Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Angel, muse, duende, and...

Black sounds, part 2. 
Part one is here.

H. R. Giger, Birth Machine, 1910.
Wikipedia + Creative Commons license
If we look at the sort of narratives that reach across the face of America, we find that Lorca's muse, angel, and duende are all missing. Perhaps this is no surprise. Studies have shown us that the majority of people don't engage much in written stories, the descendant of our most ancient around-the-fire way of engaging in explaining ourselves to ourselves. Many people who attend college no longer read books after they graduate. Of course, people gossip and tell anecdotes about those they know, although a recent article in The Atlantic suggested that conversation itself is under threat in a technological age. But for most, the art form where they encounter the told story is the movie. And the movie that reaches big screens in the hinterlands where I and many others live is the most popular movie of all, the one that is pushed by marketers, thrust on the populace, and that sells the most tickets.

For many decades now, we have lived in a world where marketers choose what most people read and watch. We have relinquished to them the power of creating our own culture by exploration and affirmation of what is true, good, and beautiful. This mode of establishing the direction of the main stream of culture has curious results.

If we take a look at The Hunger Games, the Twilight series, or some superhero saga like the latest Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we may believe that we find some clever, well-made movies of their kind--I'm not going to jump into an argument about individual films--but we also find an absence of muse, angel, and duende. Instead, there is a rejection of the powers of inspiration that come from Lorca's angel and muse, as well as an evasion of soulfulness. We find a strong insistence on the individual's ability and power to take control of his or her own life and wrest it away from the terrible structures made by human beings, as well as from the powers of death and God. Appointed deaths are ducked for the hero and heroine in The Hunger Games. Death dies for the central characters in the Twilight stories, and the risk to the soul no longer has any meaning. Vampires in Forks have little trouble with the burden of great, lonely age; they all have equal partners to console them for the endless cold. Captain America? In The Winter Soldier, Captain America shares with the old-fashioned vampire a burden of age that outlives mortal love. In all these cases, the one thing the protagonist must come to accept is friendship and the need to renew and make connections in order to survive.

Lorca's vision of the storyteller's trinity of possible inspiration--the angel who brings light and grace and thorn-crown of fire, the muse who may dictate and brings shapeliness and intellect to the work, and the earth spirit who burns in our blood and brings a baptism in dark water--is simply not needed or wanted in these Hollywood stories. They are ruled by another power entirely, the time ghost, the spirit of the age, the zeitgeist. And that is in great part why they are so popular. Matthew Arnold, coiner of the term, thought of the zeitgeist as a force that powered events, and from which we might want to take refuge.

The zeitgeist so evident in these and many other blockbuster movies is composed of interlocking parts like a toy transformer--technological, apocalyptic, and conspiratorial. A sense of overwhelming technological progress broods over the movies, and even invades places that could possibly be a wild refuge. Even what used to be raw and wild is internet-connected, and the powers of characters take on a technological edge. (Indeed, it's hard not to be frequently aware of the wonders of CGI when viewing most movies these days.) The wind of the zeitgeist blows through a landscape that is as violent and cruel as the killing grounds of the 20th century, but now the spirit of the age as seen in popular story is entangled in webs of conspiracy. Inside our filmic governments and powers are elaborate, subterranean schemes and initiatives that ordinary people are helpless to understand, even if we sense them or glimpse what we are allowed to see of them. The idea of widespread, powerful conspiracy rules the movie world, and tends toward the making (and unmaking) of apocalyptic events. Dread is the atmosphere we breathe. The human soul is in peril, liable to destruction or reduction.

In the face of such threats in movie land, our human (or once-human) characters do the thing that good capitalists do: they network. They make a counter-web to set against conspiracy and destruction. Our created blockbuster characters tend to give up all concern for the soul in their cornered efforts to survive the whelming technological and human plots against them. It's not so different from our daily lives, surrounded from waking with technological connections and pelted with disturbing news about the institutions intended to keep people safe. In our everyday life, we are bombarded with trivia and threats, distracted from depth and reflection.

Bernini, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, c. 1660. Apse of
St. Peter's Basilica. Wikipedia Commons, public domain.
With such a zeitgeist stirring the world, it's no wonder that a movie like Aronofsky's Noah headed straight for controversy; for once, a movie that pursues angel, muse, and duende has reached the hinterlands of America. The film turns its face away from technology and conspiracy and explores creation, obedience to divine will, and old apocalypse. Here is the creator God, making the universe in six periods of time before the time of rest, stirring a seed, raising a forest, and unlocking the extravagant fountains of the deep. Atheist he may be, but Aronofsky restores meaning to the word awesome. And here are we mortals, shown as the pluckers of the apple and in silhouette as slayers of Abel, a murderous tribe, generation after generation.

The lost drama of salvation returns in Noah, and the soul strives to grasp God and divine intention. In that realm, everything human beings do again matters and is of the very highest moment. The effort to understand God and do what is demanded can push a man to the teetery brink of madness. Oh, the movie has flaws, like some passages that seem pilfered from Peter Jackson's version of Middle Earth battles and from Jackson's mountains that step out as stone giants. But Aronofsky wrestles with the power of the angel and calls forcibly to the muse. He invokes the black sounds of duende  and Lorca's baptism by dark water through the creation of a Noah of anguish and the fear of abandonment and death, through the man's passionate courting of heaven, and through the force of the blood tie of family that, in the end, saves the world a second time.

Angel, muse, duende: these are the three who battle the zeitgeist on our behalf, wielding their strange, piercing weapons. Perhaps they will yet bring us to fresher, truer, stronger stories, if we can only hand down the memory of what Melville called "deep diving," and the knowledge of how to read and see.

"Muses Sarcophagus," The Louvre
Roman, 2nd century A. D.
Public domain, via Wikipedia

13 comments:

  1. Lorca is a neglected, forgotten, and tragically murdered genius (and the mystery of that murder will never be solved). I think only graduate students in literature programs ever encounter him -- and that happens rarely.

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    1. Hi RT--

      Hope all is well with you. The end of Lorca is tragic and painful, but he did wonderful things. I have a great big fat FSG Lorca that I read frequently.

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    2. Did you axe your blog again? It wasn't there when I leaped over... You know, it's doing quite well for a new blog. You shouldn't toss it!

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  2. My blog is on life support but continues....my reports of my demise are premature.....

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    1. Oh, it must be ghosting about then. Or... I'm having a little internet trouble today, so maybe it's my incredible disappearing network playing tricks.

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  3. I have yet to see, 'Noah' - and not being one for those palaces of entertainment known as 'movie theaters' I shall have to until I can stream this movie to my computer at some point in the future.
    For a movie 'that pursues angel, muse, and duende' I notice in trailers how much conspiracy, science-fiction like apocalypse, and human slavery (obedience to God's will, in this case) there is in them.
    It looks to me at the moment as though Aronofsky has taken an old story and represented it with a more modern zeitgeist, rather than an earlier one.
    I shall simply have to watch the movie when I can, and am intrigued to do so now, Marly.
    Thank you for this very thought-provoking blog entry!

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    1. I have no doubt it is influenced by the zeitgeist--nothing makes it to the hinterlands that is not! You notice that i said he turns his face away from "technology and conspiracy"--not apocalypse.

      I'd say there is genuine "human slavery" in Tubal-cain's little kingdom, but Noah? His search for God's will is one that makes him live a larger life, not a smaller one. It is always a mistake, I think, to picture God as making life smaller and more cramped--if that's the picture, it is a god someone has made up.

      Glad you liked it, Paul--

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    2. I have no doubt it is influenced by the zeitgeist--nothing makes it to the hinterlands that is not! You notice that i said he turns his face away from "technology and conspiracy"--not apocalypse.

      I'd say there is genuine "human slavery" in Tubal-cain's little kingdom, but Noah? His search for God's will is one that makes him live a larger life, not a smaller one. It is always a mistake, I think, to picture God as making life smaller and more cramped--if that's the picture, it is a god someone has made up.

      Glad you liked it, Paul--

      Delete
  4. Thanks, Marly, for reminding me about Garcia Lorca and duende. It sent me to the web to refresh myself about what "duende" was. I found Lorca's "Theory and Play of the Duende," translated by A.S. Kline: http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Spanish/LorcaDuende.htm

    Excerpt: " Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art. ‘Dark sounds’ said the man of the Spanish people, agreeing with Goethe, who in speaking of Paganini hit on a definition of the duende: ‘A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.’

    So, then, the duende is a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘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: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation."

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    1. Oh, yes, I read some Kline in noodling around. That's definitely after the aspect of earth spirit and inner fire (which rises from where the feet touch earth.)

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  5. Mary, your great explanation of duende caused me to remember what I had forgotten: a grad class in Hispanic LIT taught by Hemingway and Lorca scholar Alan Josephs. Our discussions about Lorca were the best sessions in the course. Ah, memory! Thanks for provoking it.

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.