Typical, that. A poem Leonard Cohen writes on a toilet tile in a cafe, in Ladies and gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen. Have wanted to see that forever, didn’t realized it was online at Canada’s National Filmboard site (who incidentally also gave Boards of Canada their name).
Some great material (if you can get over the narrator’s very ‘60’s voice it’s a great watch, short, only 45″). It is funny to hear this conservative, traditional sounding narrator at the same time sometimes speak with such praise – using terribly boring, normative words like:
He is a constant wanderer. Little black notes books are stuffed with pertinent observations, these he mixes with considerable talent to produce his art… He listens largely to ‘pop’ music, He has however, an enlargened sensitivity…
At the end of the documentary Cohen muses about seeing footage of himself asleep. When the film crew films him in the bathroom he smiles and says, ‘I think I realize something. I think I am in a different style than I thought I was.’ I like this use of the word style to describe the way a person affects her/his surroundings. Style as a sensation, as opposed to categories like sexy, boring, articulate, aggressive. That is how I also read what Cohen says here below, about sexuality, as an intensity that is not limited to sex (although, when he talks about ‘the generosity of women’, I don’t see why there wouldn’t be a (different kind of) generosity of men):
Sexuality is general. And although only one man may be receiving the favours of a woman, all men in her presence are warmed. That is the great generosity of women and the great generosity of the creator who worked it out that way – is that there are no unilateral agreements of sexuality.
In an interview Cohen playful taunts a willingly ignorant interviewer. He is asked what his concerns are and replies he has none. It funnily clear in the talk show host’s voice that he finds it morally repugnant not to have any concerns.
Indignated interviewer: Let’s get this straight. How can you be a poet if you are not bothered by anything, if you have no concern!
Cohen: I am bothered. When I get up in the morning I my real concern is to discover whether I am in a state of grace. And if I make that investigation and discover I am not in a state of grace, I go back to bed.
Indignated interviewer: What is a state of grace? Explain that state of grace
Cohen: A state of grace is that balance with which you ride the chaos that surrounds you. It is not a matter of resolving the chaos, there is something arrogant or war-like about putting the world in order. But having something like an escape ski going through that law and order, going with the contours of that chaos.
Indignated interviewer: Oh you have lost me now. Completely lost me.
Poor guy (the clueless interviewer). Cohen also says many quotable things about death, drugs, violence, chaos. I like the way he articulates these this dark underground of chaos that is also nearly always present in his music / writing:
The first rebellious act that a man [sic] can perform; that is refusing to sleep. That is the real rebellion against life [or rather death, I would say] and the degenerative process. I protest the idea of sleep by turning night into day.
From a poem: Under hard lights with a doctor’s instruments, you are at work in the bathrooms of the city, changing the law, the spike hunts constant as a compass.
In 1961 Cohen anticipated the ‘Bay of pigs’ invasion and went to Cuba. He says
The real reason was a deep interest in violence. I was very interested in what it really meant for a man to carry arms and to kill other men. And how attracted I was exactly to that process. That is getting close to the truth… Now, the real truth is I wanted to kill or be killed. Now I don’t want to give the ideathat I am obsessed with danger. But I suppose I am. So it is just as well that I gave the idea away.
Here it is striking how – in this interview and the other one mentioned above – Cohen uses language to subvert, question, provoke, his interlocutor and/or the situation. This ambiguity is also apparent when he says that he ‘really wanted to kill someone or be killed’ – while at the same time of course, that was not really true at all: he wanted to feel that he wanted to kill or be killed, to experience that madness as part of life.
In a different way he says this again, introducing a poem on-stage: ‘I was in Havana, in 1961, during the Bay of Pigs invasion. Fighting on both sides.’ His Zen / Yin Yang thing, calm and chaos. He has this way of playfully disrupting the norm from within, playfully, but disruptive nevertheless. As the narrator relates: ‘He got elected president of the debating union and then refused to call debates.’ Don’t know how that ended, but of course this was not just a mere prank; refusing to call a debate, already generates a new debate.
In the same radical spirit, there is no meeting poetry halfway: ‘poetry is not an occupation, but a verdict.’ It is not a choice, but a life-affirming force that ‘chains the poet to his vomit’ (to paraphrase Brian Massumi, who says ‘habit is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit.’)
‘Caveat emptor’, writes Cohen on the wall of the bathroom at the end of the documentary: ‘Let the buyer beware’. ‘I had to act for a moment as a double agent. I had to warn the public, let the man watching me know, that this is not entirely devoid of the con.’
Nice to see he how he seems pretty devoid of arrogance and refuses to take himself seriously at all the right moments. Of which of course there are a lot. He does keep talking about ‘man’ though, the whole film through, sort of weirdly male-centered. In fact, he doesn’t really talk about women at all. Maybe they didn’t let him (the film was shot in 1964)?