I Thought That We Were Winning: In Remembrance of Leonard Cohen
Near the end of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus is explaining to his friend Cranly that he is leaving the Catholic church. Cranly asks if he intends to become a Protestant. Dedalus responds, “What kind of liberation would that be to forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent and to embrace one which is illogical and incoherent?”
Leonard Cohen died last month. His work, like Joyce’s, is informed by a deep religious sensibility—by the believer’s rapture and the apostate’s profound sense of loss. Where Joyce’s religion is logical and coherent, Cohen’s is beautiful and terrible. Departing from the faith is as painful as it is freeing.
Cohen’s first record, Songs of Leonard Cohen, came out in 1967, when the singer was thirty-three years old—his Christ year, as Henry Miller would’ve put it. Songs from a Room came two years later. In the midst of the Vietnam War, Cohen addressed the moral bankruptcy of those leading the war effort. In “Story of Isaac,” he sang:
You who build the altars now
To sacrifice these children
You must not do it anymore
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted by a demon or a god
Cohen’s conception of religion is cruel and awful, and the story of Isaac as he has told it in the preceding verses is harrowing. Abraham is a brute, his authority unquestionable. But despite its violence, the story has meaning—“my father’s hand was trembling / With the beauty of the Word”—a stark contrast from the senseless slaughter perpetrated by those addressed in the last verse. Nor does Cohen spare those opposed to the war, singing, “And if you call me brother now / Forgive me if I inquire / Just according to whose plan?” The song ends with an ironic evocation of the peacock, a symbol of immortality. “Have mercy on our uniform / Man of peace or man of war / The peacock spreads his fan.” Left or right, “man of peace or man of war,” everyone exists now on the same plane of unmeaning.
I grew up in Georgia, reared in a Methodism oppressive not for the fire-and-brimstone rhetoric associated with Southern Christianity, but for its suburban blandness. For me, Cohen’s lyrics provided a framework for respecting and understanding the church that I was leaving. You can’t question a faith grounded, as my parents’ was, more in manners and social ritual than actual doctrine. What Cranly says to Dedalus—“It is a curious thing… how your mind is supersaturated with the religion in which you say you disbelieve”—applied to me only after leaving. I learned more about the Bible as an apostate than as a believer.
I was in Georgia when Leonard Cohen died. It was two days after Donald Trump was elected president. Years from now, when we remember Cohen’s life, I can only hope that this fact won’t even merit a footnote. Still, when I heard the news I was having dinner with friends, discussing the election. I thought of the song “The Old Revolution,” also on Songs from a Room. Cohen’s narrator seems to be a disillusioned Christ figure:
I fought in the old revolution
On the side of the Ghost and the King
Of course I was very young, and I thought that we were winning
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
As they carry the bodies away
In that first moment, the sadness I felt at Cohen’s death became intertwined with my sadness following the election. After eight years of gradual change for the better, I thought we would continue on a path towards justice. Like Cohen’s narrator, I thought that we were winning.
“The Old Revolution” has a two line refrain: “Into this furnace I ask you now to venture / You whom I cannot betray.” Here, in succinct terms, is the concept of the logical and coherent absurdity—the idea that your death in the name of the Lord is not betrayal, but fulfillment. Reason can’t grasp such an idea; it requires faith.
When I think about this concept now, I can’t help, given recent events, but think of it in the context of government. When I hear Barack Obama speak of the United States, I sense this degree of faith in the idea of the country. Obama’s faith is not naïve. The first black president, living in an executive mansion built by slaves, Obama’s vision of America is that of a man who knows the country’s flaws far more intimately than I can, and who views his achievements, which surpass most anyone else’s, as being his not in spite of America but because of it. It is a belief in an America that is imperfect but redeemable, a vision both beautiful and terrible.
In electing Donald Trump president, we have exchanged that vision for a scheme. In the face of such self-serving nihilism we are left with the option of either upholding Obama’s vision or abandoning the vision for one more radically opposed. The former course means the absurdity of acknowledging Trump’s presidency as legitimate even as we resist him at every turn. The latter means we risk ending up on the same plane of unmeaning.
The most stark and powerful song on Songs from a Room is “The Butcher.” A simple blues, the song features a Job-like narrator arguing with an allegorical God figure, the butcher of the title. When the narrator questions his cruelty, the butcher replies, like the whirlwind answering Job, “I go round and round / And you, you are my only child.” The butcher’s world is cruel but all-encompassing; the narrator is part of it. And yet the song ends on a note of freedom. The butcher’s order is passing away: “I’m broken down / From a recent fall.” The narrator, like Stephen Dedalus at the end of Portrait, is liberated. “Lead on, my son,” the butcher tells him. “It is your world.”
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.