Leonard Cohen’s imperfect covenant with others, lovers and God
Musicians as erudite and long-lived as Leonard Cohen inevitably draw interest from scholars and fans of every sort, and it is no surprise that the books written about him could fill many a shelf. But perhaps more rare is the scholar who can write a book-length treatment of Cohen’s life, music and writings through the lens of Judeo-Christian covenantal theology. When that exploration also includes a vigorous study of theodicy that bridges insights across theological and philosophical chasms as vast as the thoughts of Aquinas, Voltaire, C. S. Lewis and Cohen himself, the result is singular.
That is exactly what Marcia Pally, a professor of multilingual and multicultural studies at New York University, has accomplished with her remarkable new book, From This Broken Hill I Sing to You: God, Sex, and Politics in the Work of Leonard Cohen. The text is far from a typical sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll biography; it traces instead what the author sees as Cohen’s commitment to covenant with God and other persons—as well as his struggle to sustain those commitments. Of particular interest is Pally’s chapter on Cohen’s tortuous history of breaking bonds with women.
Cohen judged himself someone who practiced religion “in a half-assed way.” That is not Pally’s reading of Cohen, at least not entirely.
When I sat down to a Zoom conversation with Dr. Pally late last spring, she made it clear that she did not intend the book only for theologians or religion majors. “I meant for it to be accessible to anyone interested in how we live in the world, and how Cohen struggled with how we live in the world,” she said. “He was a remarkable figure, such a great poetic talent who struggled with these existential and cosmological issues.”
Pally’s interest in Cohen began during her childhood in the 1960s. “It was apparent to me, immediately, that his music was of a quality and complexity that was unlike the other folk or pop music of the day,” she said. “Working on this book has been a real privilege—even when I don’t like him very much—because of the complexity and the layering of the imagery.”
Pally’s painstaking academic study of Cohen has added to the depth of appreciation and respect (however complicated) she holds for him today. She has more personal reasons for her study of Cohen, too. “A lot of Jewish liturgy is, in fact, poetry or verse,” she said, “and so it has contributed to the way I read liturgy, and can just stop and the worship service goes on, and I’m focused on certain liturgical verses—the way you would focus, for a time, on a work of art.”
Leonard Cohen and covenant
While Pally’s latest work offers a thoroughgoing introduction to what she characterizes as Cohen’s covenantal theology, she is also able to offer a simpler explanation for the overarching theme of covenant—a biblical idea that may be perceived as increasingly abstruse for readers holding waning religious worldviews.
Pally draws on the experience of human relationships, and the relationality shared between persons, to make the concept of covenant intelligible to people of faith and of none. “Relationality means that we are constituted by our relations, in contrast to the picture where we are individuals and somewhere down the line we opt to relate to other people,” she said. “Rather than a Cartesian and post-Cartesian view of the completed individual who opts to relate, relationality holds that we get to be who we are through layers and networks of relations with other persons, with the transcendent, with our environment.”
“Some of those persons are nearby: mom, dad, family, community, school. But many of those persons who influence who we become are not nearby. Because the economic pressures that we’re under; the pollution that we face; the stresses that we or our caretakers are under; the economic, educational, social opportunities that we have or don’t have are not necessarily determined by people nearby. So, our relationality extends in many directions, network-wise, through global paths of interconnectedness that are inevitable.”
Cohen was ordained a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in his 60s, and for almost six years he lived in a Zen monastery just outside Los Angeles.
Keeping and breaking these covenants in our relationships to God and others is, in Pally’s view, an important throughline in Cohen’s literary corpus. “This is the Cohen Trinity,” she said. “Sort of a dark side of Trinity: We betray God, we betray persons—as in the person of Jesus—and we betray, in a way, the Holy Spirit on Earth. And we betray that in the way we live in the public sphere, in the political sphere.”
For Cohen, his existential wrestling with God’s gift of covenant—the seemingly insatiable, if impossibly difficult, human desire to sustain relationships “with others, lovers and God,” as Pally described his triptych struggle at a virtual launch event for her book hosted by the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham University this winter—is an enduring one. “He wrestled with this through all his writing,” she said.
Her observation is keen. In the title track from the last album Cohen released before he died, “You Want It Darker,” he reveals with poignance—even if initially mockingly— the burden that is the oft-harrowing human experience of keeping covenant:
Magnified, sanctified be thy Holy Name
Vilified, crucified in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came.
You want it darker
I’m ready, my Lord
Hineni is Hebrew for “Here I am.” “In all of Leonard Cohen’s poems, hineni is the only word that appears in its original Hebrew,” writes the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal, a colleague of Pally’s at New York University, in his foreword to her book. Abraham first says, “Here I am” to God when God calls him by name, even before God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac—a profoundly trying moment in Abraham’s covenantal relationship with God.
But later it is also Abraham’s response to his son Isaac, when he is preparing to offer him up to God on the altar of sacrifice. For Halbertal, “this second hineni captures Abraham’s terrible bind,” he writes. “Hineni is used in a person’s response to God and in a servant’s response to his master.... But such a stance of compliance and resolve, within the hierarchical context, might express either a wholehearted embrace or a defiant acceptance.”
This is but a foretaste of the allusions and interpretations that appear to be at play for Cohen. “The rest of ‘You Want It Darker,’” Pally writes, “is an incantation: ‘Hineni,’ I’m here, ready, my Lord.”
“Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works,” Leonard Cohen was once reported to have said.
Cohen and relationship to God
Even if the beauty of his near-deathbed theology appears to attest the contrary—he died on Nov. 7, 2016, just 17 days after “You Want It Darker”was released—Cohen judged himself someone who practiced religion “in a half-assed way.” That is not Pally’s reading of Cohen, at least not entirely. “Some of the years,” she said, “were not half-assed at all; they were a very serious study of Judaism.”
Cohen also studied Buddhism seriously and delved into many other wisdom traditions, including Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition. Cohen was ordained a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk in his 60s, and for almost six years he lived in a Zen monastery just outside Los Angeles under the tutelage of Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi—a Japanese Zen master who was later credibly accused of sexual abuse by his students—and with whom Cohen had a 40-year friendship, perhaps the most enduring relationship of his life. “Though Cohen’s life and art were littered with failed relationships,” writes Pally, “this was a bond that would not be broken.”
Perhaps Cohen thought his practice of faith was perfunctory because he seemed to flit between religious traditions. “Anything, Roman Catholicism, Buddhism, LSD, I’m for anything that works,” he was once reported to have said. For Pally, Cohen was nothing if not serious about religion, and never swayed from his primary commitment to Judaism. “I think he saw Buddhism as a practice of discipline and Judaism as the font of theological matters,” she said.
But Cohen was also more than a little intrigued by the Christian savior. “Four songs in Cohen’s final collection, ‘You Want It Darker’ (2016), rely on Christian images,” Pally writes, part of a six-decade theme in his work. In the very first song he released, “Suzanne,” Cohen already had much to say about Jesus, but his recollection of Jesus’ encounter with his disciples bears only a slight resemblance to the story as told in the New Testament.
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them.
Cohen’s imaginative reflection on Christianity also also led him to contemplate the Virgin Mary. In the first stanza of “Suzanne,” the eponymous woman leads the listener to “spend the night beside her.” By the end of the song Suzanne is passing by the statue of Mary that sits atop the roof of Chapelle Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours overlooking the St. Lawrence River harbor in Montreal: “And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor,” sings Cohen.
In other songs, like “Show Me the Place,” Cohen’s reflection on Christian themes goes deeper:
Show me the place, help me roll away the stone
Show me the place where the word became a man
Show me the place where the suffering began.
Another Cohen devotion sure to endear many Catholics—and Montrealers, if these two sensibilities can be mentioned in tandem—is St. Kateri Tekakwitha. “Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?” asks the narrator in the opening lines of Beautiful Losers, Cohen’s somewhat irreverent second novel published in 1966, in which the now-saint was one of the main characters. “Catherine Tekakwitha, I have come to rescue you from the Jesuits,” announces the narrator just pages later, only to return again to beg pardon for his offense: “Pace, Company of Jesus! F. said: A strong man cannot but love the Church.”
St. Kateri also held pride of place in Cohen’s Montreal home, where he said a statue of her was perched on his stove and where one interviewer observed an old portrait of her hanging above the sink in one of the bathrooms. “She is one of my household spirits,” he told Winfried Siemerling in a 1990 interview. “I think she embodied in her own life, in her own choices, many of the complex things that face us always. She spoke to me. She still speaks to me.”
While the character of “Catherine Tekakwitha (patron saint of Montréal), who in imitatio dei tortured and starved herself to death,” is one of the obessions of Beautiful Losers, writes Pally, “Cohen’s interest is not in bodily erasure but to note that when we cannot attain/sustain the foundational bonds we need, we flail against ourselves in mad frustration.
“Beautiful Losers is a killing of broken bonds.”
"He gets into arguments with God where he speaks for both sides of the argument—he speaks for God himself. He kind of speaks back and forth for both sides,” Pally noted.
The idea for the book
Alongside her academic commitments in New York, Pally also teaches in the theology faculty at Humboldt University in Berlin. She was awarded the German Research Foundation’s Mercator Guest Professorship in 2019 and is now a regular guest professor. The idea for her book came after she co-taught a hit course on Cohen in 2017 (which she will reprise this spring) and was inspired to keep researching Cohen’s life and writings.
The predominant religious affiliation among students at Humboldt is Lutheran. “There are Catholics and atheists there, and people for whom religion has never come up on the screen,” she said. “But not a lot of people who are Jewish.” So how does she convey the biblical relationship to God in a way that is relatable to those who are unacquainted, even uninterested, with God talk? “I explain it as a family relationship,” Pally said. “It’s not only that you stand back in tremulous awe. It’s more like you talk, you get angry, you have an argument, you are dependent, you cry, you get pissed off, you go out, you slam the door, you come back five minutes later and you apologize.”
Leonard Cohen, she said, evinces this in his work. “He gets into arguments with God where he speaks for both sides of the argument—he speaks for God himself. He kind of speaks back and forth for both sides,” Pally noted. “And so he has been able to illuminate, through verse and poetry, the seriousness of the commitment and then the seriousness of the dismay, also, which is the theodical plight, asking: ‘How are we to understand these terrible things that we do, that the species does, how are we to understand that? Why are we so...whatever?’”
Cohen “has always illuminated the depth of commitment to covenant as understood as a simultaneous bond with God and with others, and then illuminated how frustrating that can be,” Pally said. “I think it’s because he is so devoted to God, and absolutely convinced that God has made us for relationship with God and others, that he is so pissed off that we break covenant and that God lets us do that.”
It can be easy to mistake Pally’s deep study of Cohen for personal devotion. But that would be a grave misreading—even if her ability to just about instantly recall his written words, the ins and outs of his failed relationships, and the observations made of him by numerous biographers and interviewers could comfortably lead to that conclusion.
Pally responds unequivocally to any suggestion that she partakes in Cohen hero worship. “Not devotion, because there are times when I think he’s a nasty guy,” she said. “And I am angry with him for that self-indulgence.” Her observation of Cohen’s self-preoccupation is not unique. “Cohen was a narcissist who hated himself,” she said, quoting Max Layton, son of the poet Irving Layton, Cohen’s mentor. (The poet also said Cohen was “the greatest psalmist since King David.”)
“It’s a very, very shrewd insight,” Pally said of the poet’s diagnosis of Cohen. “[Cohen] is nothing if not self-aware. He really understood himself as something like the covenant failure par excellence.”
“Cohen is nothing if not self-aware. He really understood himself as something like the covenant failure par excellence.”
Cohen and his lovers
To illustrate this, and Cohen’s treatment of women, Pally recounted his relationship with Susan Elrod, the mother of his only two children and a woman he never married. Pally called up the lyrics to “Why Don’t You Try” and recited them slowly:
You know this life is filled with many sweet companions
Many satisfying one-night stands
Do you wanna be the ditch around a tower?
“The echo of ‘bitch’ constraining male arousal was unavoidable,” Pally observed. This is not the only example of crude sexism and disrespect for women that Pally outlines in the Cohen canon. “There’s a fair amount of writing that expresses his fear that women won’t give him enough of what he wants, won’t satisfy him sexually…. And then fear that if they do, it will become an entrapment.” This is, in Pally’s reading, a “double-bind” for Cohen. “But a double-bind is not a bond. It is not a covenant or relationship,” she said.
Nevertheless, Pally admires the artist for his quest to understand his character flaws and his ability to extrapolate universal truths about the human condition from his failings: “There is a bit of narcissism in struggling with your own covenant failures, but Cohen understood that they are the covenant failures of humanity, and he very seriously tried to figure out why that was, and how can you trust in a God who makes us able to be brutal to each other.” This is the central problem for Cohen in understanding God, Pally said.
Cohen, Pally noted, was plagued by the magnitude of the violence that God appears to allow us to perpetuate. “Cohen was interested in the ontology of the cruel,” she writes, “in the capacities in human nature and God’s design that underpin it. What undergirds the Holocaust, as with the rest of our self-interested brutality, is the way humanity is made. The will to evil, yetzer ha’ra, is a free radical, able to invade any love and circumstance.”
Pally expressed Cohen’s frustration with God as a series of questions: “How is it that you created us this way? You, who could have created the cosmos in any way, how did you create it this way; where we perpetrate so much brutality and mayhem and abandonment on each other, personally and politically?”
At times, his anger with God is acute, which leads him to pen some of his most poignant phrases. “There are songs like ‘Night Comes On’ and ‘Closing Time,’” Pally recalled, “where Cohen is wondering whether God forecloses on covenant; whether it’s not just humanity in our fallenness that fails covenant, but whether the Godhead itself is closing covenant.”
But then in “You Want It Darker,” she said, “I think he comes to a place where he knows God does not foreclose on covenant. He does not solve the theodical problems of why we are created, able to breach covenant (to each other and to God) and able to be cruel and to perpetrate butchery and disregard and contempt for each other.” However, Pally said, Cohen “comes to some kind of uncomfortable brokering, where there is no perfect covenant because there are no perfect people. And God may seem inscrutable to us but there is no other God, as in the First and Second Commandments.”
Cohen, Pally noted, was plagued by the magnitude of the violence that God appears to allow us to perpetuate.
Cohen’s covenant and Girard’s scapegoat
It occurred to me that Pally had, in many ways, found in Leonard Cohen’s life struggle and his resulting artistic production a flesh-and-bones example of overarching themes she had developed over years of personal research. Much of her academic work in the past few years has focused on covenantal and relational theologies and how these play out in the world: The title of one of her most recent books is Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality.
Similarly, in 2020, she edited Mimesis and Sacrifice: Applying Girard’s Mimetic Theory Across the Disciplines, a collection of essays offering interdisciplinary approaches to the work of René Girard, the great French literary critic and philosopher of the social sciences. Pally’s own contribution in her collection is titled “Sacrifice amid Covenant: From Abuse to Gift,” and it appears to set up many of the constructs she has worked into her research of Cohen.
I found it curious to see no mention of Girard in her latest work, because Girard’s interpretation of the way societies—including Christian ones—view covenantal relationships seems so apt to read into Cohen. Could there be a nexus between Girard and Cohen?
“Mimetic theory,” Pally said, “as developed by René Girard, is best known for its negative outcomes—that we are acculturated within a society, therefore we are acculturated to value the same things in society and, desiring the same things, we compete with each other for them; and this leads to competition in society, increasing tensions, aggression, violence. And then societies have to find some way to deal with that competitive aggression.”
“On Girard’s view,” Pally continued, “societies dealt with it by selecting a ‘scapegoat,’ which is sort of a steam valve for societies accumulating competitive aggression.” But mimetic theory also admits of other, less popular interpretations, Pally explained. “Mimetic theory is how communities survive and how every single one of us gets to be who we are—we are all going somewhere,” she said. “We acculturate values, worldview, practices, norms, rituals, daily behavior. Our environment is not one thing. Our environment is a dynamic, complicated, always changing landscape of cultural stuff that we internalize.”
But what is responsible for the turn, Pally asked, “from the productive aspect of mimesis to the negative side, to competition that becomes aggression and violence? What makes that turn from the productive use of mimesis to the negative, competitive aggression side? Why does that happen?”
"Are we really a violent species from the beginning, or did severe, systemic, ingroup and outgroup violence come in somewhat later in the picture?"
It is here that Pally sees a connection with her work on Cohen, even if she explores it only implicitly in From This Broken Hill. She was especially concerned with studying why, at some point, the productivity in each human community turns nasty. How do we go from a place of keeping covenant with God and others to breaking those covenants?
“Are we aggressive, so to speak, from Adam? From creation?” she asked. “Are we really a violent species from the beginning, or did severe, systemic, ingroup and outgroup violence come in somewhat later in the picture? Or, to ask the same question in theodical voice, ‘God, why did you create, or how did you create, the universe so that we make this transition from productive to aggressive?’”
From our earliest records of human existence, for hundreds of thousands of years, when humans were hunter-gatherers, there was a “very, very low incidence of aggression,” she said. But “there is a dramatic uptick in severe and systemic violence, both in the ingroup and between groups, rather recently—within the last 8,000 to 10,000 years, which in terms of evolution is an eye blink.”
What has brought about this sudden rise in violence? It has “to do with the development of agrarianism and sedentarism,” Pally said, “which brings for the first time surpluses [of food and other possessions]. And with surpluses, you have a motive to steal somebody else’s cache of stuff. Then you start to get aggression, associated with raiding and stealing, and then the development of social hierarchies. Who has been able to steal and raid more?”
How do we go from a place of keeping covenant with God and others to breaking those covenants?
Evolution and Augustine
Pally’s sojourn into this part of evolutionary biology and psychology “was interesting in and of itself,” she said, but it also raised questions for her in relation to Cohen that “sort of brought me back to Augustine.”
Why Augustine? “He maintained that we have a prelapsarian world of good; our materiality, per se, is not evil. That’s not the problem,” Pally said. “That gave me hope, and changed my question to God a little bit, so it was not so much ‘How did you create the world with so much possibility for aggression?’ Because perhaps God didn’t; we have hundreds of thousands of years where it was a smidgen of an issue.”
But, she asked, “How do we think of the brutality that has come since then?” Pally admitted this question greatly occupies and frustrates her. “And, of course, I’m not going to solve that question any more than Cohen did. But these are the questions that rattle around in my mind, that are reflected in his poetry,” she said.
I wondered: All this issued from Augustine? “Well,” Pally laughed, “that may be overstating the case, because think about all the other things that he wrote about our fallenness. But he complicated it in a positive way; allowing us to remember the creation story, ‘And it is good, and it is good, and then it is very good,’ and that creation itself is not the source of our despair—or our frustration with God.
“I think we remain a species grounded in cooperation,” Pally continued. “Because if we weren’t, we would not be upset or outraged at incidents of violence. We would say, ‘Oh, isn’t it terrific? Johnny took a machine gun and slaughtered 172 people at Walmart today, pass the salt.’ If violence were normative, we wouldn’t be upset by it.”
My conversation with Pally also delved into her work in Jewish and Christian theology, especially in how we might think of the relationship between the Trinitiatrian persons as the perfect model of covenant. “I think that’s a brilliant and very beautiful model of the commitment and reciprocity of commitment of covenant,” she said.
That discussion led us to dip our toes into Pally’s pre-academia career—she was a professional dancer and choreographer for more than a decade—and her future hopes to marry insights from her days in dance with her present theological explorations.
“Dance is also the constitution of the dance by the relations of all the movements in it,” Pally explained. “Even if it’s just a solo, every movement becomes a movement in the dance only by being in relation to all the other movements and in the rhythm and dynamics and spacing, and so on, of all the movements. Otherwise, it’s just a poke in the air.”
It seemed fitting that we came to dance at the end, as it is clearly a topic that appears to bring Pally into dialectic with the divine in a personal way. Having heard so much about Cohen’s response to covenant, I wondered not only what Cohen’s answer was in response to our covenant with God and others, but also how Marcia Pally envisaged the struggle to keep faithful to that God-ordained ideal.
You know, it’s asymptotic. The point is to strive to get closer—or with more understanding. But it’s always asymptotic; you never get there. That’s like dance: No one has the perfect arabesque; you get better and better. And some people have arabesques that make you gasp when you see them perform on stage. But from the dancer’s perspective, it’s always a striving, and the point is to keep striving.
Perhaps to think that we would get there or arrive at perfect understanding or the perfect arabesque is a bit idolatrous. Maybe that’s God’s work and not ours.