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The Prophet in the Library

The previously undiscovered speech that launched Leonard Cohen's career

Gunter Zint/1970 K & K Ulf Kruger OHG/Redferns

Thirty is a tough age for poets, and in 1964, Leonard Cohen was feeling the pains of slouching into maturity. Not that the world had been cruel to him: Shortly after the talented young man entered McGill University and began dabbling in verse, his teacher and mentor, the celebrated poet Louis Dudek, rolled up a printed copy of one of Cohen’s poems, asked the student to kneel, and dubbed him a member of the club that housed Yeats, Shelley, and Byron. A debut collection quickly sold out, and a follow-up bestowed on Cohen that most elusive distinction, the voice of his generation. When a producer for the National Film Board of Canada set out to document the nation’s four leading poets, he eventually reviewed his material, changed gears, and released the film under the title Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen. It captures Cohen’s stature nicely, with ample scenes of readings in front of auditoriums packed with enthusiastic fans and witty appearances on television talk shows. In 1964, Leonard Cohen was a star.

And yet, he was far from content. The poetry for which he was so lavishly praised had begun to feel flightless to him, an aesthetic pursuit that fell short of saying anything truly meaningful. He tried breaking the rules with his third collection, Flowers for Hitler, a slim book filled with short, strange anti-poems that seemed frustrated with the form’s inability to deliver truly raw emotions, bereft of adornment and artistry. It hardly seemed to make a difference. Cohen was still expected to play the part of the hip poet. He was growing tired. At a press conference in December, wearing a tight leather jacket and a skinny black tie, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth at a sharp angle, he looked less like a person and more like a collection of straight lines that had temporarily coalesced into human form. When asked about his plans for the future, he grinned and said “suicide.” He was joking, but not only. His life, he knew, needed a different path. In a talk at the Jewish Library in Montreal, a few days after Christmas, he finally found it.

No recording or detailed written account survives of this talk, only a few leaves of papers, Cohen’s own notes, stacked in a box in the University of Toronto’s rare books library. They’re disjointed and cryptic, with words sometimes misspelled and sometimes crossed out and sentences trailing off as their author’s mind wanders from one budding idea to another. Yet it ranks among Cohen’s most notable works, as it marks the first step on a path that led him to pick up a guitar and discover the art form—music—that would finally allow him to say what he truly wanted to say. Titled “Loneliness and History,” the speech is reconstructed here for the first time.

 “I am afraid I am going to talk about myself,” he began. “All my best friends are Jews but I am the only Jew I know really well.”

It was a false start. The person Cohen wanted to talk about wasn’t Cohen; it was his teacher A.M. Klein, a brilliant poet who, squeezed by necessity, had become a speechwriter for Samuel Bronfman—the omnipotently wealthy owner of the Seagram Distillery—before suffering a breakdown, attempting to take his own life, and retreating to his home, never to resurface.

 “I remember A.M. Klein speaking,” Cohen said, “whose poems disturbed me because at certain moments in them he used the word ‘we’ instead of the word ‘I,’ because he spoke with too much responsibility, he was too much a champion of the cause, too much the theorist of the Jewish party line. … And sometimes his nostalgia for a warm, rich past becomes more than nostalgia, becomes, rather, an impossible longing, an absolute and ruthless longing for the presence of the divine, for the evidence of holiness. Then he is alone and I believe him. Then there is no room for the ‘we’ and if I want to join him, if, even, I want to greet him, I must make my own loneliness.”

Jack Robinson/Getty Images
Canadian poet, novelist, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, August, 1967.

Klein, he continued, had failed at making his. He fell victim to a Jewish community where honor had migrated “from the scholar to the manufacturer where it hardened into arrogant self defense. Bronze plaques bearing names like Bronfman and Beutel were fastened to modern buildings, replacing humbler buildings established by men who loved books in which there were no plaques at all.” This new community had nothing but contempt for men like Klein, poor and learned, Cohen said, recalling the dismissive way in which the parents in the affluent neighborhood where he grew up treated their children’s teachers, scruffy immigrants with no possessions and the smell of failure.  

Still, Cohen said, Klein clung on. “He became their clown,” Cohen thundered on. “He spoke to men who despised the activity he loved most. He raised money. He chose to be a priest and protect the dead ritual. And now we have his silence.” The priest kept the community intact. And the community was “like an old lady whose canary has escaped in a storm, but who continues to furnish the cage with food and water and trapezes in the convinced hope that the canary will come back. The priest tries to persuade her that this optimism is religion.”

The priest, Klein, failed. The community needed something else. It needed a prophet.

Realizing that history is just the narrative describing the path of “an idea’s journey from generation to generation,” Cohen marched on. The prophet continues to chase the idea as it fluctuates, mutates, changes forms, “trying never to mistake the cast off shell with the swift changing thing that shed it.” The prophet follows the idea wherever it goes, and ideas, by their very nature, like to travel to dangerous places. The chase, then, is a lonely sport, and the community, observing the prophet, becomes suspicious. Most people would rather visit lifeless and antiquated things in air-conditioned museums than seek thrills in steaming swamps, running the risk of getting bitten by something wild.

“Some moment in time,” Cohen said as the speech drew to an end, “very brief, there must have been, among the ancient Hebrews, men who were both prophet and priest in the same office. I tease my imagination when I try to conceive of the energy of that combination. Their lives burned with such an intensity that we here can still feel their warmth. I love the Bible because it honours them.”

But the two roles, Cohen lamented, had separated, and now artists had a choice to make. Klein stuck with the priesthood. He wrote speeches for rich men and edited the Canadian Jewish Chronicle and ran for office. He was a guardian of institutions. What he defended was the abstract idea of a Jewish community and its ancient ways. But those ideas were no longer relevant by the time Cohen gave his speech. “I believe we have eliminated all but the most blasphemous ideas of God,” he said as he ended his speech. “I believe that the God worshipped in our synagogues is a hideous distortion of a supreme idea—and deserves to be attacked and destroyed. I consider it one of my duties to expose [the] platitude which we have created.”

Roz Kelly/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Canadian poet, singer-songwriter and novelist Leonard Cohen poses for a portrait in a diner in New York, New York circa 1968.

That was a job for the prophet. And it involved telling stories. The story, Cohen knew, had kept the Jews alive. It captivated them even when the somber and accurate accounts of their progressions—thousands burned here, millions gassed there—were too much to bear. Canada, too, was surviving on account of a story: Its own chronology seared by divisions and stained by war, it told itself that it existed, that it was a real nation with a real unifying force, and, encouraged by that story, it persevered. While all nations are, to some extent, imagined communities that come together only when all of their inhabitants envision them into being, Canadians and Jews had to imagine harder, hard enough to override history’s long odds. To create order, to make a community, to shape time, to find hope where logic and reason saw none: This is what the story accomplished. And it was the prophet’s job to tell the story.

Speaking to his fellow Montreal Jews, Leonard Cohen declared it his intention to tell the story as best as he could, not in pretty poems but in some other, new, unknown and throbbing way. To do it properly, he noted, he would have to go into exile. He would also have to stay stoic as his fellow Jews labeled him a traitor for daring to think up other possibilities for spiritual life—possibilities, like love and sex and drugs and song, for which there was little room in the synagogue. He was ready.

As he finished his talk, the shouting began. His words about killing God, prophets as traitors, and the soulless rich enraged many in the audience. Some catcalled. Others demanded the time to debate. It was late at night, and the event’s organizers suggested that the discussion be continued the following Saturday night. Grumbling, irate, the audience scattered. The following Saturday, the library was packed once again. On the dais, rabbis and community leaders sat gravely, ready to chastise Cohen for his impudence. But Cohen was no longer there. He was in his small white house in the Greek island of Hydra, playing his guitar outside his favorite taverna, dreaming up a new way to tell his stories, training to become a prophet.

This piece is adapted from A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen.