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Leonard Cohen’s Eternal Flame

For most of my life I viewed Leonard Cohen with suspicion. It wasn't until the end that I learned to love him.

Frazer Harrison / Getty

My favorite Leonard Cohen moment has almost nothing to do with his work. It’s from a 2005 documentary in which Cohen, who died Thursday at age 82, is sitting on a park bench, bottle of V8 in hand. The bench is near The Main in Montreal, the still-pulsating, vibrant nerve of the city of his birth, the one he still called home even after decades of living elsewhere. Sitting next to Cohen is his friend Philip Tetrault, a local poet racked with longtime schizophrenia and mental instability. I keep coming back to this clip, taken from the documentary on Tetrault by his brother Pierre, because of its stunning simplicity. Two old men, decades deep in friendship, bonded by a love of literature in which fame and status hardly matter. Cohen is relaxed, warm, self-effacing, aware of the camera but more focused on his friend.

There is little trace of the persona that chronicled romantic love desired and lost, or the one that stared bleakness in the face and bore witness in poetry and song.  Instead, it’s Cohen’s kindness that comes through. It moves me every time I watch the film, connecting me much more strongly with his writing and music. It feels like a secret window into Cohen’s creative process, a subject he actively disdained discussing, and about how his art, so inward-looking and style-fusing, had the power to reach millions. Including, finally, me.

For most of my life I viewed Leonard Cohen with suspicion. The wariness ran so deep, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I gave his work a proper fair shake. I knew, rationally, that Cohen’s literary and musical output meant a great deal to a great many people and deserved the acclaim. I liked what I heard but didn’t go out of my way to listen. I wasn’t ready, until recently, to put away childish skepticism and open my heart to his work.

Let me back up. That suspicion truly did date from childhood. Though I was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, my parents were both born and raised in Montreal, a four-hour round trip we frequently drove to visit with my grandparents while they were all still alive. My mother’s address, until the age of eight, was 5555 Saint Urbain Street. If that street name rings a bell, you may know it from the work of Mordecai Richler, who went so far as to include the street in the title of one of his novels. Richler, like my father and my uncle, all roughly the same age, attended Baron Byng High School. They had to because of provincial laws dictating where Jewish kids could go to school, and Baron Byng was that school. At least, it was for poorer Jewish teenagers. If you came from money, you had other options.

Leonard Cohen came from money, growing up in the affluent neighborhood of Westmount. He described his grandfather as “the most influential Jew in Canada.” His father owned a clothing factory. His grandfather and great-grandfather served as presidents of Shaar HaShomayim, the opulent, cathedral-scale synagogue that is Canada’s oldest and most prominent. So Cohen’s mother might have been looked down upon by her in-laws. So his father died when he was just nine years old. Cohen was a Westmount kid, and the inverted snobbery of the Saint Urbain sector characterized his family as “effete and assimilationist.”

That last quote, by the way, is from the Jewish scholar Ruth Wisse, who knew Cohen when they were students at McGill University. They both studied with and were mentored by Louis Dudek, who published Cohen’s first book of poetry as the launch title of the McGill Poetry Series. Cohen was, Wisse described in a 1995 essay for Commentary, already something of a star on campus, long before his eventual critical acclaim for his two novels (The Favorite Game and Beautiful Losers), four poetry volumes, and later, his songs. Cohen’s aura discomfited Wisse because of the class divide between them, a distinction Dudek never addressed: “The differences he valued,” Wisse wrote, “were between intellectuals and poets, the precious few and the sanctified fewer. If at first I accepted Leonard Cohen’s status as a poet on faith, it was because Louis admired him. Only after I had undertaken to sell the poems did I begin to read them.” Only after Weiss put aside her own ingrained prejudices, handed down from her mother, did she reckon with the force, the clarity, the resonance of Cohen’s work. But snobbery, inverse or otherwise, tends to persist with subsequent generations. And takes so long to cast off.

Cohen was remarkably consistent in his refusal to offer insight into his work.  When asked in a 1965 CBC interview, “How can you be a good poet and not care about something?” Cohen replied: “I do the poetry, you do the commentary.” Half a century later, in David Remnick’s masterful, career-capping New Yorker profile, Cohen swatted away any attempt to explain how he creates: “I have no idea what I am doing,” he said. “It’s hard to describe. As I approach the end of my life, I have even less and less interest in examining what have got to be very superficial evaluations or opinions about the significance of one’s life or one’s work. I was never given to it when I was healthy, and I am less given to it now.”

He didn’t so I won’t. I can only explain how his songs work on me. They reach the part of my soul that expresses herself best in synagogue, singing complicated harmony to the cantor’s tenor-line chants of Kaddish and the Musaf prayers. They mix serious purpose (the oft-covered “Hallelujah”), love lost, but tinged with affection (“So Long, Marianne”), wry humor (“I’m Your Man”) and a bold, unflinching stare at democratic collapse (“Anthem,” one of the few songs he explained)

His songs source themselves to all manner of traditions, from the Zen Buddhism that spurred him to live in a monastery throughout the 1990s, the flamenco chords taught by Cohen’s first guitar teacher, to the liturgical music Cohen learned as that Westmount kid. Never was the last more prominent than in Cohen’s final, brilliant album You Want It Darker, released just a month before his death and my daily listening staple since. 

Cohen’s basso profundo intoning “you want it darker, you kill the flame” throughout the title track, the line sounded before a male choir chants in wordless harmony and seems, apparently, to be open to varying interpretations. Was it prophecy of this unthinkable election outcome? Foreshadowing his own statement of being “ready to die,” even if it was later contradicted by his variant on the Jewish saying of living till you are a hundred and twenty? A general statement on the vast bleakness that exists in the world? 

All of those sound equally plausible and implausible. But the lyric reminded me most of the ner tamid, the sanctuary lamp that hangs in every synagogue that is never allowed to go out because it signifies the eternal presence of God. It suggests continuity from Creation to today, the awe, wonder and fear that God inspires, and the way spiritual relationships can never be extinguished.

Hineni,” Cohen later recites, indicating he’s ready for what the Lord has in mind. His own creative light has now flickered out, capping a career that feels almost epochal. We may be facing a magnitude of chaos we didn’t prepare for and can’t fully grasp. But the flame remains eternal. It won’t go out because Cohen left behind instructions, in the form of his own art, on how to keep it that way. Through love, through action, and yes, through kindness.