September 30, 2009

Leonard Cohen's Temple of Doom

"I always experience myself as falling apart, and I'm taking emergency measures," Leonard Cohen told Anthony DeCurtis in 1993's Rolling Stone. "It's coming apart at every moment. I try Prozac. I try love. I try drugs. I try Zen meditation. I try the monastery. I try forgetting about all those strategies … when I get to that place where I can't be dishonest about what I've been doing."

Leonard was just nine when his dad died, and Cohen says little about the experience except that he wrapped up a bow tie with some written verses included in the packet, and buried it with his father. He was left an inheritance that helped fund his literary pursuit later; freeing him in young adulthood to work on his poetry. Like many teen boys, he was a handful, but after high school went on to study at McGill University, where he met another famous Jewish Canadian poet, Irving Layton. Cohen worked carefully on his craft (he said one song took thirteen years to write!), developing poems and fiction stories that were mostly critically acclaimed.

Now, Leonard Cohen is practically canonized himself, revered globally. He's "half wolf half angel," according to Anjelica Huston. Cutting a familiar figure in his fedora and dashing suit, he's revered as the "highest and most influential echelon of songwriters" (Lou Reed) and "our Keats, our Shelley, our Byron" (U2). Even Prince Charles lauded him. "I tell you who I also think is wonderful is a chap called Leonard Cohen, do you know him?" he asked. One son wondered if Cohen was a jazz musician. Prince Charles replied, "He's remarkable. I mean the orchestration is fantastic and the words, the lyrics and everything. He's a remarkable man, and he has this incredibly, sort of laid back, gravelly voice. It's terrific stuff."

He went into retreat to finally silence that gloom and doom that had spun for half a century or longer through his head. Becoming a "religieuse" was perhaps the ultimate fulfillment of the themes of his soul -- and ever the contrarian, he didn't choose either the Jewish or a Christian path from his youth. His spiritual name is Jikan -- "the silent one." What Leonard longed for most, strangely, was to stop writing. Yet 2006's The Book of Longing was born from his years as a monk. Cohen said he'd been looking for silence all his life, moving towards it. And yet he couldn't stop himself.

"I tried to stop, but my relationship with writing is like that of a bear running into a hive -- he can't resist the temptation to steal honey. It happens continually. It's delightful and it's horrible … I'm sure that silence, sooner or later, will arrive."

The manic depressive tension between light and dark that has informed Cohen's life, his writing, his intense yet luminous nature is still there, despite a life spent seeking ways to silence it. "The recreational, the obsessional and the pharmaceutical -- I've tried them all. I would be enthusiastically promoting any one of them if they worked," he has said, about his search for relief. But today it seems clear that the solution to stability is to stop chasing it -- to simply let it be.

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