Postmodern Conservative


Leonard Cohen’s Prophecies

Here’s how in his song ‘The Future’ he tries to showcase our confused freedom.

Prophets, all things considered, would rather not tell us what the future holds. It’s never good, for one thing. Prophets worth listening to are therefore ignored, but they prophesy anyway, compelled by something that cannot be embarrassed by public indifference. Their countrymen do themselves no honor in ignoring them, but if people paid attention, would there be any need for prophecy? We’re stuck with each other, we and our prophets, even if it takes time to make sense of each other. Here’s Leonard Cohen’s prophecy of 1992. It’s worth revisiting, because it gave us an ironic prophet with a bleeding heart, a man adequate to our confused times. He feels our pain well enough to impersonate us and knows where we look to for hope and for a future.

Give me back my broken night, my mirrored room, my secret life —

it’s lonely here, there’s no one left to torture!

Give me absolute control over every living soul

and lie beside me, baby, that’s an order!

To judge by prophecy, the road to wisdom starts in anger. Certainly, American freedom often begins in anger. People don’t like what’s going on and they want something done about it. That’s called having rights, which beats having nothing at all. It’s an American thing to do, demanding one’s rights, so the first stanza is nothing but demands. One is about being alone, the other about togetherness. They show the dividedness of modern man. Anyone that demanding ends up defined by imaginations of the future.

The being who really has to live with these imaginations and demands is described by a combination of unbearable loneliness and barely disguised tyranny. The two conditions go together. We want to get what we think we want because we’re desperate about getting anything at all. Whatever’s worth having is unavailable. Instead, we think we could have control. That’s no kind of future at all, because it suggests a terrible fear of any change. What’s worth having is a secret life and someone to love. That’s some kind of freedom from the imperatives of the times. Without that, we have no idea who we really are and what we’re really worth except who we’ll turn out to be — hence the lonely man’s obsession with the future.

Give me crack and anal sex! Take the only tree that’s left

and stuff it up the hole in your culture!

Give me back the Berlin Wall, give me Stalin and Saint Paul:

I’ve seen the future, brother, it is murder.

The year 1989 should have ushered in an age of celebrations — the Berlin Wall fell and Europe became free. The USSR collapsed. Democracy and capitalism were supposed to be the future! We now know there were no victory celebrations. Wordsworth said about 1789: “To be alive in that new dawn was bliss, but to be young was very heaven.” Nobody said that about 1989. We do not feel much freer or happier; freedom is just more confusing nowadays.

One part of freedom is shockingly ugly. From top to bottom, we get the sense that the human experience of ecstasy is now counterfeited. Is that the vaunted post–Cold War peace dividend? The solitary life and eroticism are now juxtaposed in an excruciating manner. Tyrannic desire is not merely suggested but put on display. Is that what the future holds for us? Trouble with “the culture” is an embarrassingly abstract way to put the problem. Suffice it to say that freedom looks like being aggressive to other people. That’s some kind of madness, bent on transgression. It all seems very unhealthy, too. Cohen points out that our Brave New World — our vision of the future as the End of History — is not just a clean hospital-hotel-resort. Some part of it is feverish and dirty.

Berlin is where East and West met. Godless atheism and the champions of God had an honest-to-God fight. We knew who we were — at least we knew who they were. Now, who are we? We are that which lives in chaos, when we no longer know friend and enemy. Despite the pious lies of relativism, that has not stopped conflict and war. It has merely made it incomprehensible and therefore made murder inevitable. Behold our situation and its predicament. Our victory has revealed to us that we might not be worth saving after all. The awful things that make freedom look like chaos have a deep cause. We are losing confidence because we have lost moral clarity. Retaining and regaining it is a condition for any future. For the future to be our future, we have to have some say in it. Otherwise, it’s just the future and we are enslaved to expediency and accident.

What does it mean to say “Stalin and Staint Paul”? They’re not just enemies, although that’s important: To be good, we need to think of ourselves as enemies of evil. Without that, we’ll turn into the kind of creatures who break through any limits they encounter. The problem with the victory we have won is that it robbed us of the sense of the defensive character of our struggle. In reality, our crisis is not overcome. But there is a deeper meaning: Stalin is the end of the history that starts with Saint Paul. Christianity ended up with the worst slaughters in the name of saving the people. In that sense, the Cold War distracted us from the crisis that tore Europe to pieces. We have to understand what’s come of us to understand what’s coming. The first step is to understand that what started with Saint Paul and ended with Stalin is not progress. We have to stop fantasizing about History and its end.

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions —

won’t be nothing  nothing you can measure anymore.

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold and it has overturned the order of the soul.

The verse was dominated by minor chords, Am and Dm. Now comes the chorus, shifting to the major chords of the C major scale. The consonances, however, are not a sign of good things. They merely add a kind of solemnity or strength to the singer’s awareness: the coming chaos that is the blizzard of the world. Whereas the previous statements were ironic, this seems as honest-to-God as it gets.

Things’ sliding suggests unfirm ground and unreachable things. Sliding in all directions is different, however: It suggests that our experience is confusion, and that might make communication impossible. It adds up to loneliness. The world is not that peaceful and it’s not our home. But the scientific-political attempt to build a Brave New World has made it possible for the world to bite back, so to speak — to overturn the order of the soul. The problem is implicit in our victory. The quality revealed in us by the future is eroticism. Our awareness of the eroticism of the world — its being characterized by desire – is more fundamental than the science and democracy that get us what we desire. When the fight is over, desire is the last thing standing. Sometimes, it is an unspeakable tyrant. Thinking that the world is whatever we want it to be is not mere escaping or hiding away from the blizzard of the world — of which only prophets speak, as Solzhenitsyn famously did at Harvard — it is the blizzard of the world.

The mention of measurement brings up questions about rationality. It follows statements about what we cannot measure and nothingness. Cohen is suggesting that we created our catastrophe by equating being with being measureable. His use of the negation quietly brings up the ghosts of the 20th century, when annihilation became the greatest striving of all modern politics. His observation about measurement can be applied to human things. Disregarding what’s not measurable compromises our ability to tell that people are people, which is otherwise reliable. We know they are real without need of measurement. The extreme case of freedom would mean saying that we measure things for our use and we also measure people to get whatever we want out of them. Such a future reveals something about our past. In the past, soul was so dependent on politics in the broadest sense — what we think about justice, about good and evil — that it eventually capsized.

When they said, Repent, repent, repent!

I wonder what they meant . . .

The attendant of prophecy is repentance and it’s a natural conclusion for our chorus. The call to repentance depends on remembering good things that have been lost — “nostalgia” is another word for it. Memory can act as a kind of protection against desperate gambles on the future. But the ancient call to repentance was canceled by the teaching of progress — there’s nothing so good we won’t be making it better! — that ended with 20th-century politics and psychology. This new faith made repentance seem obsolete, unnecessary, or silly. But after the world wars, as dreams of Progress collapsed, the call to repentance was not recovered — instead it came to seem impossible, because we had seen and done too much. Now, it is an object of wondering – of puzzled thought. Is it again possible to repent? Did it ever make any sense? The statements before the strange mention of repentance describe the modern adventure. But what kind of prophecy is available to those who have undergone the modern adventure? Freedom means in a deep sense being alone. In that loneliness, what voice could call anyone to repentance?

You don’t know me from the wind — you never will, you never did:

I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible.

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall, I’ve heard their stories, heard them all,

but love’s the only engine of survival.

The voice that comes calling is merely air, invisible motion. It is the invisible appealing to the invisible, to soul. This is an alternative to a blizzard perhaps. The unmeasureable is now recalled as the unseen. That a Jew wrote the Bible may seem plausible, but we must really take that on authority, not having witnessed it. But what is implicit in our belief? The possibility of the revelation of God, whether it come by Moses or by Jesus Christ. Cohen himself is Jewish. That carries the burden of the extermination at the hands of scientific totalitarian tyranny, and the burden of having the Torah as a birthright.

The doctrine of progress that canceled revelation is canceled by the possibility of revelation. If there is anything like the truth of revelation, dreams of progress, of certain, permanent improvements, are unbelievable. Instead, the nations rise and fall. Is prophecy necessary, if we’re to become able to say we’re not merely the creature of our circumstances, without any knowledge of ourselves except whatever turns out to come of us? Prophecy comes with a vantage point of its own — the rise and fall of the nations clarifies the sliding in all directions of things.

Politics is judged from the greater standpoint of love. The poet identifies the possibility, known to the prophet, of standing outside the city, beyond the laws. Love here seems to mean two things. One is reproduction; the other is the hope in the providential goodness of life — that the end is not world war. That’s the kind of hope in the future that’s natural to human beings. The visions of post-historical freedom we’ve confronted make us doubt whether we’re even up to reproducing ourselves! Do we believe we should preserve our way of life? We have to confront the birth dearth — after all, what causes human beings to stop perpetuating the species reveals something about humanity, if negatively.

Your servant here, he has been told to say it clear, to say it cold:

It’s over, it ain’t going any further!

And now the wheels of heaven stop, you feel the devil’s riding crop,

get ready for the future, it is murder!

We have come to the catastrophe – that’s what prophets do, prophesy catastrophe. Man and world are now subsumed to God. We thought we had heaven, but soon there will be hellfire. There was a seriousness to the Cold War that subsequent uses of freedom belie. But they will engender more dangers, a situation of even greater seriousness. The misunderstanding of love seems to be driving the chaos, and it seems catastrophe alone could reveal to people that they’re getting the basics wrong.

The misunderstanding of love is shown in the use of moods and pronouns. The first stanzas are dominated by me and my and by imperatives that show a basic misunderstanding of law. The imperative is the mood of the law; only God really speaks that way. When humans presume to do it, the strange result is, they cease to be actors. They become mere objects in their own stories! They are waiting for someone else to do whatever it is that human beings should do. The deepest meaning of this is that modern people tend to see themselves as powerless objects in the grip of forces carrying them into a hoped-for and feared future. To give orders is to delude oneself about being anyone.

The grammar also signals that the stanzas are ironic. The poet is impersonating the kind of human being he’s warning about — but his intention is neither mockery nor damnation. He seems to want to rob people of their illusions and to get them to experience “the devil’s riding crop,” which is stated not in the future but in the present. Implied in the act of impersonation is the hope that we retain the ability to change for the better. The latter two stanzas emphasize the indicative mood, and you appears as a genuine addressee. This you used to be called me. After this impersonation, this attempt at interpretation, it is possible to clarify the experience that we tend to misunderstand in our tyrannical mood. Now, a few certainties are stated – most important, the dependence of life on love.

Now a human being an I – can speak for himself. The talk of politics and history suggests that to be someone is to know the past. We can know the past, but not the future — a preference for knowing ourselves is a preference for the past. The future is not real, comparatively. Insisting on what we know about the past, which alone makes us knowable to each other, means we’re not enslaved by events and circumstances. We’re more than whatever we might turn out to be.

There’ll be the breaking of the ancient Western code!

Your private life will suddenly explode!

There’ll be phantoms, there’ll be fires on the road,

and the white man dancing!

You’ll see a woman hanging upside down,

her features covered by her fallen gown,

and all the lousy little poets coming round,

tryin’ to sound like Charlie Manson.

And the white man dancin’!

The bridge ushers in the revelation — mostly statements in the future tense. You get the real thing here and it makes a mockery of writers who try to sound tough, while reminding people about this phony stuff: The prophecies of the Summer of Love ended up scary. His credibility established, Cohen can announce fear of the breaking of the ancient Western code, which is as good a definition as any of being conservative. But the song is saying, whatever’s coming, it has to be born while remembering what really matters. It does not advertise going back to the past — there’s no going back to when the future looked great and inevitable. Each statement in the song is an attempt to put together man and world; they’re all worth considering, but that would take too long. For brevity, it’s hard to beat “the explosion of private life” for a phrase about the predicament of our situation.

Give me back the Berlin wall, give me Stalin and Saint Paul,

give me Christ or give me Hiroshima!

Destroy another fetus now! We don’t like children anyhow!

I’ve seen the future, baby, it is murder!

This concluding verse is a paroxysm — it makes it obvious that the demands and commands were not in earnest. At the same time, it shows the moral seriousness of our predicament as revealed in this state. At that level, the demands are serious — we cannot live in chaos. We have to be serious about the sacred character of the limits we acknowledge to human action. This is not the difference between life and death. It is about the possibility of avoiding murder. The repetition of “Stalin and Saint Paul” is clarified as “Christ or Hiroshima.” It’s salvation or nuclear explosions. Scientific power has made our crisis urgent: Though not wiser, we are now able to summon terrible consequences by deed or mistake.

The song has a jazzy quality to it. That’s a peculiar kind of steadfastness, a rejection of desperation. Repentance is presented as a joke, a call and answer in the chorus, but not as a show of disrespect. It’s part of the comic character of the song that fits the work to the times — the last man to remonstrate with us is the comic poet. In a way, he is the last conservative. Trying to figure out what’s ironic and what’s not here is not easy and I’ve not finished the job, but we’re off to a good start. The guiding worry is that faced with chaos, people will have recourse to desperate acts. Getting a sense of what love might mean and how it’s different from the dominant passions of the day seems necessary in order to give people hope.

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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