Later this evening I will be in Fish Hoek for one of the final rehearsals for the Gacela of the Dark Death; A coastal village tucked away at the eastern end of the False Bay side of the Cape Peninsula in Western Cape. I can spot it each morning from my own veranda. The drive from Somerset West to Fish Hoek is exceptionally breathtaking. To one side the view is an unfolding scene of galloping waves crashing into rose-colored cliffsides crowned with grassy patches of sward.
To the other side, the view is an ocean of corrugated sheet metal reflecting the harshness of abject poverty.
This juxtaposition of repression and paradise lies at the heart of the text of Lorca’s poem, Gacela de la muerte oscura, or, Gacela of the Dark Death, which constitutes the text source for the Arabic song forms that are interpolated between the dance movements of the eponymously titled suite.
Lorca conjures the lyrical forms of Arabic poetry with the title. A Gacela, in Spanish, translates to a Gazelle; A symbol of the inception of spring, the youthfulness of admiration, the boundlessness of innocence, the triumph of grace and beauty. He phonetically maps this to the Arabic Ghazal; a poetic form expressing flirtatious and amorous gestures of affection. Standing as its contrary, Oscura – the Spanish word for ‘dark’- becomes representative of the Arabic form, the Qasida; A petition to an authority or patron; as in a prayer to a Saint; A fitting narrative for the Catholic ethos in which much of Lorca’s own body of work sets itself within.
The dialogue here, between Gazelle – spirituality: the frolicking innocence and beauty of youth and paradise, and Darkness -religion: petitions or pleas to an authority for just and compassionate ruling, is subsumed into this antinomous creature of Lorca’s own modernist mythology; The Gazelle of the Dark Death. While this may seem to symbolize some thematic element of corruption, Darkness also offers us an advantage; concealment.
For Lorca, this Gacela was the mask that concealed his identity as a homosexual in the nascent ‘fascistized dictatorship’ of Francoist Spain that erected out of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The poem is simultaneously a gracious celebration of a life filled with pleasurable moments, wondrous experiences and beautiful sentiments, while also fulfiling the task of a lament ripe with anguish, fear, confusion and apology for that same life. It expresses the weariness of perennial defense that the author, and millions both before and after his brief time upon this earth surely wrested with. But to whom do you plea justice when the institution sees no legality in your existence? To whom do you pray when God has declared you an abomination in his own image? Such sobering realization is the heart-wrenching reality of Gacela’s prose.
The opening line,‘Quiero dormir el sueńo de las manzanas‘(I want to sleep the sleep of apples) allows us to distill the infused dimensions of Lorca’s masterful wordsmithing. Sleep for Lorca is both reflective of the dream-world and death itself. During the Renaissance, the term ‘La petite mort‘(The little death) was an expression that described the brief loss of weakening of consciousness. A moment in which something has affected one’s soul so profoundly that a part of them feels as though it has died. This expression became more widely famous as a euphemism for the melancholy transcendence of the male orgasm. Coupled with this, Lorca, drawing upon the biblical allegory of sexuality uses the symbology of the apple as a plea to reason. Would God withhold those passions that he instilled in the human condition?
‘As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.‘ – Song of Solomon 2:3
Still Lorca is quick to lead us to a correlation within the awakening of Adam and Eve at the first bite from the apple of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. At a more distant level, Eve existing within Adam is Adam’s true reflection; It is the individual knowing itself as it is known. This is a form of narrative of the repressed identity that we all exhibit. For Lorca, then, to sleep is to awake, and to die is to be born. What is forbidden is paradise, and paradise is repression.
The nineteenth-century German philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is largely responsible for how we view history as a teleological progression with a beginning heading toward some final summation of totality. The biblical equivalent to this is heaven. For Hegel, that totality was authentic and autonomous liberty to the individual. He noted how, prior to the Persian dynasties of the ancient world, human beings were in darkness about liberty. When the Persian emperor established his right to rule by divine appointment, a mutation in the mind of man spawned an awareness of inequality; God chose an emperor at the cost of the rejection of millions. Still, to question this was equivalent to asking why a wave was not a cloud. Next, the Greeks established democracy, and all citizens were free men of the state who were equal in their engagement and representation of a governing body. But no man can be both politician and poet if he must also toil, and so while the Greeks inched closer to the totality of liberty, they did so on the backs of a slave state. Rome, by contrast was the first Empire that officially recognized the autonomous liberty of all people; They maintained and protected the religious and cultural views of those tribal nations whom they had conquered and subsumed into the empire. Yet, tribes have a tendency to fight, and with liberty comes beliefs, and with beliefs comes bloodshed. The answer for Rome was to bestow upon all its citizens the recognition of their equal status across all of humanity, but contingent on a brutal state that oversaw this equality; A governing arm that would crush the spirit of both citizen and slave alike under its imperial force. A force, that could nonetheless, be wielded by the few through a transfer of titles; The state is simply a euphimism for a shadowy oligarchy. What type of life is this, one might ask, to gain the recognition of individual equality amongst all men and women only to be suppressed by the same state that acknowledges it? Rome’s answer to this was philosophy.
What philosophy offered was the exploration of how the world ‘should be’ and what it ‘could be’, it invoked the imagination to pit hypotheticals, ethics and desires in relation and struggle to each other without the cost of any perturbations to the physical world. Said simply, repression taught human beings how to cultivate their own inner paradise.
As author Wayne Koestenbaum describes it in his book ‘The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire’, ‘The only obtainable paradise is temporary, transitory, bounded by absence, longing, sorrow, is no paradise. Paradise exists only as the object of an unending yearning… In Shame I will find paradise(Loc 94).’ Or as the playwright Tony Kushner reveals, ‘The rescue, the redemption, the lamenting of that which has been buried, all through the medium of an ecstatic prose bordering on [and] often becoming poetry.’
Lorca would be executed by nationalist militia and left dead on the side of the road at the age of 38. His crime? Dreaming a little too loud; Allowing his internal identity to peer out from the veil of his own poetry; Because the repression that forged his paradise got that better of him, and he childishly imagined that perhaps that liberty could be expressed on the outside, where politics and dogma fueled by hate and ignorance might be subdued by a calming recognition of the ecstatic and vibrant beauty of life.
It is no wonder, then that the Gacela is a hopeful piece, if not sober about the realities of a fallen, fractured, and brutal world. It is pure joy wrapped in the swaddling dress of a funeral gown. It is as close as a prayer that an outcast can echo out into the cavernous darkness of midnight; and if no spiritual authority should answer, at least future generations have rewarded Lorca as the most majestic and poignant poet Spain ever produced.
It recalls a passage in the gospel of Matthew, to my mind, in which Jesus advises,
‘But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6
The most puerile reading of this would argue this as some virtuous nod awarded to humility on false pretenses, which, -with a wink and a nudge- finally produces some divinely appointed paycheck under the door; Heavens mafia. But a more honest (or at least deconstructed) reading of the text can surely remove the smoke and mirrors of what is otherwise a beautifully rational and eloquently human perspective articulated by Jesus. Praying is a communal and a cultural act. There are legal guidelines that must be followed, terminologies utilized, philosophies adopted, emotive cadences to execute. More still, there are people who are listening(and grading), people who must help scoot your prayer along like a shuffleboard match with a steady rhythm of ‘amen’s in order that ‘will’ might be done. But when you speak into the vast abyss of nothingness, when you plea into the universe in the silence and darkness of your own thoughts, when you lock yourself away in the closet to take inventory of your fears, your desires, to reign in your passions and contemplate the great hypocrisies that constitute the beautiful and complex amalgamation of your existence… you discover who you are. Being in the closet, thus, is a gestation period of profound sensitivity and awareness; of your ethics, of your politics, of your spirituality, of your shortcomings, of your aesthetics, of your health, of your insecurities, of your prejudices, of your uncertainties. The reward is simply to extract the ‘Eve’ from within you; To gaze upon yourself as the other; To know yourself as you are known: Ecce Homo.
As a formal representation(and here I mean musical context) I enjoy the idea of repression; not unlike the battle between first and secondary themes, or the clash of tonal centers in a development, nor the dramaturgy of chromatic modulations and the resolutions of complex voice-leadings. Through repression, fantasy is allowed to exist in full expression. And by fantasy, I mean to say, the perfected ideal state of the world according to the individual. That full expression is without subjugation to a moralistic inquisition, nor is there any need for explanation to any audience; for in this reality, the radical is the quotidian. Oppressed themes are themes latently free in spirit. Behind the imprisoned confinement of one’s own physical embodiment, thought is generating existence, and with it a response to the outside reality. We are all ambassadors of our own universe in which others -autonmous others- exist; and we in theirs. As such, the responsibility to protect each other’s liberties should be mutal, if even agreeing to disagree; but seek to agree on something. Still, the physical world is but the symbol, and the actions of the world are but actors awaiting direction from the internal process to imbue its native context and meaning; thus to enact the dramaturgy of one’s own projection.
While it may prove simple to categorize the Gacela as art that represents the LGBTQ community, and it most certainly does, it is universal in its theme, and thus reflects us all, even those who vehemently oppose it. We all create some mythological creature, some mask that we wear to fit into society. And in that way, the LGBTQ community is symbolic of this mask, this repression, and this liberty. We are all victims of self-repression to some extent, brought on by our culture, by our families, by our spouses. We have all experienced religious repression, cultural repression, racial repression, class repression, education repression, as painfully embodied in the current political systems that have caused such intense division and hatred that fantastically good people have simply stopped expressing themselves lest they descend into hatred for one another. However, learning to become a responsible adult is also simply a series of incrimentally compounded repressions. Perseverance and discipline is the patient art of repression. That is to say, repression does not always have to equate to a terrible case (as the Gacela attests to). Like one who can have pleasant, happy, even jubilant feelings toward wine and cake without indulging in it every day; repression can be harnessed to cultivate desires into success. Still, other forms of repression are entirely painful and horrible to live through. We would be wise to recognize that our careless judgments are not felt as empty sacks upon the shoulders of the repressed; and who is not repressed? not one. For all of us, there is not simply one or two things that are have repressed within us, but an entire hidden ocean of experiences that lay somewhere deep within our proverbial heart, waiting to be cut out, waiting to flow from some well deep within us, waiting to be liberated.
‘Porque quiero dormir el sueńo de las manzanas
para aprender un llanto que me limpie de tierra;
porque quiero vivir con aquel nińo oscuro
que quería cortarse el corazón en alta mar.’
(Because I want to sleep the sleep of the apples, and learn a mournful song that will clean all earth away from me, because I want to live with that shadowy child who longed to cut his heart open far out at sea.)