An American State of Grace: Darkness and Light in Leonard Cohen’s Political Imagination
How would the Poet Laureate of Pessimism respond to a Donald Trump presidency?
I saw Leonard Cohen in September 2012 at the Waldbühne in Berlin, a Nazi-built amphitheater only two years younger than himself. He was 78 at the time, and he sang for three and a half hours, including, shortly before the end, "First we Take Manhattan," at which the crowd devotedly shouted the next line, "Then we take Berlin!" He seemed to enjoy this, an old Jewish man luring a Berlin audience into "drifting into a mystical fascism" with him (which is he how he once explained the song to Paul Zollo).
Earlier that evening, he also sang "Democracy," from his 1992 album The Future, telling us that it had nothing to with the upcoming election or with voting Republican or Democrat—this was two months before Obama's re-election—but with a celebration of what he considered to be the highest value in the West. He seemed to enjoy this too, coming as close to dancing as he came all evening, marching on the spot, swinging his arms.
Leonard Cohen died on Monday (though it was announced yesterday), the day before Donald Trump was elected, but despite his confession to feeling "a sense of titillation with extremist positions," and despite his love for "the laboratory of democracy," I doubt he would have felt either elated or dismayed by the result. I suspect he would have found it necessary, which is not the same as the argument that things have to get worse before they get better. Cohen understood that we need to confront our own darkness in order to find our light, so surely he knew that the same must hold true for the United States, that in a nation founded on genocide and slavery, the center-left could only ever hold temporary sway.
It was a belief he expressed as early as 1966, when he was still a highly acclaimed young poet and novelist in Canada. Asked, somewhat aggressively, if he even cared about anything, he replied that what really bothered him was wanting to wake up each morning in a "state of grace," which he defined as, "that kind of balance with which you ride the chaos that you find around you. It's not a matter of resolving the chaos, because there is something arrogant and warlike about putting the world in order."
Thirty years later, in 1996, he was ordained a Buddhist monk at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California, where he spent a decade as a full-time resident. To someone familiar with his music, this came as little surprise: The sensibility he expressed in his music, rife with Judaeo-Christian imagery, was also very much a Buddhist one. It was characterized by an understanding of anicca—the idea that there can never be any final resting place, only continuous change—and of the First Noble Truth of Suffering: that pain, loss, grief, confusion, and failure, are essential to existence.
But this is a truth the modern world has rejected, coming to regard suffering as a malfunction to be stigmatized and hidden beneath social media smiles, or else medicated and shopped away. It is this same culture that gave Cohen monikers such as "the Poet Laureate of Pessimism," "the King of Misery," and "The Godfather of Gloom." And yet by focusing on his darkness and refusing to accept it, they also miss his light.
Cohen retained this core understanding until his own death, a further 20 years after his ordination, which he explored in his final album, You Want it Darker. On it he intones, like an Old Testament prophet, " Hineni, hineni… I'm ready, my lord." As always, his writing shimmers between the poles of desolation and redemption, never quite touching either, never settling, accepting only the totality of it all, penetrating, feeling his way, refusing to shy away from those extremities of experience we all encounter but are often too afraid of to explore.
He would have understood that these realities have to be confronted before we can steer a path away from them.
Where once he had given us life in all its terrible fullness, now he gave us death, and, as always, there were no easy answers, no consistent positions or resolution. In this, he was as at odds with fundamentalist religion and its insistence of perfect faith as much as with modernity and its denial of pain and mortality: "Steer your way past the altar and the mall," he wrote: " Steer your heart past the truth / You believed in yesterday / Such as fundamental goodness / And the wisdom of the way / … Steer your path through the pain / That is far more real than you / That smashed the cosmic model / That blinded every view."
It is verses like this that convince me that Leonard Cohen would not have had a simple or reactive response to the election of Donald Trump. I think he would have accepted it, as he ultimately accepted everything, as part of the interplay of cosmic and social forces that create the world, in which darkness, light, and all shades in between are essential, non-removable components. Just as he allowed himself a cheeky, ironic smile at his singing a song about the titillation of fascism to a rapt Berlin audience in a Nazi stadium, I think he would have understood there was something inevitable about Trump, that these realities have to be confronted before we can steer a path away from them, that the less willing we are to acknowledge them, the more likely they are to surface in ever more frightening and unexpected ways.
"Most of us from the middle-class," he told Zollo, "we have an kind of old, nineteenth century idea of what democracy is… But that ain't it. It's going to come up in unexpected ways from the stuff that we think are junk; the people we think are junk; the ideas we think are junk."
These are the words not of a skilled political analyst but of a man who has explored his own heart so thoroughly, including his attraction to extremist political positions, that he is incapable of underestimating the darkness lurking in America's political landscape. But as he told us time and again, it's through entering the darkness that one glimpses the light of, if not redemption, the hope of redemption, which may be the most we can ask for. It's a hope he affirmed that night in Berlin when he sang, "I'm junk but I'm still holding up / this little wild bouquet / Democracy is coming to the USA." Cohen understood that democracy, like redemption, is something that is always coming, if never quite arriving.
Photo: Leonard Cohen circa 1970 / Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Rajeev Balasubramanyam was was recently writer in residence at the Zen Center of New York City. His latest novel is called Starstruck. Follow him on Twitter.