Leonard Cohen’s Cloud of Unknowing

Leonard Cohen is one of the most brilliant, enigmatic figures of the 20th century. He came from a Jewish background yet was surrounded by Catholicism in his native Montreal. Later he embraced Zen Buddhism and even became an ordained monk. Surprisingly these philosophies don’t seem to clash in his music. In fact, they complement each other nicely. This is because despite their apparent differences, at their core they all center around the same thing: surrender in the face of the transcendent. This is a theme that permeates all his works and culminates in his last album You Want It Darker.

The theme of surrender is applied to a few different things: God, romance, and suffering. To Cohen all these are closely linked. Some examples include “Humbled In Love”:

And you say you’ve been humbled in love
Cut down in your love
Forced to kneel in the mud next to me
Ah but why so bitterly turn from the one
Who kneels there as deeply as thee

“Show Me The Place”:

The troubles came I saved what I could save
A thread of light, a particle, a wave
But there were chains, so I hastened to behave
There were chains, so I loved you like a slave

And more succinctly, “I’m Your Man” states:

If you want a lover
I’ll do anything you ask me to

In “The Window” he references the 14th century Christian mystical work “The Cloud of Unknowing,” which describes a method of becoming closer to God by surrendering the mind and ego and embracing the “unknown,” meaning that reason alone is not enough to understand God, and only by renouncing it (in a sense) and contemplating the darkness can one grow spiritually. [1]

Mystery is key in Cohen’s idea of surrender, because one only surrenders from a place of desperation, and must take a leap of faith into the unknown. This could mean accepting the absurdities of love, or the apparent vanity of suffering. The latter point is expressed most effectively in Cohen’s greatest hit “Hallelujah”:

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

This isn’t just in his music, Cohen’s reaction to 9/11 expressed it similarly:

“You know, there’s an ancient Hebrew blessing that is said upon hearing bad news: ‘Blessed art thou, king of the universe, the true judge.’ It’s impossible for us to discern the pattern of events and the unfolding of a world which is not entirely our making. So I can only say that.” [2]

In You Want It Darker this theme crescendos in the most stark and honest album of his career. He surrenders his own life in one verse, singing “Heneni” (here I am) “I’m ready my LORD.” And though he considered various notions of God throughout his life, at its close he’s no more certain, but expresses lingering doubts. In “Seemed the Better Way” he says:

Sounded like the truth
Seemed the better way
Sounded like the truth
But it’s not the truth today

Here he appears to be speaking about Christianity, as is evidenced by other lyrics. Yet this is not a total rejection. The title track mentions suffering, while simultaneously praising God:

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

In a year that saw political chaos, mass shootings, and terrorism, Cohen holds fast to his faith instead of shaking his fist. He considers that God may be allowing darkness for some greater purpose, so his confusion is mingled with faith.

Valuable lessons can be found in Leonard Cohen’s music, and surrender is only one aspect of it. But this alone is enough to change one’s outlook on life. We can imitate his final act of faith and ascend into the “cloud of unknowing.” We can find more peace in suffering and things we don’t understand, believing that there is a transcendent reality to life we will never know, and calmly saying “hallelujah” to the good and the bad.

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[1] http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/gallacher-cloud-of-unknowing-introduction

[2] https://cohencentric.com/2017/05/19/leonard-cohens-response-following-september-11-attacks/