Machen’s „The Great God Pan“ in the eye’s of Lorca’s ‚Duende‘

(c) Pat Rogers, Hank Williams III at the Haunted Ranch

I admit, that this is quite a complicated title. Let me explain to you both artist’s texts and see what happens if we compare them. The Great God Pan is a novella written by Arthur Machen in 1894. The story is about a medical operation, most likely a lobotomy, which is imposed on a female child. The child becomes the center of short stories, which chronologically follow the child’s growth and her legacy. More important is the idea of the abusive doctor who wants to open the eyes of the child to see the Great God Pan. What this being is, is not clear. Descriptions of naked or hairy men in the woods appear throughout the story, as told by third characters. I could never understand what the Great God Pan was similar to: religious feelings, a spiritualistic nonsense which was common in the 1890s, or a state of elevation, like ecstasy or any other emotional state.

The lecture Theory and Play Of The Duende was held by Federico García Lorca in 1933. He meditates on the muse, the angel of poetry, and the error of people overestimating both. A true artist has duende, said Lorca. If one analyzes the text, one can find several elements of duende: heightened awareness of death, which he shares among others with Salvador Dalí; irrationality, earthiness, and a portion of the diabolical.

The devil has been depicted in the tradition of the Greek god of the woods, Pan. Half goat, half man, Pan represents in psychology the sexual drive. The connection between duende and Machen’s Great God Pan is the dangerous forest spirit itself. There is another parallel in the goal both authors have: to express their feeling of having duende, the genius the artist tries to grab.

There is a TED talk given by Elizabeth Gilbert. She basically takes Lorca’s duende speech and interprets it. If you have no time to read this translation of Lorca’s enigmatic text, you have the option to watch Gilbert’s speech on TED:

Artists have a genius instead of being one is the main thesis of Gilbert’s speech on creativity. It is one of the most watched TED talks and is featured in the intro video. Her presentation is sometimes uncanny. Some people told me after watching this talk, that she has a certain look in her eyes when she talks about the genius. Maybe this is the typical American way of transporting your argument. The evangelist who is so convinced of her idea that her friendliness becomes threatening to some people. Has she seen the Great God Pan? The description of Helen reminds me of Gilbert as presented in the video above. But do not forget the influence of the medium. A TED talk has always something of a sermon. Here is a passage of Arthur Machen’s novella:

… suddenly her eyes opened. […] They shone with an awful light, looking far away, and a great wonder fell upon her face, and her hands stretched out as if to touch what was invisible; but in an instant the wonder faded, and gave place to the most awful terror. The muscles of her face were hideously convulsed, she shook from head to foot; the soul seemed struggling and shuddering within the house of flesh. It was a horrible sight, and Clarke rushed forward, as she fell shrieking to the floor.

Arthur Machen, The Great God Pan, p. 11, Source:

It is unfair to compare the fictional mentally ill girl with the charismatic Gilbert. Her charisma resembles the trembling wonder of seeing Helen through the narrator’s eyes. Moreover, Gilbert does not mention the terror after the wonder, which Machen coins as the Great God Pan.

Helen has seen the Great God Pan and changed. Maybe this is what William Blake tried to achieve when he recommended to open the doors of perception in his Romantic masterpiece The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93). What is sure from all literary works referring directly or indirectly to the encounter with the duende or artistic genius is that it is not permanent. One has to wait and seek and be ready, as Gilbert told in her anecdote of music in the air. What the TED talk missed was the horrifying site. Heaven and Hell, Angel and Demon, both torment the artist. This gap becomes apparent when one compares the talk to the original speech by Lorca.

What is the notion of the demonic, evil or diabolical side of the ‚genius‘? Not a choice between good and evil, but a dualism which has to be overcome by a synthesis. Adorno and Horkheimer have claimed that dialectics led to totalitarianism. The result was diabolic and Thomas Mann connected this devilish times of the first half of the 20th century to the Faust motif. Here a quote from Goethe whom I prefer to Mann:


Auch die Kultur, die alle Welt beleckt,
Hat auf den Teufel sich erstreckt;
Das nordische Phantom ist nun nicht mehr zu schauen;
Wo siehst du Hörner, Schweif und Klauen?
Und was den Fuß betrifft, den ich nicht missen kann,
Der würde mir bei Leuten schaden;
Darum bedien ich mich, wie mancher junge Mann,
Seit vielen Jahren falscher Waden.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil, Szene: Hexenküche

Is Lorca talking about facing the devil? Maybe, he is. More interesting is not the idea of dualism or what happens when one negotiates with the devil (the topic of Dr. Faustus), but the thrill of stepping beyond this discourse and embrace a third possibility: duende in everything. Duende in art, dancing, writing, but also cooking, walking, working.

Another idea seems connected: the psychological concept of flow, as coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounce: chick-sent-me-Hi). Flow is „the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity“ (Wikipedia). He has coined the term in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990). The thrill to balance between good and evil, safety and destruction, can be compared to flow.

Again, duende is more than the joy of creativity. One should not forget the terror of what the Great God Pan did to Helen and what Lorca respected: death or the danger to make a fatal mistake. In the flow theory this might be the state at the brink to overburdening oneself with an almost too difficult task. At the brink of self-destruction, the artist feels the spirit of ecstasy. Ecstasy from a dance between extremes: life and death. The concept of ‚illynx‘ as described by Roger Caillois. Illynx is compared to the feeling of vertigo when bungee-jumping or driving one’s car very risky. Caillois coined illynx as one of the four motivations of play in his book Man, Play, and Games (French: Les jeux et les hommes, 1958).

What is then what Arthur Machen wanted to express with his Great God Pan? What is the horror in this supernatural masterpiece, that inspired H.P. Lovecraft among many? Some might claim that it is bad conscience of every artist to know that any sacrifice would be worth the experience. I do not see that as radical as some critiques. The horror beyond the supernatural accounts derives from the idea to use medicine, as human technology, to gain access to an unlimited source of duende. Is there duende in the digital divide or rather in the possibilities of becoming more and more connected through and with digital technology? One should never end a text with a question, therefore I break with a less unconventional rule: the unremarked quote.

No brain. No pain.

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