One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
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daka
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One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by daka » Tue Dec 25, 2007 3:50 pm

A friend loves this song and I am trying to learn it for her, as a gift. Because I am a Buddhist monk I function better if I see some spirituality (especially Buddhist) in the song. I can find it if I work at it of course, I can make it up if I have to, or even rewrite it or add verses. But I am interested in hearing interpretations that are spiritual, and I don't care about your brand.

I am mostly familiar with Leonard's recent work (last 15 years).. and some original albums, but there is a gap in my exposure to his work and this song falls in that gap.

Also if anyone has written additional verses please pass them on!

Many thanks

daka
If you become the ocean you will not become seasick....Jikan (aka Leonard Cohen)

It's comin' from the feel that this ain't exactly real, or it's real, but it ain't exactly there! . Jikan
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by lazariuk » Tue Dec 25, 2007 5:55 pm

I think the title gives the interpretation, but I may be wrong.

anyway i often had a lot to say about the song here and in the newsgroup.

the following is one of the things that I wrote here. I hope it is of some use.

viewtopic.php?f=9&t=5409&p=75601&hilit= ... ong#p75601
Everything being said to you is true; Imagine of what it is true.
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by iris wigle-cutforth » Mon Feb 18, 2008 8:33 am

One of us can't be wrong...written my a man...what else do you need to know??? It's the eternal wedding song. It can't be me...it can't be me...it can't be me. Buddah wants more "spiritual" boy did you come to the wrong place.
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One of Us Cannot be Wrong...

Post by John Etherington » Mon Feb 18, 2008 3:57 pm

Indeed, a poetic way perhaps of saying that in a situation where opinions appear to be conflicting, one has to presumably be right and no doubt Leonard believed that he was. To the best of my knowledge, Leonard wrote the song for Nico when he was trying to seduce her by performing the magical ritual of lighting appropriately coloured candles. I believe that the verse about the saint who drowned himself in a pool was inspired by Leonard's first guitar teacher, who mysteriously committed suicide after the first three lessons. He was a young Spanish immigrant who Leonard had seen playing the guitar to some young women. It seems that Leonard was motivated to develop his guitar skills as a means of attracting the women he wanted. The only kind of spiritual interptetation I could put on the song is that it could be regarded as a song about the anima (to use a Jungian term). The anima is a representation of the totality of a man's "inner feminine". She often first appears to him as an elusive figure in dreams. When the anima gets projected onto a living female, she will never be fully obtainable, but serves the function of inspiring him to develop his own feminine qualities. Such anima figures are often portrayed in literature. She is seen in such stories as John Fowles "French Lieutenants Woman", and Hermann Hesse's "Steppenwolf" where she appears as Hermione. Thus in such instances, both the pursuer and the pursued are right in what they are doing, even though the man's yearning for the actual flesh and blood woman is unlikely to be fulfilled.

All good things, John E
Last edited by John Etherington on Mon Dec 29, 2008 12:20 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: One of Us Cannot be Wrong...

Post by kleinschmidt » Mon Feb 18, 2008 5:33 pm

John Etherington wrote:Indeed, a poetic way perhaps of saying that in a situation where opinions appear to be conflicting, one has to presumably be right and no doubt Leonard believed that he was. To the best of my knowledge, Leonard wrote the song for Nico when he was trying to seduce her by performing the magical ritual of lighting appropriately coloured candles. I
Thank you, I didn't know this song was about Nico, I thought only Take This Longing was about her. This makes the song even more brilliant. But I never understood the title. What do you mean that Leonard was right? I don't see the song as being about this guy trying to seduce a girl, I much rather see it as a song of a failed relationship, one person is trying to get over the other, but he can't- hence "let me come into the storm" . I didn't think that leonard ever loved Nico that much, i thought he was just fascinated by her beauty.
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by John Etherington » Mon Feb 18, 2008 6:46 pm

Hi Kleinschmidt,

Well, presumably Leonard was trying to win Nico over and believed that he was right in pursuing her. Though Nico is said to have rejected his advances. The image of inviting the "ice queen" into his storm seems to be a poetic way of overcoming her frozen warnings. You're probably right in suggesting that Leonard was most likely fascinated by her beauty. As an anima figure though, she certainly inspired Leonard to write a few great songs.

All the best, John E
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by sagcl1 » Sat Mar 15, 2008 4:49 pm

Beautiful losers-interpret as u like-failed romance-unatainabble romance-aspirational failures(to make u jealous of me)madness(LC shouting the tune @ the end) -in my op LC has documented all my failures in this song & Ive been listening to it for 40 years-Clive Lewis
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by jerry » Sat Mar 15, 2008 11:30 pm

One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong is the actual title!
Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by abby » Thu Mar 20, 2008 12:07 am

One of the qualities I've appreciated about Leonard's work is the appropriateness of seeing in his subject both a woman and God. I think One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong is not written about God- the blizzard of ice seems more suited to a romance storm. It seems like it'd be a good thing in his shoes in this song to be able to look beyond the woman, but who has that presence of mind? I want to cultivate that.

Abby
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by johnny7moons » Sun Nov 02, 2008 3:24 pm

Hi Daka (if you're still reading this thread) and everyone. I think the question of Buddhism and Cohen's lyrics is a fascinating one, since on the one hand the man has engaged so intensely with Buddhist practice (even though he has always disavowed Buddhism as a religion), and on the other hand the kind of spirituality his lyrics deal with is, at least on the surface, so far removed from Buddhism. 'One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong' is a good example of this. The first verse ("I lit a thin green candle...") deals with desire (tanha), and an angry, jealous, sadistic reaction ("I tortured the dress...") when desire is unfulfilled. The next two verses deal with the human frailties of teachers, among other things - the 'doctor' counsels renunciation ("just have to quit"), but then we see that the doctor is just as caught up in the samsaric cycle of greed as everyone else, and he comes to a sticky end. A Buddhist might think of Richard Baker Roshi, or (in Britain) Sangharakshita, or other such great teachers with feet of clay...

Even the 'saint', it turns out, is not saved by his own teachings, and ends up committing suicide. The Eskimo in the last verse is yet another tortured figure, tormented by his own desire. Overall we have a grim picture of a world "burning, burning, burning" with impossible erotic longings. From a strictly Buddhist point of view, the sensible thing to do here would be to renounce, to let go of the attachments and desires, to leave it all behind. However, Cohen's having none of this: in the last line of the song he's still begging her to, "let me come into the storm". He doesn't seem to expect happiness, he knows it's a "storm", but - whether wisely or foolishly - he wants it anyway.

Like so much of Cohen's work, "One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" is a celebration of longing (albeit a rather bitter one), and as such it seems to me that it runs completely counter to the whole drift of Buddhist thought, which involves recognising that longing is suffering, and disidentifying with it. It has much deeper affinities, I think, with Judaeo-Christian spirituality, which celebrates the longing for a distant God as a profoundly valuable form of suffering (especially in the Sufi writings; Rumi is steeped in this sense of longing-for-the-completely-Other).

I'm not sure which school of Buddhism you're in, Daka - I'm talking from the point of view of Theravada and Zen, which are the Buddhist traditions I know; Tibetan Tantric Buddhism I guess has a different way of relating to desire, and might reach different conclusions.
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by lazariuk » Mon Dec 29, 2008 7:22 am

johnny7moons wrote: Even the 'saint', it turns out, is not saved by his own teachings, and ends up committing suicide.
I have a different idea of what he was speaking about with the saint. Does the following make sense to you?
lazariuk wrote:It seems to me that this song is a prayer. The title convinces me that it cannot be otherwise - "One of us cannot be wrong" How many relationships do you know of where there is one in the relationship who 'cannot' be wrong. Every relationship that I have been in it seems that we are both wrong almost, if not all, of the time.

The form of address is in line with the teachings of Maimonides who was a Jewish teacher of great distinction who Leonard must have been familiar with because he has quoted him on occasions. Moses Maimonides teaches that it is not appropiate to name the positive attributes of God but more appropriate to name the negative attributes. He says: "Know that the negative attributes of God are the true attributes: they do not include any incorrect notions or any deficiency whatever in reference to God, while positive attributes imply polytheism, and are inadequate." When he writes of negative attributes he is referring to such as not saying that God is Always Right but rather that God if Never Wrong. This is not a statement to be taken lightly and in his writings he gives well thought out reasons that led to this conclusion. I am certain that anyone who has come into contact with his work would be well aware of this aspect. I am almost certain Leonard was.

Assuming that the song is a prayer works for me in trying to understand what he can be singing about in the song. For example:

I heard of a saint who had loved You
I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers
Was to tarnish the golden rule

In the jewish tradition the golden rule had it's origin when a rabbi named Hillel was asked by a non-jew to teach him the sum total of the Torah (The Law) while standing on one leg. Hillel replied "What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour" or as it is usually expressed "Love your neighbour as yourself"
In the Christian tradition the golden rule had it origin when Jesus said that all of the Torah can be filled by observing two commandments. The first is to love God with all of your heart, with all of your soul, with all of your mind and with all of your might and He said that the second was like unto the first (maybe implying that they were in ways the same) that you should love your neighbour as yourself.

I think that the saint that Leonard is singing about is Hillel. It seems to me that any Jew who studies the Holy Scriptures in the jewish tradition is studying in the school of Hillel. The reason for this is because Hillel's commentaries have become attached to all of the Scriprures that are passed on, both in the written and the oral traditions. " I studied all night in his school"

When looking at the Scriptures with the commentaries one can see that Hillel is involved in teachings which seem to be at great odds with the golden rule. As an example his words are right there in the middle of the discussion about how one is to treat a Jewish slave in comparison to how one is to treat a gentile slave. The jewish slave is to be released after one year while you can pass on your gentile slaves from generation to generation forever and ever. One of Hillel's personal contributions to this teaching is that it is OK to compel the gentile slave to teach his trades to others while you should not compel your jewish slave to do so.
I have on more than one occasion seen Hillel's name referenced as the authority given when a jew is making the argument that to love one's neighbour means to love your jewish brothers and not necessarily gentiles. I think that Leonard was thinking that the golden rule really was golden - he sang : "I who was born to love everyone" He recognized that gold is a metal which cannot be tarnished and so he was observing that the tradition was teaching what was at heart contrary to the tradition. Teaching you to tarnish what cannot be tarnished. " to tarnish the golden rule"
It is not hard for me to come to these conclusions especially because of all of the comments that Leonard has made which support it. In speaking about his Jewish tradition he has made the statement that the tradition has betrayed the tradition and it seems that the one central criticism he has had was the tendency of the tradition to become exclusive with their love. A love that demands to be all inclusive.

having written this I should point out that from everything I have ever read this Hillel guy seemed like such a beautiful person and in no way would I want to show him any disrespect. Hillel is not the only one to write commentary for the Talmud and his commentary is more often than not more loving than others. As an example there are over 300 places where he differed from the fellow commentator Shammai. This has led to where sometimes the jewish tradition being divided into the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai. An example of where they can differ is as follows:
If were to want to convert and become a jew both the followers of Hillel and those of Shammai would agree that I would need to be circumized. Since I am already circumized the followers of Hillel would say that it is no longer an issue while the followers of Shammai would still want me to pull out my penis so that they could take a knife and draw some blood. Without doubt Hillel seems a little kinder.

Also if I am correct in imagining Leonard was thinking of the picture of Hillel on one leg being able to pass on the pure gold of the law then maybe in his later years he too would try to stand on that one leg with the Law. Being on one leg would make it very hard to run. He wouldn't be able to run with the lawless crowd. ;-)
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by johnny7moons » Sun Jan 04, 2009 4:46 pm

Thanks for a fascinating post, Lazariuk. I'm embarrassed to say I know next to nothing about either Maimonides or Hillel (and not a great deal about the Judaic traditions in general), but your reading of the 'I heard of a saint who had loved You' verse is very compelling.

What do you make of the next verse, though?

'Just when I was sure that his teachings were pure, he drowned himself in a pool / His body is gone but back here on the lawn, his spirit continues to drool'

It seems to me that the speaker is ultimately disappointed with the teaching of the 'saint', because the saint eventually kills himself. Coming at it from the point of view of European philosophy (which I know a bit better), this suggests Nietzsche and Socrates to me. It's said that Socrates' last words were "I owe a cockerel to Asclepius" - Asclepius being the god of healing, and a cockerel being the appropriate sacrifice to the god when one had been cured of an illness. Nietzsche takes Socrates' last words to mean that life is an illness, and now that death is curing him of the sickness of life, he wants to give thanks by making a sacrifice to the god of healing. This lead Nietzsche to a violent rejection of Socrates' teachings, on the grounds that if these teachings didn't enable him to affirm life, the teachings had no value.

It feels to me like something similar is going on in this verse - the saint's teaching doesn't save him from despair, he commits suicide, and this leaves the speaker to conclude that the teachings therefore weren't 'pure'. I find the last line of the verse a bit baffling; now we're on a lawn, perhaps in the grounds of an old folks' hope or a psychiatric hospital, and the saint's ghost is sitting there drooling stupidly. What do you make of this?
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by lazariuk » Mon Jan 05, 2009 12:04 am

johnny7moons wrote:Thanks for a fascinating post, Lazariuk. I'm embarrassed to say I know next to nothing about either Maimonides or Hillel (and not a great deal about the Judaic traditions in general), but your reading of the 'I heard of a saint who had loved You' verse is very compelling.

What do you make of the next verse, though?

'Just when I was sure that his teachings were pure, he drowned himself in a pool / His body is gone but back here on the lawn, his spirit continues to drool'

It seems to me that the speaker is ultimately disappointed with the teaching of the 'saint', because the saint eventually kills himself.
Hi johnny7moons

thanks for your interest.

i too have have wondered about those lines "he drowned himself in a pool" why not a river? why not an ocean? why a pool?

following with "back here on the lawn" makes one think that it is a man-made swimming pool.

I get a feeling from the words that the drowning wasn't really real. As a pool is not really relevant to the natural flow of water on our planet so too I think that Hillel's subsequent activities were not relevant to what his spirit was expressing.
His Spirit continues to drool
this gives me the idea that when you take away that which was man - made in how we were to appreciate Hillel that there seems to be something else that is yearned for.

jack
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by John Etherington » Tue Jan 06, 2009 12:55 am

Get real guys! This song is primarily about Nico - see my earlier post. Given, the Hillel idea is interesting and I'll agree that the lyrics are probably informed by Leonard's spiritual inheritance (as is most of his worK). However, to understand the psychic landscape from which the song emerges check out the titles on Nico's "Marble Index" - "Lawns of Dawn", "Face the Wind", "Frozen Warnings" etc.

All good things, John E
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Re: One Of Us Can't be Wrong - interpretations please

Post by lazariuk » Tue Jan 06, 2009 5:36 am

John Etherington wrote:Get real guys! This song is primarily about Nico - see my earlier post. Given, the Hillel idea is interesting and I'll agree that the lyrics are probably informed by Leonard's spiritual inheritance (as is most of his worK). However, to understand the psychic landscape from which the song emerges check out the titles on Nico's "Marble Index" - "Lawns of Dawn", "Face the Wind", "Frozen Warnings" etc.

All good things, John E
Hi John

It seemed to please Leonard that his songs could be heard two ways. In one way as a love song involving a specific person as in the song Suzanne while at the same time the song Suzanne not really being about the person Suzanne.

Leonard talked about that in great detail when Jennifer Warnes made a hit of "Ain't no cure for Love" He was very clear that his main intention with that song was very spiritual while appreciating that many would hear it as a love song between a man and a woman. Whenever he performed it he would always introduce it with some quotes from Jesus.

I don't mind you giving us the information about Nico which I have always found to be very interesting but I have a small reservation of you using the expression "primarily about Nico" that is like saying that the song Suzanne was "primarily about Suzanne" which i don't think it was.

It is a fine line between the two different ways that Leonard's songs can be heard. I don't think that has been discussed enough.

I could be wrong though. It is a very integral part of my understanding of Leonard that the song "One of us cannot be wrong" is a prayer, but maybe it isn't and i am completely wrong in everything I have thought about him. I know that I have a lot of faults but I never thought that being wrong was one of them.

Jack
Everything being said to you is true; Imagine of what it is true.
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