideas. Firstly, from what Jose’ had said, dead forms retain some existence in the living forces which subsume them. He tried to understand this from a political point of view and in the context of the turbulence all around him. Did this mean that when one political regime usurps another, the new power structure inescapably constrains traces of that which it opposed?”
It is love that beckons us to life, but if that love you have to give is rejected, pushed back into the formless world of darkness, how does one exist?
I was not surprised to find ‘Form’ as another strong theme within this novel. Form is linked to both existence and oppression, and the LGBTI communities struggled and struggle with both. Today we call these forms civil unions, civil partnerships, or marriage equality, but it is form that we are talking about, it is existence, it is witness. It is a form, for a love between two people that asks to be witnessed and invites the community to share in that love, as other forms of love do, for existence, because existence is always relational. Maybe, one day, these ‘new’ forms will no longer be helpful for the gay community, and yet, it was form that was required and needed, to assert existence over oblivion, light over darkness.
Nothingness is a scary place to be in, though ironically, it is there that Love leads us towards anyway, as a Spanish mystic Juan de la Cruz tells us. However, this other nothingness is a nothingness filled with the fullness of selfless love, in contrast to the nothingness of nonexistence, void of warmth and the result of hiding and the refusal of life. Maybe Lorca, Jose and Nayo, desired this form, to reassure them that yes, their love exists, and like others they are called to live and love. I wonder if Lorca dreamed of these possibilities, or if it was a too far removed possibility within the context he lived in.
“If Life is still true and poetry exists,
If someone knocks your door and you are sad, please open it.
It is love calling, my dearest friend,” he writes…
Irrespective of form, at the end of the day, Duende seems to be pointing in one direction, that the struggle is one; it is between love and the forces that oppose love. Though the forces of darkness may appear to be more powerful, it is always love that wins the struggle in the end, but the price for that can be life itself.
Duende tells us that nonexistence is void of substance. Violence is empty and death itself can be filled with life. Even that same violent death, which aims at eliminating the physical existence of the other, does not succeed to achieve its goal, because Love knows no boundaries, and Love plays the game of life using different rules, and not according to the petty ones used by violent human beings. While violence appears to be all-powerful and threatening, and it does bring about fragmentation, immense suffering and chaos, it is Love that has the final word, and says, Yes I exist, I AM, and I call you to love others and yourself.
Through her novel, Lizzie Eldridge tells us that desire is a dangerous force, it can become the means of our own destruction if not properly channeled, but isn’t it desire itself that initiates us into the Duende? Desire is that primal force that can lead us into loving relationships, or destructive ones. Isn’t this Duende?; the forces of desire, the forces of love, and the forces for destruction, struggling within us, and outside of us? And isn’t Love trying to teach desire to let go of the finite, to be able to glimpse something of the infinite, something of that greater desire, that is not in rivalry with human desires, and where human beings can finally find their own fulfillment?
For Lizzie Eldridge, desire is not the only powerful and dangerous force for the human person to struggle with, but so are ideas, which can also be either life giving or dangerously violent, especially when these become ideology. Aren’t ideas expressing something of that same desire? For Lizzie Eldridge, like Ortega, ideas and life are inseparable, because they transmit emotions and life itself – maybe ideas give form to desire?
“’The thing I love about him most,’ Jose said to Nayo, [referring to Ortega], ‘is his insistence that ideas can’t be separated from life and life can’t survive without ideas.’”
Eldridge tells us that words have the ability to transform the mundane into something mystical, because words can carry us from this life to the next, in a way as the novel Duende itself does. A beautiful insight which again reminds me of the experiences of Juan de la Cruz, words which might have carried him through his own very difficult life circumstances, and struggle with love. Poetry, becoming for him an important compass for navigation through the various layers of darkness, and isn’t this similar to the experience of Lorca and other poets?
“When I am away from you
What life can I have
Except to endure
The bitterest death known?
I pity myself,
For I go on and on living,
Dying because I do not die’” Juan de la Cruz writes.
For Jose and Nayo, for Lorca, and for so many others who have struggled and are struggling for life and existence, words can also be a form of ‘exorcism’, to face the demons which we encounter on our journey while searching for that place we can call home. While the demons of destruction taunt us; it does not exist, you are rejected from paradise, you are exiled.
“Being a fugitive living in the woods at the time, I had to write before it got dark. Now darkness was approaching again, only more insidiously. It was the dark night of death. I really had to finish my memoirs before nightfall. I took it as a challenge.” Reinaldo Arenas
Jose knew the power of the word, to the point that he knew that every word he spoke in defense of freedom could put his life on the line, and yet for him silence seemed equally dangerous. For Lorca and others, this was their human fate. However, these lives become immortal within human memory, reminding us that it is better to live dangerously, than not to live at all, because even one small gesture of pure love, resounds eternity, because love, truth and perfection are not separate but one and the same.
And Duende, possibly in the form of a jester in the square, whispers a song about a little bit of wind, carrying a little word that is stronger than all the power of the world, than all the forces of death and all the violence these contain. Duende, similar to that little wind, carrying that little word, can never be tamed, but only released, listened to, and followed, or maybe planted, because maybe, and just maybe, Paradise is not far after all, maybe, we have been there all along.
“if Paradise was ever lost completely
if light grew dead
and darkness embraced my mind
if the curve of your body
became a shadow
and the sky collapsed within the sea
I, sleepless, would forever search for you…
…you are all I want
all I could need
it’s you I find
infinite and dancing
in the pathways of my soul.” Lizzie Eldridge
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