What Leonard Cohen Achieved By Fighting Against Religion | Books
LEONARD COHEN: THE MYSTICAL ROOTS OF GENIUS by Harry Freedman, Bloomsbury Continuum, 288 pages, $ 28
Have you ever thought that a book should be an essay, an essay, a paragraph, a paragraph, a sentence? This is not quite the case with Harry Freedman Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius, a guided tour of the various spiritual influences of the singer-songwriter. But it is one of those good books which, despite its charms, would have been even better after a small operation.
Cohen’s grandfather was a rabbi, and Cohen grew up in the heart of Montreal’s Jewish community. It is therefore not surprising that his art is inspired by the Hebrew Bible (or the Old Testament); the Talmud, this repository in several volumes of Jewish law and customs, legend and folklore; and the commentary on the Hebrew scriptures known as Midrash. More importantly, it was inspired by Kabbalah, a mystical tradition that rose to greater popular interest early in this century after being adopted by Madonna and other celebrities.
Every true artist is eclectic, so like his contemporary Bob Dylan, Cohen also drew inspiration from Christian sources, most notably in “Suzanne”, which in many ways is a musical rewrite of the life of Jesus. But as Dylan changed his name from Robert Allen Zimmerman, Cohen was almost defiantly true to his decidedly Jewish identity. He once told a curious interviewer that, yes, he had considered changing his name – to “September” – and when she asked him if he meant “Leonard September” he said: “No! September! Cohen.
Nonetheless, he grew up to think that synagogical Judaism was fossilized and mechanical, and he defined himself in a 1967 interview as “a priest of a catacomb religion that is underground, just beginning.”
Cohen spent three years in a Zen monastery in California and was ordained a Zen monk, but as Freedman points out, Zen is more of a way of looking at the world than a belief system and a set of rules like Judaism. The poems of Federico García Lorca have much more impact on his writing. Young Cohen wanted to be known for his poetry more than anything else. He says that the Spanish poet “dragged me into the racket of poetry”, that he “educated me”, as did the medieval Persian poet Rumi and three of Cohen’s Canadian contemporaries: the poets Irving Layton, Louis Dudek and AM Klein.
Yet nothing, as Freedman rightly observes, shaped Cohen’s art more than the key idea of Kabbalah: that “something went wrong when the world was created, leaving divine sparks scattered over the earth, embers and restored to their rightful place. God, Cohen said, was fragmented. “Creation is a catastrophe,” in Cohen’s words, and “there are pieces of him, or her, or her, which are everywhere, in fact, and the specific task of the Jew is to mend the face of God. . “
You see this in a song like “The Story of Isaac,” which is based on the biblical account of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of God. God, of course, provides a lamb for the offering and spares Isaac. But how do you make sense of such a horrible plan while clinging to your faith? Not by logic, of course, but by art. Cohen changed the point of view of the story, added his own points of view and perhaps drew, says Freedman, a fable by Aesop that “found its place in Korean folklore” and perhaps was discovered by Cohen during his stay in the Zen monastery.
Or he might not have used that fable at all, says Freedman. Maybe he just did what creators always did, be they poets, songwriters or Hebrew scribes, that is, telling the great stories that spring from the dark recesses of the mind and find their way to the heart of each culture. Cohen didn’t borrow so much from the Old Testament as he echoed it, spinning his version of stories that we never tire of running through our minds.
Wouldn’t all of this make a great try? Freedman is a widely published Judaic and Aramaic scholar whose book is packed with insight, but most of it is song-by-song commentary that is interspersed with many valuable observations. Cohen and Freedman both have a lot to say, but the scattered approach makes it difficult to identify them.
The content of this book is great, in other words. It’s the delivery system that could have taken a bit of work. ??