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Leonard Cohen, singer of the Bible.

Although Leonard Cohen only recently achieved rock star status, two of his most popular works, "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah," achieved fame years before their composer. Both are inspired by the Bible, an influence Cohen readily avows. In a 1993 interview entitled "I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible," he says, "at our best, we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology.... That biblical landscape is our urgent invitation ... Otherwise, it's really not worth saving or manifesting or redeeming or anything, unless we really take up that invitation to walk into that biblical landscape." His faith has left a mark on his songs not always fully recognized by a secular audience that might be more interested in the rhythm of the music or the octogenarian Cohen's energetic performance style. But if we discount the central place the Bible plays in his art, we also miss the connections between Cohen and earlier European artists who, from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century, used poetry and song to praise and express the soul's longing for God.

I am referring to devotional poetry, a genre that was especially popular in England, France, and Spain during the Counter Reformation period of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. John Donne, Robert Southwell, and George Herbert were all devotional poets, as were their French contemporaries Jean de Sponde and Jean de la Ceppede. The genre is represented in the twentieth century by Paul Claudel, Charles Peguy, and Pierre Emmanuel in France, and Gerard Manley Hopkins and T.S. Eliot in England.

Devotional poetry often uses symbolism derived from a method of biblical exegesis dating back to the earliest years of Christianity called typological, or figural, symbolism. Typological symbolism operates on four levels: literal, allegorical, moral, and mystical. Typological symbolism provides a way of understanding the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible as the unified story of humanity's sin and redemption with applications to moral conduct in this world as well as to the quest for eternal life. It allows us to read the stories of Genesis and Exodus as historical truths but also as allegories of Christ's life, guides to right behavior, and pre-figurations of the Second Coming.

"Suzanne" of 1967 is the earliest song in which Cohen draws upon the typological tradition. It seems to begin as a love song: The singer goes to a room by a river with a "half-crazy" woman named Suzanne, whose hospitality runs the gamut from serving tea to allowing the man "to spend the night beside her." If the would-be lover is reluctant to make any commitment to Suzanne, she soon "gets [him] on her wavelength" by assuring him that "[he's] always been [her] lover." The second stanza unexpectedly switches to the gospel story of the Redemption. Cohen calls Jesus a sailor who watches over drowning men from a "lonely wooden tower" and utters a prophecy that mankind will eventually be freed by the sea. The final stanza imagines the speaker of the first lines walking with Suzanne, who is outlandishly dressed in "rags and feathers/ From Salvation Army counters" and who stimulates the man's imagination to find, "among the garbage and the flowers" of the river, signs of heroism, as well as love and optimism for the future in the faces of children.

Part of the song's appeal comes from the sudden shift from Suzanne in the first stanza to Christ in the second. Water imagery supplies the connection between them. The river of the opening lines is the St. Lawrence in the artist's native city of Montreal. In the second, Cohen alludes to Matthew 14:25-33, where Jesus walks upon the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel of Matthew, the walk upon the Sea of Galilee comes after the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Christ leaves his followers to pray in solitude, sending his disciples in a boat to the other side of the sea. When a storm arises, Christ walks on the water to reassure the frightened disciples. The end of Matthew 14 recounts that the apostle Peter was also able to walk on the water as long as his faith remained strong. When his faith faltered, he began to sink. Christ's famous retort "Oh you of little faith," uttered as he stretches out his hand to grasp the sinking Peter, concludes the story.

Because Jesus, as the second stanza tells us, "knew for certain/Only drowning men could see him," he saved this humanity drowning in sin, despair, and doubt through his death on the cross. Cohen dramatizes Christ's dual nature as both human and divine by recreating the emotions he experienced during the crucifixion. "Broken/Long before the sky would open," the martyred god is "Forsaken/almost human." Jesus is omniscient and protecting, but, like modern man--and the artist--, he feels abandoned and misunderstood by the world.

In the third and final stanza, the singer finds evidence of divine care in Montreal, where "the sun pours down like honey/On our lady of the harbor." "Our lady of the harbor" is the statue of the Virgin atop the mariners' church of Notre Dame de Bon Secours in Montreal's old district. It looks out to sea and, in imitation of Christ's gesture to Peter, extends an outstretched hand to bless the departing sailors. A living woman, Suzanne, then takes the singer's hand, instructing him "where to look/ Among the garbage and the flowers" for signs of redemption in the everyday world. Her clothes, obtained "from Salvation Army counters," mark her as a salvific figure like the Virgin.

The changes of wording in the refrain suggest that the song is a quest for faith. In the refrain of the first stanza, the singer wants the woman to place her trust in him:
   And you want to travel with her
   And you want to travel blind
   And you know that she will trust you
   For you've touched her perfect body with your mind.
 In the second, the singer desires to follow Jesus:
   And you think maybe you'll trust him
   For he's touched your perfect body with his mind.
 The final stanza returns to Suzanne:
   And you know that you can trust her
   For she's touched your perfect body with her mind.

Having experienced Suzanne's unquestioning trust in him in the first stanza and Christ's steadfastness toward mankind in the second, the singer prays, in the final stanza, for faith--the ability to "travel blind." The trust he "thinks" he can place in Christ and "knows" he can give Suzanne attests to the faith he has already attained.

The pun on Salvation Army in stanza three finds precedents in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, for example, Jesus's pun on the name Peter and rock in Matthew 16. The juxtaposition of garbage and flowers, as well as the colloquial expression "wavelength," are typical of the sermo humilis, or low style, of the Gospels, which presents Christ mingling with the bottom stratum of society, speaking in simple language, and performing miracles at ordinary events like weddings. In "Suzanne," such imagery and language encourage us to view our contemporary world from a biblical perspective. Poverty, mental illness, and pollution are modern evils in need of redemption. To be on Suzanne's wavelength means not only to feel close to this woman but also to understand her function as a spiritual mediator. The song's movement from profane to spiritual love, from Suzanne's "place by the river" where the singer can "spend the night beside her," to the vision of divine solicitude emanating from the Virgin's statue, is common in Christian devotional literature.

"Suzanne" is filled with water imagery rich in biblical associations. The polluted St. Lawrence recalls the Nile of the plagues wrought on Pharaoh as well as the rivers of Babylon from Psalm 137, a site of exile and lamentation. It also brings to mind the river Jordan where Christ was baptized. The downpour from the open sky conjures up the flood in the Noah story sent to destroy mankind but also the grace that rains upon sinners from the cross in the form of Christ's blood. The sea that will free all men alludes to Moses's parting of the Red Sea, the miracle that freed the Hebrew people from exile in Egypt in Exodus. Moses's act of liberation becomes an allegorical prefiguration of Christ's redemption of all humanity from the bondage of sin. Because the sky not only opened for Christ's ascension into heaven but will also open at the end of time, it looks forward to the Second Coming described in Revelation 19:11-17, in which the heavens rend, and an angel, standing in sunlight, welcomes the redeemed into eternity. Stanza three then brings this redemption into the contemporary world through Our Lady of the Harbor. The final line tells us that Suzanne "holds the mirror" because Suzanne is a guide through this world of symbols and associations. This habit of making connections among all parts of the Bible and the contemporary world betrays Cohen's desire to understand human time in the context of sacred time.

Cohen's most famous work, "Hallelujah," exists in two versions, a four-stanza song from 1984, which Cohen expanded to eight stanzas in 1988. In the first and third original stanzas, the singer questions the deity.
   Now I've heard there was a secret chord
   That David played, and it pleased the Lord
   But you don't really care for music, do you?

   You say I took the name in vain
   I don't even know the name
   But if I did, well really, what's it to you?

These seemingly flippant remarks can also be read as serious inquiries into the proper way to address God. David, the legendary author of the Psalms, is the ideal biblical character to help Cohen find answers. In the Psalms, David is a sinner, sometimes angry, sometimes penitent, aware of his limitations, yet determined to reach the Creator through song. The word "Hallelujah," meaning "praise the Lord," appears in the Psalms more than in any other book of the Bible. "Hallelujah" is both a command to acknowledge divine goodness and a prayer of thanksgiving. With "Hallelujah" on his tongue, Cohen will relive David's spiritual journey from sin to service of God.

The second stanza brings up the problem of sin. The first lines allude to David the King's seduction of Bathsheba recounted in 2 Samuel:
   Your faith was strong but you needed proof
   You saw her bathing on the roof
   Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.

Lines four and five move to Samson, strongman and slayer of the Philistines, who met his downfall when he revealed to his lover Delilah that his strength resided in his uncut hair:
   She tied you to a kitchen chair
   She broke your throne, she cut your hair
   And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

David is engaged in a quest for stronger faith when he falls passionately in love with Bathsheba. The moonlight illuminating Bathsheba's beauty symbolizes the false light of the senses that blinds the seeker of spiritual enlightenment. The allusion to Samson suggests that domestic life with a woman can distract the artist from his duty to God. The warrior Samson could overcome the Philistine enemies, Cohen seems to say, but was trapped by his girlfriend's nagging.

The stories of David and Samson also reassure the singer. Both warriors were adulterers, yet both benefitted from divine mercy. David was punished for taking another man's wife through the death of his first born with Bathsheba, but their second son was Solomon. While Samson's revelation to Delilah resulted in his capture and blinding, he regained his strength in time to bring down the enemy with him. In each case, the biblical story teaches God's acceptance of human weakness.

The third stanza addresses the appropriateness of violent or erotic language in religious song. The stanza ends with Cohen answering his own question by affirming the divine origin of all speech:
   There's a blaze of light in every word
   It doesn't matter which you heard
   The holy or the broken Hallelujah.

The image of light erupting from words recalls the creation in Genesis 1:1-3: "And God said, 'Let there be light.'" It also alludes to the Gospel of John, where Christ is both word and light. In addition, "blaze" conjures up the flames of the sacrificial altars where the Hebrews offered thanks to Yahweh, as well as the burning bush of Exodus 3. The "blaze of light" becomes a metonym for creation, spiritual illumination, fulfillment of religious duties, and the enduring presence of God in human history, all of which Cohen recognizes when he sings.

By the fourth stanza, Cohen ceases to doubt the power of song:
   And even though
   It all went wrong
   I'll stand before the Lord of Song
   With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

Reassured that all language is sacred, he thanks God for accepting his admission of failure as valid prayer.

Of the three stanzas added in 1988, the second has attracted the most attention because in it Cohen recalls his love-making with an unidentified woman and describes sex through religious imagery:
   ... I remember ... when I moved in you
   and the holy dove, she was moving too,
   Yes every single breath that we drew was Hallelujah.

Far from blaspheming, Cohen here invokes one of the richest biblical symbols to settle the argument between his love of women and love of God. The dove represents peace in the story of Noah, the beloved in the Song of Solomon, and the Holy Spirit in Matthew 3:16 and Luke 3:22. Through the image of the dove, Cohen tells us that human love is a reflection of the divine, a gateway to serenity and union with the Creator.

Both "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah" translate the singer's belief in a God who gives meaning to life's chaos and provides a way of uniting body and soul. Cohen finds the greatest inspiration for his art in the two faiths of his childhood, Judaism and Catholicism. This grandson of a rabbi was raised in the Jewish faith. Yet, he also attended mass in the churches of Montreal with his Irish nanny. His upbringing in two religions enables him to celebrate Christ and the Virgin Mary along with David, Samson, and the prophets. There is no contradiction between Zen Buddhism, which Cohen has practiced for many years, and meditation on the Bible. Both are methods of mental discipline that connect the human and the divine and help the meditator achieve control over impulses and emotions.

Even Cohen's political songs contextualize current events in scripture. "Democracy" (The Future, 1992) equates the freedom fighters in Tiananmen Square with the longsuffering crowd blessed by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount, while in "Anthem" (Various Positions, 1985), the dove reminds us that freedom is a temporary state to be followed by other catastrophes and other liberations. "Story of Isaac" (Songs From a Room, 1969) is an anti-war protest that compares Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son to military conscription. More personal songs, such as "Ain't No Cure for Love" (Famous Blue Raincoat, 1986), evoke the redeeming blood of the Crucifixion. Even in "Closing Time" (Recent Songs, 1979), a song about a bar brawl, Cohen equates the temptation of Christ in the wilderness to the temptation of alcohol.

Two categories of Cohen's devotional songs merit special attention. The first consists of lyrics dedicated to Mary and female Catholic saints. In "Our Lady of Solitude" (Recent Songs, 1979), the Virgin appears in her traditional color of blue with silver rays of light:
   And her dress was blue and silver
   And her words were few and small
   She is the vessel of the whole wide world
   Mistress, oh mistress, of us all.

"Song of Bernadette" (Famous Blue Raincoat, 1986) recounts the apparitions at Lourdes:
   There was a child named Bernadette
   I heard the story long ago
   She saw the Queen of Heaven once
   And kept the vision in her soul.

"Joan of Arc" (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971) rewrites the burning at the stake as an allegory of the soul's mystical union with Christ. Christ is fire, Joan the wood consumed by the divine bridegroom:
   "Then fire, make your body cold,
   I'm going to give you mine to hold,"
   Saying this she climbed inside
   To be his one, to be his only bride.

Other songs are drawn from Jewish liturgy. The inspiration for "Hallelujah" may have come from the Shabbat service, which starts with recitation of the Psalms. The Kedushah, or third blessing of the Amidah, the Shabbat's central prayer, concludes with "Hallelujah" spoken by the entire congregation. By recognizing "Hallelujah" as an extension of Jewish liturgical services, we gain a further appreciation of Cohen's most recorded song as a communal prayer.

"Who by Fire" (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974) is a paraphrase of the Unetanneh Tokef from the Rosh Hashanah service. Whereas the Hebrew prayer evokes natural disasters that threaten mankind--floods, fire, plague, famine--, Cohen speaks of contemporary menaces depression, loneliness, drug overdose, suicide. "If It Be Your Will" (Various Positions, 1984) is an answer to "Who by Fire." Cohen may have taken the title from the ending of the Amidah, in which supplications commonly begin with the formula "May it be Thy Will." The first stanza transcribes his resolution to submit to divine authority, even at the cost of his fame:
   If it be your will
   That I speak no more
   And my voice be still

   I will speak no more.

Singing from "this broken hill" of a lifetime's struggles allows him, in the final two stanzas, to petition the deity for an end to all human suffering:
   And draw us near

   All your children here
   In their rags of light

   And end this night
   If it be your will.

Through its simple imagery and language, by its emphasis on humility and faith in a higher power, "If It Be Your Will" recaptures the intimate lyricism of the Psalms. It serves as an appropriate prayer for any religion that confesses a higher power.

Just as performers of spirituals such as "O Mary Don't You Weep" are aware, at some level, of the biblical context when they sing of Pharaoh's army drowning or Lazarus being raised from the dead, so also Cohen's audience recognizes David and Samson as biblical characters and knows that Cohen has God, as much as women, on his mind. An enthusiastic reader of the Bible and an artist who constantly sings of the connections between our world and that of Abraham, David, and Christ, Cohen, has succeeded in reinterpreting the devotional tradition in popular song and transmitting the power of Judeo-Christian scripture to the twenty-first century.
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Author:O'Neil, Mary Anne
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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