Duende: From Scream to Song at the Edge of Insanity


I received a phone call recently from someone very dear to me. She told me she had been unable to leave the house to see a therapist that afternoon because of a sudden panic attack. It had crippled her physically and emotionally, leaving her curled in a ball on her bed, unable to pick up the phone for a few hours. When she did, we talked through how she had felt. These phone calls had become regular, but the anxiety she was experiencing was increasing every week. She had done everything she could to calm it: she moved out of a toxic environment and in with a best friend; she exercised multiple times per week; she dragged herself, against the weight of depression, to work and university; she started therapy. She was doing all the right things but the symptoms were getting worse. Often, during our calls, she wondered what was wrong with her. My ear was always sympathetic, and I would croon that it was normal to feel lost at a young age, that it would surely pass, that I was deeply sorry. But, that day, when she had been unable to see her therapist, I tried a different tack.

“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you,” I said fiercely. “You are having a very reasonable reaction to an absolute shit-show of reality. We treat things like depression and anxiety as sickness within an individual rather than symptoms of a sick society. But of course you’re depressed and anxious; the world is quite literally on fucking fire and your body is just trying to warn you that you’re in danger. There’s nothing wrong with you—your reaction is pretty rational if you ask me.”

She’s been more chipper since that conversation. Not better, exactly, but no longer disintegrating into inevitability.

The world, in contrast, feels like it’s disintegrating into inevitability; our institutions have been revealed as inconsequential during the greatest threat to global civilisation ever known. To combat this disintegration, governments are choosing war over collaboration, clinging to power on a sinking tankard that’s spilling its noxious innards into the source of life. It’s hard to make sense of anything, the decisions made, the speeches given, the political divides. Naomi Klein calls it a world of mirrors. When you hold two up to one another, what exactly exists in between? Nuclear warfare, perhaps, and a land of ghosts? I hold the contrast in my body: between these mirrors, I am invisible, and yet the threat of very real violence hammers in my chest.

This is the land in which many of us exist, suspended in invisible terror as we watch other mirrors crack with decisions: life, extinguished. Old growth forests are razed in Canada while Gaza is turned to rubble. Violence is spreading through the land like wildfire. We can see it rushing towards us as the air heats up around us and people begin to sweat. We are prescribed drugs to calm our symptoms as if we are the problem.

My symptoms are not anxiety or depression. Instead, I can’t sleep, I make rash decisions, and lose my sense of grace. I become like a Russian mobster, as one boyfriend described it, ready to throw my weight against the world because the only thing keeping me going is the absurd belief in my ability to fight. In this state, I can keep going. I am grateful I normally slide between it and genuine contentment, no doubt a symptom of profound compartmentalisation. But when I experience repeated shocks that remind me of powerlessness, like when watching the military industrial complex gather itself to blitz the most vulnerable people on the planet, my nervous system collapses with the world.

Our bodies hold that which we are unable to admit; our bodies began living on this plane long before our tongues conjured language. There are experiences which are beyond language, like fear itself. Language disappears in states of high arousal: we cannot laugh or sob whilst maintaining a smooth flow of speech; we cannot talk through a constricted throat. But we live in a world of language, a world made by language, which does not accept the inexplicable. We demand great feats of language from victims of violence if they are to expect justice. We demand these unspeakable things be made into speech, a thing more ordered than elevated heart rates and dilated pupils, and then we wonder why we don’t understand each other, and why we feel alone.

There may be no way to explain how you feel because nobody can inhabit your body with you, and for all the skills of a poet, the mirrored and empty wastelands of fear are a terribly lonely place. We are invisible there, and not being able to find the words makes us feel invisible here. Yet, there are ways of being here that go beyond language, ways with which we can help one another to stay sane. We can talk, yes, and for some of us, words are great comfort. But we can also dance and sing and hold one another. We can walk and breathe deeply and weep. We can scream because a wildfire is on the horizon and everyone seems to be looking the other way.

Deep Dive: Building Emotional Resilience

  • Panel event with Lise van Susteren and Dekila Chungyalpa (recording)
  • 2 recorded interviews with emotional resilience experts
  • 3 articles by Richard Heinberg and Rachel Donald
  • Additional curated resources

There is a Spanish term for a heightened emotional and physical response to art, duende. Duende is also a form of expression in Spanish flamenco, a charged well of tragedy and ecstasy poised on the boundary between singing and screaming. Theorised by the revolutionary poet Federico Garcia Lorca who was assassinated by Franco’s regime, duende is an earth spirit the performer battles with “on the rim of the well”, bringing the performer face to face with death and the limits of human intelligence, creating an intense and powerful spontaneity that enraptures both performer and audience.

Duende exists at the edge of all things: life, death; joy, sorrow; art, experience; song, howl. There are no mirrors at the edge, only flesh and bones and elevated heart rates and dilated pupils and spirits with whom we battle to invite one another into rapture.

There exist spaces beyond language, beyond the world of mirrors, where even words may begin to make sense if they come from the very roots of us that have spent millennia in this soil. There is meaning to be found at the very edge when we come together with raw throats and red eyes and dare admit the terrors we are facing. There is sanity to be won by coming home to our bodies.

I want you to love deeply and bravely. I want you to squeeze your loved ones and walk in the woods and listen to the birds. I want you to get soil under your fingernails. I want you to whistle, often, and sing along to your favourite songs. I want you to join an organisation in your local town and get to work, fortifying the piece of the world you share with others by lobbying your politicians and growing community gardens and buying your own renewable energy infrastructure. I want you to write down how you feel, or paint how you feel, or dance how you feel. I want you to rewild the land around you, legally or not. I want you to protest. I want you to log off the mirror world. I want you to be curious when people disagree. I want you to know in your bones that, like duende, strength is found at the edge of softness. I want you to make plans, really. But I also want you to make backup plans. And I want you to welcome uncertainty into your breast like a small bird whose flutterings will disturb you for those first few weeks but who eventually you will come to recognise as at home in your heart, for there is nothing truly beautiful that we can control.

I want you to remember you are sane and I want you to listen to your body. It knows. The fire is approaching. I’m scared, too.

Image: Adobe Stock