Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius, by Harry Freedman, Bloomsbury Continuum, 274 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1472987273
Harry Freedman, author of a number of popular works on Jewish culture and history, turns in his latest book to the Leonard Cohen songs which draw on the Old and New Testaments, the Judaic liturgy and the Kabbalah. He provides a line-by-line interpretation of the twenty Cohen lyrics he judges to be the most religiously themed. Some of Freedman’s readings made me want to reach for the Bible again and to listen to Cohen anew. Just as often, I felt he was working too hard. Anybody interested enough in Cohen to pick up this book will already have formed an impression of the songs and might not want to be reminded how it felt to be fifteen, being told by the teacher what Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” meant. Freedman claims that the first verses of “Anthem” (from the 1992 album The Future) are “based loosely on Ecclesiastes” because both confront the “circular nature of existence”. Don’t think so, Harry. Except insofar as there’s nothing new under the sun.
This is not a biography of Cohen, but the biographical information Freedman provides is more illuminating than his exegeses of the songs. The Cohens were the aristocracy of Montreal’s Jewish community. As a child, Leonard was regularly taken to church by his Irish nanny and he once described himself as “part Catholic, in a certain way”. His maternal grandfather was a scholar of Hebrew and would work through the book of Isaiah with the teenage Leonard. Cohen’s literary influences included Federico Garcia Lorca and the thirteenth century Sufi poet Rumi. He admired the highly charged rhetoric of the Book of Revelation and would have seen in the historical Jesus a rebel Jew in the tradition of Isaiah. In later life, he saw no conflict between being a Jew and his practice of Zen Buddhism; he moved to the Zen monastery at Mount Baldy in 1993 and was ordained as a monk three years later. Spiritually, Cohen was an eclectic twentieth century bohemian. Or to put it another way, he was all over the place.
The prophetic, messianic strain in Judaism struck a chord with the young poet; in late 1963, aged twenty-nine, he gave a speech at Montreal’s public library in which he criticized his community’s ritualistic observance: “I believe we have eliminated all but the most blasphemous idea of God. I believe the God worshipped in our synagogues is a hideous distortion of a supreme idea – and deserves to be attacked and destroyed. I consider it one of my duties to expose the platitudes we have created.”
Several years later, in 1967, at the outset of what would turn into his recording career, Cohen described himself to a student newspaper as a “cantor – a priest of a catacomb religion that is underground, just beginning, and I am one of the many priests, not by any means a high priest, but one of the creators of the liturgy that will create the church” – an extravagant proclamation that has to be viewed in the context of a moment of intense cultural turmoil. Cohen had spent much of the decade hanging out on a Greek island, writing poetry and taking acid. “Thanks to drugs I could consider myself as the Great Evangelist of the New Age,” he reflected in 1991.
Another source of Cohen’s inspiration was love and erotic love and its relationship with the spiritual. There is an appropriate discussion of the biblical Song of Songs, and Freedman takes the line from “Hallelujah” “I remember when I moved in you, and the Holy Dove she was moving too” as a blend of religious and sexual imagery. Sure is, but from the same guy who sang of getting blown by a songbird in the Chelsea Hotel (and let slip in an interview the identity of the blower). When it came to the sacred and the profane, Leonard liked to shake it up. He saw love and sex in sacramental terms and suffered crippling guilt for some of the mundane fixes he found himself in (for a portrayal of a depressive, sexually insecure man witnessing himself betraying Eden for worldly conquests you have the documentary Marianne and Leonard – Words of Love). In an interview late in his life, he stated that one reason his more religiously themed songs sometimes took him so long to write (“Anthem” took a decade, “Hallelujah” half that) was because he had no stable theological position. His lyrics testify to the tension between two realms. He commented on theme of the 2014 album Popular Problems: “It may very be that this holy city of Jerusalem sits right in the middle of the kingdom of sins, and we are prisoners of these two kingdoms which are one forever.”
In later interviews, though, he referenced the Judaic idea that man’s role in creation is participatory, ongoing, and the Kabbalistic idea (similar to the Gnostic, but without the Christian burden of sin and guilt) that “God, in creating the world, dispersed itself; creation is a catastrophe, there are pieces of him, or her, that are everywhere, in fact, and the specific task of the Jew is to repair the face of God.”
Any creative act, and one involving language particularly, is in this sense holy. Cohen’s lyrics seek to express the eternal tension between the actual and the ideal, the mundane broken world set against the transcendent – the crack where the light gets in. For Cohen, hitting the high note is a poetic as much as a mystical thing, and scripture is also rhetoric. The Bible is a literary storehouse already loaded with the language by which a vision of the world can be conveyed, and Cohen plunders it when he can.
Even were Freedman’s readings of the lyrics broader and deeper and more interested in the workings of language itself, concerned with the registers of language as well as its references – comparable, let’s say, to Joseph Brodsky’s examination of the ninety-nine lines of Auden’s “September 1, 1939” – it would still be inadequate. It would be inadequate because Freedman discuss the lyrics as poetry rather than as song.
This is the issue which confounded the editors of poetry magazines when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and made them stamp their feet with indignation. What began in the sixties with Dylan and Cohen was the return of poetry to its union with music. This a subject the author of a book called The Mystical Roots of Genius might have attempted to contend with. Much as Cohen might have liked to, he never managed to render his vision as a print poet. He held himself up to high standards as a poet, once remarking that the lyrics of “Famous Blue Raincoat” were not quite coherent enough (semantically). But as a song he nailed it. The mood is perfectly achieved. From the first notes and the first words the listener is there, alone in New York at four in the morning at the end of December. There’s not much to add. Leonard could have hummed the rest.
But back to Freedman, and his analysis of “Lover, Lover, Lover” from 1974’s Old Skin for the New Ceremony. The song is dissected in the context of Jewish history, liturgy and the Kabbalah; all the information is interesting, and incontestable in its way. What makes the analysis come across as reductive, and hard to embrace as an intellectual pleasure (in the way that reading Brodsky on Auden is a pleasure) is that reading a song as a text is unsatisfactory. The emotional – and semantic – power of songs is received sensorially. We can discuss the semantic and musical dimensions of song as separate categories, as critics, but neither of these aspects have separate existences in the work of art itself. It is like discussing form and content; neither actually exists without the other. The music can be played without the lyrics or the lyrics printed without the music, but neither of these things is the song. For the listener, the lyrics and the music are simultaneous – a unity.
So: “Lover, Lover, Lover”; Cohen wrote it in 1973, during a spell with the Israeli troops in Sinai during the Yom Kippur war. When he sings the chorus “Lover, Lover, Lover come back to me” his voice is pained and plaintive. As Freedman points out, the lyrics fit within a tradition where the Divine is posited as lover with whom union is sought. But what was Cohen really doing in the desert? He was estranged from his wife, the mother of his young children. “Because it is so horrible between us I will go and stop Egypt’s bullet,” he wrote to her at the time. Nobody can hear the word “lover”, sung as Cohen sings it, and not also hear a man calling out to a woman. Printed, this word is nothing. Sung, it is everything.
Philip Ó Ceallaigh has published over fifty short stories; his most recent collection is Trouble, from the Stinging Fly Press. He lives in Bucharest.