July 21, 2019

Healing of the Spirit: The Genius of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Photo courtesy of Old Ideas, LLC

Up until two months ago, my relationship with Leonard Cohen was fairly one-dimensional. I was madly in love with “Hallelujah,” liked Jeff Buckley’s cover of it the best, until I discovered the IDF Band’s version in Hebrew, which took it to a new level. What I’d heard of his other work, I didn’t connect with. I found it and his persona too dark, gloomy, melancholy. In retrospect, I don’t think I was ready for it.

All of that changed dramatically in April at the opening of “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” at the Jewish Museum in New York City. The first exhibition devoted entirely to the renowned singer-songwriter’s imagination and legacy, “A Crack” includes commissioned works by a range of international artists — 12 visual artists and 18 musicians, representing 10 countries — who have been inspired by Cohen’s work. The exhibition takes up three floors of the elegant Warburg mansion yet is still smaller than the original exhibition, which started in Montreal at the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal (MAC) and opened a year after Cohen’s death in 2016.

The Jewish Museum is five blocks from my apartment. I began to stop in every couple of days, to sit on the beanbags scattered in every room and take in the music, the poetry, the sound of Cohen’s voice. I went when I was happy, sad, dejected, stressed. Each time, he had something to say to me. Each time, I cried.

I watched the visitors go from press to elderly Jews to scruffy millennials with ripped jeans. They cried, too.

I had known that “Hallelujah” is brilliantly layered — sexuality and spirituality woven together as only a lifetime student of both could do. But I began to see the layering of his other songs and poems — and how that layering could make a beeline to the soul, cleansing, comforting, healing.

“His interweaving of the sacred and the profane, of mystery and accessibility, is such a compelling combination that it becomes seared into memory,” wrote curator Victor Shiffman and John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator of the MAC, in the accompanying catalog. “Our exhibition explores how this vastly important achievement has affected and inspired artists, how it has entered the cultural conversation, and how it has cut deep into the marrow of the body politic.”

Cohen was “an extraordinary poet of the imperfection of the human condition, giving voice to what it means to be fully alert to the complexities and desires of body and soul,” wrote the curators. “With equal parts gravitas and grace, Cohen teased out a startlingly inventive and singular language, depicting both a rapturous, sometimes liturgical, spirituality and an earthly sexuality.” 

I began to see the layering of his other songs and poems — and how that layering could make a beeline to the soul, cleansing, comforting, healing.

The exhibition is a tribute to Cohen’s singular voice; to his stature as a global icon; to his ongoing influence and the many pathways that emanate from his work. It turns out that this is the Summer of Cohen. A poignant documentary about his longtime lover and muse, Marianne Ihlen, “Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love,” opens July 5. In June, Christie’s auctioned off more than 50 letters Cohen had sent to Ihlen.

I have so much to catch up on — Cohen’s novels and books of poetry, decades of songs. But what’s clear to me after spending weeks in the 13-part exhibition is that to be ready for Leonard Cohen — fully ready — is to be able to appreciate his many complex layers; once you do, you begin to appreciate your own complex layers — and then the complex layers of humanity, of life.

Once I embraced the melancholy of his work, I was able to feel the beauty. And there is just so much beauty.

Ring the bells that still can ring; 

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack, a crack in everything; 

That’s how the light gets in.
— “Anthem”

“Leonard Cohen, Trouville 1988,” taken from a photograph by Claude Gassian.
Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

The main piece in the exhibition is a 56-minute film titled “Passing Through” by George Fok. Three projections on three walls of a large room, the film is an exquisite montage of archival footage highlighting almost 50 years of Cohen’s concert performances; a single song is sometimes performed across several decades. We watch Cohen perform, but we also see the hushed silence of his audiences, the standing ovations, the waves of love.

Visitors sit, transfixed, often with their eyes closed, like at a hallucinogenic concert.

In the next room is Kara Blake’s “The Offerings,” a passage through Cohen’s intricate interior landscape. Blake pieced together footage of Cohen speaking, “using his singular voice to engage visitors in an intimate conversation.” Cohen muses on a variety of subjects, ranging from his personal writing practice to the themes that lie beneath: love, humility and spirituality.

“These offerings issue from a life of observation and introspection,” Blake wrote, “inviting guests into his contemplative world.” The film is “a memento of Cohen’s perspective on what it means to be human,” exploring his “lifelong investigation of the complex interplay between the mortal and the divine.” 

Together, the two films highlight the exhibition’s main theme: There is a crack in everything. Even when something seems perfect, it’s not. There is a crack because humanity is imperfect, because nature is imperfect, and striving for perfection only sets you up for despair. The world, people, are complex; life is sometimes very dark. 

But there is an upside to the crack: that’s how the light gets in. Even darkness has a crack.

It is perhaps the most inspired part of the exhibition to focus on those two lines from “Anthem.” Not only is it a major theme of Cohen’s work, but it’s a profoundly important personal message, a realistic twist to what is now called positive psychology. You think acknowledging pain and disappointment is going to bring you down, but instead: it allows you to accept the darkness. And once you accept it, you are better able to confront it, process it, move through it. It’s strengthening, liberating.

“The state of being cracked, imperfect, was one of this perfectionist’s longest, deepest studies,” writes Cohen’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons, in the catalog. “It might have been his battle cry.”

“The real mandate,” Cohen said, “is not fulfilling one’s dreams, but being brave enough to stand before the world, imperfect.” 

Like a bird on the wire; 

Like a drunk in a midnight choir;

I have tried in my way to be free.
— “Bird on the Wire”

When Cohen was a teen, he read the works of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who became one of Cohen’s greatest influences. “Lorca gave me permission to find a voice, to locate a voice, that is, to locate a self, a self that is not fixed, a self that struggled for its own existence,” Cohen said in 2011 when accepting Spain’s highest honor, the Premios Principe de Asturias.  

“The state of being cracked, imperfect, was one of this perfectionist’s longest, deepest studies. It might have been his battle cry.”
— Sylvie Simmons

“And as I grew older,” Cohen continued, “I understood that instructions came with this voice. What were these instructions? The instructions were never to lament casually, and if one is to express the great inevitable defeat that awaits us all, it must be done within the strict confines of dignity and beauty.”

Cohen was a poet of the human condition. He used the universal language of music to create timeless pieces that have affected generations. Just as Lorca had done for him, Cohen gives each of us — especially artists — the freedom to be ourselves, in all our sacred complexity.

Indeed, in reading the artists’ statements about their exhibition pieces, what becomes clear is that Cohen was an artist’s artist, unafraid of nonconformity and beauty. 

Canadian indie band Half Moon Run covers “Suzanne” in the exhibition piece “Listening to Leonard.” In the catalog, they wrote: “Considering the work of Leonard Cohen, one can get a better understanding of the very function of an artist. His art is essential. It shines a light into the dark corners of our collective human soul. It gives a magical spark of hope that perhaps life can be more transcendentally beautiful than you can even imagine. 

“He speaks to the poet inside all of us and reinforces our life with meaning. He is a true heir to a set of traditions that are as old as articulated speech — a master of song, verse and narrative. One gets the sense that he could have been born in any century, and still his voice would have found a way to cut through to communicate with and illuminate those around him.”

Cohen was cool precisely because he refused to conform to artistic trends. The Beat poets of New York associated his rhymed, polished verses with the oppressive literary establishment. He didn’t care. Cohen made “defiantly unfashionable music which people were compelled to catch up to,” wrote the curators.

“His songs were like nothing else made in the late sixties,” Simmons wrote. “He was unique, at the same time ancient and fresh.”

One could argue Cohen didn’t write songs; he wrote poetry set to music. He often spent years on his work, imbuing each piece with a biblical significance. Yet he was too humble to call himself a poet: “A poet is an exalted term at the end of one’s work. … Poetry is a verdict, not a choice.” 

A poised, courtly gentleman and an unabashed hedonist; an often gloomy, depressive figure with a wry, ironic sense of humor—Cohen embodied contradiction and complexity. He also saw no contradiction between innovation and beauty, personally or professionally. He tried wearing jeans but never felt completely comfortable, so he went back to wearing suits and soon, a signature fedora.

Cohen did share with the folk singers of the 1960s and ’70s a focus on underlying values, not partisan politics. In “Democracy,” he declares, “I’m neither left nor right.” In the ’70s, he stated, “I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that this world can afford pacifism. I think pacifism delights the hearts of killers.” That’s about as directly political as he gets. (He did offer himself to the Israeli military during the Yom Kippur War — to “stop Egypt’s bullet” — but was turned down.)

The otherwise brilliant exhibition includes one false note in trying to politicize a man who refused to be politicized. A piece by Taryn Simon shows the cover of The New York Times on Nov. 11, 2016. At the top is a photograph and article describing the first meeting between President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump; below is Cohen’s obituary. I believe we’re supposed to gasp at the timing.

Did Cohen hate Trump? Who knows; no evidence is offered. What is offered, over and over, is evidence of his hatred of precisely this kind of simplistic politicization (and projection).

Cohen’s art can’t be reduced to politics; it transcends politics. That is one of the reasons it is both brilliant and timeless.

Dance me to your beauty

With a burning violin
— “Dance Me to the End of Love”

“I’m not a pacifist. I don’t believe that this world can afford pacifism. I think pacifism delights the hearts of killers.” —  Leonard Cohen

 After World War II, German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno believed it would be impossible for Jews to create beauty again.

The Holocaust clearly haunted Cohen, who was 10 in 1944. References to it turn up in many of his songs. But his answer to Adorno was clear: Sacred beauty can’t be extinguished; indeed, it’s the only answer to evil.

“He swam in beauty, because in its transience, he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity,” wrote longtime friend Leon Wieseltier when Cohen died.

Like the great philosophers before him, Cohen saw truth in beauty and beauty in truth. “The truth of the line overwhelms all other considerations,” Cohen wrote in “The Book of Longing.” As Jon Rafman, creator of “Legendary Reality,” a meditation on art, identity and time drawing on Cohen’s work, put it: “It’s a thin line between ethics and aesthetics in the search for truth.”

“Dance Me to the End of Love” started out as an exploration of the origins of evil, Cohen tells us. It turned into a haunting ode to the musicians forced to perform in the concentration camps.

Cohen used the language of music to connect with humanity; he used beauty to speak to our hearts, to sear a place in our souls. “Music has a sacred function, and that sacred function is uniting men, honoring ancestors and placing yourself in a reverent attitude toward the future,” Cohen said.

Design studio Daily tous les jours asked the question: Why is “Hallelujah” so popular in so many places around the world, with people from different backgrounds and generations? To answer the question, it created “I Heard There Was a Secret Chord,” a participatory humming experience. Visitors sit in a cushioned circle, take a microphone hanging from the ceiling and begin to hum. The seat vibrates with our humming. A digital monitor above displays the ever-changing number of people around the world listening to “Hallelujah.”

 “ ‘Hallelujah’ attests to Cohen’s ability to make that leap from the personal to the universal,” wrote the artists in the catalog. “The way he observes and questions the human condition reveals the power artistic works can hold when they succeed in tapping into the collective spirit.”

The piece is an homage to this universality. “It celebrates the emotional thread that connects us as humans; it imagines a sense of unity through a transcendent experience. … We focused on the mystical experience of the song. … Using humming instead of words, we hoped to amplify the song’s ability to reach the core inside ourselves, transforming both real and networked space into magical, sensory, pulsating fields that transport people across the planet to a unique shared place — just as Cohen has been doing for decades.”

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this:
The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
— “Hallelujah”

I said all my faith to see

Her naked body
— “Memories”

Born in Montreal into a family of rabbis, scholars and businessmen who founded synagogues and Canada’s first English-language Jewish newspaper, Cohen said it was the “charged speech of the synagogue” that inspired him to write his first poem, an elegy for his father, who died when Cohen was 9. 

Cohen went on to study kabbalah, dabbled in Scientology and became a Buddhist monk for five years. But his connection to his Judaism was lifelong and profound. His lyrics incorporate Hebrew prayers, reference liturgical themes and are filled with biblical imagery. 

“Basically, he was born to be a rabbi,” Simmons said. “Instead, he moved into the world of poetry and song. But he never turned his back on that.”

Cohen was not religious but deeply spiritual. “We are dark romantics who explore to find the Other and to find ourselves,” Rafman wrote about Cohen and himself.

“The great art … is religion,” Cohen said. “How people see the origin of the soul or the psyche.”

An artist using art to speak to the soul — to God — was, of course, nothing new; it used to be the very definition of great art. Even Picasso said about art: “It washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” 

But Cohen took this to a different level. It’s hard not to listen to certain songs like “Come Healing” or “If It Be Your Will” and think you’re not listening to something sacred, a prayer.

Despite his reputation as a hedonist and his sometimes raunchy lyrics, Cohen’s frequent use of sexuality as a cover for spirituality imbues the former with a holiness it rarely receives.

And let the heavens hear it

The penitential hymn

Come healing of the spirit

Come healing of the limb

Behold the gates of mercy

In arbitrary space

And none of us deserving 

The cruelty or the grace.
— “Come Healing”

Part of the Leonard Cohen exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York.
Photo by Frederick Charles, Courtesy of the Jewish Museum

Despite his reputation as a hedonist and his sometimes raunchy lyrics, Cohen’s frequent use of sexuality as a cover for spirituality imbues the former with a holiness it rarely receives.

Cohen first gained fame in the 1960s, when the world felt as chaotic as it does today. When totalitarian ideologies were reigning (Marxism), ideologies completely out of sync with human nature. The huge difference is that folk music, consciously or not, imbued that rebellious era with a spirituality, with a grounding in soulful beauty. “In such ugly times, the real protest is beauty,” singer-songwriter Phil Ochs famously said.

None of that soulful artistic grounding exists today. Perhaps that is why this exhibition feels so explosive, why Cohen’s words feel so urgent.

Indeed, perhaps Cohen’s greatest role was as a spiritual philosopher. “We are all embraced by the truth continually,” Cohen said. “Sometimes we know it; sometimes we don’t.” His son, Adam, confirmed Cohen felt his work was “a mandate from God.”

At the same time, it’s hard not to see that Cohen struggled at times to maintain his faith (“your faith was strong but you needed proof”), that when you think he’s talking about women and romance — about how love is the eternal struggle — it often really is about God. Was Cohen’s struggle with love a metaphor for his struggle with faith?

It seems as though his writing and music eased his own sense of emptiness — was a reminder of God’s presence. Perhaps that’s why it feels so intimate, why it helps us feel less lonely, too.

Cohen’s theme — cracks are precisely what lets the light in — is steeped in Jewish theology. “The sins of Judah made him fit to lead; the brokenness of David turned into Psalms — great Jewish leaders have all made mistakes,” Rabbi Eli Fink said. “And we don’t shy away from telling their stories because their brokenness is what created their light. ‘Hallelujah’ is a clever retelling of the David story (with some creative changes) because to Cohen, reading David’s story may have been like looking in the mirror.”

On Oct. 21, 2016, a month after his 82nd birthday and days before his death, Cohen released his 14th and final album, “You Want It Darker.” In many of the songs, he is accompanied by the cantor and choir of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, the synagogue his great-grandfather helped found and in whose cemetery Cohen would be buried.

Much has been written about the song “Hineni,” which means “Here I Am” in Hebrew, that he’s reciting his own Kaddish. I keep going back to the line “A million candles burning, for the help that never came.” Seventy-one years later, I don’t think he forgave God for the Holocaust. His spirit finally succumbed to his soul.

Magnified, sanctified be Thy Holy Name

Vilified, crucified in the human frame

A million candles burning, for the help that never came

You want it darker, we kill the flame

Hineni, Hineni, I’m ready, my Lord.
— “You Want It Darker”

I already feel the inevitable sadness when the exhibition closes here on Sept. 8. (It will travel to San Francisco next, then Copenhagen.) Sitting in those dark rooms, listening to Cohen’s gravelly voice and ethereal music became my safe space at a particularly vulnerable time.

The genius of Leonard Cohen is that he understood that we need to be able to embrace the sadness, the darkness, to move on. That learning how to move through the darkness is how we heal, how we get stronger, how we better appreciate and create the light. After you touch the darkness, you’re no longer afraid of it.

Perfection of ourselves, of humanity, is a false ideal, Cohen tells us. We are human. And the only way we’re going to begin to reconnect with each other is through our humanity, our sacred, complex individuality.

Music — art — is here to help us to deal with the cracks, the personal cracks, the political cracks. The creation of beauty is essential to a moral landscape: Beauty and hate can’t coexist. Artist Julia Holter covers “Take This Waltz.” She wrote Cohen was “one of the first realizations I had of the truth that hides in abstraction — that the madness we experience in our heads can be the building blocks of beauty and understanding. … I see it as a kind of healing music — we need the reassurance that the ordinariness of our day-to-day lives has a beauty.” 

Perhaps this is why Cohen feels even more relevant today. We cannot heal the world until we first heal ourselves, until we fully understand imperfection and complexity. There is a reason why many of our greatest leaders have been deeply spiritual. Spirituality helps us maintain the hope we need to change the world.

The birds they sang at the break of day;

Start again, I heard them say.

Don’t dwell on what has passed away;

Or what is yet to be.
 — “Anthem”

Cohen has given us permission to not just embrace the darkness, but to teach our children that the world, life, isn’t perfect. To help them understand the complexity of the human condition, to adjust their expectations.

Yes, I will feel profound sadness when this exhibition leaves New York City. But his songs and poems remain, as does the knowledge that his words, his wisdom, will resonate for generations. As Sharon Robinson, his longtime collaborator, put it: “Now, in the deepest realms of the soul, where there is no sun, no gravity, no morning or night, his words are a compass, an anchor and a light.”

So I bid you farewell, I don’t know when I’ll be back

They’re movin’ us tomorrow to the tower down the track

But you’ll be hearin’ from me, baby, long after I’m gone

I’ll be speakin’ to you sweetly from a window in the Tower
of Song.
— “Tower of Song”


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic living in New York City.