by JL Wall

Last night, I saw Leonard Cohen perform at the Chicago Theatre. Those brave gracious few who took the time to read what I had to say at phaidimoi logoi may already be familiar with my affinity for the man’s work – and my insistence that he’s not just singing about love and sex, even when he’s singing about love and sex.

I used to phrase it (at least to myself) that he was a little like John Donne: when he’s talking about romance, he’s talking about G-d; when he’s talking about G-d, he’s talking about romance. But it struck me in the middle of a song last night—and I forget which song, other than that it wasn’t “Hallelujah” because that song came in the second half of the show—that yes, it’s like Donne, and that line of Faulkner about Keats (“He’s talking about a girl.” “Well, he had to talk about something.”), but, more importantly to the purpose, it’s like the Song of Songs: the relationship between the human and the divine—the striving for each other—embodied in the imagery of a human romance.

This isn’t a quality found throughout Cohen’s work. His earlier writing has an arrogance to it—and is itself aware of (and not entirely comfortable with, I think) that arrogance. But something changes about mid-career—he becomes more reverent about the world, one might say—and it’s most prominent on Various Positions. Cohen himself described “If It Be Your Will” as “more a prayer than a song” than stemmed from “dark times” which eventually led him into that retreat from the world into Zen and “a rigorous study of religion.”

But back to the Song of Songs. Songs on Various Positions that are ostensibly about human romance begin to make more sense. In “Dance Me to the End of Love,” the addressed is leading the dance, and the one playing the music itself—and the title is rephrased as a request to “Show me slowly what I only / know the limits of”: with the wedding imagery, it feels strikingly like the songs of the Kabbalat Shabbat service. “If It Be Your Will” is undeniably a prayer (undeniably beautiful and deserves a lengthy essay of its own. The Shekhinah can be found in “Night Comes On” (or else I’m very, very guilty of the sin of over-reading). “Coming Back to You”: it’s bizarre as just a love song; add in a dash of t’shuvah, and it makes more sense: why is he looking for his former lover “in everyone”? How can the act of coming back occur while he’s alone in his room? And the fourth verse: this ideal lover has many loves, why is the beloved “choos[ing] the precious few” and why the need (and willingness!) for all of them to leave and move beyond pride and themselves?

(In relation to that last question, David Goldman at the First Things “Spengler” blog: “God’s love is what is terrifying, for it consumes the individual ego and annihilates the human sense of self.” – which is, he says, channeling the late Rabbi Soloveitchik, why the lovers elude each other – and must– in the Song of Songs.)

And “Hallelujah.” Writing for the Trib, Greg Kot completely misses the point:

The song about sex, temptation, adultery and religion spirals even further inward and becomes a meditation on the meaning — or perhaps the meaninglessness — of life. The shout of devotion morphs into an ecstatic cry and then a defeated moan. The interjection that means “Praise ye the Lord” turns hollow. In the end, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

“Maybe there’s a God above/And all I ever learned from love/Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.”

What’s wrong here is that this isn’t the final verse. It’s simply not the emotionally and spiritual moment at which the song ends. While he himself is perfectly willing to shuffle the order of the verses, Cohen – in every version I’ve heard (and thanks to Youtube, this is many) – ends with the declaration: “And even though it all went wrong, / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!” It all goes wrong, but he’s still proclaiming Hallelujah!, despite it. Defeated, nihilist moan it is not.  Rather, like the proclamations of love in the Song of Songs, it is the declaration of a spurned lover, still in search of the beloved.

It isn’t just about G-d, and by no means are all his writings. (Ignoring the other sides and aspects of his lyrics is also to cheapen them.) But to secularize his work can be to lose the depth and beauty of the words themselves.