Whenever people are gathered, it can be revealing to ask everyone to share a Leonard Cohen line that somehow sticks in their mind.
Since Cohen’s lyric fragments have a way of nestling into our subconscious, capturing what troubles us, enlivens us and may possibly redeem us, the game can end up being like a Rorschach test, a kind of poetry of feelings buried in our hearts.
When we have performed this little ritual ourselves, friends and family have recalled disparate lyrics from the Canadian Jewish singer-songwriter, such as, “They sentenced me to 20 years of boredom / for trying to change the system from within,” or “I’ve had the invitation a sinner can’t refuse / It was almost like salvation / It was almost like the blues.”
With the world on edge over the grim deaths of thousands of Jewish and Muslim civilians as a result of war following Hamas’s mass terrorist attack on Israel, can people today find succour in the words of Cohen, who stared squarely into the face of mayhem and sorrow?
One 2016 obituary for Cohen referred to him as “the poet of brokenness.” Many of his songs, whether Born in Chains, Anthem or Hallelujah, tried to make personal sense, even sacred sense, of times when everything seems to have all gone wrong.
Cohen’s complex, sometimes elusive role as almost a divine healer is on display in an innovative new Canadian book, Prophets of Love: The Unlikely Kinship of Leonard Cohen and the Apostle Paul (McGill-Queen’s University Press), by Matthew Anderson, who teaches at Concordia University and St. Francis Xavier University.
Engaging, scholastic and wise, Prophets of Love examines the surprising similarities, as well as differences, between two passionate men who lived 2,000 years apart. Despite their different eras, and despite the confusion of their audiences, both were, according to Anderson, born Jewish, remained Jewish, and died Jewish.
Even though history has often portrayed Paul, an apostle of Jesus and a key writer of The New Testament, as “the first Christian,” Anderson maintains Paul thought of himself as a faithful follower of the Torah at a time when Jews in the Holy Land were being crushed under a brutal Roman occupation. There were many messianic schools of Judaism at the time, says the book, and Paul was the key interpreter of one of them.
And even though Cohen seriously practised Zen Buddhism, regularly wrote erotic, wry lyrics and was profoundly “touched by the figure of the man Jesus,” it should not be forgotten he was raised in a deeply Jewish household with a rabbinical lineage and was both captured and tormented by the God of Abraham. One of his last songs, You Want it Darker, contains the ethereal chants of the cantor at his Montreal synagogue.
Prophets of Love perceptively shows how Cohen went back and forth between the sacred and profane, was often ambiguous about whether he was writing about God or a lover, sometimes appeared to speak for the divine (like Paul) and, in the midst of human evil, could be “famously hopeful.” His latter-day concerts were often described as “a sacred space,” with the troubadour literally offering his blessings.
Prophets of Love illustrates how Paul, who was martyred in Rome, was zealous to spread word that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, humanity’s ultimate saviour. The apostle taught followers to put their faith in the imminent reign of the Kingdom of God. Cohen more modestly emphasized finding a way to express and give dignity to suffering.
In a way, Cohen strove to maintain an individual hopefulness, which people of action, like Canada’s Irwin Cotler, international chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, work to achieve on a societal scale.
Last week, Cotler, in the midst of the deaths and woundings of so many Israelis and Palestinians, also insisted he remains an optimist, recalling Martin Luther King’s, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Cohen believed something similar to Cotler about how to make it through darkness. According to Anderson, the apostle Paul and Cohen “both state that what human beings see and feel as abandonment is where God’s work of redemption begins.”
Even though prone to drugs and depression, Cohen once wrote to his son that he “wants to stand with those who clearly see God’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage and the heart to praise it.”
Returning to the concert circuit in his mid-70s after being utterly betrayed by his financial manager, Cohen would wryly talk about how he’d taken “a lot of Prozac, Ritalin and Wellbrutin … but joy kept breaking through.”
In his last years, Anderson writes, Cohen’s interviews and performances “indicate that he saw his task not only as witnessing injustice, but also actively healing humanity through his words.”
The day before he died, Cohen wrote a text message to film producer Rebecca De Mornay, in which he quoted the Bible: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
And most famously, in Anthem, he created his signature metaphor for times of terrible trouble, both personal and global: “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.”
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