Dyab Abou Jahjah
It is a bit odd to me that Leonard Cohen passed away few months ago without me writing about it. The man has composed a big part of the soundtrack of my life. But above all, and more than his music that is at times over-harmonic to be enjoyable, Cohen the poet is what interests me the most. Together with that of Mahmood Darwich and Nizar Kabbani, his poetry influenced me both politically and spiritually. Cohen was very political, and I am not speaking about that moment in his life when he went to sing for the Israeli troops during the 1973 war in Sinai. That Cohen who thought to rediscover his Jewish identity by posing on a picture with a mass murderer like Ariel Sharon was just a short lived phase in the existence of a more sophisticated soul.
I will gladly disregard that moment, and focus on the fact that he himself grew away from any association with Zionism later on in his life. It remains a fact that one of the first political poetic texts that intrigued me as a boy, was his song “first we take Manhattan”. As a young teenager who was much politicised that song fascinated me with its coded signs and revolutionary undertone. The song opens with this epic line:
“They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom
for trying to change the system from within
I'm coming now, I'm coming to reward them
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”
For a teenager of 16 years old, already reading Trotski and Ismat Sayf Aldawla and Mao, mostly in trenches of the Lebanese civil war with death around every corner, the debate on change was vital. I asked myself constantly if change was worth fighting for. And if yes, how do we change the system? Should we infiltrate it, climb within its structures and then turn it into something else? Many people claiming wisdom seem to suggest that this is the way to go, and I always had a feeling that people who try to do that eventually get changed by the system instead of changing it. Cohen seemed to concord with that opinion by stating the failure and the senselessness of long range attempts to change the system from within, and his determination to strike back using a different strategy. At that time, that meant a lot to me as a young militant. But what is the system that Cohen wants to change?
“I don't like your fashion business mister
and I don't like these drugs that keep you thin
I don't like what happened to my sister, first we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”
To me, this poem uses the fashion industry as a metaphor for capitalism and to the normative and assimilationist mechanisms of power. It is a protest against how the system exploits people and transforms them into production-units that have to fit within a certain standard, both on form and on content. The system does not only modulate our consumption and production patterns, it also produces its own values and norms and imposes them on us, in a way that is both oppressive and destructive. The working man and woman and the consumer under capitalism are like the model and the consumer of fashion, not just controlled and manipulated economically but also morphologically, psychologically and physically.
The theme of a journey in the struggle, and in the revolution, starting in the United States and then leading to Europe, connects to another important political poem of Cohen: Democracy. In that Poem he clearly states that change must come from the United States of America.
“It's coming to America first
the cradle of the best and of the worst
it’s here they got the range
and the machinery for change”.
This is clearly a position that he bases on the hypothesis that change must occur in the center of the system and not in its periphery. The system must change at its core in order to truly change, and the core is the United States. Whether this was an accurate analyses, and whether it is the still the case today is debatable. However, what I think is more important, is that Cohen makes the bold statement that Democracy is yet to come to the USA. It is something that is missing, that is still not accomplished. In this, he takes a very radical stance, and a correct one in my opinion. The content of the complete democracy that must be achieved is outlined in coded terms in the following lines:
“It's coming from the sorrow in the street
The holy places where the races meet
From the homicidal bitchin'
That goes down in every kitchen
To determine who will serve and who will eat
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away:
Democracy is coming to the USA”
Racial inequality, gender inequality and social inequality are the essence in the lack of democracy. These three struggle-fronts are the essence of any true democratic movement. There could be no liberation without an agenda that is making an absolute priority of racial equality, gender equality and social equality, together, and at the same time.
But the optimism of Cohen as to the revolutionary democratic future seems to fade away the more he starts to grasp the essence of globalization. In his song “the Future”, he expresses an extreme pessimistic, and yet quite accurate account of what the global reality is going to become after the fall of the Berlin wall.
“..Things are going to slide, slide in all directions
won’t be nothing
nothing you can measure anymore
the blizzard, the blizzard of the world
has crossed the threshold
and it has overturned
the order of the soul”.
In this almost apocalyptic, and yet quite accurate account of the crisis that globalization was going to create for the dominant western order, Cohen expresses a political feeling as early as 1996 that was only going to materialize after 2008. It is the feeling of decay of western hegemony, and of the old matrix of values and certitudes of the pre-global era. The world has crossed the boundaries as a blizzard because of globalization and is ravaging through the old order of western hegemony, and affecting it so deep into its spiritual order.
“ There'll be the breaking of the ancient
your private life will suddenly explode
there’ll be phantoms
there’ll be fires on the road
and the white man dancing “.
“I have seen the future brother, it is murder” this is the alarming message of doom, and Cohen does not necessarily want to address it directly by endorsing a counter strategy, he is just being a prophetic poet that is describing his vision. But in the process he seems to outline a clear reaction to the globalization blizzard and apocalypse:
“Give me back the Berlin wall
Give me Stalin and St Paul
Give me Christ
or give me Hiroshima “
The answer is return to the ancient regime of pre-globalization, with all its hazards and problems that are all an acceptable price for stability even if it means cocooning behind walls of nationalism, identity and social control. This is the political platform to the rise of populism in our time. And yet, by stating the past through the prism of its horrors, it seems that Cohen wanted to say that the past was also murder and injustice, and that maybe the blizzard and the murder that goes with it are a transition, a twilight that produces some abominations, but that can lead to a better place. While the past was static in its oppression and its horror. That is an interpretation that I would gladly endorse.
As a final note, Cohen was always stating clearly in each and every passage of his political poetry, what the answer is. In the Future, his most pessimistic poem by far he states:
“You don't know me from the wind
you never will, you never did
I'm the little jew
who wrote the Bible
I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all
but love's the only engine of survival “
That love that is the engine of survival is a complex concept in Cohen’s poetry. It has a spiritual dimension that is almost religiously rooted as is clear in this passage. It can also be a revolutionary love, the love of justice and of the struggle itself and that is also spiritually rooted like in this passage of “First we take Manhattan”:
I'm guided by a signal in the heavens
I'm guided by this birthmark on my skin
I'm guided by the beauty of our weapons
First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin
I'd really like to live beside you, baby
I love your body and your spirit and your clothes
But you see that line there moving through the station?
I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those
And it can be a mix of romantic and hedonistic love that transcends reality and plunges into a mix of lyrical love and debauchery that is both elevating and toxic. Such a love also reaches spirituality, as Cohen expresses in this passage of Democracy:
“It's coming from the women and the men
O baby, we'll be making love again
We'll be going down so deep
The river's going to weep,
And the mountain's going to shout Amen”
Love in all its form, whether romantic, hedonistic or revolutionary, is always spiritual and religious to Cohen, and is related to a mystical form of divinity. That kind of love, in all its dimensions, and as toxic as it can be, is the only way towards liberation. It might sound soft, but it is in fact a very radical approach to love as a spiritual drive of revolution.