What does a man do? bears and dares;
and how does a little boy fare? He fares.
(“Mr. Pou & The Alphabet,” John Berryman)
I’m turning 40 in a few weeks. I wasn’t expecting it. Like most of us, I’ve spent a lifetime learning a vocabulary fit to describe only the thrusts and pleasures of youth. I have many words for hope. I have odes to future plans. And I have faith. But don’t ask me about my right knee—it creaks now like the floor of an old hotel—or about the dread I feel each night, watching my children sleep and knowing that I can’t protect them, not from everything, not forever. I’ve lived a hard and sobering life, but my failures still confound me, and, on certain cold nights, so do my desires. And my heart breaks too easily these days, weighed down by the darkness that creeps in from every crack in the culture. I don’t know the words to describe the path forward, mine and ours. Thank God my rabbi, Leonard Cohen, does.
He released a new album last week, his 14th. I won’t bother searching for the right adjectives to describe it; that would be dumb, like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the tallest mountain. It’s Cohen’s line, delivered in response to the news that his contemporary, Dylan, had just won the Nobel Prize. But Cohen could’ve easily been talking about himself: His new album is majestic, but its beauty gains nothing from description. Like a mountain, it is immediately and completely evident, inscrutable and inescapable. Like a mountain, it prompts a reckoning.
Which is not to suggest that the album is ominous. Its title may be You Want It Darker, but darkness has always found Cohen ambivalent; he may appreciate the purity of despair, but it has never been his drug. Unlike Dylan—for whom it’s never dark yet but always getting there—Cohen sees more layers to the night. His songbook is a manual for living with defeat, and its force has never been as moving or as clear as it is in the nine songs that make up his latest release.
Consider the following, from “Steer Your Way”:
Steer your path through the pain
that is far more real than you
That has smashed the Cosmic Model,
that has blinded every View
And please don’t make me go there,
though there be a God or not
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
It’s about as elegant an expression of Jewish theology as we have ever received. In its infancy—as the late Rabbi Alan Lew notes in his wonderful book This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, a title of which Cohen, I imagine, would approve—the old religion had a rosy-eyed view of the world. Four things, the Babylonian Talmud teaches us, “will cause God to tear up the decree of judgment which has been issued against a person: acts of righteousness, fervent prayer, changing one’s name, and changing one’s behavior.” But if you’ve lived as long as Cohen has—he’s 82 now, just a kid with a crazy dream—you know that prayer and good deeds and all kinds of change aren’t enough and that sometimes the righteous, whatever their name may be, are struck down and suffer and die. Judaism realized this, too, eventually, which is why the liturgy came to offer an amended view of fate. The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, for example, which Cohen had translated into a transcendent song, tells us that “Teshuvah, prayer, and righteous deeds can transform the evil of the decree.”
Not, mind you, change it, let alone tear it up: Just transform it. Our best efforts at repentance and rebirth, Rabbi Lew wisely noted, “will not change what happens to us; rather, they will change us.” That is the essence—of Judaism, of growing older with grace, and of Cohen’s new album, an essential guide to both; it’s going to get darker, it always does, but that’s all the more reason to try harder, not an invitation to surrender.
There’s fight in every one of Cohen’s new songs, illuminated by the wisdom of his years but powered by a lust for life that is rare even in artists who are decades younger. “I was fighting with temptation / But I didn’t want to win,” he sings with an almost audible wink, “A man like me don’t like to see / Temptation caving in.” It’s an invigorating sentiment, reminding us that even our most glaring flaws are not without their secret joys, and that our missteps, too, eventually take us to where we need to be. We may love and lose, we may try and we may stumble, but we feel, and the more we do the more alive we are even as we slouch toward the great eternal rest. “I heard the snake was baffled by his sin,” he muses in one of the album’s finest expressions of this profound idea, “He shed his scales to find the snake within / but born again is born without a skin / The poison enters into everything.” Teshuvah, or return—to righteousness, to our true selves, to those we love—is often difficult, sometimes deadly, always essential. There’s simply no other way.
I have no idea if the Lord of Song consults the Hebrew calendar, but it can hardly be a coincidence that Cohen’s album was released during Sukkot, our most Cohenesque of holidays. Immediately following the Day of Judgment and the Day of Atonement, Sukkot instructs us in ritual, as Cohen does us in song, to rejoice in brokenness. We are commanded to leave our comfortable homes—a subtle reminder that they’re not as stable and sheltering as we’d like to think—and instead eat and sleep in a ramshackle structure that’s nothing if not a monument to impermanence. Having spent the Days of Awe in meditation and prayer, we begin the year with a physical reminder that all must and does pass, and that the best we can do with the time we are given is to knock down our walls and open our doors and our hearts.
It’s a radical notion for a culture like ours, so solipsistic and so sophomorically obsessed with unequivocal triumphs. But Cohen has always been there for us, our singing prophet, reminding us to bear and dare, asking us to steer our hearts not to higher ground, to some more perfect ideal, or even to God, but back into ourselves, and into the hearts of others, no matter how painful it may be. Like a magical mantra, his wisdom grows more powerful with each repetition, pulling us away from our distractions and into its light. With this perfect new album we may begin to transcend: All we need is love—and Leonard Cohen.
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