Singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen
Some artistes generate admiration and acquire cult followings. Others generate love and turn their fans into lovers. The former often messianic in tendency, speak in certitudes. The latter are often seer like, arrive at theory, politics, ideas and work through the sensory, the passionate and the inconclusive.
Leonard Cohen, who died last week, was definitely among the latter. And, therefore, much beloved to me, and I suppose those like me, who think of love as a prismatic idea and experience, which, through its ability to suffuse the senses expands light and life and the world to reveal the personal, the political, the worldly, the spiritual, the certain and the unpredictable, all in one place.
I was introduced to Cohen through an older friend when I was 17. I listened obsessively as if hunting for a clue to adulthood hidden in that overheated sensuality. The clue of course was sex. As Dan Chiasson wrote in the New York Review of Books, “Many people who have heard Cohen’s music, over the years, have right away gone to bed with him — or, if he was unavailable, with the person next to them.”
Sex was indeed the primary metaphor of Cohen’s work, treated with liturgical seriousness. It was not an activity, but a ritual, a submission to the senses wherein the world and its meanings, its power play, its leela, with some tequila, took fleeting form. Carnality was a universally accessible place of wisdom, desire a reservoir of metaphors for love, life and politics.
This is sometimes the reason Cohen is considered, “ya, ok” — his great interest in sex and sexual relationships, in the ability of poetry and song to seduce the senses, indeed, seduce people (a more interesting political position than wanting to subjugate people). There’s scepticism and squeamishness about a man far too interested in observing women and talking about what he has felt with them. Isn’t he just an intellectual player? Those are the hierarchies of the world, where the sensory and the sensual always come below the allegedly cerebral and social, as Cohen seemed aware.
One of my favourite lines by Cohen is from the song Lady Midnight — “if we cry now, she said, we will just be ignored.” It has a wry acceptance of the world’s workings, and that a time may not favour you. It seems driven by a desire for observation and understanding rather than conquest and power.
As an artiste, too, Cohen never seemed to demand permanent monogamous devotion. He seemed confident of love, and of that love being there whenever you encountered each other. It wouldn’t matter if you also loved other artistes more or less — “we weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be alright”, so to speak. Being faithful to yourself, was no betrayal of others. An absence of binaries and absolutes present even in the structures of his songs, sought a philosophy or ethics of experience, not moral instruction.
It was an ambiguous honesty with no false promises, no utopias, nor dystopias, no false notes. When I heard he was dead, I felt a big sigh come out of me, followed by a big balloon of love for all the songs that formed a soundtrack for my life’s explorations. The best of affairs end with these kinds of smiling goodbyes.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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