This is the explanatory introduction to Songs of Leonard Cohen: Postmodernity, The Victimary, Irony, A Blaze of Light by Ian Dennis (Anthropoetics XXIII, no. 1 Fall 2017). The entire paper can be accessed at the link. (For information about generative anthropology, see A Brief Introduction to Generative Anthropology)
An Age of Song
The 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Bob Dylan, but for many commentators the choice recognized, perhaps belatedly, a whole genre. And surely for at least a century, in reach, popularity, achievement, even sheer volume of production and reproduction, song has had claims to be amongst the most significant and influential of art-forms, in the West and ever more globally. Has any other been integrated more deeply into the life-narratives, aspirations and imaginings of so many, across so wide a spectrum of aesthetic sophistication? Brought so much comfort and release, been so loved? Only cinema might compare.
We should attend to this, to such a focalization of desire. The present paper attempts to use the heuristic and insights of generative anthropology (GA) to better understand a few of the productions of one notable song-writer of our time. There are a number of reasons to single him out, amongst which is his distinctive negotiation of the popular to “high” art continuum, something this essay will try to explore. His songs are also less closely or permanently associated with his own recorded performances and stage persona, and have been sung and recorded widely, even in “definitive” versions by others, allowing us a clearer focus on the particulars of the works themselves. And it is finally the insights of these remarkable and widely performed songs, their gifts and revelations, that recommend them to us. They not only express the ethos of their time—apt vehicles as so many songs have been for the evolving desires and resentments of an era—but in their characteristic double vantage provide new understandings of the human scene itself.