Leonard Cohen: The Mys­ti­cal Roots of Genius

Har­ry Freedman

  • Review
By – October 25, 2021

Leonard Cohen’s death in 2016 has not dimin­ished the flow of inter­est in his life and art. Many books and arti­cles delve into the his­to­ry and tra­jec­to­ry of his music and poet­ry, and there are sev­er­al biogra­phies about him as well. This book, Leonard Cohen: The Mys­ti­cal Roots of Genius, takes a nar­row­ly focused approach on the influ­ence of estab­lished reli­gion and mys­ti­cal tra­di­tion on Leonard Cohen’s art.

Har­ry Freed­man is an expert on the stan­dard texts of Judaism as well as on Kab­bal­ah. He’s also well-informed about Chris­tian­i­ty, espe­cial­ly the New Testament’s Book of Rev­e­la­tion, which had a crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant influ­ence on Leonard Cohen. He divides his analy­sis of Cohen’s work into sec­tions that exam­ine his Jew­ish back­ground, his inti­mate knowl­edge of the Bible, his life­long inter­est in mys­ti­cism, and the idea that he was writ­ing mod­ern prayers. In devel­op­ing his study of Cohen’s work, Freed­man mined through his numer­ous inter­views, espe­cial­ly those that are post­ed on leonard​co​hen​files​.com. He is metic­u­lous in cit­ing these sources, as well as every rel­e­vant line of sacred text that he sees as an influ­ence on Cohen.

Of course, as Freed­man freely admits about Cohen, “…almost every­thing he wrote is capa­ble of mul­ti­ple inter­pre­ta­tions.” If Leonard Cohen’s work were sim­ple and trans­par­ent, it would not be the over­whelm­ing suc­cess that it is. Har­ry Freed­man read­i­ly acknowl­edges that much of his inter­pre­ta­tion of Cohen’s work is based on con­jec­ture, with phras­es like, Might Leonard Cohen have come across this leg­end…” or, when speak­ing of bells on the gar­ments of the High Priest, Cohen, as a cohen, of the ancient priest­ly fam­i­ly, was undoubt­ed­ly aware of them”.

This conun­drum dic­tates all poet­ic inter­pre­ta­tion. Espe­cial­ly when set­ting verse to music, a poet is as much con­cerned with rhyme and meter as with mean­ing. As Freed­man explains, Leonard Cohen used reli­gious texts and images as allu­sions, famil­iar and uni­ver­sal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of his ideas about war, sex, soci­ety, tran­scen­dence, and ulti­mate­ly, find­ing life’s meaning.

Freedman’s deep study of the reli­gious aspect of Cohen’s work points to some dis­cern­ing con­clu­sions. When speak­ing of Cohen, he says, He had an unmatched abil­i­ty to artic­u­late over-used, pedes­tri­an phras­es like body and spir­it’ in ear-catch­ing new ways: a tan­gle of mat­ter and ghost.’” He quotes schol­ar Elliot Wolfson’s asser­tion that Cohen’s famous cou­plet, There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” is “…Leonard Cohen’s most para­mount Kab­bal­is­tic dec­la­ra­tion.” And he quotes the artist him­self: One of the rea­sons I use bib­li­cal ref­er­ences con­tin­u­al­ly is because even though the cul­ture has changed…the images con­tained in the Bible have remained”.

More than 1,000 years ago, Jew­ish poets began com­pos­ing hymn-like poems to accom­pa­ny dif­fer­ent parts of stan­dard litur­gy. Such a poem is called a piyyut, and the poet is known as a pay­tan. Freedman’s most nov­el and inter­est­ing con­tri­bu­tion to the study of Leonard Cohen is his con­cep­tion of Cohen as a pay­tan. Think­ing about so much of Cohen’s work as prayer-like, Freed­man observes, again in his con­jec­tur­al mode, Hear­ing some­one recite a piyyut in the Mid­dle Ages must have been a bit like lis­ten­ing to a Leonard Cohen song today.”

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions