My Landlord #3

Meditations on Leonard Cohen

Audio Book/Video podcast:

The Gypsy Wife

Yug, yug, yug, she said. Leonard Cohen, Death of a Ladies Man.

Like Shakespeare and Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, compared himself to the great bard in his Nobel acceptance letter), Leonard Cohen — and perhaps all great metaphysical, lyrical or symbolic poets — was tormented by a certain ‘dark lady’. So who is the dark lady in Cohen?

In biblical traditions she is Lilith, in Hinduism she is Kali — in Cohen’s cosmology perhaps we can say she is the ‘Gypsy Wife’. The Gypsy Wife is not the nurturing feminine obvious, but the dark woman who would destroy the world. The bible says Lilith ‘wants to be on top’ in sex; in other words, she wants control and dominion; she will flee from a man instead of spiritually marrying him.

Of course feminists might object that it is usually man who wants to be on top and dominate, but that is another issue. Feminists might objected to the dark lady archetype as being a fundamentally a negative view of woman. But that doesn’t mean that the femme fatale archetype doesn’t exist whether we like it or not. The dark woman destroyer is everywhere in traditional culture, just as the man destroyer is. Certainly, there is much to be learned from the dark fiery Lilith; she an essential part of existence. The gypsy wife might destroy us, or help us find redemption — not by following her, but by letting her go.

The gypsy wife is the one who cannot be tamed. She puts man on the ‘threshing floor’ — she gives him visions of hell. Anyone who has been married to a gypsy wife (as I have been) knows that her infidelity is the ultimate test, that if he becomes dependent on her — if he tries to possess her — she will destroy him. There is a reason her vagina has teeth. She is not an ‘invention of patriarchy’, but a reality of nature, the mother who devours her children.

Of course there is a ‘gypsy husband’ too — so all is fair in love and war. In fact, the man will have to be a gypsy to tango with her — she will not be tamed by the domestic man. If the man gives his allegiance to her, she will devour him like the female praying mantis again. We can also say that the gypsy wife, if man survives her, will bestow magical powers — will make him much more immune to the darkness. Part of our spiritual quest is meeting her, which is the shock of spiritual growth.

The gypsy man and the gypsy women are man and woman apart. They are our separate state (of course we are not talking about gypsy culture here, but the wandering man/woman archetype). They are the wound, the crack, the duality at the heart of a fallen world — the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen as Cohen puts it in ‘Democracy’. They represent the dark face of God, as Rebbe Jakob describes it. And, according mythical traditions, we have to descend into that chaos and darkness to ‘repair the face of God’.

You cannot marry the gypsy wife really — she is nobodies wife. We shouldn’t invite that dark lady into our hearts, but pray that she is dissolved, that she will flee, that she will rest. It would be idiotic to try to embrace Kali — she would tear us to pieces — there is a reason why she wears a necklace of severed heads. Better feed her voracious hunger in another way: through ritual magic, or song.

If you have met the Gypsy wife you will know what I mean. She will have also shown you the gypsy husband, your own darkest nature. It’s a good thing to survive such a marriage, but I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

The Tower and the Pit

Had to go crazy to love you
Had to go down to the pit
Had to do time in the tower
Begging my crazy to quit

Poetry itself is a kind of divine craziness, a ‘short-cut’ beyond linear thinking. The poet will evade conventional language; he has a certain contempt for the philosophers (though he also loves and makes use of them); his words are alive but not reasonable. He speaks in metaphors: little bombs of light which explode the mind caught in ‘explanation’ and false logic. He speaks the language of the heart: the most deadly and effective poison to destroy the ordinary paralysis that most of us humans are caught in.

Had to go crazy to love you
You who were never the one
Whom I chased through the souvenir heartache
Her braids and her blouse all undone

The poet goes down to the pit to rescue the beloved damsel who has been trapped there for centuries; he must climb down from his the tower of abstraction and go underground. It’s actually his own soul that he rescues, down there in the hellish clown house of false mirrors, in the entrapment of egos and personalities, for the soul is She. When Dante meets Satan he meets his own ego monster — not someone outside. And Beatrice is his own soul, his own divine form.

Had to go crazy to love you
Had to let everything fall
Had to be people I hated
Had to be no one at all

Rather than strait -forward, aloof morality we could dance with our clowns or sub-personalities. To be fully human is to go fully crazy in a divine sense, crazy enough to live through the vicissitudes of the tower and the pit. When one meets Beatrice or Suzanne one is drawn into that feminine world of madness, her braids and her blouse all undone. The braids and blouses are the entrapments that conceal the nakedness of reality.

The erotic in Cohen is always aligned with the sacred, the sacred is found near to madness. Love is close to madness — why? Because one loses boundaries in love. The man / woman union is the sacred inner chamber where the ego surrenders and the divine world is restored — not just in Sex but in the whole cosmic domain. The ego will resists love tooth and nail, going stark raving mad in the process — but when duality collapses in love, the soul is born.

Sometimes I’d head for the highway
I’m old and the mirrors don’t lie
But crazy has places to hide in
That are deeper than any goodbye

We live out our lives, lost in the mirrors of self, our body decays and the divine sparks remains hidden, unborn. We try to say goodbye to that world, but go running back and forth between the tower and the pit, idiotically begging for more craziness. We may rationalise our failures and addictions, we may think that everything is going great — but ‘crazy’ is waiting for us in the shadows.

This crazy love is too painful to bear but too pleasurable to resist — like a woman in her full power over us. She unleashes all of our craziness to liberate us from that craziness; she brings us home — not to her world but to the greater one. The ‘sisters of mercy’ are themselves only signs or doorways to infinity, they point to that beyond, which is, paradoxically, the most intimate and near. The sisters of mercy are not departed or gone.

You who were never the one. This is the primordial mistake: to try to possess and tame the beloved, to mistake her for Eden. We must not get lost in her, but raise her up, out of the underworld, into light and sentience. If we survive that terrible maw, that underworld, we learn compassion. Until we can feel the hell that is heaven and the heaven that is hell, we remain trapped in either the tower or the pit. The tower is the lofty but sterile space of separative man, the pit is the biological and mechanical world of separative women.

The reason Cohen’s songs are so resonant is that there is much beneath the surface. Suzanne is not just a dancer from Montreal, she is like a fleshy doorway. But you have to go crazy to love her, to pass over her threshold (to touch her perfect body with your mind); you have to have your banality burned up in a spiritual and visionary bonfire. When one is tired of fighting in the tower or down in the pit, then one gives up the struggle and the blessings of the non-dual world descend.

I’m tired of choosing desire
I’ve been saved by a blessed fatigue
The gates of commitment un-wired
And nobody trying to leave

The Crack in Everything

Cohen has said that an essential artist has only one thing to say, one obsession. Perhaps we can say that for Cohen this was — and the lyric that summaries his testament the most completely — there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in. This crack in everything is his whole philosophy, it covers the whole territory: from the bedroom to the geopolitics arena — from the ‘hidden chambers of the heart’ to the porn movie of contemporary civilisation.

I suspect Cohen gave up writing novels (and poetry too for the most part) because he found the ballad to be the perfect vehicle to express this ‘everything’. There is something essential Cohen aims for that suits a ballad perfectly: it is the formal language of longing, not just for the beloved but for transcendence. The bard sings of the ordinary human drama in larger spiritual terms; he joins the sublime to the mundane, the complexities of love to the simple, the spit to the starlight.

One of his last songs ‘Make it Real’ is a touching confession of how, without the beloved to animate our existence, the world just a cavity, a scream, an empty shell, a dark and meaningless maw. She, or the holy spirit, breaks us in two. Paradoxically, this brokenness, this ‘crack in everything’ allows us to lift the veil and see the beloved’s face, and see: the ‘wild perfumes and secrets all in view’, or that primordial transmission that re-enchants the world.

The troubadour must make some gesture of devotion to liberate the burning hearts in hell; he must acknowledge a higher will (as in the song ‘If it be your will). In each moment (word by word, thought by thought) we chose our allegiances to the reified dark world ( ‘flowers made of stone’) or transcendence (‘flowers made of light’). We can let illuminated wisdom heal us or chose to inhabit a darkness where ‘no one that we hurt could ever heal’. What could be a worse hell than that!

At times we need at time to gaze into that hell, so that that the possibility of liberation, joy, and ‘secrets all in view’ emerge. The beloved shows us the way back to a world that is real, first though a journey to the underworld.

You is also is Thou, the holy other: it’s not just the opposite sex, but every leaf, flower fragile instance of appearance. They all sing this same song:

If the stars were all unpinned
And a cold and bitter wind
Swallowed up the world
Without a trace
Oh well that’s where I would be
What my life would seem to me
If I couldn’t lift the veil
And see your face

Different Sides

We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line nobody drew
Though it all may be one in the higher eye
Down here where we live it is two

(Different sides, from the album Old Ideas, 2012)

Leonard Cohen has an amazing ability to combine humour and theology, sex and religion; he is appropriately inappropriate for humourless times. Sense of humour in Cohen is never far from deadly serious consideration — we can weep and laugh simultaneously while listening to his songs. While we take sex and religion far too seriously, Cohen provides the Jewish medicine: a good belly laugh at the games of the world.

Of course the games of the world are essentially related to sex and god. Sexual anxiety is our usual condition: Freud knew that all the civilisation’s discontents come from this feeling of separation from the intimate other. However, unlike Freud Cohen kept ‘the higher eye’ in mind — he did not attribute everything to rationality and sex, but saw the humour in the sacred and in sexual devotion.

I don’t think people would have been able to swallow Cohen’s earnestness, if he didn’t have great wit and humour. The sweetness in these lyrics is what makes the bitter pill go down and gives us the courage to face more difficult truths. There is spiritual famine everywhere, he tells us: Down in the valley the famine goes on/The famine up on the hill, but then he changes registers: You want to change the way I make love/I want to leave it alone.

Listening to a song like ‘Different Sides’ is a profound relief. It tells us, yes we are on different sides, but God is still laughing. So we should never lose our sense of humour or we are totally lost, because that humour is real universality and emancipation. This humour not a cheap kind of a shrug or mocking cynicism, but the kind that unifies us profoundly in seeing both the ridiculousness of our ego and the beauty of the divine.

Everybody knows that a totalitarian society is built on humourlessness. Totalitarian societies all begin with some kind of utopian vision, and end in murder. Somewhere along the line people lose their humanity — in other words their humours. This is why good humour may be more effective than anything else against the collective powers of darkness, which always veer dangerously towards real fascism.

I don’t know many others who can combine profundity with humour in such a way. Cohen writes words that sound almost like scripture: The pull of the moon, the thrust of the sun / And thus the ocean is crossed / The waters are blessed while a shadowy guest / Kindles a light for the lost. And then he juxtaposes that with a moment of pure lightness: C’mon baby give me a kiss / Stop writing everything down.

As a songwriter, I don’t know exactly how he does this — it is a mystery to me. If I knew, I would do it myself. When I try to inject humour in a serious song, it usually sounds trite. It’s this balance of gravity and light that Cohen does better than anybody. A Cohen song restores our humours, and is an anecdote to our ego’s fascism.

Popular Problems

When I first heard the album Popular Problem, it did nothing for me. I liked the title and a couple of its songs, but I put it aside, considering it to be one of Leonard Cohen’s lesser works. Listening to it soon after his death I see that I was wrong.

It may take time to appreciate this work of understated beauty — to discover a ‘hallelujah’ in that album — but there is no hurry. These songs will last longer than those garbage bags that time cannot decay, as Cohen sings Democracy. Leonard’s other album ‘Various Positions’ was similarity understated (and underrated), but now songs like ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘If it Be Your Will’ are part of the very landscape. Delayed punchline again.

Cohen makes big gestures by staying small and intimate. He seduces by being nearly invisible, sounds big by playing quietly, accesses deep feeling by avoiding vulgar emotion. He slays melodrama by humour, destroys banality by paradox (You got me singing, even though it all went wrong). His philosophical pessimism is paradoxically the cause for joy. We sing the hallelujah hymn although it is all going to hell in a bucket. And yet this attitude is not nihilism: the material world is doomed but our spirit can be indestructible.

The ‘awful truth that it isn’t worth a damn’ (Democracy) — ‘it’ being the sexual/political/religious games of the world. This is something that no young person can accept but an older person must confess in order to approach higher spiritual truths. But Cohen still sings: You got me singing, celebrating Love even as we drive the nails into the cross of our existence.

Over and over again Cohen gives us affirmation in the midst of negation — the ability to see both sides of life. If we speak about the glory of God we we ignore ‘The dark God’ or the ‘left hand side of God’ that Rabbi Jakob speaks of. Who could stand beside you so close to Eden, When you glinted in every eye the held-high razor, shivering every ram and son? (To a Teacher) The truth holds a razor blade, stand between eden and hell, cuts away the superfluous, unifies both the light and dark. All of our ‘popular problems’ are born in the inherent separation of the light and the dark, man and women, order and chaos etc.

Cohen was an adult artist in a pop culture landscape of babies. Rock and Roll has been mostly for young people and young people are supposed to be somewhat narcissistic — it’s part of their natural development — and yet to be adults we are supposed to slay that beast of narcissism. Leonard did that late in life, and one gets the sense that instead of degenerating into cynicism he evolved into spaces of greater joy.

Today the big ‘Popular Problem’ is that a narcissistic boy is sitting on the imperial throne — the ego anointed king. But all the more reason to imbibe the works of a mature artist, who can see through the horrors of ego’s plastic creations. Tell me again Leonard, tell me over and over. (Amen)

There is no god in heaven and there is no hell below. So says the great professor of all there is to know.’ (Almost Like the Blues) ‘The professor of all there is to know’, as Socrates knew, doesn’t know anything, nor does he know that he doesn’t know. He makes false conclusion based on his ego and not on divine creation: I see the ghost of culture with numbers on his wrist. Salute some new conclusion, that all of us have missed.

And yet: The chains are gone from heaven, the storms are wild and free.

Now that is a song worth listening to.

Leaving the Table

Leonard Cohen’s songs offer a world of symbols: the tower, the pit, the hill, the beast, the pillar, the naked woman, the master, the stone, the altar to name a few. Like a Tarot deck many of his images have a biblical or occult root. For instance, one symbol appears often in Cohen songs is table. But what does it symbolise?

I’m leaving the table/ I’m out of the game, Cohen sings at the end of his life. But the table is also a place of beginnings as well as endings. We leave the table to retire from the game but ‘come to the table’ to meet. It is a space where kin and kind gather, where peace treaties are made, where war is declared. Across the old piece of oak we gaze at each other in love or enmity, in harmony or indifference. The table is the epicentre of our home, it’s the line that keeps heaven and earth, man and woman, together and rooted. It is the neutral ground that guards our civilisation from chaos; it is the place to share our hearts and souls and make our prayers and recriminations. The table provides the necessary distance for a civilised encounter; it is where lovers meet and depart. The table is the beloved old oak plank where we sup, drink, pass our lives, share our bread and time together in civilised harmony, but it is also the place where the worldly poker game goes on, where boogie street and samsara exist… . A table where we bond, negotiate our love affair or marriage.

Cohen had some interesting things to say about marriage, incidentally: “I think marriage is the hottest furnace of the spirit today, much more difficult than solitude, much more challenging for people who want to work on themselves. It’s a situation in which there are no alibis, excruciating most of the time … but it’s only in this situation that any kind of work can be done. Naturally, I feel ambiguous about it.” We feel ambiguous about ‘coming to the table’ because it is safer to remain untouched; we are terrified, for good reason, to be bound to the table of responsibility. But the table is where we get our soul work done.

There are many images of the sacrificial table or altar in Cohen’s songs. The biblical story story of Abraham sacrificing Issac haunts Cohen very deeply it seems; it comes up often in songs like ‘Song for Isacc’ and ‘The Butcher’. Cohen asks, what kind of tyrant God brings death into the world and asks us to kill our only son? The table is the place where these hard questions are posed, where hard choices are made, where contracts are signed with gods, spirits, and men.

Did I ever leave you / Was I ever able / Or are we still leaning / Across the old table. Cohen sings so touchingly here: an old man in the revery of a beloved who is gone, but who still appears forever gazing in affection, across the old table. This table is the ground where we lay out hearts out for each other, where we gather there for intimacy and conversation, away from the storms and slaughters of our daily lives, to jest, to drink, and fall into each other’s eyes.

When Cohen sings I’m leaving the table does this suggest Jesus at the last supper? — It wouldn’t have been the first time Cohen has identified with Christ (in ‘So Long Marianne’ he sang: you held onto me like a crucifix). The table, the place of terrible goodbye’s also has a sweetness. Cohen sings: little by little / We’re cutting the cord / We’re spending the treasure, oh, no, no / That love cannot afford / I know you can feel it / The sweetness restored. At the table we say goodbye, but the sweetness never leaves, like the perfume of a song.

Sometimes we are bound to that table with a bright blade above us and only the nameless grace to save us. Sometimes the table is covered in the blood of our slaughter, the madness of our words, our dead children wrapped in cloth — sometimes we lie on the operating table and are numbed with anaesthetic waiting for the scalpel.

But other times the table is covered with flowers and fine wine and high laughter and the knowledge of eternity. Can we say then that we meet at God’s table?

Alexandra Leaving

Leonard Cohen has been saying goodbye for a long time. In fact, we could say that most of his songs are about leaving, in one way or another. Just a few titles to illustrate my point: Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, So Long Marianne, Alexandra Leaving, Leaving the table, Closing time … the list goes on and on. In fact his last album, You want it darker is entirely about the final curtain call, his own departure from Earth.

Maybe we can say all his songs (and so many other good songs) revolve about a kind of death, spiritual or otherwise. After all, death is our biggest concern in life — followed by sex perhaps. Even in the orgiastic flush of life where ‘the women tear their blouses off, and the men dance on the polk-a-dots’, there is the taste of death, the chill (and the beauty) of impermanence. ‘Take this Waltz, it’s been dying for years’ he says. ‘There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking / They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues.’ Here Cohen navigates the desolation row of Dylan and the wasteland of Eliot — where those sentenced to death and decay mingle with youth and energy.

‘Make more sad’ the the Zen Roshi once suggested to Cohen in the studio — as if his songs weren’t already legendarily sad! And yet isn’t Cohen’s type of sad is actually uplifting because it releases us from sadness, just as happy music is so often depressing because it diverts us from our deeper concerns? Most people would rather listen to the Beatles than Leonard Cohen because it’s happy music — but happy music starts to grate after a while. That’s because if a person is past thirty years old, he or she will have had to say a bitter goodbye more than once; will have contemplated sickness, old age, and his or her eventual extinction. The wise learn to hold light and darkness together — not to pit them against each other. Cohen never separates death from life or love from loss: that is the depth of his songs, that is why they are so nourishing in crisis and transition.

If we have a deep sense of existence, we can see that every hello is also a goodbye. And yet it’s also true that every goodbye is hello — so there’s no need to be suicidally depressed. In one of his most beautiful songs, ‘Alexandra Leaving’ Cohen sings: Say goodbye to Alexandra Leaving/Say goodbye to Alexandra lost. Not only does Cohen say goodbye to Alexandra, he says goodbye to saying goodbye! Alexandra leaving is the crucifix uncrossed, or life energy returned to that bright source where there is no leaving, and Alexandra can, paradoxically, never be lost. Still, even though they are forever formlessly entwined, this doesn’t make the leaving less poignant.

Cohen and his lover are ‘upheld’ by pleasure and simple joys; he is full of appreciation for earthly incarnation. Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure / They gain the light, they formlessly entwine / And radiant beyond your widest measure/ They fall among the voices and the wine.

And so we say goodbye Alexandra and Leonard Cohen to enter that tiny spark of edenic light that is radiant beyond your wildest measure. These are songs of faith and longing, not of despair. May they go on on until until love itself is gone.

Subscribe or watch the video podcast.
Support my Patreon:

Compressed scraps of angel melody, stories, essays, rants against reductionism, commands from the deep.