Philip Roth and Leonard Cohen – A Posthumous Comparison

It is the first anniversary of Philip Roth’s death. He passed away on this day last year. It has been two and a half years since Leonard Cohen is gone, too. They are two Jewish American writers, who touched us with the intensity, tragedy and beauty of the human condition they depicted so accurately. They were born one year apart, Roth in 1933 and Cohen in 1934, in Montreal and Newark respectively. Each had a very different upbringing: Roth, a son of a second generation Jew, who was an insurance broker, grew up in a pointedly secular setting, in which hard work, cleanliness and academic achievement were treated religiously. Cohen’s grandfather was the founder of the Shaar Heshmonayim Synagogue in Montreal, and the family observed Orthodox Judaism. Hence, Cohen’s writing is thoroughly penetrated with religious imagery and ideas. It seems that they do not have anything in common. However, their similarities, not always straightforwardly visible, are striking. They have both captured each in his unique way, the high and the low of human nature.

Roth shows the Jewish Family in its comicality, when Portnoy’s parents are all but obsessed with his remaining single, “while everybody else has been marrying nice Jewish girls, and having children, and buying houses…what he has been doing is – chasing cunt. And shikse cunt, to boot!”[1] While Portnoy deliberately emphasizes his Jewishness, Swede Levov wants to blend in, more than anything else in his life. After marrying former Mrs. New Jersey of Catholic upbringing, he wants to settle in Old Rimrock, “a narrow, bigoted area. The Klan thrived out here in the twenties…[whose inhabitants] wouldn’t give a Jew the time of day…where the haters live.”[2] For Roth, both types are unacceptable, as neither wants to live within the boundaries of a normative Jewish experience – settling among “young Jewish couples, the baby could grow up with Jewish friends.”[3] Perhaps, Roth suggests, this is precisely the reason why Merry, Swede’s only beloved daughter, became a terrorist, living in this American and gentile pastoral. The Jewish experience is socially restrictive; it is “us vs. them” kind of perception, it divides rather than unites.

Cohen, on the other hand, aims at unifying people. His emphasis is not on the Jewish experience, but on human experience. It is all encompassing and universal. “Who By Fire” evokes the prayer of Rosh HaShannah and The Day of Atonement. The lyrics are closely translated from the original, when God opens His book of Life and reads there who will live and who will die and in which way: “And who by fire, who by water, / Who in the sunshine, who in the night time…And who shall I say is calling?”[4] The last line of the stanza questions the validity of the decision making process and the decision maker himself, lending it a postmodern touch of doubt and loss of authority. In “Hallelujah” Cohen talks about God and the struggle of faith, as well as of joy and pain of human love, when Hallelujah is “cold and broken,” but we still need to try to believe in God and in love, to surrender to both activities and have “nothing on [our] tongue but Hallelujah,”[5] nothing but praising God for either our brokenness or happiness. These lines appeal to every person.

Roth aims precisely at the heart of the mundane in any one of his novels. Nathan Zuckerman, his alter-ego, is in an excruciating physical pain that almost ends in his demise. He becomes addicted to a pain killer due to a mysterious back pain and gradually blends in alcohol and drugs. Eventually, he injures his mouth and lower face area and cannot speak for a while. It seems that this is a punishment for his free of concern lifestyle – writing, womanizing, drinking, free of commitments. When in the hospital, suffering great pain, he puts himself in an imaginable court, saying: “you have been hiding half your life…you, Mr. Zuckerman, have been the most improbable slave to embarrassment and shame.”[6] As though admitting his sins in front of himself, Zuckerman accepts this punishment of pain. While hospitalized, he marvels at the noble work of the doctors, trying to reject his nature, “as though he still believed that he could unchain himself from a future as a man apart and escape the corpus that was his.”[7] He realizes he could never escape his fate as a writer alone in a room, apart from society but not immune from it, and be a different person, outside his body, outside himself. This is impossible for Zuckerman, or any person, Roth argues. A similar notion is voiced by Mikey Sabbath, who wishes to die after losing his mistress, but is unable to do it, because “everything he hated was here,”[8] here in this life of pleasure and pain.

Cohen, on the contrary, looks at the world through spiritual lenses. His relationship with God is complex and respectful. Cohen strives to move away from this life of pettiness: “Do not leave me where the sparks go out, and the jokes are told in the dark…Face me to the rays of love, O source of light, or face me to the majesty of your darkness, but not here…where death is forgotten, and the new thing grins.”[9] Referring to the sparks God accidentally dropped on earth in the process of creation, the speaker asks to be lifted from the mundane, earthly activities onto the direct experience of the divine. He does not want to be constrained to the here and now. He fears being too much engaged in the pleasures of the world. He seeks spiritual redemption from it: “When the belly is full, and the mind has its sayings, then I fear for my soul…Do not forget me in my satisfaction. When the heart grins at itself, the world is destroyed.”[10] The speaker seeks the experience of being outside of his body, of the immediate world of contentment. He wishes to come closer to the spiritual and farther from the physical pleasures of life.

Yet, Roth and Cohen, already in their sixties, came out with works similar in their profound critique of society. Roth’s American Pastoral, in addition to its treatment of the Jewish experience, gives attention to the aspect of the irrational and the chaotic in American life. Merry’s terrorist act is an act of extreme defiance and anger against the norms within which she was growing up in a middle-upper class home amidst pastoral fields of America, “a privileged kid from paradise.”[11] Roth’s social critique here is shown in an adolescent, who, having a very good life and a bright future ahead of her, decides to destroy everything. It is as if Roth is asking “what’s wrong with our society? What’s wrong with our young generation?” And as if to answer that, Merry, after being found by Levov in a physically disintegrating state, replies: “Here is the truth. You must be done with craving and selfhood.”[12] Roth is suggesting that the American Dream has ceased to mean anything, that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that have everything to do with individualism, should be renounced, as they no longer apply to the young, anti-war, ideologically oriented generation Merry has belonged to. Merry renounces selfhood first by committing a terrorist act, and then by an extreme opposite – by completely negating her own physical self, by becoming a Jain, a person who does not hurt any living organism, including the germs in her own mouth and body.

Cohen’s album The Future is about the collapse of existing values and the absence of any moral standards in the future. The album as a whole is antiutopian. Cohen describes the present situation: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed / The poor stay poor, the rich get rich.”[13] Cohen is explicit in his assurance that society is corrupt and the gap between the classes only deepens. “Everybody knows that the boat is leaking / everybody knows that the captain lied…Everybody knows the deal is rotten / Old Black Joe’s still pickin’ cotton.”[14] Everyone is aware of dishonesty and the upcoming disaster, as well as of the fact that racism and discrimination continue to be part of society. The speaker in the album claims that soon nothing will be possible to judge and measure by familiar norms anymore, as they are corrupt: “Won’t be nothing…you can measure anymore…the blizzard of the world / Has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul.”[15] Not only will nothing be familiar to us anymore, but the order of the soul, our priorities will be radically altered. If until now the spiritual realm has held some kind of meaning, it will no longer hold any, as the spiritual will become marginal and the physical pleasures will take a primary place, just as “You’ll see your woman / hanging upside down / her features covered by her fallen gown.”[16] By this metaphor the speaker compares the overturn of values to the overturn of a woman’s body – her face is hidden and only her lower body is exposed for all to see. Physical attributes and needs will predominate over the soul.

In Merry Levov’s case, the physical aspect is primary, as she takes revenge on the pro Vietnam war government by committing a physical crime of killing people. Later, while a refuge from justice, she goes further by negating the physical altogether, as she ceases taking care of her physical self in a delusion of thus becoming a spiritual being. Roth displays the absurdity of both acts and their incongruity with reality. Cohen shows similar ludicrousness in most of the songs on The Future album. People’s behavior will worsen as a result of a massive shift in thus far known standards, erroneous and morally wrong though as it may be.

Curiously, Roth and Cohen’s last works no longer criticize society. They show it in its dismal light, even celebrate its hopelessness and brokenness. Bucky Cantor is faced with the plague of polio. Remarkably resistant through the long months of the polio epidemic in Newark, he finally succumbs to it and is soon deformed physically and later emotionally. In this last work, Roth kills all hope through the metaphor of polio. Cantor is all but dead: disabled, single and bitter: “he had the aura of ineradicable failure about him…not just crippled physically by polio but no less demoralized by persistent shame.”[17] Bucky, along with blaming himself for carrying polio and infecting others, blames God for his cruelty of inflicting the epidemic: “His conception of God was of an omnipotent being…a sick fuck and an evil genius.”[18] Cohen’s last album complements this notion: “If you are the healer / It means I’m broken and lame…You want it darker / We kill the flame.”[19] If God is considered a healer, he does not help the broken and the lame. God wants to inflict suffering and pain on the human existence and we help God in that mission, by killing and extinguishing human light. God’s image is “magnified and sanctified,” but is also “vilified, crucified / In the human frame.”[20] Human beings are created in God’s image, but this image is distorted by them. God makes people suffer and the people themselves help bring that suffering into the world, since they have tarnished the divine image in which they were made by their sins.

For Roth life isn’t worth living unless it is accompanied by physical pleasure. Sexual experience is at the heart of his protagonists’ existence. Sabbath and Drenka, his Yugoslavian lover, have an exquisitely sexual affair, whose physical boundaries were blurred to the extreme. Perhaps the culmination of their thirteen-year-old adventure is when Drenka, on her death bed in the hospital, recounts the scene of Sabbath’s urinating on her: “and as it came upon me, I realized that it was warm…And I started with my tongue to lick around my lips…and it was just fantastic…something forbidden that made it so wonderful.”[21] Drenka puts into words one of Roth’s major ideas that sexual and physical pleasure is “like living. And to be denied that whole part would be a great loss.”[22]

Cohen is also preoccupied with the sexual and the physical aspect of this world: “Beneath my hands / your small breasts / are the upturned bellies / of breathing fallen sparrows.”[23] The metaphor clarifies his fascination with the female body. Cohen doesn’t stop here; he describes cunilingus as an act of worship: “I knelt there at the delta / at the alpha and the omega / at the cradle of the river / and the seas,”[24] and for a breath second in the midst of it he was healed. Cohen celebrates the female body and his delight in it, just as he comments on his own, when dressing in heavy garments of a monk at Mt. Baldy: “about 20 pounds of clothing / which I put on quickly / at 2:30 a. m / over my enormous hard-on.”[25] His self-deprecating humor is delicious in itself, but it also suggests a renewed focus on the here and now, on the worldly, which does not surrender beneath the clothes meant to impose spiritual discipline.

In conclusion, Roth and Cohen share a common sensitivity to life. The novelist and the poet celebrate the human, the weak and the physical aspects of life. The poet adds to that a spiritual dimension, estheticizing life, while the novelist is soberly down to earth in his depiction of the human folly.

[1] P. 100-101. Portnoy’s Complaint

[2] P. 309.  American Pastoral

[3] P. 310. American Pastoral

[4] “Who By Fire.” Various Positions. 1984.

[5] “Halleluja.” Various Positions. 1984.

[6] P. 276. The Anatomy Lesson

[7] P. 291. The Anatomy Lesson

[8] P. 451. Sabbath’s Theater.

[9] “All My Life.” Book of Mercy. 1984.

[10] “When I Have Not Rage.” Book of Mercy. 1984.

[11] P. 262.  American Pastoral.

[12] P. 264.  American Pastoral.

[13] “Everybody Knows.” The Future.

[14] “Everybody Knows.” The Future.

[15] “The Future.” The Future.

[16] “The Future.” The Future.

[17] P. 246. Nemesis.

[18] P. 264. Nemesis.

[19] “You Want It Darker.” You Want It Darker

[20] “You Want It Darker.” You Want It Darker

[21] P. 425. Sabbath’s Theater.

[22] P. 428. Sabbath’s Theater.

[23] “Beneath My Hands.” The Spice-Box of Earth.

[24] “Light As The Breeze.” The Future.

[25] “Early Morning at Mt. Baldy.” Book of Longing.

About the Author
I am an English teacher. I enjoy a good book in English, a good conversation and a strong cup of black tea. I love Israel. I am a wife and a mother of twins.
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