Reading Leonard Cohen: Reprise


When I first began in the middle 1960s to read Leonard Cohen, I was a young professor well under the dread age of thirty, and therefore well-placed to enjoy the enthusiasm virtually every student had for Cohen's "Suzanne Takes You Down."

     I recall one summer class in particular, a lively and good-natured group.  I began to beard the Leonard.  You remember the line: "She gets you on her wave length."

Sproxton: "Where is her wave length?"
A student: (disbelieving)  "Well, you know, she turns him on."

(parroting) "How do we know the speaker is male? Is there evidence in the poem? Is the speaker a radio or TV or some kind of device that she can turn on?"
Another student: "Can't we just like the poem?"
Sproxton: "But don't you like to understand what you like? Don't you get pleasure from thinking?"

I wondered if we were having a misunderstanding and wrote Irving Layton's poem of that name on the blackboard.

    Later in the summer, the students got their own back.  I walked into class to find on the lectern a red and yellow beanie ringed with a border of fuzzy antenna-like appendages, green and white and blue and orange and chartreuse, a shimmering array of pipe-cleaners.  Beside the be-decked beanie was a note: "Thinking Cap, Complete with Wave-Lengths."

    The essays for this conference, like the psychedelic beanie, elicit from me a pleasurable double-take.  Mind-body transactions and the nature of pleasure — the proceedings sound these notes in fresh and provocative ways.  There are old themes sounded with new urgency, and new themes too.  The construction of self and gender, female and male, the nature of desire, the demands of history, the singer as lover, male and female.  The papers give much pleasure and encourage me, antennae all ashiver, to read Leonard Cohen in new ways.  They encourage me to tip my head, beanie and all, toward the noose of the news.


Collectively, these papers touch on what is most lively in contemporary literary enterprise.  Dominant is a set of deconstructive reading practices which I am tempted to describe by recalling the 1960s expression spacing-out.   The latter phrase refers to the effect that certain drugs have of slowing down the sense of time so that each musical note becomes distinctly perceptible and the spaces between the notes themselves are stretched or "spaced-out."  Deconstruction often works by stretching out the parts of a text to reveal its constructedness.  The reading is slowed down, the attention made intensive.  Joan Crate in her feminist rejoinder to Cohen deconstructs "Cohen" to find "he" in the middle of "con," finds a male con artist, a "break and enter" artist.  Winfried Siemerling reminds us of the word koan embedded in Cohen (which means "priest" in Hebrew) and points to the paradoxes implied in the priest as Zen master.  Charlene Diehl-Jones lays "Take this Waltz" across a musical staff so we can see the verse at work, one note at a time.  Nicole Markotic draws on narrative theory as she traces shifts within the structure of Beautiful Losers.  Paul Nonnekes draws on Freud and Lacan to conduct a double-voiced inquiry into male desire in the novel.  He quite literally spaces out the voices in his text.   Norman Ravvin argues that much criticism of Beautiful Losers glosses over Cohen's vision of the Holocaust, an ahistorical habit of mind that Clint Burnham and others deplore.  Fred Wah constructs a poetic intervention that refuses the linear sentences of traditional discourse: "The constant train tracks too, where the 'I' is the 'us' in holocaust . . . ."  Stephen Scobie describes Cohen's persistent deconstruction of "the figure of the poet as a unified source of utterance and meaning," while, from a Marxist position, Clint Burnham reminds us that the spread of deconstruction and other theories are part of what Frederic Jameson calls "The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism," a historical development which also embraces Cohen's work.

    Collectively, these papers also make up a significant overview of and context for Leonard Cohen's achievement.  Stephen Scobie discusses the emergence of theory since his Cohen book of the early 1970s, and illustrates the pertinence of Derrida's idea of supplementarity and the concomitant issues of presence and absence, origin and voice.  Scobie announces another key theme in speaking of the death of the author — which really means, as Roland Barthes insists, the birth of the reader (Barthes 148), a sometimes knotty issue which recurs in various forms, not least in relation to Ira Nadel's paper on biography.  Scobie also describes Cohen's development as a poet and as singer and song-writer.  He makes a neat summary of the albums and identifies a significant shift in the poetry beginning with Flowers for Hitler in 1964, the volume that Clint Burnham singles out for special attention, and which this conference has acknowledged in the premier performance of Cohen's ballet-drama "The New Step." Scobie indeed strikes keynotes for these proceedings.

    Others also contribute to the overview.  Fred Wah and Joan Crate range through the poems, and in his analysis of Beautiful Losers, Norman Ravvin makes a forceful case for re-reading the place of the Holocaust in Cohen's vision. Winfried Siemerling's analysis connects texts from 1964 and 1988.  And in their in-depth analyses of individual texts, Diehl-Jones, Markotic and Nonnekes raise issues of significance to the Cohen oeuvre.

    The year 1964 emerges as a critical point in Cohen's career.  Burnham sees Flowers for Hitler as marking what we must now call Cohen's postmodernism, two years before the publication of Beautiful Losers.  Scobie, too, finds a turning point in Flowers and Siemerling shows "Loneliness and History," an unpublished manuscript of a 1964 speech by Cohen, sheds light on Cohen's subsequent work, especially the song, "First We Take Manhattan."

    To read Cohen, we are inevitably taken back to the 'sixties, to the matrix out of which march the flower children and the peace movement and the wars.  Out of which marches Leonard Cohen who recently said that the "comedic" dimensions of his vision have been missed.  Collectively, the essays point to gaps in the criticism, Cohen and comedy, for instance.


Charlene Diehl-Jones sounds the theme of the body in "Re-membering the Love Song: Ambivalence and Cohen's 'Take This Waltz,' " a theme which echoes with Markotic and Nonnekes on Beautiful Losers, and Crate and Wah on the poetry.  The key critical term Diehl-Jones introduces is ambivalence: "the irresolvable tension of more than one meaning signifying simultaneously."   She also works with an idea of community somewhat different from that developed by Siemerling.  Diehl-Jones quotes Susan McClary's statement that both music and language "are kept afloat only because communities of people invest in them, agree collectively that their signs serve a valid currency."  From this base, Diehl-Jones pursues her analysis of "Take This Waltz" and comments incisively on the singer as lover, on appropriation and intertextuality (compare Scobie and Wah on Cohen's use of Lorca), on cliché and the play of the voice.  "Song has much to teach us about reading text," she concludes, "because song insists, song demonstrates, that meaning doesn't inhere ultimately in text, but in the interplay of the spoken and the speaking, text and tone."

    Even as he searches for the music at the heart of Cohen's thinking, Fred Wah alerts us to the 1960s matrix of Cohen's work.  The horrors of World War Two are scratched to the quick in the 1960s by the ongoing Southeast Asian horrors.  Killings are delivered into living rooms by the electronic "media," new word for a new time.  According to Marshall McLuhan, the media have bound us into a global village, a network of electronic interdependencies, figured for example in Canada by the DEW line of radar bases strung across the far north, an electronic tennis net for the intercontinental exchange of bombers and missiles.  Wars present, past and potential.  By attending to the sound of that crucial acronym, double-U double-U 2, Wah evokes another dimension of the 1960s, the flights of the U-2 spy planes over the Soviet Union, and the capture by the Russians of a U.S. pilot.  Stir in the cold war.  As Wah points out in his reference to Norman O. Brown, our very syntax is militaristic.  We are sentenced to war, we sentence ourselves to war.

    How do you make comedy in such a world? Answer: you make it black.  Absurd literature by the 1960s achieved a name, sick jokes made the rounds, black humour had a name for itself, the phrase, a catch-phrase now, "Catch-22," entered our language by way of Joseph Heller's novel.   Blackness was Cohen's answer, too.

    Black humour and what Clint Burnham, by way of Jameson, refers to as the postmodern fascination with trash inform Cohen's "The New Step."  The text of the play, published in Flowers for Hitler (1964), includes significant stage directions.  The body of The Collector, she who initiates the "new step," is described as a "huge damaged tank operating under the intimate command of a brilliant field warrior which is her mind" (SP 152).  Here is another strange body-mind transaction which finds its ultimate expression in the Collector's "terrifying" new dance.  Cohen describes the dance in a sequence of four defamiliarizing figures:

It combines the heavy mechanical efficiency of a printing machine with the convulsions of a spastic.  It could be a garbage heap falling down an escalator.  It is grotesque, but military, excruciating but triumphant.  It is a woman-creature proclaiming a disease of the flesh. (156)

Later, Mary imitates the new step to the music of The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.  As a creature of the 'Sixties, I find this play absurd, black, and funny.

    Wah also points to a significant congruence between Victor Shklovsky's defamiliarization or making strange (ostraneniye in the Russian) and Cohen's identifying himself as a strange-maker, the principal of Stranger Music.  Shklovsky's point is clear: the task of the artist is to vivify and renew our perception of the world.  "Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war . . . .  And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony" (12).  This takes us to the heart of Cohen's dilemma as a popular writer.  Can an artist achieve popular success without sacrificing his integrity?  Can the popular artist escape the jaws of habitualization?   Siemerling shows Cohen's answer to the question of the poet and his community as expressed in "Loneliness and History."  The poet, writes Cohen, "this disruptive resident alien," is also a "beneficent agent" who "offers an energy that will save the community from the fossilizing power of its instituted self."

    Interestingly, Wah's use of noos as an analytic device meshes with Cohen's own notions of the fructifying idea.  In a single, very rich sentence, Winfried Siemerling summarizes Cohen's stance: "Whereas `idea is the Birth Notice and Obituary of creation' and 'the language of energy,' its trajectory through time . . . necessitates failure."  Here in nugget form we see Cohen's poetics of the in-between, or the poetics of IF we might say, to refer to that conflation of narrators "I" and "F" in Beautiful Losers.  Such a poetic entails failure, for creation necessarily implicates its own end, just as a sounded note extinguishes itself in its very sounding.  Siemerling shows how Cohen has walked a line between priest and prophet, Cohen and koan, interpreter and far-seer.  What Cohen aims for, is the ordinary eternal machinery which enables the song or idea to be touched again and again, songs both ordinary in availability, eternal in potential.  He seeks strangeness in the familiar, familiarity in strangeness.

    Clint Burnham argues that Flowers for Hitler articulates a significant postmodern move, and links Cohen to other critics of the media: Innes, McLuhan, Adorno, Jameson.  Burnham's analysis of Cohen's poem "Style" suggests another important line of inquiry.  I find, for example, that the image of "electric unremembering" migrates throughout the volume.  Furthermore, Burnham's assertion that Flowers for Hitler typifies the postmodern denial of subjecthood finds confirmation, for example, in the very title of the poem "It Uses Us!"  The It remains in the poem ominously undefined, but the title makes clear that the It, some strange but powerful thing, acts upon us, the impersonal depends upon, somehow feeds upon, the personal.  Burnham sees such parasitic feeding as part of the ongoing spread and dominance of capitalism.  Typical of this spread is the "interpenetration of technology and the body" or cyberpunk, which Burnham illustrates with the Cohen lines, "I have lost a telephone / with your smell in it." Burnham challenges those canon-making views of literary history which address issues of style or influence while neglecting the huge forces of economic and political change.

    Norm Ravvin foregrounds ethical issues in Beautiful Losers.  He argues that the Argentinian bedroom scene, usually treated only in passing, constitutes the ethical centre of the novel, and, by extension, the ethical centre of Cohen's vision.  The scene challenges the moral predispositions we bring to the text, for the sympathy we have for Edith and F. takes us into the realm of Hitler worship.  The Hitler scene indeed seems to illustrate Freud's remark that "The pleasure principle seems actually to serve the death instincts" (109).  What do we do with such a scene?  Ravvin suggests the scene with Hitler is avoided "because it is a real site of rupture in the novel, at which point all the motifs of metamorphosis, sexual ecstasy, and transcendent yearning are diminished by the premonition shared by F. and Edith of their own deaths."

    To put it another way, even as it marks a fall from innocence, the scene insists upon the particularity of the holocaust as historical event.  This disruption is signalled by the moon: "here and there the restless water kept an image of the shattered moon.  We said good-bye to you old lover."  Good-bye, that is, to "I," who receives the letter, and good-bye to the moon, the old lover of the Renaissance love tradition.  Good-bye to Diana, goddess of chastity.

    Hitler's entry into history therefore marks a decisive change in consciousness.  When he exits the bedroom, Hitler leaves behind "the vague stink of his sulphurous flatulence," a fiery and gaseous image which signs him doubly as the prince of darkness and the principal author of Nazi horror.  He has an oven in his bum.  Edith's subsequent identification of herself as Isis, Egyptian goddess whose skirts have never been lifted, therefore invokes an innocence unstained by modern history.  What the lovers seek, Cohen seems to say, is innocence; what they find, is history.

    "The New Step," too, when read in light of this bedroom scene, takes on a darker shade.  The play shows itself as parable: we can become tank-like in imitation of the Collector (as Mary does, her name evoking the mother church), we can succumb "mindlessly," like Harry, to the charms of the Collector, we can step back in horror, our innocence forever lost, like Diane.  Are there other steps?

    Nicole Markotic takes us into the realm of pleasure and the pan-orgasmic body.  As she points out, the drama of pleasure seeking, the sexual ecstasy of the telephone dance, has large implications for the narrative as a whole.  Edith and F. seek orgasmic pleasure, jouissance, but find their way to ecstasy only through the intervention of mechanical devices, especially telephones and the Danish Vibrator.  The Telephone Dance also illuminates intertextual constructs.  Beautiful Losers, like Frankenstein and the Pygmalion myth, explores the relationship between desire and the construction of character.  As Markotic argues, this exploration in turn parallels Cohen's construction of the narrative itself.  The shifts in narrative voice lead to a final merger which blurs the distinction between reader and writer, begins to break down that gap.

    Throughout her essay, Markotic reads in Beautiful Losers a textual doubleness which Paul Nonnekes enacts in his exploration of male desire.  Both Markotic and Nonnekes respond to the materiality of the text, the physical-ness of the artifact as it exists in space.  In making his paper a double-voiced reading (Nonnie sings Lenny), Paul Nonnekes opens up a space for the reader/auditor to negotiate.  We find ourselves between the two voices, and thus enjoined to participate in the act of (active) reading.  The male desires the female, who threatens, beautifully, to de/sire the male; so too, in the reading, the black characters of the running line seek the open (female) space of the (ever-receding) right hand margin.  Nonnekes' deconstruction of male desire shows itself to be an exploration of ecstasies beyond the passivity associated with being nurtured by mommy.  Desire, Nonnekes shows, risks finding Nothing.

    Though he specifically designates male desire as his focus, Nonnekes' analysis invites the conclusion that ecstasy stands as the ethical centre of the novel.  How does the ecstasy motif relate to the Hitler scene?  And how does a reading of Flowers for Hitler modify a reading of these motifs in Beautiful Losers?

    Joan Crate's "The Mistress' Reply to the Poet" illustrates how tone adds delight and power as she gives the poet-lover his come-uppance.  She points out the poet's insensitivities and brutalities, his casual treatment of the Mistress as objet d'art, his blunt violence.  She speaks, too, of the new-found vitality of women without men as they "redefine, re-invent desire," as they "make love."  And she celebrates the dramatic turn when "Woman writes.  In her creat(ed/ive) lov(e)scape, she is partner-explorer, poet-lover (though she is not sure if her male counterpart can begin to conceive.  And if so, can he deliver?)." That said, she nonetheless finds "possibilities" in the new tunes of the poet.   "Perhaps a miracle is at hand.  It seems that as the poet-lover ages, he grows kinder."


As Joan Crate's words suggest, these papers look to the future.  They look ahead to a new volume of Cohen's poems and songs.   They look ahead to Ira Nadel's biography.  Perhaps they look ahead to studies of Cohen's vision of the future, whether it be utopian, "Perhaps a mind will open in this world / perhaps a heart will catch rain," or horrific, like an attack of "electric unremembering" (quotations from "Style," SP 96).  These future studies will surely refer to the poet as lover, to whom I give the last words (from the uncollected poem "When Even The"):

If I could.
When the.
Then I.
Even if.
Even when.
I would.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. "The Death of the Author." Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen
     Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977. 142-48.

Cohen, Leonard.  Selected Poems, 1956-1968. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart,

Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Trans. James Strachey. New York:
     Bantam Books, 1959.

Shklovsky, Victor.  "Art as Technique." Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays.
     Trans. and with an Intro. by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Lincoln: U of
     Nebraska P, 1965. 3-24.

Birk Sproxton