On Leonard Cohen: Artist & Aspirant


By T

Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

I can say without hyperbole that Leonard Cohen has influenced my life more than any other artist, author, teacher, or philosopher. Even Crowley comes in at second. From my early teen years to this very moment – typing out my thoughts after the news of his death – Cohen’s works have helped mold my thoughts on just about everything: the human condition, studying the work, awareness of a single moment, love, sex, death, freedom, Will, Magick and everything in-between. Now, I’m going to try to tell you why.

If you have heard me try to explain a complex magical concept then you have probably heard me use Cohen’s words to do this. There is a reason for that. Cohen was my gateway to Magick and Thelema, his writings provided the personal path through which I internalized those lofty ideas. I discovered Cohen’s music in my mid-teens. He quickly became my favorite artist, drowning out all the other bullshit, high school junk I was listening to. But it wasn’t until I discovered his written works a few years later that he became something greater than a favorite singer or “a grocer of despair”. He became, at first, a sort of ideal and then a sort of teacher.

Cohen’s second novel “Beautiful Losers” changed my life. It was a geyser of beauty & filth, aspiration & frustrated humor – “A soul unfolding in the length of its longing”. Cohen commented that it was more of a sunstroke than a novel. I can see why. It taught that a person can be the most authentic when they are the most profane. It taught me that stillness is only found while gliding over the chaos in a state of grace, attuning the mind to the sound of ordinary eternal machinery. It taught me of the remote human possibilities. It taught me to connect nothing:

Sometimes after I have come or just before I fall asleep, my mind seems to go out on a path the width of a thread and of endless length, a thread that is the same color as the night. Out, out along the narrow highway sails my mind, driven by curiosity, luminous with acceptance, far and out, like a feathered hook whipped deep into the light above the stream by a magnificent cast. Somewhere, out of my reach, my control, the hook unbends into a spear, the spear shears itself into a needle, and the needle sews the world together. It sews skin onto the skeleton and lipstick on a lip, it sews Edith to her greasepaint, crouching (for as long as I, this book, or an eternal eye remembers) in our lightless sub-basement, it sews scarves to mountain, it goes through everything like a relentless bloodstream, and the tunnel is filled with a comforting message, a beautiful knowledge of unity. All the disparates of the world, the different wings of the paradox, coin-faces of problem, petal-pulling questions, scissors-shaped conscience, all the polarities, things and their images and things which cast no shadow, and just the everyday explosions on a street, this face and that, a house and a toothache, explosions which merely have different letters in their names, my needle pierces it all, and I myself, my greedy fantasies, everything which has existed and does exist, we are part of a necklace of incomparable beauty and unmeaning. Connect nothing: F. shouted. Place things side by side on your arborite table, if you must, but connect nothing!

Most importantly, it taught me about Magic, “for magic loves the hungry”:

“This I mean my mind to serve
Til’ service is but magic
Moving through the world
And mind itself is magic
Coursing through the flesh
And flesh itself is magic
Dancing on a clock
And time itself
The magic length of God”

After my first read through of “Beautiful Losers” I greedily sought out his every book, poem, album, B-side, rehearsal tape or scrap of written word. I was not disappointed. In Cohen I found a person in search for an authentic human experience.

I envied his Old Testament conviction; his prophet’s voice which “held high razor, shivering every ram and son”. I stole his words to clothe my understanding of my experiences, not just of Magick and Thelema, but of all things that I could not describe as well myself. All the while winking at the idea that “the counterfeiter begs forgiveness from the better counterfeiter”.

Through Cohen’s work I was able to make a personal connection, I could even say a gnostic connection, with the material I was choosing to define myself through. I could access a deeper understanding than the mere collection of facts. Crowley’s works were a treasure trove of esoteric knowledge and provided a symbolic vocabulary to work the work with, but it remained externalized. Cohen’s work bridged that gap and taught me the indescribable and incommunicable way to internalize those symbols and truly feel them transform my understanding of the world. Not through an organized system of magical teaching, but rather through the trial and error of a kindred spirit recorded in his various poems, songs, books and other works. For instance:

On Qabalah:
“For the Holy One dreams of a letter.
Dreams of a letter’s death.
Bless the continuous stutter
Of the word being made into flesh.”

On Meditation:
“The Heart beneath is teaching to the broken Heart above.”

On Babalon:
“Be the truth unsaid and the blessing gone,
If I forget My Babylon.”
“I came upon a wedding that old families had contrived;
Bethlehem the bridegroom, Babylon the bride.
Great Babylon was naked, oh she stood there trembling for me,
and Bethlehem inflamed us both like the shy one at some orgy.
And when we fell together all our flesh was like a veil
that I had to draw aside to see the serpent eat its tail.”

On Love & Will (unassuaged of purpose):
“And all of this
Expressions of
The Sweet Indifference
Some call Love
The High Indifference
Some call Fate
But we had Names
More intimate
Names so deep and
Names so true
They’re blood to me
They’re dust to you
There is no need
That this survive
There’s truth that lives
And truth that dies”

On Knowledge and Conversation from a qabalistic perspective:
“Let me not pretend you are with me, when you are not with me. Let me close down, let the puppet fall among the strings, until, by your mercy, he rises as a man. Let him dare to call on you from the dust, where there is nothing but dust, and the coils of defeat. Enter me again into the judgment, I who refuse to be judged. Enter me into the mercy, I who have forgotten mercy. Let me raise your kingdom to the beauty of your name. Why do welcome me? asks the bitter heart. Why do you comfort me? ask the heart that is not broken enough. Let him lie among the strings until there is no hope for his daily strategy. until he cries, I am yours, I am your creature.”
And, of course: “Good Advice for Someone Like Me”:

“behind the pain
someone is rejoicing
behind the torture
there is love
who’s going to buy
this bullshit
if you don’t become the ocean
you’ll be seasick every day”
The last two lines of that one have become a lifelong mantra for me. Naturally, the subject of sex receives a lot of attention, from directions on how to arouse the fires of heaven: “created fires I cannot love, lest I lose the ones above”, to step-by-step directions of how to fuck a Saint: “get right into her plastic altar, dwell in her silver medal, fuck her until she tinkles like a souvenir music box”. It may be a little creepy to admit, but whereas I didn’t need much help figuring out what sex was, Cohen helped inform me as to what sex could be. Weird, I know, but I feel that I am better for it.

There is a reoccurring metaphor that occurs in his work of uniting with the highest and the lowest. In “Beautiful Losers” he describes this concept in a parable of the radio. He needs to reach up and become the aerial while also reaching down to become the ground, only through extending in both these ways can he reduce the static and hear the gospel music sing out, the sound of the ordinary eternal machinery (It is no surprise that this metaphor is revisited in his latest album, released a month before his death). It doesn’t take much tweaking of the language to see he is talking about what a Thelemite would call Knowledge and Conversation with the Holy Guardian Angel. Indeed, Cohen’s description of this phenomena was my introduction to the concept. He provided the why. Crowley provided the how. His “Book of Mercy” is my go-to recommendation when someone asks me about a record of K&C. Like most of his books, I have bought it so many times because I can’t help but give it away to anyone I think can benefit from it. Although, Cohen does not use Thelemic jargon, his works are undeniable compatible. He is a Teacher in full command of the symbols of the soul. From my view, his conversations in “Book of Mercy” cumulate in the song “Going Home”, which stands as the starkest and precise description of the HGA experience that I have ever encountered:

“I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit
But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse
He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube
He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat
A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I need him
To complete
I want him to be certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision
That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
Which is to say what I have told him
To repeat.”
Where have I heard the “tube” metaphor to describe the HGA before? Hmm. Somebody bearded, I think. I could go on, obviously. But I will only write on one last aspect of Cohen’s work. There is something like a thesis that runs from his very first album to his last. A twofold statement, perfect as a paradox: the first part is a strong rebuke of the popular idea of religion and God. (Funny, considering how his songs are co-opted by Christians, who seem to miss his point entirely and in some cases- hysterically). Cohen dabbled in a variety of ways to connect with the divine from a brief but funny flirtation with Scientology: “Did you ever go clear?”; Christianity: “Jesus taken serious by many. Jesus taken joyous by a few”; his native Judaism “With one hand on a Hexagram and one hand on a girl”; to his retirement on Mt Baldy as a Zen monk known as Jikan, the silent one. At every opportunity he stands in opposition to the impersonal deity, the vicarious experience of God. “I’m sorry for that ghost I made you be. Only one of us was real and it was Me.” These ideas need stripped away before the second part of his statement can be heard: every man and woman must forge their own path to the divine. “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” Perhaps he summed this twofold idea up best in the penultimate song on his last album: “Steer your Way”:

“Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall
Steer your way through the fables of Creation and the Fall
Steer your way past the Palaces that rise above the rot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
Steer your heart past the Truth you believed in yesterday
Such as Fundamental Goodness and the Wisdom of the Way
Steer your heart, precious heart, past the women whom you bought
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
Steer your path through the pain that is far more real than you
That has smashed the Cosmic Model, that has blinded every View
And please don’t make me go there, though there be a God or not
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought”
In fact, the entire album “You Want it Darker” is a final statement on Cohen’s relationship with the divine, both as an external and internal quality. Even before his death, I found it impossible to listen to that final album as anything other than the last word on the subject.

Yes, it is sad that Cohen is gone, but I don’t find much tragedy in it. He was a man who found his own way through the chaos of materialism, war, sex, religion, fame, obscurity, and fame again – cutting through it all with a trademark method of ecstatic precision – a quality that may have been a paradox in lesser hands. He was a man who created till the very end of his 82 years, never slowing down, never giving into the conventional wisdom of when to pack it in and retire. I don’t think that was even possible for him: “Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.” And, perhaps, most importantly: he left us a record of his journey. Maybe he was following his own advice: “Never make a secret of yourself unless you promise to keep it”. I hope that his many books and albums will serve others as well as they have served me: as words to clothe the ineffable, as manuals of failures, victories and inspiration to keep trying to achieve “a remote human possibility”. After all, we are all on our own trip “and like a visit to the moon or to a distant star, I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far.”

I’m sure most of you have noticed that over half of my Facebook post are an effort to share Cohen’s work. I will be sharing more in the coming weeks. Words that have guided my understanding of myself, my life and my work. I hope they are of use to you. Because even though the best dressed Teacher and Prophet has gone out of the world (“there is truth that lives and truth that dies”), he has left us with his vision of the unified heart: the “tangle of matter and ghost”, the interlocking of the man with the divine within and the divine without, the “healing of the Altar”, “the healing of the Name”, The Great Work, the Summum Bonum, True Wisdom and the perfect happiness of imperfection.

“My animal howls
My angel’s upset
But I’m not allowed
A trace of regret
For someone will use
What I couldn’t be
My heart will be heard


Love is the law, love under will.

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