Leonard Cohen and the Death of Beauty and Grace

Driving home today, fall leaves swirling across my view, I realized why I felt so much grief at the death of Leonard Cohen. Certainly his death was no surprise – his latest album is full of endings, and it’s uncharacteristically unsubtle about death. But I realized he holds a place in my mind beyond his work as an artist. He represents, to me, a graceful aesthetic beauty, a search for truth, and a way of worshiping words that have gradually faded in our culture. His death, along with the recent election set against a cooperative backdrop of waning fall light, have forced me to come to terms with how much we have lost.

I was brought up reading works that developed in me a reverence for aesthetics, especially of language and writing. Leonard Cohen, like many great poets before him, played with language, twisted it until a short phrase could be a microcosm of the human condition.

 

If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn

they will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

 

Cohen made of himself a symbol, he lived a mise en abyme of art and life, and I think it’s fitting that he be eulogized as such. His songs were full of everything beautiful about life – love, bitterness, revolution, redemption, ruin. He made his points with cynicism, idealism and realism all woven together into a humble search for truth.  He embraced his arrogance as his own flaw, and he forgave others their flaws. He studied hypnotism at a young age, and perhaps learned the secrets to cut through the filters of perception and prod at our unclad consciousness.  He used classical and (most often) biblical imagery to induce his own sense of grandeur and reverence in others. In fact, many of his songs inspire in me such emotion that I hardly listen to them any more. They evoke a sense of awe that is uncomfortable because it’s not a regular part of my life.

 

An old woman gave us shelter
Kept us hidden in the garret
Then the soldiers came

She died without a whisper

 

When Cohen died, I was forced to deal with my reaction to America’s election because they represent the same death. Today I listened to his work chronologically. The idea that Cohen’s early work presented, that love and beauty and grace were themselves a godly end, never left him completely. But as the years progressed, and his hypnotic oaken voice gave way to an intense rumbling whisper, he talked more of revolution and change. He saw his aesthetic world crumbling and turned his reaction to that decay into its own kind of beauty.  I feel now his need to turn the external world into a palatable internal one. The desire to make glorious change. The classical bohemian aesthetic that Cohen crafted might be departed and gone, but I intend to learn the right lessons. To create beauty in whatever comes next, and to teach that beauty.

You loved me as a loser
But now you’re worried that I just might win
You know the way to stop me, but you don’t have the discipline
How many nights I prayed for this, to let my work begin
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I don’t like your fashion business, mister
And I don’t like these drugs that keep you thin
I don’t like what happened to my sister
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin

Suggested reading:

‘I’M YOUR MAN’: BIOGRAPHER SYLVIE SIMMONS ON THE LIFE OF LEONARD COHEN

Leonard Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ & ‘Everybody Knows’ Make for Damn Good Post-Election Listening

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