Who By Fire

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
seadove
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby seadove » Tue Jan 19, 2010 9:58 am

holydove wrote:Seadove, interesting interpretation, thank you.

The only issue I have with that is that, in all the other lines of the song, the words that come after "who" refer to the manner in which the person will die, rather than who the person is. So I thought that would apply in this line also.
I tried to sing the original hebrew portion from the prayer book with the tune of Cohen's song. It sounds quite alright, apart from some parts. I wonder if our holy guys will adapt the tune and sing in Synagogues? That would be an achievement for Leonard.

:roll: ;-)
GinaDCG
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby GinaDCG » Tue Jan 19, 2010 2:13 pm

I need to go dig out my grammar book for this one. Grammatically speaking: The word "Who" vacillates between a passive subject in the verses and an active gerund -- forgot the name for this, hence my need to reach for the grammar text!

But the effect of this grammar switching is to confuse just "Who" is: is 'Who" in charge of "Who's" demise? Or does "Who" only live a divinely ordained script? (And if a script, then how much accountability does "Who" have for "Who's" actions? --Only G-d knows!)

The mirror image reenforces this confusion. Is "Who" somebody else at all? And who is this "I" who is doing the "calling?"
G-d? the implied author? the singer?

Forgive me for not making these grammatical tricks clearer. My grammar terminology is not good.

Now I'm beginning to chuckle to myself about falling into "Whoville." Where's Horton when you need him.
seadove
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby seadove » Tue Jan 19, 2010 2:45 pm

I am pretty sure that Cohen wrote this song by only peeking into the old testiment. Lol. ;-)
Steven
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby Steven » Tue Jan 19, 2010 10:51 pm

Hi,

Am no expert on grammar, obviously. :) The mirror thing seems to work nicely as both a duality and
non-duality if taking into account man as created in the image of God. The decider of Yom Kippur's
rather serious pronouncements (on life and death) would have his mirrored counterpart in
the mirror. If I were going to be poetically theological, might even go further to venture into
the bible's "No one see's my (God's) face and lives" territory. But, nah, won't go there, except to this wee
little extent. The mirrored image might conjure up nullificattion of ego, etc., a death to self-perceptions that were
built on a less than holy foundation.
GinaDCG
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby GinaDCG » Tue Jan 19, 2010 11:17 pm

No, Cohen did not have a good of grammar beside him I'm sure. But he did major in English at McGill. And the neat thing about English is found in it's rejection of so many tenses and declensions. We can use word order to create a huge amount of nuance and double-meanings. That's what I'm sure Cohen is doing here with the varying grammatical roles of the word "Who."
holydove
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Tue Jan 19, 2010 11:50 pm

In the "who shall I say is calling" line, I always saw the "I" as Death speaking, asking the one who is to die, "what would you like me to call myself?" In that context, Death would be a kind of universal force, or agent, of the Source of Creation, or God, or whatever name one chooses to give that Source.

Then I saw an interview with Cohen, where the interviewer asked him, "who is calling?", and Leonard said that the intent of that line is to ask that very question: who or what is it that determines who/when/how/etc. any given individual will live or die. In that context, the "I" could still be Death, or it could be the Source of Creation itself, or it could be the narrator of the line.

Everyone's comments about that mirror thing are very interesting, but I must confess that I remain the "Baffled Queen". . ., as I continue to contemplate. . .
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby Steven » Wed Jan 20, 2010 5:11 am

Hi,

I suppose the mirror could also be a representation of a projection, the psychological kind. This occurs to me
just now. So, I'm with Holydove in continuing to contemplate and finding everyone's comments of interest.
GinaDCG
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby GinaDCG » Wed Jan 20, 2010 2:31 pm

Holy Dove,

I agree completely that "I," given the most contextual reading, would be Death. But all the other permutations on Death, the individual, G-d, Karma -- whatever -- are, as you point out, also possible -- which is exactly why Cohen used the pronoun "I" and then refused to anchor the pronoun to a distinguishable other within the song/poem.

And yes, I love this thread. And this thread may have finally solidified a choice of my personal favorite 3 Cohen songs.

Gina
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hydriot
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby hydriot » Thu Jan 28, 2010 11:33 pm

GinaDCG wrote:Holy Dove,
I agree completely that "I," given the most contextual reading, would be Death.
I disagree. Surely it is St Peter at the Gates of Heaven, after somebody has rung the bell requesting admission.

To me 'Who in this mirror' has always referred to the slaying of Medusa, who was actually a perfectly pleasant and very beautiful girl, cruelly treated by Athena for being boastful (and she was raped). I think she deserved to go to Heaven after all she had been made to suffer.
“If you do have love it's a kind of wound, and if you don't have it it's worse.” - Leonard, July 1988
GinaDCG
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby GinaDCG » Fri Jan 29, 2010 7:34 pm

Medusa huh? Hummmmn. Could be, could be. But to repeat the subject/object ambiguity; is this Medusa "in this mirror" ourselves? the implied narrator? the one-who-gives-and-who-takes-away nature of G-d?

Gee . .I haven't visited the Medusa story in ages of my own life. Now I must go find my Hamilton and reread: Medusa as the thing about ourselves we do not wish to confront, and must be slain? Hummmmn. That's what I love about this Forum -- the threads depart into these unexpected, but productive tangents. Thanks.
Adam la Terre
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby Adam la Terre » Fri Feb 12, 2010 7:26 pm

I have always assumed that the "merry merry month of may" line is a reference to Don Juan by Lord Byron, I forget the canto but the stanza runs something like this:

and now at thirty years my hair is grey
i wonder what it will be like at forty
i thought of a peruke the other day
my heart is not much greener
and I confess I have spent my whole summer while twas may
and lacking now the reason to retort
I have spent my life,
both interest and principle
and deem not what I deemed
my soul invincible.


by which the reference is to live a whole life in a shortened period and burn out faster, rather than linger on in a dry mausaoleum, wasting your life away in "a slow decay" where the body fails and the mind turns itself away from reality.

Who dies young, who dies old basicly.
you never have to tell me what it is you really think of me, I'll just say I'mdoing fine, but do I have to dance all night. -Leonard Cohen
Lilifyre
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Sat Mar 20, 2010 8:29 pm

I haven't commented on this thread as yet because I really had nothing new to add one way or another. However, I wanted to say that I really like the interpretation given above by Adam la Terre. Knowing how well read Leonard is, I have no doubt that he may have been thinking along the same lines as you in this interpretation of "Who in your merry merry month of May".

This song is one of my personal favorites and it fits so well with the Hebrew prayer which I am sure was the original inspiration. Referring this line to the Lord Byron quote just fits so much better than the Pagan May day celebration. Thank you so much for this input, Adam.

Lili
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"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
Lilifyre
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby Lilifyre » Sat Mar 20, 2010 8:51 pm

holydove wrote:The most mysterious line for me is: " who in this mirror. . ." It comes right after "who in solitude";
one interpretation I have thought is, if one sees the world as a reflection of the inner soul, or eyes as mirrors of the soul or of the world, then perhaps it mean "in front of the whole world", or "with the whole world watching"; because that would also be the opposite of "in solitude". Anyone have ideas about this?
I was just going to comment on the "mirror" image (no pun intended) in a similar way, as the opposite as "who in solitude". I don't necessarily see it as "in front of the whole world" but perhaps as a part of the whole. Pairing it with solitude....dying alone, perhaps neglected by society, away from everyone else.... "in this mirror" speaks to me of a mass death.... something like 9/11 or the recent earthquakes in various places around the world or even something like the Holocaust where masses were killed.

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
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby holydove » Sun Mar 21, 2010 12:07 am

Lilifyre, I like your interpretation of "who in this mirror" as referring to mass death, & it certainly works as opposite of "solitude". I think that actually complements what I said (about the world watching), because usually when there is a mass death, the whole world does witness it, or find out about it (especially nowadays), be it through television, newspaper, radio, etc. And then the image of "mirror" could refer to the "collective mind" of humanity (like Jung's collective unconscious, only this would be a "collective conscious") in which the "collective death" is reflected.

Thank you for your interpretation - the fog in my "mirror" is starting to clear. . .
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Re: Who By Fire

Postby humbled » Tue Mar 23, 2010 4:56 am

I’m surprised those who see Buddhism in Cohen’s lyrics don’t make the connection here. OPPOSITES!

Hinayana = who in solitude
Mahayana = who in this mirror
Opposites!

This actually appears in Chinese Buddhism in the form of an illiterate wood chopper Hui-neng. He heard a line from the Mahayana scriptures being read and was enraptured. He went to join a monastery to learn more. The Abbot sizing him up put him in the kitchen as common labor. About this time the Abbot decided it was time to pick a successor. He told the monks that the one that could best summarize in a single stanza the essence of Buddhist teaching would be given the abbot’s robe and begging bowl, symbolic of highest office.

Of over 500 monks Shen-hsiu was extraordinary and was easily expected to win. His poem was formally selected as best.
The body is the Bodhi-tree,
The mind, a mirror bright,
Take care to wipe them always clean,
Lest dust on them alight.


The illiterate kitchen boy hearing of the contest asked his friend that night to read him the words. He then had his friend write a response:
The body is no Bodhi-tree,
The mind no mirror bright,
Since nothing at the root exists,
On what should dust alight?


The Abbot upon seeing his monks in a group found them reading the words of the second poem and angrily erased it with his slipper. He called Hui-neng in secretly gave HIM the symbols of rank and told him” Now go! Run away! Disappear!

Shen-hsiu founded the Northern Ch’an School of China “gradual teaching” Hui-neng founded the Southern School “abrupt teaching”. Opposites.

It seems to me that a grammatical analysis is going in the wrong direction here. We have the idea of the illusion of duality, the opposites in the song, but always the over-riding enlightenment of unity of opposites and the illusion of it all. In fact in the best Buddhist way Cohen doesn't provide an answer to us he mearly points the way, only we can come to our proper interpretation of it individually.

To a Buddhist every question would be answered: no one!
Since nothing at the root exists,
On what should dust alight?


To me a grammatical interpretation is going deep, deep into the illusion. Then again that could be because I am not smart enough to do that type of interpretation.

If any of Cohen’s songs are Buddhist-based it has to be this one.

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