Leonard Cohen Lives When Something Like Religion Happens to the Heart

Image of Leonard Cohen singing

"Leonard Cohen, Edinburgh Castle" by jonl1973 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What happens to the heart that is something like religion? For Leonard Cohen, what happens to the heart is captured by one word: betrayal. The open heart ready to love learns to live through the thorns and thistles of life once it is betrayed. If as James Hillman once remarked, “[w]e are betrayed in the very same close relationships where primal trust is possible,”then why trust the singer, Leonard Cohen, who now beckons us in “Listen to the Hummingbird” to: “Listen to the sovereign heart/Resign its sovereignty/Listen to the sovereign heart/Don’t listen to me.” Listening to the betrayed heart could very well be the motif that defines the core of the songbook of the late, great pop saint of Montréal, Jewish/Buddhist, beggar/boudoir poet, Leonard Cohen, whose 3rd anniversary of passing (6th of Heshvan) happened to fall on the Gregorian calendar this past November 4th. Upon the death of the charismatic leader, as Max Weber teaches, new religions are born. But the remarks that follow are not meant to be a new religion, so I will not engage in orthodox apologia nor in rock n’ roll hagiography. Still I feel that although the charismatic poet and pop saint officially passed from this world on November 7, 2016, his songs somehow continue to sing on?!? “Leonard lives!” decry listener after listener, and the curated cluster of artists who performed at his tribute, Tower of Song that now figure as part of this resurrection project, the posthumous release of the record, Thanks for the Dance (November 22, 2019). Leonard’s son, Adam, a musician in his own right, worked with his father on producing his final release, You Want it Darker three years ago, midwifing Cohen’s coda into the world before taking leave to chart a different course from “all the maps of blood and flesh/[that] are posted on the door” (“Boogie Street”, 2013). In an attempt to analyze this posthumous release of Thanks for the Dance, I will continue thinking through an argument that began in the first study to take Leonard Cohen seriously as a Montréal mystic, called Tangle of Matter and Ghost: The Post-Secular Mysticisms of Leonard Cohen Jewish and Beyond (2017). Post-Secularism has to address the “continued existence of religious communities in a continually secularizing environment”. Yet for Montréal philosopher, Charles Taylor, since religious language is not understandable by all of us, there remains a need for a neutral “official” language to be developed in secular society. Leonard Cohen’s language of what “happens to the heart” is indeed felt by all, thus his pop saint status. The crux of my argument is that a new kind of post-secular saint needs to redress the perennial betrayal of the heart through “bad faith” in a world that still has an appetite for restoring “good faith” in “something like religion” without depending upon the institutions of religion per se. Listening to these posthumously produced songs, one must wonder whether this creative collaboration from beyond the grave is not itself the ultimate betrayal. It is a necessary betrayal for the great art of once marginal coffee house music that has led to the canonization of this pop saint of Montréal that everybody now knows.

It is often difficult to appreciate the power of popular culture figures in their critique of the very culture industry that feeds their cult of personality, even if he “never called it art”. Throughout his life, Leonard Cohen yearned to be a renowned poet who could shed his persona as a Don Juan-ladies’ man, only clarified in his 1976 encounter with Rinzai Buddhist master, that Cohen now sings in a key of slight atonement: “I studied with this beggar/he was filthy he was scarred/by the claws of many women/he had fallen into disregard” (“Happens to the Heart”, 2019). That “filthy beggar” evokes shadows of his tainted Zen master, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, (1907 – 2014) that “monk bending over a book” on tour with the singer but whose tide of sexual abuse allegations only emerged after Cohen’s passing. While he never had to stand trial before the #MeToo movement that felled so many Don Juans, Cohen’s spiritual work over the past decades suggests that he likely would have humbly sought atonement and freedom from the suffering he may have enabled or minimally condoned. This ability to re/turn and repair is both Jewish and Buddhist, and it must be seen in its post-war Jewish context. As evinced in Sylvie Simmon’s telling biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen (2012), Cohen emerged in the Yiddish streets of post-war Montréal, “[m]eeting Jesus reading Marx” searching for his own poetic voice. Cohen was at once mentored by but ultimately betraying his poetic precursors, Canadian poets, Irving Layton (1912 – 2006) and A. M. Klein (1909-1972). The former poet, born as Israel Pincu Lazarovitch in the Romanian town of Târgu Neamt in 1912, Layton emigrated to Montréal only called to be a poet while working as door to door household goods salesman. Around that time, Layton was transformed by Tennyson but ended up a lesser Canadian Kerouac daring to tell open erotic secrets for a repressed generation. There was also the ghost of Montréal poet and Zionist activist, A. M. Klein, whose didactic style was already evident even in his first volume of poetry, Hath Not a Jew, published in 1940 in Montréal. Klein reflected that familiar anxiety of being Jewish while witnessing the very real rise of anti-Semitism so politically and socially pervasive in his lifetime. Before Klein falls into complete silence, he writes The Second Scroll—inspired by a trip he made as an emissary of the Canadian Jewish Congress to European and North African refugee camps in the ashes of the Shoah. A symbolic tale of a modern-day search for a Messiah who would lead the Jews to the Promised Land, The Second Scroll, is a creative summation of the Jewish condition written in Montréal for the generation that survived the European catastrophe but as Klein’s crowning achievement, he then falls into severe depression with suicidal tendencies that required him to be institutionalized. So, what happens to the hearts of Layton and Klein that open upon the ashes of Auschwitz, for Leonard Cohen needed to be embodied in his early expression of poetry, like Flowers For Hitler (1964), then presents its own darkness searching for light while traversing this poetic landscape in Montréal. Cohen rebelled as much as anyone could “funding [his] depression”, growing up in the sheltered, bourgeois Belmont Street of the then WASP neighborhood of Westmount to a multi-generational Zionist family, affiliated with reserved seats in the pews of the prestigious Shaar Shamayim synagogue. The Cohen lifelong family affiliation there began with Leonard’s Polish-born great-grandfather, Lazarus Cohen, a yeshiva graduate who arrived in Montréal in the late 19th century, becoming president of the Shaar. This is the same synagogue Cohen returns to for Grammy Award winning, “You Want it Darker” (2016) to evoke something of the magical messianic music of his childhood as currently reincarnated through the genius of Cantor Gideon Zerlermeyer and his choir. Whereas Layton’s poems raged against the dying light, sucking every last droplet of life out his love for the epicurean path that secularized the Jewish religious façade he quickly discarded upon emigrating to Montréal, and Klein went mad as a wandering messianic figure in search of his lost people, Cohen emerges somewhere between ecstatic prophet and messianic mystic, searching for that song to quench our abiding “appetite for something like religion”— a musical mythology where “the angel’s got a fiddle/and the devil’s got a harp.” Whether castigating his elders as he dawns his mantle as secular prophet at the Symposium for English Language Jewish Writers at the Jewish Public Library on June 7th, 1964 with Adele Wiseman, Ruth Roskies-Wisse, and Melech Ravitch or as inimitably captured here much later in his process of disillusionment in the recent song, “Happens to Heart”, Cohen is forever returning to his “beginner’s mind” to recall the loss innocence of that first encounter that marked the rest of his journey after:

“Meeting Jesus reading Marx
Sure it failed my little fire
But it’s bright the dying spark
Go tell the young messiah
What happens to the heart”[1]

It was at his 2012 Montréal Jazz Festival performance that Cohen formulated that yearning everyone gathered with him had as an “appetite for something like religion” that would never quite converge with his orthodox upbringing of the Shaar synagogue. Still Leonard carries forward that love for the tradition of prophetic poetry shared while growing up with his grandfather, Rabbi Solomon Klonitzki-Kline, who often read the Book of Isaiah with the young lad, drawing him out of the adjoining room where he would otherwise be typing away at his poetry. While his grandfather would express solidarity and pleasure that his grandson was also a writer, Leonard’s imagination was always inclining towards a post-rabbinic Judaism beyond the Law “in the prison of the gifted/where [he] was friendly with the guard” while his grandfather remained tethered to the sacred scriptures, in all its grammars, commentaries and pathways of religion. But those traces of prophetic poetics never fade away completely in Leonard Cohen’s songbook, even amidst their betrayal.

To understand the betrayal at stake with the post-secular mysticism of Leonard Cohen, let us briefly recall another hybrid Jewish thinker, the Algerian exile to Paris, Jacques Derrida (1930–2004), the founder of “deconstruction”. His way of criticizing not only both literary and philosophical texts but also political institutions led Derrida near the end of his life to also reflect upon the role of religion as a trace of those ancient resources older than the metaphysical decision to create institutions we now call “religion”. Those lingering questions whose traces remain in scriptures— like Isaac asking why have you abandoned me while being bound on the altar, or Jesus asking why have you abandoned me while being crucified— reveal the open secret of betrayal that births the respective religions of Judaism and Christianity. Each of these moments inseparably contain these agencies of event and repeatability. As human beings who are born in time and experience life in its flow, even before religion, we have no experience that does not inseparably contain these two agencies of event and repeatability.

Part of Cohen’s abiding genius remains his mastery of pruning words down [zamer] into the experience of a song [zemer]. No matter how seemingly simple a Cohen song may sound, like any art event that is repeated it has inescapable implications. Firstly, there is the experience of the song as presence moment that is never a simple experience of something present over and against me, right before my ears as an intuition. Repeatability of the song contains what is no longer present and what is not yet present. The presence of a song like the recent, “Happens to the Heart” is always complicated by non-presence—especially of the deceased songwriter but also all his heart-breaking experiences that led to this present creation. This minimal repeatability found in every experience is what Derrida called “the trace.” Secondly,the event of this song is a non-separable part of the foundational conditions, an accident that overcomes an essential structure of the songwriter’s life. It is akin to the “fall” form the Garden of Eden into division, accidents, and events that have always already taken place, even before the songwriter writes a single lyric. Thirdly, it is this familiar feeling of having heard these notes before—as with the chorus of the recent “Happens to the Heart” which echoes “Everybody Knows”— and it is precisely this sympathetic resonance that make us feel that the song has already taken place. This is the power still invested in these Leonard Cohen songs and what his son Adam is attempting to capture with this posthumous project. Let us not forget as well just how much these lyrics oscillate between “good faith” and “bad faith” already there in their origin. Fourthly, if something like a fall has always already taken place before the song has been written, then every experience contains an aspect of lateness as the song is being sung and heard now. Time is “out of joint” so much so that we are still able to listen to Leonard Cohen’s voice whispering the chant of his songs, as if for the first time so late in his career. Such a surreal feeling of this time being out of joint is the flip side of what Derrida calls “spacing” (espacement); space is out of place whether in thought or in song. Finally, when the song “happens to the heart” and awakens the depths of the soul otherwise asleep, we are reborn as new spiritual beings—we are redeemed.

In pouring over the Leonard Cohen archive at the Fischer Rare Book Room at University of Toronto, I discovered an entire box of self-portraits. These are all from one consecutive year long period from living in his flat in Parc Portugal, Montréal, where Leonard looked into the mirror for 365 consecutive mornings and dedicated a few moments to primitive etch-a-sketching on his computer the face he saw in the mirror. These emergent fragments of self-realization were showing him how he was “distanced” or “spaced” from the mirror, to truly see how much he was able to be both seer andseen. The space between, however, remains obstinately invisible—and revelation of this space between is precisely what “happens to the heart” when it is betrayed. Cohen saw himself over there in the mirror and yet, always other than himself. In the final year of his life, when the cancer spreading through his spine left him seated for hours on end, Leonard could have confessed to being too weak for this speaking of the secret to himself not to continue the creative process. Yet in his dedicated daily work of writing and recording as much material as possible through the support of his son, Adam, directing the studio, Leonard had a final frame through which to represent his open secrets of the heart. Driven in part by his keen awareness of the power of cultural re-presentation (this need to present the secret to myself again in order to possess it really), we also see therein retention, repetition, and the trace. Any trace of the secret must be formed, in which case, the secret is in principle shareable and always already shared. In good mystical fashion, Cohen looks into this mirror and promises not to tell the secret; so, it is the songwriter who realizes he must nonetheless tell the secret to himself as if he were someone else, “my brother, my killer” (“Famous blue raincoat”, 1971). The singer sees what happens to the heart and shares it already as someone else; to keep the secret of the heart, Leonard must necessarily share the secret with us, even now from beyond his grave—now a site of pilgrimage— on Mont Royal.

With secrets of Thanks for the Dance opening slowly into their recent release, a poet friend and Cohen fan warned me that these posthumous recordings bordered on being clichéd—he was able to complete the verse before the singer reached its conclusion. This sense of cliché is always hovering in the Cohen songbook, namely, that the conventions feel old and familiar because they have been used for centuries in different contexts, whether to undergird a history of the fall of betrayal before us. It is that history of Western philosophy or Middle Eastern religions, always creating and referring to the inferior position in hierarchies. But as the Montréal mystic knew too well, with all that happens to the heart these very conventions and clichés are being used to refer to the unnamed resource in metaphysics—something more ancient than concepts that try to “box in” the oceanic feeling of nothingness into a word like “god”.

Beyond merely “boxing in” the infinite, many seekers in the secular age, especially in Quebécois cultural context of the Church reigning over private lives in public, were turned away from the opiate of religion because of “bad faith”. While dialects and idioms may separate Parisian French from Quebecois French, there was no problem in translating this pervasiveness of “bad faith” after philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre (1905–1980) in the mean streets of Montréal. The bohemian lifestyle of Parisian philosopher whose office was the café meshed well for Cohen in Montréal, as the former remained indefatigable in his pursuit of authenticity. This required a deep and relevant philosophical reflection on life that contributed to his creative existential language to assuage the void created by secularism.

Authenticity is a conversionary experience that entails abandonment of our original choice to coincide with ourselves consciously. “Bad faith” is a form of self-deception in trying to coincide with our egos since the fact is that whatever we are we are in the manner of not being it due to the “othering” nature of consciousness. Whereas Sartre could challenge the form of self-deception in the claim “well, that’s just the way I am”—that’s just “bad faith” through philosophical existentialism, Cohen had to make that challenge come alive as a spiritual practice for years in retreat from Montréal up in Mount Baldy in Northern California, through Rinzai Buddhism. Lying to oneself about evasion from authentic living is also the flight from concomitant responsibility for “choosing” to remain that way could be cracked through by looking in the mirror—whether the medium of that mirror was philosophy, songs or meditation. “Bad faith” as inauthentic living either denies the freedom or transcendence component (“I can’t do anything about it”) or it ignores the factical dimension of every situation (“I can do anything by just wishing it”). The creative impulse that sparked so much of the existential philosophers like Sartre is found in their reliance upon “indirect communication” as a way of communicating an attitude of anguish over responsibility. This means that there is an aesthetic “suspension of disbelief” through creativity, especially felt in these posthumous songs, so that our tendency to identify with certain characters and to experience their plight vicariously, challenging each of us to examine our life for intimations of “bad faith” and to heighten our sensitivity to living more open-heartedly amidst an oppressive world. What the Montréal bard has been singing about all along, since that first time Judy Collins dared Leonard to join her on the stage of the Village Theatre, scurrying off after his voice broke midway through “Suzanne”, only to be beckoned back on to share what happens to the heart in such a moment of awakening—it is a rebirthing from that “ugly mark” of “bad faith” that Leonard has “come here to revisit” from beyond the grave. Leonard would “love to speak with Leonard” who he sees in the mirror of the song: “He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/Living in a suit” (“Going Home”, 2011) who despite it all enables the re/turn of the specter of “good faith” as at least possible, even if for a moment. This hopelessly hopeful journey of Leonard Cohen’s songbook continues to sing itself on, and so it continues to beckon us all to: “Listen to the sovereign heart/Resign its sovereignty/Listen to the sovereign heart/Don’t listen to me.” (“Listen to the Hummingbird”, 2019). For it only when we truly “Listen to the sovereign heart” as Hillman teaches, that “we are betrayed in the very same close relationship where primal trust is possible.” The greater the love, the greater the betrayal. If “trust has in it the seed of betrayal” then there are no surprises, for “The slaves were there already/The singers chained and charred” so this is ultimately what “happens to the heart.” (“Happens to the heart”, 2019).

Unlike his only true counterpart in music today, Bob Dylan, for whom there is no escape from “bad faith” and betrayal as I analyze in my book, God Knows Everything is Broken (2019), by contrast, for Cohen, tikkun is still possible—but how? What “happens to the heart” when it is betrayed leads to its deeper opening. Cohen’s song “The Anthem” captured this long ago when he sang: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Despite the darkness and the damage we wreak upon the world and inevitably upon each other—especially one Jew upon another— my reading of Leonard Cohen’s songbook argues that despite our better judgment of the brokenness that surrounds us, one must remain hopelessly hopeful that within the very brokenness there emerges a new openness within the world and inside ourselves to find the path to its redemption. It is this kind of paradoxical universal stance of “the little Jew who wrote the bible” that Cohen always portrays as still rooted by, but not bound to, its tribalism that continues inspiring us to be hopeful in these otherwise hopeless times.

[1]  “Happens to the Heart”


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