His statement, provided here unedited and in context, is not simplistic, ambiguous or vague.
Reporting on the outrage over the use of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with fireworks at the culmination of the Republican Convention, Newsweek quoted from our interview with the late great Leonard in an attempt to define his politics. But in that attempt, for some reason, their editors chose to omit most of the quote, as well as the context in which it was spoken, thus rendering it essentially meaningless.
Considering that it’s a quote by Leonard Cohen, whose spoken language was never random, but as carefully considered and expansively brilliant as his song lyrics, this attempt to simplify his perspective is especially futile. It has the opposite effect, creating a false idea of Leonard’s view of the world.
There are many humans who don’t devote much time to solitary thinking, the consideration of ideas on their own, separate from other’s influences. Many humans, as we know, do this thinking out loud, if at all, and their opinions are fluid and forever in formation.
Not Leonard, who would think about issues extremely deeply. And then rethink them. When he articulated a thought, although it might be difficult at first to grasp the fullness of his meaning, it wasn’t because of any lack of clarity on his part.
He was an artist, as is famously known, who was not only willing but insistent on writing 50 verses instead of five to discover the few which were truly essential and indispensible. He’d devote a full decade of “employment,” as he called it, to fully realize a single song, as he did with “Hallelujah.”
So any short-cut to defining his thoughts on any subject, especially any as complex as politics, racism and fascism, is ineffectual at best. In his answers in interviews and conversations, as in his lyrics, the fullness of his meaning can be only attained by hearing the entire verse.
His answer was offered in response to a query about the origins of his song “First We Take Manhattan.”
From Newsweek, August 28, 2020:
“Cohen died in 2016, one day before Trump was elected president. And though his political views were not something he much spoke about, he once told Paul Zollo that he felt `a sense of titillation with extremist positions.’ “
In fact, his statement was not about his own feelings of titillation with extremist positions. It was his admission of recognizing the persuasive, seductive power of this titillation with the populace. It was an honest admission that, although he did not subscribe to extremism, he
could recognize what there was an apetite for it.
Unedited and in context, his answer is not simplistic. But it is also neither ambiguous or vague:
“I felt for sometime that the motivating energy, or the captivating energy, or the engrossing energy available to us today, is the energy coming from the extremes. That’s why we have Malcolm X. And somehow it’s only these extremist positions that can compel our attention.
“And I find in my own mind that I have to resist these extremist positions when I find myself drifting into a mystical fascism in regards to myself. [Laughs]
“So this song, `First We Take Manhattan‘, what is it? Is he serious? And who is we? And what is this constituency that he’s addressing? Well, it’s that constituency that shares this sense of titillation with extremist positions.
I’d rather do that with an appetite for extremism than blow up a bus full of schoolchildren. “
In the final sentence, he states clearly that an apetite for extremism is far removed from taking any action in the service of extremism.
And it specifies only one example of the power of extremism: Malcolm X. A Black leader who was shot down in America, as were many of the most powerful black leaders. It is his single example. It is not White Nationalists, the Tea Party, the KKK, or any other hate groups to which he refers. It is Malcolm X, whose fight was in oppostion to white aggression and race hatred. True, Malcolm X did not subscribe to the non-violence of MLK, so he was considered extremist. (But MLK was also considered an extremist, and also shot down in America.)
Extremism in the cause of human rights, intended to oppose racial injustice and systemic racism, is not the same as that which promotes hatred and violence.
Although Malcolm X was murdered 55 years ago, the racism he opposed is as great as ever, if not greater, and empowered by our current leader.
Now seen decades since this was spoken, Leonard’s messages stands as a tragically prophetic expression of the cultural forces he identified years before they became mainstream. That same perspective is delivered also in “Democracy,” “The Future,” “You Want It Darker” and other masterpieces of song.
Though Leonard did not discuss politics or our current president directly in our interview, he did touch on a cultural shift he recognized as new and unfortunate. That in America, where hard work was once honored, the idea of making it rich by some kind of con, avoiding actual work to profit by exploiting or cheating others, was becoming prevalent. It was being celebrated in pop culture as something to be desired, much more so then getting a real job, and exemplified by the election of a conman whose success was founded on cheating and exploitation.
Leonard still subscribed to the old American ideal of honorable work, and not shying from employment. He was proud of his work, and also of the devotion and diligence he brought to it daily. Given this following answer from our interview, his reaction to our current leadership is not hard to deduce.
LEONARD COHEN: “I think unemployment is the great affliction of man. Even people with jobs are unemployed. In fact, most people with jobs are unemployed.
I can say, happily and gratefully, that I am fully employed. Maybe all hard work means is being fully employed.
We have a sense here that it’s smart not to work. The hustle, the con, these have been elevated to a very high position in our morality. And probably if I could mount a con or a hustle in terms of my own work I would probably embrace the same philosophy.
But I am a working stiff. It takes me months and months of full employment to break the code of the song. To find out if there can be a song there.”