August 19, 1998

Dear H.:

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.

What is 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.

Beautiful 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.

The other 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.

Cohen's lyricism 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 the rest.

This letter 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.

I'm sending 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.


And P.S.--

Qoheleth the 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.

Order it direct from Amazon.com.




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