Elliot R. Wolfson says adieu to the master of erotic despair
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said “All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them”
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
L. Cohen. “Suzanne”
In the fall of 1997, the words of Dylan “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” inspired me to write a poem called “darkening,” which began “how much darker can darkness become / before it is no longer dark?” Alas, around 9:00 in the evening of November 10, upon hearing the news of Leonard Cohen’s passing several days earlier, I finally received a response to the question I posed nineteen years ago. It is not dark yet until the darkness is so dark that it is no longer discernible as dark. The death of my muse and spiritual brother, Eliezer ha-Kohen—the Hebrew name he typically used in his emails to me—extended the darkness to its limit as darkness, the limit where, as my poem continued, “flesh melts and fire freezes / from the waiting that waits for those who wait / while those who wait are weighed / on the scale without balance / in the absence of wait.” Sadly, with the death of the poet extraordinaire, the hope engendered by waiting, the indeterminacy and futurity of time as the not yet that is present but always as what is still to come, has arrived at its end, impelling us to take stock of the time wherein there is no more time, the time divested of time. Typically, we think of death—even when expected—as an abrupt cessation of time, a caesura, the end of possibility, but, as Blanchot put it, death is horrifying because it is the finality that summons the impossibility of dying. That is, as long as one is in the process of dying and not yet dead, the never-ending ending offers the possibility of the impossible, but once death transpires as the event of the nonevent, the undying of the dying ensues and the impossibility of the possible prevails. In contemplating the necessary contingency of our finitude, we discern that there is no more excess of lack but only the lack of excess, no more pondering the inevitability of there being nothing more to ponder.
But with this wisdom we come face to face with the enigma of time unveiled through the veil of death as the fount of hope that renews itself intermittently as the hope deferred perpetually.
Death thus reveals that each moment is identical because distinctive, or as Cohen expressed it in “There For You,” “And death is old / But it’s always new.” Sometimes minutes feel like hours, hours like days, days like weeks, weeks like months, and months like years. But on the whole, after all is said and done, time flies, as the saying goes, or in the rabbinic idiom, time like twilight passes in a blink of the eye, night enters and day exits, and it is impossible to grasp (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 2b). A simple but profound metaphor for our experience of temporality, the predictable but unfathomable transition from day to night, life to death, persistent but fleeting. According to a passage in the Zohar (1:223b), Rabbi Eliezer taught that even if a person lives a thousand years, on the day he departs from the world, it seems as if he lived but one day. No matter how much time we are gifted, there seems never to be enough—too much is always too little even when too little might feel like too much.
On his eighty-second birthday Cohen released the title track of his most recent album—and sadly his last unless there is material that will be issued posthumously—“You Want It Darker.” In the opening stanzas the poet displays the stark honesty of one confronting mortality without any guise or ruse:
If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame
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
I’m ready, my lord
Cohen, the master wordsmith, was not given to allusive or esoteric language. His poetry, though steeped in religious symbolism, is surprisingly straightforward, penetratingly deep but startlingly plainspoken. The opening of this song—a kind of self-avowed dirge, or what I think of as the haunting image of Cohen saying kaddish for himself—is even more striking and evocative in its candor. In facing the prospect of imminent death, there is no mystery left that demands decoding, no wearing of the river’s disguise, the face unmasked as the mask of the face that one must ultimately and irrevocably discard. Nakedly embodied, the poet addresses God directly, utilizing the scriptural elocution hineni to mark his readiness to serve by accepting the fate decreed for him—if God is imagined as a dealer, then Cohen is out of the game, if God is imagined as a healer, then Cohen admits he is broken and lame, if the glory is ascribed to God, then Cohen acknowledges his portion is shame. All that remains in this dying moment is the power to acquiesce and to comply with the divine will—“You want it darker / We kill the flame.”
Years before Cohen humbly gave voice to the quietistic resolve to serve by intoning “If it be your will / That I speak no more / And my voice be still / As it was before / I will speak no more / I shall abide until / I am spoken for / If it be your will.” The same spirit of renunciation returns in the new song, albeit at the critical existential juncture as the poet prepares to let go and to pass from what Dylan sardonically referred to as this version of death called life. God, it seems, shows no mercy at this moment; he simply wants it darker. The poet has no choice but to emulate Abraham—when called by God to sacrifice Isaac, he proclaimed hineni, “I am here,” demonstrating his unequivocal willingness to obey.
In an earlier song, “The Story of Isaac,” Cohen utilized the narrative about the attempted sacrifice of Isaac to criticize contemporary acts of violence. The sharp socio-political critique is placed in the mouth of Isaac, using his own experience to admonish those who would coerce the false martyrdom of others:
You who build these altars now
To sacrifice these children,
You must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
And you never have been tempted
By a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
Your hatchets blunt and bloody,
You were not there before,
When I lay upon a mountain
And my father’s hand was trembling
With the beauty of the word.
But even in that context the submission of Abraham is never in question, “I’ve had a vision / and you know I’m strong and holy / I must do what I’ve been told.” Abraham had a vision, those who wage war today have only a scheme. Out of that vision came forth the alacrity to succumb. Analogously, the final darkness, the extinguishing of the light, is dependent on Cohen’s claiming his own agency to sacrifice his bodily self. The demise of the physical is here transformed into a path of ascesis and piety.
Suffering has always been foremost in Cohen’s mind, his deepest and most erotic passion
Cohen pivots from self-denial to a theme well-known from his poetry and songs: the holy name crucified in the human frame. I would call this incarnational motif “transconfessional” insofar as a version of it can be found in different faiths seeking to bridge the gap between the invisible and the visible, the immaterial and the material. In an earlier study, I argued that it is not possible to appreciate the kabbalistic resonances in Cohen without considering his complex fascination with the Christian doctrine of incarnation. I will not rehearse my argument here, but it is noteworthy that in this most intimate moment recounted in the new song—Cohen’s direct encounter with God reminiscent of biblical figures like Abraham and Job—he invokes precisely that theme but extended to every human being: God becoming a body is an act of suffering and degradation of the holy name. On display here as well is the syncretistic impulse of Cohen, combining the opening line of the kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, whereby the name is sanctified, and the fundamental axiom of the Christian faith. But even more revealing is the intent of this invocation, which is made clear in the next line: a million candles were burning for the help that never came. The sadness and resignation here is palpable. Cohen elicits from the vilification and crucifixion of the holy name in the human frame the inescapable and irredeemable suffering of the human condition. The point is enunciated in the second stanza:
There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame
A lullaby for suffering—a perfect description of Cohen’s poetic offerings to the world, lullabies that celebrate suffering as a means to a deeper commitment to love that can at times be based on a paradox, as in the case of the story of Isaac. Scripture sanctions the suffering and the need to heed the divine voice even if the command defies the dictates of reason and the prescriptions of the heart. In the case of Jesus, too, the help never came because the savior could not be saved from the infliction he had to endure for the sake of saving others. Each person must similarly bear the cross in facing the ephemerality of one’s being. A million candles could not suffice to overturn God’s desire that it be darker. Repeating this line toward the end of the song, Cohen evocatively changes one word: “A million candles burning for the love that never came.” The image is searing in its sadness. A million candles did not suffice to conjure the love necessary to overturn the demand of the divine to make it darker. To this plea, the poet can only utter “Hineni, hineni, / I’m ready, my Lord.”
In his last public appearance on October 13, 2016, Cohen elucidates the import of his use of this biblical idiom: “Hineni—that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the moment, at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.” The emergency as we know now—although signs were offered before the fateful news was publicized, for example, in the note Cohen sent to Marianne Ihlen, the lyrics of several songs on You Want It Darker, and in the comments Cohen offered to David Remnick—was Cohen’s battle with failing health and the likelihood of his looming death. In dying, Cohen found the ultimate means of worship, the service of the heart, according to the rabbinic tradition to which he pledged spiritual allegiance until the end, indeed being buried in his family plot in the Jewish cemetery in Outremont, Quebec.
Suffering has always been foremost in Cohen’s mind, his deepest and most erotic passion as it is the passion that gives gravitas to the pursuit of all other passions. The religious promise to alleviate suffering, he once said, is cruel because it is not possible to live without suffering. The act of poiesis takes shape within the matrix of suffering. One passage from the Book of Mercy is worth considering: “Broadcast your light through the apple of pain, radiant one, sourceless, source of light. … Broken in the unemployment of my soul, I have driven a wedge into your world, fallen on both sides of it. Count me back to your mercy with the measures of a bitter song, and do not separate me from my tears.” Cohen does not ask to be released from his pain; quite the contrary, he requests of God not to be separated from his tears, for the tears are the rungs on the ladder that lead to the surmounting of the tears. All things crack, he writes in another passage from that work, so that the divine throne will be restored to the heart. Wholeness is to be sought in the fissures of our being. No heart is as whole as the heart that is broken.
One might say that Cohen’s belief that worship ensues from a sense of anguish or impending catastrophe has long enframed his devotion. His attraction to both Kabbalah and Zen Buddhism issue from the discernment that hope flings from the place of hopelessness, and in an even deeper register, that hopelessness is itself an expression of hope to the extent that it is a catalyst that stimulates the craving to serve. In what is perhaps his most celebrated song, “Hallelujah,” Cohen insists, “There’s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesn’t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.” Consonant with Jewish mystics, Cohen draws the logical conclusion of assuming that God’s light is to be found in every word: there can be no difference between the holy and the broken. It is the latter, however, the disjointed and defective praise, that is the wellspring of prayer. As the poet himself attests in another stanza of the song, “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” It all went wrong—a typical expression of Cohen’s uncompromising despondency, albeit uttered without bitterness or remorse.
He lived not only in the tower of song but from the other side of sorrow and despair
Of his many gifts, Cohen was able to plumb the depths of darkness to liberate the sparks of light contained therein. He lived not only in the tower of song but from the other side of sorrow and despair. One of the kabbalistic motifs that captured his imagination—indeed he referred to it explicitly in his conversation with Remnick—was the Lurianic doctrine of the shattering of the vessels and the consequent dispersion of the light. The burden is to liberate those sparks and restore them to the infinite, to mend the fracture and disharmony of God and the world. Following a more monistic approach, attested in some Hasidic interpretations of the Lurianic symbolism, Cohen envisioned the darkness as a form of light and not its antithesis. His genius and sensitivity relates to positing a form of rectification based on accepting the brokenness. Redemption comes not by dispelling the darkness but by transforming it into light. To paraphrase Cohen’s “Come Healing,” the task before us is to gather up the brokenness, even the brokenness of the promises that one has never dared to vow, an image that suggests a brokenness so broken that one cannot even make the promise that will be broken.
Through his words and the example of his life, Cohen instructed us in the pathway of humility and contrition, to accept the fragmentariness of life gracefully. In a time of arrogance and self-aggrandizement, we need more than ever to listen carefully to this teacher of the heart, who has taught us how the old hearts must break and only then come to rest. We must attend carefully to the meaning of his insight, “Follow me the wise man said, but he walked behind.” The true sage leads by following, the true master is one who disposes of his mask of mastery. Future generations will surely be guided by the wisdom that the way to overcome is through surrender. Hineni, Lord, as saddened as we are, collectively and individually, by the parting of this poet from the planet, we must keep the flame alight, darkening the darkness so that the night of grief gives way to the morning of jubilation. Now more than ever, we must submit to the poet’s charge that we raise a tent of shelter even though every thread is torn. Precisely when the threads are torn is the need for shelter more pressing.