Note: Much of the following was originally posted Apr 22, 2014 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric. The material has been revised and updated for this publication. This post is the completion of The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1 and is one of a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” 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.
Embrace The Suck1
Clearly, Leonard Cohen has no patent on the notion of the human predicament, which is, Indeed, central to philosophical, religious, psychological, and political systems. For the purposes of this essay, a single, limited example should suffice to illustrate the ubiquity of this notion.
I submit that, in fact, had Leonard Cohen become a military professional rather than a singer-songwriter, he might have explained the solution to the human predicament not in the lyrics of “Hallelujah” but in terms of “embrace the suck.”
The military epigram, “embrace the suck” is defined in this excerpt from a post listing The Oxford English Dictionary words of 20032:
embrace the suck: A U. S. military catchphrase that arose among the troops in Iraq, to embrace the suck is to not only accept harsh and deplorable conditions, but to turn it into a character-building exercise.
That explanation is parallel to my favorite of Cohen’s explications of “Hallelujah:”
The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say “Look, I don’t understand a fucking thing at all – Hallelujah!”3
Of course Cohen composing an track entitled “Embrace The Suck” would have had an interesting impact on all those television and film musical directors who use “Hallelujah” as their go-to soul-stirring pop anthem, not to mention those competitors on X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent faced with belting out “Embrace The Suck” rather than “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord …”
The Hallelujah Solution
Well, Leonard Cohen did choose singer-songwriter-poet-icon over military professional so rather than “Embrace The Suck,” we have “Hallelujah.” (I should clarify that “The Hallelujah Solution” is only my shorthand for Cohen’s response to the human predicament, and that solution is not dependent on the invocation of “Hallelujah:”)
I wanted to write something in the tradition of the hallelujah choruses but from a different point of view…The other song closely related to that is ‘Anthem.’ It’s the notion that there is no perfection–that this is a broken world and we live with broken hearts and broken lives but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary, you have to stand up and say hallelujah under those circumstances.4
One’s own life is mysterious. The predicaments one finds oneself in at particular moments are the result of a web of inextricable circumstances which I certainly can’t penetrate. As you get older, you begin to accept the circumstances.5
Everybody would like an apocalyptic solution to the predicament of their lives, but the apocalyptic solution doesn’t come, and we’re left with daily events that are much more complex than an apocalypse.6
You’ve got to recreate your personality so that you can live a life appropriate to your station and predicament. And having illusions makes it very difficult to create an appropriate self.7
It’s best to have your eyes open – and to lighten up. I think that’s what enlightenment means: you’ve lightened up. Don’t hold yourself so solid and don’t take the predicament so seriously. Don’t fixate yourself in relation to some problem.8
I remember there was one moment, I was just lying in bed thinking I can’t take this anymore, and a voice said, ‘You don’t have to take it anymore”. It’s that precious, miraculous moment where you realise you can change your mind, you can abandon your predicament and nothing’s going to happen to you.9
The Significance Of Leonard Cohen’s Predicament
At this point, it is legitimate (and convenient) to raise the inquiry, “Does it necessarily follow from Leonard Cohen’s repeated references to the human predicament in interviews that dealing with that predicament is actually the prevailing theme of his songs?”
And, the answer is — well, of course it doesn’t necessarily follow.10 But, Cohen’s compelling description of this motif made over the years and its importance to him does establish a strong presumptive case. At the least, Leonard Cohen’s recurrent references to the human predicament indicate he is mindful of that idea, which is itself a useful bit of knowledge.
For example, Cohen’s identification of himself as a singer in the European story-telling tradition gains significance when we understand that the story being told is that of the human predicament.
There is a whole tradition of music where you just want to hear the man telling a story as authentically as you can. That is why there is a place for singers like me. Leonard Cohen11
I have occasionally thought about the differences in my audiences. I think that maybe my music fits into the European tradition. America has its own version of the blues. What I do is the European blues. That is, the soul music of that sensibility – White Soul. Even though Europe has its own version of bubblegum12
Similarly, Cohen’s pervasive focus on his — and our — predicament informs our interpretation of his comment about George Jones,
I love to hear an old guy laying out his situation,
leading us to infer that “his situation” is “his predicament.” The same concept holds for Cohen’s declaration, referring to hearing Alberta Hunter perform at 82:
I love to hear an old singer lay it out. And I’d like to be one of them.13
Cohen’s fascination with the human predicament synchronizes nicely with his veneration of performers, including George Jones and Alberta Hunter, whose songs are invested with age and experience. Consider this poignant and articulate expression of Leonard Cohen’s personal goal as a singer from an interview after his Dec 1, 1974 show at the Bottom Line:
If one’s health holds out, then doing this [singing at concerts] forever would be marvelous. To really bring the information of the older ages – you don’t hear that on the concert stage. Maybe we’ll be able to hear John Lennon in 40 years on his experience of maturity. That’s what I’d like to hear and that’s what I’d like to be. Every man should try to become an elder.14
Who is, after all, better qualified to offer advice on one’s predicament than someone speaking from the perspective of old age?
Awareness of the central role of the predicament in Cohen’s songs affords insight into the means by which his style resonates so strongly with so many listeners – he evokes our predicament by articulating his own predicament.
Centering his songs on his predicament allows Cohen to achieve the authenticity necessary to reach his audience. The quotation I’ve called Leonard Cohen’s Implicit Declaration Of Universality follows:
I can’t believe that my predicament is unique.15
The predicament is also key to Cohen’s offer of consolation in answering the question, “How does one respond to a predicament that has no solution?”16 Cohen puts the query more elegantly:
This is the real human predicament. This universe is only to be tolerated, it’s not to be solved. All these things are unclear but amidst this incredible lack of clarity we have to act. That’s what the whole tragic vision is about.17
Cohen can thus engage that population of individuals who have some awareness, however inchoate, of their own predicaments across a wide spectrum of specific included issues.
The same principle clarifies what might be termed Cohen’s doctrine of selective hopelessness:
I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I’ve always been free from hope. It’s never been one of my great solaces. I feel that more and more we’re invited to make ourselves strong and cheerful. I think that it was Ben Jonson who said, I have studied all the theologies and all the philosophies, but cheerfulness keeps breaking through.18
That notion itself transforms into Cohen’s broken Hallelujah:
Finally there’s no conflict between things, finally everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by Hallelujah. That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.19
Leonard Cohen Songs – Not Just Another Pretty Predicament
Now, a songwriter (or a poet or a novelist) taking the human predicament as his or her core subject is hardly unusual. It is, in fact, pretty standard fare. Efforts to limn the human predicament include works as diverse as “The Song Of Solomon,” “The Iliad,” “Figaro,” “Amazing Grace,” “The Lotos-Eaters,” “Is That All There Is?” and “The Serenity Prayer.”
The recognition that Cohen constructs his songs around his predicament is necessary but sufficient to the understanding of the formulation that makes those songs unique — in other words, what it is that makes a song a Leonard Cohen song. To comprehend the complete model, we must also consider both Cohen’s perception and his presentation of his predicament.
Not coincidentally, those elements will be the basis of the next installments in this series.
Credit Due Department: Photo by Antonio Olmos.
- Update: This section was not part of the original post, but when I discovered the military argot, “embrace the suck,” I found it illuminating and added it to this essay. [↩]
- 2003 Words by Dave Wilton. (Wordorigins.org: July 26, 2012) [↩]
- How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen presented by John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. Accessed at LeonardCohenFiles [↩]
- “Robert Hilburn Interviews Leonard Cohen” by Robert Hilburn (Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1995) [↩]
- From Having Lunch With Leonard Cohen by Jon Wilde, Sabotage Times. Dec 3, 2015 (the quote itself is taken from a 1988 interview). [↩]
- Leonard Cohen interviewed by Hans Pfitzinger in Paris, 1988 [↩]
- Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland (Musician, July 1988) [↩]
- 1997 CTV interview with Leonard Cohen by Laurie Brown (first broadcast on the Nov 20, 1997 episode of On The Arts) [↩]
- Eight Hours To Harry, Kristine McKenna (KCRW: Oct 1988) [↩]
- For one thing, I would be required to surrender my credentials as a psychiatrist if I equated someone’s reported intentions with his or her actual motivations. [↩]
- The Profits Of Doom by Steve Turner. Q Magazine: April 1988 [↩]
- Cohen’s New Skin by Harvey Kubernik & Justin Pierce. Melody Maker: March 1, 1975. Accessed 16 April 2014 at LeonardCohenFiles [↩]
- Who held a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head? by Tim de Lisle. The Guardian: Sept 17, 2004 [↩]
- Rolling Stone: Leonard Cohen by Larry Sloman, The Sunday Citizen: May 25, 1975. Found at Speaking Cohen [↩]
- Stolen Moments: Leonard Cohen by Tom Schnabel. Acrobat Books, 1988. Found at Speaking Cohen. [↩]
- I recognize that “a predicament that has no solution” veers dangerously close to solipsism or plain old redundancy, but I want to be explicit. [↩]
- Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld [↩]
- The Joking Troubadour of Gloom by Tim Rostron. The Daily Telegraph: April 26, 1993. Note: The original line was actually uttered by one Edward Edwards, who directed it to his friend, Samuel Johnson: “You are a philosopher, Dr. Johnson. I have tried too in my time to be a philosopher; but, I don’t know how, cheerfulness was always breaking in.” Recorded by James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. [↩]
- How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen Presented By John Mckenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988 [↩]