I met Leonard Cohen in 1954 when I was a student in “Great Writings of European literature,” the only undergraduate course at McGill University that satisfied my idea of the intellectual life. Satisfied it, though, to satiety. Whether our teacher, Louis Dudek, wanted to share his enthusiasm for every work he admired, or knew how slight were our chances of being educated by anyone else, he drove us through the modern classics like sheep before a storm. October 7: Candide; October 12: Zadig; October 21: Rameau’s Nephew; October 26: Rousseau’s Confessions; November 2: La Nouvelle Heloise;. . . I stopped attending some of my other classes.
Dudek’s class met in the Arts Building on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 5 to 6 P.M., an hour when the regular university day was ending to make way for the apprentice accountants and other extension-school students. About 50 of us filled all the seats, making the tall room, with our coats and books piled along the aisles and walls, almost homey. By late autumn, darkness fell like a blind over the windows, so that if you tried to look out, you saw only your flushed reflection in the glass. I was anyway what you might call intense, and those classes stoked me to great excitement.
The late hour meant that on Fridays the Jewish majority of the class would not make it home in time to greet the Sabbath. Back then our Montreal Jewish homes were sufficiently lax to sustain this irregularity, and any conflicts between home and school were expected to be resolved democratically, that is, on the side of the Christian majority whose school McGill was deemed to be. My own immigrant parents were far too busy putting bread on the table and mourning their dead in Europe to notice infractions of Jewish law, and they worried more about how we impressed our teachers than about how we obeyed our God. McGill’s discriminatory admissions policy, which required of Jews a higher academic standing and severely limited their access to certain faculties, had begun to change in 1950, only a few years before we arrived. This made us eager to prove worthy of the tolerance we were being shown, and a touch disdainful, too, of the bigots who had tried to keep us out. In truth, we felt fortunate to be nudged by our parents into a society that was still a little reluctant to welcome us. Growing up between these two sets of adults, both of which had either lost or were rapidly losing their cultural confidence, we felt we would almost inevitably improve on their ways of running things.
Dudek invited us to train for this prospect. Jews and Catholics and Protestants—the last, uncharacteristically, in the minority here—were to study together our common European past, and, leaving particularisms at the door, to experience as cosmopolitans our common Enlightenment, Romanticism, Realism, Modernity. Not until 30 years later did I realize how our teacher figured in this scheme. He was the child of Polish Catholics, hence almost as provisional as we were in that bastion of Protestant Canada, in an English department most of whose professors had been imported from Great Britain.
Dudek had just been graduated from Columbia University where he wrote his dissertation for Emory Neff, the same man who advised Lionel Trilling not to join Columbia’s Department of English because Trilling would feel out of place there as a Jew. Poor Neff! This was like warning the caterpillar it would feel out of place as a butterfly. Through their mastery of his subject, these cultural misfits intended to become indistinguishable from Neff and his kind—or, perhaps, a brighter species.
Trilling and Dudek both trusted America. They believed that if they could prove reliable carriers of the Great Tradition, their ethnic past would not be held against them. In 1944, once he was teaching at Columbia, Trilling wrote that he could not discover anything in his professional intellectual life which could be traced back to his Jewish birth and rearing, and that the Jewish community could give no sustenance to the American artist or intellectual who was born a Jew. So, too, Dudek seemed never to have heard of Mickiewicz, Slowacki, Cyprian Norwid; Polish was one of the few major European literatures that remained unrepresented in his two-year cycle of readings.
The course Dudek created for us was a literary version of Columbia’s Great Books curriculum. He did not try to convert us to any system of belief; it was enough to pry us loose from the culture of our homes, from bourgeois platitudes, and in particular from religion, which Dudek identified with Catholic dogma, as the root of error. The revolution launched by Rousseau and Voltaire against established authority and the Church was to guide us in the management of our own eventual rebellion. Where we lived, 395 miles north of Greenwich Village, the modern period had barely begun. Our province of Quebec was said to be the most Catholic polity in the world, with the possible exception of Spain. It was still being run as the private fiefdom of Premier Maurice Duplessis, whose reign was known as “le grand noirceur,” the Great Darkness, among other reasons for the brutal way he had crushed the Asbestos Strike of 1949. In that suffocating atmosphere, Voltaire’s assault on organized religion sounded as seditious as on the day it was written.
Our need for these books was also exigent in ways that Dudek—already married and about to be divorced—may not have appreciated. To know how hungrily we read, you would have to know how virginal we were, barred until age sixteen from going to the movies, which were anyway so sharply censored by the Quebec authorities that a married couple could not be shown in bed together. Even our fantasies were chaste. By the time I got to college, the only “fast” boy I had ever dated had won a kissing contest by staying glued to my lips at a party, but barely pecked me on the cheek when he saw me home to my door. Rousseau brought me more information about sex than I had been able to find where I went looking for it, in Forever Amber and The Amboy Dukes.
More practically, only Dudek’s literature class attracted a plurality of boys, clever boys from philosophy and economics and even science. I developed a crush on several of them, and of course on the teacher, since I could only properly learn from someone I loved. Education was so bound up for me with erotic risk that I wonder today how the young can learn under administrative watchdogs of “sexual harassment” who warn against the straying mind before it has a chance to tempt the nubile body. Of course, my love for my teacher remained pure, although it did not lack love’s measure of pain.
Dudek assumed that what we studied in class was essential for life. And for that purpose, was not literature extraordinary? Its moral arguments were never straightforward, as they aspired to be in philosophy or law, but complicated as in life by a thousand variable conditions. Everything hung on the timbre of the voice that pronounced a judgment, on how much a man had paid for his bread out of the sum still left in his pocket. Reading Goethe, Schiller, Novalis, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Thomas Mann; Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov; Chateaubriand, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Gide, and Céline; Marcel Proust and James Joyce, Samuel Butler and D. H. Lawrence, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound . . . reading with Dudek the great authors who had brought our culture into being, I felt both our lateness and our timeliness in studying the Great Tradition. If, as epigones, we would never innovate on the grandest scale, there was still plenty to apprehend and interpret. We were yet required to stir up our section of the globe that lay in ursine slumber. And because we had absorbed their teachings, perhaps we would do better than our predecessors on our relatively unspoiled and younger continent, guarding against lunatic excess.
I recently came across an entry by Louis Dudek, now better known as one of Canada’s modern poets, in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. There he tells how in 1951 he returned home to Montreal with his Columbia Ph.D. to work on poetry and to teach at McGill:
It may be that the worst teachers, as well as the best, are teachers with a mission, but I came with the confidence that I had something very important to teach. There were in fact two things. The first was modern poetry and literature, which had evolved fully abroad but which had barely started in Canada with small groups of poets having a limited audience. . . . The second program was the massive movement of European literature and thought since the 18th century, with its profound practical implications, which students’ minds had still to experience, like buckets of cold water thrown at them from a high lectern.
It was the second mission that doused me into intellectual wakefulness. Leonard Cohen was launched by the first.
I believe it was Louis who introduced me to Leonard; certainly it was because of Leonard that I began to call my teacher Louis. Still an undergraduate in the English department—and reputed to have failed his third try at then-compulsory Latin—Leonard did not treat his teacher with my kind of deference but more like a colleague, on equal terms.
Louis seemed to prefer it that way. He had decided to launch the McGill Poetry Series with a volume of Leonard Cohen’s verse, to be published while its author was still in college. Since no one had enough money for the project, Louis adopted the stratagem of selling advance subscriptions, at $1 a book. An advance sale of 500 copies would guarantee at least a small distribution, as well as down payment for the printer.
This is where I came into the picture. I was accustomed to the system of prenumerantn, through which my parents supported the publication of several local Yiddish authors. Appointing myself head of Dudek’s sales team, I went down to the nearest Woolworth’s, bought a couple of receipt books, and lickety-split sold over 200 advance copies. My work as feature editor at the McGill Daily had brought me into contact with so many students and teachers that I was able to sell my quota strictly on campus among people I knew. Anyway, the name Leonard Cohen was already a draw.
If you are one of Leonard Cohen’s millions of popular-music fans, one of those who planned a seduction or dreamed of being seduced to the strains of his “Bird on a Wire,” you still may not know that before he released his first record album in 1967, he had published four books of poetry and two novels, a feat anywhere, and especially in Canada where it can feel almost disloyal to the cold climate and to the collectivist society to produce too much too fast. American publicity releases always say that Leonard was launched in 1966 when Judy Collins recorded his song “Suzanne” for her album, In My Life. But by local standards, Canada’s premier publisher, McClelland & Stewart, had already raised him from the ranks of the little magazines into literary prominence when they published his second book of poems, The Spice-Box of Earth, in 1961. It surprised no one that his novels, The Favorite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), became Canadian best-sellers.
Leonard’s performance career was also secured in Canada before he began to cut his records and make videos in the United States. In 1965, the National Film Board decided to film a reading tour of four major poets: Irving Layton, Earl Birney, Phyllis Gotlieb, and younger-by-a-generation Leonard Cohen. The finished product featured Leonard alone—I suspect the film-makers knew that Leonard represented the difference between a dutiful documentary and the cult classic this film would eventually become. Even at that age Leonard had an awkward grace that women found appealing and men unthreatening. He cultivated the lean and hungry look of someone who feeds on himself, but the corner of his mouth was always playing around some quip, some clever remark, to let you know that he did not take himself all that seriously. Caveat emptor, he warned the audience, his elegant way of saying: stay cool.
Once Leonard started recording for the big companies and doing European tours, he used to say that he had gotten caught between two critical establishments, the literary people accusing him of selling out because he was making money in the rock world, the rock critics suggesting that he did not know or care enough about music, “that my tunes are very limited, as though I couldn’t work in an augmented chord if I thought it was needed.” One would have thought the opposite—that stardom protected Leonard from the insularity of the poetry world, while his higher literary standards won him the awe of music critics accustomed to thinner gruel. In any case, readers unfamiliar with either of Leonard’s two worlds may now conveniently consult a volume in which he has brought them together: Stranger Music (1993), published simultaneously in the United States and Canada and advertised as “the best work of one of the most enduring poet/songwriters of our time.”
So Leonard could not have awoken one morning, like Lord Byron, to find himself famous, because he was already celebrated by the time I knew him at college. Louis Dudek’s two-pronged program for a Canadian literary renaissance—one prong creative, the other critical—reached out to different constituencies which split pretty much along the social divide between “Westmount” and “Outremont,” the old money and the immigrant sections around the mountain that gives Montreal its name. Leonard Cohen was the undisputed star of the artistic Westmount crowd. His family was prominent in that wealthy section of the city where second- and third-generation Jews had moved in alongside older, monied Protestants. His uncles in top hats presided over the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue, built on the scale of a cathedral.
As befit a poet, Leonard belonged to the slightly déclassé branch of the Cohen family (his Russian-born and -accented mother was said to have remained unaccepted by her in-laws), which added a touch of vulnerability to his inherited social standing. Already in college he bore the trace of a wound, the aura of a lover, the mantle of the artist. His father had died when he was nine years old. His poems about the body of “Freia,” a mere consonant away from the girl we recognized as Freda, won for him the erotic distinction of a Shelley, a D. H. Lawrence. So bold a lover was bound to be as sure a poet.
He was also a good instrumentalist, playing backstage guitar for the dramatic society’s production of Twelfth Night. From later publicity blurbs I learned that “while attending McGill University he formed a country-western trio called the Buckskin Boys.”
I belonged to the scruffier group around the Daily. Most of my friends held down part-time jobs and were subtly ashamed of their immigrant families. In some of our homes the debate over Stalin and Trotsky was still going strong. Like the “New York intellectuals” whom we were then beginning to read, we were more readily attracted to social commentary and criticism than to the production of art.
My own attitude to “Westmount” and “Outremont” had been determined by my mother, though at the time I would have swallowed poison rather than credit her influence. When we had arrived in Montreal from Europe in 1940, Mother insisted on moving us against the sociological tide from our first rented home in the western part of the city to the immigrant side of the mountain, where she could send us to Yiddish day schools and be “among her own people.” My parents’ friends were teachers and struggling writers and artists, and I inherited her inverted snobbery, dismissing Westmount Jews as effete and assimilationist. Had I known that Leonard Cohen was a prized member of Phi Epsilon Pi, I would have scorned him for belonging to a fraternity—and to the more privileged of McGill’s two Jewish fraternities at that! I was not enough in the know to know.
Still and all, let me not pretend that our two social circles were so far apart. Had Louis not introduced us, I would have met Leonard Cohen sooner or later. Our mothers, both named Masha, both “foreign,” musical, complicated women, actually knew one another through a mutual acquaintance whose nephew, named Leonard, I was soon to marry. (I cannot say “also named Leonard” because Cohen was for me the “also.”) The aunt of my husband-to-be was a friend of Masha Cohen’s, and the two women were members of the same music-appreciation group. My Leonard, who was raised by his aunt, had known the Cohens since childhood. Then there was Freia-Freda, whose father did business with mine.
I doubt very much that Dudek ever recognized among his Jewish students the social distinctions that were so obvious to us. The differences he valued were between intellectuals and poets, the precious few and the sanctified fewer. If at first I accepted Leonard Cohen’s status as a poet on faith, it was because Louis admired him. Only after I had undertaken to sell the poems did I begin to read them.
They were hauntingly elegant, as though a noble son had fallen in among tradesfolk while retaining the language of a softer ancestry. Cohen had taken his surname—Hebrew for “priest”—as his destiny. He spoke as a titled member of the priestly caste, in a slightly archaic diction, of sacrifice and sin, guilt offerings and ritual. Never obscuring his Jewish origins, this priest of poetry was simultaneously also privy to the sacred teachings of other poet-gods and their anointed singers—Greeks, Romans, and Christians.
If I had a shining head
and people turned to stare at me
in the street cars;
and I could stretch my body
through the bright water
and keep abreast of fish and water snakes;
if I could ruin my feathers
in flight before the sun;
do you think that I would
remain in this room,
reciting poems to you,
and making outrageous dreams
with the smallest movements
of your mouth?
With what wit and grace the poet here sacrifices himself on the altar of the everyday, putting himself down, assuming the shape of human clay to flatter us with his assumed likeness to ourselves. But we are not fooled. This lovely music, this winning modesty, this lordly resonance, will not, cannot, ultimately waste itself on a little scene of seduction with a skittish girl. Only an Icarus could allow himself to fly so low, and tell about it.
Before I read Leonard Cohen, I did not recognize the poetic potential in our lives. Thanks to my parents, I was familiar with several Montreal Yiddish poets, whose language unfairly made me think they were describing Polish mountain ranges when they wrote about a trip to our Laurentians. Their experience was separated from mine by a significant generation. So, too, was the poetry of our local teachers—the exuberant Jew Irving Layton, the cosmopolitan ex-Catholic Louis Dudek, and the witty Protestant Frank R. Scott—who so enjoyed the company of us youngsters that they were happy to publish their verse in our student magazines. Leonard Cohen’s Montreal, by contrast, was my very own, at once familiar and made mythic in marvelous phrases.
“My lady was found mutilated/in a Mountain Street boarding house. . . .” Rushing to meet a friend at Ogilvy’s, at the corner of Mountain Street and Ste. Catherine, I wondered behind which familiar door the lady’s purple blood was staining the sheets. “Northeastern Lunch,/with rotting noses and tweed caps. . . .” I went looking for this hangout on Clark Street one day, to see whether I could recognize its denizens on the basis of Leonard’s descriptions. “Had we nothing to prove but love/ we might have leaned all night at that window,/ merely beside each other,/ watching Peel Street. . . .” Here was my city caught up in romance, like ancient London, like Paris.
I should confess that Leonard Cohen did not appeal to me as a lover, not even in his poems. By the time Louis introduced us I had been swept up in the romance that has claimed me for a lifetime, so that my overtaxed heart had no further inclination to roam. This was my immense good fortune. My schoolgirl passion for Louis would have made it awkward to work with his protégé had I fancied myself attracted to them both. More than stirring romance in me, Leonard enlarged my sense of the here and now. His poems were heavy with loss in a way that made the present more valuable, the small experience more fragile and precious. I think I remember each and every time I spent with him, as if the moment itself were a poem I had to learn by heart.
One evening the three of us went out to dinner to talk about The Book. I would have expected us to go to one of the small French restaurants for which the city is famous, or to the Rose Marie, first of the tiny Hungarian restaurants that had opened right near McGill. That shows how little I understood the aesthetic rules of the game. We went to Joe’s Steak House on Metcalf Street, where your choices were with or without garlic and karnatsel (spiced sausage). The lack of such refinements as a tablecloth made it easier to use the tabletop as a desk while eating. In the absence of true aristocratic possibilities, Louis and Leonard preferred to eat where there were no pretensions that food was anything but food. (The favorite hangout of writers in downtown Montreal became Ben’s, the all-night downtown deli whose owners eventually consecrated a Poets’ Corner and hung framed photographs of Dudek, Cohen, et al. like retired boxers.)
Once inside, we talked happily for a couple of hours about the physical properties of the projected volume, the thickness of the paper, the font of the type, the arrangement of the poems and of Freda’s accompanying drawings. We could not settle on a title then and there, but Leonard’s eventual choice, Let Us Compare Mythologies, had the Jew playing gracious host to other civilizations, with a touch of formality that was only slightly ironic at his own expense. I thought of the book as a response to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which subordinates the insignificance of the present to the grandeur of the past. Not so in the hierarchy of suffering to which Leonard Cohen was heir. If anything, the experience of Jews in our lifetime had dwarfed the agony of all earlier centuries. In our postwar period of mourning, our Montreal orphan poet drew on both the 20th and past centuries for his psalter of the aching heart.
Leonard in those days had many admirable qualities that did not yet figure prominently in his ballads. He was clever, shrewd, even a little sly, with a satirist’s critical intelligence. I sensed that even then he had already gotten clear of Louis, not only because he considered himself the truer poet but because he was cannier all around, in his handling of people and in his understanding of markets and fame. In Leonard’s presence I always felt alert as though I had joined a hunter on the trail. No one else I knew took so much license in speaking the truth. One day I saw him standing with his closest buddy, Morty Rosengarten, on the corner of Sherbrooke Street. “Where are you going?” asked I, who was always on my way somewhere. “We’re watching the girls come out for spring,” he said, just standing there. Until he said it, I had not registered that it was already spring, or that one did not have to be King Ahasuerus to arrange for a parade of beauties.
You may wonder why, if I was so much in love with literature, I did not aspire to become a writer myself instead of consigning my ambition to someone else. We can imagine what the feminists would say about this. Having had the good fortune to come of age before women’s lib, I never doubted my freedom to become anything I pleased, and writing was well within my sights. But I had more than one ambition. What I wanted most in those final years of college was to become a young wife, and in trying to find a good father for my yet-unconceived children, I may also have thought it possible, by analogy, to find a suitable author for my unformed works. Writing loomed for me not as an ordinary profession like journalism or teaching, both of which I knew I could manage, but as the profession of wisdom, and I knew I was not yet wise. Because I was not an orphan, I felt I would have to learn pain the long way, through the vicissitudes of years, and meanwhile I would invest ambition in others who wrote better, and knew more of what was important.
Once I was stopped on campus by Frank Scott, poet and professor of law, whom I had met at several lectures and poetry readings. He said to me, quite out of the blue, “Write! Write! Get up every morning at five and write before the day begins!” Like Louis, Frank Scott valued writing above all other pursuits, which is why he paid much more attention to young campus writers than to his finest law students. I fully shared his prejudice, but though flattered by his advice, I did not think it was warranted on the basis of such essays of mine as he had seen in the McGill Daily. I assumed it was himself he must have been urging on to greater disciplined effort.
About this hunger for literature, Leonard Cohen was to write a few years later that Canadians were “desperate for a Keats.” Not true in my case. I was desperate for a Cohen. I bet on him as on a racehorse, prayed for him as for an angel. His confidence and his talent were such that I accorded to him my highest hopes, certain that he would become the guardian truth-teller of my generation.
In the winter of my senior year I became engaged to be married. Leonard Cohen had graduated by then, and I think he was living in one of those downtown rented rooms that had already become the setting for many of his poems. I sent him an invitation to the engagement party in my parents’ home on New Year’s Eve, 1956-57, a big, open party that merged for the first time the two families and sets of friends being joined through our union. As it was New Year’s, people came and went all evening long, and we hosts kept making introductions while passing out food and drinks.
Cohen’s arrival created a stir. He had brought along a couple of people I did not know, one of them his cousin Robert Hershorn. Possibly because of the coincidence of names, more likely because of his appearance and behavior, Hershorn reminded me of Robert Cohn in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, who becomes more thoroughly dislikable the longer he tries to hang in with the crowd. Hershorn seemed to have no social scruples, at least not in the company of people he considered his social inferiors. He quickly got himself drunk, and it fell to my father, who was in charge of the bar, to deal with the ugly scene he seemed intent on creating.
This is what I remember: standing beside the makeshift bar in the dining room, my father takes a coin from his pocket and holds it out for Hershorn to see. The bad boy grins. “Mr. Hershorn,” says my father, “I’m glad you’re a betting man.” Instead of threatening him with the rules of the house, Father challenges his guest to abide by the rules of chance, which were likelier to command his respect: heads or tails—you go on drinking or you stop. Father’s sobriety may have determined his win of the toss, allowing the party to continue without incident.
The scene I witnessed, an example of my father’s negotiating skill, acquired with the passage of years an ominous edge. Hershorn was a disappointing entourage for Leonard Cohen—nor did he himself much like being fixed in the auxiliary role of the artist’s richer, less talented relative. That night at the party we saw an early trace of the rot that would eventually devour him. Hershorn died of a heroin overdose in Hong Kong in 1972. By then he had pushed drugs to quite a number of young Montrealers, probably including his cousin. He was the dark side of Leonard’s celebrity; while Leonard as a working artist did not let himself be destroyed, he was gradually changed by substances that affect the character of a man along with his mind. A Cohen—a true member of the priesthood—has the obligation to remain unblemished, no matter what forms of impurity are rampant in the land. Not every Cohen fulfills his priestly destiny, but none can fulfill it who does not adhere to the priestly code.
The first time I remember feeling disappointed in Leonard was, in fact, in Robert Hershorn’s apartment. It must have been in the early 60’s, when the fault line was widening between those who did and those who did not inhale. I had arrived there not through any planned engagement, but the way things normally happened between us. We would accidentally meet somewhere in the downtown area where we both lived; we would begin talking; and if neither of us had anything pressing to do, we would keep talking until there was no time or no talk left. That afternoon we had ended up in Hershorn’s apartment, where Leonard may not have been staying but where he certainly felt at home. The place was very spacious, and sparsely furnished.
On the otherwise bare coffee table lay a book I’d never heard of, I Ching. At first I thought it might be Oriental poetry, like the books of haiku I used to pick up at Charles Tuttle’s store in Rutland, Vermont. But Leonard explained to me that this was actually a way of life, or rather a way of determining life. Taking out of his pocket a couple of Canadian dimes, he began to demonstrate how, by flipping the coins and consulting them in tandem with the writings of the I Ching, we could alter the otherwise ego-driven nature of our behavior. It seemed such utter nonsense that I was sure it must be a game, perhaps an Asian form of Monopoly.
The more eloquently he described the subtleties of the method, the more ridiculous I thought he was being. When I realized that Leonard took all of this seriously, and when he realized that I did not, the conversation ended and I went home. Try as I might to convince myself that poets must draw their inspiration from all new forms of language, I was shocked that anyone whose ancestors had written the Talmud could profess enthusiasm for this stuff.
In the years that followed, Leonard’s interest in the I Ching gave way to a series of enthusiasms: for Immanuel Velikovsky’s theory of creation; for kabbalistic mysticism; for Indian meditation. Almost every time I saw him he seemed under the impression of some new idea or new way of experiencing the world. One afternoon, through a coincidental three-way meeting on the McGill campus, Louis, Leonard, and I found ourselves intensely debating the merits of hallucinogens, with Leonard making the salesman’s pitch, Louis in opposition, and myself as the engaged audience.
Leonard declared himself surprised that, as a poet, Louis would forgo the chance to expand his mental experience. How could he take a stand against something he had not even tried? Louis said, pointing to his head: “Look! I have up here the most intricate machine in the world. Why would any sane person take a hammer and smash the thing to pieces for the sake of ‘a new adventure’?” Not destruction but creation was at stake, replied Leonard. There was much to be gained! But when he began to describe the beauties of one such trip, Louis grew impatient: “I go home,” he said, “and I lie back on the sofa listening to Mozart. There I experience all the adventures in beauty that I want for.”
This was the only time I had ever seen him angry with Leonard, like a father grown impatient with his son, or a teacher whose best student has decided to pursue the wrong career. In truth, Leonard was no longer the same poet whom Louis had launched. He had started out as the casualty of a mythic struggle, now he was turning into a casualty of his times.
I was not as firm in my judgment as Louis. Though I too had decided to forgo the Great Experiment, and hence gratefully applauded Louis’s defense of the unaltered brain, I was also a customer for Leonard’s songs that took me down like Suzanne to a place near the river where . . . a lover can touch your perfect body with his mind. The 60’s was when I had three children, and through the 70’s I raised them. As I read of burning flags and burning bras, and witnessed crumbling marriages and vows, I grew more protective of family and more respectful of creative sobriety. Still—I would have had to be dead and buried not to respond to the lulling throb of Leonard’s voice, heard everywhere and especially in his hometown where I lived.
I attended many of his performances, from the first time he appeared at the makeshift nightclub above Dunn’s Restaurant on Ste. Catherine to the royal “Homecomings” he was periodically accorded at the Place des Arts once he had become a star. He knew the heart’s stubborn way of drawing you toward pain. Sometimes in the evening, putting on music—not Mozart, but Cohen—I felt so sweet a sorrow I could have drifted out the open window on a moonbeam to join his legion of wartorn lovers.
All the Sisters of Mercy
they are not departed or gone
They were waiting for me
when I thought that I just can’t go on
And they brought me their comfort
and later they brought me this song
Oh I hope you run into them
you who’ve been traveling so long.
Leonard turned our awkward and dangerously prolonged adolescence into a languorous, almost enviable, season of longing. All that we had experienced as fumbling youths in our lonely self-doubt he kept on refining through images of love and war, so that Castro the revolutionary and Berlin the city became metaphors for our excesses and agonies. This was at once the gift and limitation of his verse. He remained the voice of our teens, deepening with the years.
Already after his first trip abroad, he told me how much more comfortable he felt on the Greek isle of Hydra than in Israel, which I took to mean: don’t expect me to become your Jewish ally. Yet I did assume that anyone as talented and intelligent as he would eventually stop using “Jew” and “war” as metaphors—as he often did in his songs—and begin thinking about them for real. I expected him to shoulder moral authority in a civilization that was threatening to unravel. That is why this reminiscence is as much about my thwarted desire that Leonard become the writer of my time as it is about his disinclination to satisfy my need.
It was Louis Dudek who felt the brunt of the changes that came over our society in the 1960’s. Leonard’s defense of drugs was just part of the general assault on the program of rational enlightenment and creative revitalization that Dudek had tried to implement at McGill. In the same autobiographical entry from which I quoted above, Dudek explains why he eventually felt obliged to drop the course that had done so much to educate me.
This huge course—a study, really, of the subversive currents in modern thought—was virtually brought to an end by the student revolution in the 60’s. “What I have been teaching you, and warning you against,” I said to my students, “has now arrived, right here in the classroom”—as radical students began to raid the lecture halls and harangue teachers. The course in question was familiarly known as “Journey to the End of the Night,” after Céline’s novel, which terminated the two-year course—and the night, it seemed, had closed in upon us.
Leonard took no part in that student revolution. Aesthetically, temperamentally, he was as removed from the boorish radicals as a Romanov from the Bolsheviks. But still he saw his opportunity among the young. He concentrated programmatically on the first-person singular and cultivated an attitude of philosophical indifference, as though by opposing politics altogether he could avoid having to take sides. For the public record, though, he fell right into step with the flower-childrens’ brigades. A mid-60’s book title, Flowers for Hitler, advertised his readiness to joke about the moral categories of good and evil, villainy and martyrdom.
He told reporters he had gone to Cuba to fight with Castro, then qualified his purpose: “Unless I can get it straight with myself, no enterprise is going to be very meaningful.” Parodying the military, he shaved his hair to the skull and took to wearing a coat with epaulets. The trivializing camouflage paid off. In France, where he drew 130,000 to an outdoor concert, he was forgiven his lack of real revolutionary zeal and defended against charges by the radical Left that he was a reactionary. His French biographer, Jacques Vassal, praised Leonard Cohen for the honesty “if not the courage” of refusing to judge others because he was not ready to judge himself.
I must have disappointed Louis Dudek in my own way. Being a Jew, which while I was at college had seemed no more than an accident of birth, hence hardly a sound basis for the rational life, became for me what cosmopolitanism was for him, the truest way of approaching the world. Louis had taught me to think for myself and, when necessary, to challenge the received ideas of the day. I discovered that the affiliated Jew is the iconoclast of every age, and by the mid-1970’s, when I realized that neither Leonard Cohen nor anyone else would be the sufficient truth-teller of my generation, I began to write for myself.
I often wince at my burlap prose beside Cohen’s silken lyrics. But then, I also have regrets about him, who cast himself as love’s solitary survivor so that he would not have to bear the weight of his and my lonely community, or of the tattered culture that belongs to us all.