Leonard Cohen’s death in 2016 has not diminished the flow of interest in his life and art. Many books and articles delve into the history and trajectory of his music and poetry, and there are several biographies about him as well. This book, Leonard Cohen: The Mystical Roots of Genius, takes a narrowly focused approach on the influence of established religion and mystical tradition on Leonard Cohen’s art.
Harry Freedman is an expert on the standard texts of Judaism as well as on Kabbalah. He’s also well-informed about Christianity, especially the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, which had a critically important influence on Leonard Cohen. He divides his analysis of Cohen’s work into sections that examine his Jewish background, his intimate knowledge of the Bible, his lifelong interest in mysticism, and the idea that he was writing modern prayers. In developing his study of Cohen’s work, Freedman mined through his numerous interviews, especially those that are posted on leonardcohenfiles.com. He is meticulous in citing these sources, as well as every relevant line of sacred text that he sees as an influence on Cohen.
Of course, as Freedman freely admits about Cohen, “…almost everything he wrote is capable of multiple interpretations.” If Leonard Cohen’s work were simple and transparent, it would not be the overwhelming success that it is. Harry Freedman readily acknowledges that much of his interpretation of Cohen’s work is based on conjecture, with phrases like, “Might Leonard Cohen have come across this legend…” or, when speaking of bells on the garments of the High Priest, “Cohen, as a cohen, of the ancient priestly family, was undoubtedly aware of them”.
This conundrum dictates all poetic interpretation. Especially when setting verse to music, a poet is as much concerned with rhyme and meter as with meaning. As Freedman explains, Leonard Cohen used religious texts and images as allusions, familiar and universal representations of his ideas about war, sex, society, transcendence, and ultimately, finding life’s meaning.
Freedman’s deep study of the religious aspect of Cohen’s work points to some discerning conclusions. When speaking of Cohen, he says, “He had an unmatched ability to articulate over-used, pedestrian phrases like ‘body and spirit’ in ear-catching new ways: ‘a tangle of matter and ghost.’” He quotes scholar Elliot Wolfson’s assertion that Cohen’s famous couplet, “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” is “…Leonard Cohen’s most paramount Kabbalistic declaration.” And he quotes the artist himself: “One of the reasons I use biblical references continually is because even though the culture has changed…the images contained in the Bible have remained”.
More than 1,000 years ago, Jewish poets began composing hymn-like poems to accompany different parts of standard liturgy. Such a poem is called a piyyut, and the poet is known as a paytan. Freedman’s most novel and interesting contribution to the study of Leonard Cohen is his conception of Cohen as a paytan. Thinking about so much of Cohen’s work as prayer-like, Freedman observes, again in his conjectural mode, “Hearing someone recite a piyyut in the Middle Ages must have been a bit like listening to a Leonard Cohen song today.”
Beth Dwoskin is a retired librarian with expertise in Yiddish literature and Jewish folk music.