Pico Iyer Journeys

An Anti-Sermon on the Mount

“The light came through the window,” one song begins, and the singer, in his cabin on the mountain, no doubt (where these songs were written), writes about the motes of dust that are suddenly visible in the sunlight. Nothing could be more ephemeral, and yet–this is the heart of the whole record–nothing could be more beautiful. The world is an illusion, and yet it’s the only world we have; you get through it by going through it, “living your life as if it’s real.” We throw our arms around the very things that flee from us. It’s all the more moving coming from a writer who’s written some of his most haunting songs over the decades about how beauty (and not its loss) can bring redemption.

Cohen was one of the leading poets in Canada before he ever recorded a song, of course, and he’s long fit squarely into the classic devotional tradition (on his last record, “Field Commander Cohen,” among thanks to family and friends, he acknowledges his gratitude to Jelaluddin Rumi). When he writes a country-and-western ballad called “Coming Back to You,” all its power and resonance come from the fact that you can’t tell whether that’s a “you” or a “You” (and, best of all, it doesn’t really matter). Here, sitting in the dark alone–you can feel the confinements of time and space–he sings his most personal songs in honor of the impersonal; you hear traces of John Donne, say, or George Herbert, but often the small dark verses of power and compression sound most like Emily Dickinson–if she’d had a lifetime full of lovers to remember in her lonely room.

Part of the particular attraction of Zen for Cohen, one feels, is the fact that it offers a world outside all categories. No right, no wrong; no black and white. No life, no death, no Nirvana or Samsara. And one important aspect of this freedom is that there is no sense in which he has to conform to any standard dogma about what he should or shouldn’t be doing. In his 1984 collection of psalms, “Book of Mercy,” he wrote a paragaph-long description of his teacher that is as clear and wiry a description of the Zen experience as any that I’ve read, and that ends (a classic Zen surprise) with “When he was certain that I was incapable of self-reform, he flung me across the fence of the Torah.” It’s no surprise, then, that many of the songs here sound like they come out of the Bible, with their talk of Babylon (and even of the cross).

Yet, for all the open-endedness, Ten New Songs seems to me as unflinching and deep a record of the Buddhist experience as any I can remember encountering. Renunciation, after all, is only as strong as one’s longing for what one’s giving up (and one is never in doubt about the power of Cohen’s desire); our sense of another order of things is only as meaningful as our understanding of the world around us. In his earlier songs, Cohen often almost shouted out his anger and restlessness in imagery of war that told us, over and over, that the world is a tough place, and violence is often called for; here there is a new tenderness that suggests that the beauty of the world lies partly in the fact it doesn’t last. One song explicitly sings about the dance between the “Nameless and the Name” (not what you usually encounter on the Billboard Top 40). Another talks about a couple “radiant beyond your widest measure.”

That last line comes from the song “Alexandra Leaving,” and of all the beautiful songs on the record, this is the one I can’t get out of my head. Many of us, when young, read the poems of C.P. Cavafy, the great poet of exile, about his sense of sadness and loss when leaving Alexandria; here, a poet of a higher exile writes about his sense of gratitude and honor even as one Alexandra leaves him. In his younger days, Cohen almost defined himself as the man who left women in order to pursue his quest (the two most melodious songs on his first record were “So Long, Marianne” and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”); now it is he who is left watching as love and life pass away.

As he watches Alexandra leave, he’s tempted to find ways to cage the experience–to control his heart–by turning to his mind. He can say he just imagined the whole thing. He can tell himself he knew it was coming all along. He can say it was bound to happen. But over and over, he tells himself (referring to himself, typically, as “you”) not to hide behind such strategies, or choose the “coward’s” way of talking of “the cause and the effect.” He has to take his loss as a man; more than that, he has to take it all as the greatest bounty he’s likely to find. “Go firmly to the window,” he tells himself, and “drink it in.”

I listen to these songs in the dark autumn nights here in Japan and I feel as if I’m being taken as close to the unsayable as words can really take us. There’s nothing passing in these songs (their language utterly transparent, their words so simple that they suggest many other words behind them), and yet things passing is their only theme. They give you nothing to hold onto–no specifics about time and place–and yet they go right to the heart. They’re comfortable with mystery, you could say. Then the sun rises again outside my window and I see the brilliance of the autumn skies, even as the leaves turn and fall, and the chill and dark of winter draws a little closer–and I feel I’m hearing the songs being sung in a different key.

Hello, my love, and my love, Goodbye.

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