Cohen was not entirely pessimistic about the future of politics. In “Democracy,” he pleads hopefully that the “mighty ship of state” might “sail on...to the shores of need, past the reefs of greed, through the squalls of hate.” For democracy to recover its potential, two things needed to happen. First, denizens of democratic states needed to recover their confidence that pluralism and unity could co-exist. That meant both affirming diversity and recognizing one’s shared humanity and citizenship with the other. Democracy, he said in 1993, “affirms the equality of the white and the black, the poor and the rich. It’s filled with affirmations, with validations for the fragments of society, but unless the fragments of society can experience themselves as something other than the fragments, then democracy will fail.” Second, but related, citizens of democratic states needed to recover a spiritual center of gravity. If the right needed to overcome its resistance to accepting the complexities inherent in pluralism, the left needed to recover the supra- and pre-political values that had been preserved in Western tradition.
In addition to politics, Cohen pointed to the arena of sexuality as manifesting the symptoms of cultural breakdown. It may seem strange to find in Cohen, a somewhat notorious ladies’ man, something of a conservative in the area of sexuality. By the time these albums were recorded, however, Cohen was approaching sixty and expressing in interviews regret that he had left behind him a wounded family and a string of broken relationships. Perhaps because he knew the sufferings wrought by the sexual revolution firsthand, he was able to write about them with considerable poignancy. A critique of the sexual revolution is discernable in “Closing Time” (1992). He describes an end-of-the-evening bar scene. There’s an alcoholic haze produced by “Johnny Walker.” There’s a woman “rubbing half the world across her thigh.” Men and women are coupling and then disposing of one another. Clothes are coming off: “it’s partner found, it’s partner lost.”
Cohen’s voice in the song is that of both participant and judge. He sings as one partaking of the party. He admits of longing with “sigh, cry, and hungry kiss.” But then he notes that closing time “looks like freedom, but it feels like death.” In the final verse, he laments that the potential for real love, for himself and for the West, has been “wrecked in the winds of change and the weeds of sex.” In the chorus, he describes the closing time ritual being led by a fiddler (a symbol of Satan in medieval folklore), and hints at a coming eschatological comeuppance: “the women tear their blouses off; and the men they dance on the polka dots, there’ll be hell to pay when the fiddler stops.”
In other places, Cohen gives voice to more innocent victims of the sexual revolution, namely women and children. In a 1993 interview, he contended that once God was removed from the sexual sphere, it necessarily became pornographic. In song, he referred sympathetically to the women who had been dominated and objectified by pornographic culture. The Future’s title track describes men, whose “private life” was “exploding,” circling around a “woman hanging upside down, her features covered by her fallen gown.” In “First We Take Manhattan,” Cohen, railing against the fashion business for objectifying women and keeping them thin with drugs, calls for justice for “what happened to my sister.”
Finally, Cohen spoke up for the unborn who had been betrayed and disposed of by the throwaway culture. In the bold language of “The Future,” he writes:
Destroy another fetus now
We don’t like children anyhow
I’ve seen the future baby,
It is murder
Cohen’s regard for dignity of life of the unborn can be perceived in other works like “Diamonds in the Mine” (1971) and “Dance Me to the End of Love” (1984). He seems to have understood that they were among the sexual revolution’s most vulnerable victims.
While Cohen’s critique of contemporary sexual mores is somewhat self-evident in his lyrics, his esteem for traditional marriage is revealed mostly in his interviews. Although Cohen never married, and never personally achieved more than episodic monogamy, he pointed to marriage as the surest, if one of the most difficult, paths to true freedom, as opposed to the illusory freedom described in “Closing Time.” Cohen had already said in 1974, “I think marrying is for very, very high-minded people.... It is a discipline of extreme severity. To really turn your back on all the other possibilities and all the other experiences of love, of passion, of ecstasy, and to determine to find it within one embrace is a high and righteous notion. Marriage today is the monastery; the monastery today is freedom.” Understanding that in an age of sexual chaos, marriage could provide a route to the peace, self-knowledge, and self-transcendence for which the culture truly longed, Cohen called marriage, in 1988, “the foundation stone of the whole enterprise.” In 1993, while admitting his own failure to attain what he believed in, he reiterated: “Monogamous marriage and commitment, all those ferocious ideas, are the highest expression of a male possibility.”
It is commonplace for conservatives to identify the breakdown of the family as the root cause of all social and political ills. For Cohen, who did not want to be labeled politically, sexual anarchy was not the ultimate cause, but yet another symptom, like political polarization, of an even deeper problem. Culture and politics merely manifested what was in people’s hearts.
In the opening lines of “The Future,” Cohen adopts the voice of a menacing figure who seeks only power and control over others, whose appetites center on hedonistic pleasures, and who breaks his solitude only out of a desire to dominate. “It’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture,” says the voice. This figure represents the kind of sociopathic persons Cohen saw emerging at an increasing rate in modern society. They are not merely flawed, as men and women have always been; they have lost connection with their spiritual center and, consequently, with their consciences. Cohen goes on to prophesy:
Things are going to slide
Slide in all directions
Won’t be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard, the blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And it has overturned
The order of the soul
When they said repent
I wonder what they meant
In Cohen’s estimation, our contemporary alienation is rooted in amnesia regarding the created order and tradition. There has been a “breaking of the ancient Western code” (“The Future”). Men and women of the West have lost the memory of their religious heritage, and therefore their spiritual intuition; they no longer even know how to repent.
Those familiar with Cohen’s biography know that he was an ardent spiritual seeker. As a child in Montreal, he breathed the air of French Catholicism, and developed, with the help of an Irish nanny who occasionally brought him to Mass, a love for Jesus, and a devotion to St. Kateri. He could quote Chesterton and Graham Greene. As an adult, he studied Sufism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Crediting meditation practices with helping him overcome a lifelong struggle with depression, he lived in a Zen monastery for a number of years. Nonetheless, he never ceased to identify with Judaism and was defensive when challenged about it—as is evident in his 1997 poem “Not a Jew.” Throughout his life, he maintained membership in a synagogue. In his maturity, he kept the Sabbath and regularly prayed the Jewish liturgy. When his son Adam was hospitalized for four months in the ’80s, Cohen kept vigil by his bedside reading aloud from the Bible. When his son finally regained consciousness, he is said to have asked: “Dad, can you please read something else?”
Cohen saw commonalities in mystics across the religions of the world, but his home, as his coreligionist Liebovitz argues convincingly, remained biblical. So, when he decried that the “the ancient Western code” was being broken, and “the order of the soul” was being “overturned,” he was appealing for a return to a primarily biblical rather than Vedic worldview, a Judeo-Christian, rather than Eastern spiritual center.
Cohen thought the Western religious tradition could still serve as a sure anchor in the storms of modernity. In 1988 he stated: “A lot of information in our religious systems has been discarded, and people find themselves in predicaments that have the potential of being addressed from a religious point of view, but they lack the religious vocabulary to address it.” In 1992, he reiterated: “Redemption, repentance, resurrection. All those ideas are thrown out with the bathwater.” Most forcefully, he said in an interview with a Jewish publication in 1993:
I know what it takes to survive. I know what a people needs to survive and as I get older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible. And, at our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. For these things, for the burning bush, for those experiences, those are the experiences that we have the obligation to manifest. That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation, and we have to be there. Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk onto that biblical landscape.