Since Leonard Cohen’s death in 2016, a great many things have been written about the “poet laureate of despair,” as the journalist Simon Worrall called him. His every song, every drink, and every affair has been inspected. But while there is a growing literature on Cohen’s religious imagery, relatively little has been written about the distinctive way Jesus figures in his work or, more generally, about how that work addresses our relationship with God and with each other. From the beginning of his career to its end, covenant and its breaches were among Cohen’s major themes.
A passage from Augustine’s On Christian Belief could serve as an introduction to Cohen’s work: “If you love only what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten.” If one directs one’s love to what cannot be “snatched” away—that is, to God—one will suffer neither unfulfilled longing nor loss. Cohen’s images of inner disunity and loss—of desires not only unsatisfied but also unsatisfiable—illuminate the challenges of human intimacy with God and our fellow creatures, our fears of vulnerability and dependence. Contrary to Augustine’s wisdom, Cohen was unable to stay constant to God and so find peace with himself. Nor could he stay constant to the women he loved. This double restlessness was his persistent wound, investigated in more than sixty years of song and poetry that provide an inventory of his soul.
Cohen grew up in what he called the “Catholic city” of Montreal. His Catholic nanny took him with her to church. The power of the Gospel’s imagery and its weight in our cultural-emotional repertoire was, in Cohen’s view, unavoidable, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. “Any guy,” Cohen told writer Alan Hustak,
who says blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness. A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. He was a man of inhuman generosity, a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced.
Jesus captured Cohen’s imagination because he lived out the Hebrew Bible covenant as Cohen himself could not. Cohen also studied Buddhism and other wisdom traditions, yet, as he told Stina Lundberg Dabrowski in 1997, his religious views were Judaic: “I was never looking for a new religion. I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism.” But Cohen’s inquiries into Judaism took him also to Jesus. “As a Jew,” philosopher Babette Babich notes, “Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ.” Cohen got “the point about Christ”—his lesson of loving and giving for the sake of others—but found it hard to sustain. Cohen ran through commitments like water. “Rinse and repeat, again and again,” as Babich put it.
What is this covenant that Cohen was trying to uphold, as he believed Jesus did? If God is the source of all that is, humanity must partake of that source in order to exist. In Genesis, God breathes the breath of life into Adam. “In all things,” Aquinas wrote, “God works intimately.” But while we are in “intimate” relation with God, we are also radically different from God. We are material; God is immaterial. We are finite; God is infinite. So all creatures are in intimate relation with a God from whom they are radically different.