Between Darkness and Light: The itineraries of Leonard Cohen

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Claudio Zonta SJ

 Claudio Zonta SJ / Issue 1708 / 15 September 2017

On November 7, 2016, Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and author, died in Los Angeles. Just a few weeks prior, on October 21, 2016, his final album, titled You Want It Darker, had been released, coinciding with the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. When asked about Dylan’s award at a Canadian Consulate event in Los Angeles, Cohen replied “it’s like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain in the world.”[1]

Sharing the same musical, poetic and writing paths, Cohen and Dylan, who are both Jewish in origin, differ in their style of poetry and way of observing life. Bob Dylan’s writing[2] is grounded in the tradition of American folk singers, from the raw and impetuous narrative of storytelling, while Leonard Cohen’s elaborates an introspective poetry, at the confluence of biblical imagery and Hebrew traditional culture that permeates his work as the author reinterprets his life experiences.

In the book, A Life of Leonard Cohen, Ira B. Nadel, stresses how during the Canadian songwriter’s childhood he had been exposed to the beauty of the written word and to Jewish culture and religion thanks to time spent with his grandfather, Rabbi Salomon Klinitsky-Klein, called Sar has Dikdook (The Prince of the Grammarians), who had published a work on Talmudic interpretation, titled A Treasury of Rabbinic Interpretations, and the Lexicon of Hebrew Homonyms. In addition, his grandfather, as Cohen himself once said, had the habit of reading certain passages from the prophet Isaiah: “He re-reads it as if it were for the first time and commences once over an explanation, and then again, so that he sometimes spent the whole evening on one or two verses.”[3]

The winding road of mercy

The reading of the Bible made its mark on Leonard Cohen and his writing style is interspersed with metaphors, characters, and frequent reference to the Jewish faith. His way of telling stories, of referring to feelings and passions, is set within a religious sensibility rooted in his being Jewish: an errant Jew who wants to remain so, because “the road is too long, the sky is too wide, the errant heart is finally without dwelling.”[4]

This desire for knowledge – of existence, the world, and God – led him to write Book of Mercy, a collection of poems. Published in 1984, it is inspired in form and content by the Bible’s Book of Psalms. The profundity of human limits is brought back to God through a cry from the heart so that the mercy of God can reveal itself once again and flow into humanity, following the tradition of the Psalms. It is a mercy that permits a return from exile and belongs to the symbolism of remoteness, perdition and sin.

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