I am in a frenzy, following up from a terrific exchange in the comments of yesterday's post on the art of Katherine Ace. We were writing about the surface of art in painting and oral narrative performance of well known fairy tales contrasted with the subtext of evocative imagery -- the tension between the encounters of the real and the fantastic -- experienced emotionally in the work. Story, like paintings, move across a calm surface from beginning to end, in an enclosed world of art. But within those boundaries, we are challenged by the emotions, more often deeply felt rather than understood, that are churned up by the metaphorical images.
As a writer, who began in academia studying oral narrative performance and stories, I was captivated first by the emotionally charged subtexts (and which of course I was required by the dictates of the class to eventually articulate into rationalized systems of information. The "this signifies that" format.) And yet, I felt more like the Xhosa story teller who when asked to explain the meaning of an image in the story she had just finished performing, responded, "To answer that, I will have to tell you the story again." And when I was writing my masters thesis (the first one) on African Oral Narratives, I wound up writing a novel instead, preferring to feel and to show rather than to explain and to tell. And I had to wait twenty years until I could finally acquire a Masters Degree in the exact opposite corner of my psyche, Modern Literary Theory. But I have never strayed far from that first education, and the hardest part for me in writing any story, is the need to first feel the turbulence beneath the surface, to feel it rise hump-backed from the deep, filling me with excitement and seasickness all at once.
Mo Crow offered this yesterday to the conversation from Margaret Atwood's "The Page" (Murder in the Dark Coach, 1983):
"5. The question about the page is; what is beneath it? It seems to have two dimensions, you can pick it up and turn it over and the back is the same as the front. Nothing , you say, disappointed.
But you're looking in the wrong place, you were looking on the back instead of beneath. Beneath the page is another story. Beneath the page is everything that has ever happened, most of which you would rather not hear about.
The page is not a pool but a skin, a skin is there to hold in and it can feel you touching it. Did you really think it would just lie there and do nothing?
Touch the page at your peril: it is you who are blank and innocent, not the page. Nevertheless you want to know, nothing will stop you. You touch the page, it's as if you've drawn a knife across it, the page has been hurt now, a sinuous wound opens up, a thin incision. Darkness wells through."
And there it was, under the skin, fleshed to the bone of writing. And it sent me rushing for my copy of Federico Garcia Lorca's luminous and poetic Deep Song and Other Prose, and I couldn't decide between the essay on the duendes or on deep song, so here are moments from both offerings:
In "Deep Song," Lorca is contrasting what he considers the superficial flamenco songs of his day with the more ancient, mysterious, and mystical "deep song" that lingers in the Gypsy "siguirya," which he describes thus:
"The Gypsy siguiriya begins with a terrible scream that divides the landscape into ideal hemispheres. It is the scream of dead generations, a poignant elegy for the lost centuries, the pathetic evocation of love under other moons and other winds...the melodic phrase begins to pry open the mystery of the tones and remove the precious stone of the sob, a resonant tear in the river of the voice. No Andalusian can help but shudder on hearing that scream."
And this from the essay "Play and Theory of Duendes" which defies direct translation but in his essay is described as a force more powerful than the angel who gives lights, and the muse who gives form. It is a force that surges up from the earth, through the soles, into the body, and it strips away anything that is not authentic emotion. Here is the description he gives of a performance of famous Andalusian singer, Pastora Pavón Cruz, known also as La Niña de los Peines:
"As though crazy, torn like a medieval weeper, La Niña de los Peines got to her feet, tossed off a big glass of firewater and began to sing with a scorched throat, without voice, without breath or color, but with duende. She was able to kill all the scaffolding of the song and leave the way for a furious, enslaving duende, friend of sand winds, who made the listeners rip their clothes...La Niña de los Peines had to tear her voice because she knew she had an exquisite audience, one which demanded not forms but the marrow of forms, pure music with a body so lean it could stay in the air. She had to rob herself of skill and security, send away her muse and become helpless, that her duende might come and deign to fight hand and hand with her. And how she sang! Her voice was no longer playing, it was a jet of blood worthy of her pain and her sincerity, and it opened like a ten-fingered hand around the nailed but stormy feet of a Christ by Juan de Juni. "
And so I move from skin, to bone, to blood. Each time I sit down to write, it is a dare to touch the page, to open the incision; to send away the muse and the angel and invite my duende to force me to write from the soles up.
Art: "The Jungle" by Cuban Surrealist Wilfred Lam.