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Hello, Larry! If you missed last week's edition â€“ Mary Oliver on how books saved her life, Ursula K. Le Guin on writing, Alan Watts on the antidote to the loneliness of the divided mind, and more â€“ you can catch up right here. If you missed the special once-a-decade edition -- the 10 most important things I learned in the first 10 years of Brain Pickings -- find that here. If you're enjoying my newsletter, please consider supporting this labor of love with a donation â€“ I spend countless hours and tremendous resources on it, and every little bit of support helps enormously.
One of his most beloved lyric lines, from the song â€œAnthemâ€ â€” a song that took Cohen a decade to write â€” remains what is perhaps the most meaningful message for our troubled and troubling times: â€œThere is a crack in everything, thatâ€™s how the light gets in.â€ It springs from a central concern of Cohenâ€™s life and work, one which he revisited in various guises across various songs â€” including in â€œSuzanneâ€, where he writes â€œlook among the garbage and the flowers / there are heroes in the seaweed,â€ and in the iconic â€œHallelujahâ€: â€œThereâ€™s a blaze of light / In every word / It doesnâ€™t matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujahâ€.
Nowhere is this interplay of darkness and light more nuanced, nor more prescient, than in Cohenâ€™s song â€œDemocracy.â€
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Western world was ablaze with the euphoria of a blind faith that democracy was coming to the East. I was there â€” thatâ€™s not what happened. Cohen, too, saw things differently. Ever the enchanter of nuance, he foresaw the complexity and darkness that this reach for light would unravel, and he captured it in this iconic and astonishingly timely song. It begins:
Itâ€™s coming through a hole in the air From those nights in Tiananmen Square Itâ€™s coming from the feel That this ainâ€™t exactly real Or itâ€™s real, but it ainâ€™t exactly there From the wars against disorder From the sirens night and day From the fires of the homeless From the ashes of the gay Democracy is coming to the USA Itâ€™s coming through a crack in the wall
In his 1991 conversation with journalist Paul Zollo, found in Songwriters on Songwriting (public library) â€” the source of Cohenâ€™s wisdom on inspiration and work ethic, and his most illuminating interview â€” Cohen pulls back the curtain on his creative process and discusses the nature of democracy, how he wrote the song, and why he chose to leave out certain verses, even though he considered them lyrically good.
Today, as the worldâ€™s greatest superpower elects a bigoted bully with fascist tendencies for president, many of the lines Cohen left out pierce with their pertinence â€” lines like â€œConcentration camp behind a smileâ€ and â€œWho really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? / Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay?â€
A quarter century ago, Cohen speaks to our time with astonishing prescience â€” for any great artist is at bottom a seer in dialogue with eternal human problems â€” and tells Zollo:
I think the irony of America is transcendent in the song. Itâ€™s not an ironic song. Itâ€™s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in this country. That this is really where the experiment is unfolding. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy. So I wanted to have that feeling in the song, too.
Using songwriting itself as a laboratory for democratic discourse, Cohen wrote several verses he chose to leave out of the final song. He gives as an example a verse in which he explored the relationship between black and Jewish people:
First we killed the Lord and then we stole the blues. This gutter people always in the news, But who really gets to laugh behind the black manâ€™s back When he makes his little crack about the Jews? Who really gets to profit and who really gets to pay? Who really rides the slavery ship right into Charleston Bay? Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
From the church where the outcasts can hide Or the mosque where the blood is dignified. Like the fingers on your hand, Like the hourglass of sand, We can separate but not divide From the eye above the pyramid. And the dollarâ€™s cruel display From the law behind the law, Behind the law we still obey Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.
When Zollo asks why he chose to take these verses out, Cohen responds:
I didnâ€™t want to compromise the anthemic, hymn-like quality. I didnâ€™t want it to get too punchy. I didnâ€™t want to start a fight in the song. I wanted a revelation in the heart rather than a confrontation or a call-to-arms or a defense.
In these present days of outrage and confrontation, how much of even the most elegantly argued writing aims for â€œa revelation in the heartâ€? And what might our world look like if this is what we aimed for instead of belittling and badgering those we find at fault?
With an eye to his core quest for light, Cohen reflects on the necessity for a creative process that includes such deliberately disposable composition:
Before I can discard the verse, I have to write itâ€¦ Itâ€™s just as hard to write a bad verse as a good verse. I canâ€™t discard a verse before it is written because it is the writing of the verse that produces whatever delights or interests or facets that are going to catch the light. The cutting of the gem has to be finished before you can see whether it shines.
Most of us from the middle-class, we have a kind of old, 19th-century idea of what democracy is, which is, more or less, to over-simplify it, that the masses are going to love Shakespeare and Beethoven. Thatâ€™s more or less our idea of what democracy is. But that ainâ€™t it. Itâ€™s going to come up in unexpected ways from the stuff that we think [is] junk: the people we think are junk, the ideas we think are junk, the television we think is junk.
Among the things we discard too heedlessly, Cohen notes in another testament to his virtuosity for nuance, are the spiritual and moral mechanisms of religion. (A quarter century later, Adam Gopnik made a parallel case for how a secular reading of scripture enlarges our lives.)
Reflecting on the sense of sanctity and holiness in his songs â€” something Bob Dylan captured around the release of â€œHallelujahâ€ in remarking that Cohenâ€™s songs are like prayers â€” Cohen tells Zollo:
â€œIf It Be Your Willâ€ is really a prayer. And â€œHallelujahâ€ has that feeling. A lot of them do. â€œDance Me to the End of Love.â€ â€œSuzanne.â€ I love church music and synagogue music. Mosque music.
Thereâ€™s a line in â€œThe Futureâ€: â€œWhen they said repent, I wonder what they meant.â€ I understood that they forgot how to build the arch for several hundred years. Masons forgot how to do certain kinds of arches, it was lost. So it is in our time that certain spiritual mechanisms that were very useful have been abandoned and forgot. Redemption, repentance, resurrection. All those ideas are thrown out with the bath water. People became suspicious of religion plus all these redemptive mechanisms that are very useful.
The creative process itself, Cohen observe, is a spiritual channel to the miraculous. He reflects on what it takes to write a beautiful song:
It is a miracle. I donâ€™t know where the good songs come from or else Iâ€™d go there more often.
Toward the end of the interview, Cohen reflects on the fuel for his own spiritual machinery as an artist. Itâ€™s a sentiment of especial bittersweetness in the wake of Cohenâ€™s death, and one as true of the creative life as of the life of service (which is animated by its own kind of creativity); as true of making art as of fighting for justice:
I always had a sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And youâ€™re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.
There is hardly a greater jackpot than a long life of light-bearing purpose. Thank you, Leonard Cohen, for everything.
If you havenâ€™t yet read David Remnickâ€™s spectacular New Yorker profile of Cohen, quench your soul here.
The measure of true kindness â€” which is different from nicety, different from politeness â€” is often revealed in those challenging instances when we must rise above the impulse toward its opposite, ignited by fear and anger and despair.
Before you know what kindness really is you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth. What you held in your hand, what you counted and carefully saved, all this must go so you know how desolate the landscape can be between the regions of kindness. How you ride and ride thinking the bus will never stop, the passengers eating maize and chicken will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
In her altogether elevating On Being conversation with Krista Tippett, Nye tells the remarkable real-life backstory that inspired this beloved poem â€” a story that only lends more potency to the poemâ€™s message:
â€œYou have to tell your own story simultaneously as you hear and respond to the stories of others,â€ the poet Elizabeth Alexander wrote in contemplating power, possibility, and language as a tool of transformation. A year later, she became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration when she welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency with her poem â€œPraise Song for the Day.â€
James Baldwin with Shakespeare, 1969 (Photograph: Allan Warren)
Every writer in the English language, I should imagine, has at some point hated Shakespeare, has turned away from that monstrous achievement with a kind of sick envy. In my most anti-English days I condemned him as a chauvinist (â€œthis Englandâ€ indeed!) and because I felt it so bitterly anomalous that a black man should be forced to deal with the English language at all â€” should be forced to assault the English language in order to be able to speak â€” I condemned him as one of the authors and architects of my oppression.
Leaning on the scale of life-sobered hindsight with which one weighs the hubrises of oneâ€™s youth, Baldwin notes that he â€œwas young and missed the point entirely.â€ He recounts the moment in which the point revealed itself to him:
I still remember my shock when I finally heard these lines from the murder scene in Julius Caesar. The assassins are washing their hands in Caesarâ€™s blood. Cassius says:
Stoop then, and wash. â€” How many ages hence Shall this our lofty scene be acted over, In states unborn and accents yet unknown!
In a passage of piercing prescience given the political situation in America today, Baldwin reflects on the revelation of this verse:
What I suddenly heard, for the first time, was manifold. It was the voice of lonely, dedicated, deluded Cassius, whose life had never been real for me before â€” I suddenly seemed to know what this moment meant to him. But beneath and beyond that voice I also heard a note yet more rigorous and impersonal â€” and contemporary: that â€œlofty scene,â€ in all its blood and necessary folly, its blind and necessary pain, was thrown into a perspective which has never left my mind. Just so, indeed, is the heedless State overthrown by men, who, in order to overthrow it, have had to achieve a desperate single-mindedness. And this single-mindedness, which we think of (why?) as ennobling, also operates, and much more surely, to distort and diminish a man â€” to distort and diminish us all, even, or perhaps especially, those whose needs and whose energy made the overthrow of the State inevitable, necessary, and just.
Once one has begun to suspect this much about the world â€” once one has begun to suspect, that is, that one is not, and never will be, innocent, for the reason that no one is â€” some of the self-protective veils between oneself and reality begin to fall away.
With an eye to the two â€œmighty witnessesâ€ of his life in language â€” his black ancestors, â€œwho evolved the sorrow songs, the blues, and jazz, and created an entirely new idiom in an overwhelmingly hostile place,â€ and Shakespeare, whom he calls â€œthe last bawdy writer in the English languageâ€ â€” Baldwin considers how language can become a tool of love and a curative force for our alienation from the worldâ€™s otherness:
My quarrel with the English language has been that the language reflected none of my experience. But now I began to see the matter in quite another way. If the language was not my own, it might be the fault of the language; but it might also be my fault. Perhaps the language was not my own because I had never attempted to use it, had only learned to imitate it. If this were so, then it might be made to bear the burden of my experience if I could find the stamina to challenge it, and me, to such a test.
What I began to see â€” especially since, as I say, I was living and speaking in French â€” is that it is experience which shapes a language; and it is language which controls an experience.
My relationship, then, to the language of Shakespeare revealed itself as nothing less than my relationship to myself and my past. Under this light, this revelation, both myself and my past began slowly to open, perhaps the way a flower opens at morning, but more probably the way an atrophied muscle begins to function, or frozen fingers to thaw.
With this, Baldwin returns to Shakespeare as a lens on the ultimate purpose of the poet as a vehicle for love and mutual understanding in a society woven of otherness â€” a purpose all the more vital and vitalizing in our troubled and troubling times:
The greatest poet in the English language found his poetry where poetry is found: in the lives of the people. He could have done this only through love â€” by knowing, which is not the same thing as understanding, that whatever was happening to anyone was happening to him. It is said that his time was easier than ours, but I doubt it â€” no time can be easy if one is living through it. I think it is simply that he walked his streets and saw them, and tried not to lie about what he saw: his public streets and his private streets, which are always so mysteriously and inexorably connected; but he trusted that connection. And, though I, and many of us, have bitterly bewailed (and will again) the lot of an American writer â€” to be part of a people who have ears to hear and hear not, who have eyes to see and see not â€” I am sure that Shakespeare did the same. Only, he saw, as I think we must, that the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.
That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people â€” all people! â€” who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.
Beloved writers, artists, scientists, and musicians will each read a hope-giving poem of their choice. Readings by Elizabeth Alexander (who welcomed Barack Obama to the presidency and became the fourth poet in history to read at a U.S. presidential inauguration), longtime New Yorkerwriter Adam Gopnik, cosmologist and novelist Janna Levin, actor and playwright Sarah Jones, artist Shantell Martin, poets Anne Waldman, Joy Ladin, and Meghan O'Rourke, and many more.
There will be a special musical tribute to Leonard Cohen.
The event is free and open to the public â€” come, bring friends, spread the word. Leave with a lighter, fuller heart and with some of your faith in humanity replenished.