Leonard Cohen: A Villanelle for our Time

            Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934-) has frequently and rightly been described as one of the most influential writers, poets and songwriters of our time. Critics often mention the deeply modest and always dapper Canadian in the same sentence as Bob Dylan, high praise indeed. Unlike Dylan, however, Cohen is also a novelist, mystic and a gifted painter, and was for a time as well a Buddhist monk. His work has been covered and admired by artists all over the world and yet his interests are difficult to pin down, and while his writing is spare and elegant, he does not rely on a single style. Like T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, modernist greats both, Cohen is often enigmatic, sometimes abstruse, but always powerful. He has recorded episodically with one label since the early 1960s and the public and critics alike have greeted every album release as an event, so carefully crafted and produced is each. All of this said, I have been struck over the years by how interested Cohen is in the problematic of human dignity and the challenge of developing democracy. He has written powerfully on the distrust and hatred that presages the dissolution of relationships and societies alike and has periodically reflected on the conditions necessary to secure democratic and free self-governance as well.

            Last week, I listened to a 2004 Cohen recording on which he provided music for a poem by Canadian poet and long-time McGill University professor Frank Scott. The result, in my view, is heartrending. I share the poem (lyrics) here. Thereafter, I outline briefly what I take its implications for democracy to be.

Villanelle for our Time

From bitter searching of the heart, Quickened with passion and with pain We rise to play a greater part. This is the faith from which we start: Men shall know commonwealth again From bitter searching of the heart. We loved the easy and the smart, But now, with keener hand and brain, We rise to play a greater part.

The lesser loyalties depart And neither race nor creed remain From bitter searching of the heart. Not steering by the venal chart That tricked the mass for private gain, We rise to play a greater part. Reshaping narrow law and art Whose symbols are the millions slain, From bitter searching of the heart We rise to play a greater part.

Words: Frank Scott (1899-1985) Music: Leonard Cohen (2004)

            Scott and Cohen’s song poem raises four critical conditions for human self-governance. First, to govern in freedom and amongst heterogeneity, humankind must overcome its ingrained propensity for selfishness and rationalization to self-aggrandizement to recognize and legitimate claims (even competing ones) of others in society. Hundreds of wars and dictatorships as well as daily, ubiquitous cruelties and vicious, empty “othering” testify to the difficulty of this challenge, and surely it cannot be addressed — let alone overcome — if not first raised and encountered for what it is through “bitter searching of the heart.”

            Second, only hope can sustain humans in the quest for a way to attain even a modicum of solidarity and shared aspiration. Once hope is lost, fear and worse will gain the ground, and the tragic consequences of that result are well known.

            Third, Scott’s lines point up how often humans have been mobilized by so-called leaders among them on the basis of fear and hatred, not for their own gain, but for that of those manipulating them, and without their realization. While this process may yield many outcomes, two historical examples are well known: plutocracy and democratic manipulation to legitimate authoritarian rule. Sadly, this possibility is endemic to democracy and perverse examples can fill many pages.

            Finally, the song poem suggests how dangerous democratic mobilization may be when undisciplined by the imperatives of human dignity and freedom for all. Without such an accompanying awareness and discipline, supposed democratization may result as easily in the grotesque inhumanity of the regimes of Pol Pot, Adolph Hitler or Slobodan Milosevic as any more positive result. Only the populace addressed can recall the “millions slain” in the name of some purported slight or claim and disallow the tyranny and the “narrow law and art” that accompany and sustain it. But, as Scott and Cohen share, this is the “greater part” to which only the population itself may rise and may discipline itself. Democracy cannot be created without this recognition and it demands that all “play a greater part.”

F.R. Scott’s ‘Villanelle for Our Time’ has been reproduced with the permission of William Toye, literary executor for the estate of F.F. Scott.