Among the singer-songwriters who emerged in the latter part of the 1960s, Leonard Cohen was something of an oddity. Alastair Pirrie observed in 1973, in a review of Cohen’s LP Songs of Love and Hate: “[Cohen] says that he has no concept of religion in his life but, strangely enough, he sings a song about Joan of Arc.” At the time, Cohen wrote the song off as an anomaly: “It was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence. When I recorded that song I will admit to having a strong religious feeling. I don’t think it’ll happen again.”
But in fact, this pattern would characterize his life’s work. Throughout a long and storied career, brought to a close by his death last week, Cohen evinced a remarkable respect for religion and disdain for secularism. Though he would often protest that he “wasn’t really a religious man,” Cohen seemed unable to sing or speak for very long without bringing up God.
He described his lifelong battle with depression as having defined his character: “I could either have gone under with it or luckily fallen upon certain solutions for it that I have. One was that curious activity called art. And again, that curious activity called religion.” For Cohen, these curious activities were often one and the same. Religious themes, often present in his songs, were yet more explicit in his poetry and his interviews.
Long before he became a successful singer, Cohen was an unsuccessful poet. His 1956 compilation Let Us Compare Mythologies contains poems like “For Wilf and His House,” which opens: “When young the Christians told me / how we pinned Jesus / like a lovely butterfly against the wood, / and I wept beside paintings of Calvary / at velvet wounds / and delicate twisted feet.” Cohen’s interest in Christ, coupled with his pain at Christian anti-Semitism, are laid out for the reader.
Cohen was equally forthright when, in a 1986 interview with Robert Sword, he spoke of how we “sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we’re also aware of our own will, and it’s the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion.” The mystery is found in “the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent.”
Even when this mystery was not on the surface of Cohen’s work, it was often present just below. Take one of his popular songs, “The Captain.” On the surface, it does not seem religious. But it contains a cryptic line: “Complain, complain, that’s all you do, ever since we lost. If it’s not the Crucifixion, then it’s the Holocaust.”
The journalist Robert O’Brian asked Cohen about this line in a 1987 interview. Cohen responded: “What I mean to say is that there are many things about Christianity that attract me. The figure of Jesus is extremely attractive. It’s difficult not to fall in love with that person.” After praising Christ’s emphasis on resurrection and rebirth, he concluded, “When we have this notion that there is no mechanism for resurrection, there is no redemption from sin, then we are forced to embrace evil and we get the kind of activity like genocide.”
Another popular song, “Ain’t No Cure for Love,” is at first glance a simple love song. The “surface to the song,” as Cohen said, is the story of “a man who could not shake the feeling that he had lost the woman of his life and that there was no solution to this problem, and that even time was not a solution.” Beneath the surface, however, was what Cohen described as a “kind of theological or philosophical position”—namely, that “the condition that most elevates us is the condition that most annihilates us, that somehow the destruction of the ego is involved with love,” after which “you can never again feel at the center of your own drama.”
This idea, Cohen recognized, pointed toward Calvary. After all, “if the wound of Jesus comes to express his love for mankind then it will never heal.” For someone who described himself as having “no religious aptitude,” that’s quite a profound insight.
Joe Heschmeyer is a seminarian at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome.