Monday, November 14, 2016

Review | What in the World Are We Longing For? | Leonard Cohen's Book of Longing


What in the World Are We Longing For?

Book of LongingBy Leonard Cohen
240 Pages. Ecco $24.95

This review was originally published at, June 2006.

Image result for leonard cohen book of longingAfter composing much of his new poetry collection, Book of Longing, while living in a Zen monastery on Mount Baldy in California, Leonard Cohen winks at those curious or confused about his religious wanderings: "Anyone who says I'm not a Jew is not a Jew/I'm very sorry but this decision is final." Never one to deny Jewish influences since early days as scion of an esteemed Montreal family, Cohen persistently challenges mainstream Jewish culture. His eclectic, searching visions balance odes of love and loss as sensual as any in popular music with impassioned religious seeking filtered through Jewish vocabulary, stories, and ideas. With the publication of his first original collection of poetry since 1984, Cohen emerges now more than ever as a sensitive, engaged transformer of the Jewish canon, enlivening Jewish myths and themes in the shadows where secular and spiritual experience meet.

Book of Longing contains obvious evidence of Cohen's Jewishness—God is written as "G-d," there's a poem describing correspondence with a rabbi signed "Your Jewish brother, Jikan Eliezer" (fusing Cohen's Zen and Hebrew names), and the Shoah, the Sabbath, and kabbalistic and biblical terminology are referenced often. Cohen's book, and his entire body of work, is a vital addition to the Jewish tra
dition, creating its own brand of influence through fresh engagement with Jewish sources.

Cohen's understanding of the myth and mystique of exile offers the finest example of his Jewish voice. Book of Longing opens: "I followed the course/From chaos to art/Desire the horse/Depression the cart…/I know she is coming/I know she will look/And that is the longing/And this is the book." Amidst the reoccurring original black, white, and gray prints and drawings illustrating the book, one image serves as a kind of royal stamp: Two interlocking hearts curve to the shape of a Magen David, the Jewish star, a plump, rounded hexagram bordered by a circle and bounded by the words "Order of the Unified Heart." Like this floating image, the title and themes of Book of Longing place Leonard Cohen in the tradition of Jewish poets tracing national and personal journeys of exile between the harmony and heartbreak of theology, day-to-day life, and love. 

Exile has been amongst the most compelling forces of Jewish artistic, literary, philosophical, religious, and political creativity for the better part of two millennia, and archetypal Jewish notions of seeking harmony in spite of exile—longing for Jerusalem or Zion, courting the Divine Presence traditionally known as the Shekhina, or pangs of and for the Messiah—all tie into longing that began with the national heartbreak of the broken Temple. The destruction of the Temple, first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and again in 70 CE by the Romans was a defining moment in the history of Jewish exile and longing. The Temple had been the literal and figurative heart of religious practice and imagination in the formative period of Judaism. As Cohen writes in "By the Rivers Dark," paraphrasing the most famous scene of biblical of homesickness: "By the rivers dark/I wondered on/I lived my life/In Babylon."

When Bob Dylan turned 50, Bono, the lead singer of U2, listed 50 reasons why he loved him. One of them was that Dylan tends to mix up women and God. As a believing Christian steeped in the world of religious allegory, Bono was referring to Dylan's ability to drape (or uncover) layers of religious myth and meaning on the day-to-day lusts and longing of love. Cohen makes use of this art as well, knowing that love and longing reflect both the sting of exile as well as temporary relief from it. Like the elusive bride of Sabbath evening prayers, Cohen's mystical lovers are objects of both worldly and other worldly desire. In "My Redeemer" he says: "I want all the women/You created in your image…/You can hear my prayer/The one I have no words for…/My Redeemer is a woman/Her picture is lost/We surrendered it /A hundred years ago."

Human love as worldly manifestation of seeking the divine exists in many religious traditions. The Song of Songs—an erotic biblical love poem traditionally interpreted as a metaphor for the nation of Israel and God seeking each other in the dark—offers a prime example. Cohen most strikingly recalls "Golden Age" medieval Jewish poets such as Yehuda Halevy, Solomon ibn Gabirol, and Samuel Hanagid, eclectic figures born and bred in traditions of epic medieval Spanish-Arabic love poetry. As collected and translated in Raymond Scheindlin's Wine, Women and Death, "Golden Age" themes emphatically echo forward to Cohen's world. Nine-hundred years before his Canadian comrade, Spaniard Moses ibn Ezra writes: "Caress a lovely women's breast by night/And kiss some beauty's lips by morning light/Silence those who criticize you…/With beauty's children only can we live/Kidnapped were they from Paradise to gall the living."

While Cohen and his Golden Age ancestors find temporary reprieve from longing and exile in imagining earthly love, ultimate redemption rests in images of a transcendent, messianic age when the suffering of both love and exile cease. Book of Longing traces many themes of redemptive time with cogent biblical illusions: "The flood it is gathering/Soon it will move/Across every valley/Against every roof/The body will drown/And the soul will break loose/I write all this down/But I don't have the proof." In "Moving into a Period," Freud, Einstein, and Hemingway watch time cease in eternal Jerusalem as Cohen tries on the prophetic voice of Elijah, heralding an end to pain: "Have no doubt, in the near future we will be seeing and hearing much more of this sort of thing from people like myself." 

As Cohen corresponds with traditional religion and secular love laced with spiritual meaning, his religious voice stays sane by mixing humor and humility with reverence and daring: "I do not have the authority or understanding to speak of these matters/I was just showing off/Please forgive me," he writes in the poetic epistle mentioned earlier. Though he plays himself off as an imposter when confronting the religious establishment—"the old obsolete atrocity [that] made a puke of prayer"—his humor and self deference cannot defy ambitions for revolution, hope, beauty, and wisdom often against the powers and trends of the mainstream. 

In interviews for a recently released documentary film about Cohen entitled "I'm Your Man," the Edge of U2 compares reading Cohen's lyrics to reading the Bible. While rock stars living very large lives tend to inflate everything, including their own inspirations, if any contemporary popular artist merits credit for reinventing sacred text it is Leonard Cohen. While Bob Dylan—neck and neck with Cohen as the world's favorite Jewish popular prophet of the past 50 years—drones homerically thick with association, alliteration, and allusion, Cohen is biblically laconic and precise, crafting word maps for the valleys of emotional journeys intimate and cutting, full of wide gaps of silence for pondering and questions. 

In 1994 Cohen was asked by the Jewish Book Review about a vivid and telling line from his song "The Future." In explaining the words "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible," Cohen reveals a powerful and disciplined sense of Jewish mission: 

Image result for leonard cohen
As I get older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it's really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything.
Leonard Cohen writes sacred texts in a time when much of what has been inherited as sacred text serves fundamentalism and fear. In "Dear Diary" he praises his own journal—the murmurings of his own heart—as a transcendent sacred text in and of itself:

You are greater than the Bible
And the Conference of the Birds
And the Upanishads
All put together…
Dear Diary
I mean no disrespect
But you are more sublime
Than any Sacred Text
Sometimes just a list
Of my events
Is holier than the Bill of Rights
And more intense

Confusing and fusing woman with God and God with self and self with everything, Cohen gives both thanks and witness to the spiritual magic and divine presence still possible despite the failings of traditional religious systems, Judaism included. He seeks and sees the face of his longing in the paradoxes of the world—this being the fleeting face of the divine—by rejecting it’s divisions, be they Buddhist and Jewish, sacred and profane, exile and love:

Dressed as arab
Dressed as jew
O mask of iron
I was there for you…
I see it clear
I always knew
It was never me
I was there for you…
Don't ask me how
I know it's true
I get it now
I was there for you

For those attuned or just tuning in to the sounds of the Jewish call for harmony, wisdom, and redemption, Leonard Cohen's words should sound very familiar.

This review was originally published at, June 2006.

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