Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

It was fitting Cohen’s song Everybody Knows anchored the sound track for Atom Egoyan’s Exotica, one of the best films of the 1990s.

When we grieve for a celebrity’s death, we do not grieve for the celebrity.

Leonard Cohen was eight-two-years-old when he died, not twenty-seven like Heath Ledger, the victim of a freak accident involving prescription drugs,  or forty like John Lennon, gunned down in the street by a madman. Cohen died an old man with his work finished. He had successfully completed his life cycle.

I first discovered Cohen’s work in my late twenties. I had just ended an unhappy relationship. My hair was beginning to fall out. I had not accomplished what I had wanted to do in life. Something about Cohen’s gravely baritone and despairing lyrics captured exactly what I felt. I was no longer a child or a young adult. I was a man. Cohen’s music was music for disillusioned adults, not hopeful teenagers.

There will be much performative grieving for Cohen on leftist Twitter and leftist Facebook, followed by the inevitable reminders from people like Ali Abunimah that Cohen was a Zionist who refused to honor the BDS Movement’s call for a boycott of Israel. Well, “that’s just how it goes.” That people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen can be heroes to people on the left even as they support apartheid in Israel is just a contradiction we have to deal with. Great artists contain multitudes, some of it bad. Richard Wagner, after all, was a racist and an antisemite. Roman Polanski is a child molester. Bruce Springsteen endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

Celebrities who reach old age have been around since our childhoods. We grow up with them. We grow old with them. As we age, and face the inevitable disappointments that life brings, they always seem to be lurking around in the background, always there for us to remind us of what we aspire to be. As a “failed writer” I’ve always dreamed of being someone like Leonard Cohen, someone who could write a book called “Beautiful Losers” and get paid for it. Cohen’s words, and his music, are deceptively simple. They give off the illusion that you really don’t have to be a genius to do something similar, that you just have to be sad.

There is a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins called Spring and Fall. Something about it explains why we grieve for celebrities we’ve never met. A little girl is crying over some fallen leaves. Autumn is approaching and she’s sad. The narrator, Hopkins, chides her. You’re not grieving for the trees, he tells her. You’re grieving for yourself. The narrator, in turn, it not chiding the little girl. He’s chiding himself. Unlike the little girl, he does not feel a subconscious premonition that some day he will die. He knows that some day he will die.

When we grieve for a celebrity’s death, we do not grieve for the celebrity.

We grieve for our own mortality.

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
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3 comments

  1. Kitchen Rants · · Reply

    Nice tribute. Leonard Cohen is privileged that he got to live a full life and completed his life’s work as you say. It’s what we all aspire to be, regardless if we got to achieve our life’s ambitions or not, it’s more important to come to terms with yourself, wherever you find yourself.

  2. Bawb Cawx · · Reply

    Death is all over the place, humans seem to have a skill (most of the time) of Living in the midst of decay. Fall time is so gruesome we have Hallow’een to try to laugh at the darkness. “So long, Leonard Cohen, so looong, it’s time that we began to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again…” There’s a Youtube video featuring pictures of Leonard’s lover, Marianne, with the song playing in the background. We always did laugh and cry, and we always will. There’s hair upon the pillow like a sleepy golden storm, and heroes in the seaweed, children in the morning, and everybody knows, but Leonard told us so, everybody wants a box of chocolates…and a long-stemmed rose. Good night, dear Leonard, may sweet angels sing thee to thy rest. Hallelujah!

  3. Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river. She feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China…..Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in some midnight choir…. Those words… As a high school student in Montreal I had the privilege to hear him read from one of his novels. Will be putting on some of his tunes today and toast him with a glass of red. Hallelujah.

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