“Well, it may be the devil or it may be the LordBut you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” —Bob Dylan (1979)
1.Walking Cambridge’s Trinity Lane in 1894, Bertrand Russell had an epiphany concerning the ontological proof for God’s existence, becoming the unlikely convert effected by logical argumentation. In Russell’s essay “Why I Became a Philosopher,” included in Amelie Oksenberg Rorty’s anthology The Many Faces of Philosophy: Reflections from Plato to Arendt, the logician explains how his ruminations turned to fervor, writing that “I had gone out to buy a tin of tobacco; on my way back, I suddenly threw it up in the air, and exclaimed as I caught it: ‘Great Scott, the ontological argument is sound.’” An atheist had a brief conversion—of a sort.
Not exactly Saul being confronted with the light that (quoting Euripides’s The Bacchae) told him “It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks,” or Augustin in his Confessions recounting that after a ghostly young voice told him to “Take up and read!”, he turned to Paul’s epistles. Russell’s conversion was a bit more abstract—of the head rather than the heart. In his flat-cap, tweed jacket, and herring-bone bowtie, he was converted not by the Holy Spirit, but by a deductive syllogism. Envision the co-author of Principia Mathematica, which rigorously reduced all of mathematics to logic, suddenly being moved by the spirit.
Derived by the medieval monk Anselm of Canterbury in his 1078 Proslogion, the ontological argument holds that since existence must be a property of perfection, and God is a priori defined as a perfect being, than quod erat demonstrandum: God must exist. Russell explains this metaphysical trick in his Nobel Prize-winning History of Western Philosophy: a “Being who possesses all other perfections is better if He exists than if He does not, from which it follows that if he does not He is not the best possible Being.”
From Aquinas to Rene Descartes, there is a venerable history of attempting to prove the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity, though as Nathan Schneider writes in God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet, these arguments are “taught, argued about, and forgotten, sometimes saving a person’s particular faith, sometimes eroding it, and usually neither.” In defense of Anselm, nobody in the 11th century doubted God’s existence, and such proofs weren’t designed to convince, but rather to glory in divinity. As a subsequent defense, his proof has endured in a manner that other proofs haven’t. Cosmology and evolution have overturned most others, making them seem primitive to the point of adorableness, but Anselm endures.
Still, the syllogism can’t help but seem like a bit of a magic trick, defining God into existence rather than establishing even what type of God we’re to believe in. Critics of Anselm maintain that existence isn’t a property in the same way that other qualities are. We can imagine all sorts of characters with all sorts of qualities, but that doesn’t mean that they have to exist. Defenders of Anselm would claim that God isn’t like any other character, since a perfect thing that doesn’t exist can’t be said to be a perfect thing, and God is a perfect thing Critics of that would say that it’s possible to conceive of a perfect city, but that doesn’t mean you can buy an Amtrak ticket there, nor would a benevolent God allow Penn Station to look as it does. As the puzzle-writer (and theist) Martin Gardner notes in his delightful The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, “I agree with the vast majority of thinkers who see the proof as no more than linguistic sleight-of-hand.”
Eventually Russell’s new faith diffused like incense from a swinging thurible. If philosophy got Russell into this mess, then it also got him out. Russell explains that Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason would “demolish all the purely intellectual proofs of the existence of God.” But what faith had Russell gained on Trinity Lane? It wasn’t a belief in God whom that street was named after, nor was it the Lord of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What Russell’s faith was in, had always been in, and would always be in, was the power of reason, and in that he was unwavering.
David Hume, another of Russell’s antecedents, wrote in his 1739 A Treatise of Human Nature that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” We’re going to believe what we’re going to (dis)believe, and we’ll concoct the reasons for it later. For his part, late in life, Russell was asked how he’d respond if upon death he was brought before God’s throne, and asked why he had dared not to believe? Russell said that he’d answer “Not enough evidence!”
2.According to mercurial family lore, when my paternal grandmother’s grandfather, August Hansmann, boarded a New York-bound steamship two years after the American Civil War and one year before his native Hanover would be subsumed into Prussia, he brought along with him a copy of the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, denounced when it was printed in 1677 as “a book forged in hell…by the devil himself.” Like Spinoza, Hansmann was a Jew who lived among gentiles, and like Spinoza, he understood that being Other in a narrative not written by yourself had tragic consequences.
Born illegitimate, Hansmann was raised Jewish even though his father was Christian; a man who understood how being two things sometimes meant that you were seen as nothing, he also knew the strange freedom of how dictated faith is no faith at all. Similarly, Spinoza was a Sephardic Jew of converso background whose Portuguese ancestors practiced their Judaism in secret until Dutch freedom allowed them to reinvent their hidden faiths. Hansmann encountered Spinoza’s celebration of religious liberty, “where everyone’s judgement is free and unshackled, where each may worship God as his conscience dictates, and where freedom is esteemed before all things.” For the pious lens grinder, content to work by the tulip-lined canals of red-brick Amsterdam, religious truth can only be discovered without shackles, divinity only visible if you’re not compelled by Church or State.
When the Jews of Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism, many secretly practiced the mitzvoth, venerating the Sabbath, abjuring treyf, and kissing mezuzah’s surreptitiously concealed within the ceramic blue slipper of the Virgin. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in The Battle for God, these were people who “had been forced to assimilate to a…culture that did not resonate with their inner selves.” When finally able to practice their religion in Holland, many of them then discovered that the Judaism of the rabbis was not the same Judaism that they’d imagined, and so they chose to be something else, something completely new —neither Jewish or Christian, but rather nothing. Armstrong writes that such persecution ironically led to the “first declarations of secularism and atheism in Europe.”
Many of those slurred as swinish Marranos found it more honest to live by the dictates of their own reason. Spinoza was the most famous, condemned by his synagogue for writing things like “I say that all things are in God and move in God,” holding that nature is equivalent with the Lord, so that either nothing is God or everything is. Such pantheism is what made some condemn Spinoza as an atheist, and others such as Russell later describe him as a “God-intoxicated man” who saw holiness in every fallen leaf and gurgling creek, his very name, whether “Baruch” or “Benedict” meaning “blessed.”
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, in Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity, asks if he can “be considered…a Jewish thinker?” She argues that his universalism derives from the Mosaic covenant, the monotheism of the Shema extended so that God is Everything. As a result, he is the primogeniture for a certain type of rational, secular, progressive, liberal, humane contemporaneity. On that steamer crossing the Atlantic, Hansmann may have read that “freedom [can] be granted without prejudice…but also that without such freedom, piety cannot flourish.” My great-great grandfather lived his life as a Jew, but the attraction he saw in Spinoza was that each individual could decide for themselves whether to be Jew, Catholic, Protestant, or nothing.
Hansmann worked as a peddler on the Lower East Side, until the Homestead Act enticed him to Iowa, where he married a Huguenot woman who bore him 10 children, while he worked as a trader among the Native Americans. He refused to raise his children in any religion—Jewish or Protestant—preferring rather that they should decide upon reaching adulthood. And so, a union was made between the Jewish and the Low Church Protestant, rejecting both baptism and bris, so that my grandmother born on the frontier had absolutely no religion at all.
That such things are even possible—to be of no religion—is due in no small part to Spinoza’s sacrifice, his congregation having excommunicated him by extinguishing each individual light in the synagogue until the assembled dwelled in darkness. From that expulsion, Spinoza was expected to find refuge among the Protestants—but he didn’t. I’ve a photo from the early years of the 20th century: August Hansmann surrounded by his secular, stolid, midwestern progeny, himself siting in the center with a thick black beard, and a kippah barely visible upon his head.
3.A long line of Spinoza’s ancestors, and my great-great-grandfather’s ancestors, would have concluded Pesach evenings with a “Next year in Jerusalem,” praying for the reestablishment of the Temple destroyed by the Romans in the first century. Less known than the equally exuberant and plaintive Passover declaration is that, for a brief period in the fourth century, it seemed that the Temple might actually be restored, ironically by Rome’s last pagan emperor. Born in Constantinople only six years after the Council of Nicaea convened there to define what exactly a Christian was, Julian the Apostate would mount a failed revolution.
His uncle was Rome’s first Christian emperor who conquered by the cross and who turned his Rome over to Christ. Julian was of a different perspective, seeing in the resurrection of Apollo and Dionysius, Jupiter and Athena, the rejuvenation of Rome. He bid his time until military success foisted him onto the throne, and then Julian revealed himself as an initiate into those Eleusinian Mysteries, a celebrant of Persephone and Demeter who greeted the morning sun and prayed for the bounty of the earth, quoted in W. Heinemann’s The Works of the Emperor Julian as having written “I feel awe of the gods, I love, I revere, I venerate them.”
In Julian’s panegyrics, one can smell the burning thyme and sage, feel the hot wax from votive candles, spy the blue moonlight filtered through pine trees in a midnight cedar grove. If Plutarch recorded the very heavens had once declared “the great god Pan is dead,” then Julian prayed for his return; if the oracles at Delphi and the Sibyllines had been silenced by the Nazarene, then the emperor wanted the divinations of those prophets to operate once again. Julian wanted this paganism to be a new faith, an organized, unified, consolidated religion that bore as much similarity to the cohesion of the Christian Church as it did to the rag-tag collection of rituals and superstitions that had defined previous Roman beliefs.
Classicist Robin Lane Fox makes clear in Pagans and Christians that this wasn’t simple nostalgia. Fox explains that those who returned to paganism normally did so with “an accompanying philosophy” and that apostasy “always lead to a favor for some systematic belief.” The emperor’s conversion was a turning back combined with a the reformer’s desire for regeneration. In paganism, Julian approached origin, genesis, birth—less conversion than a return to what you should have been, but was denied.
Julian the Apostate endures as cipher—duplicitous reactionary who’d see Christian Rome turn back, or tolerant visionary who theologically elevated paganism? Christian thinkers had long commandeered classical philosophy, now pagan thinkers were able to apply the same analytical standards to their own beliefs, developing theology as sophisticated as that of Christianity. The American rake and raconteur Gore Vidal repurposed the emperor as a queer hero of liberalism in his unusual 1964 novel Julian, having his protagonist humanely exclaim that “Truth is where ever man has glimpsed divinity.” Where some had seen those intimations in Golgotha’s sacrifice, the Apostate saw them in the oracles of Chaldea or the groves of Athena.
Far from banning the new faith, Julian declared that “By the gods I do not want the Galileans to be killed or beaten unjustly nor to suffer any other ill.” Julian was rather interested in monopolistic trust-busting, and in part that included funding the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple that would have been destroyed by the emperor’s ancestors. The building of a Third Temple would be terminated when, as a Roman witness to the construction attempts wrote, “fearful balls of fire [broke]…out near the foundations…till the workmen, after repeated scorchings, could approach no more.” The Christians attributed the disaster to God; the Jews and Romans to the Christians.
The desire for a pagan Rome would similarly end with Julian’s defeat on the battle fields of Persia, an emperor who longed to see old gods born again now forced to declare that “You have won, Galilean.” Hard to reverse an eclipse, and so, we supplicate on another mournful and deferred day—“Next year at Delphi.”
4.The titular character in Julian claims that “academics everywhere are forever attacking one another.” During the fourth century, the academic debates were theological, all of those schisms and heresies, excommunications and counter-excommunications between exotic groups with names like the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, the Arians and the Trinitarians. By the middle of Vidal’s 20th century, such disputations were just as rancorous, but theology was now subsumed into politics. Vidal’s own politics were strange, broadly left but with a sympathy afforded to the anti-establishmentarians of any ideological persuasion.
Vidal is most celebrated for calling the conservative founder of the National Review William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” during a debate on ABC News scheduled to coincide with the 1968 Democratic convention; even the pyrotechnic rainbow of early television was unable to conceal the pure hatred between those two prep school grads. If the earliest years of Christianity saw bishops and monks moving between ever nuanced theological positions, than the 20th century was an era of political conversion, liberals becoming conservatives and conservatives becoming liberals, with Buckley’s magazine a fascinating case study in political apostasy.
Buckley’s politics were cradle-to-grave Republican conservatism, even as he garnered a reputation for expelling acolytes of both Ayn Rand and John Birch from the movement as if he was a medieval bishop overseeing a synod (they’ve long since found a way back in). Entering public life with his 1951 God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom,” Buckley understood better than most how ideology is theology by another name (even as I personally revile his politics). Into this midst, National Review was the stodgy, tweedy vanguard of the reactionary intelligentsia, defining a conservative as “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so.”
The problem with a manifesto that defines itself entirely by anti-progress is that such a doctrine can be rather nebulous, and so many of the bright young things Buckley hired for the National Review, such as Joan Didion and Garry Wills, found themselves moving to the left. Such were the subtleties of conversion that Wills could be both the author of Confessions of a Conservative and a journalist placed on Richard Nixon’s infamous “enemies list.”
As people become harder of hearing and their bone-density decreases, movement from the left to the right does seem the more predictable narrative. For every Gary Wills, there’s a Norman Podhoretz, an Irving Kristol, a David Horowitz, a Christopher Hitchens. Leave it to the arm-chair Freudians to ascertain what Oedipal complex made those men of the left move towards the Big Daddy of right-wing politics, but what’s interesting are the ways in which they refashioned conservatism in a specifically leftist manner. Their migration was not from milquetoast Democratic liberalism, for they’d indeed been far to the left, several of them self-described Trotskyites. And as the Aztecs who became Catholic kept secretly worshiping their old gods, or as basilicas were built atop temples to Mithras, so too did those doctrines of “permanent revolution” find themselves smuggled into neoconservatism.
If politics is but religion by another means, than it’s the ideological conversion that strikes us as most scandalous. We’ve largely ceded the ground on the sacred—what could be less provocative than abandoning Presbyterianism for Methodism? But politics, that’s the thing that keeps us fuming for holy war, and we’re as titillated by stories of conversion as our ancestors were in tales of heresy and schism. Psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer observes, in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century, that “belief is complicated, contingent, multi-determined. But do we really know it? Do we feel it?” Strange to think that Elizabeth Warren was once a Republican, and the man whom she will beat for the presidency was once a Democrat, but such are the vagaries of God and man, whether at Yale or anywhere else.
5.For all their differences, Buckley and Vidal could at least agree on the martini. Buckley would write in 1977 that a “dry martini even at night is a straightforward invitation for instant relief from the vicissitudes of a long day,” and Vidal in his novel Kalki published a year later would rhapsodize about the “martini’s first comforting haze.” On the left or on the right, one thing WASPs concurred about (and though Buckley was technically Catholic he had the soul of an Episcopalian) was the cocktail hour. I’ve no idea if the two had been drinking before their infamous sparring on ABC, though the insults, homophobia, and violent threats make me suspicious.
Better that they’d have followed the path of conversion that another prep school boy who moved in their social circles named John Cheever did: When on April 9, 1975 his brother checked him into New York’s Smithers Alcoholic Rehabilitation Unit, he never took another drink. Cheever had lived up to the alcoholic reputation of two American tribes—High Church Protestants and Low Church writers. From the former he inherited both the genes and an affection for gin and scotch on a Westchester porch watching the trains from Grand Central thunder Upstate, and from the later he took the Dionysian myth that conflates the muse with ethanol, pining for inspiration but settling for vomiting in an Iowa City barroom.
Cheever was one of the finest short story writers of the 20th century, his prose as crystalline and perfect as a martini. Such was the company of those other addicts, of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Cheever’s story “The Swimmer” is one of the most perfect distillations of how alcoholism will sneak up on a person, and he avoids the laudatory denials you see in a lesser writer like Charles Bukowski. With the repressed self-awareness that is the mocking curse of all true alcoholics, Cheever would write in his diary some two decades before he got sober that “When the beginnings of self-destruction enter the heart it seems no bigger than a grain of sand,” no doubt understanding how a single drink is too many since a dozen is never enough.
His daughter Susan Cheever, herself a recovering alcoholic, notes in Drinking in America: Our Secret History that “My father’s drinking had destroyed his body, but it had also distorted his character—his soul. The restoration of one man through the simple measure of not drinking was revelatory.” The ancients called them spirits for a reason, and in their rejection there is a conversion of a very literal sort. Cheever—along with his friend Raymond Carver—is the happy exception to the fallacy that finds romance in the gutter-death of literary genius, and he got sober by doing the hard work of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The central text of that organization was compiled by Bill W., the founder of AA; its title is technically Alcoholics Anonymous, but members informally call it “The Big Book.” Past the uninspired yellow-and-blue cover of that tome, Cheever would have read stories where he’d have “found so many areas where we overlapped—not all the deeds, but the feelings of remorse and hopelessness. I learned that alcoholism isn’t a sin, it’s a disease.” And yet the treatment of that disease was akin to a spiritual transformation.
A tired debate whether Alcoholics Anonymous is scripture or not, but I’d argue that anything that so fully transforms the countenance of a person can’t but be a conversion, for as the Big Book says, “We talked of intolerance, while we were intolerant ourselves. We missed the reality and the beauty of the forest because we were diverted by the ugliness of some of its trees.” I once was lost, and now I’m found, so on and so forth. When Cheever died, he had seven sober years—and they made all the difference.
6. Conversion narratives are the most human of tales, for the drama of redemption is an internal one, played out between the protagonist and his demons. Certain tropes—the pleasure, the perdition, the contrition, the repentance, the salvation. Augustine understood that we do bad things because bad things are fun—otherwise why would he write in Confessions “Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet.” What readers thrill to are the details, the rake’s regress from dens of iniquity, from gambling, drinking, and whoring to some new-found piety.
For Cheever’s Yankee ancestors, the New England Puritans in whose stead we’ve uneasily dwelled for the past four centuries, “election” was not a matter of personal choice, but rather grace imparted onto the unworthy human. Easy to see some issues of utility here, for when accumulation of wealth is read as evidence of God’s grace, and it’s also emphasized that the individual has no role in his own salvation, the inevitable result is spiritual disenchantment and marginalization. By the middle of the 18th century, some five generations after the first Pilgrim’s slipper graced Plymouth Rock, the Congregationalist pastors of New England attempted to suture the doubts of their flocks, coming up with “half-way covenants” and jeremiads against backsliding so as to preserve God’s bounty.
Into that increasingly secular society would come an English preacher with a thick Gloucester accent named George Whitfield, who first arrived in the New World in 1738. Technically an Anglican priest, Whitfield was a confidant of George Wesley, the father of Methodism, and from that “hot” faith the preacher would draw a new vocabulary, dispelling John Calvin’s chill with the exhortation that sinners must be born again. Crowds of thousands were compelled to repent, for “Come poor, lost, undone sinner, come just as you are to Christ.” On the Eastern seaboard, the Englishman would preach from Salem to Savannah, more than 10,000 times, drawing massive crowds, even impressing that old blasphemer Benjamin Franklin at one Philadelphia revival (the scientist even donated money).
Such was the rhetorical style of what’s called the Great Awakening, when colonial Americans abandoned the staid sermons of the previous century in favor of this shaking, quaking, splitting, fitting preaching. Whitfield and Spinoza shared nothing in temperament, and yet one could imagine that the later might smile at the liberty that “established fractious sectarianism as its essential character,” as John Howard Smith writes in The First Great Awakening: Redefining Religion in American, 1725-1775. Whitfield welcomed worshippers into a massive tent—conversion as a means towards dignity and agency.
So ecumenical was Whitfield’s evangelization that enslaved people came in droves to his revivals, those in bondage welcomed as subjects in Christ’s kingdom. Such was the esteem in which the reverend was held that upon his passing in 1770 a black poet from Cambridge named Phyllis Wheatly would regard the “happy saint” as a man whom “in strains of eloquence refin’d/[did] Inflame the heart, and captivate the mind.” Whitfield’s religious charity, it should be said, was limited. He bemoaned the mistreatment of the enslaved, while he simultaneously advocated for the economic benefits of that very institution.
Can we tighten this line. As different as they were, Whitfield and Malcolm X were both children of this strange Zion that allows such reinvention. Malcolm X writes in a gospel of both American pragmatism and American power, saying that “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against…I am for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” Conversion can be a means of seizing power; conversion can be a means of reinvention.
Activist Audre Lorde famously wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” and for a young Harlem ex-con born Malcolm Little, the Christianity of Wheatly and Whitfield would very much seem to be the domain of the plantation’s manor, so that conversion to a slave religion is no conversion at all. Mocking the very pieties of the society that Whitfield preached in, Malcolm X would declare “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock—Plymouth Rock landed on us.” Malcolm X’s life was an on-going narrative of conversion, of the desire to transform marginalization into power. As quoted by Alex Haley in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the political leader said “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up.”
Transformation defined his rejection of Christianity, his membership in the Nation of Islam, and then finally his conversion to orthodox Sunni Islam. Such is true even in the rejection of his surname for the free-floating signifier of “X,” identity transformed into a type of stark, almost algebraic, abstraction. If America is a land of conversion narratives, than The Autobiography of Malcolm X is ironically one of the most American. Though as Saladin Ambar reminds us in Malcolm X at Oxford Union, his “conversion was indeed religious, but it was also political,” with all which that implies.
7.It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an apostate in possession of a brilliant spiritual mind, must be in want of a religion. If none of the religions that already exist will do, then it becomes her prerogative to invent a better one and convert to that. Critic Harold Bloom writes in The American Religion that “the religious imagination, and the American Religion, in its fullest formulations, is judged to be an imaginative triumph.” America has always been the land of religious invention, for when consciences are not compelled, the result is a brilliant multitude of schisms, sects, denominations, cults, and communes. In his Essays, the French Renaissance genius Michel de Montaigne quipped that “Man is certainly stark mad; he cannot make a worm, and yet he makes gods by the dozens.” Who, however, if given the choice between a worm or a god, would ever possibly pick the former? For America is a gene splicing laboratory of mythology, an in vitro fertilization clinic of faith, and we birth gods by the scores.
Consider Noble Drew Ali, born Timothy Drew in 1886 to former North Carolina slaves who lived amongst the Cherokee. Ali compiled into the Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America a series of ruminations, meditations, and revelations he had concerning what he called the “Moorish” origins of African-Americans. Drawing freely from Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the free-floating occultism popular in 19th-century America, Ali became one of the first founders of an Afrocentric faith in the United States, his movement the original spiritual home to Wallace Fard Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam. Ali writes that the “fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self. This is the uniting of the Holy Koran of Mecca for teaching and instructing all Moorish Americans.”
Ali drew heavily from mystical traditions, combining his own idiosyncratic interpretations of Islam alongside Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. Such theurgy was popular in the 19th century, a melancholic era when the almost million dead from Antietam and Gettysburg called out to the living, who responded with séance and Ouija Board. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust recounts in The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War that “Many bereaved Americans…unwilling to wait until their own deaths reunited them with lost kin…turned eagerly to the more immediate promises of spiritualism.” The 19th century saw mass conversions to a type of magic, a pseudo-empirical faith whose sacraments were technological—the photographing of ghostly ectoplasm, or the receipt of telegraphs from beyond the veil of perception.
Spiritualism wasn’t merely a general term for this phenomenon, but the name of an actual organized denomination (one that still exists). Drawing from 18th-century occultists like Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, the first Spiritualists emerged out of the rich soil of upstate New York, the “Burned Over District” of the Second Great Awakening (sequel to Whitfield’s First). Such beliefs held that the dead were still among us, closer than our very breath, and that spirits could interact with the inert matter of our world, souls intermingled before the very atoms of our being.
Peter Manseau writes in The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, that “It was a time when rapidly increasing scientific knowledge was regarded not as the enemy of supernatural obsessions, but an encouragement…Electricity had given credence to notions of invisible energies…The telegraph had made communication possible over staggering distances, which raised hopes of receiving messages from the great beyond.”
Among the important founders of the movement were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, N.Y.; three siblings whom in 1848 claimed that they’d been contacted by spirits, including one named “Mr. Splitfoot,” who communicated in raps, knocks, and clicks. Decades later, Margaret Fox would admit that it was a hoax, since a “great many people when they hear the rapping imagine at once that the spirits are touching them. It is a very common delusion.” Despite the seeming credulity of the movement’s adherents, Spiritualists were crucial reformers, with leaders like Cora L.V. Scott and Paschal Beverly Randolph embracing abolitionism, temperance, civil rights, suffragism, and labor rights. When the cause is good, perhaps it doesn’t matter which god’s vestments you wear.
And of course the great American convert to a religion of his own devising is Joseph Smith. America’s dizzying diversity of faith confused young Smith, who asked “Who of all these parties are right, and how shall I know?” From the same upstate environs as the Fox Sisters, Smith was weened on a stew of evangelicalism and occultism, a child of the Second Great Awakening, who in those flinty woods of New York dreamt of finding shining golden tablets left by angels. Writing in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, scholar Fawn M. Brodie notes that for the New England and New York ancestors of Smith there was a “contempt for the established church which had permeated the Revolution, which had made the federal government completely secular, and which was in the end to divorce the church from the government of every state.”
Smith rather made America itself his invented religion. Stephen Prothero writes in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Hero that there is a tendency of “Americans to make their nation sacred—to view its citizens as God’s chosen people.” Yet it was only Smith’s Mormons who so completely literalized such a view, for the Book of Mormon describes this as “a land which is choice above all other lands.” The effect was electrifying; Brodie writes: “In the New World’s freedom the church had disintegrated, its ceremonies had changed, and its stature had declined.” What remained was a vacuum in which individual minds could dream of new faiths. Spinoza would recognize such independence, his thin face framed by his curled wig, reflected back from the polished glow of one of Moroni’s tablets excavated from the cold ground of Palmyra, N.Y.
8.“In the beginning there was the Tao, and the Tao was God,” reads John 1:1 as translated in the Chinese Version Union bible commissioned by several Protestant denomination between 1890 and 1919. Appropriating the word “Tao” makes an intuitive sense, arguably closer to the Neo-Platonist language of “Logos” as the term is rendered in the koine Greek, than to the rather confusing terminology of “the Word” as it’s often translated in English.
Read cynically, this
bible could be seen as a disingenuous use of Chinese terminology so as to make
Christianity feel less foreign and more inviting, a Western wolf in Mandarin robes.
More charitably, such syncretism could be interpreted as an attempt to find the
universal core between those two religions, a way of honoring truth regardless
of language. Conversion not between faiths, but above them. Perhaps naïve, but
such a position might imply that conversion isn’t even a possibility, that all
which is needed in the way of ecumenicism is to place the right words with the
The earliest synthesis between Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity is traceable to the seventh century. At the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, a cache called the Jingjiao Documents penned during the Tang Dynasty and attributed to the students of a Syrian monk named Alopen were rediscovered in 1907. Alopen was a representative of that massive eastern branch of Christianity slurred by medieval European Catholics as being “Nestorian,” after the bishop who precipitated their schism at a fifth-century church council (the theological differences are arcane, complicated, and for our purposes unimportant).
During those years of late antiquity, European Christendom was a backwater; before the turn of the first millennium the Catholicus of Baghdad would have been a far more important cleric than the Pope was, for as scholar Philip Jenkins explains in The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How it Died, the “particular shape of Christianity with which we are familiar is a radical departure from what was for well over a millennium the historical norm…For most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with power representations in Europe, Africa, and Asia.”
In 635, Alopen was an evangelist to a pluralistic civilization that had a history that went back millennia. His mission was neither colonial nor mercantile, and as a religious scholar he had to make Christianity appealing to a populace content with their beliefs. And so, Alopen converted the Chinese by first converting Christianity. As with the translators of the Chinese Version Union bible, Alopen borrowed Taoist and Buddhist concepts, configuring the Logos of John as the Tao, sin as karma, heaven as nirvana, and Christ as an enlightened Bodhisattva.
Sinologist Martin Palmer, writing in The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity, argues that Alopen avoided “what many missionaries have tried to do—namely, make people adapt to a Western mind-set.” Rather, Alopen took “seriously the spiritual concerns of China.” Alopen was successful enough that some 150 years after his arrival, a limestone stele was engraved in both Mandarin and Syriac celebrating the history of Chinese Christianity. With a massive cross at the top of the Xi’an stele, it announced itself as a “Memorial of the Propagation in China of the Luminous Religion from Rome.” During a period of anti-Buddhist persecution in the ninth century, when all “foreign” religions were banned, the stele was buried, and by 986 a visiting monk reported that “Christianity is extinct in China.”
Like Smith uncovering his golden tablets, workers in 1625 excavated the Xi’an stele, and recognizing it as Christian sent for Jesuits who were then operating as missionaries to the Ming Court. Portuguese priest Alvaro Semedo, known to the court as Xie Wulu, saw the stele as evidence of Christian continuity; other clergy were disturbed that the monument was from a sect that the Church itself had deemed heretical 1,000 years before. German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kirchner supplied a Latin translation of the stele, enthusing in his China Illustrata that Xi’an’s rediscovery happened by God’s will “at this time when the preaching of the faith by way of the Jesuits pervaded China, so that old and new testimonies…would go forth…and so the truth of the Gospel would be clear to everyone.” But was it so clear, this strange gospel of the Tao?
Much of Kircher’s book was based on his colleague Fr. Mateo Ricci’s accounts of the Ming Court. Ricci had taken to wearing the robes of a Confucian scholar, borrowing from both Confucius and Lao-Tzu in arguing that Catholicism was a form of those older religions. The Dominicans and Franciscans in China were disturbed by these accommodations, and by 1645 (some 35 years after Ricci had died) the Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled against the Jesuits (though this was a process that went back and forth). Maybe there is something fallacious in simply pretending all religions are secretly the same. Prothero writes in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, that we often have “followed scholars and sages down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world in which all gods are one.” Catholicism is not Taoism, and that’s to the integrity of both.
But Ricci’s attitude was a bold one, and in considering different beliefs, he was arguably a forerunner of pluralistic tolerance. We risk abandoning something beautiful if we reject the unity that Alopen and Ricci worked for, because perhaps there is a flexibility to conversion, a delightful promiscuity to faith. Examining one of the Chinese water-colors of Ricci, resplendent in the heavenly blue silk of the panling lanshan with a regal, heavy, black putou on his head, a Roman inquisitor may have feared who exactly was converting whom.
9.In the painting, Sir Francis Dashwood —11th Baron le Despencer and Great Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1762 to 1763—is depicted as if he was St. Francis of Assisi. Kneeling in brown robes, the aristocrat is a penitent in some rocky grove, a hazy blue-grey sfumato marking the countryside visible through a gap in the stones. In the corner is a silver platter, grapes and cherries tumbled onto the soil of this pastoral chapel, as if to remind the viewer of life’s mutability, “Vanity of vanity” and all the rest of it. Some tome—perhaps The Bible?—lay open slightly beyond the nobleman’s gaze, and with hand to breast, Dashwood contemplates what looks like a crucifix. But something is amiss in this portrait painted by Dashwood’s friend, that great notary of 18th-century foibles William Hogarth. The crucifix—it’s not Christ on the cross, but a miniature nude woman with her head thrown back. Suddenly the prurient grin on the stubbly face of Dashwood makes more sense.
If you happen to be an expert on 18th-century French pornography, you might notice that it’s not the gospels that lay open on cracked spine next to Dashwood, but a copy of Nicolas Chorier’s Elegantiae Latini sermonis; were you familiar with the intricacies of Westminster politics in the 1760s, you may have observed that rather than a golden, crescent halo above the baron’s head, it’s actually a cartoon of the Earl of Sandwich in lunar profile.
Already raised in the anti-Catholic environment of British high society, Dashwood’s disdain for religion was incubated during his roguish youth while on his fashionable Grand Tour of the continent—he was expelled from the Papal States. In the anonymously written 1779 Nocturnal Revels, a two-volume account of prostitution in London, the author claims that Dashwood “on his return to England, thought that a burlesque institution in the name of St. Francis, would mark the absurdity of such Societies; and in lieu of the austerities and abstemiousness there practiced, substitute convivial gaiety, unrestrained hilarity, and social felicity.”
To house his “Franciscans,” Dashwood purchased a former Cistercian Abby in Buckinghamshire that overlooked the Thames, and in dazzling stain-glass had inscribed above its entrance the famous slogan from the Abby of Thelema in Francois Rabelais’s 15th-century classic Gargantua and Pantagruel—“Do What Thou Wilt.” Its grounds were decorated with statues of Dionysius—Julian the Apostate’s revenge—and the gothic novelist (and son of a Prime Minister) Horace Walpole wrote that the “practice was rigorously pagan: Bacchus and Venus were the deities to whom they almost publicly sacrificed; and the nymphs and the hogsheads that were laid in against the festivals of this new church.” Within those gothic stone walls, Dashwood’s compatriots very much did do what they would, replacing sacramental wine with liquor, the host with feasting, and the Mass with their orgies. The Monks of Medenham Abby, founded upon a Walpurgis Night in 1752, initiated occasional worshipers including the respected jurist Robert Vansittart, John Montague 4th Earl of Sandwich, the physician Benjamin Edward Bates II, the parliamentarian George Bubb Dodington, and in 1758 they hosted a colonial scientist named Benjamin Franklin (fresh from a Whitfield revival no doubt).
Such gatherings were not uncommon among the bored upper classes of European society; Black Masses were popular among French aristocrats into the 17th century, and in Britain punkish dens of obscenity like Dashwood’s were known as “Hell-Fire Clubs.” Evelyn Lord writes in her history The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies that long before Dashwood ever convened his monks, London had been “abuzz with rumors of highborn Devil-worshipers who mocked the established Church and religion, and allegedly supped with Satan,” with the apparently non-Satanic members of Parliament pushing for anti-blasphemy legislation.
That’s the thing with blasphemy though—there’s no Black Mass without first the Mass, no Satan without God. Irreverent, impious, and scandalous though Dashwood may have been, such activities paradoxically confirm faith. Lord writes that the “hell-fire clubs represented an enduring fascination with the forbidden fruit offered by the Devil…But the members of these clubs faced a dilemma: if they believed in Satan and hell-fire, did they by implications believe in a supernatural being, called God, and a place called Heaven?” Should the sacred hold no charged power, were relics simply bits of rag and bone, than there would be no electricity in their debasement; were a crucifix meaningless, than there would be no purpose in rendering it pornographic. A blasphemous conversion, it turns out, may just be another type of conversion.
Geoffrey Ashe argues in The Hell-Fire Clubs: Sex, Rakes and Libertines that Thelema is an antinomian ethic that can be traced from Rabelais through the Hell-Fire Clubs onto today. He writes that such a history is “strange and unsettling. It discloses scenes of pleasure and laughter, and also some of the extremist horrors ever conceived. It introduces us to cults of the Natural, the Supernatural; to magic, black and otherwise.” Dashwood’s confraternity encompasses figures as diverse as the Marquis de Sade, the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley (who had Rabelais’s motto carved above the entrance to his own monastery in Sicily), and LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. Fear not the blasphemer, for such is merely a cracked prophet of the Lord. As Master Crowley himself wrote in Aceldama: A Place to Bury Strangers, “I was in the death struggle with self: God and Satan fought for my soul those three long hours. God conquered – now I have only one doubt left—which of the twain was God?”
10.When the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, lily of the Mohawks and the sainted maiden of the Iroquois village of Kahnawake, laid her head upon her death-bed one chill spring in 1680, it was said that the disfiguring small-pox scars she’d contracted vanished from her beautiful corpse. There in the dread wilderness of New France, where spring snows fall blue and deep and the horizon is marked with warm smoke from maple long-houses and fallen acorns are soggy under moccasin slippers, America’s indigenous saint would die. A witness recorded that Tekakwitha’s face “suddenly changed about a quarter of an hour after her death, and became in a moment so beautiful.” A fellow nun records that the evening of the saint’s death, she heard a loud knock at her door, and Tekakwitha’s voice saying “I’ve come to say good-bye; I’m on my way to heaven.”
Tekakwitha’s short decades were difficult, as they must by necessity be for anyone who becomes a saint. She was victim of a world collapsing in on itself, of the political, social, economic, and ecological calamities precipitated by the arrival of the very people whose faith she would convert to, one hand holding a bible and a crucifix, the other a gun—all of them covered in the invisible killing virus. Despite it being the religion of the invaders, Tekakwitha had visions of the Virgin and desired conversion, and so she journeyed over frozen Quebec ground to the village of the “Black Robes” who taught that foreign faith.
When Tekakwitha met with the Jesuits, they told the Iroquois woman not of the Tao, nor did they speak of heaven, rather they chanted a hymn of Karonhià:ke, the realm from which the father of all things did send his only son to die. Of her own accord, Tekakwitha meditated on the words of the Jesuits, her confessor Fr. Cholonec recording that she finally said “I have deliberated enough,” and she willingly went to the baptismal font. She has for the past three-centuries been America’s indigenous saint, a symbol of Christ reborn on this land, the woman of two cultures whom William T. Vollman describes in his novel Fathers and Crows as “Tekakwitha…praying besides the Cross of maple wood she had made.”
Much controversy follows such conversions: are we to read Tekakwitha—who endures as a symbol of syncretism between Christianity and indigenous spirituality—as a victim? As a willing penitent? As some cross between the two? In his novel Beautiful Losers, the Canadian poet, novelist, and songwriter Leonard Cohen says of Tekakwitha that a “saint does not dissolve the chaos.” Tekakwitha is not a dialectic to resolve the contradictions between the Catholic and the Iroquois, the French and the Mohawk. She is not an allegory, a parable, a metaphor, or an example—she is Tekakwitha, a woman.
If we are to draw any allegorizing lesson from her example, it must be this—conversion, like death, is something that is finally done alone. Who can we be to parse her reasons for embracing that faith, just as how can we fully inhabit the decisions of Julian, or Spinoza, or Hansmann, or Ricci? Nothing can be more intimate, or sometimes more surprising, than the turn of a soul, the conversion of a woman or man. We aren’t known to one another; we’re finally known only to God—though it’s impossible to say which one. When Tekakwitha’s appearance changed, was this an indication of saintliness? Of her true form? Of the beatified face when it looks upon the creator-god Ha-wen-ni-yu? All that can be said of conversion is that it’s never final, we’re always in the process of being changed, and pray that it’s possible to alter our broken world in return. Converts, like saints, do not reconcile the chaos, they exist amidst it. In hagiography, we find not solution, but mystery—as sacred and holy as footprints on a virgin Canadian snow, finally to be erased as the day turns to night.
Image credit: Unsplash/Diana Vargas.
For those among the world’s inhabitants who take for granted that one day, in some far flung corner of the cosmos, a preternaturally melancholic being — earthling or otherwise — will come by chance to hear a Leonard Cohen song and thereby be made if not suddenly blissful then at least able to enjoy his, her, or its melancholy a little more, a recent edition of Rolling Stone will hold interest. In an interview timed to coincide with the release of Mr. Cohen’s 13th studio album, an event in turn coinciding with his 80th birthday, the man says essentially that he cares not at all what becomes of his work after he dies, nor what his legacy will be. The music? The poems? The novels? The life? He could give a damn.
Ouch, a Cohen believer might predictably reply.
They who tend to be a mite sensitive to begin with. And remember also the bad old days, before the present éminence grise phase of the career. When to speak too lovingly about Leonard Cohen was a sure way to get one’s emotional stability called into question. So now might be excused for getting their backs up. Certain that a blasphemy has gone down, in an “et tu, Brute” kind of way.
At least that’s what I feel, but why? What is it about Leonard Cohen that not only commands my interest but can also set off no small burst of emotion? Something else, too: what exactly is my legitimate stake in someone else’s posterity? Even as a fan. Somewhere in my bones I hear my late grandmother putting it this way: if Leonard Cohen doesn’t care what becomes of his work and legacy after he dies — what’s that your business?
Theory # 1: Adolescent Attachments
Like many people, whether they know it or not, my adolescence extended well into my 20s. With the most challenging aspect coming all at once, after college, and brought on by what at the time was a bewildering discovery: the world I’d entered in no way resembled the one of my childhood conception. And, as bewildering, the role I’d set myself up to play, based in commerce and convention — in this much ruder, rougher, cynical, uncinematic world — contained neither of the things I ended up needing most, which were creativity and risk.
There I was, making great money at an international accounting and consulting firm, living in Manhattan, in the thick of a super-abundant social scene; with everything, supposedly, in front of me to make a fulfilling, even enviable life. Why was it then I felt increasingly anxious and in despair? And carried about a suspicion that in all but the physical sense I was engaged in a form of gradual self-mutilation? With this condition exacerbated by a lack of understanding from a beloved parent, and my own weakness, ignorance, insecurity, confusion.
And it was in the midst of this storm I found Leonard Cohen’s music. Found and grasped immediately that, more than a perfectly exquisite soundtrack to my suffering, these sounds and words could somehow help me come through. I remember those first experiences well. Alone in a room, sitting or more often lying down, listening and letting my mind unravel was the primary activity. Something done in anticipation of relief, and compelled by a purely intuitive sense that the music was functioning as a kind of cure.
And in this, by the way, I’m far from alone. Legion are the stories about the outsized role Leoanrd Cohen’s music has played for those in distress. Stories like the one told to me by a woman in a bar: how as a teenager, while in a dark-night-of-the-soul kind of way, she ventured into a blizzard to attend a Leonard Cohen concert, and was turned around by it, made okay (And how, years later, she had the opportunity to describe this experience to Leonard Cohen directly, and he replied, ”Do you mean the night it snowed?”). Stories to be found on the vast array of Leonard Cohen-related fan websites, including Here It Is, a site whose sole purpose is to collect such personal anecdotes, testaments, expressions of gratitude. Stories like the one recounted by Christopher Hitchens in his book Mortality connecting terminal illness and the increased likelihood of Leonard Cohen’s music turning up in the mail as an otherwise unprompted gift.
Something is there: in the bare, honest, intrepid voice; the lamenting, mysterious, romantic, at times oddly rejoicing lyrics; the oft-austere, never showy arrangements. Something that at the very least harmonizes extraordinarily well with psychic dissonances; and at most, for some, if they possess the Leonard Cohen gene, induces an outright religious feeling. One all the headier for its universalist and literary qualities, but also the uniqueness of its source: a popular culture figure, somehow both playing the popular culture game and standing outside it, engaged in a seemingly authentic contemporary struggle between the sacred and profane.
Certainly, during my hard time, all of the above were at play. But also something else, which had to do with my only listening to the first three albums — Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs From a Room, Songs of Love and Hate — which are the most pained, wrenching, raw of his catalogue. These, when listened to in a focused manner, first song to last, reliably brought about the kind of reaction Aristotle attributed to Attic tragedy; that is, a feeling of purging and catharsis, for having both experienced and escaped a fate worse than my own!
So then, yes, adolescent attachment — of course don’t mess with it. But is it this alone twisting me out of shape? No. Probably not.
Theory #2: Rug Pull
The Leonard Cohen I thought I knew was an ambitious artist. Early on, while still in his 20s and well before he turned to music, he was a serious and flamethrowing Canadian poet in the romantic tradition; and like the romantics he esteemed, his aspirations appeared anything but modest. Indeed, evidence of this — and a first rate riff in its own right — is something Cohen is reported to have said about his dear friend and fellow flamethrowing Canadian poet, Irving Layton:
“I taught him how to dress and he taught me how to live forever.”
Was I wrong to take this more or less at face value? Especially when combined with a motif I remembered Cohen often bringing up in interviews, wherein he would describe himself as being a “minor” artist — minor in that he knew he was not a William Shakespeare or Homer, but a rung below, a Percy Bysshe Shelley or John Keats, that felt about where he was hanging, or at least trying to hang. This implied a great insight, I thought, about the nature of artistry overall — that ultimately there are three types of practitioners: Major, Minor, Biodegradable. But also, by extension, that if Cohen gave such thought to rank and stature, and saw himself in or near the strata wherein a major perk would seem to be that your name and work live on, that this same might hold attraction for him.
So I was surprised by what I read in Rolling Stone. And somewhat embarrassed, if only to myself, in the way one can get when exposed for being less the expert one thought on a topic of passion and interest.
And this, I think, along with my adolescent ties, makes a good start at untangling my present feelings; and puts me in view of what I’d like to think is inside these feelings, at their root.
Theory # 3: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen
Put simply: it’s up there, in the heights, among the best our culture has produced in the last 50 years. And I’m not referring to the two novels, both published in the ’60s and still in print, which were ambitious, well reviewed, and retain their contingent of champions. Nor to the poetry, Cohen’s original calling, and a form he’s never stopped working in, both for the purpose of song lyrics as well as stand alone works; he is in fact on most lists of Canada’s major poets, and in recent years his verse has even begun to appear in The New Yorker. No, it’s the music I’m of course referring to, which has proved to be his most penetrating and popular means of expression.
Thirteen studio albums, 135 or so songs, released over the course of 44 years. Hardly a prolific rate of output — Cohen has a famously laborious process — but then again how can care, patience, resistance to commercial pressure, and the evident life lived around and between these efforts be held against him? Especially when the end result is large enough that it spins out and looms like its own solar system?
Starting with Songs of Leonard Cohen. A debut made at the ripe age of 32, here is the best advertisement I know for artists exploring new forms, especially at the moment in Cohen’s development that he did: a confluence wherein he was in early maturity as a man and artist, yet retained the youthful arrogance and iconoclasm upon which he and so many young creatives first draw.
Sonically, the elements of the songs are familiar enough. A bare male voice out front, accompanied by strings, mostly guitar. After this, though, we’re onto new ground. First, with the largely unmodulated arrangements, and recurring, hypnotic circularity to the guitar playing. Also though, with the quality of the singing voice — lacking mellifluousness, yes, like many singer-songwriters, but infused with a willful courage, intelligence, utterly disarming honesty. But most of all, with the lyrical content; the storytelling, or better, mythologizing effect a song can have. Because here is a song cycle that contains just enough that is ordinary — a platonic encounter in “Suzanne,” a tenderhearted chance meeting in “Sisters of Mercy” — but otherwise treads far, far, beyond. Abounding, for example, with religious imagery; lonesome wanderings; suicidal meditations; erotic power plays; and, no small part of the magic, the almost-but-not-quite-discernible. Rendered all in what meets the ear as finely pitched poetry.
The result is real estate, opened up for and around the listener.
And with the procession of albums, though they vary dramatically in style and tone, came a deepening and enrichment of this space. Certainly it has always been capable of nurturing far more than adolescents in crisis, as I was when I first got hooked. And really, here is the key. Contained in these recordings is a full literature for adults of a certain bent. Those who gain something essential of themselves when they pass through modern life’s deep and shadowy ravines — and all the more so when their guide is the right kind of priestly, worldly, hungry, humorous, humble; and possessed by a deft poetic gift.
Then there are the live performances, where all this can be encountered and experienced in three dimensions. This from his first tour in 1970, to his most recent, an extended series conducted between 2008 and 2013. And while, for the pre-2008 shows, I’m compelled to rely on written accounts, for the latter my source is first hand. I attended three shows, and here again religious themes must be employed. Leonard Cohen the performer literally on his knees for large portions of the evening, evincing reverence, effusive in his gratitude, and enacting a communion with the audience evidenced most tangibly among the latter in the form of tears.
Theory #4: Altruism
This is more of an anti-theory.
Because one thing I’m pretty certain not at play in my upset, in the stake I feel in Leonard Cohen’s posterity, is altruism. That is, when I ponder the possibility that future generations will neither listen to Cohen’s music nor know his name, the feeling I’m left with is largely indifference. A shame, I’m aware, as a do-gooder angle would certainly play well. Would certainly be an easy and dare I say fashionable way through this self-examination.
Why am I sharing this? I’m not at all sure. It could be in the spirit of Leoanrd Cohen himself, the absolute value he places on truth telling in his work. And/or it might be more pragmatic. As in I just need to get this confession out of the way so I can get back to more promising ideas.
Theory #5: What We Talk About When We Talk About Leonard Cohen — Part II
It matters who makes the art. We may like to think otherwise. That in our consideration the creator and creation can be kept separate. But the more we enjoy a song, picture, story, movie, the more our imaginations seek out the biographical. And what we find informs our connection, especially over time.
And so here is Leonard Cohen, who does far better than most in this regard.
Starting with the figure he cuts today, and has for the last many years. The always well-attired gentleman with an aura that is part ageing artiste, part Old Testament sage, part retired high-level Hollywood fixer. A man who in interviews speaks thoughtfully, incisively, playfully, at times elusively about his life, career, spiritual pursuits, reputation as sexual gourmand, decades-long struggle with depression (a struggle from which in his early 70s he emerged victorious). Indeed, it’s hard to imagine someone encountering the contemporary Leoanrd Cohen in interview or profile, or for that matter the most recent biography, and not come away more favorably disposed.
Yet really this seems so for all the figures he’s cut: aging-but-still-trenchant cult figure of the ’80s and ’90s, whose musical activities were significantly curtailed by depression and spiritual pursuits, including a five-year residency in a Zen Buddhist monastery. A-list supporting player in the ’60s and ’70s zeitgeist — an always fierce but decidedly non-Aquarian voice whose friendships, adventures, liaisons connected him to the likes of Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Nico, Lou Reed, Andy Warhol, Brigitte Bardot, Robert Altman, Judy Collins, Leonard Bernstein, Janis Joplin, and the Chelsea Hotel.
Before this, the serious writer living on a Greek island, pushing boundaries with literary narrative and obscenity laws on a regimen of sun, acid, barbiturates, fasting, family life with a Norwegian woman and her young son.
Preceded by Montreal, where Cohen grew up and found himself before the age of 20 the junior member of a school of like-minded artists; a group amped up on poetry, bohemian ideals, friendship, swinging the first axes at Canada’s still petrified cultural milieu.
So, wow, a bio that actually holds the light; that is, among other things, posterity-worthy. And, I realize, whether I like it or not, enforces my attachment to the man, and enriches my enjoyment of his music.
Theory #6: Me, Me, Me
True, also, it occurs in all this there might be some measure of ego involved — mine in particular.
That really, what is fandom anyway, if not an extension of self into the wider world? A blinking light of identity — and the bigger the fan the brighter the shine — wired to what one holds of great value? Worth defending? Getting really, really pissed off over?
And through this association a kind of contract is struck. With the fan, in exchange for a chunk of their identity, getting certain rights, namely to partake in the object of their fandom’s success, honor, recognition, glory. With some not-so-fine print stipulating a further condition: that the fan also suffers their object’s failures, dishonor, slights, nasty crap people post about it online.
Yes, absolutely, and the details of the relationship matter. That is, how long has it been going on between the fan and the object of their fandom? And where exactly was the object when the two first got together?
And while in my situation I’m not claiming to be the equivalent of the first shmoe in Memphis to say Hey, that Presley guy might actually have something, I have been a Leonard Cohen fan for over 25 years. And got on board when he was still a relatively obscure figure. Still prompted a lot of “Leonard who?” And to many who had heard of him, he was still something of a punch line. Misunderstood and underappreciated, even by his ostensible friend Leon Wieseltier, whose 1988 profile in The New Yorker was titled “The Prince of Bummers,” and ignored almost completely the spiritual dimension of Cohen’s work, person, appeal…
So where was I?
Right — ego, mine, and that old playground saw: you mess with my guy and you mess with me…
Theory #7: Beautiful Losersville
Confession: I can’t really recommend Leonard Cohen’s second novel, Beautiful Losers. Oh, it has its merits — supercharged intimacy and urgency, smart hipster philosophy, and an underlying scheme that successfully co-locates the personal, political, and spiritual planes of modern life. Nonetheless, I find the narrative somewhat quickly bogs down. That the acid, amphetamines, and still-youthful mysticism the influence of which he significantly wrote it under are a bit too much on display; while things like coherence, economy, restraint — all guiding values of his music — are nowhere to be found. Creating, all things considered, an effect wherein the mad visions and esoteric riffs tend to go on and on, the plot not so much.
Still, I can’t overstate the importance of this novel to me — this for the title alone.
Beautiful Losers does it for me. The phrase itself. I can hardly think of one I find more brilliant and expressive, apposite for the beat and bankrupt but still somehow divine world I see around me. Or, for that matter, a phrase that works at once as taxonomy, sanctification, a cold hard fact.
And though I don’t recall the precise moment I encountered it, I know it was in my late 20s, which is to say toward the end of my adolescence. This also being several years after I’d gone AWOL on the life I’d stepped into out of college. Several years after recognizing how important engagement with art was for my survival, I had begun to do some writing myself. What an impression this juxtaposition — at least to my American ears! — made. How well it meshed with my own increasingly mashed up ideas on matters large and small, including the various things a person might end up becoming, want to become, the tricked-out words ‘losing’ and ‘winning’ themselves. And, if only implicitly, what validation that my struggle to find a way to live had been worth it. The pleasure I derived evidence that one of the unforeseeable rewards of becoming your self is the capacity to find society, with people as in ideas.
And here again I’m not alone. The term having become a fairly steady seller in pop culture vernacular — found today on t-shirts, tattoos, graffiti, the title of a band, a semi-recent documentary, countless pieces of journalism, miscellaneous communiqués in countless languages. While, at the same time, maintaining heightened resonance for people like me. A coinage acknowledged as being exceptionally representative of a Leonard Cohen state of mind. And that also, it occurs, may still have applications yet unexplored. I’m thinking in particular of something I referenced earlier, the singular space Cohen’s music evokes. That if it were ever to become an actual habitat, a locale perhaps for “the Leonard Cohen afterlife” Kurt Cobain requests in his song “Pennyroyal Tea,” Beautiful Losers might again find use. Would serve well, for example, as a password at the border. Or motto on the currency. Or, in slight variation, a pretty good name of the entire thing.
Theory # 8: The Ghost of Good Scenes Future
But then again, I might have been too hard on myself.
Earlier, when I stated that my emotional connection to Leoanrd Cohen, and in particular the stake I feel in his posterity, has nothing to do with altruism. This might not be altogether true. Which I appreciate. Because while I came away from the prior theory forced to concede I was a thoroughly selfish bastard, now I can reconsider, and make a case that it’s only partially so.
The commonweal — there is an aspect about which I most definitely care: I want there to be good scenes.
And by “scenes” I mean in the sense that gained currency in the ’60s. Counterculture slang, prompted in part by the advent of LSD, verbalizing a sense that had for decades been making its way to the fore: the way we experience our lives has become so influenced by the stories we consume — especially from movies and TV — that for accuracy’s sake, when describing life’s de facto fundamental unit, we may as well employ the corresponding term. Scenes then being what we actually get, a seemingly (but not) endless supply; our lives at any given moment, and especially in retrospect, the net sum of their quality.
And I say, good scenes for one and all.
What qualifies? Perhaps the best definition relies upon a criterion once used to legally define hardcore pornography; that is, we know it when we see it. Because for sure there are as many definitions on the planet as there are actors. Nonetheless, as a baseline, it can perhaps be said that all good scenes involve connection, even when we are by ourselves. Also this: a temporary suspension of what seems to make life a burden, and the sensation, for however long it lasts, that we are getting what we need.
And here is where Leonard Cohen comes in. Because without his music, an entire genre of good scene is in jeopardy. A genre whose basic nature should by now be evident. And, not incidentally, a genre whose best days may still lie ahead — in the rapidly approaching time of outer space habitation. A time when the near-incomprehensible distances between celestial bodies will find their way into the relations between people, with corresponding quotients of loneliness, alienation, drooping and tattered human hearts. A time, in other words, in which Leonard Cohen’s music will find optimal purchase, really make a difference, absolutely pack a punch.
Well, imagine there’s this guy. A nice enough fellow for a dumb cluck, he’s living far from the world we now occupy, in some down-market solar system, on some outer planet’s moon, waiting for a sunrise that’s been weeks on the come. More, this confused young fellow, say about 25, has time on his hands, having recently quit his job trading rocket fuel futures. And psychically too he feels somewhat, no, very much in flux. Is going through that thing when for the first time in our lives we acknowledge certain truths. For example, how little we know, or control, and therefore how uncertain is our future. That thing when we start to feel fate differently. Feel fate, that is, as something that might truly, quickly, unapologetically, no-joke-at-all run us over; or maybe worse, leave us behind. With this depressing our young man, but also, strangely, leaving him in a state of wonder, and open, even hungry to let in more.
And just then a beam of light appears. The new day’s first. And he puts on some Leonard Cohen. What song? It almost doesn’t matter, as countless in the catalogue would do the trick, get him on his way into deep good scene. And yet, there’s one in particular, one Leonard Cohen song I’m thinking of, that might do even more. That is, take him through and clear a good scene. To whatever might come next.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
“Canadian writers as a whole do not trust Nature. They are always suspecting some dirty trick.” – Margaret Atwood, Survival
Susanna Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush was less an emigrant’s guide than a cautionary tale, and much early Canadian literature wrestled with the realities of that experience. Beautiful Losers (Leonard Cohen, 1966) finally freed Canadian writers from writing about the pioneer life and the implacable menace of the wilderness, but our anxiety about it never really went away (Elle, Solomon Gursky Was Here, The Orenda, and Indian Horse, to name a few). The land continues to demand our respect and attention.
The Bear, set in the early 1990s, rehearses that anxiety in a visceral way. Five-year-old Anna and her two-year-old brother Alex (Stick), survive a bear attack that kills their parents and then face the wilds of Algonquin Park on their own. “I need you to get your brother off the island,” her mortally injured mother whispers, when Anna and Stick emerge from the safety of the cooler. “It’s not safe.” With these words, Claire Cameron reminds us how tenuous is our mastery of the natural world.
I interviewed Cameron on a morning in early March. It was still too cold for a canoe trip, so we walked through the curated wilderness of High Park in Toronto instead. There was still snow on the ground but the cold snap had finally lifted and the birds were singing.
The Millions: In her study of Canadian literature, Survival, Margaret Atwood wrote that in the books she read as a child, “The main thing was to avoid dying, and only by a mixture of cunning, experience, and narrow escapes could the animal — or the human relying on its own resources — manage that.” Five-year-old Anna narrates your novel, and part of the tension in The Bear is the reader’s awareness of the killing indifference of the Canadian wilderness: we know the kids are not all right.
Claire Cameron: The real start was in the voice. It started to whisper to me. My son was five years old at the time and nattering incessantly. At five there’s that moment when their vocabulary catches up with their inner life. In the background was my ongoing interest in bears. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness. I started to write with that voice and the wilderness stuff wrapped itself around that voice. A bear came to mind. I’m so well acquainted with the attack that happened in 1991 in Algonquin Park, where I’d worked as a camp counselor the year before and the year after it happened. It was a couple who were experienced campers and it was around Thanksgiving. As far as bears go, that timing is crucial. No one else was there to witness it, but in reconstructing the scene they think it was a predatory attack, and they think the bear attacked the woman first. There are signs that the man put up a fight. It was a young male bear, which is another important point. Young males get kicked out by their mums and they don’t have their own territory. They are the ones that are more experimental and willing to take a chance.
What took me years to come to terms with was that the couple didn’t do anything wrong, and the bear was just being a bear. The summer after, I and a lot of people who worked at the camp were searching for a reason, we were hoping that the campers had done something wrong, that the campers had done something to bring this on to themselves. There wasn’t much detail available. It wasn’t until years later that I came to terms with the idea that they’d done nothing wrong. It was quite chilling.
TM: You say the bear was just being a bear, but bears don’t attack people often.
CC: No. Some people call it a rogue bear, and I use that language sometimes, just to communicate that it’s very unusual for a black bear to do that. But there are biologists who say that if a bear, especially this young male bear, has made a successful kill of a young moose calf, that a human isn’t such a leap. It’s not a matter of them having taste for human flesh. It’s that it’s October and they need to hibernate and they need calories. A lone male is going to be struggling.
TM: When Anna and Stick reach the mainland and eat some of the “dangle berries” they forage, my mind went to the recent news about the neurotoxins in the wild yam seeds that Chris McCandless (Into the Wild) ate. If an adult, equipped with guides to edible plants, couldn’t figure out what might kill him, how could children be safe? Putting your characters directly in harm’s way meant simply letting them run out of food.
CC: Because I’ve taught Outward Bound courses, which were 30 day stretches in the wilderness with young kids who didn’t have much experience, I’m acutely aware of the boundaries, which are first and foremost hydration. And adults can really only go for three days. A lot of people worry about food but that’s just a distraction.
I love the wilderness for all sorts of reasons but my fundamental reason for being out there is what you learn about the people you’re with, especially when they come under stress. That section I was very much playing with those things, seeing how they’d react and what they’d do. What their priorities would be. A child is often stomach-led. I had this instinct that they would be wanting to put something in their mouth.
TM: Did you think of them getting hold of something poisonous?
CC: My son and I go hiking enough and one of the things we’re always talking about is, “Doesn’t that look tempting to eat? But you don’t eat that.” He can drone on about how he shouldn’t eat things. It’s one of my hobby horses. My intention was that her mother had been similarly on Anna about that kind of thing. I did feel that to be realistic and not fall into a heap, Anna needed some kind of prior structure.
TM: Earle Birney coined the term “bushed” in his iconic poem by that name to describe the way the wilderness does a number on our mental health. As the weather turned and the bush became something he knew he might not survive, Richard Wagamese’s young Ojibway character (in Indian Horse) put it this way: “The land around us was like a great being hunched in the darkness.” You give fresh meaning to being bushed when Anna imagines the darkness as a flesh-eating monster. Were you consciously working from that literary tradition? It’s hard to imagine in an urban park, but have you ever been bushed yourself?
CC: I’ve been bushed lots. I was working more from an experiential tradition than a literary one, probably, though I’m very attracted to all of those writers. I’ve done a lot of time outdoors. Some of the most interesting times, in retrospect, are when you get bushed, up against the edge. It reminds you of your place in the world, how small and insignificant you are. We love to put sentiment on nature, we love to give it human emotions, but it’s really about realizing your place, and how precarious your place is.
TM: Nick Cutter (aka Craig Davidson, the worst-kept secret in Canadian literature) recently published a horror novel about young people in the wilderness, The Troop. In an interview about it, he said, “I think for the boys in my book, they keep going because, simple as it seems, it’s impossible for them to believe that they won’t survive.” This childlike trust that the universe is benign is very much a thematic concern in The Bear, too. It makes it possible for Anna to endure.
CC: I loved The Troop for that point, that the young mind is flexible and can snap back. I feel like we had that observation in common. I picked up on that in conversations with my son, when I noticed he’d be so sad about something that he’d feel that his life was over and it was all ruined and then in the next minute be laughing hysterically. I was amazed at watching that, noticing how much protection there was in that, to be able to switch and be in a moment like that. I think it is a survival tactic.
TM: Writing from the perspective of a five-year-old also means childish self-absorption. She laughs at her brother’s nakedness, notices the way her skin turns white from so much water, and worries about being in trouble with her parents. Meanwhile, she’s lost in the wilderness. Does her tunnel vision protect her from the larger terror an adult with greater knowledge of the world would feel?
CC: I think it does. That ability to be in the moment helps you keep relaxed. In a survival situation, being relaxed is one of the key things. I think it stops her from overloading with stress, which an adult might do. It’s a survival mechanism of its own.
TM: You’ve said that you were very much aware of Lord of the Flies while you were writing this book, and that you were consciously writing against it. Tell me more about that.
CC: I reread it sometime in the year before I started writing. When I’ve been working leading wilderness courses, there’s been a longstanding joke when things start to break down, everyone says, “Oh, Lord of the Flies!” So I reread it. I’d known it wasn’t exactly a kind take on human nature, but having two boys I was really struck by how it gave them no benefit of the doubt. It was quite a mean take on human nature. I saw so much kindness in my boys that I got angry that I’d let Lord of the Flies define so much. Why is that the reference point? That really frustrated me. So I started writing against that.
TM: So you said you were listening to your son’s voice, and yet you drew the character as a girl.
CC: The book was originally two boys. I was listening to my son’s voice and the character was a boy, and I had a much longer section when they were grown up and returning to the island at first. I was really struggling with that and my agent said, Well, maybe it’s a girl. I went into a three-day snit. Absolutely not! It was so foundational that I was writing against Lord of the Flies. I calmed down and I read through, and the older character was going on about popsicles and Band-Aids. I realized that she and I shared a lot of interests. I started to leave Lord of the Flies behind. Maybe that was a reason for starting, but why would that matter to the reader? I knew I’d write about a strong little girl really well.
TM: In your review of The Troop for The Globe and Mail you wrote about how the female character is always the one being eaten, and how that irritates you. Was that part of that character decision as well?
CC: It became a big part of that. Especially in wilderness and survival writing, there’s been, similar to horror, a damsel in distress role for women. My grandmother’s sister was a climber in the 1950s who was in the Kootenays (south-east British Columbia), a back-country skier, and I don’t see her story. There were quite a few Victorian rock-climbers, they went in skirts, but it’s not really established in the wilderness writing canon. I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. I was so glad that Craig Davidson didn’t have anyone skinny dipping at the beginning!
TM: Releasing children to their own recognizance is a common fairy tale trope. When she was small, I’d hear my daughter announce “we were orphans” during imaginary play. Like in fairy tales, that was always the start of everything: get the parents out of the way so something interesting can happen. There are clear narrative constraints when you limit yourself to the perspective of a five-year-old, but I think there are freedoms, too. Did you ever attempt this story from the adult perspective?
CC: I didn’t, because it started with the voice. One of the first times I’ve thought clearly about this was when Mark Medley interviewed me for the National Post and he said, You have all these tools but you’ve chosen to throw them to the side and essentially tie one hand behind your back. Why would you do that? And I had no way to answer. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to write from the child’s perspective, I thought, I’m going to use this voice. In my first few drafts I had many more signposts for the reader, days of the week, some articles, a section from the rescuer’s perspective. I was not confident in my ability to pull it off. As I got more into the voice and attuned to what I was doing, I started to strip that back and the last step was taking it all out. I thought, Ok, I think I can stand up. I had to be brave.
It was incredibly freeing. I stopped worrying so much while I was writing, and I stopped using that analytical part of my brain and I let it go back to this instinctual brain. When I was writing Anna’s voice I let myself write fast and I didn’t read back. I just let it rip.
TM: Your bear is very different from Marian Engel’s bear, but both animals seem to stand in for our relationship with the natural world. We understand it as benevolent as well as destructive; we love it and we fear it. Has the writing of this novel changed your relationship with wilderness?
CC: The review in People magazine said something like, “This could do for camping what Jaws did for beaches.” I thought, Oh, good lord! I actually loved the novel Jaws and I’d been reading about how Peter Benchley has such great regret about what he did to great white sharks. They weren’t understood when he wrote that, and the novel portrays them as killing machines. If you read the blurb about my book, and you don’t actually read the book, there is potential for harm. It’s made me realize the extent of my conflict. Of course when I go outdoors I’m very conscious of them and I’m scared of them in a way, but all of my experiences say that I don’t need to be. I think that part of writing this book was trying to reconcile those two things.
Canada’s national airwaves took on a decidedly literary tone last week with the latest installment of Canada Reads. This annual, week-long competition began in 2002 when five celebrity readers went to bat for the Canadian book of their choice. The panel would convince and cajole each other and at the end of each day, they would vote one of the contenders off the literary island. At the end of the week, one book survives.The 2007 winner is Lullabies For Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill, and championed by Winnipeg songwriter and poet John K. Samson.In O’Neill’s novel, the 12-year-old narrator, neglected by her junkie father, “collects and covets the small crumbs of happiness she finds as she navigates the streets of Montreal’s red-light district.”Lullabies beat out Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis, (championed by Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page), The Song of Kahunsha by Anosh Irani, (pitched by writer Donna Morrissey), Children of My Heart by Gabrielle Roy (defended by journalist Denise Bombardier), and Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park (whose praises were sung by Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy).This year’s contest was an all-star competition, as each of the panelists had successfully championed the previous five winners:Page’s pick in 2002, Michael Ondaatje’s wonderful In The Skin of The Lion, set in the immigrant communities of Toronto between the two world wars, won that year’s contest.In 2003, Bombardier’s pick Next Episode by Hubert Aquin, was victorious. Cuddy outsung the competition in 2004, giving victory to Guy Vanderhaeghe’s The Last Crossing. In 2005, the crown went to Rockbound by Frank Parker Day, and pitched by Donna Morrissey. And John Samson’s first taste of victory came last year with his winning defense of A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews.Note that these books (and their contenders) include novels, short fiction and poetry, and are as likely to be drawn from Canada’s rich literary tradition as from the latest offerings from publishers. I might quibble with some of the choices (that Leonard Cohen’s second novel Beautiful Losers lost in 2005 still irks me, and I sided with Scott Thompson in his pitch for Mordecai Richler’s Cocksure in 2006). Still, sour grapes aside, it’s tremendously healthy for a country to be occasionally reminded of its often-overlooked literary past.Those of you who have read my bio or my Millions contributions over the years know that I don’t shy away from slipping a mention of my favorite songwriters and musicians – past and present – wherever I can possibly fit them in. So with that in mind, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this year’s and last year’s championing defender, John K. Samson is himself, one hell of a songwriter, and three albums by his band, The Weakerthans, sit proudly in my record collection. Samson is also a founding publisher of Arbeiter Ring Publishing, specializing in social and political works.
Leonard Cohen turned 70 a few months ago and, amid the celebration, was the subject of countless pieces of reflection. Most of them concentrated on the music career that has consumed the last half of his life, and on the poetry which runs as a current through everything. But this is not a music blog, and I’ve never felt particularly confident writing about poetry. (Though I implore each of you to get your hands on his various volumes of poetry and at least his first three LPs. No record collection is complete without Songs from a Room.)So this, then, is about Leonard Cohen, master of prose, and in particular, his first novel – The Favorite Game. By 1963 a 29-year old Leonard Cohen had already given the world two volumes of poetry and was living in London, reflecting on his youth in Montreal. And so we meet Lawrence Breavman, poet-adventurer. The Favorite Game weaves past with present, with an acute comic eye for Breavman’s childhood — his years of discovery of his place within and without his family, of friendships and girls. These scenes cut in and out of a later narrative which finds Breavman in his college days, still prowling for adventure, now adding words to his arsenal of weapons to conquer the hearts of women.Poetry is “a verdict,” Breavman tells us, a judgment passed, and quite distinct from the creation of the words themselves. When he writes them, when he utters them, they are “propaganda,” Breavman confides to us. They are spoken for their luring powers. In his childhood, Breavman experimented on unsuspecting girls with hypnosis with much the same intent. The boy becomes the man.Through it all, childhood and youth, there was Krantz — Breavman’s best friend, partner-in-crime. Devil in his ear. Their friendship was an ongoing dialogue played for comic effect, a running commentary on the world around them. It gave them an awareness, a self-awareness. A detachment.And then Krantz leaves. His next chapter will happen, unwritten, in England. “We’ve got to stop interpreting the world for one another.” And so the dialogue is suspended, but not immediately. The early post-Krantz days find Breavman still the prowler, still soaking up experiences, and still invoking Krantz’s name as if he were still there. Still devil in his ear.Enter Shell. We’d met her before. Snippets of dialogue and confidences popping up in the early narrative. But we’d never been properly introduced. Now the narrative catches up with their meeting. In New York now — grad school. Breavman and Shell. Shell and Breavman. They become a closed world to themselves. The tone becomes more serious. More adult. Krantz is no longer in his ear. We don’t know yet whether Shell will wind up as merely another conquest, another shadow, another scar. We do know that this seems different. She not only enters Breavman’s life, she anchors it.When Krantz’s name is mentioned late in the narrative, it’s jarring. A name from the past, from a different Breavman. We realize how different his world has become. And then Krantz is back — but he’s changed. Or maybe Breavman’s changed. Either way, the suspended dialogue is released, and it crashes.There’s more. Old voices call Breavman back. They mix with the new voices. Pretty soon the new ones become the old ones, and Breavman’s life continues, unwritten, beyond the pages of the book.Three years later, Leonard Cohen would give us Beautiful Losers, his only other novel. Its a stunning work, stylistically rich and daring. It deserves its own discussion, but not now.There’s a common and rather irritating perception of Leonard Cohen as a harbinger of doom. The song “The Future” and a few other cautionary tales aside, I’ve never really bought into this. Maybe for some its the deep voice of the later records. But then they can’t be really listening to the words. So maybe it’s the depth of the words. He digs deeper into life than most writers, but he doesn’t just reveal foreboding. He reveals absurdities with wit. He reveals longing with passion. And he reveals loss with sadness.This is not the stuff of dread and gloom. It’s the stuff of life. And we’re all the richer for his passion.