by Justin Eells
I first encountered the word “duende” in The Gilded Tongue, a purple faux-velvet-covered book of “Overly Eloquent Words for Everyday Things.” Sometime in my early twenties, I started accumulating books like these, in order to amass a gigantic vocabulary that would one day cause gigantic tomes to spew from my head. This particular book, by Ron L. Evans, displays its title in gold lettering on the front cover. Inside the cover is a spot for the owner to write their name: “This book belongs to ________ a pysmatic logomaniac.” I never wrote my name on that line, but I did circle a number of words in the book.
Page 33 features a picture of a sloth to illustrate COSTIVE. I don’t have exact figures, but I’ve noticed a prevalence of nouns and adjectives in the book, with an occasional verb, like HUMBICATE as an overly eloquent alternative for “to lie still, as if in prayer,” thrown in for good measure.
I started with A—the first word I circled was ABDOMINOUS—and made it through H—the last was HYPERGAMY—but I know myself well enough to say that had I made it to M, I would have circled MISONEISTIC, meaning “hatred or intolerance of what is new or changed.” What drew me to the words I circled, many of which are not recognized by spellcheck, was some combination of coolness (which is in the eye of the beholder and impossible to define in any useful way), eloquence, and usefulness. MISONEISTIC doesn’t have any better synonyms, and it describes a great many people and political movements of the past and present (and future). Why have I never seen it outside the velvet covers of this book?
Less readily useful are QUATOPYGIA (“the shaking of the buttocks in walking, a word especially applied to an erotic feminine walk”) and CATHOLICONTHOL (“a universal remedy; a panacea”). I’m hard-pressed to find a non-ridiculous way of using either of those words.
Among the several dozen I circled, there’s only one word in the book that maintains much hold on me:
DUENDE (doo-EN-day): n. from Spanish dialectical (charm), from Spanish (ghost): the ability to attract others through personal magnetism and charm.
This definition is very close to “charisma,” but I don’t think they’re the same. The word “duende,” to me, has more magnetism and charm than “charisma,” which sounds like the kind of personal magnetism that lures angry souls to political rallies. “Charisma” evokes cult leaders, demagogues, reality TV stars. Whereas “duende” sounds romantic, graceful, cool—more like Lady Gaga than Boris Johnson.
Like many of the words in The Gilded Tongue, “duende” is not recognized by MS Word’s spellcheck, which, to some, might mean it should be italicized, being foreign and all, but I don’t think so. English has a long history of subsuming foreign words, and “duende” has been with us, in various forms, for centuries.
DUENDE has two definitions in the OED. The older of the two is a type of supernatural creature, “resembling a pixie or an imp.” The second definition is closer to The Gilded Tongue’s definition:
Passion or inspiration in (esp. artistic or musical) performance, esp. that which is regarded as having the power to possess the performer and is of such a level or quality as to captivate and move an audience.
This form of “duende,” according to the OED, first appeared in the 2 November 1956 edition of the Times Literary Supplement, which claimed Lorca’s “strength lay principally in his possession of the traditional duende, or magic.”
The fact that the first modern English usage of “duende” was in reference to Lorca, and equated with magic, makes the designation higher that charisma. Its meaning doesn’t allow it to apply to demagogic blatherskites; it is reserved for artistic performances that move us.
I think of duende as an aura that surrounds a work of art and induces awe. The experience of duende is probably more like a religious experience than an intellectual one. It’s that transcendent experience that certain books offer, keeping us coming back for more. The adjective form, as it applies to books, might be UNPUTDOWNABLE.
I most recently experienced duende while reading The Ghost Network by Catie Disabado, a novel that archives the disappearance of a charismatic (there’s not yet an adjective form of “duende” as it applies to pop stars, unfortunately) pop star named Molly Metropolis. There’s intrigue in the plot and in the form. It’s faux-nonfiction, a piece of journalism with layers of meta.
For some reason, I’m almost always drawn to stories that take the form of something else, whether it’s Jedediah Berry’s story on a deck of cards or Cloud Atlas’s novel in the form of six novellas, each of which take a different form. Jess Walter wrote a poignant and funny essay about his hometown in the form of a statistical abstract. When a writer pulls something like that off—conveying something deeply human through a medium in the deeply human does not belong—it’s thrilling.
Part of what kept me hooked on The Ghost Network was the way Disabato used the form to complicate the story, to make it about more than just a missing pop star. It takes the form of an investigative report that the editor, who shares a name with Catie Disabato, has inherited from its missing author, who wrote the report based primarily on the notes of a journalist—also MIA—investigating the disappearance of Molly Metropolis. Each of the sources—editor, author, reporter—is a character in the story, a lens through which the events are filtered; and each brings another complicating layer to the story. In fact, those characters mattered more to me that the pop star at the center of the story.
I don’t know about other art forms, but for reading material, complexity and complication have a kind of allure. In life, we typically seek to simplify, but in reading we seek the opposite. We want something to get lost in. Life is always complicated, no matter how hard we try to simplify. Maybe getting lost in other—made-up or real—people’s complicated lives is a more feasible remedy than simplifying our own. I think duende, as it applies to books, is the power to keep drawing us back, night after night, to inhabit these other worlds and other minds, the power to make us less alone.