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Windows on the Divine

Art can take us into the realm of the infinite. Poet and singer Leonard Cohen is just one Canadian artist opening the way.

By Cindy Bisaillon

Leonard Cohen has been called a prophet and a visionary. Maclean’s magazine recently suggested his song Hallelujah is pop music’s sacred text. Back in the early 1990s, when the singer-songwriter’s full prophetic force was unleashed in an album called The Future, Globe and Mail critic Jay Scott proclaimed we’d been blessed by a new gospel: the gospel according to Leonard Cohen.

Listening to that album for the first time was, for me, an indelible experience. Until that point, he’d been a moody folksinger at my musical periphery. But suddenly, in the face of deepening world woes and spiritual angst, I knew he was the man who could see where we’re heading, the man who spoke with ease about the Absolute and the Divine, the man who seemed to have the answers.

It became a burning imperative to ask him some questions.

Armed with great spears of crimson gladioli as an offering, I arrived on his modest Montreal doorstep. He ushered me into his sparse kitchen. We launched a conversational journey that became a mental chess game. Each of my questions suggested an answer he found too easy, too direct. With the playfulness of a Zen master, he would answer obliquely, cryptically, provocatively — and await my return move. It was almost athletic.

I asked him about his song Democracy Is Coming to the U.S.A. What did he mean by democracy?, I wanted to know. At the time there seemed little evidence of its strengthening. He looked down ruminatively. Then, in his deep and gentle voice, he painted a bleak picture of walking through our familiar daily landscape and watching all the landmarks and lights be extinguished. (This was years before 9/11.) Fixing me with a steady gaze, he said, only then do we begin to join hands against the dark, arriving at a real fraternity.

The song speaks of America’s “spiritual thirst” and “the holy places where the races meet” — prescient in light of the new Obama era. But in our talk, Cohen quietly noted that “a good song slips away from its dogma.”

A good song, he suggested, provides deep comfort, solace and courage. It does take courage, I replied, to face his apocalyptic vision where “everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied,” as he sings in Everybody Knows. “And now the wheels of heaven stop, you feel the devil’s riding crop. Get ready for the future, it is murder,” he goes on to tell us in The Future.

In that song, he reassures us with the wisdom that “love’s the only engine of survival.” But loving comfort and spiritual solace have never come without their darkest counterparts. One of Cohen’s most beautiful love songs, Dance Me to the End of Love, includes the line “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin.” A Jew who grew up in wartime Montreal into hellish awareness of the Holocaust, he revealed that the line was inspired by learning that in the death camps, those Jews who were musical were made to play string quartets while fellow prisoners were killed and burned.

Solace and passion collide, even in Cohen’s explorations of faith. As a boy, he went to church as well as synagogue, and was fascinated by Christian ritual and iconography — incense, blood, pain, the naked faith of the martyr, the life-giving vessel of the Virgin’s womb. In the song Joan of Arc, he sings, “Myself I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel, must it be so bright.”

Now a committed Zen practitioner, Cohen is always riding the elusive line between light and dark, heaven and hell, quietly celebrating the irony that “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And like all of us, he’s Waiting for the Miracle, a mysterious process that involves “moving to the other side of waiting,” he confessed to me. “Waiting is imprisoning. The other side of waiting is free. That’s where the miracle lies.”


To read more stories about Canadian artists who channel the divine, pick up The Observer's print edition. www.ucobserver.org/subscribe

Cindy Bisaillon is a Toronto writer, poet, filmmaker and radio broadcaster.
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