Leonard Cohen/ Rama
Leonard Cohen thought the Western religious tradition could still serve as a sure anchor in the storms of modernity / Rama

Leonard Cohen’s Biblical Vision

How the Light Gets In
This story is included in these collections

On Saturday November 12, 2016, Saturday Night Live began more soberly than usual. Cast member Kate McKinnon, in character as Hillary Clinton, sang a sincere and haunting version of Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song “Halleluiah.” It was a striking way for SNL to honor both the life and work of Cohen, the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter who had died two nights earlier, and Clinton, who had just lost the United States presidential election. SNL used Cohen as a soundtrack to a political moment. It made sense to do so. Because of his recent death, many people, including myself, were already listening to Cohen on repeat while thinking about the state of affairs in America. The lyrics of “Halleluiah”—especially lines like “even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but Halleluiah”—were well suited to an audience that needed to express the pain of loss, but who also needed to be discouraged from becoming embittered or politically paralyzed. Accordingly, “Halleluiah” served as the perfect overture to McKinnon’s final words to introduce the telecast: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”

In a secular age, artists are often the closest thing we have to prophets. Leil Leibovitz’s A Broken Halleluiah (W. W. Norton) argues that the work of Leonard Cohen is, in fact, best understood and appreciated in the Old Testament prophetic tradition. Leibovitz is not reaching. Cohen was raised in an observant Jewish home and was the grandson on both sides of rabbis of considerable renown. Even if Cohen, like many famous people, often failed to be a paragon of private virtue (his womanizing and drug abuse, especially during his early career, are well established), spiritual concerns nevertheless framed his life and art. The language and imagery of his lyrics came from a biblically formed imagination. His personal faith, as he reaffirmed many times, was in the God of the Torah, and his flashes of prophetic genius were his insights into the application of biblical logic to the contemporary world. If, like many of his peers in rock stardom, he often failed to live at the center of righteousness, he, unlike most of them, maintained a sense of where that center remained, and of how to find it again in prayer and repentance.

In A Broken Halleluiah Leibovitz asks, “What is the prophet Cohen telling us?” This has more or less been my question too since the week of the 2016 presidential election. In order to explore Cohen’s prophetic vision, I have turned especially to his records from the 1980s and early ’90s, Various Positions (1984), I’m Your Man (1988), and The Future (1992). Many critics and rock historians agree that those recordings represent the peak of Cohen’s creative output, and best articulate his religious and political views. Jeff Burger’s Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters (Chicago Review Press) gives further evidence for that assessment.

 

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cohen warned that the West would soon be falling apart, if it wasn’t already

Cohen was disinclined to take political sides, at least in public. “My song has no flag, my song has no party,” he once said. The remark was occasioned by the use of his “The Partisan” (1969) as a sort of anthem by the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s. When, in 1992, it was suggested that his song “Democracy” hailed the triumph of Bill Clinton in the U.S. presidential race, he expressed the desire that his song not be identified with any administration. He preferred, instead, that his work be taken as a view from outside, above, and below the political fray.

When Cohen viewed the social and political landscape in the 1980s and ’90s, he was not encouraged. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when optimism reigned in Europe and North America, Cohen warned that the West would soon be falling apart, if it wasn’t already. In 1989, he quipped: “You’re going to settle for the Berlin Wall when you see what’s coming next. You’re going to settle for a hole in the ozone layer. You’ll settle for crack. You’ll settle for social unrest. You’ll settle for the L.A. Riots. This is kindergarten stuff compared with the homicidal impulse that is developing in every breast.”

Cohen was writing and recording in Los Angeles at the time. “What’s coming next,” he predicted, is the “survival of the fittest” mentality that characterized the urban street gangs of that city. That sort of nihilism would become the new moral norm of the wider social and political ethos. In Cohen’s estimation, the process had already begun. In “Democracy,” he described how the political landscape was becoming a Nietzchean contest of wills. Discourse had been reduced to “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes on in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.” He positioned himself as an outsider to this unfolding, viewing it all on television:

I’m sentimental if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can’t stand the scene
And I’m neither left or right
I’m just staying home tonight
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen. 

Cohen, a man from the upper classes, who in many ways possessed Old World values, saw that he, and those like him, who would prefer a civilized pursuit of the common good to polarized discourse, were being exiled by a new norm of irrational extremism. Also, the poor and marginalized were being left behind by the failures of contemporary politics. The response of the latter, however, would not be to remain bystanders. In three songs from 1988, “First We Take Manhattan,” “Tower of Song,” and “Everybody Knows,” he predicted that many of the poor, the fatherless, and the exploited would gravitate to the very extremism that victimized them and rise up in fury against elites. In the process, he suggested, they would take down the West: “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin,” he has them sing.

Cohen acknowledged that extremism could take either rightist or leftist forms, and he refused to predict which would triumph. The rightist leader, said Cohen in a 1993 interview, would present himself as a strong man and refuse “to deal on the democratic plane, the parliamentary plane, to enter into the debate.” He was someone whose attraction would be based in his willingness to take charge and stop listening to other opinions. The leftist leader, on the other hand, would promise to eliminate all the traditional structures widely perceived as causing suffering. The leftist message would be:

None of your institutions are worth protecting. Don’t talk to me about order, don’t talk to me about family, don’t talk to me about your beautiful monuments and your works of art and your museums and your restaurants and your hotels. I don’t want to hear about those things—they’re all going down. There may be something good. I’m sorry about it. If a child is going to be burnt, forgive me. The thing produces only suffering, the whole affair deserves to be blown up, and I’m going to blow it up.

It may seem strange to find in Cohen, a somewhat notorious ladies’ man, something of a conservative about sexuality

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. 

 

Cohen thought the Western religious tradition could still serve as a sure anchor in the storms of modernity

Cohen contended that a sense of the fall as the truth about our human condition was essential for a realistic approach to political and social problems. None of the West’s accomplishments would matter if people did not acknowledge their own brokenness and sinful impulses. He was brutally frank about this: “Human beings have a deeply homicidal appetite—I see it in myself, and in everyone else. Acknowledging it is a first step towards controlling it.” Unfortunately, as he went on to say, “no one wants to believe the central myth of our culture...that this world is the manifestation of a fall.”

In “Anthem” (1992), Cohen sings, “there is a crack in everything.” He explained the meaning behind the line: “We develop utopian theories—socialism, fascism, democracy—to bring us back to Paradise. But there is a crack in everything, because this is the realm of the crack, the realm of failure, the realm of death, and unless we affirm [the reality of these things], we’re going to be very unhappy.” In Cohen’s view, ignorance of the fall leads to utopian politics that turn parties and leaders into false messiahs and idols.  

“There is a crack in everything,” but “that’s how the light gets in,” he goes on to sing. The light is the wisdom that the Jewish witness offers. Cohen was not fatalistic. It is possible to live meaningfully and hopefully amid suffering, provided one has access to the perspective of divine revelation. Moreover, he sought, with his description of an apocalyptic landscape, to force the question of moral decision, of the best mode of behavior in the middle of catastrophe. In his songs there is a choice to be made between “the crucifixion” and “the holocaust” (“The Captain,” 1984), between “Christ” and “Hiroshima” (“The Future”). That choice begins not in the halls of politics, though it may end there, but in the caverns of the heart. The repentance he envisioned was not limited to apology and regret, but entailed the whole turning away from self and sin and turning toward love of God and neighbor meant by the original Hebrew word for it, shuv. Cohen’s choice of crucifixion and Christ as symbols of love indicates that he was referring to something that involved self-denial and sacrifice. He put the matter aptly: “The kind of surrender that is involved with love means that you have to take a wound also.... The condition that most elevates us is the condition that most annihilates us.... Somehow the destruction of the ego is involved with love,” after which “you can never again feel at the center of your own drama.” For Cohen, the wounds of the risen Christ demonstrate the eternal truth of love’s agapic essence. “If the wound of Jesus comes to express his love for mankind, then it will never heal.” Hence, for Cohen, the path of redemption must pass through something the Jewish Cohen thought was best expressed and understood in the terms of Christ and the cross.

If Cohen is a prophet, he is telling us that contemporary political discourse is being reduced to a Nietzchean contest of wills. The answer is not messianic politics but rather something prepolitical. The order of the soul has been overthrown and the ancient Western code has been broken. The recovery, therefore, must be the remembrance of the code and the re-ordering of the soul. We have a choice between total destruction or light and mercy, the path of the “little Jew who wrote the Bible.”

Published in the May 5, 2017 issue: 

Christian Raab is a Benedictine monk and priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey in Southern Indiana. He is an assistant professor of systematic theology at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of theology.

This story is included in these collections:

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