We Want It Darker: brief thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s Last Testament

You want it darker/We kill the flame

On the 21st of September, Leonard Cohen’s new song, You Want It Darker, was released. The  first comments on Youtube could be summed up as “Leonard, please don’t die.” The 82-year-old had spent a considerable portion of his long career exploring mortality, but this seemed more…final. It was final.

You Want It Darker  really resonated with me  and  I have listened to it constantly since it came out.  The rest of the album  is great, but Darker casts a defining shadow over it. Now that we live in a post-Cohen era, this shadow may extend to encompass the rest of his discography.

There have been a huge number of Cohen obituaries, tributes, and retrospectives since the 7th of November . I have the neither the knowledge nor the experience to add to that pile, but I can’t stop listening to You Want It Darker and I want to explore why.

If You are the dealer, I’m out of the game/If You are the healer, I’m broken and lame.

The song’s opening line immediately reminds me of the Book of Job, (a tale that Cohen, who identifies identified as an observant Jew, would have been familiar with) . In the story,   righteous everyman Job finds himself on the receiving end  of every hardship that life has to offer. Though weary and embittered, he refuses to curse God,  rhetorically asking “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10, NIV). In Darker, Cohen contends with this question and, rather than coming away with an answer, lingers on the feeling of extreme smallness  that scars the figure of Job. Job is a man with nothing to say when God asks him “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.Who marked off its dimensions?“(Job 38:4-5).  When presented  with the same question, Cohen’s response  is one of weary reverence: “If Thine is the glory/Mine must be the shame.”

‘Leaving the game’ is not necessarily an indictment of the dealer, but could be considered both a) an acknowledgement of the fact that we are hardly cosmic ‘players’ to begin with and b) an acknowledgement of a spent hand. In light of November 7th, it’s certainly the latter.

Glorified, sanctified be Thy Holy name/Vilified, crucified in the human frame…

Messianic imagery pervades Leonard Cohen’s work. He described Jesus as “a figure of unparalleled generosity and insight and madness”  and claimed that Christ’s “generosity…would overthrow the world if it was embraced…” However, as Cohen highlights, humanity does not want this revolutionary generosity. Instead, God incarnate is, well, vilified and killed by us. Cohen may not have seen Jesus as the promised Messiah, but this evocation of the Christ archetype is significant. God may ‘want it darker,’ but we obstinate humans are determined to extinguish any possible light,  actively rejecting hope. This is not necessarily the reality we want, but it is the one that we  tend to choose when the (perceived) silence of God is mistaken for permissiveness. Taken to it’s extreme, this freedom is used as an excuse to be physically and emotionally violent; “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim.”

Hineni, Hineni/I’m ready, My Lord

In English, the word ‘Hineni’ means ‘here I am’ or  ‘here I stand’. Its use is spiritual; Abraham uttered the phrase when God prevented him from sacrificing Isaac (Genesis 22:1). Moses also used the term in response to the sign of the burning bush in Exodus 3:4. To use this phrase is to ready oneself spiritual sacrifice, and I believe that the use of this refrain  lifts the song from the depths of despair. Yes, You Want It Darker a song from a man who was preparing for death, but it does not signal the abandonment of faith (as Rolling Stone might have you believe). Rather, the songs resonance comes from something that has ensured the survival of this great poet’s work: Leonard Cohen’s intimate understanding of spirtual struggle. The kind of struggle that Cohen articulates is not the sort that lends itself to inspirational Instagram posts and pithy proverbs because it takes place in the depths of the soul. This struggle is both universal and difficult, despite what the plethora of prosperity preachers and joy-on-demand gurus would have you believe.Ultimately, it is a struggle made easier by the work of people like Leonard Cohen. He understood something fundamental: faith is to be lived and is refined by tension.

He will be missed.


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