Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas

Bill Bornschein | March 20, 2012

"Svaardvaard" Bill Bornschein

With song titles such as Going Home, Amen, Come Healing, and Darkness, it is not surprising that Leonard Cohen’s new album, Old Ideas, resonates with themes that Ernest Becker addresses. Indeed, in a New York Times interview Cohen stated that the work is a reflection on mortality. With an able assist from lyricist Patrick Leonard, Cohen engages with central questions, confronts primal fears, and describes a life lived forward in a way that both gnaws at and comforts the listener.  Minimal arrangements coupled with a gravely monotone spoken-word delivery produce a drone that has the effect of hearing prolonged Tibetan chanting. You could easily miss gems like this from the song Banjo in which Cohen describes impending death: “It’s coming for me darling, no matter where I go. Its duty is to hurt me. My duty is to know.”  The duty to know? That sounds like the response of a person who has taken up the task of wrestling with unrepression: someone who has seen the future and refuses the seduction of denial. With this post I would like to explore the lyrics of a particular song, Going Home. Take time to consider these  lyrics.

Going Home
Leonard Cohen/Patrick Leonard

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man a vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for the living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

The presentation of self-consciousness is quite powerful, is it not? The third-person running commentary we carry on within ourselves from time to time serves as the vehicle for a view of the self that is by turns loathing and affirming. The self-conscious presentation of the self to the external world coexists with knowledge of the man behind the mask. We hear the existential cry for transcendence, “a cry above the suffering” that is dashed against the hard stone of reality. It is Cohen’s ability to bestride both psychic worlds that is so intriguing. It nicely reflects Tillich’s famous “courage to be.” Cohen’s description of himself as an “elaboration of a tube” nicely reflects the evolutionary process as well as what Becker describes as the horror of the natural world, the global cafeteria of food in/food out. And yet, this tube is not frozen. It is moving. It is going home. And it is going home consciously, “without the costume that I wore,” a clear reference to the vital lie of culture. The contrasting feelings of mortal resignation and freedom from cultural roles inhabit a liminal world, the world where the falling angel meets the rising ape. As with Becker, there is no apotheosis. At song’s end, he is still in his suit, although he no doubt inhabits it differently than when he first slipped it on. With Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen faces his mortality by fashioning something, making an offering, so to speak, and dropping it into the confusion.

4 Comments

  1. It seems that in order to live without illusion we must continually find ways of acknowledging life’s absurdity – keeping it alive by not allowing the feeling to go underground… finding ways to ‘entertain’ death, rather than succumb to it or fall into comfortable forgetting.

    I cannot think of a better way of doing that than to evoke such feelings through music. I think I am of a slightly younger generation, but I tend to get that feeling when I listen to almost anything by Modest Mouse or Trail of the Dead (warning: both are a lot heavier than Cohen). It is such a wonderful feeling to hear powerful lyrics and music that give that feeling of us all being in the same existential boat.

    I used to listen to a lot of Cohen, but haven’t for some time. I appreciate the reminder, as I’ll want to check out his latest. I love his raspy voice, intelligence, moodiness, and stoic attitude. It is hard not to be moved by it.

    • I agree with what you say about entertaining death or perhaps even finding death entertaining. I’m thinking here of Neil gaiman’s treatment of Death in his Sandman graphic novel series. For a number of years I’ve worked with Pink Floyd’s treatment of Love and Death by comparing it to Erich Fromm’s insights. Art allows us to remythologize, engage the eternal questions in new ways

  2. Bill,

    Thanks for bringing this work to the attention of Becker folk. I was thinking of how to use some cuts from Old Ideas as music for the convening and break periods at our upcoming events in Seattle featuring Francis Ambrosio (May 1 through May 4, four events, one each day at University of Washington and Seattle University).

    The song “Show Me the Place” puts Cohen in the line of North American poets who have used a black blues and banjo persona. Not a note of falseness in Cohen’s voice here, just a fine updated version of a spiritual/gospel/blues fusion. He is a great poet, partly because he is accessible and uses music, like the early William Blake. He has dared to express religious feelings and beliefs, even in a traditional Jewish way, when this was completely out of vogue, almost taboo. Of course, he has also always been an iconoclast and a forger of icons, only to shatter these as well.

    I have often thought about translating his poems in Spanish accompanied by English translations of the songs of Joaquin Sabina, an Iberian Spanish superstar did a version of “There is a War” a decade ago. If only I had someone who could do drawings or photos to accompany a Cohen/Sabina book. Anybody out there?

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