Leonard Cohen was a Canadian, but he was the poet laureate of another nation: a nation of souls by turns sensitive, lost, alienated, ecstatic, bitter—souls seeking truth through the fog of modernity. Cohen was one of those rock-era poets (and arguably the only genuine poet among them) who sounded like he knew something of the utmost importance, even as he spent most of his time sidestepping every certainty and making the most of every mystery.
His songs could enthrall people of virtually every brand of belief—even those whose belief was unbelief. In his final year of life, Christopher Hitchens, who billed himself as an aggressive atheist, wrote a piece reflecting on the loss of his voice to cancer, and more generally on the significance of voice to one's identity. He had been listening (at the suggestion of friends) to Leonard Cohen, and he made special note of Cohen's song “If It Be Your Will,” which goes like this:
If if be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will
The song (transparently a prayer, even if you didn't know how Cohen introduced it in concert) moves abruptly, psalm-like, from this submission to the divine will to a pleading, complete with desperate deal-making, for that will to change:
If it be your will
That a voice be true
From this broken hill
I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will
To let me sing
It's not hard to imagine how devastatingly on-the-mark this prayer would be for someone who had lost his actual voice and was facing the loss of his life. Hitchens allowed that he found it “best not [to] listen to this late at night,” in this way evading the point while conceding it.
I plead guilty to having been one of those lost and (on a bad day) bitter souls attracted to the sound of Cohen’s mysteries. I became a listener in the 1980s, during my adolescence. At a certain later point, I fell out of love with Leonard Cohen’s songs, having acquired a notion that he was only fooling around. This notion likely had something to do with my hearing that he had moved into a Zen Buddhist monastery; this news came alongside my awareness that his songs were filled with all kinds of religious images and references, which cannily pushed the buttons of a broad panoply of wandering spirits. But I didn’t want my buttons pushed as a form of spiritual entertainment. I didn’t want to indulge in even the most clever ramblings of a disconnected religious tourist. I wanted to hear from someone who wasn’t playing around at all. Eventually I settled on Jesus as being that one.
But it turned out that Leonard Cohen wasn’t quite finished with me. Years later, I happened on an interview he had given after leaving the Zen Buddhist monastery. He made it clear that his time there hadn’t been about finding a new religion. His “old religion,” Judaism, was still his religion, he said. The monastery had given him a structured life and daily purpose, which saved him in a time of listlessness and depression but did not require the worship of any other god. (These points were revisited in his recent interview in the New Yorker.)
Understanding that Cohen was religiously rooted in Judaism—that Judaism wasn’t merely another reference to be plucked and inserted at the right moment into a lyric—transformed the way I heard his songs. It mattered somehow beyond measure that there was a truth that Cohen conceded, a specific altar at which he worshiped (regardless of his level of orthodoxy). To be sure, it was there in the songs and poems already, but I had been sufficiently insensitive or skeptical as to need it to be confirmed in this other way.
Leonard Cohen’s work is not that of a religious tourist, but that of a religious alchemist. His use of both Jewish and non-Jewish religious references is not ironic mockery, but a feature of his poetic gift for finding the unity in all these things. The human struggle and search is the same, even if we have different starting points, and even while we are loyal to that which we have been granted the gift of having faith in. So, when he sings, in one of his latter-day tunes: “Show me the place / Where the word became a man / Show me the place / Where the suffering began,” the place is Genesis 1 and John 1, together. Cohen is an Old Testament poet who can comprehend the New Testament without great strain or contradiction. That itself is no small thing; it’s arguably of immeasurable significance.
It might seem painfully clichéd, but I think the only sensible way of talking about Leonard Cohen is to say that his life was a spiritual journey, one documented in great detail in his work and one in which many of us are grateful to see something of our own meanderings. It was a journey for Cohen in which he didn’t go very far, from beginning to end, but the nearly imperceptible distance he did finally travel was crucial. Some time after he had left the Zen monastery, in the early 2000s, something was lifted from him, and among other things this allowed him to consummate his life’s work with a great deal of powerful late material and live performances. His relief is explicit enough in the opening verse of “Born in Chains,” a song that he said had taken him forty years to write (or perhaps to be able to write):
I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden but the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the name, the name be praised
But away from the emotional intensity of this and other songs, I believe that Cohen also dealt with the crucial moment in the lightest of ways, in a poem titled “A Limited Degree,” from his 2006 collection Book of Longing:
As soon as I understood
(even to a limited degree)
that this is G-d’s world
I began to lose weight
At this very moment
I am wearing
my hockey uniform
from the Sixth Grade
Leonard Cohen’s work links the absurd, the holy, and the profane, imagining, if you will, a universe in which they all coexist. His songs and poems will continue to intrigue and seduce many souls poised restlessly on the ledge between alienation and enlightenment. The good news, I submit, is that this seduction will not end with dissatisfaction.
Sean Curnyn is a writer living in New York City.