Flamenco Psychology:
What if your pain is your pleasure?

by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative Loafing)

"The duende's arrival always means a radical change in forms. It brings to old planes unknown feelings of freshness, with the quality of something newly created, like a miracle, and it produces an almost religious enthusiasm."
--Federico Garcia Lorca, Play and Theory of the Duende

Anyone who reads a lot knows the danger of visiting an actual place he has already visited and re-visited in his imagination. As someone who spent most of childhood in the literary imagination, I learned early on that things rarely turn out to be very much like their imagining.

:I learned to compensate. Of certain things offered me by my imagination I learned only to speak with the greatest caution. Although I did not explicitly avoid the real-life places of my reading - places whose beauty and terror increased in my imagination - I often seemed somehow to avoid them.

:One such place is Andalusia, the southern province of Spain, where I find myself now. For me, Andalusia has long been an El Dorado of the imagination. Although my undergraduate degree entailed a double major in journalism and Spanish literature, I have managed not to make a trip to this mythic kingdom of flamenco, gypsies, poetry and duende, the dark figure of soul said to rise from the earth and possess body and imagination.

This is the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet whose duende seized my imagination in my 20s and inflicted a permanent wound to my ego. In Lorca's life, I found the truth -- truth in which he swam from early life but I, filled with fear, fought year after year. Lorca's courage silenced and humbled me. In his poetry is the truth of the body and particularly its sexual appetites, the truth of the limits of intellect, the truth of death's necessary presence if the imagination is going to be fully birthed.

You will understand, therefore, how when I visited his birthplace, now a museum, in Fuente Vaqueros, not far from where I am staying, I felt myself fighting tears, overcome by regret and gratitude at once for my own struggle and the terrible lesson of Lorca's fate. He was shot and thrown into an anonymous grave, dismembered, outside Granada for speaking his poetic truth in 1936.

:Outside his house, before leaving, I picked oranges from a tree, bitterly sweet, as souvenirs.

Executed by Franco's fascists at 38, Lorca's life was tragic - fitting, since, he restored classical tragic forms to the Spanish stage in plays like Yerma, Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba. His work is about desire in the face of death and what the gypsies call pena negra, the "black pain" that connects personal pain to universal suffering.

:Thus, Yerma, in the play by the same name, desires a child above all else. She sinks into la pena negra, constantly ruminating and reopening this wound of childlessness, calling out to the son she cannot conceive, the child of her imagination. In the end, it turns out that her heartless husband, not her, is sterile. He insults her dream by saying that he is actually happy not to be burdened by children and finds her behavior contemptible: "I can no longer put up with this constant grieving over obscure things, unreal things made of thin air…Over things that have not happened and that neither you nor I can control." In the final act, Yerma kills her husband.

This action is taken instead of one that would have given her exactly what she wanted. A village woman has offered her refuge in her house and life with her son by whom she could have a child. Yerma refuses, to our amazement: "I'm like a parched field big enough to hold a thousand teams of oxen plowing, and what you give me is a little glass of water from the well! Mine is a pain that is no longer of the flesh!"

In other words, Yerma's pena negra, though originating in her body's instinct, has taken her into the limitless depths of imagination and desire. The child she wants is a personification of her capacity to imagine unrealized worlds. This has become far larger and more important than her maternal urge - and completely opposed to the literal world of her husband who chastises her by saying he only values "what I can hold in my hands." Yerma, in the grip of duende, must kill that unpoetic world, the world of the literal.

It is this metaphor - the slaying of the literal and the bullish, brutal ego on behalf of the imagination - that makes death, the bullfight, the national spectacle of Spain, as Lorca put it. Indeed, Lorca maintains that the genius of duende does not even appear unless it sniffs the possibility of death: "The duende must know beforehand that he can serenade death's house and rock those branches we all wear, branches that do not have, will never have, any consolation." This truth that beauty and imagination are rendered through wounds is lost in America -- in its art, in its psychology, in its education - if we ever seized it at all. Perhaps America, like me in my 20s, is too young to give duende voice.

For now, it seems right that I waited so long to come here - well into middle age's changes of the body, beyond consolation in certain ways, after seeing my mother paralyzed by stroke and losing so many friends to AIDS. (Indeed, in the bloodbath of the epidemic, I returned to Lorca's poetry after years of not being able to read it.) Here, my dreams are filled with strange death and the poet, pale as white marble, appears in them every night. Yes, it is virtually impossible for a tourist to hear flamenco puro or cante jondo nowadays and those sounds of others' pena negra will live more in my imagination than in my literal experience.

:But in finally coming here, I feel I have enlarged my understanding of how greeting death is central to psychological healing. I will write about that next week.


"Every man - every artist, as Nietzsche would say - climbs the stairway, in the tower of his perfection by fighting his duende…The true struggle is with duende…But there are neither maps nor discipline to help us find duende. We only know that he burns the blood like a poultice of broken glass, that he exhausts, that he rejects all the sweet geometry we have learned, that he smashes styles, that he leans on human pain with no consolation…With idea, sound or gesture, the duende enjoys fighting the creator on the very rim of the well…"
--Federico Garcia Lorca, Play and Theory of Duende

Not long before his brutal execution by Franco's supporters in Granada in 1936, Federico Garcia Lorca told his friend, poet Pablo Neruda, an eerily foreboding anecdote. It is reported in the book Archetypal Imagination by Noel Cobb.

Lorca was camped with his government-sponsored theater troupe, La Barraca, in a remote area of Spain. The troupe's mission was to "reclaim" the duende, the dark soul, of Spanish theater that had lost itself to the conventions of other European styles.

Unable to sleep one night, he went out for a stroll amid the ruins of an ancient estate at the edge of town where La Barraca was camping. Sitting in a moonlit mist, on the broken capital of a toppled column in that forlorn place, Lorca felt the heaviest solitude. Then, Lorca told Neruda, a tiny lamb came out to browse in the weeds "like an angel of mist," making his solitude bearable and human. Suddenly, though, four or five wild swine came out of the shadows and descended on the lamb, literally tearing it to pieces before Lorca's horrified but ecstatic eyes.

Neruda recalled this as a premonition of Lorca's death. Indeed, Lorca spent his 38 years rehearsing his death - literally assuming a corpse's pose for the amusement of friends like Salvador Dali and more seriously in the death-haunted flamenco music of the gypsies he celebrated and in the plays and poetry he wrote, like the magnificent "Lament for Ignacio Sanchez Mejias," a dirge for his friend killed in the bullfighting ring.

By Lorca's imagining - as I described in last week's column - soul, duende, does not appear to lead a person in the struggle for "perfection" (we might say "self-realization") unless the presence of death is sensed as a vital reality. This is, in the way the ancient Greeks imagined life, a principle of the god Dionysos: Beauty and meaning, the ecstatic, are literally inside the experience of pain.

This is lost in most modern understandings of the search for pleasure and meaning in life. In the popular imagining of professional psychology and most post-pagan religion, pain is regarded at most as a necessary step toward meaning. The crucifixion is a step toward the kingdom of heaven. In the Dionysian understanding - in Lorca's duende - heaven is literally inside the pain. Thus he describes the pain of the soul, as it's treated in the gypsie's cante jondo (deep song) this way :

"Pain, dark and huge as the sky in summer, percolating through the bone marrow and the sap of trees and having nothing to do with melancholy, nostalgia or any other affliction or disease of the soul, being an emotion more heavenly than earthly. Andalusian pain, the struggle of the loving intelligence with the incomprehensible mystery that surrounds it."

This is totally alien to most of us because it requires that we bring love - a "loving intelligence" - to the incomprehensible thing that torments us. There is no guarantee of anything like conventional "happiness" as a result of this but, instead, a complete reversal of ordinary understanding of the self. Soul, duende, comes into being, characterized by "emotion more heavenly than earthly." This is the ecstasy of being who you really are. Few people experience this.

This process, of course, is completely irrational, by the standards of science, and therefore beyond the comprehension of professional psychology as anything but a pathologized state like sadomasochism. Lorca's Dionysian view is instead a poetic sensibility that refuses interpretation of a phenomenon, but instead values its complete whole-hearted description and sensing. I know this is heresy to a culture preoccupied with explanations and feeling better by eliminating the unpleasant from life, but just suppose it were true. Suppose that - instead of going to a therapist to have your misery explained and "transformed" - it were possible to go someplace, as the Greeks did, to completely enact it, to find the meaning in it without trying to find your way out of it. And suppose this experience turned out to be deeply rewarding, even ecstatic!

This, in my opinion, must be the future of psychology. I'm not sure exactly how it will look to make psychology an aesthetic practice. Perhaps it will look something like the action inside the film Shakespeare in Love. Or perhaps it will pay homage to Lorca and look and sound like the body under the spell of flamenco.

I have wandered around Spain, trying, mainly in vain, to see authentic flamenco. Finally, I found two decent performances in Barcelona. Though both were more commercial than I would have liked, I was very lucky one evening to go to a cabaret and be one of only four people present for a performance. The cast, mainly well known singers and dancers, brought unusual informality and spontaneity to their performance and it was completely transfixing.

The pure flamenco artist literally incarnates and enacts the ecstatic seed inside pain. She or he begins with a wail that then becomes a song of pain. The interior struggle with duende, the pain of the soul, overtakes first the voice and then the entire body, giving expression through remarkable gestures and facial expression. Interestingly, in women, this entails the assumption of an almost male power in the legs, while men become almost feminine in the upper body's graceful gestures.

It is, in other words, a complete reversal of the usual and the expected. In the face of a flamenco artist, throwing off his jacket as he completes his performance and filling a dark room with the scent of his body, is the look of pure ecstasy, of pain trampled with pleasure beneath the feet that stamp the earth and refuse to run away.

What a lesson for our own lives!

Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing

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