Babylon & Boogie Street
Leonard Cohen’s exploration of covenants broken and kept
First published on November 6, 2021.
Since Leonard Cohen‘s death in 2016, a great many things have been written about the “poet laureate of despair,” as the journalist Simon Worrall called him.
His every song, every drink, and every affair has been inspected. But while there is a growing literature on Cohen’s religious imagery, relatively little has been written about the distinctive way Jesus figures in his work or, more generally, about how that work addresses our relationship with God and with each other.
From the beginning of his career to its end, covenant and its breaches were among Cohen’s major themes.
A passage from Augustine’s On Christian Belief could serve as an introduction to Cohen’s work: “If you love only what cannot be snatched out of its lover’s hand, you undoubtedly remain unbeaten.”
If one directs one’s love to what cannot be “snatched” away—that is, to God—one will suffer neither unfulfilled longing nor loss.
Cohen’s images of inner disunity and loss—of desires not only unsatisfied but also unsatisfiable—illuminate the challenges of human intimacy with God and our fellow creatures, our fears of vulnerability and dependence.
Contrary to Augustine’s wisdom, Cohen was unable to stay constant to God and so find peace with himself.
Nor could he stay constant to the women he loved.
This double restlessness was his persistent wound, investigated in more than sixty years of song and poetry that provide an inventory of his soul.
Cohen grew up in what he called the “Catholic city” of Montreal. His Catholic nanny took him with her to church.
The power of the Gospel’s imagery and its weight in our cultural-emotional repertoire was, in Cohen’s view, unavoidable, regardless of one’s religious beliefs. “Any guy,” Cohen told writer Alan Hustak,
who says blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, has got to be a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness. A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. He was a man of inhuman generosity, a generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced.
Jesus captured Cohen’s imagination because he lived out the Hebrew Bible covenant as Cohen himself could not.
Cohen also studied Buddhism and other wisdom traditions, yet, as he told Stina Lundberg Dabrowski in 1997, his religious views were Judaic: “I was never looking for a new religion. I have a very good religion, which is called Judaism.”
But Cohen’s inquiries into Judaism took him also to Jesus.
“As a Jew,” philosopher Babette Babich notes, “Cohen reminds us to feel for Christ, not to be a Christian necessarily but to get the point about Christ.”
Cohen got “the point about Christ”—his lesson of loving and giving for the sake of others—but found it hard to sustain. Cohen ran through commitments like water. “Rinse and repeat, again and again,” as Babich put it.
What is this covenant that Cohen was trying to uphold, as he believed Jesus did? If God is the source of all that is, humanity must partake of that source in order to exist. In Genesis, God breathes the breath of life into Adam.
“In all things,” Aquinas wrote, “God works intimately.” But while we are in “intimate” relation with God, we are also radically different from God.
We are material; God is immaterial. We are finite; God is infinite. So all creatures are in intimate relation with a God from whom they are radically different.
We become who we are through networks of relation with those who have had an impact on our lives
This is how Cohen wrote about it in “Love Itself” (2001, with Sharon Robinson): “In streams of light I clearly saw / The dust you seldom see / Out of which the nameless makes / A name for one like me.”
In the Kabbalist tradition of Isaac Luria (1534–1572), sacred vessels that originally contained God’s light shattered under God’s brilliant power.
In the stream of divine luminescence, the song’s narrator sees the dust we seldom see, the dust from which God makes us in an act more intimate than any other: creation. Cohen then plays with “name” and “nameless.”
In Jewish tradition, God is often referred to as The Name, because the Tetragrammaton, YHVH, is unpronounceable. In this lyric, the infinite, incorporeal, unnameable God creates from dust a finite, material, nameable person. This is how we come to be.
Because the cosmos is created as a network of relations among different beings, not only are we in intimate relation with God (despite the radical differences between God and us) but we are also in necessary relation with one another.
We are not separate and complete persons who may choose to enter into relationships. Rather, we become who we are through networks of relation with all those, near and far, who have had an impact on our lives. Thus, our flourishing requires that we see, and see to, these relations.
Thriving means attending to the well-being of the persons and networks that form us. As Cohen puts it in “Please Don’t Pass Me By” (1973):
I brushed up against the man in front of me.
I felt a cardboard placard on his back….
It said “Please don’t pass me by—
I am blind, but you can see—
I’ve been blinded totally—
Please don’t pass me by.”
Passing others by means failing to see them and failing to see to them. And that failure precludes flourishing, theirs and our own.
One name for this seeing and seeing to others is “covenant.” Because of our relational nature, attending to others in reciprocal commitment is the way we flourish.
Princeton theologian Max Stackhouse explains covenant among persons as “an ethical outworking of the divine-human relationship.”
In a kind of a spiritual Möbius strip, covenantal concern for others builds our covenant with God, even as covenant with God sustains us in giving covenantally to others.
Cohen explains it thus: “The Heart beneath is teaching / To the broken Heart above… / Come healing of the Altar / Come healing of the Name” (“Come Healing,” Old Ideas, 2012, with Patrick Leonard).
Covenant is bottom-up as well as top-down. Cohen notes both the healing at the human altar as it reaches “up” to God and the healing that comes from the Name, God, as it reaches “down” to the world.
And yet, we break covenants almost every day. We bolt from the bonds we need, from the covenantal commitments that make us who we are, that allow for peace and thriving. What gets in the way? Everything human.
We follow the call of Babylon and Boogie Street, two themes in Cohen’s work: the hustle for lucre, self-interest, another (sexual) adventure, and the comfort of intactness, of not being dependent on another—not even on God.
Biographer Sylvie Simmons describes two of Cohen’s “favorite things” as “no strings” and “an escape clause” from commitment.
But who made human nature to be this way? God. And there is the nub of Cohen’s theodicy, his argument with God about the suffering in his creation.
We are created for covenantal commitment, yet we are also made to be able to breach it.
But Jesus, who was also fully human, subject to the same temptations as Cohen and the rest of us, did not breach his covenant.
Cohen returned to Jesus often in his work to make this point: despite our fears and covenantal breaches, we may yet choose covenantal commitment to God and to other persons.
This, despite the fact that Cohen knew himself to be a habitual breaker of covenants, a man always disappointing himself and others.
With women, he was the kind of guy who finds even serial monogamy constraining. He feared being entrapped, by women or by God.
In “Lover Lover Lover” (1974) Cohen wrote: “I [God] locked you in this body / I meant it as a kind of trial.” The same God who made us for committed love also locks us in bodies whose urgent desires betray them. What kind of rigged “trial” is that? What kind of God?
Cohen understood his frustration to be his own failing
Still, Cohen understood his frustration to be his own failing, and he kept returning to this God throughout his life.
Rage and reconciliation, rinse and repeat.
In his last song collection he wrote, “I’ve seen you change the water into wine / I’ve seen you change it back to water too / I sit at your table every night / I try but I just don’t get high with you.”
Yet in the same collection, Cohen ends the title song, “You Want It Darker,” with a declaration to God: “Hineni,” the Hebrew vow of commitment, “Here, I am; I am here for you.”
Cohen’s despair at human inconstancy was directed not only at himself but at all of us—covenant breachers every one. Among his most potent jeremiads is “Israel,” where he writes,
Israel, and you who call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel…. To every people the land is given on condition. Perceived or not, there is a Covenant, beyond the constitution, beyond sovereign guarantee, beyond the nation’s sweetest dreams of itself.
The Covenant is broken, the condition is dishonored, have you not noticed that the world has been taken away? You have no place, you will wander through yourselves from generation to generation without a thread.
The covenant is for “every people,” and every people has broken it. So we wander “through” ourselves, in a world filled with other wanderers, all of us disconnected from one another.
We no longer struggle to live with God; we think we’ve won a modern, “sovereign” independence from the transcendent and no longer tolerate the marks of bondedness.
What is God’s response? Grief, but not foreclosure. God holds the door open. This, like covenantal giving, is also the point about Jesus.
In “Avalanche” (1971), Cohen writes that God, in the body of Jesus, steps into the avalanche of human life. He is rejected, abandoned, yet hopes for humanity’s return.
“You say you’ve gone away from me / But I can feel you when you breathe… / It is your turn, beloved / It is your flesh that I wear.” Having assumed human flesh to be with humanity, to love and secure us, God still hopes for our return to covenant.
Cohen was especially moved by Jesus’ love for humanity even in the midst of betrayal. This brings together Cohen’s two “points” about Jesus: his lesson of covenantal love and his lesson of what befalls us when we betray such love. Among other horrors, we crucify God.
Jesus, Cohen wrote, “was nailed to a human predicament, summoning the heart to comprehend its own suffering by dissolving itself in a radical confession of hospitality”—a hospitality that extended to his persecutors. Jesus forgave. We can learn from that, but we often don’t.
As Doron Cohen (no relation) quoted Leonard as saying in 2001:
Into the heart of every Christian, Christ comes, and Christ goes. When, by his Grace, the landscape of the heart becomes vast and deep and limitless, then Christ makes His abode in that graceful heart, and His Will prevails. The experience is recognized as Peace. In the absence of this experience much activity arises, divisions of every sort.
These divisions are our slavery in Egypt, our exile in Babylon, our Boogie Street, and our cross. By breaching commitment, we sadden the God of Israel and Jesus, who nevertheless shows us grace.
In “The Window” (1979), Cohen writes, “Why do you stand by the window / Abandoned to beauty and pride / The thorn of the night in your bosom / The spear of the age in your side?” Why, Jesus, do you bother to stand at the window, exposed to all, while humanity in every age abandons you to beauty and pride? How, why, do you love us, we who betray you? Cohen asked that question throughout his six decades of writing.
He knew there could be no real flourishing until we commit ourselves to others in a way that echoes, however imperfectly, Jesus’ love.
Cohen caught moments of it in his life, lost it, missed it, and sought it again. At the age of seventy-eight, he wrote of Jesus’ love-amid-crucifixion as what restores humanity: “The splinters that you carry / The cross you left behind / Come healing of the body / Come healing of the mind” (“Come Healing,” 2012, with Patrick Leonard). It is from the splinters of the cross “left behind” for us that our self-inflicted wounds of body and mind are healed.
In the refrain of “The Window,” Cohen seeks his “chosen” love, he who was once human (“matter”) and now is grace (holy “ghost”). Cohen asks that this love “gentle this soul” from the suffering we cause ourselves.
Oh chosen love, Oh frozen love
Oh tangle of matter and ghost
Oh darling of angels, demons and saints
And the whole broken-hearted host
Gentle this soul.
On the fifth anniversary of his death, we may hope that this prayer was answered.
Marcia Pally teaches at New York University, is an annual guest professor at the Theology Faculty of Humboldt University (Berlin), and was a 2019–2020 Fellow at the Center for Theological Inquiry (Princeton). Her books include Commonwealth and Covenant (2016) and The New Evangelicals (2011). Most recently, she edited the collection Mimesis and Sacrifice (2019).
This article first appeared in Commonweal Magazine