What to say about Avalanche
Trying to find a woman behind the song, I failed at reading Esmeralda into it (with Quasimodo in the role of the hunchback of Notre Dame de Paris), and then gave up.
Searching for phallic symbols of poor masculine performance in the hunchback, the cripple, and the ugly hump, I only found vague memories of having been told that Sigmund Freud himself is said to have admitted that even a cigar sometimes is merely a cigar.
But then the whole song is just a narrator speaking about himself, and so it doesn't really matter —
most of what people say about their own performances is incomprehensible anyway.
We might try to read it as a reversed and twisted Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story:
Hyde, the rather gentle and all-too-obvious hunchback, dreams up an overcompensation in which he, as an idealised but nasty Jekyll, is in a privileged position where he can disdainfully refuse all kinds of "crumbs of love", which Hyde would never ever have been offered in his real life.
A Jekyll who will scorn "everyone who reache[s] out for [him]" (Bird on the Wire
I'm not saying that such a reading is impossible.
However, it would make the beginning somewhat hard to explain: "I stepped into an avalanche", as Meryam already pointed out, does not mean "by accident":
Meryam wrote: ↑
The I steps deliberately in the avalanche, he is not overtaken by it, it is his choice.
Jekyll, the mean one who ordinarily sleeps "beneath the golden hill", becomes Hyde on purpose —
and that doesn't make much sense. Why should he? Surely not in order to explore his dark side, since this Jekyll already is
the dark side.
The hypothesis might possibly be saved by saying that it is an avalanche of overcompensations —
but Jekyll consists of no more than these overcompensations, he has no other existence, no independent existence of his own. So it would need an intellectual tour-de-force, and certainly some borderline juggling (he who already is
the avalanche would be stepping into it
). Difficult but not impossible, maybe...
But how would the end of the song fit into this framework?
"it is your turn, beloved,
it is your flesh that I wear"
What on earth should drive the addressee to step into an avalanche in turn? In the case of a beloved woman, why should she? And in the case of Jekyll, how is his position towards the avalanche supposed to have changed? He, who is
the avalanche, steps into
the avalanche, and now supposedly it's his turn to step into it again
This difficulty increases in those of the live versions where Leonard Cohen sings
"it is your world, beloved" instead of "it is your turn, beloved".
Between these two points (the beginning and the end of the song), there are a few more passages that don't seem to fit too very well into such a Jekyll-Hyde framework (without mentioning any of the "pain" sequences, which will have to be treated separately):
"You strike my side by accident"
"as you go down for your gold."
"You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe."
"Do not dress in those rags for me,
I know you are not poor;"
"don't love me quite so fiercely now
when you know that you are not sure"
I'm not entirely rejecting such a scenario, such a "remake of a Jekyll-Hyde syndrome", but it doesn't feel satisfactory to me.
So I'll just have a go after my own fashion. Here's my two cents:
In a first reading of the song, I suggest to assume that it's the mind of the mountain speaking, the mind of the very mountain on which the avalanche is taking place.
The ongoing rumble of the guitar, until it ends in an exclamation mark strum, very much resembles the roll of drums ending in the gunfire of an execution. The melody of this mind of the mountain goes as though it were barely able to speak up without immediately falling prostrate again.
(And I prefer the studio version and early live performances, with the melody affirmatively falling on "avalanche", rather than the later almost question-like "avalanche?".
But then my favourites are Leonard Cohen's two trilogies, the first three and the last three albums, even if I haven't integrated them into a kind of hexagram yet. For the time being, the first trilogy seems more like theoretical wisdom — which in the final trilogy has become living practice. Maybe that explains some of my idiosyncrasies.)
I stepped into an avalanche,
As already mentioned, I agree with Meryam that this is a deliberate action, not something happening "by accident". The mind of the mountain is stepping forth, out of itself and into the avalanche, in order to rumble down with the ice and snow.
Note: In this first approach, I think we shouldn't go into implications like the contrast to Joan of Arc, the last song on the album, where she does not step (down) into an avalanche of ice and snow, but climbs (up) into the fire. And like the parallels to The Butcher ("Blood upon my body and ice upon my soul") on the preceding album Songs from a Room, and to One of us cannot be wrong ("But you stand there so nice, in your blizzard of ice") on the first album Songs of Leonard Cohen. These implications are important, but first things first.
it covered up my soul;
The result is that not only the rocks and stones carried away by the ice and snow get crushed beyond recognition, but the soul as well — or rather: the soul first and foremost.
when I am not this hunchback that you see,
All this broken stuff is not depicting the ordinary state of things, though; it is only an occasional and temporary occurrence.
I sleep beneath the golden hill.
Ordinarily, the mind of the mountain sleeps in a world of self-sufficient peace, beneath a natural golden hill rather than beneath a second-choice manmade gilded dome, or statue, or other vain copy.
You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn, learn to serve me well.
Those who are religious for some gain are mistaken, along with all our offerings to dragons and gods and good or evil spirits, or whatever other superstition. We are mistaken in both method and addressee. If we want results, we must learn a different way.
The "gain" here would be to conquer suffering, which is spiritual rather than physical pain, our refusal of things as they are, of the world as it is, without any coherently organised work undertaken so as to modify those unwanted aspects.
These terms, "pain", and its refusal, "suffering", are currently used as synonyms. In the construction of the Avalanche lyrics, one single syllable is required, whence the term "pain". But in order to "conquer" it, no morphine nor prozac nor equivalent would ever do the job. What is meant here is "suffering".
You strike my side by accident
as you go down for your gold.
Whoever goes into the mountain — dragons, gods, trolls, devout burrowers with "no diamonds in the mines" —, we all strike the mind's side without noticing how close we come to it. We don't strike upon the real gold, we only strike its side; nor do we strike the problem at the root. We "miss[...] it by a fraction" (The Traitor), that which we were not even after; we "strike [its] side by accident", by some sheer luck we can't value because we don't as much as become aware of it.
Blinded by our search for material substitutes, or for salvation according to some dogma, or according to our own home-grown conceptions, with or without chemicals, we stumble by the real without realising, and go down for our own kind of gold.
The cripple here that you clothe and feed
is neither starved nor cold;
First we'll have to understand whom we're dealing with, otherwise our well-intentioned goodies are worthless. He who is everything, who has everything, who controls everything, is in no need for any petty stuff we might come up with.
he does not ask for your company,
not at the centre, the centre of the world.
At the centre of the world there is no difference between our illusory self and the rest of the universe. Where all is one, we cannot be his "company" (we cannot be distinct from the rest). His not asking for such an impossibility is his being in harmony with the world as it is.
When I am on a pedestal,
you did not raise me there.
When the rubble carried away by the avalanche was up there, we were not the ones who had put it there. When it will be up there again, we won't be the ones who will have put it there.
Your laws do not compel me
to kneel grotesque and bare.
We have no lessons to teach to the mind of the mountain. Our sterile normative conceptions are ridiculous in comparison with what life is, and life can't be forced to obey them.
I myself am the pedestal
for this ugly hump at which you stare.
The mountain itself is the pedestal for the pile of rubble that rolled down and that will lie there, for us to stare at, "for a little while" (My Oh My).
You who wish to conquer pain,
you must learn what makes me kind;
The true absence of "pain" (of suffering !) cannot be conquered. Any such voluntarist concept needs complete reconsideration.
the crumbs of love that you offer me,
they're the crumbs I've left behind.
None of our precious stuff is any more than some leftovers that even a beggar would not so much as look at. They won't buy anything.
Your pain is no credential here,
it's just the shadow, shadow of my wound.
We have no idea yet what sort of hell that avalanche is. The pain and/or suffering of our ego is nothing compared with the suffering of all sentient beings.
I have begun to long for you,
I who have no greed;
"O longing of the branches to lift the little bud, o longing of the arteries to purify the blood" (Come Healing)
I have begun to ask for you,
I who have no need.
It's not our way that things work. It's from the mind of the mountain that love emanates. Unconditional love whose purpose is the other, not the self.
Here the mind of the mountain, having deliberately stepped into alienation, out of the mountain and into the avalanche, steps into the opposition of the world as it is versus the world as it ought to be, it deliberately steps into suffering, into our suffering.
(Different Sides: "Though it all may be one in the higher eye / Down here where we live it is two")
You say you've gone away from me,
but I can feel you when you breathe.
"I never turned aside," he said,
"I never walked away.
It was you who built the temple,
it was you who covered up my face."
(Lover, Lover, Lover)
If we go away from the mountain, that doesn't mean that the mountain automatically goes away from us, too. The mountain is wherever we are, it is more aware of us than we ourselves will ever be.
Do not dress in those rags for me,
I know you are not poor;
No point in adopting whichever disguise. Especially not the disguise of holy people or of sinners, or of both at the same time.
don't love me quite so fiercely now
when you know that you are not sure,
Our human love is valid only if we admit that it is as it is: fallible. No point in overcompensating.
it is your turn, beloved,
it is your flesh that I wear.
The mind of the mountain, through stepping into the avalanche, is incarnate in the human flesh. It's the mind of the mountain who made this decision — the reason is not at all that we in our unsteadiness deemed ourselves ready to receive it, arrogant as we are.
It is our turn therefore to step out of ourselves now, and into the avalanche. As though we were "equal to the task" (Steer Your Way), as though we were equals of the mind of the mountain. As though such an honour in itself were not far more crushing already than the avalanche can ever be. As though our soul, covered up by the avalanche, had any semblance of a chance of surviving this.
We as the beloved of a mountain whose love we can never requite.
(And sometimes it's more than our turn, sometimes it is our world. As it was previously in The Butcher: "lead on, my son, it is your world.")
is the tremendous prostrating before the insignificant.
And this prostration, by virtue of the alienation it implies (the suffering), by virtue of the fundamental difference it implies between the one who is prostrating and the one before whom he is prostrating, the dialectics of the one being two and thence many (paradoxical if static, in timelessness — perfectly normal if dynamic, if complemented with passing time, if it "step[s] into an avalanche"), this prostration is indeed at the centre of the world, at the hub of the wheel of samsara, where the static and the dynamic, both at point zero, are one:
"By virtue of suffering I claim to have won
You claim to have never been heard"
Thereby occasionally some of the insignificant might wake up and, in turn, prostrate before the tremendous.
Which means that in a second reading I suggest that now it's a bodhisattva (or a messiah) stepping forth into an avalanche, from beneath the golden hill of the self-contained hinayana "Empty Circle" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten_Bulls
) and into the real world (Different Sides
: "You want to live where the suffering is"), giving up whatever realisation may have been achieved, for the sake of all sentient beings (or all human beings, or the chosen few).
Those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) are everywhere. We jostle them ("strike [their] side") in the marketplace
of the last of the ox-herding pictures. But we cannot buy the teaching with pious actions. It is bestowed for free —
the problem is that we must realise it within the ordinary daily wear and tear. As long as we have the teaching "for [...] company", as long as we don't become one with the teaching, it is to no avail.
And they are teachers
, not gurus to be raised onto pedestals. The only valid pedestal for truth is truth, and whatever fancies the ugly hump may cherish, they are of no interest —
be they personal madness or collective rules and regulations.
Our private or sectarian problems are no credentials when it comes to the suffering of all sentient beings as a whole. Superficial local solutions ("crumbs of love") won't suffice.
The action of those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) is not determined by our merit; it is they who "long for" it to be done, in their freely chosen alienation of the world as it is versus the world as it ought to be, in the collective suffering shared and transcended.
There are no disguises required, no miraculous techniques: "It's over now, the water and the wine" (String Reprise / Treaty
). Nor is there anything special about those bodhisattvas (or messiahs). They are ordinary people, like you and me.
It is our flesh, our suffering that they wear.
, in this second reading, is those bodhisattvas (or messiahs) prostrating before all sentient beings (or all human beings, or the chosen few).
(Leonard Cohen spreading his priestly blessing over the audience is theoretical religious wisdom — his kneeling before each individual listener's Buddha-nature is enlightened practice.)
Thereby, some time maybe, in turn, in a third reading...
(But that's not my two cents anymore.)