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How Leonard Cohen Helped Me Discover Myself And My Identity

Some thoughts on why Leonard Cohen, a persumably heterosexual man, spoke universally for rights, obstacles and feelings experienced by people of all identities.
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Very often I have feared of losing an icon, a role model that seemed to make this utterly nonsensical world keep finding meaning in its turning. In high school I felt honestly threatened by the realization that Ringo and Paul, the remaining Beatles, were actually growing old, and I simply deny thinking about my queens, Maggie Smith and Julie Andrews, being anything but immortal.

I guess that’s what loss and the fear of it do to you, after all, and it is the reason so many poems and songs and prayers have been written in its name, but I’m probably gonna need many years of therapy to start sucking a bit less when it comes to loss, because I absolutely do: I suck.

I deny, I fear with almost every step I take, I have nightmares every other night, I’m horrible. Putting this all into words is way too much for me, and I really need to be over and done with this.

Yet, even though I always felt such close connections to my icons and role models to the point of staying at home faking sick from school because I read Lennon and McCartney’s fighting letters, it always seemed a bit off to me to talk about personal losses when these people who passed away actually had close friends and family to mourn for them and ache intolerably. I had never talked to them, known what they’d smelt like in the morning, whispered a drunken secret in their ears or shared a sleepy coffee with.

Or had I?

When you spend the biggest part of your life so afraid and so sad because you’re so afraid, when the first panicked fits you remember having were because you realize that your dad is a few years older than other dads, which, in your four year old mind means that you might lose him sooner, you need someone to verbalize all the fear that you’re afraid of phrasing for you, in your place. You don’t necessarily need someone to be wise. Sometimes all you need when you’re ten, is someone to say

I’m afraid. I’m sad. I’m lost. I’m a grown man, and yet I fuck up all the time, and I see beauty. And I’m terrified of losing it and so sad that I can make you sad for things you aren’t even close to grasping yet. And, in the end of the day, look here kid, you can turn it all into poetry, without even trying.”

Which, of course, it doesn’t work this way. It took Leonard Cohen five years to write Hallelujah, which I first heard when I was really tiny, in Jeff Buckley’s voice, at Shrek, and then sent creepy love letters to every actor or singer who covered it, thinking I was madly in love with them with their angelic voices when, really, I was unbearably enamored with a song that had a specific effect that no other had ever had: to assure a selfish angsty youth that it was written for me, to capture my thoughts and mine only. I thought that no one else in the world shared with me the religious experience of Hallelujah.

I thought that no one would ever – or had ever done – experience love to the depth that I would. And then I connected the dots: realized that the stunning Suzanne cover by the Greek Flery Ntantonaki, a singer for Manos Hadjidakis songs that my dad always played for me in the car, was originally written and sung by Cohen.

I bought his poetry book. Listened to all his songs from morning till night. Kept notes. Wrote fanpoems. Absolutely sucked at it. Still felt important only by touching his lyrics pasted on the Word Doc. I was there, the high school kid that had rejected poetry and Cavafy just because they were taught at school, was actually gonna become a poet writing fanpoems for Leonard Cohen who wrote fanpoems for Cavafy’s The God Abandons Anthony. Adolescence sometimes makes you selfish, as a coping mechanism for learning how to demand what is not freely given, as a reflex to learning, right after childhood, that the world doesn’t revolve around you. It makes you insistent in being special, chosen, while the world tells you that your voice doesn’t really matter, that others will eventually decide for you, without you, that being different is problematic, that you should conform.

David Remnick’s interview with an 82 year old Leonard Cohen was published in the New Yorker less than a month ago, focusing on the darker aspects of Cohen’s last album-to-be, You Want It Darker, an album “obsessed with mortality”, yet giving a vibe of decided, peaceful readiness for its idea. We can all count in this article for being reduced into tears.

It illustrates Cohen’s life quite masterfully, making you feel like you did know him after all, as if he’s not gone, like it is a potential thing that may happen, that he’ll invite you at his home in Hydra to treat you olives, sandwiches and scotch.

He was a Jew from Montreal who got a grant of three thousand dollars from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1960, and lived by it as he worked on his poetry. Already before he became famous, he specified the kind of audience that he wanted in a letter to his publisher: he wanted to grasp the attention of “inner-directed adolescents, lovers in all degrees of anguish, disappointed Platonists, pornography-peepers, hair-handed monks and Popists.”

He happened to find what he was looking for in Greece, and more specifically in the island of Hydra, where he met Marianne Ihlen, that was said to be his muse, his antique figure, and kept a warm, meaningful love affair with him for long. His song “So long, Marianne” was for her. She died of cancer earlier in 2016, and he wrote to her that he would soon meet her.

Sometimes I feel that, being Greek, I am deprived of seeing Greece the way Cohen seemed to see it, to of grasping that essence of the primitive, almost mystical effect that helped him work on his mind, concentrate and aim to discover by fasting or taking drugs. He said:

I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”

But how did it eventually make sense to me that Cohen’s passing away was a personal loss? As personal as it has been for thousands and thousands of people.

As personal as Trump’s election and the ridiculous, the absurd irony of having to deal with all that, that our LGBT, POC, Muslim, Jewish, women siblings in America have to stay sane at this joke that history is playing, nostalgic youths that have grown up with all the terror underlying the happiness and the innocence of childhood, or the illusion of progress and ostensible equality, the youths that have grown up with the shudder and the flinch and the knot in the stomach that comes with the divinity of songs like Democracy and videos like the one of Dance me to the End of Love, with all its history and connotations.

That’s why even – especially – from the very privileged position of a white person living in Europe (with the ambiguity of that part of Europe being Greece), every fatal, racist or phobic attack of institutions and enforcement on innocent youths on the other side of the world hits me so fucking personally, even though I shouldn’t have the right to feel this way because I am so privileged, or maybe I should, even more, because I am so privileged.

But how different is that to the effects of ever growing rape culture in my city, how different is that to the horrifying news of trans youth committing suicide after Trump’s election, when the people I love the most in the world is trans, and I’m in the process of questioning my gender? What does old dear late – presumably – straight, male Leonard Cohen have to do with all this? Damned if even I know why I’m making connections where there shouldn’t be, damned me if I even knew where this was going when it started. I only know I’m desperate.

He was hope in his utter hopelessness. He was religion of the most material kind, he spoke of the flesh with such reverence, that I absurdly ended up feeling like it was irrelevant in all its warmth, in all its neediness. If you asked me at seventeen, when I first started questioning my prayers, drifting away from the mechanical understanding of religion that my family had endowed me with, I realize now that I should tell you I kind of saw him like a God, at that moment.

A flawed, broken, mortal prophet that I somehow deemed immortal just because he taught me poetry. And death is shite, and resurrection is shite, so I didn’t want my God to be all that human after all, did I? I think it hit me all that bad because I now realized how desperately I believed in him to say a big fuck you to all that.

That’s too far away from the way he probably viewed his life, how can I know? I’m intensely laughable right now, and pretentious, that I am aware of. But maybe I’m rambling because I need to put into words things I have no proof of. Isn’t religion like that, after all? You just believe things without asking for material proof. So Cohen hadn’t ever stood up, as far as my research let me know, at least, to raise bisexual visibility, or verbally support trans rights, but I just firmly believe that we could count on him for that.

In one interview, asked whether he’d ever had a gay relationship with a man, he replied:

No, not personally. I mean, I think [everybody] appreciates the sense of attraction between [the] sexes and I suppose I’ve been open to my [feelings for] both men and women, so it’s completely [natural for] me to have deep relationships with men. It [doesn’t] take much of a leap of the imagination to [project] deepness into physical terms. But I’ve never [been] deeply sexually attracted to a man. There [have been] moments, but not deeply. I think my deepest [sexual] emotions were towards women.”

In another interview, he replies that he doesn’t regret never having had a relationship with a man,

I have had intimate relationships with men all my life and I still do have. I’ve seen men as beautiful, I’ve felt sexual stirrings towards men so I don’t think I’ve missed out. Maybe I have, maybe it’s time to look into it. Maybe not, maybe I’ve left it too late. Maybe I’ll not be able to get anybody.”

Leonard was successful with women and probably heterosexual. Why is he still a revolutionary icon to my eyes, though? Why did “Take me to church” stir something so deep in me, mostly because I could see it as a child of “Hallelujah”? As a queer kid instead of looking into his personal life, I like to think about his lyrics, even his less explicit, and how they helped me through my journey of self-discovery, experimentation and acceptance.

It was the art of making love a universal thing in ways that other songs and poems didn’t. You don’t necessarily imagine of a conventional kind of coupling even when he explicitly talks about the mating of women and men. Somehow he makes it greater than that, he transcends embodiment even when you talk about the dew on your thighs, he transcends roles even when he gives Alexandra a female name and pictures her sleeping upon your satin and slipping away with a kiss. It’s about the following lyrics: Do not say the moment was imagined/Do not stoop to strategies like this.

It’s not about cliché women becoming symbols. It’s about feelings and states and wanderlust occasionally acquiring gender – or not. Everything is important and yet it isn’t and yet it is, when in Democracy he speaks so specifically about “the fires of the homeless and the ashes of the gay”, and “the wells of disappointment where the women kneel to pray” and he looks for God in irony, yet when he talks about holding on to people as if they’re crucifixes, then it seems to me that he refers to embodied divinity and achieving the beauty of frailty, instead of depositing religion off its high bedroom wall and resting it condescendingly upon a humbly made human bed.

It was the love for love, the stoic, almost systematic, energetic meditation of letting it destroy you. It was the veneration found in the sarcasm, the informed passivity, the peaceful, even questionable resistance. It was a bohemian boy who bought a blue Burberry raincoat with his first money. It doesn’t make sense, and it does. He has been liberating, in the way that growing intimate with my sexuality, with my gender and with other, intimidating parts of my personality have been. He wasn’t explicitly there all along but he was. He might have been a clumsy fighter, I don’t know. Sometimes it seemed to me like he had given up. Puppet night comes out to say the epilogue to puppet day.[1]

Maybe he kind of taught me how I need to fight, though, like all these losses were personal. Like we’re already honest words as we are, that no one needs to fuckin sacrifice themselves for people’s foolishness and blindness to turn into poetry. That dark times are shit, dark times create dark art.

Spare us the dark art. Loving is dark anyway and they say it’s no victory march. We can’t have more dark times. Make it make sense. Be there for each other, thank people for the beauty they give you. Question, live authentically, be cynical, take your time with scrapbooks and moss and dead magazines and lilies and sweating moons, and romanticize the fuck out of wooden kitchen or Van Gogh bedroom chairs.

But be there for each other, now more than ever. Stop romanticizing walking in dark rooms alone. All the rest, you can romanticize. Now more than ever, talk loss and love and friendship in terms the mutuality of which you’re always surprised by. Share things you thought were made for you.

The chorus of the opening track “You Want It Darker” on Cohen’s new record, says Hineni Hineni, Abraham’s answer to God which means “I’m ready my Lord.”

In Remnick’s New Yorker interview, he says:

I know there’s a spiritual aspect to everybody’s life, whether they want to cop to it or not. It’s there, you can feel it in people—there’s some recognition that there is a reality that they cannot penetrate but which influences their mood and activity. So that’s operating. That activity at certain points of your day or night insists on a certain kind of response. Sometimes it’s just like: ‘You are losing too much weight, Leonard. You’re dying, but you don’t have to coperate enthusiastically with the process.’ Force yourself to have a sandwich. […] “You hear this other deep reality singing to you all the time, and much of the time you can’t decipher it. Even when I was healthy, I was sensitive to the process. At this stage of the game, I hear it saying, ‘Leonard, just get on with the things you have to do.’ It’s very compassionate at this stage. More than at any time of my life, I no longer have that voice that says, ‘You’re fucking up.’ That’s a tremendous blessing, really.”

This is for you that kind of got closer to yourself through this by putting yourself in the center, for all of you that were the only person “Hallelujah” was written for when you discovered it.

And now the wars can start anew
The torture and the laughter
We cry aloud as humans do
Before the truth and after

The Great Divide

[1] Puppets, The book of longing.

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Author
A genderfluid pansexual activist who lives in Paris with their children: a beagle puppy and a non-binary feline demon. Philosophy and history student. Also writes pretentious poetry, cries a good deal about TV and book characters, pretends they live in an aesthetically pleasing videoclip, and dyes almost everything mint green.

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