Who By Fire

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Tue Mar 23, 2010 6:30 am

Humbled, while I agree that Leonard's study of Buddhism has influenced many of his works, including this one, I really can't see it as "Buddhist-based". It comes directly from the liturgy of the Jewish High Holy Days, the Unetaneh Tokef.

While this is the basis for this song, most definitely the meaning goes way beyond just the words of the prayer. As I have noted before, Leonard writes in layers of meaning. The very nature of poetry means that many of those layers are personal to the reader, not just the poet. We each see what we see. And we also look thru each others eyes. Leonard makes use of an ancient tradition within Judaism, known as Midrash...literally "stories"....quite often. This is an expansion on the words within the sacred writings, and liturgy. It is a tradition that brings mere words to a personal level. It explains the unexplainable.

While I would agree that this, along with many of Leonard's song, is Buddhist-INFLUENCED, I would not agree to it being "Buddhist-based". Just my opinion.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
humbled
Posts: 29
Joined: Mon Mar 22, 2010 3:18 am
Location: Ohio USA south of the R&R Hall of Fame and the Mistake on the Lake

Re: Who By Fire

Postby humbled » Tue Mar 23, 2010 6:57 am

I don’t really see this as Buddhist-based or even Buddhist influenced. You would have to know too much about the artist to get that type of insight as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know about the artist. It moves me away from the art itself. I just meant that for people who tend to see him in that light I would think it would be hard not to see that potential in this song. As for the Jewish-ness; all properly understood mythology says the same things, how could they not, they are talking about the same things. So that you see that inflection there makes perfect sense to me. Even if taken from Jewish scriptures it could be seen by someone else as having nothing at all to do with that but rather “this”. So I also agree with your idea of the individual interpretation. In fact the Buddhist have a saying that mirrors your thoughts:
If you see the Buddha walking down the street: kill him!

Meaning, if you’ve concretized God to the point you can pick him out in a crowd (yes, he’s that white-haired gentleman in the long flowing robes) you’ve missed it completely.

I agree with you that there is really no bottom to art. In fact for me that is a sign of art. You just keep digging and digging but never reach the bottom. In Cohen you can see the awesome understanding of symbolism. It is easy for me to understand why someone could interpret certain influences there. To me it’s like: If you can see the person of Cohen in his songs you’ve missed what the song had to say to you. If you see yourself there: you got it!

I've got to say it. It is hard to believe I am on a web forum the level of discussion here is so sophisticated. I really am...
humbled
holydove
Posts: 1534
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Tue Mar 23, 2010 6:28 pm

Humbled, this is an age-old question: can you really separate the dancer from the dance? I think not; but even if you can, I'll admit that I want to know as much about THIS artist as possible.

As for seeing oneself versus seeing the artist - I'm not so sure that boundary really exists either.
User avatar
TineDoes
Posts: 218
Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2009 2:48 pm
Location: Holland

Re: Who By Fire

Postby TineDoes » Tue Mar 23, 2010 7:16 pm

Different spelling in Who by Fire in different books:

And who by brave assent, who by accident
or
And who by brave ascent, who by accident

Which reading would be the right one? and why one or the other?
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

Rotterdam 2008; Antwerpen, Dublin 2009; Gent 2x, Lille , Las Vegas 2x 2010, Gent, Amsterdam, Dublin 2x 2012, Antwerp, Berlin, Rotterdam 2013
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Thu Mar 25, 2010 12:21 pm

I've been thinking about this thread and this song for the last few days. In reviewing the beginning of this thread, the original question was about Leonard's choice of certain words. But I don't think it is possible to discuss the song in its entirety unless we put it into the context of the prayer from which it was taken. There is a wealth of information online if one searches: unetaneh tokef. I won't even attempt to cover all or even a very large part of it. We all know how to do a web search. But I do want to mention some points that I feel are pertinent here.

First of all, this is not actually a "prayer" as such. In Judaism, there are basically 3 types of prayer: Praise, petition, and gratitude. This does not fall under any of those. Instead, it's considered a "piyut", a poem, or I would say more of a meditation. It is relatively recent as far as Jewish liturgy is concerned, dating back only to the 11th century, by Rabbi Amnon who chose torture and death as opposed to forced conversion to Christianity.

Basically, it begins by declaring the holiness and power of G_d and the fact that humans cannot know the "mind" of G_d. It states that on Rosh Hashanah, the names of those who will live or die during the next year are inscribed in the Book of Life. On Yom Kippur, they are sealed. Yet, even once the book is sealed, there is still hope, for it continues with the words:
"U'teshuvah, u'tefillah, u'tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a ha-gezeirah" - Repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel/avert/remove the harsh/severe/evil decree.
Furthermore, while it is G_d who seals the book, each individual has a part in his/her own outcome. It is not an arbitrary decision made by an authoritarian deity on some whim. It is not some last minute dying declaration that "saves" the individual. It is the 3 things mentioned, repentance, prayer, and righteousness that have the power to change the outcome. Those 3 words don't really translate all that well into English. Teshuvah/repentance is more accurately a turning. As I have mentioned before, it is that turning when you are as far from G_d as you can get, all you need do is turn around and you are there. It's THAT turning. Tefillah/prayer...basically communication with G_d, all 3 types of prayer I mentioned above, not merely a desperate plea for mercy. Finally, tzedakah/righteousness....sometimes translated as charity, but more doing what is right because it is right, not because it earns you "brownie points"....standing in your OWN integrity.

So, when Leonard's song asks, "Who shall I say is calling?" *I* am calling. I stand before G_d with all my faults and all my assets. I stand with my imperfections and my good intentions and my efforts.

I didn't mean to give a sermon here. I just wanted to explain some of the historical context of this piece.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

Re: Who By Fire

Postby remote1 » Thu Mar 25, 2010 1:12 pm

Thanks Lili, that's very interesting indeed. I realise this may be a silly question but why do you write 'G_d' rather than 'God'?
"We are so lightly here"
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Thu Mar 25, 2010 4:32 pm

remote1 wrote:Thanks Lili, that's very interesting indeed. I realise this may be a silly question but why do you write 'G_d' rather than 'God'?
Traditionally, Jews avoid writing the name of G_d. It is a custom related to the prohibition against taking the name in vain. Personally, I often use the term deity to indicate a god (note small *g*). Many modern day Jews no longer observe this custom, altho most Orthodox still follow it. When speaking of a particular deity, such as the G_d of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I personally use the G_d. That is referring to a specific deity. When speaking of the general concept of god, I use a small *g* and spell the whole word. For me to use this form of notation is a combination of a show of respect and following a traditional custom. I am not offended by those who spell out the entire word.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
User avatar
remote1
Posts: 2503
Joined: Wed Jul 22, 2009 3:59 pm
Location: between the snowman and the rain

Re: Who By Fire

Postby remote1 » Thu Mar 25, 2010 6:34 pm

Thanks for the explanation Lilifyre; much appreciated!
"We are so lightly here"
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Thu Aug 26, 2010 4:52 pm

Shortly I am heading to my synagogue for a discussion of the poem that inspired this song. This is one of many events offered in preparation for the High Holy Days which will begin soon. This poem, unetaneh tokef, is such a vital part of this holiday cycle. Literally for centuries Jews have puzzled over its meaning. I know from a personal standpoint, I find something new, something unique, each time I study it. I'm sure I'll have more to share after this session.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1534
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Fri Aug 27, 2010 6:29 pm

Lili, I am looking forward to hearing about whatever you would like to share, from your studies of this very interesting prayer. Thank you. . .
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Fri Aug 27, 2010 9:07 pm

Thanks Holydove. Unfortunately, something came up at the last minute and I was unable to make it to the discussion group. Of course, that doesn't keep me from the study of this beautiful and meaningful work. I'll have something more to offer on this topic between now and Yom Kippur, I'm sure. This is a part of the High Holy day ritual that inspires much thought and not a little concern on the part of the faithful. One school of thought feels that it should not be a part of this time. While it can be troubling, I find it very meaningful and stimulates the necessary reflection on ones life engendered by this time of year. I'll post more as I have time to organize my thoughts a bit more.

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1534
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Sat Aug 28, 2010 4:23 pm

Lilifyre wrote: One school of thought feels that it should not be a part of this time. While it can be troubling, I find it very meaningful and stimulates the necessary reflection on ones life engendered by this time of year. Lili
Do you mean that that school of thought says that you should contemplate that prayer only on Yom Kippur, and not at other times?
Lilifyre
Posts: 234
Joined: Fri May 08, 2009 7:29 am
Location: Birmingham, AL, USA

Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Sat Aug 28, 2010 5:47 pm

holydove wrote:
Lilifyre wrote: One school of thought feels that it should not be a part of this time. While it can be troubling, I find it very meaningful and stimulates the necessary reflection on ones life engendered by this time of year. Lili
Do you mean that that school of thought says that you should contemplate that prayer only on Yom Kippur, and not at other times?
Quite the opposite. Some say it does not belong at all as part of the liturgy, especially not during the High Holy Day cycle (Rosh Hashannah thru Yom Kippur)

Personally, I find it an integral part of the mood for this particular holiday time. This is a time of reflection and "turning"....a turning of the year and a turning of the mind. Obviously, we cannot say what will happen in the next moment, but we can examine our lives to see how we have lived them and what we can do to live them better. We cannot go back and relive them, we can only move ahead.

This points out one of the major differences between Judaism and Christianity. In Christianity it is taught that Jesus, thru his death on the cross, "paid for our sins"...accepted the punishment for any wrongs done by humankind. This concept makes no sense within Judaism. No one, not man, beast, or divine being, can take away the fate of one who has done evil in his/her lifetime. Each of us is responsible for our own destiny. No one knows the manner of our death....who by fire, who by water, etc. The only thing that is certain is that we are carbon based creatures and as such, our bodies will not go on forever. This poem...for it is actually not a prayer but more a contemplation or inner dialog with oneself...expresses that uncertainty. But it also expresses hope. The part which Leonard phrases as "Who shall I say is calling?" is worded as ""U'teshuvah, u'tefillah, u'tzedakah ma'avirin et ro'a ha-gezeirah" - Repentance, prayer, and righteousness cancel/avert/remove the harsh/severe/evil decree. There is always hope, there is always a chance to turn around and try again. By so doing, perhaps then we can, if not escape our punishment, at least "live with" it, endure it. As to "who is calling", each of us is calling, calling out to G_d for justice that is tempered with mercy.

For me, I am unable to separate this song from another of Leonard's songs, "If it be Your Will." It's like the one completes the other. We cannot know how or when this lifetime will end....who by fire, etc...but "If it be Your Will" and thru our "turning" (that is the true meaning of the Hebrew word translated at "repentance") and our change in behavior...prayer or communication with G_d and righteousness (doing what is right)...we have hope in the "World to Come."

Lili
Lili
"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
holydove
Posts: 1534
Joined: Sat Jul 25, 2009 5:38 pm
Location: Connecticut

Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Sun Jan 16, 2011 7:10 pm

TineDoes wrote:Different spelling in Who by Fire in different books:

And who by brave assent, who by accident
or
And who by brave ascent, who by accident

Which reading would be the right one? and why one or the other?
Hi Tineke ( & anyone else who might read this)! You made this post a long time ago, but I remembered it because I also wondered, for years, whether the word was assent or ascent. Then I finally saw that in Stranger Music (P. 207) it is written as "ascent". Since this is a book of poems written & chosen by Leonard, I assume we can trust that it has the correct words. (I wonder in which books you saw the other spelling?)

I was actually very glad to see that the word is "ascent" rather than "assent", because I think "ascent" has some very intriguing spiritual/philosophical implications. For instance, Kabbalah teaches that the soul, in order to unite with the Infinite, must go through a process of ascension through the four levels of reality & the ten sefirot. There is also the Platonic cosmology that says that, at death, the soul ascends through the "celestial spheres" (planes of existence), as it returns to the true spiritual realm. There is also the ascension of Jesus, etc. & almost every philosophy/religion has theories about the soul leaving the body at death. So, in terms of Leonard's beautiful song/poem, perhaps the lyric "who by BRAVE ascent" might refer to a process of death whereby the entity who is dying is prepared for, & very aware of, the whole process while it is happening (this kind of awareness during death, incidentally, is a major goal of Buddhist meditation; maybe there is also an element of "assent" implied here, as a soul that is prepared for dying would not be fighting the process, but would be paying very close attention to every detail of it); & this would contrast with death "by accident", which would imply a very sudden death, for which the person is not prepared at all.
User avatar
TineDoes
Posts: 218
Joined: Wed Feb 04, 2009 2:48 pm
Location: Holland

Re: Who By Fire

Postby TineDoes » Sun Jan 16, 2011 9:48 pm

Hi Holydove,
Thank you for bringing this up again. Thank you for your explanation why you think it is
'ascent'. I also like the way you brought both ascent and assent together. Your explanation, like many of your other explanations, is one that is very new to me and enlightning. I also thought it was 'brave ascent' but like many others, I should think, I imagined it having to do with' a heroic climb of some sort, either up a mountain or on the path of life.
In the Omnibus Press 'The Lyrics of Leonard Cohen' it says 'assent' and like you I had read 'ascent' in Stranger Music. So I queried it. The Omnibu Press forwarded my question to the author Maurice Ratcliff alias Chris Allen who wrote 'The complete guide to the music of Leonard Cohen' published in 1999.
Chris Allan wrote to me and explained why he thought it should be 'brave assent'. (I cannot at this point locate the email. But I will write what I remember.)
He said, as the options in the lyric come in pairs of opposites, the opposite of accident, accidental death, would be 'brave assent'; is such as giving someone permission to kill him or end his life, perhaps in a war situation. He said this could be because Leonard has refered to war and soldiers in other lyrics and is in some way drawn to the army.
Regards
Tineke
"There’s no forsaking what you love ...."

Rotterdam 2008; Antwerpen, Dublin 2009; Gent 2x, Lille , Las Vegas 2x 2010, Gent, Amsterdam, Dublin 2x 2012, Antwerp, Berlin, Rotterdam 2013

Return to “Leonard Cohen's music”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 8 guests