Saturday, November 11, 2006

A Command of Leonard Cohen's Politics

Andrew Sullivan brings up an interesting -- though quite likely extraordinarily wrong -- analysis of the politics of Leonard Cohen, beginning with his song, Anthem. After quoting a few lines, Sullian is inspired to write: "We have to win this war. And we have managed to get rid of some of the madmen who were busy losing it, and exposed some of the charlatans who were enabling them. It's a start..."?

Note this is the second time this month that Sullivan has quoted from L.C's most overtly political album, The Future. I have absolutely zero direct knowledge of Leonard Cohen's politics, but in his music they are usually conveyed with either irony or ambivalence, or both.

When Cohen sings in "Anthem" for example, "Cant run no more /With the lawless crowd / While the killers in high places /Say their prayers out loud /But theyve summoned up / A thundercloud / And theyre going to hear from me," he doesn't seem convincingly serious. That is, I don't really take Cohen to be Batman, or the Old Testament God, or something. Isn't this the ironic Leonard Cohen, the "Field Commander," who being the "most important spy was "wounded in the line of duty, parachuting acid into diplomatic cocktail parties, urging Fidel Castro to abandon fields and castles," etc? Isn't this Leonard Cohen the same as one whose name is printed in bold, and whose face along with two ladies appears above an album titled "Death of a Ladies Man"? The same one who after being "Sentenced to twenty years of boredom" promises revolution first by taking Manhattan and then Berlin?

The Future, admittedly, seems like a departure from these earlier songs I've been citing. But where it may lack in irony, it makes up for it in ambivalence. On the Revelations-esque "The Future" he sings, "give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and St. Paul. I've seen the future, brother, and it's muder." A few songs later, though, we get the two songs Sullivan cites: one of a vague Biblibal vengeance against those who have "summoned up a thundercloud," and the other of "Democracy is Coming to the U.S.A."

At the conclusion of this little Tocquevillian bit, Cohen sings, "I love the country but I can't stand the scene. And I'm neither left nor right, I'm just staying home tonight, geting lost in that hopless little screen." Where Sullivan here would likely pick up on -- and identify with -- "I'm neither left nor right" I tend to focus on Cohen's first sentence, where again, that detached irony returns. This is a songwriter, I think, who is genuinely interested in political questions. He's simply incredibly aware of his own weakness, or indifference, or some combination. "Field Commander Cohen" is I think the greatest expression of his political yearnings (on perhaps his greatest album, New Skin for the Old Ceremony), along with the greatest expression of his inevitable political failures. As in "First we Take Manhattan" he brings up with issue of "boredom," which it seems he associates with his career as an artist, these "forms of boredom advertised as poetry." The life of the poet is quite far -- perhaps contrary to Walter Benjamin's belief -- from the messianic role of healer and do-gooder. The song urges the Field Commander (or is it Castro?) to retire to the normal complexities of modern life, and to poetry. Yet, once removed the life of action and politics, what becomes of the poet? His role seems rather irresponsible while "many men are falling, where you promised to stand guard." Then, we return to the ultimate ironic self-consciousness:

I never asked but I heard you cast your lot along with the poor.
But then I overheard your prayer,
that you be this and nothing more
than just some grateful faithful woman's favourite singing millionaire,
the patron Saint of envy and the grocer of despair,
working for the Yankee Dollar.

While Cohen would perhaps like to cast his lot with the poor, there's little doubt that he at the very least struggles to avoid these last traits. Of course he's envious and full of despair (what else do you think of when you think of Leonard Cohen?) Of Course he profits off of his poetry.

These songs remain fairly ambiguous, but I think this ambiguity -- especially when concerned with politics -- is quite purposeful. At the end of the day, Cohen simply says what about a million other poets have said before, but perhaps says it a bit better. While he's fearful of the future, and yet desparate and hopeful for change, he's well aware that life is about more than fighting for these things, and that he is incapable of dedicating himself entirely to a life of fighting injustice. (Perhaps here would be a good time to bring up the fact that, biographically, Cohen became a Buddhist monk: the perfect expression of despair (the recognition of human suffering) and hope (not so much in poetry, but meditation.) To be critical, in other words, he wants to be both descriptively ambiguous -- not saying exactly what's wrong with the world, only that something's not right -- and prescriptively ambiguous -- ironically calling for revolution, or retribution, or divine intervention at times, and at other times calling for poetry, or sex.

So, back to where we began, I think Sullivan's rather full of shit (dare I call him "intellectually dishonest!") to use Leonard Cohen in support of a renewed military effort in Iraq. There's plenty of other poems he could have chosen to get that fighting spirit going. Leonard Cohen, however, remains a rather odd choice.


ps. How many senior theses have been written on this topic? I shudder to think...

8 Comments:

Blogger The Sheriff said...

I'm no huge Cohen fan, I won't admit to it, although I'd like to be. But in any case isn't there just a totally huge counterexample of Sullivan's Use and Abuse of Leonard Cohen in "The Partisan"? Sure it's ambiguous, If you see the US lead war as a French Resistance fighter against the 'Germans" of "Old Europe"? But otherwise, I have to say that this song rings loud in the trenches of Sadr City, Maoist Nepal, and the Classics Department in Stanford.

10:22 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

as a PS, apparently Cohen once dedicated the song to the four students killed in Kent State, Ohio

5:44 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

I agree with you completely. Sullivan's use of Cohen is nauseatingly inappropriate. I don't think Cohen could be cited properly by any pundit, for the exact reasons you identify. Cohen's music is so filled with ambiguity and pessimism that his thoughts just cannot be cited as part of a coherent argument for any action, political or otherwise. His broad prophecies do, as you tell us, remind one of those in the Old Testament because they are so broad and indefinite that they could be fulfilled by pretty much anything.
If senior theses have not been written on this topic, I think they should be and I would love to read them, because this is a really good example of literary interpretation gone wrong. If, without knowing Cohen's music, you listened to either of the songs Sullivan cited on its own, or simply read them, you might think that Sullivan was correct. But, heard within the context of Cohen’s greater corpus, these songs clearly indicate a lack of a political message, perhaps an anti-political message.
All of this reminds me of the most heavily Cohen-impregnated months of my life, during which I was mulling over a lot Leo Strauss and Saul Bellow and living in Germany. Cohen, Bellow and Strauss all seem to have started with a certain Nietzschean relativity and taken it in different directions. Cohen, being a great pessimist, obviously enjoys music thoroughly but cannot escape the fact that it has no higher meaning than he can give it. Strauss values intellect greatly and latches onto this as his most important criterion of value. Bellow is somehow able to garner some optimism, perhaps because he is acutely concerned with the humor of modern life. A typical zany and overreaching undergraduate thesis might attempt to show some commonality among these three, and show how self-consciously Jewish intellectuals and artists made different but related choices in their interpretations of the world.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

The trouble, austin, is that you are the only suitable non-Jew out there to write such a thesis (I'm perhaps wrongly counting on the fact that Pepe is illiterate in all things related to music after 500 c.e.). But I genuinely think something like that would be a great idea -- and a lot of fun, of course.

Speaking of the vision of Leonard Cohen in Sadr City, Nepal, Germany, wherever, I must say that I wouldn't be surprised. He is at least twice as famous on this side of the ocean as he is on the other side. One of the strangest Spanish cinematic moment I've experienced was while watching "Salvador." Despite being a heavily political movie about the last person executed under Franco, there is nonetheless a somewhat malapropos moment when the young political prisoner (in a flashback) has sex with a beautiful girl, smokes hash, and together sing Cohen's "Suzanne" in English. As to why the hell they chose this song to ostensibly symbolize the soon to be Western freedoms that these two were fighting for, I have no clue.

10:24 AM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

What the hell is with everybody in the known world outside the US loving, loving bryan adams?

5:20 PM  
Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

You are absolutely correct about Bryan Adams. I forgot to mention that the summer in Germany included not only Cohen, Strauss and Bellow but Bryan Adams as well. I focused mostly on perfecting the "Oh, yeah!" after "Those were best days of my life" in "Summer of '69". The song was played every night I went out.
Robot, Sheriff, and D-Tron-
You are ambassadors for our country. Please remind those outside of it that Bryan Adams is little heard outside of horrible "classic rock" stations.

11:27 PM  
Blogger The Sheriff said...

I've tried, but every single Egyptian and European who I talk to not only loves Bryan Adams, but for some reason I think is really hoping that I love his music as well when it's brought up. The biggest problem I've noticed here is that divergence among tastes is negligible. Everyone has the same Bryan Adams songs, the same Arabic songs that are presently popular, the same few Metallica songs, the same few house tracks. I really just want to find some shitty cairo garage band, just to hear some bad rock and roll even.

5:17 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

People with bad tastes in music can all, like, eat shit and die for all I care. I mean, yuk!

6:31 PM  

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