August 19, 1998
Do you know of
Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter and poet? I've just finished a novel Cohen
published in 1966, the year of my birth. Entitled Beautiful Losers, the novel
is haunting and lyrical in the highest of North American modes. I'm amazed I'd
never heard of this book before. Cohen is a major writer. Here, almost at
random, I copy out a paragraph on Spring's arrival in Montreal:
Spring comes into
Quebec from the west. It is the warm Japan Current that brings the change of
season to the east coast of Canada, and then the West Wind picks it up. It
comes across the prairies in the breath of the Chinook, waking up the grain and
caves of bears. It flows over Ontario like a dream of legislation, and it
sneaks into Quebec, into our villages, between our birch trees. In Montreal the
cafes, like a bed of tulip bulbs, sprout from their cellars in a display of
awnings and chairs. In Montreal spring is like an autopsy. Everyone wants to
see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh
is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual
manifesto rises like an inflating tire, "The winter has not killed us
again!" Spring comes into Quebec from Japan, and like a prewar Crackerjack
prize it breaks the first day because we play too hard with it. Spring comes
into Montreal like an American movie of Riviera Romance, and everyone has to
sleep with a foreigner, and suddenly the house lights flare and it's summer,
but we don't mind because spring is really a little flashy for our taste, a
little effeminate, like the furs of Hollywood lavatories. Spring is an exotic
import, like rubber love equipment from Hong Kong, we only want it for a special
afternoon, and vote tariffs tomorrow if necessary.
One blurb on the
back of my copy of Beautiful Losers hails Cohen in
the following words: "James Joyce is not dead.... He lives in Montreal
under the name of Cohen...writing from the point of view of Henry Miller."
What can one do with this kind of review? These guys always see it as their job
to label new writers with the names of the recently famous. A sorry practice.
And what of James Joyce himself? Did the reviewers give us things like:
"Flaubert is not dead.... He lives in Trieste under the name of
Joyce...writing from the point of view of Andre Breton." Probably they did
write such things. And what about Flaubert? "Balzac is not dead.... He
lives in Rouen under the name of Flaubert...writing from a point of view that
leaves us clueless." One could go on and on like this. And of course it’s
much easier to play tag in this way than it is to define what is singular
about a writer's work.
singular about Cohen's novel? One
main characteristic stands out. Cohen's writing is charged with a biblical
rhetoric: his sense of the meaning and pain of experience is biblical. In Beautiful
Losers he forces this rhetoric into intercourse with the things of our
everyday world: the slogans, spaces, politics and detritus of capitalist North
America. The hard symphony Cohen wrings from these elements is authentic: they are
raised into a lyric cry whose reality is grounded in the writer's
real spiritual need: his need for light, for revolution, for the real matrix
from which miracles may arise. This is rare in our writers.
Losers carries two major burdens. One of them is the spiritual legacy of
the Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, the seventeenth century Iroquois Catholic many pray will be canonized as the first native American saint. One might
say that Cohen is a Montreal Jew deeply infected with the Catholic visions of
his neighbors. Though his implicit distance from the Catholic hierarchy and
official tradition may be obvious, there are imagery and metaphors
grounded in the Catholic culture of Quebec on nearly every page of his work.
burden is that pan-Occidental question of how secular history, how the history Enlightenment has taught us to see, relates to the divine realities we
still know. It would be interesting to try to extract a historical philosophy
from Cohen's many little hints. (It would be a labor not unlike defining the prophet Isaiah's notion of history.) It is clear Cohen places, or at one time placed, some hope
in a kind of leftist Messianism. But in Beautiful Losers there are
glimpses of cynicism and despair, his suspicion that, in terms of the
presence of the divine in the world, it will never get better than it is now. History is always a dreary constant: the
Messiah will never come. Cohen's political-psychological realism can be seen in
passages like the following:
What is most
original in a man's nature is often that which is most desperate. Thus new
systems are forced on the world by men who simply cannot bear the pain of
living with what is. Creators care nothing for their systems except that they
be unique. If Hitler had been born in Nazi Germany he wouldn't have been
content to enjoy the atmosphere. If an unpublished poet discovers one of his
own images in the work of another writer it gives him no comfort, for his
allegiance is not to the image or its progress in the public domain, his
allegiance is to the notion that he is not bound to the world as given, that he
can escape from the arrangement of things as they are.
struggles with the weight of an intellectual maturity uncharacteristic of the
Beat writers. Although much in this book may place him with Ginsberg and
friends, Beautiful Losers is a novel on
another level. It is literature of a stronger breed. It is true the book is
excessive in places--one might happily excise twenty or thirty pages, marking
big black X's here and there--but such excess doesn’t impinge on the power of
has ended up being a sort of book review in its own right, H. I initially
intended just to mention Cohen and praise his novel in a few lines. But I felt
it deserved more.
as well an interview with Leonard Cohen that appeared in Jewish Book News.
If you don't
have any of his music already, go out and buy a CD of The Best of Leonard
Cohen. But maybe you’re
already quite familiar with Cohen.
sage of Ecclesiastes writes:
Better a good
name than costly oil,
the day of death than the day of birth.
Better go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
the heart of fools is in this house of gaiety.
Better attend to a wise man's reprimand
than listen to a song sung by a fool.
For like the crackling of thorns under a cauldron
is the laughter of fools:
this is vanity, too.
For laughter makes a fool of the wise man
and merriment corrupts the heart. (7:1-8)
All of this is
true, as is the following:
Better the joys
of youth than the wisdom of age;
better flowing wine than an ageless name.
Better go to the house of feasting
than the house of mourning;
cold death is where all men will end,
and unseasonable gravity brings the grave before its time.
Better laughter than sadnes,
a joyful face calls men together.
Only fools vaunt grave mugs here:
the wise can see through their designs.
The songs of folly are often wiser
than the paragraphs of wisdom.
Those ever advising are like broken chimneys over abandoned hearths:
no fire, no warmth, only the soot of years gone by.
Fools are most visible in their seriousness,
and constant gravity rots the heart.
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