Thee Beautiful Loser: Leonard Cohen as post modern bard

leonard cohen

Cohen’s final album You Want It Darker is out now.

While Leonard Cohen’s literary reputation is ubiquitously accepted, I believe he is underappreciated as a post-modernist. I’ve been both a listener and reader of Cohen for as long as I can remember, but the book which blew me out of the water, and changed my understanding of him as a writer was Beautiful Losers. It was the first Canadian post-modern novel. It was also a flop – such a flop that Cohen was discouraged to continue his literary career and turned his talents to music, instead. I have often read that Cohen became a folk singer and while that might be true of his musical style, it certainly is not the basis for his song-writing. I would argue that Cohen’s song writing has little in common with the traditions of folk music but rather continues in the style of his literary technique.

What was it about Beautiful Losers that was so special? That showed me something about Cohen that I hadn’t gleaned from his music or poetry alone; the seriousness of his literary ambitions, as well as the despicably filthy and misogynistic side of Cohen. Cohen believed that he had developed a method of writing in which he would be able to bang out several novels in a short space of time. As far as I can tell it involved isolation, amphetamines and constipation.

To define post-modernism is a thesis-worthy topic in and of itself, but for the purposes of this piece, I would identify the post-modern elements of Cohen’s writing evident in moments where he makes use of formats such as lists, recipes, documents, re-appropriation of language from non-literary contexts, the presence of chemicals and mundane domestic objects, footnotes, and convoluted jokes which require some degree of investigation to understand. While the characteristic of combining high and low cultural references is common and popular in song writing, with Cohen it comes from his literary background. In his unique and well-cultivated style, his songs are singularly strange, arresting, surprising and as funny as they are devastating.

The culturally ‘high’ or divine characteristics of his work sit comfortably with the low-brow and often crude in a truly post-modern style. In Beautiful Losers you see how Cohen appropriates styles of language by swapping their subject matter; Saint Catherine Tekawitha is written about in objectifying pornographic terms (a preoccupation with catholic saints which as we all know was most famously polished and perfected in ‘Joan of Arc’), while sex and drugs are written about in the lofty prayer language of Catholicism, two characters are found to be addicted not to heroin as supposed, but to holy water advertised in the back pages of magazines.

This quality of Cohen’s prose writing, to include contemporary ‘junk’ and dross in his work and elevate it to be revered, continued to feature in his song writing. At least not once it has been assimilated into the literary context. In fact, if you have the perception and imagination as Cohen does to make use of the junk that surrounds you, it ceases to be junk. Multiple times, Cohen has used the box of chocolates as a prop to signify an ephemeral, trite and mass-produced gesture, as desirable as they are unimaginative. In ‘Diamonds in The Mine’: “and there are, there are no chocolates in your boxes anymore” and ‘Everybody Knows’: “Everybody wants a box of chocolates” The idea of sentiment expiring or becoming obsolete is a fascinating one in Cohen’s songwriting. Also, the idea of value and meaning changing through time and contexts, seems a consistent preoccupation, and the effect varying so much depending on the specific object. “Took my diamond to the pawnshop – / But that don’t make it junk.”

There is a reoccurring pattern in Leonard Cohen’s work in which junk is taken and revered. As self-deprecating as he so often is, there is a perennial insistence that this is not junk. The chocolate boxes, as much as they are overused (even, as an image by Cohen himself), actually accumulate meaning as they signify what has gone, what was never enough, or what never had the decency to appear in the first place.

In his song “Iodine”, Cohen imposes divinity upon a mundane bathroom cupboard chemical which is distinctly post-modern and also quite nauseating; “Your saintly kisses reeked of iodine” It seems absurd and is quite arresting to think of a Saint, an antiquated and elusive spiritual figure smelling of a chemical rather than, say, incense.
It is somewhat reminiscent of his poem ‘Indictment of the Blue Hole’, which is instantly recognizable as a post-modern piece listing, in a format similar to a cooking recipe, a list of senseless and impossible objects:

And putting down

3 loaves of suicide (?)
2 Razorblade pies
1 De Quincey hairnet
5 gasfilled Hampstead bedsitters (sic)
a collection of oil
2 eyelash garrottes (sic)
6 lysol eye foods

It is, I believe, a great reference point to show how Cohen’s writing operates, taking elements which are anything but at home with each other. It is one of his finest list poems, along with ‘All There is To Know About Adolph Eichmann’ and ‘The Pure List and The Commentary’, consisting of one list and commentary which is longer than the poem itself. While the list seems to be a poem itself, with lines apparently having no direct correlation with each other, the commentary makes short poems of each one of those lines, each one an individual poetic sentiment.

It is typical of Cohen that information he leaves conspicuously absent considerably enriches the enjoyment of his work, or to defer it. This line from ‘Last Year’s Man’: “that’s a Jew’s harp on the table, / that’s a crayon in his hand.” is a great post-modern joke to me. It was only recently that I heard what a Jew’s harp actually sounds like; really comical. Then I got the full effect of the image of last year’s man as a sad clown.

It seems to me that Leonard Cohen’s songs are, to use his own words, “Among the garbage and the flowers”, no object or subject is too lowly or silly for treatment in Cohen’s work, their significance is never overlooked, never wasted. He is a hoarder of sentiment and images to whom absurdity is as consistent and important an aspect of life any lofty subjects like love, death and religion. In fact, it is crucial to his approach.

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