Sunday, November 20, 2016

Leonard Cohen, the Christ-Haunted

By Joe Heschmeyer
November 17, 2016
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Among the singer-songwriters who emerged in the latter part of the 1960s, Leonard Cohen was something of an oddity. Alastair Pirrie observed in 1973, in a review of Cohen’s LPSongs of Love and Hate: “[Cohen] says that he has no concept of religion in his life but, strangely enough, he sings a song about Joan of Arc.” At the time, Cohen wrote the song off as an anomaly: “It was a strange song indeed; it was out of myself and contained the notion of reverence. When I recorded that song I will admit to having a strong religious feeling. I don’t think it’ll happen again.”
But in fact, this pattern would characterize his life’s work. Throughout a long and storied career, brought to a close by his death last week, Cohen evinced a remarkable respect for religion and disdain for secularism. Though he would often protest that he “wasn’t really a religious man,” Cohen seemed unable to sing or speak for very long without bringing up God.
He described his lifelong battle with depression as having defined his character: “I could either have gone under with it or luckily fallen upon certain solutions for it that I have. One was that curious activity called art. And again, that curious activity called religion.” For Cohen, these curious activities were often one and the same. Religious themes, often present in his songs, were yet more explicit in his poetry and his interviews.
Long before he became a successful singer, Cohen was an unsuccessful poet. His 1956 compilation Let Us Compare Mythologies contains poems like “For Wilf and His House,” which opens: “When young the Christians told me / how we pinned Jesus / like a lovely butterfly against the wood, / and I wept beside paintings of Calvary / at velvet wounds / and delicate twisted feet.” Cohen’s interest in Christ, coupled with his pain at Christian anti-Semitism, are laid out for the reader.
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