1984 Was Lit: Ed Simon on Leonard Cohen

I’ve always thought that it was fortuitous to have been born in 1984. There are birth years that are made auspicious by ultimately being metonymous with some historical circumstance, where one’s birth is forever associated with what occurred in 1939, or 1945, or 1968 – an individual has their entrance into this cankered world marked by the enormity of events. And there are birth years that by virtue of the calendar would always have a built in significance from the moment the calendar was set, even if the events of that year don’t live up to their arbitrary importance; any year which starts a century or a millennium would qualify as such. But the year of my birth has loomed with an outsize importance since 1949 when George Orwell titled his dystopian classic 1984. In the 35 years between Orwell’s publication and the actual year, “1984” would come to stand for a certain set of signifiers – totalitarianism, surveillance, illiberalism, authoritarianism. Few educated people wouldn’t know what the casual dropping of “1984” means, and with it the attendant word-hoard of Orwell’s invention, from “double speak” to “Big Brother.” The gap between the actual year and our disastrous present recently became longer than the distance which separated 1984’s year of publication and the period of its setting. That ever-increasing distance hasn’t stalled the rhetorical use of the year as a short-hand for all which Orwell feared about the coming decades; we’re still forever fearing that “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.”

1984 is the only year I can think of that was willed into a prefigured meaning by some novelist, some person. Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes closest, but the first year of our millennium was always going to be of a certain consequence. Any science fiction novel or film that is set in some distant future year may have its enthusiastic acolytes that thrill to its passing, but nothing matches Orwell’s titular year for sheer influence. 1984 has long since passed, and yet we’re still wondering if its 1984. Still, if I’m to think about something which best gives a sense of what dystopia feels like, which truly gives expression to what brutality is, and what it means to be ground under that boot stamping on a human face, but to be willing to lock eyes with the fascist wearing that boot, it’s from a song which was produced and recorded during that year in question. “Dance me to the End of Love” off of the Canadian poet and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s seventh studio album Various Positions has, as with many of his songs, become almost a standard. The omnipresence of the minor-key hasapiko occludes the dark heart at the center of Cohen’s song (true of many of his compositions); yet for anyone actually listening “Dance me to the End of Love” with its plaintive, world-weary, and very wise desire to “Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn” speaks to a much darker hope than Orwell’s novel could ever conjure.

To speak of Cohen as a type of prophet is so trite that it wouldn’t bear repeating were it not so self-evidently true. He has his equals as rock lyricists no doubt; Tom Waits’ bourbon sideshow voice, the hippie-dippy profundities of Joni Mitchel, the mumbled Yeatsian stanzas of Shane McGowan, and the working class jukebox yearnings of Bruce Springsteen. Only Bob Dylan, though, can match Cohen for Judaic prophet-hood, and even then only the earliest and paradoxically latest of Dylan’s work (though his Christian period is underrated). Cohen consistently sang with a type of Hebraic finality which gave his best lyrics the feel as if they had been written by a Yiddish nationalist in the nineteenth-century, a Hasidic mystic in the seventeenth, a Sephardic troubadour in thirteenth-century Cordova, of whoever wrote Song of Songs. His lyrics aren’t just good, but they sound animate. “Dance me to the End of Love” suffers some for appearing on the same album as the far more famous “Hallelujah,” another track whose popularity has done it no good in terms of people actually listening to it. No argument should be posed as to which is “better;” that’s a boring and insignificant conversation to have. “Hallelujah” is a ballad for a dead God, a dirge about how holiness can only be found amongst the broken. “Dance Me to the End of Love” has different tyrants in mind, however; for as its major concern the song musters the whiff of the gas, the heat of the ovens, and the finality of death, all while refusing to ever put down the “burning violin.”

I’ve taught 1984 several times, which is to say that I’ve read it more than once, and more recently than high school, and I’d say that it’s both better and worse than its sometimes remembered. There’s a reason why Orwell’s novel is the great dystopia of adolescence – its themes are easy to remember, its verities no less true for being simply stated. There’s not much to interpret in 1984, which makes it all the more surprising that it’s so consistently misunderstood. Libertarians and their fellow travelers have long made the socialist journalist’s novel into only a diatribe against communism while ignoring that Orwell’s aim was much wider than just the Soviet Union. Whether that boot is on the left or right foot matters little to Orwell, as it should matter little to us. If there is a weakness to 1984, it’s that the novel is the sort of treatment of authoritarianism that would be produced by a privileged (if middle class) son of a British colonial officer. There is something so chagrined to Orwell’s conjuring of totalitarian Oceania, a sense that the whole thing should be properly understood as inconceivable, as an aberration. Sometimes 1984, especially its conclusion of beleaguered Winston Smith finally admitting that he loves Big Brother and that 2+2=5, is an estimably pessimistic novel. If anything, Orwell’s cynicism is, as all cynicism is, tremendously naïve. The future of the human race may appear as if a boot forever stomping on a face, but that’s because the past has always been as if a boot stamping on a human face. Sometimes that jackboot goes up long enough and we can collectively gasp a bit of air, but it’d be a mistake to confuse that respite with paradise.

Cohen never makes such a mistake, perhaps because he’s an inheritor in the Jewish tradition that understands there have always been many Big Brothers. Pharaoh, Haman, Antiochus were all Big Brother. As were Stalin and Hitler too, of course. G-d Himself. Don’t misinterpret that as fatalism, for there’s also a wisdom in knowing that Big Brother dies now and again, and that when the boot goes up you might be able to get some spit in. The tyrants aren’t going anywhere, but then again neither are we. That’s Cohen’s darkness and his transcendent hope as well. “Dance me to the End of Love,” with its two-step dance rhythm, evokes the bistros along the Ringstrasse and the cafes on the Champs-Elysees past which Nazi tanks had once rolled. There is something unmistakably sophisticated about “Dance me to the End of Love,” something clearly European. “There is no document of culture,” The German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote shortly before committing suicide while pursued by the Nazis, “which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Native of Montreal, that most European of North American cities, Cohen’s duel identity as an English-speaker in a Francophone province and a Jew in a Catholic one gave him that sense of disjointedness, exile, and alienation that privileged Orwell (even if he was a socialist) couldn’t quite inhabit. When it comes to really understanding what we’re up against, the cosmic nature of those which oppress us, you really need a Jewish rather than an Anglo-Saxon sensibility. 1984 is for high school seniors and Heritage Foundation fellows; “Dance me to the End of Love” is for the prophets who see the writhing mass and can still ask to “Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon.”

Cohen’s song is about the Holocaust obviously, how couldn’t it be? During a 1995 radio interview Cohen said that the idea for the song “came from just hearing or reading or knowing that in the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on.” Jewish musicians who themselves would soon be fed to the ovens, forced to play Mahler and Mendelsohn. “Dance me to the End of Love” is obviously more general then that, but it shares with Cohen’s anecdote about the song’s genesis the sense that to “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/Dance me through the panic ‘till I’m gathered safely in/Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove/Dance me to the end of love” is to two-step closer and closer to annihilation, to the apocalypse. The song is universal in that it’s about the word ending, and the world is always ending, albeit sometimes a bit more finally than others. Hard to think of many song origins grimmer than that of “Dance me to the End of Love,” but it would be a mistake to see the track as devoid of hope – it’s completely the opposite. “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone,” for something numinous survives of beauty even past extinction; “Dance me to the wedding… Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long” for even love endures beyond annihilation. Within the historical particulars of the story from the camps, Cohen identifies something allegorical, where his burning violin means the “beauty thereof being the consummation of life,” as he told his radio interviewer, “the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation,” our very ashes being in rebellion against those who’ve immolated us.

To play music in the face of apocalypse isn’t whistling past the graveyard, nor is it diversionary, nor is it spectacle. To create in the face of destruction, to play the violin in death’s face is rebellion – potent, powerful, and all-consuming. Some might see the broader parable there as superficial, as meaningless. But that’s the power of Cohen’s prophetic voice – he’s not myopic enough to embrace something as anemic as mere materialism. Spiritual warfare requires a spiritual arsenal. Of course to tap dance during the apocalypse is rebellion, of course play the drums at the end of the world is emancipation. “A revolution without dancing is a revolution not worth having,” said Emma Goldman, to whom it could be added that sometimes dancing is itself a revolution. Now it must be said, lest this be reduced to mere marketing, endlessly coopted and appropriated, in most circumstances dancing is simply dancing, and confusing it for revolution is a dangerous fallacy. In the most extreme of circumstances, however, where all is flattened and reduced to null, in the horror of the ovens or the abyss of the nuclear cloud, when meaning itself is sacrificed, then that’s precisely when the radical import of the burning violin most clearly exhibits itself. Prayers when you know that you’re already dead and salvation can’t be deferred any longer are the only genuine prayers.

“Dance me to the End of Love” might sound like 1945, but it’s very much a creature of 1984. That was an apocalyptic decade in its own way; the song penned in the midst of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher dismantling the very idea of society, separating all of us into atomized and warring individuals, the plague of AIDS allowed to burn through whole communities of human beings that those in power found distasteful. Written two years before Challenger, two years before Chernobyl too. And 36 years before whatever new fresh hell this is today. Now there are body bags being bought in bulk, now the refrigerated trucks are here because the morgues are full, now we are weeks away from mass graves. When the history of this era is written, it will be said that the government of the most powerful and supposedly most well established democracy on Earth didn’t just let negligence take two million citizens in a matter of months, but that this was done intentionally by the withholding of vital life-saving equipment for political reasons in a gambit wherein the word genocide seems appropriate. It’s always been 1984 – dance me to the end of love indeed.

Where Cohen’s song has such power, as opposed to Orwell’s novel (which I’ve perhaps unfairly set my argument up in opposition towards) is that the singer understands that unmitigated despair is simply a luxury which he can’t afford. The image of the burning violence is a sacred one, its’ an evocation of prayer, of divine resistance in the face of inevitable death. In singing about being “gathered safely” Cohen admits the possibility of safety, at least sometimes; with olive branch and homeward dove he can point us towards that shelter where even though the threads are torn there is still some kind of refuge. “Dance me to the End of Love” allows for the possibility that even when confronted with apocalypse there are still weddings and love, there is still dancing and music. “Dance me to the children who are asking to be born,” Cohen sings, as true in 1984 as in 2020. This is a song of apocalypse, yes, but it expresses a crucial understanding. The world has ended many times before. The world is always ending – and it is always being created, again.


Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.

Image: Screenshot from “Dance me to the End of Love” video, by Leonard Cohen, 1984.

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