WHEN Bob Dylan converted to Christianity in 1979, Leonard Cohen said: “I just don’t get this. Why would he go for Jesus at a late time like this?” In Leonard Cohen: The mystical roots of genius, Harry Freedman draws a parallel between that enigmatic question and the opening lines of Cohen’s 2016 song “It seemed the better way”: “Seemed the better way When first I heard him speak Now it’s much too late To turn the other cheek”.
Cohen believed that the old religions had served their time; that, while their ideas might still have value, the day of their institutions had passed, Freedman writes. “Once, becoming a Christian might have seemed the better way. But not now, not in the twenty-first century. Not after history had made it impossible to ‘turn the other cheek’. It was much too late.”
In 1967, Cohen spoke of seeing himself as a “cantor in a catacomb religion”: a new underground faith for modern times. He did not speak in those terms again, and was usually reluctant to discuss his religious beliefs and practices. Despite this, Freedman clearly traces the spiritual quest in Cohen’s music, “introspective and experiential, a way of engaging with the yearnings of his soul”, and affirms how these works “brought comfort to many, smoothed the path to healing and shone a beacon of spiritual light upon the world”.
A cohen is a member of a Jewish priestly tribe, with “a hereditary connection to prayer”. Cohen took this vocation seriously.
Freedman — who writes widely on Jewish culture and history — here makes a close study of more than 40 of Cohen’s songs, also referring to his extensive works of poetry; for Cohen was a poet and novelist before beginning his musical career at the age of 33. Many of these are conversations with a God whose role it is to create and sustain a broken world that Cohen felt obliged to repair. Reconciliation is a key theme in his work: the Kabbalistic idea that the world’s fabric was splintered at creation, and that “the pieces all scattered and lost” need gathering together.
In “Anthem” (1992), Cohen sings: “There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.” Here, as often in his work, Cohen suggests that the sacred will always find ways to bring illumination into a broken world. This unique book is a gift to anyone who wishes to be accompanied more deeply into the biblical, Kabbalistic, and Buddhist themes underlying these texts.
The Revd John Davies is Vicar of Clapham with Keasden and Austwick with Eldroth in the diocese of Leeds. He has created a Spotify playlist of the songs referred to in Harry Freedman’s book: bit.ly/cohen-mysticalroots
Leonard Cohen: The mystical roots of genius
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