Note: This article is the third in a series of articles exploring the influence of the great Sufi poets on Leonard Cohen. The first two articles are:
Much of Cohen’s music, especially in his later years, was about grace. How we don’t deserve it, but it makes its way into our lives anyway. “There is a crack in everything” he sang, “That’s how the light gets in.”[i] And the man himself embodied a kind of grace, especially on stage, where his humility and humour were readily felt. There are other singer-songwriters of his generation who have continued to make great music into their twilight years, but we sometimes have the sense with them that their music has cost them something, that they’ve paid a price in some way. This was not so with Cohen, who as an octogenarian tripped onto the stage like a fresh-faced twenty-something, and always seemed honoured that people had turned up to listen. Touchingly, he once said:
I’ve never gotten over the pleasure of someone covering one of my songs. My career has really been quite modest in the world and not many people have done so. Somehow my critical faculties go into a state of suspended animation when I hear someone’s covered one of my tunes. I’m not there to judge it, just to say thank you.[ii]
That the music business and celebrity never dominated his life may have something to do with this grace. Throughout most of his career, his commercial success was fairly limited, and he spent long periods away from recording and performing. He spent a significant time in Buddhist retreats, and listening to him we sense an inner spaciousness, a freedom and detachment from himself and his work that seem to me to be sure signs of grace manifesting in a human being.
Of the albums he made in his later years, Ten New Songs from 2001 is a strong contender for the finest. Musically it’s an unobtrusive soundscape: drum machine beats, muted piano and synthesizer, and occasional guitar. It’s somewhere between tasteful and perfunctory, but it does allow us to focus on the vocals and lyrics, which are exceptional. Two songs really stand out for me: “Love Itself” and “Alexandra Leaving”.
“Love Itself” is a song of sparse, measured beauty. Backed by Sharon Robinson’s serene vocals and a piano played achingly slowly, one key at a time, Cohen’s rumbling voice makes it feel like we are part of an intimate conversation. He’s leaning forward, one hand on our lapel, and he’s telling us about how he’s been watching dust:
In streams of light I clearly saw
The dust you seldom see,
Out of which the nameless makes
A name for one like me.
He feels himself becoming one with the flecks of dust and that together they are floating in a sea of Cosmic Love. Sensing that he must somehow rise to the occasion and reach for the ineffable, the melody shifts upwards, and Cohen offers these simple words to describe the experience:
I’ll try to say a little more:
Love went on and on.
Until it reached an open door –
Then Love Itself
Love Itself was gone.
I love the graceful letting go in these lines; the realisation that although Love is the most sublime quality of which we can conceive, still there is something even more transcendent beyond It, sending It forth and calling It back again.
Rumi addresses this in one of his ghazals:
And beyond the intellect, a beautiful Love
keeps on coming, skirt trailing, wine glass in hand.
And from beyond Love, that indescribable One,
who can only be called “That,” keeps on coming.[iii]
Rumi, too, identifies with dust when confronted with this “indescribable One”:
Dust settles upon my head and upon my metaphors,
for You are beyond anything we can either think or say.[iv]
“Alexandra Leaving” is a song based on a poem by the twentieth-century, Greek poet Cavafy. I was slow to appreciate the song, but a mentor of mine on the Sufi path helped me to hear its beauty. The original poem is, superficially at least, about the Roman general Antony losing the city of Alexandria to his enemies, but Cohen’s adaptation transforms the city into a woman: Alexandra. Perhaps both the city and the woman could, for us, represent any beloved (a place, a lover, a friend, a work of art) the loss of whom, or which, awakens us to the almost unbearably exquisite grace at work in our lives. It’s an ambiguous, paradoxical song, and it seems to hint that letting go of our beloved is what actually brings us into union:
Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The god of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.
Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.
It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
We might be reminded of how Rumi had to let go of his beloved friend and mentor, Shams, but in doing so seemed to become united with him on a deeper, subtler level. Such bitter-sweet paradox often seems to haunt the poetry of the great Sufis. Suffering and ecstasy go hand-in-hand in Hafez too:
Oh, ascetics, go away. Stop arguing with those
Who drink the bitter stuff, because it was precisely
This gift the divine ones gave us in Pre-Eternity.[v]
One of the blessings that Alexandra bestows on her lover is to make his ‘first commitments tangible again.” Hafiz may be referring to the Day of Alast mentioned in the Quran, a “day” quite beyond time in which Allah asked each of us “Am I not your Sustainer?” and to which we all responded “Yes!” To consider that our first, ecstatic commitment to God may somehow be at the core of our bitter suffering here on earth can leave the mind reeling.
Before he died, Cohen left us with the album You Want It Darker, which is, well… very dark, offering bleak perspectives that may at first seem at odds with the ecstasy we find in “Love Itself” and “Alexandra Leaving”. He was suffering from leukaemia and fractures in his spine. Pain, despair, and exhaustion come to the fore in many of the songs: “I’m angry and I’m tired all the time,” he confesses in “Treaty”. With the exception of one song of pure adoration (“If I Didn’t Have Your Love”), the songs seem more concerned with God’s awful stringency rather than God’s grace. He questions his faith, how God could allow our suffering, and also allow the subversion of religion into something horrific – yet this questioning is mostly addressed to God, and the sense of an intimate conversation is never broken. It’s full of paradox and irony, and at one moment he touchingly sings:
I’m so sorry for that ghost I made you be.
Only one of us was real and that was me.
When we have dismissed all our flimsy conceptions of God, then perhaps there will be something Real and Indescribable to whom we might offer our apology. In that moment, our anger, despair, and need may pour forth like Cohen’s. This is reminiscent of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, in which each bird has a limited conception of God: for the nightingale it is the rose; for the heron, the sea; for the hawk, the king for whom he hunts. The hoopoe challenges them to join him on a quest for the Truth that will mean leaving behind these limited conceptions. “Renounce delusion and prepare your wings,” the Hoopoe tells them. Eventually, after many trials, they discover God within themselves. Only one of us was real and that was Me…
Sufis do not aim to be supermen or superwomen, masochistically courting suffering. For the true Sufi, God is Greatest, not the human ego wishing to prove how much suffering it can bear, nor how sublime and paradoxical its conceptions of God may be. In fact, the Mevlevi Wird (a litany of daily prayers) has numerous passages which ask God to protect us from suffering and harm, and which also admit to our inability to adequately conceive of God. Meanwhile, Shams of Tabriz tells us, “Need is the foremost wing feather on the Way.”[vi]
What we might hear behind the bleak sense of failure and exhaustion in Cohen’s final album is a recognition of his own creaturely need and limitations – and ours too. In two of the songs, “It Seemed the Better Way” and “Steer Your Way”, he adopts the persona of a post-modern everyman, adrift in a world that is without meaning and surrounded by the rubble of former beliefs. “It Seemed the Better Way” with its haunting violin and acute irony is especially moving: this everyman seems to sense something deeply profound in the teaching of Jesus, but convinces himself it can’t be applicable today except as hollow ceremony. It’s heartbreaking, and our hearts need to be broken.
You Want It Darker may leave us with the haunting sense of having misunderstood, or completely missed, something infinitely precious in the message of the prophets, something which also haunts the edges and corners of our lives. If, in the post-modern world, this prophetic message seems to lie in dust about our feet, perhaps, with Cohen, we should take a closer look at that dust. We might even consider prostrating our heads there.
[i] “Anthem” from the album The Future
[iii] “Keeps on Coming” from Love’s Ripening, trans. Kabir Helminski and Ahmad Rezwani (Divani Shamsi Tabrizi 2897)
[iv] “You Are Joy” from The Rumi Daybook, trans. Kabir and Camille Helminski (Mathnawi V, 3319)
[v] “The Night Visit” from The Angels Knocking on the Tavern Door, trans. Robert Bly and Leonard Lewisohn
[vi] “The Great Wings of Need”, from Rumi’s Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz, trans. Refik Algan and Camille Helminski