In 1933 in Buenos Aires, Federico Garcia Lorca gave a now famous lecture entitled “La juego y teoria del duende” (“The Play and Theory of the Duende”), in which he sought to identify the source of artistic inspiration. Variously defined as ghost, goblin, demon, or charm, duende–strongly identified in Spain with the dark passion of flamenco–for Garcia Lorca was “that indefinable force which animates different creators and infuses their deepest efforts.” More than mere muse, duende rises from the depths of the earth or descends from the heavens, and is as much about darkness and death as light and life. “There is no map nor exercise that leads to duende,” Garcia Lorca wrote. “We know only that it sets blood afire.” No wonder he was a fan of bullfighting.

Poet and critic Edward Hirsch delves into duende in The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration, following up on the success of his 1999 primer, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love With Poetry. In his new book Hirsch, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner who was born in Chicago in 1950, mines the work and psyches of a wide range of artists in an attempt to determine what impelled them to create.

While Garcia Lorca found duende in poetry, flamenco, and bullfighting, Hirsch expands the search to include painting, jazz, and rock. “The duende also arrived on August 17, 1969,” he writes, “on a dairy farm ten miles outside Bethel, New York, when Jimi Hendrix played ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on his electric guitar so that it reverberated across the fields with the gusto of an American childhood.”

According to Hirsch, “Duende rises through the body. It burns through the soles of a dancer’s feet, or expands in the torso of a singer. It courses through the blood and breaks through a poet’s back like a pair of wings.” It doesn’t suffuse all the work of any single artist, but arises unbidden in Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Mark Rothko’s dark paintings, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue.

Hirsch, a professor at the University of Houston, appends a 13-page list of suggested reading (and listening) to the text of The Demon and the Angel. His talk at the Art Institute of Chicago on Thursday, May 23, should be somewhat less daunting. Part of the museum’s “Night Vision” series, it starts at 6 PM at the Art Institute, Michigan and Adams. Tickets are $11, $7 for students. Call 312-443-3680 or 312-575-8000.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Evin Thayer.