The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1

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Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #1. Embracing The Predicament

This is the first in a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?”  The answer, it turns out, is simpler than one might expect. Notwithstanding the requirements implicitly set forth by the spate of publications explicating Leonard Cohen’s corpus, one can comprehend the key elements and organizing principles of his songs — the DNA of his music — without a mastery of arcane poetics, kabbalistic allusions,  biographical details of Cohen’s life, musicological theory, mythological lore, or the geopolitical nuances of Canada, Greece, and Los Angeles. An introduction and links to all published posts in the series can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

This post focuses on the underlying theme of Cohen’s songs: Embracing The Predicament

Embracing The Predicament

quoteup2
Life is not a spectacle or a feast; it is a predicamentquotedown2

George Santayana1


quoteup2
No matter how I struggle and strive
I’ll never get out of this world alive.
quotedown2

Hank Williams2


quoteup2
This is our human predicament and the only consolation is embracing it.quotedown2

Leonard Cohen3

If Leonard Cohen has a secret recipe for songwriting, it begins, “Start with a well formed human predicament …”  In support of this proposition, I offer the testimony of — Mr Leonard Cohen [all bolding mine].

In discussing lyricists he admires and in whose style he has modeled himself, Cohen repeatedly points to their ability to present their predicaments, whether he is describing the poet of duende, Federico García Lorca:

[Lorca] was the first poet who really touched me. I remember coming upon a book of his when I was fifteen or sixteen, and the universe he revealed and the lands he inhabited seemed very familiar. I think that’s what you look for when you read poetry; you look for someone to illuminate a landscape that you thought you alone walked on. Lorca did that for me. Of course I don’t read him in Spanish, but still, the language, the precision, the daring, the boldness of his imagery, and the open-hearted approach to his own predicament couldn’t help but touch me at that time.4

… country music legend, George Jones:

Have you heard George Jones’ last record, Cold Hard Truth? I love to hear an old guy laying out his situation.5 He has the best voice in America.6

… “the great genius of darkest Hollywood,”7 Phil Spector:

I was always attracted to his [Phil Spector’s] earlier work: ‘Unchained Melody,’ ‘Lovin’ Feelin.’ In those songs you could hear the predicament of the central story-teller.8

… fellow poet-novelist, Charles Bukowski:

There are people like Charles Bukowski who make that tiny will glorious, and that’s a kind of writing that I like very much: a writing in which there is no reference to anything beyond the individual’s own predicament, his own mess, his own struggle. ((Leonard Cohen: Various Positions as interviewed by Robert Sward Montreal 1984))

… or his preferred group of singer-songwriters in general:

I liked those singers who would just lay out their predicament and tell their story, and I thought I could be one of those guys.9

I thought I was one of those men that sang about his predicament, and that somehow everybody would connect with it. But I lost my way and began involving myself with speculations that I knew deep down were not really public concerns. The world was no longer attracting me. It wasn’t very entertaining. ((Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland, Musician, July 1988.))

Cohen even manages a predicament-relevant shout-out to Jesus Christ:

As I understand it, into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of ever sort. Outside of the organizational enterprise, which some applaud and some mistrust, stands the figure of Jesus, nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality.10

According to Leonard Cohen, in fact,

the practice of religion [is] the gathering of people to articulate the burden of their predicament11

In another instance, he elaborates on the connection between spirituality and the human predicament:

We sense that there is a will that is behind all things, and we’re also aware of our own will, and it’s the distance between those two wills that creates the mystery that we call religion. It is the attempt to reconcile our will with another will that we can’t quite put our finger on, but we feel is powerful and existent. It’s the space between those two wills that creates our predicament. ((Interview with Leonard Cohen by Robert Sward &  Pat Keeney Smith. The Malahat Review: No. 77 (1986) ))

Leonard Cohen straightforwardly explains specific songs of his in terms of the predicament:

A lot of people ask me about that song [“There Is A War”], but a lot of people forget that the last line of every verse is, ‘Let’s get back to the war’. Of course, there’s all kinds of conflicts between men and women, rich and poor, all kinds of castes and classes. I talk of getting back to the war meaning that we have to throw ourselves into the predicament. If we are willing to get into it, to confront it, that’s one of the ways through it.12

I set [“First We Take Manhattan”] to a kind of Sergio Leone Clint Eastwood soundtrack which throws the lyric into some doubt; it throws it into some demented and somewhat humorous predicament – but not altogether.13

[“The Traitor”]  was about the feeling that we have of betraying some mission that we were mandated to fulfill, and being unable to fulfill it. And then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it, and that the deeper courage was to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself.14

Speaking about The Future album in 1993, Cohen tells an interviewer,

One idea on my new record is that the human predicament has no solution. We were tossed out of the garden; this isn’t paradise. And to look for perfect solutions is a very difficult burden to bear. That’s my theme: It’s a mess — thank God.15

Specific human functions – especially love — are described in terms of the predicament they generate:

[Love] is a kind of predicament that has many of the features of a disease. The heart cannot be governed … No one is the master of the heart. In that sense, it always implies a certain dis-ease, and apparently that’s the way it’s meant to be.16

We all want to dissolve. We all need that experience of forgetting who we are. I think that’s what love is — you forget who you are. Forgetting who you are is such a delicious experience and so frightening that we’re in this conflicted predicament. You want it but you really can’t support it. So I think that really what our training, what our culture, our religious institutions, our educational and cultural institutions should be about is preparing the heart for that journey outside of the cage of the ribs.17

And, he sets out his professional and personal calling as a function of the predicament:

That’s the question I ask myself about all my material at a certain point: is it really true? It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s a successful metaphor; what matters is whether it honestly reflects my predicament.18

I consider a lot of my work to be a kind of reportage, trying to make a completely accurate description of the interior predicament.19

I don’t think any of us starts with a strategy. You start with some kind of urgency that is indistinct, and it takes a lifetime to uncover what the thrust of your activity was about. You sing from a kind of thorn in your side, which may just be the human heart aching in its particular predicament. And all art is an effort to address that aching. Not just Jewish or Irish art, though both do seem to be more strongly rooted in a verbal tradition, rather than a visual. The Irish ache volubly and it’s all there, in your words and music. That’s also true of Jewish people.20

It’s pretty tricky to negotiate the day and the night. The calling in my life has been to struggle with that predicament. But, I’ve had a couple good laughs now and then, too 21

I feel most comfortable when I think of myself as the leader of a government-in-exile. Sometimes I like to think of myself that way. It gives me a position that I can work from. It is not whether I take it seriously or not seriously, we are not speaking about a rational operation. It is just that one feels that one can embody the unspoken aspirations of both oneself and the people you know as somebody who takes responsibility for the predicament, and presents not a solution but an approach. That leads you to some interesting kinds of positions.22

There are still more Cohen interviews with references to predicaments, but those not persuaded by ten such examples aren’t likely to be convinced by 100. So, let’s move along.

Terminology: Predicament Vs Problem

Google offers a representative definition of “predicament:”

An unpleasantly difficult, perplexing, or dangerous situation.

Key to Cohen’s use of “predicament” is how it differs from “problem,” which is defined by Google as

A matter or situation regarded as unwelcome or harmful and needing to be dealt with and overcome.

The distinction between the two concepts is the notion that a problem — unlike a predicament — can potentially be “dealt with and overcome.”

A number of business consultants and pop psychologists have, in fact, created a cottage industry by distinguishing between the two terms. This excerpt from an article advising those involved in agri-business about stress reduction is typical:

To reduce stress, it’s important to recognize the difference between a predicament and a problem… A predicament is something over which we have no control. A problem is something over which we have control… When we accept the predicaments in our lives, we free up energy to solve the problems within our control.23

“Dilemma,” a related word sometimes used by Cohen, is, for the purposes of this post, a subset of “problem” in that, as Google has it, a dilemma is

A situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, esp. equally undesirable ones.

In this example, Leonard Cohen uses “dilemma” as defined (i.e., a choice between two or more alternatives):

I originally wrote the lyrics [of Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On] in an Italian restaurant in the Village. It reflects a dilemma.24

On the other hand, he occasionally uses “dilemma” as a synonym for “predicament,” as in this case:

That’s everyone’s dilemma: At the times we think we’re coolest, what everyone else sees is a guy with his mouth full of banana.25

In that following quotation by Leonard Cohen, I would argue that the situation he labels a “dilemma” is revealed to actually  be a predicament disguised as a dilemma since one resolves it not by making the correct choice but by “abandon[ing]” it:

The sexual embrace is beyond self. You don’t exist as you. Your partner doesn’t exist as your partner. That is the place we all come from. Then we come back to life. That zero or emptiness or absolute is when we don’t have any questions. The self we have is just the result of a question. The question is who am I? So we invent a self, a personality. We sustain it, we create rules for it. When you stop asking those questions in those moments of grace, as soon as the question is not asked and the dilemma is dissolved or abandoned, then the true self or absolute self rushes in.26

Update; Part 2 of this post is now online.

Credit Due Department: Photo by Antonio Olmos.

Note: Much of the above was originally posted Apr 22, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. The material has been revised and updated for this publication.

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  1. This quote is attributed to George Santayana on scores of web sites and in several books, none of which identify the primary source. []
  2. From “I’ll Never Get Out Of This Wold Alive” by Hank Williams []
  3. From Leonard Cohen: Several Lifetimes Already by Pico Iyer. Shambhala Sun, September, 1998 []
  4. Aurora Online With Leonard Cohen. An interview with Leonard Cohen by Marco Adria: July: 1990 []
  5. Yes, the word used is “situation” rather than “predicament,” but it seems clear that situation is synonymous to predicament in this case (see discussion of “The Significance Of Leonard Cohen’s Predicament” below). Regardless, feel free to discount this example; I’ve got lots more. []
  6. Q&A: The New Leonard Cohen by Mark Binelli. Rolling Stone. Posted Oct 19, 2001. []
  7. From Leonard Cohen’s introduction of Memories at the Oct 31, 1979 München concert []
  8. The Great Ones Never Leave. They Just Sit It Out Once In A While by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker: November 26, 1977. Found at Speaking Cohen []
  9. Leonard Cohen: ‘I didn’t have the interior authority to tackle some of my greatest songs’ by Nigel Williamson. Uncut: December 1997 (Reprinted August 2013) []
  10. Leonard Cohen online chat: 2001 []
  11. Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld []
  12. Hallelujah For Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabatoge Times. Posted 22 March 2011 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview). []
  13. Leonard Cohen BBC Interview With John Archer – 1988 []
  14. From Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary: 2005 []
  15. 7 Reasons Leonard Cohen Is the Next-Best Thing to God By David Browne. Entertainment Weekly: Jan 08, 1993. []
  16. Leonard Cohen interviewed by Hans Pfitzinger in Paris, 1988 []
  17. Leonard Cohen Interviewed by Anjelica Huston. Interview magazine: November, 1995. []
  18. Interview With Kristine McKenna – Eight Hours To Harry. KCRW-FM:Oct 1988 []
  19. Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld []
  20. Songs Of Longing – The Joe Jackson Interview.  The Irish Times: November 3, 1995. []
  21. An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Richard Guilliat.  Sunday Times Magazine (London),  December 12, 1993. []
  22. Leonard Cohen, Personal Interview with Winfried Siemerling. 2 November 1990, North York. Unpublished. Quoted in Interior Landscapes and the Public Realm: Contingent Mediations in a Speech and a Song by Leonard Cohen by Winfried Siemerling. Canadian Poetry: No. 33, Fall/Winter, 1993 []
  23. ‘Predicament’ vs. ‘problem’ matter of control. Agri-View: Oct 7, 2011 []
  24. The Great Ones Never Leave. They Just Sit It Out Once In A While by Harvey Kubernik. Melody Maker: November 26, 1977. Found at Speaking Cohen []
  25. Leonard Cohen, commenting on the photo he chose to use as cover art for the I’m Your Man album. From Various Positions by Ira Nadel: 1996. []
  26. Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld []

3 Replies to “The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1”

  1. rike

    I know how you spent your Easter vacation. Exquisite treatise. I look forward to what is to come. Thank you!

  2. Coco Éclair

    Thanks for this superb post, Allan, which brings to mind a quote by Thomas Merton:

    “Contradictions have always existed in the soul of man. But it is only when we prefer analysis to silence that they become a constant and insoluble problem. We are not meant to resolve all contradictions, but to live with them and rise above them.”