Leonard Cohen: Ethics and the Artist

eFORUM (feat. George Elliott Clarke, Laura Menard, Norman Ravvin & Leo Zaibert) [☛ Event[☛ eVideos]

george_elliott_clarke_1024x1024KADDISH FOR LEONARD COHEN
George Elliott Clarke
E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature, University of Toronto, Department of English & Parliamentary Poet Laureate

Kaddish for Leonard Cohen
(à la manière d’Allen Ginsberg)

This terrible, irritable dawn—
This morning of Mourning
His obituary crowbars apart
Prophecy and Nostalgia….

Always native to Heaven,
Minting gleaming melodies,
Freeing a nailed-down Christ,
Obeying the mating-calls

Of mandolins and guitars, he
Never abstained from Liberty,
Never lost the Intelligence
Of Dylan-dark sunglasses

And light making masterpieces
Of shambles, or lighting up
Cages where lovers loll,
Lousy with tears and sighs….

Poet of Everything,
He transcended conclaves
Of critics, the murders
Of poets, all those copycats—

Sordid franchisees of blues—
Every presidency serving up
Immaculate Corruption, the stale,
white bread circulated with grease….

His insatiable suitcase,
Portaging Gog and Magog
(In eastern Quebec), Hydra,
Rue Main, Manhattan, Havana,

Pursued the ghosts of Glory
Parliaments of movie screens—
Fiestas of butterflies, and secret
Eros, Eros, everywhere….

After auditing the News,
I suffered the insomnia
Of steel nails, heads battered
Until drowsy, woozy in wood.

Eternity expires as eyes close–
Or we succumb to sobbing….
But the honest poet voids
The dirty mind of Grief,

Knows the poet’s grave
Is his deathless poems—
Dark, remorseless Beauty
Light that scalpels eyes open.

–George Elliott Clarke
7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-17)

Laura Menard
Coordinator, VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto

Although both “Bird on the Wire” and “So Long, Marianne” come from the same period in Cohen’s life, the themes the explored were recurring motifs throughout Cohen’s work.

The first of our selections, “Bird on the Wire” was composed in the late 60s.  The writing of the song began on a remote island in Greece, and ended in a motel room in Hollywood: quite a juxtaposition.  It is the kind of juxtaposition that Cohen embraced throughout his writing.  In “Bird on the Wire” it is demonstrated in various images, such as a bird and a worm (representative of freedom and the natural world – of the air and the earth) perched on a wire and stuck on a hook respectively (physical manifestations of civilization and industry); and a drunk (disorder) singing in a midnight choir (order).

However, Cohen’s lyrics show us more than just the extremes: as elsewhere in Cohen’s writing, we have here the colour-rich story of someone straining against, but operating (sometimes barely) within, the constraints of their life and relationships with others.  We are privy to all of the gradations of this struggle, and are confronted regularly by possibilities of what could or should be, and then by what is.

This tension is also laid bare in “So Long, Marianne” in which Cohen unapologetically catalogues the differences between what could and should be.  He acknowledges his shortcomings, but is not sorry about being “curious” as opposed to “brave,” or “cold as a new razor blade.”  He admits, among other things, to “kneeling through the dark” in his relationship with Marianne, even though he describes being held onto “like a crucifix.”  It is perhaps the fact that he is so forthcoming about his own uncertainties that makes this song – and so many others – so engaging.

There is much murky moral water tread in Cohen’s works.  He raises many questions while rarely suggesting solutions.  It is this enigmatic quality of his writing that I personally find enormously appealing and refreshing in our world of quick answers and supposedly easy solutions.

Norman Ravvindownload
Professor & Jewish Studies Graduate Program Director, Department of Religions and Cultures, Concordia University

In a 1964 lecture at the Montreal Jewish Public Library, Leonard Cohen considered the various responsibilities a poet might take in his community.  The talk’s date precedes Cohen’s transformation into a songwriter and performer, and in the context of the Jewish Public Library, Cohen reflects on a local poetic tradition, comparing himself with the older, but no longer active Montreal Jewish poet, A.M. Klein.  Klein, he feels, played a dual role – that of prophet and priest, with a heavy accent on the latter.  The status of priest, according to Cohen, is the less admirable choice for the poet.  A priestly voice confirms traditional verities and provides communal comfort, as Klein did, in celebratory verse written for philanthropic dinners.  “Klein is the last Jewish writer,” Cohen told his audience, “whom the rabbis and business-men will love.”  This is a harsh critique, though as prophecy it proved accurate.  In a different vein, hinting at Klein’s withdrawal from public life in the mid-fifties, Cohen adds: “His silence marks the beginning of a massive literary assault on this community.”  We might wonder how this was received in the library hall.  Rumours associated with Klein’s mental collapse were common, but this idea – that Klein’s silence might be read as a rebuke – was not spoken.

The prophet, in the traditional sense, is no source of comfort.  He is the scourge of complacent leaders; a scorner of conventional comforts; at odds with the communal status quo; and his words are a lever by which to unsettle the mundane everyday in order to present something radical and truer to the core tradition.  The biblical prophets provide a doubled text – a denunciation of ill social winds married to a poetic magnification of the divine.

A prophetic strain runs through certain periods and modes in Cohen’s work.  In his poetry, it is most evident in two little-read collections published in the 1970s: The Energy of Slaves (1972) and Death of a Lady’s Man (1978).  In these books one finds none of Cohen’s early, loving embrace of Jewish folkloric imagery, and certainly nothing for the “rabbis and business-men.”  The poems are harsh, even despairing.  Their stance toward the reader is confrontational; the poet asserts his own failure; the outcome of which is isolation, bitterness, even the prospect of creative silence.

The reader approaches such work as if in a hazardous zone.  The Energy of Slaves begins: “Welcome to these lines.  There is a war on.”  The poems that follow are short, bare of artifice, often untitled.  In place of absent titles Cohen has asked his printer to place a tiny razor blade.  This icon – the razor’s edge – might be seen as a grim counterpart to the icon of Cohen’s later work, a pair of intertwined hearts that make up a Star of David.  In The Energy of Slaves the poems have an assumed recipient – an estranged lover or a friend – but they take aim at us, at the general milieu, which in its early seventies guise was represented by what Cohen calls the “flabby liars / of the Aquarian Age.”

Death of a Lady’s Man offers even greater readerly challenges, which might include an explicit language warning not usually needed for Cohen’s poetry.  “Death to this book,” we read early in the collection, “fuck this book and fuck this marriage.  Fuck the twenty-six letters of my cowardice.”  Here one of the book’s main burdens, its insistence on personal and artistic defeat, is linked to the idea that creativity has no place in the shadow of personal collapse.  This aspect of Death of a Lady’s Man is Kafkaesque.  Famously, in his posthumous note to Max Brod, Kafka requested artistic annihilation:  “Everything I leave behind me,” he wrote, “in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters . . . sketches, and so on,” should be burned.  The Energy of Slaves and Death of a Lady’s Man are documents of artistic self-denial, which exist in spite of the author’s exhaustion.  Still, alongside this tone of self-critique in Death of a Lady’s Man is a recourse to prayer and to mystical magnification of the divine.  Having pronounced his book’s death, Cohen turns to language reminiscent of prophetic exhortation: “Without the Name the wind is a babble, the flowers are a jargon of longing.  Without the Name I am a funeral in the garden . . . .  Without the Name sealed in my heart I am ashamed” (63).  Elsewhere in the book this potential for uplift is prophetically complete: “I saw the dove come down, the dove with the green twig, the childish dove out of the storm and flood.  It came toward me in the style of the Holy Spirit . . .” (116).

In the early nineties Cohen’s lyrics exhibited a related penchant for prophetic utterance, although in the context of song he softens the punch with wit, however dark.  “I’ve seen the future, brother,” he sings on his 1992 record The Future, “it is murder.”  The record’s title song even reflects the singer’s mistrust of a priestly role, even when it’s thrust upon him by would-be protégés, whom he conjures as “all the lousy little poets coming round, trying to sound like Charlie Manson.”

Much of what I’ve pointed to in Cohen’s poetry and song goes unmentioned in his reception in recent years.  This is especially true in the context of his popular triumph as songwriter and performer.  When he mounted a comeback tour in 2008 – his first in over a decade – all things Kafkaesque had fallen away in favour of warm and adoring welcome between the singer and his devotees.  Rabbis and business-men joined the adoring crowds, some of whom reportedly wept with communal joy as concerts stretched into a third ecstatic hour.  Recent biographical portraits of Cohen celebrate this outcome as a creative and personal triumph.  In A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, the American writer Liel Leibovitz offers this impression of Cohen’s late career: “The hero, presumed dead, emerges for one more astonishing act of musical resurrection, having finally learned to master his powers.”

By focusing on this late period of adoration by his fans we risk neglecting part of Cohen’s oeuvre, which bears a peculiar but impressive ethical critique, while challenging its audience with the idea that failure, even silence can be seen as a worthy form of literary rebuke.

FOR LEONARD COHENleo-photo-march-09
Leo Zaibert
Professor & Chair, Department of Philosophy, Union College

I am very grateful to the Centre for Ethics, and to its Director, for this invitation. It is extraordinarily humbling for me to be a part of this panel to celebrate the great Leonard Cohen. I grew up on Cohen’s music, and in fact took my first steps in the English language by translating his songs with the help of an old Spanish-English dictionary. I vividly remember my first encounter with the very word “humbled”, as I made my way through one of Cohen’s many masterpieces Humbled in Love. So, yes, this is humbling indeed.

Being here is also remarkably challenging. I do know Cohen’s music well, but simply because I like it very much. I have no expertise in literary analysis or musicology; I am only a moral philosopher. And while moral themes abound in Cohen’s work, I do not want to over-interpret him. I do not think that he did moral philosophy, at least not in the standard sense of presenting arguments, offering analyses, or constructing theories. I am thus bereft of my usual working tools: I have neither objections nor counter-arguments to offer. Thus, appropriating Cohen’s words, I can at once confess: “you will never see a man this naked”.

Still, with trepidation, I would like to suggest that Cohen’s lyrics do tend to exhibit a certain characteristic that resonates well with my recent work, and with a central preoccupation of a handful of contemporary moral philosophers. The preoccupation concerns the picture of the moral universe presupposed by many mainstream moral philosophers. My point of departure will be unavoidably arbitrary: an isolated line from one of Cohen’s songs. It is of course a remarkable testament to the depth and richness of his music that so many of Cohen’s lines could have served me as a point of departure.

Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.

I like dogs as much as the next person, but there surely are major differences between mourning the passing of one’s dog and mourning the passing of one’s father. On my interpretation, the line pokes fun at a certain flattening of moral experience – a flattening that is common also amongst mainstream moral philosophers. Within moral philosophy, the most famous culprit of this sort of flattening is utilitarianism, which seeks to reduce everything to quantifiable units of utility and disutility. From the utilitarian perspective, ultimately the only difference, if any, between the death of one’s dog and the death of one’s father is the amount of dissatisfaction that each of these events may generate. Utilitarians think that all states of satisfaction can be compared on a single spectrum. There are, for them, no qualitative differences between any two dissatisfactions. And it is against this background of pervasive flattening of human experience amongst moral philosophers that I read Cohen line.

To me, this particular line by Cohen evokes another discussion of dogs and humans which also captures the flattening I am considering, although from the opposite direction. As he contemplated his own marriage, Charles Darwin produced a ledger with the pros and cons of this course of action. Under the “Not Marry” column he wrote down items such as “freedom to go where one liked”, “conversation of clever men at clubs”, and “not forced to visit relatives”. Under the “Marry” column, he wrote down items such as “charms of music & female chit-chat”, “children”, “constant companion”, and, most importantly for my purposes today, “object to be beloved & played with – better than a dog anyhow”.

Darwin did not mean this ledger to be published, and I do not think that it is fair to assume that this really is an accurate reflection of the totality of his considered views on marriage. (Even more unfair would be to mobilize this ledger in an effort to impugn Darwin’s towering contributions to science.) But he did produce this ledger, and the ledger does represent a certain way of approaching life – even if not really Darwin’s – that holds great and in my opinion disappointing sway in contemporary moral philosophy. Even if the specific items on a ledger of this sort were themselves unimpeachable, some may still object to the approach, in itself. In other words, some may find Darwin’s very method here at fault: essentially because we believe that not everything in life can (or is supposed to) be individuated, itemized, and ledgerized in this way.

When I have expressed misgivings about this method, colleagues have defended it by suggesting that it simply exemplifies rationality in action. How else are we supposed to rationally decide on a course of action? Perhaps writing down these items so neatly is unusual or quaint. But, they insist, the enumeration and weighing of reasons is the only rational way of approaching life. The alternative is to succumb to unscientific and ultimately obscurantist methods.

My misgivings about this method are inspired by the views of a relatively small group of moral philosophers who have written on the complexity of moral life and on the sorts of moral conflicts we face therein. These authors insist that in addition to mere moral costs, moral stains also exist. These moral stains are rarely expressible as moral costs and, therefore, are rarely ledgerable. Yet, moral stains can conflict with moral costs in ways that do not often resolve neatly: they leave remainders. Sometimes these conflicts are tragic, in the sense that whatever one chooses, one does wrong. Sometimes they give rise to paradoxical situations, such as that we should feel a kind of guilt for the sins of the father, or even guilt (or a special sort of moral feeling known by specialists as “agent-regret”) for doing the right thing. Sometimes we cannot help but harm those we love and violate the principles we cherish; sometimes we most get our hands dirty. And these are amongst the most salient themes in Cohen’s music.

The most celebrated of these moral philosophers who question the sort of moral philosophy that avoids these sorts of conflicts – and a major influence in my work – was Bernard Williams. He rejected the ledgerization of life by means of what he called “the morality system”, built around an oppressive and economistic notion of obligation, such that we cannot escape acting either in accordance or against an obligation, and such that only another moral obligation could release us from any moral obligation. While Williams is widely recognized as a brilliant philosopher, he is also often assumed to be very cryptic, obscure, impractical, a “new romantic”, and somehow pessimistic.

As it turns out, these were the sorts of descriptions regarding Cohen’s music I heard when I arrived to the United States in the early 1990s. Probably the most consistent reaction I heard about Cohen’s music regarded its alleged pessimism: friends would refer to it as “suicide music”. I have always found this interpretation of Cohen’s music to be based on a superficial appreciation of his lyrics – a superficiality that, incidentally, may shed light on that oddity whereby Cohen enjoyed much more respect in non-English speaking countries (though, one assumes, from people who understood English, even if with the help of bilingual dictionaries) than in English-speaking countries. And here the connection to Williams resurfaces.

Williams begins his masterpiece refutation of utilitarianism by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche: “Man does not strive for Happiness; only the Englishman does that”. The pun, of course, is on the influence that utilitarianism – and its attendant superficiality, itself fueled by a furor mathematicus – exerted upon the English (though nowadays upon Anglo-American philosophy more generally). Neither Cohen nor Williams ever struck me as particularly gloomy, even though they both engage, from their respective perspectives, with the complexity of life, a life that just is not as simplemindedly merry as some would want. So, I like to see Leonard Cohen as the Bernard Williams of music; or, if you prefer, Bernard Williams as the Leonard Cohen of philosophy. Going against the grain of their particular cultural contexts, each spoke about the complexity of our moral and emotional life.

As I said at the outset, I do not wish to turn Cohen into a philosopher, but he was a perceptive witness to the complexities of human interactions, and to human frailties and imperfections. Complicated characters and scenes, antiheroes, and “beautiful losers” of the sort theorized by Williams often inhabit Cohen’s songs. I can here just offer glittering glimpses:

On the incongruity between destiny and merit, recall his lines in Came so far for Beauty:

I Practiced on my Sainthood
I gave to One and All
But the rumours of my virtue
They moved her not at all.

Relatedly, on the unavoidability of tragic choices, recall One of Us Cannot be Wrong:

I heard of a Saint who had loved you
I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers
is to tarnish the Golden Rule.

On the dignified ambivalence of the cuckolded Cohen’s confession to his wife’s lover in Famous Blue Raincoat:

What can I tell you, my brother, my killer?” What Can I possibly say? I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you”. I am glad you stood in my way.

On the Heraclitean echoes as to the proximity of opposites in Take This Longing:

I would like to try to your charity
until you cry:
‘Now you must try my greed’

On the tension between justice and compassion, in A Singer Must Die:

I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline,

where the defendant further tells his judges:

I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty, you keepers of Truth, you guardians of Beauty. Your vision is right. My vision is wrong. I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song.

And so on, and on, and on.

November 9 2016 was, if I may quote from what I think was Cohen’s only cover (though one which he injected with remarkable new meaning, by singing the famous Canadian traditional to the tune of Mariachi music) “un jour, triste et pensif”. That day found me in New York City, walking not far from Cohen’s beloved Chelsea Hotel, when I received a phone call from my partner telling me about Cohen’s passing. It already was very much a sad and pensive day for me, as I in vain tried to comprehend the results of the United States elections a few hours earlier, and as the lines from Un Canadien Errant: mon pays, malheureux were very much in my mind. At the worst time, Cohen’s voice has become still, he will indeed sing no more. But I want to believe that even when it gets scary out there, it may make sense to say well never mind, it’s ugly but we have his music.