sentries of the heart

Before I go back to writing about my country, here’s a riff on the death of Leonard Cohen. It ultimately feeds back into my particular political angst and will, perhaps, make a nice segue.

To speak of Cohen’s death I need to do more than quote a few lines from my favorite Cohen song. indeed, I have some sympathy for the idea that Cohen would have been a better choice for the Nobel Prize than Bob Dylan. I think Dylan never escaped the historical moment to which his best songs were a response, though we can argue about what I think of as his retreat into religion. Cohen, on the other hand, spoke to the human condition at large; though a certain piety always tinged his vocabulary.

But I want to speak about Cohen from a moral perspective. I used to direct my students to a website devoted to Cohen’s “Alexandra Leaving,” one of his great songs, overlooked in the Facebook posts I have seen, as fans have flocked to songs like “Hallelujah” and “Anthem” that are easily susceptible to ideological translation. (Interestingly I have seen only one reference to “Suzanne, none to “Bird on a Wire.”) The Cohen songs of which I am most fond celebrate courage in the face of existential loss—and thereby hangs a tale.

“Alexandra Leaving” is a parody (in the musical sense of a copy or appropriation that does not necessarily imply or proceed from humorous or satirical intention) of a poem entitled “The God Abandons Antony” by Constantine Cavafy. If you look at the website I’ve referenced in the last graph you can read the texts of Cohen’s song and Cavafy’s poem in my favorite translation. My purpose in referring students to this website was that it exposes a complex case of appropriation. It also illustrates how an appropriation may not erase an appropriated text but rather comments on it in such a way that familiarity with the appropriated text can enhance and deepen one’s reading of the new. The website I reference cites Cavafy’s source in Plutarch but doesn’t mention Shakespeare’s use of it. Here’s another website that does.

It is both enough and not enough to say that “Alexandra Leaving” is about the end of a love affair, the loss of a lover and the speaker’s attempt to accept that loss without rancor or blame, even for himself, though acceptance of the loss necessitates acceptance of responsibility. For the loss is existential, like a death, a wound to the speaker’s identity and sense of his place in the world. That was Cohen’s gift in this song, to see how the loss of a lover to the death of love was akin to Antony’s loss of his adopted city, one of the greatest of Mediterranean cities, Alexandria.

There is a place in the Republic wherein Glaucon addresses Socrates as follows: “[Y]ou mean [to describe] this commonwealth we have been founding in the realm of discourse; for I think it nowhere exists on earth.” Socrates replies, “Yes, but perhaps there is a pattern set up in the heavens for one who desires to see it and, seeing it, to found one in himself.” (I’m quoting the Cornford translation.) For the Romans such a pattern was to be found in the earthly city, preeminently in Rome, itself. Even St. Paul paid homage to this conceptualization, claiming famously that he was a citizen of “no mean city,” taking some pride in his Roman citizenship. And it is this idea to which Cavafy alludes as he describes the defeated Antony:

As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city, . . .

“[I]t is right and a good and joyful thing,” to quote the Book of Common Prayer, for the defeated Antony, having lost everything, to step to the window as an invisible procession passes, to listen with a heart filled with courage

to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

One may lose a lover. One may even lose a city. One may lose the center and focus of one’s life. But one is not permitted to lose heart, not one who had been given such a lover, such a city, in the first place and for a while, at least, been found worthy of the gift.

I thought of these things before I knew of Cohen’s death, as I tried to sort through my own sense of having been gobsmacked by the election of Trump. For a while I felt as though I had lost my country and a big chunk of my identity as well. But countries come and go. I have lived through many iterations of my country in my almost eighty years. Here is one of my favorites among the songs of Leonard Cohen.

May he go with God.