The focus of this article will be on Leonard Cohen’s (b. 1934) musical work. Scrolling through the lyrics of Cohen’s songs, it makes sense to say that Cohen’s universe is marked mostly by love and religion, or perhaps, to say it differently, by women and religion. One could also define this intersection by stating that many of Cohen’s songs mix sex and the Bible. In this connection, the sacred, what is religious, is redefined by Cohen. Biblical imagery plays an important part in this redefinition of the sacred in Cohen’s songs.
Two dimensions emerge when one looks at the manner in which the sacred is transformed in Cohen’s songs. First, Cohen’s songs present everyday life as a place of deep spiritual experience. There is a back and forth between sacred and profane that modifies both the notions of divine and human. Second, Cohen’s songs illuminate the broken aspects of human life and human experiences. These fragilities are spaces where the sacred shines through. If Cohen’s anthropology had to be briefly described, one could say that it hinges on human frailty as a place where the sacred and the divine are best grasped. In both dimensions, biblical themes are used by Cohen to densify the experience of the sacred.
Sacred and Everyday Life in Cohen’s Songs.
Cohen’s songs are ripe with the conviction that human interactions in all their beautiful complexity delineate a space of pain and hurtfulness. One sees it in a song like “Famous Blue Raincoat,” where Cohen writes a letter to his woman’s lover, whom he calls “his enemy, his brother.” In this letter, Cohen oscillates between the pain of having shared the woman he loves with another man and forgiveness for the man who was able to provide some happiness to this same woman. Everything is discreetly stated, in undertones, but one feels the conflicted sentiments, the pain, the longing, and sense of relief coming through. Cohen provides no easy way out from the sadness and the hurt. Biblical imagery might in fact contribute to the dilemma of having to live amid human interactions. A song like “Closing Time” offers a good illustration of the manner in which Cohen mixes very human experiences with biblical themes.
In “Closing Time,” Cohen brings to life the raunchy, wild, and somewhat crass atmosphere of a bar at closing time. In this in-between time, he also recounts the end of a love story. The end of the relationship somehow coincides with the bar closing and elicits a false sense of freedom, which Cohen equates with death. When love ends, when there’s nothing left, one might think one has found freedom, but really what comes next is death. Cohen also evokes religious language. He mentions the Holy Spirit, Heaven, the devil, Christ, and even the Boss—probably a reference to God as much as to Bruce Springsteen. The song might be about encounters in bars, dancing, women, and sex, but it also leads to deep and profound questions: What happens when love goes away, when death is next, when human interactions have lost their way and are merely the physical encounters of two sad, worn-out bodies? In “Closing Time,” the theological language, here in its Christian incarnation, does not give interpretive keys to understand or solve the hurt and sadness that come with lost love. Cohen will not turn to the Bible so that it can fix things for him. Rather, when he strews concepts of Christianity in a down-to-earth song, Cohen indicates that the human experiences of love, found and lost, participate in a religious dimension. In their stories of broken love, human beings are invited to elaborate deeper meaning for their lives. For Cohen, it is the quotidian experiences of humans in bars at closing time that become religious spaces.
One of Cohen’s very famous songs, “Suzanne,” develops the same thematic. In “Suzanne,” Cohen takes his audience for a walk by the river alongside the character of Suzanne, a woman who offers companionship and intimacy to those who seem to have nothing left to offer. Jesus also makes an appearance in the song. In contrast to Suzanne, who offers her trust and receives the trust of her companion in return, Jesus cannot be fully trusted, because, or so it seems from the song, he is not completely human. The fact that Jesus shares in the divine makes it impossible for humans to trust him completely. Yet, Suzanne, who is described as half-crazy and a bit lost, is the character that one wants to follow. Down on the docks, spiritual and terrestrial meet and transform human life in sacred space. Because Suzanne accepts and embraces her humanity and the humanity of her companion, human life can make room for the religious. If humanity is suppressed in the divine, then this meaningful encounter of quotidian and sacred cannot happen.
In these songs (but others could have been chosen as examples), the quotidian provides a space for spiritual embodiments. The daily events of human life are passages to the sacred. It does not mean that the local, human space is transformed. Rather, it is the understanding of the sacred that is modified, so one can imagine it also in usual spaces of life and of suffering. Through these songs, the notion of sacred changes and finds itself embodied in secular places. As a return movement, human experiences can also be colored with sacred dimensions through the use of biblical imagery. This is the movement one can see in “Hallelujah,” for example. The song opens, as is often observed, by a reference to King David, who knew a “secret chord,” pleasing to the Lord. However, despite this ability, David remains a man who falls prey to the beauty of Bathsheba. Then, without it being made explicit in the song, David morphs into Samson, similarly vanquished by a woman.
In this song, the sacred stories contained in the Bible illuminate the everyday experience of lovers. What all people can experience in their daily lives—the rise of desire, the pull of lust, the danger of being overcome by attraction and love—is elevated in Cohen’s songs by the reference to biblical texts. It does not transcend the human emotions but gives them their true importance through the use of biblical imagery.
At the same time, “Hallelujah” gives an idea of what is involved for Cohen in writing praise to the divine. Two verses are worth quoting here:
There’s a blaze of lightIn every wordIt doesn’t matter which you heardThe holy or the broken Hallelujah
I did my best, it wasn’t muchI couldn’t feel, so I tried to touchI’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool youAnd even thoughIt all went wrongI’ll stand before the Lord of SongWith nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
For Cohen, the light finds its way in the holy and in the broken. As long as he can authentically state that he tried to tell the truth, however imperfectly, Cohen can stand before God and stake a claim that his song should be received as a true expression of praise. For Cohen, the praise is found in this uncomfortable connection between humane and profane. The inherent imperfection of human praise might also be the way in which salvation is found for human beings.
Human Frailty as Salvation.
For Cohen the salvation of human beings cannot be understood independently from their brokenness and their imperfection. Salvation is not a lofty concept equated with heaven or sanctification for Cohen. When Cohen talks about his own journey, he reflects on his experience at Mount Baldy, a Zen monastery where he spent several years of his life in the 1990s (he was ordained as a Zen monk in 1996 and left the monastery in 1999). He indicates that he needed healing from dissatisfaction with his own life:
"I guess the same sicknesses everybody has—that you don’t get what you want, and if you do get it, it isn’t what you wanted. The objects of your desire continually escape you. There’s some wisdom, some path that if you could only embrace it, you could extract yourself from distress and suffering. All these aspirations that all of us nourish. That there’s another life that would be better, that another way would be better, another lover would be better, another métier would be better … this idea that there is something to grasp." (Lundberg, 2001)
He then goes on to explain that his time at Mount Baldy cured him of this illusion of constant dissatisfaction. Acceptance of the brokenness, the distress, the suffering, offers a path to accept the dissatisfaction of human lives.
In one of his recent songs, “Amen,” found on his album Old Ideas (released in 2012), Cohen challenges an unnamed interlocutor (perhaps a lover, but it could just as well be a nameless divinity) to face the cruel reality of life on earth. In this confrontation, the interlocutor is then asked to profess its love for the “I” of the song. If the divinity can face the direness of human life and still love the people enmeshed in this terrible and difficult reality, then perhaps in return human beings can address their prayers to that divinity. One comes out of the song “Amen” with a sense that it might be human beings who are better suited in their brokenness to heal the divine. Their brokenness is able to create sacred, theological, spaces. Another song on Old Ideas develops the same idea. In “Come Healing,” which musically reminds its listeners of a church hymn, Cohen meditates on what human beings are able to offer to a yet again unnamed divinity. The song opens like this:
O gather up the brokennessAnd bring it to me nowThe fragrance of those promisesYou never dared to vowThe splinters that you carryThe cross you left behindCome healing of the bodyCome healing of the mind
What human beings are invited to bring to the divinity is the imperfection at the heart of the human condition. This offering is brought in reluctantly, to be paired with promises that have not been made official. Cohen goes on to say that this reticent offering might well be able to heal some of the pain of the world. He writes that the “Heart beneath is teaching / To the broken Heart above” and that the “heavens should falter” so that the earth can proclaim a healing time for the world. The earth, humanity, is capable of redeeming itself, if it is willing to embrace its weakness and its brokenness. In the acceptance of human beings’ fundamental frailness lies the possibility of being redeemed and accepted, perhaps not necessarily in the eyes of God, but here on Earth.
This theme, which traverses all of Cohen’s engagement with the Bible, is perhaps nowhere as present as in “Anthem,” a well-known song from 1992. The lyrics of the chorus are famous, and the Buddhist influence behind them is often noticed:
Ring the bells that still can ringForget your perfect offeringThere is a crack, a crack in everythingThat’s how the light gets in.
These verses encapsulate Cohen’s anthropology and emphasize the inability of human beings to perfect anything. However, it is precisely in this that redemption lies, as Jan Swafford (2012) writes for Slate: “[Anthem] is a sort of gospel song celebrating the brokenness of life, everything flawed and incomplete, and the possibility of redemption in that.” Cohen builds a fundamental tension in his songs between darkness and light. Amid this opposition human beings can only hope to shed some light on the darkness of the world through their own brokenness and fragility. The red thread in all of Cohen’s songs is that everyday life is as sacred as religious space and time. An individual’s role in this quotidian is to bring redemption through one’s deep humanity.
In relationship to the Bible, this shows that the stories contained in the canonical Bibles started as human stories, focused on human experiences. Cohen reads the Bible for the way it witnesses to the primeval flaw of humanity and because it does not shrink from considering that flaw and even from working through it. In Cohen’s songs, the Bible is used as a tool for telling human life. Therein lies its value and its attraction for Cohen. Through Cohen’s use of these images, in return, the biblical images become witnesses to the fact that poetry and music are sacred experiences, which might provide some relief from the darkness of the world. Biblical texts are not used to determine who God is, or what God wants, but they are reconfigured and queered in order to fit in Cohen’s world, where darkness is kept at bay through our fragilities and our “cracks.” In his songs, Cohen works with biblical texts, thinks with biblical metaphors, in order to negotiate the chaos that for him defines the world.
- Lundberg, Stina. “Stina on Leonard Cohen.” www.webheights.net/speakingcohen/sl2001.htm. A transcript of a 2001 interview between Leonard Cohen and Stina Lundberg.
- Swafford, Jan. “Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas and the Genius of his Lyrics.” Slate, February 2012. www.Slate.com/articles/art/music_box/2012/02/ leonard_cohen_s_old_ideas_and_the_genius_of_his_lyrics_.html.
- Nadel, Ira B. Various Positions. A Life of Leonard Cohen. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007.
- Simmons, Sylvie. I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen. New York: HarperCollins, 2012.
- Holt, Jason, ed. Leonard Cohen and Philosophy. Chicago: Open Court, 2014. A book on Leonard Cohen and Philosophy exploring Cohen’s work from the point of view of various philosophical positions.