Annotation: The Demon and The Angel

[As a form of protest over books written in this style, this informal annotation will be remarkably lacking in flowery rhetoric. While I appreciate a robust vocabulary and smart imagery as much as the next person, some books simply and absolutely rub me the wrong way. The purpose of communication is to communicate, which I think some authors of an “academic” bent fail to acknowledge, resulting in page upon page of “words for the sake of words.” — Nabil]

Edward Hirsch is, first and foremost, a poet. He has published several books of poetry, and teaches poetry at the college level at the University of Houston. He also wrote the bestseller, “How to Read a Poem.” It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that his book on “Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration” (the subtitle of the book) should focus so heavily on poets and the terminology for creativity established by poets. He latched onto Frederico Garcia Lorca early in the book (the first few pages, in fact), and never really let go for the rest of the book.

I have nothing against Lorca, mind you, nor his usage of the term “Duende.” I think it’s a remarkably well suited term, in fact. It is far less tied to an aspect of “good” and “evil” than “demon” or “angel” is, and has less stereotype baggage than the concept of the Muse. I think the concept of doing battle with a creative source is far more accurate than that of pampering and cuckolding a timid creative potential (from my own experiences, anyway). Additionally, I rather enjoy what little poetry I’ve read by Lorca, and feel it was a crying shame that he was killed so early in his career. I DO have a problem with purchasing a book in good faith based on the book description on the dust jacket and reading through the table of contents, only to discover that the book is not in fact very relevant to its purported topic. I was commenting on this to my brother, and his response seems particularly fitting: “It sounds like he sat down to write what he said he would write, then wrote what he actually wanted to write.” The sums up the book pretty well. It feels like he made a pitch to his publisher, and then discovered that he wanted to write about something else, leaving this book as the compromise between the two.

It IS a compromise, though, not entirely a “bait and switch.” While it feels sometimes forced, he does address the concept of creativity and uses several artists and poets as anecdotal case studies into how different artists treated the concept of creativity. While he tended to fall back on duende as his catchall concept, he also addressed Biblical angels, the origins of the demon concept and how they are in fact closer to the concept of duende, daimon (greek), and daemon (latin).

Hirsch also spent quite some time discussing Rilkean Angels and the Duino Elegies. I found his quote from The Seventh Elegy particularly interesting:

For each of you had an hour, or perhaps
not even an hour, a barely measurable time
between two moments –, when you were granted a sense
of being. Everything. Your veins flowed with being.
(“The Seventh Elegy,” 42-45)

I can’t put a finger on why this passage in particular caught my eye compared to some of the other quotes the author uses in his book, but I do think that perhaps it has something to do with my own preoccupation with a healthy sense of wonder and free suspension of disbelief. Regardless of the reason for it striking me as it did, it certainly helped redeem a book that I distinctly felt like I’d been wading through up to that point, and made the second half of the book flow far more quickly.

Or perhaps the reason the second half of the book went faster was because it covered a wider variety of subjects. The first half of the book tended to focus on poets, which had bothered me while reading it, because I felt like I was getting a very narrow view of what felt like a much broader topic. The second half the book expanded into including music and painting, in particular paying attention to the “black periods” of several artists (Motherwell, Goya, and Pollock, notably), which in his opinion exhibited a strong sense of duende. I started to get a distinct sense that in general, Hirsch tied a sense of mortality and death to the sense of duende. While I agree with him on some pieces, and conceptually I can see where he is coming from, I think he neglected to address the pieces that still establish a sense of duende while keeping things a bit lighter: emotive without being morbid. By this point in the book, though, I’d come to accept that this book was primarily just the opinions of the author, and as such was entitled (to a certain extent) to focus on what he wanted.

This book managed to make something quite clear for me, though I hate to say it: I am lazy. I am looking for an easy exploration of creativity and how to revitalize and nurture it. I am looking for someone to come along and tell me, “Oh, that’s simple, it’s…” in such a way that I immediately and completely grok it. Instead, I find myself (perhaps partially justifiably) unsatisfied with other authors’ exploration of the topic, and disappointed with the current level of dialogue about it. It feels to some extent that the majority of the artistic community has taken to heart the concept of not looking too closely at the source of creative inspiration (lest they lose it), and as such refuses to REALLY look at it and discuss it with others. What books and dialogue there is seems invariably vague and unsatisfying. At least, it is unsatisfying to me.

Hirsch, Edward. The Demon and The Angel. Harcourt Press.