Perhaps it is Leonard Cohen’s rare wisdom — his soothing embrace of humanity in all its corruption — that makes the news of his passing a strange balm at a tumultuous time.
The world of Cohen’s writings and songs is dark, dirty, dystopian even. He flinched from no human frailty or flaw, whether it was personal (as in “The Future” — “Give me crack and anal sex”) or political (as in “Give me absolute control/over every human soul” from the same song).
Cohen had seen the future, and it was murder, yet he somehow held on to an intense hope and tenderness that imbue his work. “Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in,” he wrote in “Dance Me to the End of Love”, a song inspired by musicians in the Holocaust being forced to play next to the crematoria.
That line not only manages to extend a caressing hand across an unfathomable chasm of horror, it also expresses in words just what many of his listeners feel he did for them.
His achievement was, in song after song, to show that strength can be found in weakness and peace in turmoil — and perhaps it is only there that they can truly be found. The “crack in everything” is “how the light gets in”.
Cohen stands in a long tradition of mystic prophets — “I’m the little Jew / who wrote the Bible” — who recognise the link between the great worldly forces and the most intimate in us all:
“I’ve seen the nations rise and fall / I’ve heard their stories, heard them all/but love’s the only engine of survival”.
The rise and fall of nations is very much on people’s minds today. Some will ruefully be mouthing the verses from “Everybody Knows”: “Everybody knows that the war is over / Everybody knows the good guys lost / Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich / That’s how it goes / Everybody knows”.
But to stop there would be to take to heart only one half of Cohen’s art, and ignore the beauty in the world, which he never overlooked. He set an example in his personal life. He was reconciled to dying, and to saying goodbye.
His empathy was displayed in a letter to his old lover and muse — Marianne of the song — on her deathbed just months before he himself died: “Well Marianne . . . Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine”.
And this heart in the darkness, too, is political as well as personal. We must take the good with the ill and keep moving, Cohen seems to say in “Democracy”:
“Sail on, sail on
Oh mighty ship of State
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.”
He was a poet for our times because he was a poet for all times.
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