Giulia Panella ci accompagna in una breve analisi della produzione di Leonard Cohen partendo da Beautiful Losers ed evidenziando gli elementi ricorrenti del fervore creativo dell’artista canadese.
1. Beautiful Losers: A Manifesto
2. Merging Poetic Words And Personal Experience
3. A Journey From Erotic To Spiritual
4. Being A Jew
5. Native Influences
6. Cohen And His Women: A Chase Of The Feminine
7. A Way To Say Goodbye
8. In Brackets: Social Justice
9. A Summary
10. Bibliography and discography
Leonard Cohen is for sure the most famous Canadian singer-songwriter, but not everybody knows that his career started at least ten years before the release of his first album (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967). In fact, not only was he a man who dedicated his life to music, but he was first of all a writer and a poet.
Beautiful Losers, published in 1966, is his second novel and besides being now considered Canada’s first postmodern novel it also goes through many of the elements that recur in his poetry, such as religion, sexuality and many others; this is why I believe this novel can be successfully used to try to put ourselves in Cohen’s shoes and maybe get one step closer to this remarkable man’s soul.
Of course, defining Beautiful Losers a manifesto of the whole Cohen’s production is a hyperbole, but it may work as a guiding line through a concise analysis of some of his works, probably his most popular ones, that I personally find loaded with significance.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way
If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free
[“Famous Blue Raincoat”, Songs of Love and Hate, 1971]
The first thing that can be noticed in the lyrics of this song is that it seems to tell the same exact story of Beautiful Losers. In both compositions there is some kind of love triangle between the speaker, his wife and a friend of his. Just like what happens in the novel, neither the speaker nor the man he addresses his words to are named, although in Beautiful Losers we have a clue, an F., while the wife’s name is openly written, so that we have a Jane in the poem and an Edith in the novel. Also, in these few verses we can recognize the same attitude that the speaker/narrator has towards the other man, his friend that has betrayed him but that he forgives, calling him a brother as much as a killer, in order to not erase all the pain the betrayal has caused him.
“What a poor custodian I have been of those two loves, an ignorant custodian who walked his days in a dream museum of self-pity”: with these words the narrator of Beautiful Losers expresses his relationship with his wife and his friends, those two loves he was stuck between, finding himself in the same situation of the speaker of “Famous Blue Raincoat”. This recurring pattern has led many to think that this story could be inspired by something that really happened to Cohen, but the author himself said that he couldn’t recall who he wrote this song about. On the other hand, it would be wrong to exclude the possibility that something about this is related to Cohen’s life and personal experience. In fact, there is no need for this story to be completely truthful and accurate, since it could also be read as a symbolic expression of the conflicted relationship the poet has with himself: is it a coincidence that the mysterious F. and the narrator of Beautiful Losers eventually merge into one miserable character at the end of the novel? Is it something that hunger and amphetamine made Cohen write, just to add another bit of mystical touch to the novel, or was he telling something about himself?
It’s lonely here,
There’s no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
Over every living soul
And lie beside me, baby,
That’s an order!
Give me crack and anal sex
Take the only tree that’s left
And stuff it up the hole
[“The Future”, The Future, 1992]
One of the most pervasive themes in Cohen’s poetry is for sure the one regarding erotic love, that he always describes in a really rough and vivid way, as the verses above clearly show. This is an extract of a very famous song that has also been translated and sung by the Italian singer-songwriter Francesco De Gregori, although he tries somehow to lighten its quite violent implications (for example, De Gregori prefers to talk about “sesso estremo” rather than anal sex, which would have probably been too much even for the most libertine of the Italian audience).
So, when it comes to the rejoicing of the flesh, Cohen is never one to mince words, and in his productions terms like orgasm, cunt, suck, asshole abound. Yet, they never cross the line, they are always in the right place and this comes for a reason: by means of such words, such concrete descriptions, Cohen manages to shift from a mere erotic level to a truly spiritual one, so what he really talks about are the orgasms of the Soul, the genitals of the Being.
There is a scene, in the second part of Beautiful Losers (the chapter is entitled “A Long Letter from F.”), where F. describes a furious and mystic night spent with Edith in Argentina. The focus point of the scene is that Edith wasn’t able to give herself pleasure, and this clearly represent something more than just a physiological issue: she couldn’t find herself, she didn’t know who she was, and the physical incapability turns out to be specular to the inner struggle.
Not only does the whole novel undergo this constant shift between flesh and soul, erotic and spiritual, but this topic basically permeates all of Cohen’s works, including a song that is considered one of the most high and sensitive ever written: Hallelujah.
Well there was a time when you let me know
What’s really going on below
But now you never show that to me do ya
But remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove was moving too
And every breath we drew was Hallelujah
[Hallelujah, live version 1988]
This second version of the song emphasizes the sexual content of the lyrics, so that this last hallelujah comes as a result of an orgasm, but that is not all: Cohen himself said, talking about this song, that there are different kinds of hallelujah and all of them have the same virtue, even if they are “cold and broken”, both if they are dedicated to a God or to a loved one.
So what this song talks about is the transcending all people are capable of, both in a physical and in a spiritual/religious way. In fact, the other preponderant reference of the Hallelujah is the biblical one.
I’d really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those
[“First We Take Manhattan”, I’m Your Man, 1988]
Being part of a Jewish family, this not only religious but also cultural legacy is quite a strong leitmotiv of Cohen’s works. His narrative, poetry and songs are full of biblical references and in Beautiful Losers itself the theme of the New Jew, a man capable of making a change in the world, is frequently mentioned. But apart from the specific references scattered all over the novel, a typical Jewish topic that Cohen refers to is the journey.
It is known that the Jewish people is the ultimate wandering people, and what Cohen does in his compositions is to turn this actual journey into an inner one, the same path towards our own soul we have already talked about. Cohen, his characters, Jews, are those lines “moving through the station”, those wandering souls constantly looking for something, for an answer to a question that nobody exactly knows. But that is the point of the research, as a sentence pronounced by the narrator of Beautiful Losers shows: “And if I knew where my research led, where would the danger be?”
There is no envy left
If you understood this
You would begin to shiver
But I am only whispering
To my tomahawk
[Marita, Selected Poems 1956-1968]
The religious and cultural heritage of the Judaism, which came from Cohen’s family, but also the Christian one, since Montreal overtly was and is a Christian city, merge with another legacy, way more ancestral than the other two: the native one. In fact, the native element pervades most of Cohen’s production, just like the biblical one does, but in a different way that shows some sort of more visceral bond, innate and never totally understood at the same time.
This is clear in Beautiful Losers, in which the whole story revolves around the figure of Kateri Tekakwitha, a mohawk girl of the 17th century converted to Christianity and to a life of devotion and ascetic penance, whose story the narrator was obsessed with. He basically turns his life into a research about this girl who started being an orphan with a disfigured face and ended up saint and perfectly beautiful.
What torments him is how this miracle could happen and, in truth, what a saint is and means. “What is a saint?”, he asks and immediately answers: “A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence.”
Then a second question follows, a more burning one: “But why fuck one [saint]?” It sounds like the narrator suddenly becomes aware of his apparently senseless obsession with Catherine Tekakwitha, but by then he is already totally stuck in his world of failed understanding, married to a native woman that resembles the mohawk girl in many ways. In fact Edith, the narrator’s wife, is a rescued native girl; her skin was once scarred, but after some kind of mystical phenomenon it turns into a perfectly smooth surface and, last but not least, she has some kind of comforting power that makes her capable of caressing and healing men’s sorrow just like Catherine Tekakwitha did with those who invoked her. Also, both Kateri and Edith die at a very young age, but in different circumstances, as we will see. Throughout the whole novel, Edith is the most mystical and ineffable soul, representing just that inexplicable connection that binds Canadians with their indigenous origins. And right out of this bound Cohen makes his tomahawk, one of the sharp axes of his poetry.
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you wanna be there,
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China,
And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her,
Then she gets you on her wavelength and she lets the river answer,
That you’ve always been her lover.
[“Suzanne”, Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967]
I think we can agree that most of Cohen’s production has been inspired by women, both real and imaginary ones, but it would be wrong to think that they are only involved in erotic contexts. In fact, not only does Cohen represent them as the other half of the sexual realization of a man (not excluding that this half may as well consist of a same sex person, of course), but he also tries to capture the feminine world, its particular features, that he manages to communicate with a very delicate and deep sensitivity.
A feature that he often underlines is the sense of safety they instill, that reassuring maternal womb where every man belongs and that every man, sooner or later, wants to go back to, to find some comfort. So, in these first verses of the song “Suzanne”, dedicated to a woman with whom Cohen only had a platonic relationship, it almost seems like this lady gently makes him and his worries hush, placing his head on her thighs and preempting his words, taking on her shoulders the burden of a declaration of love, or not love, or whatever it is.
This gesture, that here can only come to our mind, is instead explicitly rendered in Beautiful Losers, where Edith’s womb often becomes a shelter for lost men. Also, her belly-button becomes many times a casket for some of the little, senseless, poor things the world had to offer her: oil, semen, urine, fingernails, man’s tears, rice. “Raw rice. She kept one grain in there for a week, claiming that she could cook it”: the woman is as well an incubator, a safe place where life comes from and where what is not ready to live returns, to spend another little while feeling warm and not alone. The narrator of Beautiful Losers even begs to become similar to the woman, to possess her wonderful gift too, the capability of receiving, at the cost of being completely deprived of everything: “Please make me empty, if I’m empty I can receive, if I can receive it means it comes from somewhere outside of me, if it comes from outside of me I’m not alone!”
Still, Cohen is a man and no matter how sensitive he could be he never really gets into the feminine world, he manages to only leave one tiny step between him and that other half, but still a step, an eternal veil of incomprehension, a chase that can never end.
It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
A forty-five beside her head,
An open telephone.
We told her she was beautiful,
We told her she was free
But none of us would meet her in
The House of Mystery
[“Seems So Long Ago, Nancy”, Songs from a Room, 1969]
Even though the theme of suicide becomes more and more recurring in his last period of activity, all deeply penetrated with considerations about death in general, Cohen deals with this topic since his very first production. In Beautiful Losers the character that carries this burden is again Edith.
This girl, so far very similar to the mohawk saint, decides to leave this world killing herself in a brutal way, squashed beneath the elevator that led to the basement where she lived with her husband, the narrator. Apart from their clearly and deeply different sexual lives, lived at two completely different extremes even though aiming at the same peace, here comes the main difference between Kateri and Edith: the saint stays until she can, the girl leaves as soon as she finds the courage.
There is the strong one who bears the weight of life and the weak one who runs away. But here is the paradox: the narrator (and probably every single person who could happen to find themselves in his situation) admires and chases the strong one, the heroine, Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha, but he is irremediably closer to the other one, the weak, the beautiful loser that he loves and who loves him back. Once again, Cohen shows his unique sensitivity deciding to stand by the side of who loses, of those who are able to do it without any need to pretend they are fine. And in this acceptance he captures something that is somehow pure and beautiful and crystallizes it in his flowing words (so flowing that sometimes he could remind us of Joyce’s stream of consciousness), leaving us with the not at all pretentious gift that Beautiful Loser represents.
Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State!
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.
[“Democracy”, The Future, 1992]
A theme that Cohen does not forget, even though it is not one of the most recurring compared to the importance he gives to other topics, as we just saw (such as flesh, spirituality, religion and so on), is the one regarding social justice. These verses are probably some of the most emblematic, just as much as the title of the song itself is, but in Beautiful Losers as well Cohen refers to politics by characterizing F. as a member of the Canadian parliament. In that context, just as much in all the other aspects of his life, F. is a huge mess of thoughts and ideals both terrain and delirious, he is both a hero and a terrorist. Here, if possible, F. is a loser more than ever, since he literally loses his left thumb in the name of the Révolution!
A singer must die for the lie in his voice
And I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty
You keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty
Your vision is right, my vision is wrong
I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song
[“A Singer Must Die”, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974]
Even though it is not possible to summarize in a few words the work and personality (can a personality ever be summarized?) of Leonard Cohen, these five verses of a song extracted from the same album of great works such as Chelsea Hotel #2 fulfill this task quite well. Ironic, mocking and shameless as usual, Cohen was for Canada an artist similar to what authors such as Kerouac and Fante were for the United States, with his criticism, his swearing, his poetry.
And Beautiful Losers? What is it in the end? As Cohen himself said “Beautiful Losers is a love story, a psalm, a Black Mass, a monument, a satire, a prayer, a shriek, a road map through the wilderness, a joke, a tasteless affront, an hallucination, a bore, an irrelevant display of diseased virtuosity, a Jesuitical tract, an Orange sneer, a scatological Lutheran extravagance, in short, a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty.”
L. Cohen, Beautiful Losers, New York, Vintage Books, 1993
L. Cohen, Introduction to Beautiful Losers, Toronto, Viking, 1966
L. Cohen, Songs of Leonard Cohen, Columbia Record 1967
L. Cohen, Selected Poems 1956-1968, 1968
L. Cohen, Songs from a Room, Columbia Records, 1969
L. Cohen, Songs of Love and Hate, Columbia Records, 1971
L. Cohen, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Columbia Records, 1974
L. Cohen, I’m Your Man, Columbia Records, 1988
L. Cohen, The Future, Columbia Records, 1992