Mortality, Jewishness & Leonard Cohen’s Comedic Moments

In the wake of Leonard Cohen’s passing, I reached for a book of his poetry that I have – from time to time – taken up and slowly read: The Book of Longing (2006).  Each of the poems in this book is dense with mortality and a distinct Jewish sensibility that, to my mind, begs for interpretation. Cohen, like a Kabbalist of sorts, writes very symbolic poetry that is based on a longing for G-d’s presence (Cohen spells “God” as would a religious person who wants to preserve the mystery of God’s name, as “G-d”).

While his poetry is deadly serious, one will also find an unexpected comical element in it as well. But this is harder to find and when I recently came across a video – shared with me by a friend – of Cohen doing stand-up comedy (in the late 60s), I felt it necessary to write something brief – but respectful – about how a comic and a deeply mortal sense of his Jewishness can be found in his work.  To this end, I will juxtapose some of his poems with a documentary on Cohen (by the National Film Board of Canada) that ironically casts him as a stand-up comedian so as to show the tragic-comic thread that runs through some of his work.

In the first poem, “The Book of Longing,” Cohen immediately notes a Biblical distance between himself and G-d while at the same time bearing his brokenness.  Art seems to mediate this relationship and state of being:

I can’t make the hills
The system is shot
I’m living on pills
For which I thank G-d

I followed the course
From chaos to art
Desire the horse
Depression the cart

I sailed like a swan
I sank like a rock
But time is long gone
Past my laughing stock

In the right corner of the page is the image of a naked woman – in profile – with most of her back to the viewer. She may be a symbol of the divine feminine presence that his “Book of Longing” is dedicated to.  He depicts her, at the end of the poem, in terms of a mystical moment that he desires and believes will come:

She’ll step on the path
She’ll see what I mean
My will cut in half
And freedom between

For less than a second
Our lives will collide
The endless suspended
The door open wide

Then she will be born
To someone like you
What no has done
She will continue to do

I know she is coming
I know she will look
And that is the longing
And this is the book

Later in the book, Cohen meditates on faith. He ironically relates to it fun – because faith makes him long and suffer – and suggests something comical:

It is so much fun
To believe in G-d
You must try it sometime
Try it now
and find out whether
or not
G-d wants you
to believe in Him.

Notice that “You” and “Him” are capitalized. He is daring the reader to take up faith in an ironic manner. The voice of the poem asks that you search and find out whether G-d wants your belief. It’s a challenge.

Cohen’s belief is at once comical and deeply mortal. In a poem called “Thing,” he sees himself as a creature, a thing that “needs to sing” to her (his beloved in the flesh and the feminine presence of G-d), to G-d, and to what he calls – with an obvious sexual allusion –  “my baby’s lower fur”:

I am this thing that needs to sing
I love to sing
To my beloved’s other thing
And to my own dear sweet G-d
I love to sing to Him and her
And to my baby’s lower fur
Which is so holy
That I want to crawl on my knees…

I am this thing
that wants to sing
when I am up against the spit
and scorn of judges
O G-D I want to sing
I Am

Cohen’s eroticization of God brings the physical and the spiritual together. It seems to be full of joy and desire. But when he reflects on something more particular, like his Jewishness, his voice takes on a note of ironic courage about his Jewish particularity. In a poem entitled “NOT A JEW,” Cohen faces his readers and tells them that – against a Sartrean position about Jewishness in his famous book Anti-Semite and Jew –  the other person doesn’t define his Jewishness and that those who do aren’t really Jewish:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this decision
Is final

The mark of his Jewishness is – as Cohen notes – in his flesh.

Cohen’s final poem in the collection has a name and a date at the end: “Sinai, 1973.” It suggests that Cohen’s place is with the Jews and with tradition on a day that was marked by war and victory over forces that wanted to exile the Jews from their homeland (once again). It has a Biblical title, “THE FLOOD” and bears a picture of a dove on a branch. It is a poem of mortality, hope, and comedy:

The flood is gathering
Soon it will move
Across every valley
Against every roof
The body will drown
And the soul will break loose
I write this down
But I don’t have the proof

The comedic element is the final stroke of the poem because it suggests that this isn’t really a testimony that can be scientifically or historically verified; it is a poem. What he writes isn’t proof. It is like faith since the crux of the poem is that the soul will “break loose” once the body drowns. It is, for this reason, profoundly religious but not empirical. He ends on this note. He longs for it to be true as he longs for the feminine presence of G-d, for G-d, for her, and for flight. His Jewishness is certainly not ancillary to his poetry. His testimony to Jewishness may be mixed but it is also very straightforward and finds a special place in his poetry.

His comedy suggests something different: his unique sense of otherness.

Using the trope of mental illness, Cohen, at the outset of his routine, casts himself as a possible mental patient in a mental institution. To be sure, his opening jokes – some drawing on mystical symbolism – play on this possibility and prompt the crowd to laugh nervously. Is he visitor or a mental patient?

In the next sequence, we hear a serious monologue by Cohen as we see him walk through the streets of Montreal. He says he is not just a stand-up comic but a serious writer. He wants to take on – it seems – more than one identity.   The poetry we hear in the documentary is very serious and mortal.  Many of the poems deal with the topic of being exile in general and in particular (in Montreal).

The viewer of this film has to wait seven minutes into the film to get the first mention of anything comic (post the initial scene) and this has to do with his body and how he shows it (7:36). The narrator describes him as having the “stoop of an aged crop picker and the face of a curious little boy.”  Is this man-child element – the schlemiel element – found in this description a matter of the body?  The segment shows him walking around with a big smirk on his face.  Is he a bodily schlemiel of sorts?

What does Cohen say about this?

He seems to agree.  And apparently, he sees his path – which is going to know defined place and without direction – as a “very good path with someone who moves as funny as he does.”

In the following segment, where he and Irving Layton (a famous Canadian poet who is very serious in his bearing and poetry) is interviewed by a CBC commentator, he swerves questions (much like the young Bob Dylan) with witty remarks that turn the questions back on the interviewer. But, after his quips, he notes that his “real concern is to know whether or not he is in a state of grace.”   It is a kind of “balance” one feels in “riding the chaos.” His answer confuses the interviewer and Layton tries to save him by saying that Cohen is concerned with “preserving the self.” Cohen doesn’t agree or disagree. He doesn’t care.

His comedy, it seems, is to be found in the fact that he, like a schlemiel, can’t give the answers and fit into the discourse people call for; he would rather remain other in his search for “balance” between comedy and serious poetry. His way of speaking and walking are juxtaposed to his passion for grace.

One line that struck me was, when he was referring to a lover that, “I dread the moment when your mouth calls me hunter.” This line made me think about the juxtaposition of Jacob and Esau. The former was a “man of the tents” and a “simple man” while the latter was a “hunter” and a man of the field.  The latter is associated with Rome, with Edom, while the former is associated with Israel and the Jewish people.  Here I could hear his fear that he would lose his Jewishness in these trysts.  He doesn’t want to become a hunter, which he associates with no longer surfing chaos or being comical and self-deprecating.    He wants to remain aloof and to keep up the search for grace.  And there is in this a kind of understated schlemielkeit.  It may not make us laugh, but it does show us a comical disposition that is not satisfied with this world (as Esau was).

Twenty-seven minutes in to the documentary we see this clarified. When Cohen is captured in a discussion about comedy, we see a reflection on the different standards of humor. Cohen suggests that there are other ways of being comical that aren’t simply to be found in the social situation. And he discloses that he can’t stand academic scenes that are pretentious. He doesn’t want to be the big man on campus. He doesn’t want the power.

In the last section of the documentary, we finally get to see some real attempts at stand-up comedy. But – ultimately – the last note is serious and the final joke overdubs are mixed with tragic reflections on Jewishness. The comedy is tainted. And for this reason, the desire for a better world, for a way out, remains. His comedy exposes the holes and the imperfections in reality. He brings his Jewishness into his poetry and shows an uncomfortable relation to the world. The schlemiel we hear in these lines can be found in his reserve of goodness and in his trust that he will somehow find it.

Cohen’s music and life have left a deep imprint on us all. And for me, personally, I can say that his movement back and forth between faith, doubt, comedy, mortality, and Jewishness is exemplary of how a Jew can be an artist and live in world. And that life can be mediated through a kind of poetry and an embodiment that remains aloof and doesn’t give in to power but wrestles with it and comes close to it as Jacob wrestled – according to one Midrash – with the angel of Esau.

Rest in peace, dear soul. Your soul – although I have no proof of this – has broken loose. Now… “this thing needs to sing.”

Crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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