(Translation: music in the face of death)
My friend Axel and I like to talk about music and weird things. This weekend, just after Leonard Cohen passed away, I said to Axel, “You know what’s weird? Just before he died, I was thinking, ‘You know, I should get into his music more deeply like I was meaning to.'”
Axel’s response was, “Hey, have you ever thought about getting into Drake?”
But anyway, I finally pulled the Spotify playlist of his music out and dusted it off. Sometimes when celebrities die it’s hard for me to grasp it. Perhaps because they are so distant, and also painted before the eye of society as though they are immortal. Not that I’m particularly experienced with the processing of other people’s deaths. For which I am grateful.
I had only heard “Hallelujah” and “Almost Like the Blues” before, but I was immediately hit by “You Want It Darker.” I make no secret of my love for subtle Biblical references in pop culture that treat the Bible like a story like any other. That’s why I loved “Hallelujah” to begin with; why I love “Samson” by Regina Spektor; why I love a book by Madeleine L’Engle that Hannah brought me from a yardsale in California for my eighteenth birthday which is about the holy family’s flight into Egypt, but you don’t know that unless you’re already familiar with L’Engle’s work.
I can’t explain why I love “You Want It Darker” so much. It has something to do with the following:
“If you are the healer, then I’m broken and lame; if thine is the glory, mine must be the shame.”
“Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name,
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame,
A million candles burning for the love that never came.”
As always, I like believing that things that have stopped existing in our time and place are still there somewhere and somewhen else. Leonard Cohen’s music is here now, while he is not, but he is, somewhere.
I’ve also said before that I would like modern Christianity much better if its materials weren’t so inane and cliche-ridden. Leonard Cohen (and L’Engle, and C. S. Lewis, and Dostoevsky) writes about God in a way that makes him seem much greater, wilder, more powerful, more real, and even, dare I say, more human, than the God of my evangelical-magazine teenage years or even my Lutheran childhood. I don’t mind the thought that God is an alien. (L’Engle again: imagine trying to describe sight to someone who does not and has never had it; now try to imagine what abilities, senses and concepts might be impossible to explain to us who do not have them.) I love thinking about big questions like why God is and what he wants for us, and Cohen’s music (among other things) helps me question the nature of God.
Long, long ago when I was on the high school newspaper we interviewed somebody about liking Death Cab For Cutie, and the response was, “I like it because it makes sense, but also because it challenges me to think about why it makes sense.”
At the time, I thought that sounded like another teenager being teenagery and trying to think of something impressively wise to say and not necessarily succeeding. (I may say that as a teenager I was pretty good at doing that myself, so I considered myself somewhat of an expert.)
But honestly, it’s not a bad thought. Something makes sense to you. Why? Something surprises you. Why? Why shouldn’t you ask why?
Another why: why do we think about these things if we’re all gonna die anyway?
I don’t know. I like to think that the point of life isn’t what you do, but that you do. Meaning arises when you fight the fact that maybe there isn’t any. The Sisyphean struggle is real, but pushing back against the monotony and the futility makes you, at the very least, a fighter. Whistling in the dark. Music in the face of death.
I studied Bertolt Brecht this week. In den finsteren Zeiten wird da auch gesungen werden? Da wird auch gesungen werden. Von den finsteren Zeiten. “In the dark times, will there be singing then, too? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”