Leonard Cohen and the Babylonian Exile of the Modern World

Leonard Cohen performs at the Glastonbury Festival in 2008. (Reuters photo: Luke MacGregor)
By the rivers dark he wandered on, and he did not forget his holy song.

Leonard Cohen is dead. No musician has acquired as much fame in our times for telling the ugly truth about love, so we should look again to learn what he has to teach. Love reveals an existential vulnerability — living is by itself living dangerously. Sometimes, Cohen treated love with a knowing humor to soften the blows and to avoid creating idols. Other times, he turned to the troubled mood of the lover to discover the place of man in the world. At his best, he treated as a search for God the way love reveals man’s loneliness. That is our subject today, and it is a fitting subject on the morrow of his death.

By the rivers dark I wandered on.

I lived my life in Babylon.

And I did forget my holy song:

and I had no strength in Babylon.

“By the Rivers Dark” opens the second half of the album Ten New Songs (2001), Cohen’s return to love songs and the secret councils of the heart, and it may be seen to correspond with the song opening the album, “In My Secret Life.” This song is a rewriting of Psalm 137, so it conceives of the secrecy of human life as God’s call, rather than as erotic disappointment. The main thrust of the rewriting is this, that the modern world itself is Babylon and man cannot leave it. The normalization of Babylon, however, forces us to ask ourselves how we start in our modern lives to look for something beyond the things that drive us crazy. Our new situation is an exile; we are wanderers now, like it or not.

We will start from the most important fact about this song, that it is an account of past events — of the loss and the regaining of the holy song and the strength it requires and rewards. That faith should be presented as a holy song is not altogether a shock, and it is easiest understood together with strength. It is an ancient Platonic saying that music reveals the souls of those who long for God. It is also obvious that song offers not merely joy or merely understanding but also strength and conviction, which is also part of the experience of, say, worship music. This song is, of course, not the holy song. What Jews were supposed not to do, this one has done. What the psalm says the faithful shouldn’t do, accept exile, is now the normal condition. Of course, to be lost is to have once been otherwise. The wandering suggests a longing, an awareness of the lost home. One wonders what to make of the rivers of Babylon. Two of four rivers said to flow through Eden in Genesis reach Babylon. It is not their source that concerns us now, however, but their darkness, which should be understood to mean that it does not reflect the skies and that it conceals God.

By the rivers dark where I could not see

who was waiting there, who was hunting me.

And he cut my lip, and he cut my heart,

so I could not drink from the river dark.

And he covered me, and I saw within,

my lawless heart and my wedding ring.

I did not know and I could not see

who was waiting there, who was hunting me.

We’re moving to a center, which is an encounter. The two crucial facts known to the psalm, love and law, are going to be reexamined. Love of God is with the exiles in Babylon, but no longer the laws under which they lived. That basic opposition does not seem to be working as well in this new situation, but there is an attempt to put love and law together in the wedding ring, which is meant to bind the heart.

Man is the hunted; God is the hunter. That is one image of love.

The sections of the song are separated by the repeated mention of the dark rivers. This second section starts and ends with hunting. Man is the hunted; God is the hunter. That is one image of love. The darkness of the rivers and the inability to see and the being covered together suggest night and time. This is the condition of the revelation, an inability to distinguish the things of the world and a turn to the soul. Why should God want to prevent man’s drinking from the river dark? There is a complicated suggestion there: forgetfulness, the condition in which the experience recounted takes place, the abyss; the dark rivers, and perhaps death, the terrible sense of danger, of being hunted. We remember something about the original situation, before the series of acts of separation or distinction that constitute God’s creation in Genesis 1. Then the spirit was hovering over the dark abyss. Something like that is again the case. A world where man is in exile rather than at home, wandering rather than at rest, recalls the initial chaos more than the claim that we understand and inhabited an orderly world. The soul, in its strongest longing, may oppose itself to the world and seek to abandon it. The lawlessness of the heart is not merely living in a world that’s not about anything holy — it’s refusing to be at home in the world.

The alternative to man’s surrendering to the abyss is a wounding. Lip and heart are cut by the hunter to prevent speech and forgetfulness. How? Speech will be tied together with blood and therefore life. The heart is no longer free or whole. It is man’s possible self-possession that is compromised. This is similar to the justification of circumcision, by the way. Then there is the wedding ring connected to the lawless heart. It is adulterous love that is being punished; or, in another way, idolatry. The problem is not cleared up until we see that the repetition that concludes the stanza is not a true repetition. Only after our singer encounters God does he know that he did not know before. God must touch man before man can even see that in this world man is hunted by God.

By the rivers dark, I panicked on.

I belonged at last to Babylon.

Then he struck my heart with a deadly force

and he said, “This heart: It is not yours.”

And he gave the wind my wedding ring;

and he circled us with everything.

By the rivers dark, in a wounded dawn,

I live my life in Babylon.

Only now does our singer truly belong to Babylon. Merely being unhappy or wandering is not enough — knowing that this world is haunted by God is what’s necessary to make sense of Babylon and therefore to belong. The possibility of revelation is the terror that souls could become prey. We want to believe we are in control of ourselves, too, of our souls — primarily, that we are responsible ultimately for our fate. This goes beyond believing merely in the thoughtful control we have over an orderly, predictable world in which natural and artificial regularities reassure us that there is no time but the time that repeats itself in cycles. But both claims are endangered by our utter awareness of our mortality. The strongest longing of the soul suggests that there is, beyond mortality, a standard by which we can judge things and that is the key to our dissatisfaction with the limits we perceive in our world. To be at home in Babylon is not to be fully ignorant of the higher law but to live in terror of its possibility. This is the condition set here for a revelation.

The simple speech we are offered as divine command tells us that soul is what ties us to God. The yearning of the heart cannot stop, and therefore man is not properly master of his own heart. This new awareness is said to come with a deadly force. This suggests twin possibilities: punishment and sacrifice. What does that imply? That there is a fate worse than death. The possibility of being at home in Babylon is what is punished. This is the central stanza, and it includes the only quoted speech.

At the end of the night, it should all be over: Life in Babylon is not after all avoidable, but now there is a difference. The lost wedding ring, consigned to the invisible, to the wind, is a haunting memory. That this is a revelation is signaled by the first use of a pronoun in the plural. Mankind is tested in this man. At the same time, something in the world is redeemed. What matters in the world is that it is the setting for man’s life and for the holy song.

Though I take my song from a withered limb,

both song and tree, they sing for him.

Be the truth unsaid and the blessing gone,

If I forget my Babylon.

I did not know and I could not see

who was waiting there, who was hunting me.

By the rivers dark, where it all goes on.

By the rivers dark, in Babylon.

This is the most startling inversion of the psalm: The poet commits to not forgetting Babylon, not Zion. The new condition of man, signaled by the withered limb, leads him, as in the olden day, to God. But now this comes by existential suffering. The emergence of the soul’s longing as being hunted is fit for the age of individualism. There is no community here, at least nothing beyond the audience to whom the revelation is vouchsafed. Even the holy song is replaced by a song about trying to live with the darkness in the world that reveals the darkness in the soul that longs for God. The divine hunter has not offered a command or a teaching. A despairing man, a wanderer could make his peace with the world, or at least a truce. This world is tolerable so long as the deep, secret unhappiness of man is understood as a longing for God, so long as the world is not turned into a comfortable home. Unhappiness begins to look like an adequate answer to the mysterious character of God. There is a dignity in it — in the certainty that God calls to the soul as surely and particularly as the hunter to his prey.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.


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