Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Theodicy:
We Are Waiting for Godot, But It Is We Who May Never Arrive
By Marcia Pally
Journal of Religion and Popular Culture, Volume 32, Number 2, Summer
2020, pp. 121-143
Abstract: The work of Leonard Cohen, called the “black romantic” by Stephen Scobie, has been explored for its sex, politics, darkness, and struggle with faith. Cohen’s imagery has also been widely interrogated in critical and popular studies. The present article builds on this literature to explore a consistent theology and theodicy in Cohen’s writings. The theology is grounded in the covenant of Cohen’s Jewish tradition. It is Cohen’s reckoning with humanity’s failure to act covenantally with God and persons—though we are made as covenantal creatures, dependent on these bonds to survive and flourish. The easy theodicy says our suffering is self-inflicted: a fallen humanity breaks covenant for the possibility of gain and so injures itself. Cohen saw the tougher reality of many theodical inquiries: if we wound ourselves, the God who made us, made us so. We breach covenant because breaching is easy for us. Thus, the question and anguish that prod much of Cohen’s work is not only “Why does humanity fail covenant?” but also “Why did an omnipotent God create humanity so prone to fail it?” The article begins with a discussion of covenant in the Jewish tradition. Cohen’s theodicy is then traced through his verse. Attention is given to several topoi, including the use of doubled images to refer at once to divine and human persons; Cohen’s use of Jewish and Christian imagery; and theodicy as a way to understand Cohen’s relations with women.
Keywords: covenant, Leonard Cohen, Judaism in Leonard Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s God, Leonard Cohen’s religion, Leonard Cohen’s women, the imagery of Leonard Cohen, theodicy
“If you love only what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten.” Augustine wrote these words in On Christian Belief (397, 88, XLVI.86.243) to explain his faith in loving God over worldly goods. If one directs love at what cannot be “snatched” away—at God and love itself—one will suffer neither longing nor loss. This insight may serve as an introduction to the works of Leonard Cohen and his aggrieved, desirous imagery that reaches at once into the human intimate and to the transcendent. The musician Lou Reed is reported to have said, “If we could all write songs like Leonard Cohen, we would” (Billingham 2017, 7).
As a great deal has been written about this “black romantic” (Scobie 1978, 4), this piece
will reference Cohen’s well-known life (see Kubernik 2014; Leibovitz 2014a; Nadel 1996; Reynolds 1990; Simmons 2012), interviews (Burger 2014), and career only as they shed light on his theology and theodicy, which are my focus here. That is, Cohen’s work has been much explored for its grappling with sex, politics, darkness, and “a monotheism that never quite gave up the ghost” (Gitlin 2002, 97). His imagery has been interrogated: Elliot Wolfson (2006) has written admirably on Cohen’s kabbalist imagery, Mesic (2015) on Cohen’s use of Sufi and Islamic tropes, and Fernando Toda on Cohen’s use of Wordsworth (1984).
Yet it’s the much mentioned “darkness” that I will explore further. What is its source? One answer is Cohen’s reckoning with the human failure to sustain covenant as understood in the Judaism that Cohen plumbed all his life. “Whatever we may make of Leonard’s Judaism,” biographers Lorraine Dorman and Clive Rawlins note, “he is a
man seized by its traditions” (1990, 91). On this view, though we are covenantal creatures, dependent on bonds with God and other persons to survive and flourish, we breach them and bolt. Inconstancy, betrayal, and abandonment are the human condition.
On one hand, we are made, Cohen wrote in the tradition of the Psalms to “lift my heart to you [God] . . . travel on a hair to you . . . go through a pinhole of light . . . and fly on the wisp of a remembrance” to you (in Book of Mercy; Cohen 1994, 332). Indeed, the psalmist of antiquity said it this way: “With my voice I call unto the Lord . . . My steps have held fast to Thy paths, my feet have not slipped” (Ps. 3:4; 17:5–6). Yet on the other, though we are made for covenant, we breach it and flee, a theme and anguish of the Jewish tradition. We find it early in the Bible, in the Genesis narrative (Gen. 6–8), where persons have so abused each other, so boldly broken covenant, that God floods the earth and makes a new covenant through Noah. It is the tragedy of the Golden Calf tale (Ex. 32), where covenant with God is broken through idol worship. It is the
persistent cry of the prophets, who lambaste our breach of covenant with both God and each other, and so we are left in loneliness and loss.
The darkness of covenant unsustained emerges in Cohen’s work as theodicy. It asks not
only why humanity fails covenant, but also why an omnipotent God created humanity so
prone to fail it. It is this question that I shall track and to this area of Cohen scholarship that I hope to contribute. In this short format, I will look, with a few exceptions, at Cohen’s lyrics, leaving his poetry and novels for another essay.1 To be sure, theodicy is by no means the sole occupation of Cohen’s efforts nor the only way to interpret the works cited below. But it is one undergirding concern and through-line that this article hopes to illuminate.
The easy theodicy says our suffering is self-inflicted. In his Free Choice of the Will, Augustine argues that God gave humanity free will to choose between good and evil—to sustain or abandon commitment to God and neighbor—so that our choice would be that of a moral agent, not an arational creature. Yet given this freedom, a fallen humanity breaks covenant for the possibilities of wealth and power, and so we wound the relationships we need. In modern theology, this view is most associated with Alvin Plantinga, who argues that the presence of evil compromises neither God’s goodness nor omnipotence. Rather, the goal of granting humanity free will requires that humanity be able to choose evil over good (1974, 1977). Thus, God’s desire for human moral agency necessitates the possibility of humanity choosing evil, which it seems humanity has more than indulged.
Yet Cohen saw a tougher reality confronted also by many theologians (see Peckham 2018, 1–26; Scott 2015, 11–94). If we wound ourselves and others readily, God, who made us, made us able to do so. The broad leeway that we have for evil prompts the question: whose fault is that?
The discussion below begins with exploring the relational view of the Jewish covenant,
one development in a long tradition that is helpful in understanding Cohen’s work. The theodicy that emerges from failing relation/covenant is then traced through Cohen’s verse. Attention is given to several topoi, including the use of doubled imagery to refer at once to the divine and human persons, Cohen’s use of Jewish and Christian imagery, and theodicy as a way to understand his relations with women. Examples are chosen from Cohen’s early to late writings in order to demonstrate both the continuity of concern with covenant and its breaches and the variety of images and poetic techniques that run through his work. The influence of theodicy on Cohen’s political writings exceeds this short format and will have to wait for a separate essay.
No one would suggest that Cohen’s account of the human condition—drawing from Christian, Muslim, Sufi, and Zen traditions—was unifaceted. But one important influence was the Jewish covenant, begun in the Hebrew Bible and developed in rabbinic, medieval, and modern sources. Covenant is the foundational bond with God and among persons that allows the flourishing of the cosmos. In contrast to the divine-monarch theocracies of antiquity, the biblical covenant, as Michael Walzer writes (1985), posits a society grounded in an evolving covenant directly between the people and the transcendent, whose forgiveness and grace are the standard by which human conduct—including the monarch’s—is judged. Covenant, in Robert Bellah’s words, is “a charter for a new kind of people, a people under God, not under a king, an idea parallel to Athenian democracy though longer lasting . . . a people ruled by divine law, not the arbitrary rule of the state, and of a people composed of responsible individuals” (Bellah 2011, Kindle Locations 4700–01, 4864).
In this conception, covenant is a reciprocal relationship between God and humanity and
among persons, where each gives for the flourishing of the other (Pally 2016, 183–86, 233–36). The Hebrew Bible God is not so much a concept, an “ism,” as a relation, Stephen Geller notes: “monotheism involves not just God but also the personality of the believer. The two unities proceed hand in hand” (Geller 2000, 295–96). In one respect, persons have unique personalities. “When a man casts many coins from a single mold,” the Mishna Sanhedrin holds, they all resemble one another, but the supreme king of kings . . . fashioned each man in the mold of the first man, yet not one of the resembles another” (m. Sanhedrin 4:5). Yet in another, we become the singular persons we are through our interactions with others, our milieu, and our transcendent source. Relation is the condition of existence and thriving.
Covenant—unlike contract, which protects interests—protects all involved in their relationships. Relationships of reciprocal giving among equals are easily imagined, as are covenants with asymmetric terms between unequal parties. The Hebrew Bible innovation is reciprocity among unequals, bonds between God and humanity and among persons of different societal status. So integral is reciprocity that humanity is understood as God’s co-creator in the world’s development. Because we are in God’s image, b’tselem Elohim, and in covenant with him, we have the capacity—or moral correspondence, dmuth Elohim—to assist, within human capacity, God’s vision for the world.
Importantly, while covenant begins bilaterally—God/Adam, God/Noah, God/patriarchs—it soon triangulates. Persons give to God by giving to other persons (hekhdesh; see Kochen 2008, 137). Or perhaps the Moebius strip is a better image: covenantal concern for others builds covenant with God, and—in the imperceptible fold of the Moebius strip—covenant with God sustains us in giving to other persons (Pally 2016, 192–96). Thus, covenant extends from dyads to societal associations. Reciprocal giving becomes a giving network, where a gift from God to person (life, sustenance) generates a gift from person to neighbour and on to the next person through the giving loop, thus sustaining both persons and the network that enables each and all to flourish (Godbout and Caillé 1998; Hyde 1983; Mauss 1990/1923).
The Moebius strip covenant is reflected in the Ten Commandments, the first three of
which pertain to person–God and the rest, seamlessly, to persons in community. Leviticus 6:2–3 adds “If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor”; that is, deceiving the neighbour breaks faithfulness with God. And the idea is reprised in the frequent biblical formulation, “behave righteously to others; I am the Lord.” Rather than a non sequitur, this refrain is an expression of the entwined covenants: righteousness and giving to other persons are inseparable from the bond with God.
We may begin with the enemy-other, who is protected by “just war” criteria (Ps. 7:4), by
the mandate that civilians be protected (2 Chr. 28:8–15), and by the requirement that a suit for peace be brought prior to any aggression (Deut. 20:10). Mandates to aid the stranger are so extensive that they are cited as a model for treatment of the Hebrew poor (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:34; 23:35–39; see Gibbs 2001 for a discussion of poor laws in rabbinic sources). As for the domestic needy, requirements for their care prodded the emperor Julian to say, “it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg . . . all men see that our people lack aid from us” (Stern 1980, 549–50, no. 482).
This relational covenant cannot be fulfilled by ritual alone but requires the care of the
downtrodden. Amos notes the importance of compassion over ritual: “I [God] hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me . . . But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (5:21–24). Hos. 6:6, Mic. 7:2–7, and Prov. 21:3 reprise the idea. The great medieval commentator Rashi reads the words of Isaiah, “I cannot be God unless you are my witness” and Rashi glosses, “I am the God who will be whenever you bear witness to love and justice in the world.” God can be God when persons are loving and just to each other.
In modern Jewish thought, these principles are elaborated in the works of Emmanuel Levinas, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1997), Martin Buber (building upon Hermann Cohen), Irving Greenberg, and Eugene Borowitz (1990, 1991), among many other important Jewish thinkers. While a detailed exploration of their work is beyond this article’s scope, we will note a few relevant comments. “The individual is a fact of existence,” Buber observed, “insofar as he steps into a living relation with other individuals” (Buber 1993, 203). That is, the way we exist is to step into covenantal relations—Buber’s famous I–Thou concept.
On Heschel’s account, “righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life” (Heschel 2001, 255). Righteousness among persons is the part of human life that is of God; it is God’s presence in our midst. Greenberg sees covenant as God’s invitation to become creatures in his image, within human capacity. As God repairs covenantal bonds that are broken, so we, in God’s image and as covenantal partners, need repair them as well (Greenberg 2004, 28). Levinas, whose oeuvre painstakingly details the obligations to others that emerge from our bond with God, wrote “To follow the Most-High is also to know that nothing is greater than to approach one’s neighbour” (Levinas 1994a, 142). This is, Levinas continues, not a “figure of speech” but a description of God “who approaches precisely through this relay to the neighbor—binding men among one another with obligation, each one answering for the lives of all the others.” This is
“the highest possible theological knowledge one can have” (Levinas 1994b, 171).
The covenantal principles explored thus far highlight the reciprocal commitment with God and among persons as ground for the world’s flourishing and for personal and political ethics. This understanding also runs through Cohen’s work. Thomas Haslam, using text mining technology to note patterns of words and themes across Cohen’s oeuvre, notes “a small core of terms” that “is continuous across all fourteen studio albums, with ‘love’ as the dominant” (Haslam 2017, 9). And love for Cohen was always
twofold, for God and persons—and sometimes persons through God and God through persons. In some contrast, Jiri Mesic (2018) suggests that Cohen’s spiritual project was akin to the Sufi one of purification from the body to reach the spiritual—not an entwined love of God and persons but leaving the body for the soul. Scobie, in line with Mesic more than Haslam, holds that for Cohen, “The self is not sacrificed to some higher cause; the sacrifice of self is the higher cause” and path to salvation (Scobie 1978, 10).
Yet while Cohen was certainly attracted to Eastern traditions of bodily renunciation—in
the mid-1990s, he spent five years at the Mount Baldy Buddhist monastery—I suggest a less linear reading of him. His project was not one of body, then renunciation, and then spirit. As biographer Sylvie Simmons notes, Cohen was willing to give up eating meat as a bodily discipline but not sexual encounters with women (2012, 104). His project was more the Moebius strip relationship with God and with others, including sexual relationship. “I think people recognize,” Cohen said in 1984, “that the spirit is a component of love . . . it’s not all desire, there’s something else” (cited in Uncut 2015).
Cohen was after union with others and, as he put it, the “source of things.” Though the core obsession of his second novel, the pornographic/apocalyptic Beautiful Losers (Cohen 1966), is with the seventeenth-century Catherine Tekakwitha, patron saint of Montreal, who in imitatio dei mutilated and starved herself to death at age twenty-four, Cohen’s interest is not in overcoming the body. Rather, it is to note that when we feel we cannot attain/sustain the foundational bonds we need, we flail against ourselves in mad frustration.
In contrast to the Sufi trajectory of departing the body for spiritual advancement, Cohen
drew from the sixteenth-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, who saw a key role for bodies in nearing God. Luria described the sacred vessels that originally contained God’s light but shattered under its brilliant power. The image grounds one of Cohen’s most forlorn/hopeful lines, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” (“Anthem,” The Future, 1992). Our brokenness is opportunity for God’s presence. Yet, according to Luria, the union of male and female may repair these vessels —“a conceit,” Michael Posner writes, “deeply embedded in Cohen’s work” (Posner 2017, 513).
For Cohen, it was not so much bodily renunciation as bodily reunion that nears us to the divine. For the cover of New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Cohen 1974), he chose
an engraving from the 1550 Frankfurt Rosarium Philosophorum depicting the heavenly King in sexual union with his queen. That’s how you get to God.
Having explored certain premises of covenant, below I’ll look more specifically at the how the entwined covenant (God–person and among persons) is among the resources for Cohen’s understanding of relationship and its breach. He had what he called “a good Jewish education” (Burger 2014, 377). His family not only practiced Jewish customs but, reflecting the Jewish commitment to covenant, was “very involved in the community, in establishing hospitals and synagogues, a free loan association” (Burger 2014, 237; see also Posner 2017, 512). Judaism’s covenantal precepts and their application
to community were among the first principles Cohen was exposed to—and among the
first that impressed him: “The Hebrew Free Loan Society,” he told Arthur Kurzweil in 1993, “people could borrow money free! That’s a translation of a Jewish idea into action. I saw this all the time, all around me” (Burger 2014, 377).
In some foundational sense, Cohen knew that relationship is what one does. He was committed to the idea. “I grew up in a Catholic city and my Catholic friends have horror stories about what Catholicism was, and my Jewish friends have horror stories about what Judaism was. I never had them. I never rebelled against my parents, even when I was taking acid and living in the Chelsea Hotel . . . I always thought my family [religious] practice was great, and I’ve tried to keep it up—in my half-ass way” (Burger 2014, 381).
There were the “half-assed” years, when Cohen lit sabbath candles and celebrated Jewish holidays with his children. And there were years of far greater engagement, when Cohen studied Talmud and daily donned the ritual tefillin, symbol of God’s covenant with his people and the people’s acceptance of its commitments. Cohen was, he told Stina Dabrowski (Swedish National TV) in 1997, “never looking for a new religion. I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism . . . and it satisfied all the religious questions” (Burger 2014, 414, 453). Cohen studied the Jewish answers: Mordecai Finley, rabbi of the synagogue Cohen regularly attended in the last decade of his life, remarked, “he knew who the great Jewish thinkers were and understood their arguments . . . He could be a great teacher of Judaism. If that were his thing” (Simmons 2012, 464).
In 1984, Cohen had been writing for thirty years and would continue for another thirty.
In this mid-point year, he wrote Book of Mercy (Cohen 2010) and released the album Various Positions, both repositories of the covenantal commitment he had plumbed and would continue to plumb. Mercy is a psalter, an ode to the necessity of bond with God. Max Layton, son of Cohen’s lifelong friend Irving Layton, called Cohen “the greatest psalmist since King David,” (cited in Posner 2017, 516). In Ps. 38:9, when the psalmist is wounded, bent, benumbed, and crushed, he writes, “All my longings lie open before you, Lord; my sighing is not hidden from you.” Ps. 42: 2–3 continues, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me all day long, ‘Where is your God?’”
As if in call-and-response, Book of Mercy poem 6 echoes the psalmist in a diary of covenantal intimacy, “Not knowing where to go, I go to you. Not knowing where to turn, I turn to you. Not knowing how to speak, I speak to you. Not knowing what to hold, I bind myself to you” (see the compilation, Cohen 1994, 332). Like the psalmist who is bent and benumbed, Cohen—after twenty-five years of broken relationships and numbing drugs—has a covenantal response, the turn to God. Various Positions reprises.
Doron Cohen calls the two works “two halves of a diptych” (2016, 2), while Haslam identifies the album as unapologetic “public songful prayer” (2017, 6). These lines are from its closing track and summation of the collection, “If It Be Your Will,” which Cohen wrote after celebrating the Jewish festival of Hanukah with his children, Adam and Lorca:
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
all your praises they shall ring
if it be your will
to let me sing.
On his broken hill—Sinai broken by idol worship? Jesus broken at Golgotha? humanity
broken by our banal isolation?—Cohen does not use the traditional Jewish prayer form, “May it be your will.” “May” is a beseeching, a request that God grant what is needed. Instead, Cohen employs the conditional “if” to ask if song is indeed what God wants. There is no self-interested request, only an homage that echoes Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane as he awaits his arrest: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me. Yet not my will but yours be done” (Lk. 22:42; Mt. 26:42). In covenantal commitment, Cohen pledges to do God’s will.
This doxa is not one moment in 1984 but a Cohen throughline, seen in works written
much earlier and later. In the 1969 “You Know Who I Am” (Songs from a Room), Cohen
If you [humanity] should ever track me [God] down
I will surrender there
And I will leave with you one broken man
Whom I will teach you to repair.
You know who I am
Like the psalmist of old who hopes to be brought close to God, Cohen writes that if he—if humanity—sustains a bond with God, God, in reciprocal covenant, will “surrender.” But in the process, God will leave one man “broken,” perhaps Jesus on the cross, perhaps the biblical Jacob, wounded in struggling with God’s messenger in order to bind himself to the divine (Gen. 32:22–31). The struggle to commit to God is not easy, but Cohen’s final line, “Whom I will teach you to repair,” reveals the reason both he and the psalmist pursue it. The broken man will be repaired by us because God will teach us to repair the broken among us.
Forty-seven years later, in “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” (You Want It Darker, 2016), Cohen again evokes the psalms:
If the sun would lose its light
And we lived an endless night
And there was nothing left
That you could feel
That’s how it would be
My life would seem to me
If I didn’t have your love
To make it real.
Covenantal love, the enduring, entwined bonds with God and other persons, makes life
“real” because living in them is how we are really made. If such bonds were not foundational, their loss might be disappointing, but not the abyss of grief expressed in the lines above. If these bonds were not central to our being, having them might ornament life, but they would not bring the deep sense of groundedness and joy that finding love—with a partner, a community, or God—indeed brings. It is because we are created to live in such relationships that doing so makes life “real,” what it is was created to be. Without it, we are numb, as Cohen writes, in a sunless world.
From Covenantal Theology to Theodicy: Failing Covenant with God and Persons
And yet, we fail it. This is the first step in Cohen’s theodicy: we are created for covenant with God and persons but cannot sustain it. We follow the call of Babylon and Boogie Street, two images running throughout Cohen’s work to signify our desacralized relationships and world. “We go up a mountain or into a hole [to one spiritual retreat or another],” he said, “but most of the time we’re hustling on Boogie Street” (Gross 2006). We go there of our own desire and volition. Simmons describes two of Cohen’s “favorite things” as “no strings” and “an escape clause” out of commitment (2012, 481).
Cohen highlighted breach of covenant—and not some other human insufficiency—in a
1964 panel on the future of Judaism held at Montreal’s Jewish Library. He criticized his
teacher, A.M. Klein, for his more quotidian contributions to Montreal’s Jewish community, concern with funds and the maintenance of institutions. But the critique stopped when Klein’s “nostalgia for a warm, rich past becomes more than nostalgia, becomes, rather, an impossible longing, an absolute and ruthless longing for the presence of the divine, for the evidence of holiness. Then he is alone, and I believe him” (Leibovitz 2014b).
Klein’s need for “the presence” of God gets Cohen’s attention. This is what it’s all about.
Cohen wants commitment to God. But we always find fifty ways to leave this lover. “We
have lost our genius for the vertical,” Cohen continued at the Montreal library. “Jewish novelists are sociologists, horizontalists, and the residue of energy left from that great vertical seizure we had 4000 years ago—that we turned toward ourselves . . . This is the confession without which we cannot begin to raise our eyes: the absence of God in our midst.” We have turned the “seizure” at Sinai—where, as the very earth quaked, God forged covenant with Israel—into radical immanence, to “horizontality.”
Navel-gazing, we wonder why we are blind to God’s presence. This is our brokenness, and indeed “brokenness” is one of Cohen’s frequent tropes, appearing in over ten percent of his recorded lyrics (Doron Cohen 2016, 4–5). It’s not that we are unequipped for covenant and love. It’s that we were created for them and to break them. God is a tricky guy.
Medrie Purdham (2012) suggests that the novel Beautiful Losers, published just two
years after the Montreal Library speech, is a plunge—the sort the proctologist makes—into the modern motive for covenantal breaches: the search for autonomy and control. If this is the telos, covenant and connection cannot be. The novel’s male characters try to attain control by writing a totalizing history or unleashing a totalizing revolutionary politics. The female characters’ path to control is self-abnegation, self-mutilation (like girls who cut themselves), and finally suicide. But all their thrashing efforts, male and female, may also be seen as the mad helplessness of the novel’s patron saint, Catherine Tekakwitha—the flailing that comes of profound immanence, of being bound to one’s obsessions because one cannot bond with person or God.
Perhaps the boldest statement of Cohen’s despair at our covenant breaches came twenty years after the Montreal library talk, in Book of Mercy, in a jeremiad titled “Israel”:
To every people the land is given on condition. Perceived or not, there is a Covenant, beyond the constitution, beyond sovereign guarantee, beyond the nation’s sweetest dreams of itself. The Covenant is broken, the condition is dishonoured, have you not noticed that the world has been taken away? You have no place, you will wander through yourselves from generation to generation without a thread . . . Because you do not wrestle with your angel. Because you dare to live without G-d. Because your cowardice has led you to believe that the victor does not limp (Cohen 1994, 323).
The covenant is for “every people,” as it was sanctified at creation with Adam and Noah. And every people has broken it. So we wander “through yourselves,” through a world filled with other wanderers, disconnected from them and God. And why? The Jacob imagery returns: because we no longer struggle with God’s messenger in order to be with God, as Jacob did. We think we’ve won some modern autonomy from God, whom we’ve replaced with our revered constitutions and national pride. We no longer know that life is the struggle for God and relationship, as Jacob knew. In our cowardice, we don’t risk being wounded and limping from the effort to sustain a bond, as Jacob limped.
Nearly forty years after the Montreal talk and twenty years after Book of Mercy, Cohen
again put our predicament to song in “Love Itself” (Ten New Songs, 2001, with Sharon Robinson): “Love went on and on/Until it reached an open door—/Then Love Itself/Love Itself was gone.” This might mean love among persons, also a covenantal breach. But here Cohen capitalizes “Love Itself,” suggesting the foundational loves from God and of God. The love that began with that ancient Sinaitic “seizure” is out the door because we have lost our genius for it.
Love’s labor is indeed lost. What is God’s response? Grief, but not foreclosure. In the 1974 “Lover Lover Lover” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony), Cohen writes,
‘I [God, the Father] never, never turned aside,’ he said
‘I never walked away
It was you who built the temple
it was you who covered up my face.’
It was humanity that left covenant, covering God’s face for the fetishism of ornamented
temples. One can hear the echo of Amos—“I [God] hate, I despise your religious festivals . . . But let justice roll on like a river” (Am. 5:21–24). God wants not ornaments but relationship reciprocated.
Ian Dennis argues that Cohen writes from within the genre of the victimary, a focus on
the victim that began with Christianity’s focus on the crucified Jesus but that finds its fullest flourishing in Holocaust literature (Dennis 2017, 5; see also Gans 1982). In victimary writing, the crucified is exalted, the meek inherit the earth, the victim is the object of desire and the goal of identity. We might make Dennis’s claim more specific by asking: what makes someone a victim and victim of what? Cohen’s answer, at least in part, is that breach of relationships rends persons and renders us victims of our own inconstancy.
In “Come Healing” in the pointedly titled Old Ideas song collection (2012), Cohen reminds us of this “old idea” that had appeared in so many forms throughout his work: “O gather up the brokenness/And bring it to me now/The fragrance of those promises/You never dared to vow.” It is not-promising, not vowing, not-committing that is our brokenness and universal sin. Mesic (2015) suggests that Cohen oscillated between the role of priest, representing the people (victim of war and natural disaster) to God, and the role of prophet, representing God (victim of humanity’s idolatry, greed, and violence) to the people.
Yet, just as one may ask of Dennis’s argument, victim of what? we may ask of Mesic, priest of what and prophet of what? The biblical priests were keepers of the covenant, and the prophets, alarms of its breach. Cohen picks up the priestly mantle of this bond and the prophetic anguish at our breaches. Indeed, he is, by his own account, the covenant fail-er par excellence, ever abandoning God and lovers, as we all do, save mystics in extremis. Irving Layton is reported to have called Cohen “a narcissist who hates himself” (Cohencentric 2016). Near the end of “Please Don’t Pass Me By” (Live Songs), Cohen writes, “I can’t stand who I am.”
That was in 1973. Nearly thirty years later, in “In My Secret Life” (Ten New Songs, 2001, with Sharon Robinson, an album vaunted for the Galassenheit learned at his Zen monastery), Cohen’s assessment of himself had nonetheless not improved. The song ends with Cohen reporting that he’s too chilled and icy to make room for anyone. In his mid-sixties, he struggled still with exit over commitment, with being cold and too “crowded” with whatever to bond with others. And he mourns the loss that he creates.
In Cohen’s theodicy, we are waiting for Godot, but it is we who may never arrive. In our
radical immanence, we thwart the covenant we seek. Why do we do that? One barrier to sustaining relationship, as Purdham notes, is the need for control. Screenwriter Henry Bean (2018) adds that the very intimacy we desire threatens our intactness—a terror Cohen points to in “Joan of Arc” (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971). Relying on the kabbalist image of God’s love as shards of light, he writes, “Myself, I long for love
and light/but must it come so cruel, must it be so bright?” The brightness of our need for intimacy illuminates—and exposes—our porousness. We are not safely intact in our sealed bodies, tucked into the membrane of control. We are needy of God and persons, and in terror of our necessary dependence, we bolt.
Thirty years later, in “Boogie Street” (by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson; Ten New Songs, 2001) Cohen reprised, “It is in love that we are made;/In love we disappear.” If love means dissolution, no one would risk it, certainly not Cohen.
A second barrier to relation, Cohen writes, is pride. “When the heart grins at itself, the world is destroyed . . . Then the dangerous moment comes: I am too great to ask for help” (Cohen 1994, 326).
In Cohen’s final step from covenant to unwilling theodicy—his work is an ode to “say it ain’t so”—he faces up to this: if the propensity to pride and bolting is human nature, it cannot be only humanity’s sin. It is also God’s. He is the source of humanity’s covenantal breaches as he is the source of humanity. The question that dogs the free will theodicy remains in the irony and anger in Cohen’s work: Could not an omnipotent God create us to have free choice in a way that does not allow the grave cruelties of the human repertoire? (see Peckham 2018, 1–54). After all, the option between the good and even a small infraction would still grant persons choice and the possibility to be moral agents. Why are we created able to commit such large infractions?
Not only in the end but throughout the problem of our brutality, God is complicit.
In “Lover Lover Lover,” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974), Cohen writes, “He [God,
the Father] said, ‘I locked you in this body/I meant it as a kind of trial.’” God made us for covenantal love yet gave us bodies—desires—that fail it. What kind of God is that? Cohen rubs God’s nose in his part in human sin. Drawing on the Jewish belief that humanity cannot know God’s name, Cohen writes in “Hallelujah” (Various Positions, 1984), “You say I took the name in vain/I don’t even know the name/But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?” God, you charge me with breaking covenant and taking your name in vain, but you didn’t even tell me your name—so how much covenant did you really make with me? And anyway, you created me so that I may violate it. What do you care if I do? It’s your doing.
In sum, Cohen was angry with the God who made covenant a condition of existence,
made us poor at sustaining it, and lets us flounder in our free will to ignore it. Do we really want this God with us? On Cohen’s account, we have no choice. His anger at God is always anger-amid-covenant. In the tradition of Judaism’s foundational prayer, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord is One,” Cohen understands this God as the only God, whom we cannot avoid, as he is the ground of existence. And in covenant, he will bring comfort and joy—notwithstanding the twist that he created us also able to break it. Indeed, the Cohen who taunts God also wrote, “You let me sing, you lifted me up, you gave my soul a beam to travel on” (Book of Mercy; Cohen 2010, poem 6).
There is for Cohen no opting out of the covenantal grammar of world. Relation is the condition of our (isolated) being.
Covenant and Failing Covenant with God and Persons: Doubled Imagery in Cohen’s Work
In the entwined covenant, as we have seen, commitments to God and persons are not separable. So, too, the failures to sustain these bonds are not separable. In the Moebius Strip of covenant, we fail God as we fail each other. And grief at our twined miscarriages is not separable in Cohen’s writing. Thus, a key to reading him is to note the images that describe relationships with both God a nd persons.
For instance, in the 1969 “You Know Who I Am” (Songs from a Room, 1969),
Cohen writes, “I cannot follow you, my love,/You cannot follow me./I am the distance you put between/All of the moments that we will be.” While these lines may point to the limits of a human love, the notion that “I” am the distance between all future moments suggests the transcendent. This “I” is the stuff “between” the discrete moments of our lives; it is their structure and ground. The image of “cannot follow” may be read doubly, for love of person and the divine.
Two techniques are employed in Cohen’s practice of doubling images: the interweaving of separate images (one evoking bond with God, the other bond with persons) and single images that evoke both relationships at once. In some cases, doubled imagery involves a change of narrator or addressee, where the “I” or “you” in one line means God, and in another, the narrator or listener, and in another, all humanity (see also Babich 2014, Kindle Locations 2280–304). In other cases, doubled images are a conflation of God and persons. Bernard Wills notes that in some instances of doubling, “the person of Jesus . . . is heavily eroticized. As the word made flesh he reveals the beauty and vulnerability of the sexualized body” (Wills 2014, Kindle Locations
With the Lurianic topos of spiritual union through sexual union, Cohen evokes
spiritual and bodily love at once. Dennis calls this the “not fully reliable first-person position” in Cohen’s work (Dennis 2017, 8). Just who is that “I” or that “you”? But I propose that this is nothing so flimsy as “unreliable.” The Moebius strip nature of relationship with God and persons, the love and dedication that morph from one to the other, is covenant. It is not unreliable but the nature of the cosmos. A breach anywhere along the Moebius strip threatens the totality.
One of the boldest expressions of Cohen’s dual-reference or conflated imagery is the
graphic he created of the Star of David—symbol of the Jewish people, their bond with God, and their commitment to each other. It is usually composed of one triangle superimposed onto another, one pointing up, the other down, to make a six-pointed star. In Cohen’s iteration, the star is composed of two hearts, symbolizing the kabbalist tradition of both sacred and earthly love.
The song “Suzanne” (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967) employs both interwoven and conflated imagery techniques. Exemplifying the first, Cohen weaves together the first and third stanzas, about a fragile love with the “half-crazy” Suzanne, with the second stanza, about a fellow named Jesus, who speaks to us “drowning men” of humanity. But Jesus “himself was broken/long before the sky would open/Forsaken, almost human/He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.” “Forsakenness,” as God’s abandonment of humanity, appears in Ps. 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and is repeated by Jesus on the cross (Mt. 27:46). But in Cohen’s theodicy, humanity abandons God. We are busy with our “wisdom” and all we think important and so forsake God—much as we are about to forsake Suzanne by telling her that “you have no love to give her.” The entwined covenant is breached twice, once with Suzanne (in the first stanza) and once with God (in the second).
In the third stanza, Cohen employs the second doubling technique, using images that simultaneously evoke bonds with God and the person of Suzanne. She wears “rags” as Jesus did and “shows you where to look amid the garbage and the flowers,” amid the refuse strewn inattentively over nature, where Jesus also strode. This “she” is also the Jesus that humanity abandoned, but if “she [Suzanne] gets you on her wavelength,” you will not forsake her/Jesus this time. In an ephemeral “wavelength” moment, you might grasp a brief connection, a moment of covenant observed—in the sense of both “noticed” and “performed.”
Throughout the song, with interwoven images and conflated imagery, Cohen evokes the
near automaticity of our withdrawal from others (stanza one) and God (stanza two). Yet we retain the possibility of connection with the rags-wearing Jesus/Suzanne (stanza three). Mary Ann O’Neil (2015, 92–95) notes the movement from the Suzanne of stanza one, who lets men “spend the night beside her,” to the spiritualized Suzanne/Jesus of stanza three, who walks beneath “our Lady of the [Montreal] Harbor” and wears clothes “from Salvation Army counters”—Cohen’s pun on salvation. She/Jesus is the one in whom you can place your faith, “And you know that you can trust her/For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind”—with her spirit. She/Jesus/spirit is the path to the divine, if only for a moment.
In many of Cohen’s more intricate works, such as “Dance Me to the End of Love” (Various Positions, 1984) and much of Book of Mercy, nearly every trope does double duty, conflating bonds with God and lovers. In the lines “Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove,” the word “panic” may be sexual insecurity or spiritual doubt, and “in” may refer to sexual intimacy or return to God. The entire passage may be read as Cohen beseeching God or a woman, a doubling he continues in the next stanza. “Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone” may be the desire of a carnal or spiritual seeker: when all those other admirers/worshippers are gone, show yourself to me. I am your serious adorer. “Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon” reads as carnal, only to
be followed by “Show me slowly what I only know the limits of/Dance me to the end of love.” Cohen asks to be shown slowly, to be not overwhelmed, by love so grand that we may experience it only limitedly, be it—as Luria noted—sexual ecstasy or divine grace.
Book of Mercy, poem 35 (Cohen 2010), is another tour de force of conflated imagery. It
reads “Open Me, O heart of truth, hollow out the stone, let your Bride fulfill this loneliness. I have no other hope, no other moves. This is my offering of incense. This is what I wish to burn, my darkness with no blemish, my ignorance with no flaw. Bind me to your will, bind me with these threads of sorrow, and gather me out of the afternoon where I have torn my soul on twenty monstrous altars, offering all things but myself.”
On one reading, the “stone” refers to the sacrificial altar, perhaps the one to which Abraham binds his son in testament to covenant with God (Gen. 22). The “darkness with no blemish” and “ignorance with no flaw” refer also to the purity required of ritual sacrifice, symbol of covenantal relationship. Cohen wishes to burn/sacrifice his darkness and ignorance on the stone altar much as one burns ritual incense. For he, the covenant fail-er par excellence, has only darkness and ignorance of God’s ways, only this faithful incomprehension, to offer in his request to near God, to be bound “to your will.”
On another reading, “stone” points also to the closed human heart that refuses intimacy. Cohen asks that his heart be hollowed out so that loneliness may be filled by the “Bride.” He will burn his darkness and ignorance so that he may be bound to this Bride, who too is doubled. Bride most plainly evokes the hoped-for constancy of marriage, but in Jewish liturgy, she is the traditional image of God’s Sabbath, his gift to us of rest and peace.
In a conflated image of double desire for human and divine love, Cohen seeks to be
bound to the God/Bride by the threads of regret at the idolatry/infidelity he committed on the “monstrous altars” of alien gods and beds of strange women. But he has a habit of “offering all things but myself,” ever evader of commitment. Cohen is nothing if not aware that he retreats from the commitments he seeks.
Those Who Did Not Fail Covenant: Moses and Jesus in Cohen’s Work
Cohen grew up in what he called a “Catholic city.” His nanny was Catholic and took him to church; as a teenager, he went to a “Christian school” (Burger 2014, 58, 381). The power of New Testament imagery and its part in our cultural–emotional repertoire was for Cohen unavoidable: “the ‘figure of Jesus,’ he explained, ‘is extremely attractive.’ It’s difficult not to fall in love with that person” (O’Brien 1987, 189). Christian imagery is central in Beautiful Losers and “Suzanne” at the beginning of Cohen’s career. It runs through Cohen’s writings, and four songs in Cohen’s final song collection, You Want It Darker (2016), rely on Christian references. Cohen drew also from Sufi, Zen, Muslim, and other imagery (Mesic 2018; Wolfson 2006), but here I will focus on the Jewish and Christian tropes that he used for his consistent telos: to shed the impediments that kept him from the two foundational bonds, with God and persons.
There are thus two sets of doubled images in Cohen’s work: one, of God and human
lovers, and another, of Jewish and Christian references. Even in “Born in Chains” (Popular
Problems, 2014), anchored in imagery from the Exodus narrative, Cohen includes an image of the crucified Jesus: “I was idled with my soul . . . But then you showed me where you had been wounded/In every atom broken is a name.” The song laments Cohen’s “idle” days in the “Egypt” of life—his years of drugs, booze, and broken loves—and marks his return to the “name,” a reference to God (hashem) in the Jewish tradition. Yet interwoven in these Judaic references is a reference to the broken man, possibly the biblical Jacob as he struggled with God’s messenger, possibly Jesus as he is wounded on the cross. He too helps Cohen leave “Egypt” for God.
“As a Jew,” Babette Babich writes, “Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a
Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ . . . And we’re at Golgotha again” (Babich 2014, Kindle Location 2407). In her remark about Golgotha, Babich echoes a 1968 interview where Cohen explained that “Our natural vocabulary is Judeo-Christian. That is our bloodmyth. We have to rediscover law from inside our own heritage, and we have to rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol . . . It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where man is at. On the cross,” at Golgotha (Cowan 2016).
In grappling with why we are on the cross, at Golgotha again—why we maim and
maraud—Cohen saw that Jesus and Moses do not brutalize. What grabs Cohen about these two is that they—fully human, riddled with the same fears and temptations that filled him, forsaken by their people and at moments seemingly by God—abandon neither God nor people. They persist in commitment.
Discussion of Cohen’s reliance on Jesus runs through commentaries and criticisms of his work (Babich 2014; Dabrowski 2001; Field 2017; Todd 2016, among others). Yet it is precisely because of the primacy of covenant that those who sustain love, even amid suffering and strife, capture Cohen’s attention. Moses extends seemingly infinite
patience to the Hebrews even after the scandalous Golden Calf idolatry—indeed, more
patience than God manages (Ex. 32: 9–14). Jesus, as Cohen put it, “was nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality” (Cowan 2016, 56–57). This radical patience and hospitality are on Cohen’s view universal in inspiration.
To be sure, Cohen from time to time is jealous of Moses and Jesus, who sustain the bonds he cannot. In “Take This Longing” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974), Cohen, again with doubled imagery, taunts “You” [God] for preferring Jesus to the flawed human son Leonard and taunts “You” [women] for preferring other men over himself. For someone who took covenantal commitment seriously, having Jesus and Moses at the front of the class cannot have been easy.
Yet Cohen’s frustration is ever anger-amid-commitment, and his reverence for Moses and Jesus is soon again at the fore. “The Window” (Recent Songs, 1979) melds Moses, the man who stutters the word of God (Ex. 4:10), with Jesus, the word of God become flesh. Both transcend the corporeal—Moses his faltering speech, Jesus his bodily life—to bring humanity to God.
Then lay your rose on the fire
The fire give up to the sun
The sun give over to splendor
In the arms of the high holy one
For the holy one dreams of a letter
Dreams of a letter’s death
Oh bless thee continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh
These lines draw on the Christian tradition where the rose, symbolizing Christ’s blood on
the cross, is offered in a trial of “fire” before reaching the “splendor” of the “holy one.” In the next line, God “dreams of a letter’s death,” one of Cohen’s less penetrable images. Is this “letter” the Word that becomes flesh, God-in-Jesus, whose “death” is the crucifixion? Or is it God’s name in the Jewish tradition, the unutterable—barely stutterable—tetragrammaton, YHVH, who in the Christian tradition is the God incarnate who is crucified? Wills suggests that “the word made flesh stutters: it can’t utter the unknowable, unmanifested core of the divine nature” (Wills 2014, Kindle Location 3979). That is, even Jesus cannot speak the nature of God. But this reading of “stutter” ignores the famous stutterer of Cohen’s tradition, Moses. Taking account of this stutterer
suggests that in these lines, Cohen turns in thanks and blessing to the stutterer and crucified, Moses and Jesus, whose lives were spent in helping us—“spent” in the senses of “occupied by” and “used up.”
In the song’s refrain, Cohen again seeks Moses/Jesus, his “chosen” loves, who were once
human (“matter”) and now are grace (holy “ghost”). He writes,
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul. (“The Window,” Recent Songs, 1979)
The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner held that matter is “frozen” spirit, whose purpose is to enable true spirit to flourish (Rahner 1969, 177). This understanding does not demean bodies (and bodily love) but rather sees the material world as different from yet of spirit. As with Luria, the material word is part of spirit. Cohen had already used the image of frozen love in the poem “Brighter Than Our Sun” (in Cohen 1961) to mean that love freezes once it is in the gleaming matter of the world. Love is all of the heart of God but frozen in matter among us.
We can now understand Cohen as appealing to his “chosen” loves, Moses and Jesus, even as his love for them is “frozen” in his material state. From Moses and Jesus, figures of the Jewish and Christian traditions, he requests solace from the wounds of loss, abandonment, and betrayal—the thorn and spear of the first lines of the song. Moses and Jesus, may they gentle Leonard’s soul.
Coveting and Covenant: Women (and God) in Cohen’s Work
Cohen was riveted by failure to sustain covenant not only with God but also specifically with women. He called himself, not immodestly, “the poet of the two great intimacies” (Cohen 1994, 230). Cohen held to the possibility of covenant between men and women as between humanity and God. Yet this intimacy is foiled as well. In the early poem “You Do Not Have to Love Me” (Cohen 1994, 120), he wrote, “I prayed that you would love me/and that you would not love me.” Here again, the doubled “you,” God and woman, is wanted and rebuffed.
Failing commitment to women is a piece in Cohen’s theodicy of failed commitment per se. “For Cohen, as just about everyone has noticed, the sacred and sexuality are always connected, which is to say that complete sexual fulfillment is as impossible as being God” (Dennis 2017, 12). Cohen did not want to be God, but sexual contentment was for him as impossible as sustaining a bond with the divine. “There’s a sense,” Simon Riches rightly observes, “in which Cohen finds his view of female beauty almost overwhelming, even unsustainable” (2014: Kindle Location 2133).
Indeed, Cohen foiled relations with women in much the way we foil relationship with
God: by the distance come of idealization. Set on a pedestal—as man’s “better half” or in ornamented temples—women and God cannot be encountered as Martin Buber describes the I–Thou bond, the engagement of covenantal relation (Buber 1923/2010). Babich notes, “The fantasy that women could constitute the fairer or as Goethe supposed the ‘higher’ sex, is also a way of dis-imagining their humanity” (Babich 2014, Kindle Locations 2382–84).
The distancing pedestal protects one—Cohen—from commitment, lest it overwhelm one and lead to one’s dissolution. I will adore thee on condition that I am free of thee. In Cohen’s work, women and God can be up there, in revered distance, but they cannot be long with Cohen. Babich then dismantles the defense often mounted by Cohen admirers: “Some authors make this point over on Cohen’s behalf: Cohen isn’t misogynistic because he’s really not talking about women, so goes the argument, but just about himself.” Yet Cohen was misogynistic, in his charming way, because he talked only about himself. The feint that Cohen wasn’t talking about real women won’t get him off the charge that he wasn’t talking about—or seeing or listening to—real women. Simmons insightfully quotes Cohen, “‘My mother taught me well never to be cruel to women,’ Leonard wrote in an unpublished piece from the seventies. But what he also learned from Masha [his mother] was to count on the devotion, support and nurturing
of women and, if and when it became too intense, to have permission to leave” (Simmons 2012, 47).
Cohen’s relationships with women are shot through with both distancing idolization and
flight. On one hand, “the descriptions of the female body could be written only by someone who adores its every form,” Pamela Erens writes (Erens 2018, 198). She is surely right about the adoration from the man who wrote, “I need to see you naked/In your body and your thought” (“Ain’t No Cure for Love,” I’m Your Man, 1988). Cohen was also a bit in awe of matrimony. The covenant of marriage, Cohen also somewhat grandly declared in 1988, is “the foundation stone of the whole enterprise” (Raab 2017, 17).
Perhaps more important than the female body to Cohen’s self-protective veneration of
women was his “inspired confusion,” as he put it, of the female and the divine (Burger 2014, 204). For him, “the sacred and sexuality are always connected” (Dennis 2017, 12). In “Suzanne,” the woman “holds the mirror,” a doubled image suggesting first and carnally the Tintoretto painting Susanna and the Elders, where the biblical Susanna gazes into a mirror at her naked body while old men, the town elders, grab a pornographic glimpse. But at the same time, the mirror was a popular medieval symbol of salvation (illustrated for instance in the fourteenth-century Speculum Humanae Salvationis, Mirror of Human Salvation). Suzanne holds her mirror to the signs of salvation as she is garbed in “rags” from Salvation Army counters.
The way of the human soul to God is through the female aspect—an idea made visible, as we have seen, in the cover of New Skin for the Old Ceremony, the 1550 Rosarium Philosophorum engraving of a heavenly King in sexual union with his queen. That’s the way—the female portal—to God.
This homage to women in flesh and spirit noticed and named, Cohen bolted into and out of relationships with women as he did with God. Cohen never married and found even serial monogamy constraining. Cohen’s description of his unraveling relationship with the actress Rebecca De Mornay in the 1990s confesses to his inconstancy: “Finally she saw I was a guy who just couldn’t come across” (Remnick 2016). In this period, at age sixty-three, he noted, “I had wonderful love but I did not give back wonderful love . . . I was obsessed with some fictional sense of separation” (Burger 2014, 419).
It was only in his seventies that Cohen seemed to find some contentment with the composer and singer Anjani Thomas. He told interviewer Christine Langlois, “‘I never met a woman until I was 65. Instead, I saw all kinds of miracles in front of me.’” Langlois continues, “He says he always loved women, ‘always appreciated what they could
do for me’ but always saw them through his own ‘urgent needs and desires’” (Langlois 2006, 15).
Until this septuagenarian insight, Cohen’s attraction to women “through his own ‘urgent needs and desires’” and his predictable leave-taking was a panic in his poetry as in life. So, to Cohen’s work. Early in Cohen’s career, Michael Ondaatje criticized his novels, The Favourite Game (Cohen 2003/1963) and Beautiful Losers (Cohen 1993/1966), as portraits of women who are “flesh,” which “drowns out all [the women’s] personality” (Ondaatje 1970, 13). They are in short little but Cohen’s “needs and desires,” which is to say he was never with them to begin with. In Favourite Game, Cohen’s protagonist/avatar “falls into a love affair,” Erens writes, “with a woman named Shell, oscillating between a happy thralldom and a panicked desire for flight” (Erens 2018, 198). “Shell”—a woman seen only for her luminescent externality. As the novel closes, Cohen’s protagonist wants to love but knows that he is “unavailable.” He writes, “Dearest Shell, if you let me I’d always keep you 400 miles away and write you pretty poems and letters” (cited in Simmons 2012: 368). Cohen will love the female form and the spiritual world he believed
women inhabited, but always with an eye towards exit.
In an unpublished manuscript of this period, “My Life in Art,” he was rather more direct
about his feelings: “Fuck this marriage, your dead bed night after night”—a sentiment that did not get any cozier with publication in the song “Why Don’t You Try” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974): “You know this life is filled with many sweet companions/Many satisfying one-night stands/Do you want to be the ditch around a tower?”
The song “There Is a War” (also New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974), offers some insight into Cohen’s resentments. He admits that the sudden heroism of joining the Israeli army entertainment detail during the 1973 Yom Kippur War was prodded not only by concern for Israel but also by a desire to leave Suzanne Elrod and their child—and perhaps most of all, because of the male fear of being controlled by the women who arouse them. He writes,
A war between the man and the woman . . .
Well I live here with a woman and a child,
The situation makes me kind of nervous.
Yes, I rise up from her arms, she says “I guess you call this love”
I call it service . . .
You cannot stand what I’ve become,
You much prefer the gentleman I was before.
I was so easy to defeat, I was so easy to control,
I didn’t even know there was a war.
Here, as in Favourite Game, “Why Don’t You Try,” and other works, Purdham and Bean
seem to be on-target. Commitment to women, like commitment to God, feels like being controlled and subsumed, in “service.” One is no longer autonomous and protected by the membrane of “intact.” “Desire,” Dennis writes of Cohen, “dissolves identity. And sexual desire, proportionate to its strength, most efficiently” (Dennis 2017, 12). And so Cohen bolts. “Women,” Cohen told Gavin Martin at age fifty-eight, “only let you out of the house for two reasons: to make money or to fight a war” (Martin 1991). A year after his talk with Martin—and nearly twenty years after “There Is a War”—Cohen is beset still by the same problem.
In “Light as the Breeze” (The Future, 1992), he writes,
She stands before you naked
You can see it, you can taste it . . .
It don’t matter how you worship
As long as you’re
Down on your knees . . .
It ain’t exactly prison
But you’ll never be forgiven
For whatever you’ve done
With the keys.
This is fear of entrapment in a very talented voice.
However much Cohen adored and desired women, his perpetual flight delivered him to his theodicy. His need for a profound, even engulfing, bond with women is as foundational as the need for covenant with God, which he also cannot sustain. It is his Godot theodicy again: he is waiting for her as he waits for God, but it is he who never arrives. Indeed, at the end of “There Is a War,” he begs the woman to come back into the fray: “Why don’t you come on back to the war/Can’t you hear me speaking?” (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974). Yet it is not she but he who has left. Cohen, author of these lines, knows he left, knows he wants her back, and knows that were she to return, he would flee. After all, it is to a “war” that he invites her.
In the tradition of the Song of Songs, Cohen expresses covenant and its breaches with
both God and women in imagery that is at once erotic and prayerful. In this, Cohen presses further his dual-reference imagery, evoking God and women at once. “Hallelujah” is Cohen’s most famous paean to relation and rupture in sexual–prayerful doubling. But as it has a substantial literature (Light 2012), I’ll move to “Night Comes On” (like “Hallelujah” from Various Positions, 1984), which contains one of Cohen’s most self-aware admissions of his inability to sustain commitment: “I needed so much to have nothing to touch/I’ve always been greedy that way.” How tempting intactness is. Self-enclosure is a kind of greed.
In this song, Cohen elaborates his dual-reference or conflated imagery in a high-wire act melding God and women. He evokes not God/Jesus or God the Father but the shekhina, the Jewish image of the divine as a female presence. Relation with women and with God are now fully one—as is rupture of that relationship. To gain or lose one is to gain and lose both:
Now I look for her always; I’m lost in this calling;
I’m tied to the threads of some prayer.
Saying, “When will she summon me, when will she come to me,
what must I do to prepare?”—
When she bends to my longing, like a willow, like a fountain,
she stands in the luminous air . . .
I want to cross over; I want to go home,
but she says, “Go back, go back to the world.” (“Night Comes On,” Various Positions, 1984)
The “her” that Cohen is looking and preparing for suggests the shekhina, who binds him
with the “threads of some prayer.” Yet it just as much evokes the woman towards whom he wants to “cross over” and so close the gap between them. This woman be may be a lover but also mother, as an earlier stanza makes a double allusion to Mother Earth and to Cohen’s own mother, who had died in 1978. Will she, this God/shekhina/woman/mother, summon him or come to him herself? Wanting to “go home” refers triply to female imagery: the oneness of the mother’s womb, the union of sexual relations (“she bends to my longing”), and the return to God. But none of these unions lasts; one cannot stay “home.” “She”—mother, lover, shekhina/God—sends us “back to the world.”
“She” sends him away. Fear of rejection is a recurring trope in Cohen’s work On one
hand, he fears being subsumed by the love he seeks. On the other, he fears rebuff. Poor
Leonard, he fears dissolution in love yet fears that “she,” God/woman, won’t let him have the love he needs to leave. This is a new and strong indictment: The God who made Cohen unable to sustain relations is herself female. Human failure in covenant is her design.
In this ratcheted-up charge, desire and rage are foisted on the image of woman, human and divine. This was at age fifty. In 2001, at age sixty-seven, Cohen was still writing, “You kiss my lips, and then it’s done: I’m back on Boogie Street” (“Boogie Street,” by Leonard Cohen and Sharon Robinson; Ten New Songs, 2001)—“back to the world” as he had written in 1984. Perhaps he left; perhaps she threw him out. But given the risks of rejection and subsumption, how much better to withdraw into autonomy and enclosure for this gifted voice of fear.
Concluding Remarks: Cohen’s Final Work
However unavoidable our breaches of covenant, Cohen’s frustration-amid-commitment endured into his last works. To reckon with existence is to reckon with this God, who made us needful of relation and yet unable to sustain it. The devotion pressing in the 1984 Book of Mercy was with Cohen still in the 2006 Book of Longing. One poem reads: “Taxes/children/lostpussy/war/constipation/the living poet/in his harness/of beauty/offers the day back to g-d” (Cohen 2006, 175; cited also in Simmons 2012: 460). In the end, it comes back to God.
Cohen’s last song collection, You Want It Darker, released three weeks before his death,
reprises both his dismay that God created us inadequate and yet our necessary commitment to him. There is no alternative in living or dying. On one hand, “I’m Leaving the Table” gives vent to Cohen’s ire. It begins,
I’m leaving the table
I’m out of the game
I don’t know the people
In your picture frame
If I ever loved you, oh no no no
It’s a crying shame
If I ever loved you
If I knew your name
As often with Cohen, “Leaving the Table” may be read as anger at the women of his failed relationships, but the address to God shortly before death is inescapable. “Your name” may be a woman’s but it certainly is the Jewish reference to God as “the name,” hashem. He continues,“The wretched beast is tame/I don’t need a lover/So blow out the flame . . ./Little by little/We’re cutting the cord.” The “beast” of sexual desire is felled; the flame of life is weakening, the cord of life, cut.
In “Leaving the Table,” Cohen, fed up with the deal God has dealt, repudiates it. He’s out
of the game, he won’t hang out with God’s gang (those “in the picture frame”), and he deems it “a shame” if he bothered to love a God who never even revealed his name. One hears again the taunt in “Hallelujah”: “I don’t even know the name/But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?” (Various Positions, 1984). Cohen, at the end of his life, will not sentimentally let God off the hook for humanity’s flaws.
On the other hand, while “Leaving the Table” voices frustration, the song “If I Didn’t
Have Your Love” evokes the reverence of Book of Mercy. Rather than charging God with withholding his name, Cohen acknowledges that he can indeed see him:
If I couldn’t lift the veil
And see your face . . .
That’s how broken I would be
What my life would seem to me.
If I didn’t have your love
To make it real. (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” You Want It Darker, 2016)
Covenantal love, as we’ve seen, makes life “real” because we are really made to live in covenant. Cohen now has something that makes his life “real”: the vision of God’s face. The song continues,
If the sea were sand alone
And the flowers made of stone
And no one that you hurt
Could ever heal
Well that’s how broken I would be
What my life would seem to me.
If I didn’t have your love
To make it real.
In one of his most self-aware lines since the 1984 “I needed so much to have nothing to
touch,” Cohen recognizes that God created us able not only to fail covenant but also to heal and sustain it. Pointedly, the people Cohen himself abandoned may have healed, and if they have and are no longer angry at him for breaking commitment, perhaps he need not be so angry at God for making him capable of breaking it.
In short, the covenanted Cohen of “If I Didn’t Have Your Love” is still the goading Cohen
of “Leaving the Table” but also one who accepts frustration, dismay, and hope as part of covenant. There is no other covenant save a flawed one, as humanity is flawed. It may be God’s inscrutable plan, but there is no other plan or God.
I will close with a few remarks on the collection’s magisterial title song, “You Want It
Darker,” which too begins with contempt and ends with open-palmed faith in God. Its first stanza reads, “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game/If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame/If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame” (You Want It Darker, 2016).
Cohen confronts God: if you created this world, I’m out of your miserable creation. Why should I be broken in shame while you are in glory? Cohen then turns to his characteristic goading: “You want it darker/We kill the flame.” God for his unknown reasons wants life dark, and we, his dependent subjects, must grovel and do the dirty work. We extinguish the flame of the loves we need. This must be an evil-minded God or at best, an inscrutable one.
The refrain continues the taunt: “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name/Vilified, crucified, in the human frame/A million candles burning for the help that never came.” “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name” is from the Hebrew prayer for the dead (yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba), used here three weeks before Cohen’s death. Cohen is sarcastic: This is the God we magnify and sanctify—a God who allows vilification and crucifixion and whose help never comes?
Yet the second part of the refrain turns to openness and willing dependence: “Hineni, hineni,” “I’m ready, my lord,” is Abraham’s assent to God as he is asked to sacrifice his son but also his assent to the angel who aborts the sacrifice that wasn’t to be. The passage is sung by the cantor and choir from Cohen’s childhood synagogue. This is the God to whom I give myself. There are no other gods, the First and Second Commandments. The end of the song subtly re-works the opening stanza: rather than “If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game,” Cohen writes, “If you are the dealer, let me out of the game,” an acknowledgment of our human dependence. God controls whether we are in or out of life. This is Cohen in covenant, who understands that God is the healer whom he resisted throughout life—and that God is now taking him out of it. The rest is an incantation: “Hineni,” I’m ready, my Lord.
Excerpts from Book of Mercy, Book of Longing, and Stranger Music, as well as all other lyrics not included in these volumes are used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC. Worldwide (but not US) rights for all material taken from The Flame are also given by The Wylie Agency LLC. Copyright © Leonard Cohen, used by permission of The Wylie Agency LLC.
Excerpts from “Born in Chains,” “Come Healing,” “If I Didn’t Have Your Love,” “Leaving the Table,” and “You Want it Darker” from THE FLAME: POEMS, NOTEBOOKS, LYRICS,
DRAWINGS by Leonard Cohen. Copyright © 2018 by Old Ideas, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Cover art from Leonard Cohen’s 1984 Book of Mercy is used by permission of McClelland &
Stewart, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.
1. Lyrics of Cohen’s songs are cited in the above text by song title, album title, and year released. The
following albums are cited: Songs of Leonard Cohen (Cohen 1967); Songs from a Room (Cohen
1969); Songs of Love and Hate (Cohen 1971b); Live Songs (Cohen 1973); New Skin for the Old Ceremony
(Cohen 1974); Recent Songs (Cohen 1979); Various Positions (Cohen 1984); I’m Your Man
(Cohen 1988); The Future (Cohen 1992); Ten New Songs (Cohen 2001); Old Ideas (Cohen 2012);
Popular Problems (Cohen 2014); You Want It Darker (Cohen 2016). Except as noted, all cited lyrics
were written by Leonard Cohen.
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Leonard Cohen’s Jewish Theodicy
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