The Opposite of Hallelujah
Jason Holt (ed.), Leonard Cohen and Philosophy: Various Positions
Open Court, 288pp, £12.75, ISBN 9780812698565
reviewed by Andrew Marzoni
Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, edited by Jason Holt, constitutes the 84th volume of the Popular Culture and Philosophy® series. The book’s subtitle, Various Positions, is borrowed from the title of Cohen’s 1984 album, letting loose streams of cringeworthy Cohen puns, veiled references, and inside jokes that, unfortunately, become the anthology’s most prominent motif. As Brendan Shea writes in the volume’s first essay, ‘Leonard Cohen as a Guide to Life’: ‘When asked to describe what separates Leonard Cohen’s songs from those of other singer-songwriters, many of his fans might be tempted to say “he’s more philosophical.”’ It’s a fair point, if a bit of an obvious start - though apparently not obvious enough for Shea, who continues, ‘And this is surely right – after all, this is a book on Leonard Cohen and philosophy!’ More than just being cheesy, redundant, and slightly condescending, the bit of fun that Shea seems to be having here in fact exemplifies a rhetorical strategy of wilful insistence – he’s philosophical! Leonard Cohen and philosophy! – that runs throughout the anthology. Leonard Cohen and Philosophy has something to prove, but with few exceptions, it fails to prove much beyond the ‘and’ in its title.
Of the various positions provided, several succeed in making a case for Cohen as a philosopher in his own right while managing to come together as standalone philosophical texts. In What Is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argue that the ‘object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new.’ Following Nietzsche, they warn that in engaging with the philosophical tradition, ‘philosophers must distrust most those concepts they did not create themselves.’ Gary Shapiro, in ‘The End of the World and Other Times in The Future,’ performs a close reading of Cohen’s 1992 album to illuminate new concepts of futurity and temporality that emerge from Cohen’s songs. Reading Cohen’s lyrics against Judeo-Christian conceptions of the end times, Shapiro describes The Future as a ‘lyrical phenomenology of time, in which an array of experiences and understandings of time is given voice,’ arriving at ‘the difference between apocalyptic and messianic’ time, ‘a time freed from past restraints rather than a closing of time itself.’ In ‘Irony as Seduction’, Christopher Lauer analyzes the shifting narrative perspectives of Cohen’s songs to frame irony as a ‘sexy’ challenge to the subject: ‘who we are inevitably evades what convention says we must be.’ Paweł Dobrosielski and Marcin Napiórkowski present Cohen’s 1964 book of poetry, Flowers for Hitler, as a Freudian return of the repressed in which Cohen, postwar Canadian Jew, brings us back to Auschwitz and ‘forces us to face the uncanny and ask: If normality functions only to cover up the horror, isn’t it complicit in that horror, isn’t it guilty too?’
Perhaps the most impressive essay in Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, Babette Babich’s ‘Hallelujah and Atonement’ argues that Cohen’s most famous song ‘illuminates the ambiguity of the human condition,’ revealing an ambivalence that is ‘consummately erotic.’ She makes a case for Cohen, self-proclaimed ‘ladies’ man’, as a feminist: though, like Nietzsche’s, Cohen’s ‘fantasy that women could constitute the fairer or as Goethe supposed the “higher” sex, is also a way of dis-imagining their humanity,’ the disintegration of the subject in Cohen’s work – his flattening of the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ into the singularising ‘who’ – subverts the patriarchal demand that ‘all of us listen with men’s ears.’ Cohen’s songs promote a vision of atonement which includes a ‘promise of grace, salvation, and blessing, but also of conflict and abandonment, as well as affirmation and letting be,’ showing that ‘the who that we are in our uniqueness, as death, as Heidegger reminds us, cannot but singularize each one of us in its claim, at the hour, at the moment of its claim.’ As a songwriter and poet, but also as a singer, Cohen is relentless in rendering the familiar strange, explaining universals by means of singularities – which, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the first principle of philosophy.
‘In the case of Cohen,’ Babich asks, ‘as in the case of a lot of pop music, just how much philosophy do we need?’ It is a question as necessary as it is rhetorical. In Holt’s introduction to the volume, he lists the many contradictions that Cohen seems to embody (‘nostalgic and yet hopeful; hopeful but resigned; unremittingly cruel, yet undeniably gentle; unblinkingly realistic, yet almost blindly romantic; a Jew but seemingly Christian; Judeo-Christian but Buddhist'), the 'pop star-poet paradox' chief among them, which Holt writes, ‘isn’t that Cohen writes poetry and popular music, but rather that his songs count both as poetry and as popular music.’ He contends that it is 'not just philosophers, but most of us, who consider the distinction absolute in that any artwork will count either as high art or as popular entertainment – but never both,’ as if Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, and postmodernism writ large had never exposed this binary as false. Sure, Adorno once described the divide between fine art and mass culture as ‘two halves of an integral freedom, to which they do not add up,’ but that was almost eighty years ago, and it’s questionable whether Adorno would have considered Cohen’s music to be ‘popular’ anyway, considering its resistance to standardisation (like Dylan’s).
This is the kind of naïve belatedness from which most of the essays in Leonard Cohen and Philosophy suffer, including the editor’s own contribution, ‘Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer?’ Citing David Hume, Holt answers his absurd question with milquetoast amazement: what is ‘good’ anyway? and who am I to say? Too many of these essays reference Cohen only to graft him on to Philosophy 101 discussions of existentialism, ethics, or gnostic theology, a pedagogical technique that was doubtless more effective for the longhaired professors of the early 1970s than it is today. In the most alarming example, ‘Politics in Beautiful Losers’, Steven Burns mansplains New Criticism in order to ‘prove’ that Cohen’s 1966 novel is ‘about’ Canadian politics in the 1960s – and nothing else. Quoting TS Eliot on ‘the common pursuit of true judgement,’ Burns asserts that his reading of Cohen’s novel is, literally, ‘the best one.’
If writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, then this choreography was built on a shaky foundation. Holt notes that in the late 1960s when Cohen took up the guitar, his early mentor and fellow Canadian poet Louis Dudek saw his pupil’s choice of the record and the stage over the written word as ‘throwing away his talent, a betrayal of poetry.’ While it is true that music and poetry are, as Holt writes, ‘perfect complements’ (adding, stupidly, ‘as everybody knows’), not a single author in the volume makes a sustained effort to understand the significance of Cohen being both musician and poet, though they insist that his pop-ness is derived from his singing and strumming. What of the fact that in 1977, one of folk music’s most minimalist players partnered with Phil Spector, who threatened Cohen with a crossbow in the studio, sending him running from the Wall of Sound towards the world-music ouds of the 1980s and synthesisers of the 1990s, sonically tracing the New Left’s comfortable recline into neoliberal New Age-ry? This is not the only question left unanswered by Leonard Cohen and Philosophy. 'But you don’t really care for music, do ya?', Cohen sings in ‘Hallelujah’. Sadly, it seems as though we’ll have to wait for yet another instalment of Popular Culture and Philosophy® to find out.