A Divine Voice: The Spiritual Path of Leonard Cohen
Some moments in the life of the singer and poet shortly after his voyage to the world of the invisible.
During a 2009 concert in Israel, Leonard Cohen not only donated the admissions proceeds to organizations working for peace between Israel and Palestine, but to that same end, he recited, in Hebrew, the Birkat Kohanim. It’s is a rabbinical blessing learned during his upbringing and Jewish education. In one of his final interviews, Cohen told the journalist, David Remnick, that the gesture wasn’t “self-consciously religious. I know that it’s been described that way, and I am happy with that. It’s part of the intentional fallacy. But when I see James Brown it has a religious feel. Anything deep does.”
Gestures like this appear throughout the biography of the recently deceased singer, poet, and novelist. It was a life he described in one of his latest songs as “instructions for failure,” but which fans appreciate as a relentless spiritual search, documented in a vast work, composed in books of poetry as well as it was captured in recordings.
Gospel and Blues are musical styles associated with the religious imagination, choruses of folk and church songs. These genres, accompanied by flamenco guitar, as well as with synthesizers and soulful choirs, are part of the unique brand of Cohen’s music. Yet, classifying it within any of these genres is a mistake. We might call it “spiritual” music, in the sense that it was made to produce or transmit specific states of mood and a something of a complacency in the listener.
Cohen grew up in a Jewish context, where music had a role not nearly so prominent as had reading and conversation. And though he grew up determined to become a writer, his work – in letters as in music – remained a dialogue always with the religious imagination of the Bible. This is evident in songs like “Story of Isaac,” “The Law” or the much better known “Hallelujah.”
Like the books of the prophets in the Bible, Cohen’s stories are full of desperation, sudden good-byes and delayed arrivals, insurmountable evidence and the imminence of a trial that is always put off. It’s said that the feelings of loss and farewell impregnated, at least, his last three productions, all those since 2012 (Old Ideas, Popular Problems and You Want It Darker). But the truth is that Cohen’s discography begins at an ending, and started by saying goodbye: consider “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” as proof of this.
Nevertheless, Cohen proved eclectic till the end, alternating periods of deep study of the Torah with long retreats at Zen monasteries (the longest of these, some six years), or seeking the advice and guidance of spiritual leaders around the world. In his years of fame and folly, there was no shortage of experiments – lucky sometimes, and sometimes chaotic – with drugs like LSD, and periods of alcoholism to garnish his pilgrim solitude.
In the Remnick interview, Cohen says:
I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity.
During his final years, Cohen felt this “other reality” much more clearly, perhaps due to a lifetime of trying to listen for what was at the bottom of things:
What I mean to say is that you hear the Bat Kol [The Divine Voice]. You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.
In a struggle without struggle, the routed warrior passed away at his home in California while working on songs and poems. His life’s work, according to some fans, could have been considered closed, and great, some 30 years ago. But the final recordings and the final years have been an opportunity to appreciate that career in its humble magnitude, as one does with anything filled with consciousness – be it music or a religious life. One can present a spiritual dimension, and its effect can then be expansive, and fruitful for everyone around.
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