Sexual Harassment Suit Reveals (Gasp) Eroticism In Leonard Cohen’s Book Of Longing

booklonginglegal

The Case And The Coverage

As reported here over a month ago (June 14, 2012) in Today’s Leonard Cohen Legal News: Book Of Longing – Sacred Or Sleazy?,

The question now before the court1 is whether a gift of Cohen’s Book Of Longing from a male senior partner of a venture capital firm to a female junior partner in the same firm was a sexually provocative act (because, as the plaintiff’s motion points out, the book contains “many sexual drawings and poems with strong sexual content”) or simply, as the defendant’s response maintains, a misunderstood holiday present of “a book of poetry written by Leonard Cohen during Cohen’s five-year stay at a Zen monastery” from “a practicing Buddhist [the senior partner]” to the junior partner, who had given “him [the senior partner] a book and a Buddha statue as holiday gifts following discussions the two had about Buddhism.” For good measure, the defendant’s response also notes

That book [The Book Of Longing] was reviewed by the New York Times as “profound” and having “exceptional range”, and was set to music by famed composer Philip Glass, including performances at Stanford University and the Lincoln Center.

A few days ago (July 19, 2012), in anticipation of the case returning to court to hear arguments on whether the matter should be handled by arbitration, the issue of the nature of the Book Of Longing hit the New York Times blogs page in Kleiner Perkins, for Better or Verse by David Streitfeld. The focus of the piece is set in the second paragraph:

When thinking about the case, “Book of Longing” offers a useful prism. Are these poems and sketches offensive, as the plaintiff charges, or benign, as the defense would have it?

Yesterday (July 23, 2012), Spin joined in with a post titled Leonard Cohen’s ‘Book of Longing’ Prompts Sexual Harassment Lawsuit by Marc Hogan. The apparent thesis statement here also comes from the second paragraph:

The allegations in a recent sexual harassment lawsuit involving a Silicon Valley venture capital firm aren’t quite so clear-cut, but they do shed intriguing light on how Cohen’s lustier work could potentially come across as creepy in the wrong context.

 Legal Vs Literary

Let us pause for a moment to ponder the proposition that the real danger to American business resides not in the venture capital firms, banks, mortgage lenders, arbitrage houses, and other financial institutions that plunged this country into economic catastrophe but in the erotic verses and sketches of a Canadian singer-songwriter-novelist-poet.

Now that we’ve all had our daily chortle, I offer a few observations about the coverage of the case Vs the case itself:

1. The Lawsuit Ain’t About Leonard Cohen

Spin’s headline, “Leonard Cohen’s ‘Book of Longing’ Prompts Sexual Harassment Lawsuit,” notwithstanding, the claim by former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao that it was inappropriate of senior partner Randy Komisar to give her a copy of Cohen’s Book of Longing is not the crux or, inferring from the more than four year gap between the gift2 and the filing of the suit, even the immediate precipitant of the lawsuit.3

It is, at most, one instance in which Komisar allegedly harassed Pao. Komisar is also, for example, accused of asking Pao out to dinner while his wife was out of town. To the extent that the book itself does have any impact on the court’s decision, that influence will hinge on a legalistic rather than literary interpretation of its appropriateness as a business gift.

2. Leonard Cohen Writes Powerfully About Sex

Quelle surprise, eh?

Both the Spin and New York Times posts employ the case as a rationale for declaiming the authors’ views on the quality and erotic content of Cohen’s book – which is also what I did in my own earlier commentary.

And we all came, albeit by different lines of reasoning, to the conclusion (spoiler alert) that yes, indeed, Leonard Cohen sometimes writes about sex, often in a sexy way that could make those hearing or reading his work feel sexy.

Streitfeld, writing in the NY Times, implies that Book Of Longing has qualities similar to those of “Suzanne,” released almost 40 years before Book Of Longing was published:

His [Cohen’s] recordings are redolent of the Beat era of coffeehouses; “Suzanne,” his most covered song,4 dates from the late 1960s. Like much of Mr. Cohen’s work, “Suzanne” deals with the mystery and wonder of women …

In addition, he quotes excerpts from Book Of Longing, including the opening of “A Thousand Kisses Deep:”

You came to me this morning/ And you handled me like meat/ You’d have to be a man to know/ How good that feels how sweet.

He also adds an inclusive clause that is either oddly prissy or an subtly ironic allusion to – well, to the notion that the New York Times is prissy.

Other poems here could not be quoted in a family newspaper.

Spin, after calling Cohen “a songwriting great” and a “true living legend,” goes on to note that he,

like some of the Important Male Writers of his generation — Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike — writes about sexuality with a male-oriented frankness that must’ve felt radical and bohemian in a more puritanical era, but in hindsight doesn’t necessarily look so different from the womanizing of the gray flannel suits on Mad Men.

Thus is Leonard Cohen implicitly subsumed within the group David Foster Wallace called the Great Male Narcissists of the mid-twentieth century, those who, according to Wallace, wrote with an “uncritical celebration” of their own “radical self-absorption.”

In any case, casually relegating Cohen to the status of anachronistic detritus, one who once upon a time wrote lines that “must’ve felt radical and bohemian,” seems a harsh verdict to render on the basis of the scant evidence offered. This segment directly follows the above quote:

On the classic 1974 song “Chelsea Hotel #2,” he sings about remembering a woman “giving me head on the unmade bed,” and then concludes that “I don’t even think of you that often” — a reflection that rings true, which is partly why it’s powerful art, but not exactly something you should put on a mixtape for a female subordinate. Or is it?

I think I have this figured out. Judgement is being passed on Cohen’s Book Of Longing, which was published in 2006, based on a quote from “Chelsea Hotel #2,” a song he released in 1974 (earlier versions were performed as early as 1972). This is accomplished by comparing two lines from “Chelsea Hotel #2” with behavior depicted in Mad Men, a television series set in a fictional 1960a ad agency, which premiered on TV in 2007. Cohen’s writing is also characterized by its apparent similarities with the literature written by Mailer, Roth, and Updike, best known for their novels published in the 1960s. As it turns out, Cohen’s professional singing-songwriting career began in the late 1960s, by which time he had already published two novels and four books of poetry.

Got that?

This goes beyond comparing apples to oranges; this is comparing apple pies made last week with orange juice put into storage in 1960.

In answer to the questions raised by the plaintiff’s motion and the defendant’s response,

Does Book Of Longing Contain Strong Sexual Content Or Is it Poetry Written By A Singer-Songwriter-Poet During A Five Year Sojourn At A Zen Monastery?

I pointed out that

This query is hardly challenging to anyone familiar with Leonard Cohen and The Book Of Longing; the answer is clearly

Yes, it is.

As evidence of the sexual content, I offered a link to the helpfully titled post, “references to cunnilingus in Leonard Cohen’s Book Of Longing, the bulk of which was written while he resided in a Buddhist Monastery,” the article provides five instances describing oral sex, along with the numbers of the pages in The Book Of Longing upon which those references appear.

Further, my smart-aleck response was meant to encapsulate what seems to me to be clearly evident: some of Leonard Cohen’s songs, poems, drawings, and prose deal with erotic material and, according to his fans and many critics, do so in a way that artfully resonates with the human experience.

3. There’s A Moral To This Story – But You Knew That Already

The posts from both Spin & The New York Times did agree on the lesson to be drawn from this tale, which I would summarize as

Legal issues trump literary merit in
determining appropriateness of gifts
in the workplace, so d
on’t give
your co-worker a sexy book that
can be used as a weapon against
you in court

Or, to further condense the idea,

Don’t be an idiot

Convinced that Cohencentric readers are of the sort that would find such advice superfluous, I declined to offer any sagacious admonitions, settling instead on pointing out the obvious:

If Leonard Cohen’s Book Of Longing is indeed held to be pertinent to the determination of this sexual harassment-gender discrimination suit, the testimony – about the poetry but especially about the author – could be fascinating.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

____________________

  1. The facts of the case provided here are drawn from Kleiner Perkins And Gender Discrimination Plaintiff Wrangle Over Love Poems Episode , an especially well-written article posted by Gerry Shih at MediaFile June 13, 2012. More details, including the names of those involved, the name of the company, and a complete copy of the seven page defendant’s response, are available at the link. []
  2. The Book Of Longing was given as a Valentine’s Day present in 2007 []
  3. Spin does point out, in the fourth paragraph, that

    At the same time, the case isn’t only about Cohen. As the Times reported earlier, Pao argues she was sexually harassed into a brief affair with another investment partner at the firm, Ajit Nazre, and that Kleiner Perkins’ human resources staff and senior partners failed to follow up on her complaints about Nazre’s alleged behavior. She claims she faced retribution from the firm for coming forward, losing her role on the board of a start-up, getting a smaller share of the firm’s profit, and being asked to transfer to the firm’s China offices. According to her lawsuit, sexual harassment was a trend at the firm, with at least one other partner and three administrative assistants, all female, speaking out about Nazre. [emphasis mine] []

  4. Covers of Suzanne were surpassed some time ago by covers of Hallelujah. For a complete listing, see the sufficiently official Leonard Cohen Covered By Other Artists page at LeonardCohenFiles. []

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