The Grain of the Voice: Performance, Pragmatism, and Orality
Interpretations of Lorca’s duende often treat it as though it were merely a variation on the familiar theme of poetic or artistic inspiration—the peculiarly Spanish version of the muse. Lorca himself, while emphasizing live performance, is purposefully expansive in defining the reach of the duende, applying the term to a copious number of examples in the visual arts, and to the composition (and not exclusively the performance) of music and poetry. Moreover, by presenting his theory as an explicit alternative to the muse and the angel, he inscribes it within familiar narratives of poetic inspiration. Still, he does indicate that the duende is most duende-like in the live performance of art-forms that require “un cuerpo vivo que interprete, porque son formas que nacen y mueren de modo perpetuo y alzan sus contornos sobre un presente exacto” (a live body that interprets them, since they are forms that are born and die perpetually and erect their shapes in an exact present).
It is striking to conceive the dramatic struggle of all artistic creation—as in the painter’s struggle with the blank canvas or the poet’s with the blank page—in its performative dimension. To read the duende as another theory of artistic creation, however, is to lose sight of performance itself in its more immediate and literal sense. This seemingly more literal-minded approach, needless to say, should not exclude metaphorical displacements: in fact, it turns out to be extremely difficult to look at performance in itself, without displacing it or making it stand in for other values. An emphasis on performance and orality, then, could serve as a heuristic device—designed to bring a particular aspect of Lorca’s poetics into sharper focus—rather than as the definitive interpretation of Lorca’s duende.
Apart from studies of the oral poetry of traditional societies, like Paul Zumthor’s Oral Poetics, there are still relatively few texts of contemporary literary theory that directly address the poetics of performance. Roland Barthes’s “The Grain of the Voice” provides a convenient point of departure for a consideration of Lorca’s “Juego y teoría del duende” as a meditation on the performative dimension of poetry and song. Barthes’s essay, not coincidentally, also links the performance of song to cultural exceptionalism. Claudio Rodríguez’s thesis on the children’s songs, likewise, might be profitably compared to Lorca’s lecture on Spanish lullabies. Read together, such prose texts form the basis of a pragmatist poetics, rooted in the immediate circumstances of the performance and reception of poetry and other forms of vocal art. This performative and pragmatic bias in Lorca’s poetics, in turn, reveals a new way of thinking about Lorca’s presence in contemporary Spanish poetry: perhaps his strongest influence is more musical than philosphical, more attuned to the body of the performer than to the mind of the interpreter.