Another virtual dead tree from me.
I'm amused by the phrase "an official poetry device". Where is
Peter Cook when we need him? I suppose what was meant was "is
there a name for this figure of speech?". Yes, there is: it's
"antithesis". There are sub-flavours, but that's a useful start.
Also present in the examples you cite is chiasmus, in which words
are interchanged between clauses words. The lag between the
effortless change in the clauses, and the point at which this translates
into seeing what it means, makes the reader/listener momentarily
aware of language doing its work. This isn't the only form of chiasmus -
it can also occur simply in the ordering of terms, as an interchange
between subject and object, or subject and complement - but
this is the only kind I noticed here.
Leonard Cohen is not very interested in contradiction, but he is VERY
interested in ambivalence (naturally, since that's what you find if you
dig deep enough). From that it expands into construing the world in
different ways - because the world is seen differently from the
different sides of an ambivalence. Ambivalence can arise in quite
straightforward ways. People are never "just after one thing".
Cohen, specifically, is very frequently caught between the demands
of earthly and heavenly love, and the relationship between these
demands keeps on changing.
For a really disturbing case of Cohen avoiding contradiction in favour
of ambivalence, try A Singer Must Die
. At least, that's how I take it.
It shrinks if it is treated as a sarcastic "protest song". He is helpless
before his unjust judges because he is accused for the crime he has
committed: the lie in his voice. This is the cry of the guilty.
It's also interesting in an unpleasant way as
one of the few places in Cohen where sex is not just dangerous but
actually hostile - "the ladies go moist", which seems to be offered as
the reason why "the judge has no choice". Ouch.
Before I stop rambling, I'll note that I find myself looking at Jazz
as a funhouse-mirror doublet of this song. But I am
Here are some worked examples from your list. Please consider this
a warning: self-indulgence alert! The other items on the list have
failed to reach enough of an equilibrium for me to offer even a hint
about "what they mean". This itself is part of the intention - to unsettle
the listener/reader into awareness of ambivalence itself. Having a clue
doesn't always settle the ambiguities - sometimes it keeps them sharp.
One thing which drops out is that Cohen uses antithesis in very different
ways: there isn't only one way in which it means things.
I need you, I don’t need you…
Someone else (not
the addressee) has
been bothering LC with "all of that jiving around", insisting that he follow her
into re-interpreting their relationship every time her mood changes. There is
at least a suggestion that it's more cynical than that - he is being given a run-
around, so each time he tries to re-build a sense of connection he's
told that he's doing it wrong. Think Teachers
. This is a moment of uncontrolled
Of course, Cohen himself both does and doesn't need those whom he loves (well or
badly), and this is why it bothers him so much. So, irrational resentment apart, what
is it that he is actually complaining about not receiving? More courtesy? More
willingness to recognise ambivalence? It's not clear - he seems to be rather stuck
himself in demanding the unstated and impossible.
We all know who the addressee was. Considering just how finally and fatally
Janis Joplin "got away" - even if, as is probable, her overdose was not deliberate -
there is something seriously worryingly wrong in Cohen's apparent preferences at this
point. As others have pointed out, at the time when this song was written, much
the most important source of "all of that jiving around" must have been Suzanne
Elrod. Not only is breaking up hard to do, it can make you really horrible - and
this particular display suggests considerable gracelessness on Cohen's part, which
may or may not reflect an originating gracelessness on hers. But I'm wandering off
my point again.
We’re both of us beneath our love
we’re both of us above…
Partly, of course, this is simply literal ("you are my love").
Let's hear it for Various Positions! More seriously, there is a
quintessentially Cohenish distinction, here coming out
fairly early, between Love Itself (which we are either
"in" or "beneath"), and the sense that the actual particular
relationship can never quite reach all the parts that God
can reach. Think In My Secret Life
- somewhere inside,
we keep what we treasure unspotted from the world. The
price is that all that "goodness" makes no contact with the
world, is impotent against it, and it's lonely in there. The
task of earthly love is to live dangerously, to move across
the borders, and allow the inner perfection to manifest.
The sense that beneath the particular self there is an
absolute self which is free from its wickedness is definitely
Buddhist and not Jewish. The importance of personal love
between particular selves (rather than universal compassion)
is Jewish and not Buddhist. This falls out naturally (if I may
be allowed the word) from the impact of having a personal God.
The love of God (in both directions) transcends the
distinction between particular and universal, and can slip
elusively into unexpected places haunts
I can’t forget but I don’t remember what
I can’t forget but I don’t remember who…
The man is haunted by what he knows but has not
realised. A very Zen question (if it is a question)
to the first answer (to the extent that it is an answer)
might be "What was your original face?". Again,
I'm not sure that this is so very unfamiliar an
experience. However, I don't want to overdo the
aspects. Remember that this song was
a substitute for Born in Chains
when it collapsed
under the weight of being recorded. Surely it
performs (in an early and unrealised way - it doesn't
strike me as Big Leonard Cohen) Cohen's sense that
the song has got away from him. He no longer
believes in what he thought he was trying to say, and
is trying to recover what the song was trying to say
(which might prove to be nothing).
Of course, Born in Chains
has re-surfaced now, which suggests
some major changes in Cohen's internal weather, if not in
his internal landscape.
The open hearted many
the broken hearted few
the broken hearted many
the open hearted few…
This combines antithesis with chiasmus (just pointing it out).
The reference to the Persian Sufi poets is a
BIG hint! The banquet is life itself, lived in darkness with
no visible purpose, and yet a celebration, though nobody
can say of what. We enter on life (mostly) open-hearted -
just think of almost any young child - and we leave it (mostly)
closed in our own misery. [There must be something wrong
with children, they grow up into us. But that's my point, not
Leonard Cohen's.] This is actually one of the most
straightforward (though painful) oppositions in the list.
There is something deeply frightening in insisting on life as
a feast, while still quietly asserting that most people leave
it more damaged than they arrived. Perhaps all copies
should be stamped "Some party, I left wasted".
I will kill you if I must, I will help you if I can
I will help you if I must, I will kill you if I can…
This goes with "Man of peace or man of war"
(I admit this doesn't altogether help).
Cohen explicitly refuses to give a privileged
moral position to those who reject war.
Abraham was not a man of war.
Cohen has never been a pacifist. To some
extent, Cohen seems to be claiming both
positions here, ordered to suggest increasing
desperation about his options. In there is also
an increased sense of urgency about "help".
It's not a luxury, the over-spill of plenty:
he must -- perhaps most of all when he must
Think of his expressed attitudes during
the Yom Kippur War. The war against "Ishmael"
is fratricidal and horrible; victory is merely
necessary, but the aim is - MUST BE - peace.
A victory march is always an alternative to love -
a bad move. This life and death business, it's
tough all over. Modern science will doubtless
invent an easy-clean substitute any day now.
I don't think I have anything sufficiently
shaped to say about the others. I'm not
sure whether that's my failure or Cohen's
Before they made me, they broke the mould.