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Leonard Cohen’s message for the future

The prescience of the singer-songwriter's 1992 lyrics describing the engine of survival, in the week of his shloshim

Leonard Cohen exited stage left just one day before his most cogent prophecy came to pass on US Election Day 2016. In the 1992’s “The Future,” he sang:

There’ll be the breaking

of the ancient western code

Your private life will suddenly explode

There’ll be phantoms

There’ll be fires on the road

and the white man dancing

You may be a Trumphead or you may be disgusted, but there’s no doubting that Western codes are being broken left and right and on every side of the pond, that dumpsters of racism and bigotry along with forests here, there and everywhere are burning, and that drums beating a violent overture for an age of political and environmental disequilibrium are banging while some men in white — white robes to be exact — are dancing for joy just a few blocks from the White House.

“Things are going to slide,” Cohen sang,

slide in all directions

Won’t be nothing

Nothing you can measure anymore

The blizzard, the blizzard of the world

has crossed the threshold

and it has overturned

the order of the soul

Cohen was not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet. He was actually the son of a beloved Jewish Montreal family and the grandson of a religious man with whom he used to study the prophets — the Book of Isaiah to be exact — in the original Hebrew. But in his way, as much as rock and roll and popular culture can allow, he brought a prophetic message to the radio as effectively as any figure of our time, notwithstanding his pal Bob Dylan.

Cohen called himself “the little Jew who wrote the Bible” in “The Future,” which describes a world so exhausted from itself that it cries out for return to an old world order to help take the edge off of tomorrow’s uncertainty: Stalin, St. Paul, the Berlin Wall. Does this sound familiar?

“The Future” is a very rough, political song. Cohen shouts, he growls. It’s a song almost without mercy sung by a singer who will probably be remembered most for the pained acoustic longings of his first albums and the slow, magisterial resignation of his music at the end. But wedged in the heart of the long middle of Cohen’s career — a period that included deep depressions and ascetic silence in valleys far off the map of popular music — the song “The Future” hinges on a line that is also the crux of Cohen’s entire milieu:

I’ve seen the nations rise and fall

I’ve heard their stories, heard them all

but love’s the only engine of survival

Leonard Cohen was a poet of impossible paradoxes drawn together as a way of defining what’s possible. He put the remnants of the liturgy of the High Priest of of the Temple in Jerusalem on turntables with “Who By Fire,” ancient sacrifices and a golden robe becoming barbiturates and a lonely slip. He was bankrupted by his manager in what should have been his time of professional ease, re-obligating him to recording and the road — making him not only millions of dollars before millions of fans, but transforming him into a happy warrior, singing himself to both life and death. He was a Zen Buddhist monk — Jikan, the Silent One — who signed his personal letters Eliezer. And in the future of “The Future,” he described a world rotting with corruption while at the same time confidently calling out for love as the source of all things.

Elijah was prophet of paradox too. Spotted like a Dead Elvis for centuries in every kind believer’s story, he even might show up at your table for dinner once a year. But his real entrance — or his no entrance — only comes at the end of days.

Once, as described in the Book of Kings, he went up to the top of a great mountain seeking the Divine. First came a wind that cleaved the mountain in two, and then an earthquake shook it, and then came fire. And then Elijah heard a still, small voice. This was the Divine. Not the wind, not the earthquake, and not the fire. The divine voice was a whisper saying “love is the only engine of survival.”

This week marks the shloshim, 30 days after the death of Leonard Cohen. We miss him greatly, but like all great masters he teaches on in his so-called absence. A still small voice in the middle of the storm of “The Future” — and so many other songs, too — offers both a crack for the light to get into the cluttered landscape of the song and a view into the aching heart of humankind itself.

In the future — as in “The Future” — despite people of bluster, violence, corruption, and arrogance claiming to be greater than creation itself, there remains a resigned, generous, gentlemanly invitation humming beneath the noise, a flame that never dies, an engine of survival. If the blizzard of the world threatens to overturn the order of the soul, just listen more closely and you’ll hear it. Leonard Cohen, beloved teacher: May his memory be for a blessing, and may his blessing be heard.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff writes and teaches about culture, helps nonprofits grow, and lives in Jerusalem. He blogs at www.talkinhavanagilahblues.blogspot.com.
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