Thursday, January 27, 2022 Jan 27, 2022
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INSIGHTS

Doing it with duende
By  |

IT HAS TO do with the way John Wayne walked -and talked. It also has to do with a Blackie Sherrod column, the baseball diamond in Reverchon Park and the late Larry Kelly. On the other hand, it will always be beyond the grasp of Linus Wright’s posturing predecessor, Nolan Estes; Philip Johnson’s chapel in Thanks-Giving Square; and Kurt Vonnegut’s son-in-law, Geraldo Rivera.

Jack Kennedy displayed it after his extremely close I960 presidential election. He was asked about the role that his father’s money had played in the race. Kennedy said his father had told him that he was willing to buy Kennedy the election but that he wouldn’t pay for a landslide.

Writer Brendan Behan showed it even at the end. As he lay in his deathbed, he turned to a nun attending him and whispered, “Bless you, sister, may you be the mother of a bishop.” Gerald and Sara Murphy, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Dick and Nicole Driver in Tender Is the Night, and the lives they led exemplified it.

What is it? In the Sixties, George Fra-zier, a columnist for the Boston Globe, described it as duende, a Spanish word that, literally translated, means “hobgoblin,” but that also means to do something – anything -with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of style. It has to do with no wasted motion and the ability to convey the exact emotion required without sentimentality. Duende is the ability to deliver. It is compression, as in a Cole Porter lyric, a Hemingway sentence, a Mark Helprin short story. But as you think about it, duende is much simpler to define through its specific manifestations than through any general dissertation.

The work of John McPhee always displays duende, but the text of a National Geographic article hardly ever does. Any song that Ella Fitzgerald chooses to sing has it. Lou Gehrig’s farewell at Yankee Stadium had it; Sugar Ray Leonard’s was simply a fraud. Vince Scully, yes. Howard Cosell, never – ever. And before going any further, let’s establish that duende has z-e-r-o to do with men wearing jewelry.

Encounters with duende are sadly infrequent. But when you see it, there is a finality because you realize at once that this is the way it should be. The way Bogart smoked. The relationship Clint Murchi-son worked out with his coach. The way a cheetah runs. The life of Bobby Jones.

People who have duende will let things pass -up to a point. Beyond that, whatever the risk, they feel an obligation to call the hand. Several years ago on Channel 13’s Newsroom, a reporter gave a sorry, witless story that he began with a lead borrowed from the now defunct TV series, Naked City: “There are a million stories out there. . . .” When the reporter concluded, another reporter turned to him, on air, and said, “You’re right; there are a million stories out there, and you just got the last one.”

Author E.B. White was getting to the heart of it when he said, “I would rather watch a really gifted plumber than listen to a bad poet. I’d rather watch someone build a good boat than attend the launching of a poorly constructed play.” people who do things well are blessed with duende. This is not to say they will not disappoint in other roles. Robert Frost as a parent and a husband was no prize, but his poetry certainly reflected a special quality.

Duende has to do with an absence of artificiality, but yet would preclude the quick and complete frankness that seems so desirable today. Duende is an approach to life that recognizes limits and values craft. It has to do with grace. The way Sinatra carries himself onstage. The way a fine punter looks at the moment the ball leaves his foot and he takes the momentary step or two on his back leg while his other is still fully extended toward the sky.

Duende is remembered not only for itself but by comparison with the second rate, which is too often celebrated and lionized. The examples we each carry fasten in our memories and represent not so much impossible standards, as standards that simply will not be let down. Doing something well for its own sake is crucial to the presence of duende.

If duende sounds like just another wayto describe good taste, the fault is mine.Good taste is part of the story but not all.So, naturally, is class, and maybe thatword most clearly approaches the concept. But class seems to be more at homein describing behavior than in describing abook or the swing of a bat. Duende embraces taste and class, but also encompasses more. It’s a collection of valueswhose worth is so inherent that no outsideapplause is required.