Longing for holiness
By Laurent Cohen | 24/09/2009
Leonard Cohen is first and foremost a “man made of words,” an artist who has created an intimate, mystical oeuvre, considered one of the most important musical and literary endeavors on the modern cultural landscape. On passionate religious devotion, the presentation of human history as the source of failure and despair, social critique, art and sexuality, reverence and heresy, sorrow, love and jealousy
Since he wrote his first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies, at the age of 22, Leonard Cohen and his multifaceted art (poetry, novels, music, painting) have challenged and puzzled both European and American critics. This may explain the vast number of articles, essays, doctoral theses, interpretations and monographs written about him in the past fifty years. His biographer, Ira Nadel, quite rightly noted that writing about Cohen means to confront the embodiment of the man-paradox; in other words, an unpredictable artist who has consolidated a unique artistic language that crosses accepted boundaries and unifies opposites.
Cohen, one of the most important poets of the second half of the twentieth century, is a Zen-Buddhist monk, a Sabbath-observant Jew and Torah student, a composer considered an extreme minimalist, whose music has nevertheless been performed in more than 1,500 different versions by classical orchestras and major rock stars, such as Joe Cocker, Nick Cave, John Cale and Jeff Buckley. Cohen wrote only two novels, but upon their publication, they immediately became cult and seminal texts for members of the beat generation and the flower children. It should be noted that since The Favorite Game published in 1963, and three years later, the legendary Beautiful Losers, whose title became an internationally recognized turn of phrase, the two novels have become models for all the avant-garde literary movements that subsequently arose in the West. “I don't even know what to call all the things that I do,” Cohen admitted in an interview in 1995, adding, “Let some other people make the designations. I only said that I got it here. I did do what I set out to do, which was to document my trip without any judgments. But my trip is here. There is no question about that.”
But with Cohen, the intensity of the paradox, the source of his art's unflagging strength, is evinced in subjects that have transected his work from the beginning, and up to his latest book of poems Book of Longing (published in Israel in 2007 by Kinneret/Zmora Bitan, with an excellent translation by Koby Meidan). Thus, in Cohen's poems, religious motifs are interwoven with lengthy reflections on the mystery of passion: spirituality and sensuousness, mystical wonderment and sanctity, fervor and worship of beauty on occasion perceived as a divine revelation – Cohen manages to unite the extremes, to join heaven and earth and sculpt out a work of poetic art that draws on the lyricism of the Song of Songs, the erotic symbolism of the Kabbalah and the ancient texts of the Far East.
Art and sexuality, religious devotion and apostasy
The early days of Leonard Cohen's literary career return us to the 1950s, to the time when the youth of the West was seeking out new artistic expression and core social change. This was the inception of the “counterculture,” which was to deeply impact sociology, civil rights, the status of women and minority rights, as well as literature, music and the other arts, profoundly changing the face of modernism.
This new developing culture in the United States and Europe spawned dozens of new periodicals that offered a platform for the voices of the unknown progressive poets who opted to express themselves outside the traditional frameworks. CIV/n, A Literary Magazine of the 50s, which was established in 1953, was one of these underground magazines. CIV/n aspired to “challenge the poetic orthodoxy of the Canadian literary establishment,” as Aileen Collins, its editor notes today. The magazine was named for the abbreviation for civilization used by poet Ezra Pound, among the heroes of the new generation and a personal supporter of CIV/n, until he lost his enthusiasm for it, claiming the magazine to be “unpolemical and too local.” In 1954, Cohen published his first poems in the fourth issue of the magazine, alongside other representatives of the new poetry, such as Irving Layton. Layton would come to be viewed as one of the greatest of modern Jewish poets, and was even nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature. Until his death in 2006, Layton remained a close friend of Cohen and one of his sources of inspiration. In his last book, Cohen dedicated a number of poems to Layton, an indication of the unusually close relationship these two “people made of words” shared. For example, his poem Layton's Question:
Always after I tell him
what I intend to do next
Layton solemnly inquires
Leonard, are you sure
you're doing the wrong thing?
Cohen related on a number of occasions that he found in Layton's poetry, “a Judaic voice of opposition, energy and passion that most energetically expressed opposition to all the fixed values.” It should be borne in mind that in the 1950s, the writers and readers of CIV/n believed that poetry should be wielded as a social weapon to bring about a revolution in Western consciousness (exactly as did the surrealists active in Europe about three decades earlier).
Cohen's first book of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956. Although it won immediate acclaim among the supporters of the avant-garde, conservative critics viewed it as emblematic of the “insolence and lack of skill typical of the new generation.” This book – whose bizarre title is indicative of the esoteric atmosphere that prevails in it – included the thematic nuclei of Cohen's future poems: burning religious fervor, the presentation of personal history as the source of failure and despair, social criticism, art and sexuality, pious devotion and apostasy, sadness, love and jealousy. In Cohen's next book (The Spice-Box of Earth, 1961) these themes are further honed. The name of the book, which refers to the decorative spice container used during the havdalah ceremony that marks the symbolic end of the Sabbath and upon which the blessing “Blessed is He who created the spices” is recited – is clearly indicative of its content, for example of the spiritual tension present in almost all the poems. Cohen, who grew up without a father, dedicated the book to his grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky, a Torah scholar and linguist who had taught the author the mysteries of the Holy Scriptures since he was a child. In Cohen's eyes, his grandfather embodied the ideal, most authentic Jew, a perfect example of erudition and inner wisdom, of a life that finds meaning through the love of the text, and as Cohen related, of a renewed reading from time to time that thanks to exegesis, turns into a never-ending excavation of the Hebrew alphabet. “He'd read it all again with all the freshness of the first reading and he'd begin the explanation over again, so sometimes the whole evening would be spent on one or two lines. He swam in it he could never leave it. He happened to be in a kind of confrontational, belligerent stance regarding the rabbinic vision.”
Rabbi Solomon Klinitsky, who was also known by the sobriquet Sar Ha Dikdook – the Prince of Grammarians – he had published a lexicon of Hebrew synonyms – wrote a 700-page volume called Ozar Taamei Hazal – Thesaurus of Talmudical Interpretations, which Cohen often showed to journalists and scholars when asked about his principal literary influences. The Spice-Box of Earth includes a long text called “Lines From My Grandfather's Journal,” and it represents one of the high points in Cohen's poetic writings. In this lyrical masterpiece, which was written in the form of a mystical journal, the poet creates an encounter between King David and Rabbi Judah Loew, known as the Maharal of Prague, combining Biblical landscapes and the death camps, prayers and observations on the revelation of speech, through purity and wandering. But the presence of the rabbi can be felt in other poems as well, such as “Prayer of My Wild Grandfather” and a neo-Biblical poem, “Isaiah,” which is inspired by the words of the prophet that Cohen studied under the guidance of Rabbi Klinitsky. In fact, in the biography of Cohen, Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen, 1966, author Nadel notes, “The Book of Isaiah, with its combination of poetry and prose, punishment and redemption remained a lasting influence on Cohen's work, forming one of several core texts for his literary and theological development.”
The publication of The Spice-Box of Earth was a major literary event in Canada. The prestigious journal Creative Writing in Canada unhesitatingly determined that Cohen was “easily the most promising among poets writing today in Canada.” In his book, Cohen's Jewish identity is given provocative, intense, cynical treatment, as seen in the poem, “The Genius”:
I will be a ghetto Jew
and put white stockings
on my twisted limbs
and poison wells
across the town
I will be an apostate Jew
and tell the Spanish priest
of the blood vow
in the Talmud
and where the bones
of the child are hid
I will be a banker Jew
and bring to ruin
a proud old hunting king
And end his line
I will be a Broadway Jew
and cry in theatres
for my mother
and sell bargain goods
beneath the counter
For you I will be a doctor Jew
in all the garbage cans
to sew back again
I will be a Dachau Jew
and lie down in lime
with twisted limbs
and bloated pain
no mind can understand.
From New York to Hydra
Despite their experimental nature and the innovative literary approach reflected in them, Leonard Cohen's two novels and their impact are representative of his ability to create literary works devoid of any concession to commercial considerations.
The works are a collage of excerpts and genres. It was with good reason that Linda Hutcheon, Canada's most prominent literary critic, defined Beautiful Losers as “the first postmodern novel in Canada.” When the novel was published in 1966, the Toronto Star noted, “This is the most infuriating book ever published in Canada [...] but it is probably the most interesting Canadian book of the year.” At the heart of the novel, we find Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Indian woman of the Mohawk tribe, the first Indian to be canonized by the Catholic Church. Surrounding her, we hear the voices of three characters, who are also the voices of conscience or memory: the narrator, who lives in Montreal, his wife, who committed suicide in an elevator, and her dubious lover, known as F. The narrator is a nameless scholar occupied with writing a book about the Indian virgin; gradually, from the depths of his loneliness, while trying to escape his memories, he finds himself identifying with Kateri Tekakwitha and with her desire to find sainthood. The book develops on numerous different levels and represents a reflection on questions of loyalty and betrayal, a biography of a historical figure and an essay on the connection between God and drugs. From one chapter to the next, Cohen changes his tone and adopts multiple narrative styles, moving back and forth among a journal, letter, prayers, publications, poems, catalogues, footnotes and so on.
The Favorite Game, which was made into a movie in 2003 by director Bernar Hébert in 2003, is far more realistic in style. It is the story of a young man, who following various bizarre starts and stops, finds his identity in writing. This is of course a self-portrait. The novel, which was published in 1963, also includes some harsh criticism of the very conservative Montreal Jewry – a very influential community that suppresses all creative initiative or new spirit that seeks expression. It is notable that this was not the only time that Cohen openly confronted representatives of Montreal's Jewish community. For example, in December 1963, during a symposium on “The future of Judaism in Canada,” he read an address called “Loneliness and History,” in which he accused the established Jewish community of negligence and indifference towards its artists. In his eyes, the very concept of a “Jewish establishment” was a contradiction in terms, noting that the emphasis on the corporate survival of Jewish institutions was wrong. “Jews must survive in their loneliness as witnesses,” he said, startling the audience of star academics and intellectuals, adding, “If they forego that role, they abandon their purpose. Jews are the witness to monotheism, and that is what they must continue to declare. Jews have become afraid to be lonely, and today, now that certain rabbis and businessmen have taken over the community, prophesy and Jewish values are being replaced with money.” Cohen's controversial broadside took on national proportions, and was described on the front page of the Canadian Jewish Chronicle on January 10, 1964 under the headline: “Poet-novelist says Judaism betrayed.”
In 1956, Cohen left Montreal in order to be closer to the more vibrant centers of the new culture. At first, he lived in New York, where he became friends with Andy Warhol and Allan Ginsberg. In 1959, he moved to London, and a year later, to the Greek island Hydra. It should be noted that Cohen arrived in Hydra long before it became a fashionable getaway for Hollywood actors and their producers. When Cohen came to Hydra, electricity was still considered a luxury and the island residents drew their water from wells. Despite this, the God-forsaken isle, devoid of order or clear laws, began in the mid-1950s to draw writers, poets, artists and dancers who established a fascinating artists' colony. After the tumultuous artistic scenes of New York and London, Cohen found in Hydra an atmosphere conducive to his writing. His solitude there continued for a number of years: “I felt that everywhere else I'd been was culture shock, and this was home,” Cohen related of his arrival in Hydra.
In 1966, the year the novel Beautiful Losers and a collection of poetry Parasites of Heaven were published, Cohen decided to return to New York. He was working at the time on songs that would appear in his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen. This album, like the three released after it (1969, 1971, 1974), combined folk music, classic arrangements, electric instruments and medieval influences, all of which offer an intimate background for the long poems most of which were also published in his books. These albums and those that followed, until his last album, Dear Heather, released in 2004, enabled Cohen to become decreasingly identified with the underground art of his younger years; they also established his position – despite the distance that Cohen always maintained from the media – as a living cultural icon.
In order to understand the unique nature of Leonard Cohen's iconic status in contemporary art, one needs to read the hundreds, perhaps thousands of articles written about him since his last world tour that have appeared in both the mainstream press of the countries that he visited as well as in literary and music journals and the most prestigious European and American periodicals. The current tour began in May 2008, following 15 years of absence from the stage, and since then, Cohen has appeared on stages from Montreal to Paris and New York, Athens and Sidney and London (where the film Live in London was shot). Today, at the age of 73, it can be said that two generations and more are united in their love for his music and texts. The international media have gone so far as to call his performances “a spiritual experience,” as Richard Robert wrote last July in an issue of the excellent French periodical Les Inrockuptibles devoted to Leonard Cohen: “Because they appeal to our intellect and sensitivity, Leonard Cohen's appearances bring out the best in us. At the risk of being accused of sentimentality, we insist and say that from his performances arise notes that in these times of general cynicism and savage individualism are only rarely heard: They awaken a feeling of harmony and joy, despite everything, at belonging to the human community.”
The silence between the thoughts
Leonard Cohen discovered Zen Buddhism in the mid-1960s, during text-study evenings organized by the Norwegian novelist Axel Jensen on the island of Hydra. Discussions of spirituality and mystical traditions were of course a major feature of the culture developing at that time in the West, and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, Gershom Scholem, Mircea Eliade, Lao-Tzu, and others were popular in the artists' colony established in Hydra, which Cohen called an “esoteric enterprise.” But the poet's first encounter with Zen master Kyozan Joshu Sasaki, known today (at the age of 102!) as one of the most prominent authorities on the Japanese Rinzai school of thought, occurred after Cohen's return to the United States, and after the release of his second album Songs from a Room.
In 1971, the Zen Buddhist master founded the Mount Baldy Zen Center in southern California, where Cohen secluded himself for long periods each year until he moved into the monastery in 1993. Three years later, he was officially ordained as a Zen monk and was given the name Jikan, which means “Silent One” or “the silence between two thoughts.” The allure that Buddhism held for Cohen was an endless source of discussion among his critics. “Mr. Cohen is an observant Jew who keeps the Sabbath even while on tour,” wrote Larry Rohter in the New York Times last February, “and he performed for Israeli troops during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. So how does he square that faith with his continued practice of Zen?”
Cohen has noted, “In the tradition of Zen that I've practiced, there is no prayerful worship and there is no affirmation of a deity. So theologically there is no challenge to any Jewish belief,” and that consequently, the members of the Mount Baldy center could continue to adhere to their monotheistic faiths or atheism. An ordinary day in the community is composed of long meditation exercises and reflection on Kōans, riddle-like paradoxical statements, such as “What is the sound made by one hand clapping?” which may lead to intellectual illumination. Indeed, the paradox, the negation and the negation of the negation are the only keys that Zen offers by way of introduction to an individual's work on himself. “The thing that attracted me, in the first place,” he said in an interview in 1995, “was this...emptiness. It's a place where it's very difficult to hold fast to one's ideas. It's very close to certain forms of extreme Judaism. Take this conviction, for instance, amongst certain of the more Orthodox Jews, that one can't say the name of God, or that one cannot even define what God is. It's a movement in one's spirit that perhaps makes one more predisposed to a more clear comprehension of Zen. I always liked this aspect of Judaism, the fact than no one really speaks of God.” In response to rumors that he had changed his religion and abandoned the faith of Moses in order to draw closer to Buddha, Cohen always saw fit to respond with typical irony. For example, in his newest book, one can read a poem that appears to have been written almost incidentally, Not A Jew:
Anyone that says
I'm not a Jew
is not a Jew
but this decision
And in a letter to the editor of the Hollywood Reporter published on October 25, 1993, Cohen wrote:
“My father and mother, of blessed memory, would have been disturbed by the Reporter's description of me as a Buddhist. I am a Jew. For some time now, I have been intrigued by the indecipherable ramblings of an old Zen monk. Not long ago he said to me, Cohen, I have known you for 23 years and I never tried to give you my religion. I just poured you sake.' Saying that, he filled my cup with sake. I bowed my head and raised my cup to him crying out, Rabbi, you are surely the Light of the Generation.'”