My Landlord #2

Meditations on Leonard Cohen

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Meditations on Leonard Cohen #9

Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne may be the one of most beautiful song of the modern era. It is a pure prayer to embodiment, to love, to fullness. It’s one of those songs that has everything inside of it, the whole history of the world — if you know how to listen to it, read its symbols, enter its melody.

As Leonard Cohen has said many times, such songs as Suzanne are not constructed, they are not made, they are surrendered into. There is no instruction manual on how to write a song like that: it is like religious text, revealed to the author from somewhere beyond. Suzanne is a masterpiece found among the garbage and the flowers, which means among the sacred and the profane, the beautiful and the ugly — all contrary things. If we prefer the beautiful to the ugly, the spiritual to the worldly, we cannot cross over to the world Suzanne reveals. Suzanne takes you to the land beyond preference, where the river flows without interruption to its source. The song unfolds like a river, like a caress, and Suzanne holds the mirror.

She shows you where to look means: you cannot find that bridge on our own. What do you see in her mirror? A primeval land hitherto unimagined, where there are heroes in the seaweed. Suzanne invites you to a brightly coloured pagan world of earthly things: she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China. The gifts of love come as a surprise, from very far away — they are not ordinary.

You know that she is half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there. Suzanne’s craziness smashes your mechanical logic, brings you into the realm of sense and soul. Her logic is abrupt and contradictory, you cannot possess or describe her with your mind. Her craziness is the divine craziness that lacks any kind of ordinary, linear frame. She has a logic of her but we must look deeper into her mirror to see it — it is the logic of the muse.

Suzanne comes when you are exhausted, when you have burned the bridges, cried all your tears, let go of the iron grip. She doesn’t tell us what the truth is, she allows you to see it. Just when you think you have no love to give her, she puts you on her wavelength. Don’t ask her how or why: you cannot capture this revolution of the heart in concept or language. She lets the river answer.

You have always been her lover, she reminds you wordlessly. You forgot to listen to her deep melody but she was always there, just below the surface of your conscious mind. You want to travel with her/you want to travel blind. Your blindness is the paradox of vision, your objective world will be shattered before you can touch her perfect body with your mind.

Suzanne is the divine woman and God cannot create anything without her. And Jesus the lonely jew sinks like a stone before her, he is brought down to her earth, first made human and mortal, then drowned in her wordless wisdom — like a stone he falls down into the depths where sailors are drowning. It’s not Jesus but Suzanne who brings the man down from his ‘lonely woman tower’, from his games of power and acquisition, from his spiritual arrogance. Here the material and the spiritual are not divided, they are enjoined in a vision, as heaven and earth, as man and woman sharing that supernatural unity.

Only drowning men can see Jesus, but Suzanne is holding the mirror for everyone to see. Just ask the children who are leaning out for love: they will lean that way forever. These children are not from this earth, but from the beyond — they don’t follow our laws of space and time. They are the potential of all things, and you will be a sailor until you find them. In love, mind and body end their eternal struggle and fall into union. The eternal children are calling to have a body, to come down to this impossible earth, where we are all travelling blind but willingly. She, the lover, has invited us here to recapture the flame.

The Garbage and the Flowers

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #9

In a time of casualness, consumerism and faux-spontaneity, Leonard Cohen is intentional and formal. Where all the borders of language and culture are broken, Cohen is a tight rhymer. He works language down to the bone, leaves you with the skeleton keys. There is hardly a throwaway line in any of this songs (and yet he sings them with such soulful ease). That is because he will not give up a song until it has a body and a soul.

The soul demands perfection, in mind, body, and heart (traditionally the three seats of the soul). Some artists are full of heart but lack intellectual rigour, some are hyper-intellectual but lack heart — many ‘stars’ are lost in sexual grind but have little access to the ‘higher’ realms of feeling and intellect. Most of us are fragmented and bloom in some areas, while languishing in others. But Cohen, I would argue is a complete artist as he covers all the major locusts of the soul’s deeper concerns.

Of course he is a master wordsmith and an underrated novelist, but there are more accomplished poets out there. He has a broken voice and is not a bad guitarist actually, but Cohen’s chord progressions are standard and conservative, even if he writes beautiful simple melodies. Although he has worked with great musicians and producers, he didn’t push the envelope musically, like, for instance, a prodigy like Frank Zappa.

Still, Cohen was still an accomplished minimalist and successfully worked with the limited resources he had. He puts all the right ingredients in the soup — without trying to reinvent soup. Essentially his stark but warm poetry triumphs over the music: the words are all important. That the music is often unremarkable doesn’t matter much — it is a backdrop to the story. In fact one could say that he spoke, more than he sung his songs.

Cohen gives us ‘The Word’ in capital letters, the logos. We live in an age of verbal casualness where we are constantly assaulted by fragments of verbal noise, but the Cohen universe is a sanctuary, where each word is embodied and articulated. Instead of abandon or excessive sonic stimulation, he gives us moments when our own souls can recuperate and be enriched. In Cohen we enter a temple of attention and mindfulness. This is altogether precious.

Poetry is made to give us back our souls — to be titillated or entertained is a secondary concern. And in our age of categories, we tend to divide the two — to divert ourselves with entertainment and then at other times look at more ‘serious’ works. Actually, Cohen both heals and entertains, which is a surprising rare combination these days. Again, Cohen manages to bridge the higher and the lower worlds, the garbage and the flowers, so to speak.

Formalism doesn’t make Cohen stiff or dull at all. The quality of containment and disappearance, the suit, the mask, or the Zen uniform: these are not self-negating but self-liberating robes, they make the singer subordinate to his song, just as the monk is subordinate to his prayer. And Cohen knew the more limited the choices — the more delineated the playing field — the more humour, depth and intelligence emerge from that concentrated space.

Again, it can’t be stressed enough how much spiritual discipline and hygiene play a part in Cohen’s work. Without his studies of Zen, Advaita and Jewish mysticism he would have been crushed in the maw of sixties hedonism like so many of his contemporaries.

It is not an easy task to write what he called ‘the crisis of song’, and he often bemoaned that it was a slow and arduous process. But there is no going around the discipline of the craft, and in this Cohen is contrary to our era and more like the giants of the past.

Bird on a Wire

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #10

Often the figures who encapsulate their era, contrast with it the most strikingly. Leonard Cohen has jokingly called his work ‘inappropriate’ for this reason. While the rock stars of the 1960’s were involved in splashy psychedelic experimentation, Cohen was a perfectionist and studied traditions; while pop music was all about experiencing ‘the now’ Cohen was prophetic and wrote about the future.

Not that Cohen didn’t participate in the ‘favourite games’ of his time or remained aloof. In the movie ‘Bird on the Wire’ we see him playing his role as a cultural hero ironically, dropping acid, groping groupies, riding around Europe in limousines smoking cigars. But in the midst of all that joyous abandon he seems like the saddest man in the world. Commander Cohen seemed to know he was the captain of a ship of fools and that the ship was going down.

How did Cohen clash with his generation? He was slow and patient in the midst of hyper-real speed and consumerism; he articulated each word without haste; he didn’t preach, he spoke — the way a poet does, compressing words into their potent essence of meaning. In fact you could say his singing style was to speak rather than sing, to let the lyric appear rather than force it into being. Cohen was meditative instead of impulsive, melodic instead of avant-garde; he lacks the aggression and the speed of his contemporaries.

In his early music Cohen sounds beyond his years. His is not the soundtrack of youthful vitality but the spirit of healing that arises from exhaustion. Some aren’t able to attune to this lovers weariness or — weariness with samsara as the Buddhists call it. One has to have seen though the ‘favourite games’ of the world somewhat to relate to Cohen’s work. People who are excessively idealistic or those who have never suffered from heartbreak will feel offended by philosophical pessimism; he doesn’t give us ‘hope’ or ‘answers’ but rather a deeper question, which is where a deeper hope, paradoxically springs from.

After reading Beautiful Losers recently I was struck by how painful that book feels. He has said it was a book ‘written in blood’ — the record of a crisis. One imagines Cohen on the Greek Island of Hydra with his wife, in the pinnacle of success and worldly glory, young and in love, and yet somehow ferociously sad, broken, lost. The book is a long cacophonous prayer, full of obscenity and beauty both — a prayer that doesn’t raise up his generation but records its collapse. In that state of desperate creation, which brought him to hospitalisation eventually; in such a state there could be nothing left but to ask for mercy from the higher powers and muses — to make a total confession.

Cohen’s songs are prayers, more so than his contemporaries. Perhaps Nina Simone was similar in that regard, but she never managed to surmount her depression (she did however manage to do an extraordinary cover of the song Suzanne.) Of course, Cohen couldn’t be a more radically different kind of talent than Simone, but the sadness felt in the music is the same. Cohen survived this avalanche, perhaps because of his tough Jewishness and sense of humour born in those those subzero cold, joyful, Montreal winters.

What is the antidote to a chronic sadness? Devotion may be the only way. Devotion is the great theme in Cohen — devotion to teachers, to lovers, to his audience — and that may have been what saved him. His devotion to his audience is touching: in the early years it pained him almost physically to give them a false note. In the film ‘Bird on A Wire’ Cohen is volatile and vulnerable, hardly able to get on the stage. At the end of the film you see him in Jerusalem, weeping while having a vision of his ex-wife Marianne:

“So I go out on the stage with the band . . . and I started singing ‘So Long, Marianne.’ And I see Marianne straight in front of me and I started crying. I turned around and the band was crying, too. And then it turned into something in retrospect quite comic: the entire audience turned into one Jew! And this Jew was saying, ‘What else can you show me, kid? I’ve seen a lot of things, and this don’t move the dial!’ And this was the entire skeptical side of our tradition, not just writ large but manifested as an actual gigantic being! Judging me hardly begins to describe the operation. It was a sense of invalidation and irrelevance that I felt was authentic, because those feelings have always circulated around my psyche: Where do you get to stand up and speak? For what and whom? And how deep is your experience? How significant is anything you have to say? . . . I think it really invited me to deepen my practice. Dig in deeper, whatever it was, take it more seriously.”

Joan of Arc

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #11

Leonard Cohen songs express a radical kind of spirituality and eroticism — but you cannot say he is ‘new age’. Although he is venerated in spiritual circles as the poetic, sensitive, man, his songs are also fiery and subversive. Sacrifice, for instance, is a major theme, in Cohen’s work. And sacrifice is never separate from erotic love — ecstatic vision and a lovers consummation are earned though trail by fire.

It’s interesting how Cohen sings of strong woman, as very few men do. Most love songs are about the desirable women, the sexual women, motherly women, or the femme fatal, but so few are about saintly, aesthetic, heroine of a woman. We can see that Cohen’s relationship with women and sex is never one dimensional and is always creative and even subversive.

In the song Joan of Arc — the cold and lonesome heroin is tired the war and wants a domestic rather than a spiritual life. It turns out however that marriage is the ‘fire’, and she cannot escape her fate. This is reminiscent the The Last Temptation of Christ, where Christ dreams of descending from the cross to lead an ordinary life, only to wake up on the cross. Domestic love itself is the sacrifice here, and nobody escapes a fate so cruel and so bright.

And deep inside his fiery heart / He took the dust of Joan of Arc / And high above the wedding guests / He hung the ashes of her wedding dress. Perhaps the ashes are a symbolic of the song and the wedding guests are the audience. The beloved bride has been burned up but remains in a song: the concert is a place to morn and celebrate. The sting of lost love remains but there is the ceremony of transcendence before the divine audience. There is the bitter taste of ashes but the hope for renewal.

Then fire, make your body cold / I’m going to give you mine to hold / Saying this she climbed inside / To be his one, to be his only bride. The lovers die to each other, becoming one, in spiritual marriage, not for the world. The fire will not burn without the wood, the man cannot create his works (or sing his song) without the generative force of the woman. If he is fire and she must be wood, he sings. The male principle here is fire (spirit or semen) which burns up the female principle or wood (biological generation or birth).

But the song also contains a kind of reversal of traditional gender roles. Joan of Arc is the fiery revolutionary and Cohen is the compassionate receiver (she goes inside him). It is as though man has to become woman, such as in traditional ceremonies — like the Mexican day of the dead — where the man, though imagination or cross-dressing, imaginably unites with the woman. As a consequence, he gets symbolically pregnant, and, in Cohen’s case, the song-child is born. This sacrifice (so cruel and so bright) is both a blissful wedding feast and a funeral, a birth and a death, the coming together of man and woman in a terrible love cry that repairs the broken polarities of the world. Individual identities are sacrificed in the the bonfire of existence.

I saw her wince, I saw her cry, I saw the glory in her eye, he sings. Is she being burnt at the stake her or having an orgasm? Burnt up in the holy pit of carnal love, she embodies the whole material, maternal world in a giant orgiastic blaze. We are the the fire as well as the wood, the anima and the animus, in Jungian terms, and the fire of holy spirit burns with in us.

Joan of Arc reminds us of the original androgynous being; male and female principals are unified in a ceremony of love and annihilation. The boundary, the border, the distance is sacrificed… . And yet, and yet. We can’t help thinking. What if it had been different?

Like a Beast With His Horn

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #12

I recently received a curt remark from a western Buddhist accusing me of putting Leonard Cohen on a pedestal. On the contrary, I wanted to say to him, I love Cohen precisely because of his humanness, warmth, and legendary good humour. The man went on to lecture me — in a viciously condescending manner in which his person seemed quite present — saying that all concepts of the ‘self ’ and ‘good’ or ‘bad’ were an illusion.

When people have nothing but spiritual terminology and criticism to give, they can’t hear the birds sing, they talk over your head, they are dogmatic. I wondered if this religious buddhist had ever written a love letter or had any human passion. A love letter is a betrayal of fondness for another human being: it permits flights of lyricism as a way to express the inexpressible. The love letter also characterises the essence of Leonard Cohen’s songs. How much more alive is a poetic response to the world than the dogmatic one!

Leonard Cohen’s romanticism was chivalric rather than adolescent, intelligent rather than sentimental. Even as he wrote about romantic love, he did so almost religiously. In one sense he is deeply religious, committed to his Jewish heritage; in another, he is iconoclastic, heretical, even hedonistic. These two poles or tensions, between desire and higher transcendence are recorded with accuracy and beauty in his songs. This is the battle we all fight, to which Cohen gave form. (There is a war between the people who say there is a war and the people who say there isn’t). By submitting himself to both sides of life (in mystical terms the ‘left hand’ and the ‘right hand’ paths) he emerges as a whole artist. A whole artist is neither a pandit or spiritualist, neither worldly nor otherworldly. He (or She) is the real deal.

Cohen is singularly affectionate in relationship to teachers and spiritual friends, which he regarded as more important than religious dogma. His old Japanese Zen master mattered more to him than Buddhist doctrine, for instance; he distanced himself from mainstream Judaism while at the same time insisting on being a Jewish traditionalist: which might seem contradictory until one realises that the inner and the outer paths are often at odds. Cohen was devoted, not to the legalistic aspect of tradition, but to spiritual Judaism and Zen, which has everything to do with friendship and love.

Because of Cohen’s humanness and humility, his ability to kneel grotesque and bare as the song avalanche has it — his full confession of ego — that ‘beast with his horn’, the ‘hunchback’ — he was saved. Saved from what? For one thing, he was saved from becoming a fossilised folk star from the sixties and granted a full lifetime of inspiration and a happy death (at least it seems so from what has been written).

Cohen transcended the self loathing and shame of the narcissistic artist, perhaps by meeting that monster in himself. Some of his lyrics on the subject are truly harrowing: The cripple that you starve and feed is neither clothed nor cold. He does not ask for your company. Not at the centre. The centre of the world. (Avalanche). He struggled with that false master or tyrant, especially within himself. He fought that beast with his horn with tooth and nail and paid for this gifts in blood.

Why do I praise Cohen so highly? Because I believe he was the kind of artist who managed to walk both sides of the world: the inner and the outer, light and the dark, spiritual and carnal — and survive. And this is exceedingly rare.

Cohen at times wore the robes of the old religions, but not without humour or even embarrassment. But truly: what is more iconoclastic today than duty, chivalry, and friendship in this dark age of self-obsession?

There is a Law

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #13

Always after I tell him what I intend to do next, Irving Layton solemnly inquires: Leonard are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?’ Leonard Cohen, Book of Longing.

The value of good song or poem can’t be measured in in the economies of the world. It may be as useless as a forest is to a highway — and the collective culture makes highways, not forests. What could more wrong than Leonard Cohen’s songs, in today’s smog?

Doing the wrong thing in — the positive sense that is — means breaking up the structures an ossified world culture. The wrong thing, the wrong word, the inappropriate gesture — may be poetry, which is by nature subversive. We should make sure to do the wrong thing, as Leonard did, in a world that becomes more and more like a lunatic asylum every day. In other words, we should try to be less civilised.

That doesn’t mean to be vulgar or exhibit lewd behaviour necessarily — though that might be called for at times. An orgy might have been radical in the sixties, but lewdness today is the ultimate conformity. Better wear a Fedora and play a classical guitar, when everybody is playing noisy music and wearing spandex. Better shave your head and go and live in bare room in a monastery than marry the trophy wife. Do anything but the ‘right thing’ — for the right thing is bound to be death.

Irving Layton was Leonard Cohen’s mentor. Layton was constantly trying to upset the stuffy moralistic world of the 1950’s, and his comment are more true than ever today. We live in an increasingly puritan world that despises eccentricity, even if while it pretends to celebrate it. Real eccentricity is not blind impulsive or savage behavior, it is the courage to draw lines in the sand, to be gentle and quiet at times, to make origami swans instead of shit on a canvas.

Even if it seems to be a ‘culture of pleasure’ we actually have a general culture of rudeness and interruption, and people don’t feel enough real natural pleasure because they are overstimulated, insulated, have hyperactive shallow brains. The rude machine churns up perfectly fashionable cyphers who think they are individuals because they wear designer t-shirts and play spiritual parlour games.

Leonard Cohen’s music proposes that we bringing back the laws of hospitality. How about being self-effacing and modest? Let us be quiet and deep, instead of flashy and extroverted. What about bringing back some good victorian manners? That would really screw up the machine, would it not? What about real discipline, real skill in elocution, real gentleness. Let us be gentleman and ladies . Let’s bring back demarcations. Let us not be causal, but intentional — unfashionable in every way. That might be the best way to screw the system and the powers that be in this day and age. To become an actual dignified human being.

This is what Leonard did, which makes him uber-cool, even to the punk rock world. This coolness is not without fire, not without raw power. It is containment that makes him cool.

Why should we do the wrong thing, the inappropriate thing? Because that upsets the laws of collective coercion, the braying of sheep. There is another kind of law: deeper laws, divine laws, the ‘laws of remorse’ as he put it in a song. That remorse, that shame at one’s own vulgarities before others — is not uptight puritanism. It is being gracious; it is humour.

Cohen made music that was hospitable. He invited everybody in. You sense his love for humanity in those songs. He respected his audience, he adored them. What faults he made in performance he put on himself. He did not declare with the beautiful arrogance Bob Dylan: ‘you don’t own me anything’; he did not turn his back on the crowd; he practiced and displayed gratitude for his fans.

Of course there is something great in the brash ‘fuck you’ to society and the punk rock attitude of a Rimbaud or a Bob Dylan. But this belongs to the glory of adolescence and Cohen was an adult. An adult is a rare bird in the world of popular culture — something that practically doesn’t exist anymore.

Hallelujah, I’m Your Man

Meditations on Leonard Cohen #14

As I have mentioned, while writing this I immersed myself in the teachings of Leonards final teacher, Rebbe Yakov Leib HaKohain’s and his fiery podcasts on the Zohar and the gnostic gospels. Although I have only a superficial understanding of those traditions, I will try to explain certain revelations of Rebbe’s teaching that might give us a better understanding of how Jewish (and Catholic) mysticism weaved their way into Cohen’s work.

Some of the Zohar’s, also know as the oral Torah, a foundational text of Jewish Cabbala, views on Sex and God (Cohen’s principal themes) are quite surprising. For instance, it says somewhere in the Zohar that if women are not present, God is not present. In fact, the holy spirit in Jewish mysticism, according to Jakov, is decidedly feminine, and he refers to the holy spirt as ‘She’. Yakov explains that the actual messianic mission is meant, not for us to save ourselves, but to heal God though reuniting the feminine and masculine spheres.

Going even further than this is the idea that God needs us to repair Him: this means that God is actually skizoid — in other words, totally divided, unpredictable, cruel, broken — an idea not hard to understand if we consider that God created our broke, mad world. It’s not so hard to believe that the creator was nuts when he created man and woman and the snake in the garden of eden.

Our job, according to the Rebbi, is to heal God. That means: God is suffering, and the task of the mystic is to unite the two polarities of man and woman, but not for the sake of man and woman but for the sake of God. We actually repair a schizophrenic God though equalising the male and the female principals. Obviously, this is a radical view, not the nominal one, which declares God all powerful and omnipotent — and of course this kind of view is heresy to to nominal religion. And it’s also radically different than any kind of new age self-help philosophy! We are not helping ourselves here, we are helping God — what could be more dangerous that than!

And the dangerous game that we play is actually Love — that is how heal the angry old testament tyrant, through love of the holy spirit, which is love of woman. A central danger for the knight/troubadour is to lose himself in the woman’s sphere. He cannot be aloof or ravish her or he will lose everything; he must regard her with all his love and passion. By seeing the woman in her fullness, she becomes enlivened, and so does God. We should worship women then, not by putting her up on a pedestal but for a more sublime spiritual reason: because She is the holy spirt.

Cohen seemed to have intuitively know this, which is why he never wrote a banal love song. He admired women and appreciated their company as friends and lovers; his view of them is not chauvinistic but worshipful in the larger sense. He not only sang about their beauty, he sang with them, he struggled with them, he loved them in all their complexity. The female voice is exalted for Cohen: She is everywhere.

The ‘crack in everything’ is the place where we enter the world, which is symbolised by the female sex — the ‘the light gets in’ though penetration. The woman is animated by that thrust of light and the man is made whole through devotion. A man cannot be real until cracked open by a woman; the woman cannot be fulfilled until she returns to her lord. The broken voice then is the real and the naked voice, not the studied or mastered one, which reunites man and woman. When man stands before the woman with his ‘broken hallelujah’, he is, paradoxically made whole through this confession.

Real chivalrous manhood here is not about being control but about being tender: If you want a lover I’ll do anything you ask me to. And if you want another kind of love I’ll wear a mask for you. I’m your man. Who could deny that these are the words that every woman wants to hear, even if they sounds a bit old fashioned?

I’m your man, not because I could every be domesticated, but because I am right here, in the beauty and in the horror. I’m your man because we are equal and benighted before what is most divine. I put on a mask for you, consciously. I see into the core of you, the beauty and ugliness, you make-up and your real face. Here I am. I’m your man. Ready to do what is necessarily.

In ‘So-Long Marianne’ Cohen sings: ‘You held onto me like a crucifix as we went kneeling though the night’. Here sex is embodied prayer, sacred worship, sacrifice. The Hallelujah is not so holy that you cannot taste it — it exists right here in our broken bodies.

Cohen, through his unique alchemy, brings the sublime down into the earthly, the divine into love and sex. Who else did that? Who wrote so deeply about man and woman in modern song? The ancient poets and mystics did this. And so did Leonard Cohen.

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