Lectionary resources for worship, faith formation, and service
(ATV Music Publishing, Nashville, 2016)
by Susan McCaslin
Originally Published by Hamilton Arts & Letters
One of my favourite poets, John Keats, wrote in his letters about what he called “Negative Capability,” a state where humans are “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (letter to his brothers, Dec. 1817).
When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s last cd, You Want It Darker, the songs seemed negative or dark in the sense of expressing despair or a loss of faith. Yet on second and subsequent listenings, I found myself strangely uplifted by both the tone of the lyrics and the music. For me, Cohen’s final offering is a contemporary expression of Negative Capability, or “dark capacity.”
Cohen’s album can be located within two traditions. One is the memento mori tradition of the meditation on death, as exemplified by Hamlet’s “Alas, poor Yorick” speech, where the hero grasps in his hand the skull of his old friend, the court jester, lamenting how all comes to dust. Cohen is known for being in both life and lyrics a Hamlet-like melancholic. No one could accuse him of being rollickingly light-hearted. Yet he often expresses an ironic sense of humour, as when he claims in gravelly tones, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” (“Tower of Song,” I’m Your Man, 1988). He also reaches heights of serenity in songs like “Sisters of Mercy (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967),” “If It Be Your Will” (Various Positions, 1984) and “The Song of Bernadette (Cohen, Warnes, & Elliott, Famous Blue Raincoat, 1986),” In one sense, he has consistently put himself “on the level” with both death and despair, as well as grace, as in his much-loved “Hallelujah.”
In You Want It Darker Cohen does not examine death from afar, but sings from the very process of it, staring it in the eye. These songs, produced by his son Adam, were performed in a specially made chair when Cohen was in great pain; yet he had enough verve to get out of the chair and dance. The listener is invited to receive them as his last words about his final dance with death.
Like David Bowie’s last album, Black Star, Cohen’s is a courageous, unflinching pre-enactment of death itself. He writes his own requiem, replete with music and words from his Jewish heritage. The opening lyric, “You Want It Darker,” employs a Jewish cantor and sighing violins. In the second song, “Treaty,” the desired treaty is not only a peace treaty between himself and God or the divine presence with whom he wrestles but may suggest the Jewish covenant between the Holy One and Israel. Because of its many allusions in the song to the life of Jesus (the “bloody hill” of Calvary, the water and the wine), the song also plays with a possible treaty between the figure of Jesus (who for Cohen could be his Jewish brother, a radical insurrectionist mystic rather than the founder of Christianity) and himself.
The second tradition of Cohen’s last album evokes what some might see as a form of agnosticism (an unknowing about the mysteries of life and death). However, if we look back to the Middle Ages, “unknowing” is not equivalent to modern or postmodern skepticism, but ties to the theology of “apophatic mysticism,” or the way of denial of certainties about God, the Holy One, and other metaphors by which we attempt to name the unnameable. This tradition is well-represented by the fourteenth-century anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, who encourages the seeker to “strike that thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account whatever think of giving up.” This impulse is a form of Eros or desire for the infinite that resists linear ways of knowing. Rather than remaining in depression and despair, the lover of the divine mystery falls into a posture of humility before what is larger than the individual selfhood. This is a state that holds in abeyance doctrine, belief, and truths of the past, but enters the deeper spaces of the heart. It is not a place of consolation and promises, but a place in the present moment where doubts and uncertainties can be expressed and held. It is a threshold to the unimagined, but here one cannot claim to have “seen the light” or been healed. It is, in fact, where one is present with extreme pain and fear, simply observing but not clinging to them either.
Interestingly, Cohen’s album cover and liner notes are not printed in a monochromatic black, but in black tempered by shades of grey, brown, and tan. On the inner cover of the cd is a graphic image of a dove flying either into or out of a parallelogram, suggestive of the dove that was released by Noah from the ark to become a harbinger of dry land and refuge. However, here the dove of peace does not bear the olive branch. The image is ambivalent. Will the dove find harbour? Cohen leaves the question open.
After meditating further on the songs, I noticed a nexus of allusions to the figure of Jesus. When growing up, Cohen’s Irish-Catholic nanny introduced him to the figure of Christ, and his upbringing in Montreal opened him to a fascination with Catholic saints, icons, and images, as his early songs “The Sisters of Mercy, and “Suzanne” suggest: “Jesus was a sailor, when he walked upon the water/ and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower…” (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967). Yet his embrace of Christian stories and metaphors does not make him an incipient Christian. He remains an inter-spiritual writer synthesizing elements of Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and the universals of Christianity, moved by scripture and ritual, but never dogmatic.
In his last songs, Cohen focuses on a quarrel between himself and the Jesus figure. Cohen’s early friend and fellow poet Irving Layton was, like Cohen, educated at McGill in Montreal. Layton had a similar ambivalent relationship with the figure of Jesus, as expressed in his volume of poetry, For My Brother Jesus (McClelland & Stewart, 1967). He inveighed against Christianity because of what he saw as its appropriation and diminishment of the Hebrew Bible, its contributions to anti-Semitism throughout the Middle Ages, and its role in the Holocaust. Yet Layton claims Jesus as a revolutionary Jewish prophet.
The song “It Seemed the Better Way” is replete with an apparent repudiation of the Jesus figure: “It seemed the better way, / When first I heard him speak / But now it’s much too late/ To turn the other cheek.” Cohen continues, “At first he touched on love/ But then he touched on death.” Cohen first alludes to an episode from The Gospel of John where Jesus speaks of Mary of Bethany’s desire to converse with Jesus as “the better way” over that of Martha her sister who fusses over household matters. In Medieval tradition, Mary’s “better way” was interpreted as that of the mystic or contemplative. And “turning the other cheek” is Jesus’ well-known teaching to not resist evil but to love one’s enemy. The lines, “I wonder what it was / I wonder what it meant/ At first he touched on love / But then he touched on death,” could suggest that Jesus “touched on” (covered) the subjects of love and death in his teachings. But the more existential meaning could be that Jesus experienced (touched down on) both love and death in his life and crucifixion by Rome. The apparent focus of this song is that Cohen once was drawn to the figure of Jesus but can no longer believe in this “better way.” Being meek and mild doesn’t always seem to work as an absolute. Yet when he says that these things “seemed the truth” but “aren’t the truth today,” he is more likely pointing out that collectively our cultures seldom operate on principles of love and forgiveness coming out of our primary interconnectedness.
The song “Treaty” which reappears at the end of the sequence, is where the Jesus allusions are most evident, as the Cohen speaker addresses him directly: “I seen you change the water into wine/ I seen you change it back to water too/ I sit at your table every night/ I try but I just don’t get high with you.” In the extremis of dying, the speaker cannot relate to the Jesus of cultural tradition, but still expresses the longing for a “treaty” or a “truce” of reconciliation: “I wish there was a treaty/ Between your love and mine.” Then he adds, “You were my ground – my safe and sound/ You were my aerial.” The beautiful metaphor of the “aerial” suggests an antenna oriented toward the realms of mercy and love. So the poem may be less a rejection of the Jesus of the imagination, than a lamentation. The “you” Cohen addresses could be both a Jesus figure and a divine “Thou” whose presence provides spiritual orientation.
In the song, “Travelling Light,” Cohen also uses the phrase “the you” in a way that suggests the relation of an I and a “thou” or divine other: “I guess I’m just / Somebody who / Has given up / On the [italics mine] me and you.” Here the definite article suggests both a lover or human other and possibly a divine other where the relationship is not an I-it configuration, but one of mutual difference within unity rather than objectification. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s classic book, I and Thou (1923 & 1937), explores this ground. This song is the “lightest” in mood of any in the album, as it sings of with divesting oneself of “baggage” when travelling toward death. The music suggests a jaunty caravan song evoking younger days.
As I listened further, I came to feel the album wasn’t nearly as heavy as I had first assumed. This is not only due to the lyrics, but to the music itself. In the opening song, “You Want It Darker,” the Shar Hashomayan Synagogue Choir sets the tone, which is taken up by the soloist cantor, Gideon Y. Zelermyer. Cohen honours the Jewish tradition of Kaddish, the mourning of the dead, by bringing us to the world of a synagogue and inviting us to become participants in an ancient religious ceremony. The chorus, “Hineni Hineni,” meaning, “Here I am. Send me,” are the words of Abraham to God, indicating total availability. “Hineni” also can be translated as, “I’m listening, I’m present, I’m available to serve. The beauty of the voices conjoined by the words express how God or the divine unity itself “wants it darker” as we approach death, but we ourselves “kill the flame.” This could refer to our own killing of the light, or as our participation in severing the threads of life when death comes, rather than clinging to life. The refrain, “I’m ready, my Lord,” hardly implies a rejection of faith, but is rather an acceptance of the way the darkness and the light interweave.
Cohen’s lyrics must be read at multiple levels. In the phrase, “You want it darker,” the “you” primarily refers to God or the divine, that opens us to love through dark nights of the soul. Yet it could also include our collective culture that has chosen a path carved out by greed and self-interest. In this sense, Cohen’s lyrics are prophetic. It is indeed uncanny that he died one day before Trump won the presidency. However, in the Hebrew Bible, a prophet is not merely someone who predicts the future, but a visionary who sees so deeply into the present that his or her words contain the potentialities of the future.
In his album The Future, Cohen declares, “I’m the little Jew who wrote the bible,” not inflating his status, but presenting prophecy as something that pours through artists and visionaries, of whom he is one. In Judaism, the prophet is an advocate for social justice, not merely someone speaking about other-worldly realities. In the last song, “Steer Your Way,” Cohen uses his ironic humour by changing the words of the patriotic American “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from “As he [Christ] died to make men holy, / Let us die to make men free” to “As he died to make men holy, /Let us die to make things cheap.” The parody of the patriotic “hymn” suggests that an imperialist culture wages wars to exploit cheap labour in other parts of the world.
Finally, the “String Reprise” at the end of the album is a serene and tender instrumental consisting of violin, viola, and cello which circles back to the theme of seeking a treaty, in this case a peace treaty, between ourselves and whatever we conceive as ultimate reality. How we name this mystery is not important. The words are expressed not as an assertion, but as a longing, which is where this album leaves us—in the arms of desire without offering final answers.
Cohen’s last message to us is that we are human because we long, not because we know.
 John Keats, in English Romantic Poets, ed. David Perkins (San Francisco: Harcourt, 1967), 1967.
 The Cloud of Unknowing, trans. Clifton Wolters (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1973), 54.