Speaking Sweetly from ‘The Window’: Reading Leonard Cohen’s Song

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  Leonard Cohen is famous worldwide as a singer-songwriter, but he started his career as a poet and novelist, whose main themes were love and spirituality. His songs are far above the average popular products, and “The Window” is a good example of his
  JISMOR 6 106   Speaking Sweetly from “The Window”: Reading Leonard Cohen’s Song  Doron B. Cohen o the memory of Amnon Amir  My first partner in reading LC  Abstract Leonard Cohen is famous worldwide as a singer-songwriter, but he started his career as a poet and novelist, whose main themes were love and spirituality. His songs are far above the average popular products, and “Te Window” is a good example of his sophisticated writing. Cohen, who was brought up in a Jewish family in Montreal, was influenced by the surrounding Catholic society, and later immersed himself in many other religious traditions, in particular Sufism and Zen Buddhism. Tese and other traditions, as well as various literary, mystical and psychological trends, can be detected in this song. While the imagery owes much to Sufi poetry, a close analysis reveals that Jesus Christ is a major figure in the song. Te song is interpreted as both a mystical journey and a prayer for peace of mind, directed at a messianic figure which Cohen has woven together from the various religious and literary traditions that have been the key to his work.  Keywords:  Leonard Cohen; poetry; Kabbalah; Sufism; Jesus Christ  Leonard Cohen is famous for two themes that are the mutual foci of his work, from his earliest poems to his most recent songs: love and spirituality. Trough Cohen’s poems, novels and songs readers and listeners have been offered a candid view of both his sexuality and faith. However, his work can not be divided accurately by this dichotomy; first because there are other aspects to it, such as political concerns in the widest sense, and second because it is sometimes difficult to separate between those various concerns, which are often intertwined. It might therefore be difficult to offer an unequivocal interpretation to a Leonard Cohen poem or song, as they can often be interpreted in more than one way, and they also mean different things to different people. In this reading of “Te Window”, 1)  I do not wish to impose an interpretation from outside,   JISMOR 6   JISMOR 6  Doron B. Cohen 107 according to one common theory or the other, but to try, as far as possible, to work from inside Cohen’s poetry, from his familiar world of imagery, and while referring to his own words when talking about his work. My aim here is to try to come as near as possible to what Cohen might have had in mind when composing this song. I will also introduce external material of various kinds, but such that must have been familiar to Cohen, and could have had an impact on the song. “Te Window” is a complex song, containing some poetic symbols that do not yield their meaning easily. A poet may use symbols to express a richness of meaning that cannot be adequately expressed otherwise, or to relate a vision that cannot be related directly. Tis is especially true with romantic and religious writers, and Cohen can be described as both. But what exactly does the symbol mean to the poet? And to what extent may we interpret it according to the vast catalogue of familiar symbols and their meanings? We may even ask: to what extent is the poet himself conscious of the various meanings of an archetypal symbol he might use? Te answers are not always clear, and therefore we may not be confident in our interpretation, but an attempt must be made, and it must follow closely the contents and language of the song. Te contents of “Te Window” are spiritual. Cohen’s songs and poems are sometimes written from the point of view of a soul feeling lost and wishing to come in contact with an ultimate reality. In his quest and his imagery Cohen does not adhere faithfully to one specific tradition; nor is he a “professional” mystic by any means. He absorbed much from the Jewish tradition in which he was raised, and he did some studies in the Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, later in life. He also absorbed a great deal of imagery from the Catholic culture in the midst of which he grew up in Montreal, and for many years has been studying various religious and mystical traditions, and particularly Zen Buddhism. All these have influenced his thinking and writing, but we should also bear in mind that at different times Cohen must have felt a closer affinity with one or other tradition, and I will also relate to this premise in my following discussion. HE WINDOW 2) Why do you stand by the window abandoned to beauty and pride? the thorn of the night in your bosom, the spear of the age in your side; lost in the rages of fragrance, lost in the rags of remorse, lost in the waves of a sickness that loosens the high silver nerves.  JISMOR 6 108 O chosen love, O frozen love O tangle of matter and ghost. Oh darling of angels, demons and saints and the whole broken-hearted host - Gentle this soul. And come forth from the cloud of unknowing and kiss the cheek of the moon; the New Jerusalem glowing, [the code of solitude broken,] why tarry all night in the ruin? [why tarry confused and alone?] And leave no word of discomfort, and leave no observer to mourn, but climb on your tears and be silent like a rose on its ladder of thorn. O chosen love, O frozen love … {missing in the printed version}Ten lay your rose on the fire; the fire give up to the sun; the sun give over to splendour in the arms of the High Holy One; for the Holy One dreams of a letter, dreams of a letter’s death - oh bless the continuous stutter of the word being made into flesh. O chosen love, O frozen love O tangle of matter and ghost. Oh darling of angels, demons and saints and the whole broken-hearted host - Gentle this soul,  gentle this soul. Te Window Te image of the window, as well as images that have to do with light, are very common in Cohen’s writing. In this case it seems that “image” is more appropriate than “symbol”, although the symbolic value of the window cannot be denied; but in Cohen’s case the window  Doron B. Cohen 109 seems to be a very concrete object, although filled with meaning. “Window” is a word that holds a special place in Cohen’s private mythology (“room” is another one), and it often plays an important part in his poems and songs. For example, it appears in the first line of “So Long, Marianne” ( Songs of Leonard Cohen , 1968), where it obviously serves as a source of light: Come over to the window, my little darling I’d like to try to read your palm In the first stanza of “Stories Of Te Street” ( ibid  ) the speaker is situated in the strategic position of the observer, leaning on the window-sill and looking at the street below (“the rose”, which has an important place in “Te Window”, as we shall later see, also appears here): Te stories of the street are mine, the Spanish voices laugh. Te Cadillacs go creeping now through the night and the poison gas, and I lean from my window-sill in this old hotel I chose,  yes one hand on my suicide, one hand on the rose. Leaning on the window-sill, or lying by the window, also means being in a state of indecision and confusion. In the above lines the speaker cannot make up his mind between his suicide and the rose. Another example is in “Te Stranger Song” ( ibid  ): And then leaning on your window-sill He’ll say one day you caused his will o weaken… Te situation in “Master Song” ( ibid  ) is somewhat similar, although the atmosphere here is of loneliness and despair, rather than indecision: I’ve lain by this window long enough You get used to an empty room From a much later period and the album en New Songs  (2001) there’s “Love Itself”, again bringing together the window and the light, as well as love (which is capitalized here, perhaps also hinting at the religious meaning): Te light came  through the window, Straight from the sun above, And so inside my little room  JISMOR 6 110 Tere plunged the rays of Love. Other examples include “onight Will Be Fine” ( Songs From A Room , 1969) (“I choose the rooms that I live in with care, / the windows are small and the walls almost bare”), and “ower Of Song” (  I’m Your Man , 1988) (“I’m standing by the window where the light is strong”; the song ends with the line: “I’ll be speaking to you sweetly from my window in the tower of song”). Tese and several other songs include the window as an important image with an impressive consistency. Incidentally, in some of the documentary films made about him, Cohen can be seen looking through the window of his room, or sitting on the window-sill. 3)  It is no wonder that he eventually wrote a song entitled “Te Window”. Te same images also appear frequently in Cohen’s printed poems. Of special significance is the early poem “Brighter Tan Our Sun” from  Te Spice-Box of Earth  (1961), which reads: Brighter than our sun, Bright as the window beyond death, Te light in the universe Cleans the eyes to stone. Tey prayed for lives without visions, Free from visions but not blind. Tey could only drone the prayer, Tey could not set it down. And windows persisted, And the eyes turned stone. Tey all had faces like statue Greeks, Marble and calm. And what happened to love In the gleaming universe? It froze in the heart of God, Froze on a spear of light. Te window in this poem is open to a reality beyond this world, beyond death, bringing light for those willing to see it. In the second stanza the poet criticizes those who pray dutifully but meaninglessly, afraid of an unexpected vision that might rattle their secure world. Te light, when coming through the window to such people, rather than uplift them, turns them into stone, killing love, causing even the heart of God to freeze. But the unstated meaning of the
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