Wednesday, December 24, 2008

All Those Mixed-Up Emotions

Nothing is ever really chemically pure, is it?  All elements seem to exist in combinations - in mixtures or in compounds or in stronger alloys etc.  Likewise in the human world, especially with our emotions, there is no pure love on the one hand, or pure hate on the other.  They always seem to exist in some particular combination - varying percentages of one or the other. I have always quite liked the quotation I learned from the ancient Greek lesbian poet Sappho who hailed from from island of Lesbos: "I am a bitter-sweet creature."   (Because of this association, the island, and especially the town of Eresos, her birthplace, are visited frequently by female homosexual tourists.)  In this quotation, I feel, Sappho summed up the angst and pain of life. Her birth, it is said, was some time between 630 BC and 612 BC, and it is said that she died around 570 BC. Enough history.  Back to that sense of being a "bitter-sweet creature."  For a poet from antiquity she certainly has a modern existential ring to her insight into emotions.

These thoughts were inspired by listening to Jeff Buckley this afternoon as I worked away on my PC.  I played his version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah maybe five or six times on my iTunes player.  Then I went in search of any videos of Buckley's rendition of this number on YouTube and was rewarded with a superb video that can be accessed here: Jeff Buckley.  I played this again several times and was really touched by such a superb rendition of this song.  Then, if I had not got enough of this great song, I listened a few times to Leonard Cohen's own version of the same song.  Oftentimes I can bear the continued repetition of brilliant songs.  Brilliant songs to my mind capture something of the complexity of our lives, something of the impurity of our emotions and something of the intricate interweaving of good and evil, joy and happiness, black and white, good and bad, life and death and so on and so forth.  It becomes clearer and clearer to me as I grow older that all polar opposites exist in a sort of tension and that between them there is a continuum.  For instance, consider the polar opposite pair Black and White and eventually you will have to admit that there are hundreds of shades of gray in between them.  The same to my mind can be said of Good and Evil, Happy and Sad, Homosexual and Heterosexual or any other possible pair of opposites.  We all exist somewhere on that continuum, I feel, with shades of both extremes within us to a greater or lesser degree.

Hallelujah is one of those infinitely ponderable songs from the pen of Leonard Cohen, masterful lyricist and brilliant poet who knows so much about paradox and complexity.  He may possess a clarity of expression in his lyrics, but we are always left pondering their many possible meanings, just as we are with life as we experience it, which is always a mystery to us.  As soon as we think we have summed it up or come to terms with it, it catches us unawares and brings us on a further roller-coaster ride to deeper depths and new meanings.

Leonard Cohen is a poet and writer of note as well as being a singer-songwriter.  His lyrics are capable of many layers of interpretation and should be allowed to be paradoxical and multi-referential, like all good poems.  Hallelujah makes reference to the story of David and Bathsheba, and possibly Samson and Delilah as well. The "secret chord" part is mysterious, I admit, but being a disciple of the wonder of existence, I am happy to let that "secret chord" remain secret and hence beyond literal meaning.   These are great lyrics and hence they could mean a lot of things.  Then there's the enigmatic allusion to the kitchen chair which works as a simultaneous reference to domesticity and also sexual bondage.  Let both meanings and references stay because Leonard Cohen can be freaky like that as can life now and again.
Leonard Cohen himself made the following remarks with respect to this song:
Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means "Glory to the Lord." The song explains that many kinds of Hallelujahs do exist. I say : "All the perfect and broken Hallelujahs have an equal value ." It's, as I say, a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion....
It's a rather joyous song. I like very much the last verse. I remember singin' it to Bob Dylan after his last concert in Paris. The morning after, I was having coffee with him and we traded lyrics. Dylan especially liked this last verse, "And even though it all went wrong, I stand before the Lord of song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah."
  (See this link for this reference
Leonard explains)
Here he's not speaking of love as a joyous, chemically pure, victorious thing.  Rather he seems to feel that love as he experiences it is a type of bewildering torture.  Perhaps, he's suggesting that our love of another person can be just as puzzling, frustrating, and elusive as trying to understand God's love.  If you listen attentively to the song you will notice a transition from the more divine references to love in the earlier verses to the more broken human personal ones of the later verses.   The last three all move into more personal territory about his own love (where he starts using the first person).  Then again, perhaps Leonard Cohen was simply relating a sexual experience to a religious one.  Perhaps also the small personal additions and interpretations Jeff Buckley made to the words seem to be his own personal reply filled with much more angst than the original.

It's interesting to note that Cohen is always altering his texts.  He's said several times that he never believes a work is finished. I've heard him sing several versions of Bird on a Wire over the years and yet another one at his recent concert here in Dublin at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham. That's a great thing about going to see Cohen live - you may well hear an old song made new again. It wouldn't surprise me that Hallelujah has evolved or will evolve too.

It is further very interesting to note from some little research on this song that many artists have done versions of this song.  This is surely a testament to its intrinsic and inherent brilliance.  There have been versions by John Cale, Rufus Wainwright, K.D. Lang and even our own Bono

Let me quote only the final verse here verse here as it is extremely powerful:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
I've told the truth,
I didn't come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
We are broken and imperfect.  We are limited and pathetic.  We live in an all too fragmented world of our own making.  We are losers as well as winners and oftentimes when we win we rub the noses of the losers in it.  Oftentimes when we lose we become embittered and ungrateful wretches.  Put all this in religious or metaphorical language and you get this rendition of these human sentiments - We are sinners.  We are unredeemed.  We are a sort of damned mass to quote Augustine through Luther and Calvin.  A lot of the time we humans get things so wrong, including our love or acts of love which will always fall short of perfection.  This is what Leonard Cohen is saying to us in this great song.  We are imperfect creatures striving to better ourselves.  Cohen is too much of a realist and too much of a Buddhist to ever believe that perfection exists. He is an enigmatic man and so are his lyrics.  After all he started out a Jew, became obsessed with Jesus Christ and ended up a Buddhist.  I got to admit I have a certain sympathy with him in his pursuit of meaning.  He strikes me as being an existentialist in the Kierkegaardian, Sartreian and Heideggerian senses of that word as I tried to elaborate in my own idiosyncratic way in my last post.  Nothing is perfect in this less than perfect world, but we will always try to improve our lot.  While we will never achieve perfection we can at least sing the praises of a greater meaning beyond us - for some this will be God, for others the heights of Humanity at its best or some other ideal. By way of a final, if sad note, I should like to suggest that perhaps the fact that Jeff Buckley died rather too young at 30 years of age in a tragic drowning accident, lends a certain note of pathos and depth to his songs.  Perhaps we are reading our own sadness at his early demise into his renditions.  If this tragedy were not enough, Jeff's father, Tim Buckley, also a great singer and musician, died at an equally young age of 27 from an overdose of heroin.  However, their voices live on as does their great creative work.

Listening to Cohen, Buckley and the many other artists that we are all lucky to hear, is a way of healing our brokenness, a way of integrating some of the fragments of self into some sort of tattered garment of meaning.  Let us wear such frail though painfully woven garments of meaning with the dignity equal to that of these great singer-songwriters who sang their very own meaning in both sacred and often mysterious words.

1 comment:

~Red Tin Heart~ said...

Wow! Great thoughts.