Traveling Light: Farewell to Leonard Cohen

By Anahid NersessianNovember 15, 2016

Traveling Light: Farewell to Leonard Cohen
I GREW UP in a secular household, but my family had two saints: Freud and Leonard Cohen. Both my parents are psychoanalysts, so we believed in self-scrutiny, the diagnostic power of dreams, and that nothing is more universal than perversion. To explain the almost scriptural role Leonard Cohen’s songs played and still play for me, I have to say something about New York City in the 1980s, as it sounded to a girl with orange-yellow skin and, in that pre-Kardashian era, an unintelligible name.

I say “sounded” because the most vivid memories of my childhood are backed by creaky European murmur of my parents’ psychoanalyst friends, Czech and Viennese and Transylvanian and Brit-tinted French and Flemish, who seemed to show up several times a week to smoke hideous cigars and shout — more about Reagan than Freud — with operatic intensity. They were genteel but told the dirtiest jokes. (If this seems like a scene cut from an early Woody Allen movie, before Allen appointed himself head window dresser for a series of goyishe Jazz Age tableaux, well, that’s how it was.) Because my father, who was born in Tehran, also has an accent, it never struck me that these people were somehow out of place, or away from home. It would be a long time before I would thumb through the packet of maps handed out in my middle school Modern European History class and put the faces and names to the places.

This is how Leonard Cohen’s music sounds to me: like the rustle of earth falling away, shaken off from snarled and delicate roots. Cohen gets tagged as a beatnik troubadour, a poet of love and casual transcendent sex who bopped around Hydra in white linen pants. And that he was. When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize in October, some were quick to say that Cohen was the better choice, which is, to Cohen’s great credit, absurd. His was always a minor literature. For all their biblical themes and sacerdotal scolding, these are songs that thrive when they deliver the weightiest sentiments in a tone that is unmistakably louche: Ecclesiastes with his feet on the couch. These aren’t songs for the rising of a generation or the breakup of a marriage; the Cohen catalog is filled, rather, with perfect elegies to halfway situations. “Let’s not talk of love or chains or things we can’t untie,” says an almost ex-lover, issuing an invitation to an unshared future where, despite it all, “our steps will always rhyme” (“Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”). As that line suggests, Cohen’s idea of romance lies in the ecstasy of the immaterial, in what he elliptically calls “the distance you put between / all of the moments that we will be” (“You Know Who I Am”).

Cohen loves the word “guess,” I expect for the way it combines real interest and a commitment of imaginative resources with real lightness, as though the answer hardly mattered: “I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you / I’m glad you stood in my way” (“Famous Blue Raincoat”); “Looks like freedom but it feels like death / It’s somewhere in between, I guess” (“Closing Time”); “I guess you go for nothing if you really want to go that far” (“Death of a Ladies’ Man”); and this, from Cohen’s very nearly posthumous last album, You Want It Darker:

I guess I’m just
Somebody who
Has given up
On the me and you
I’m not alone
I’ve met a few
Traveling light like
We used to do (“Traveling Light”)

You might ask what any of this has to do with a bunch of Jewish and Armenian émigrés 30 years ago in an American city. Perhaps it’s the anti-triumphalist strain in Cohen’s lyrics, and in his poetry, that has always made me think of him as a poet of displacement, of migration, of “traveling light.” Cohen seemed to think so, too. He went out of his way to cover songs like Antoine Gérin-Lajoie’s “Un Canadien errant” that describe people in exile, “banned,” “travel[ling] while crying / in foreign lands,” and “The Partisan,” which is not Cohen’s song except that, somehow, it is. Written as “La Complainte du partisan” by French Resistance fighter Emmanuel d’Astier de La Vigerie, Communist fellow traveler and founder of the leftwing Union progressiste party, it’s a quietly cavernous ballad that begins with the Nazi invasion: “Les allemands étaient chez moi / On m’a dit ‘résigne-toi’ / Mais je n’ai pas pu” (loosely, “The Germans came to my home / And told me to surrender / But I could not”). Cohen’s version combines the original French with Hy Zaret’s English translation, with the first and last third of the song sung in English, by Cohen, and the middle section sung in French by a chorus of female voices. While the English verses are basically translations of the French ones, there are several significant differences between them. For one thing Cohen, following Zaret, leaves the Germans out of it, changing the first three lines to “When they poured across the border / I was cautioned to surrender / This I could not do.” The old man who shelters the partisan and his compatriots (and is shot for it) becomes an old woman; and where La Vigerie wrote,

J’ai changé cent fois de nom, [I’ve changed my name a hundred times,]
J’ai perdu femme et enfants, [I have lost both wife and children]
Mais j’ai tant d'amis, [But I have many friends,]
Et j’ai la France entière [And I have all of France]

Cohen’s “Partisan” gives us:

I have changed my name so often
I have lost my wife and children
But I have many friends
And some of them are with me

Cohen’s version transcends the context of World War II and the German occupation of France to offer a more general template of resistance: any war, any occupation. Its notion of solidarity, meanwhile, is not only based on friendship instead of national identity: it includes an acknowledgment of loss or absence (only “some of them are with me”) that obliquely renounces the dream of an aggregate state, a France entière. If this is a song about partisanship — which is to say, about choosing sides — it is also a song about dispossession as a planetary and transhistorical phenomenon.

When I heard that Leonard Cohen had died, I thought of my parents’ friends, most of whom are now also dead, about their voices in our home, their bodies around our table. I had already been thinking, this week, about my childhood. I had been thinking about going through airport security with my dad, whose US passport says “Place of Birth: Iran,” about his bags and his person being searched as I and my mom, who is from rural Tennessee, waited on the sidelines. I had been thinking about how, during the first few months of the Gulf War, I was cornered on the playground of my fancy private school by a small group of girls including the daughter of a prominent liberal journalist, who asked me if I was from Iraq and then punched me in the stomach. I had been thinking about my Palestinian students and colleagues, who are told that their country does not exist, and that their own “complainte” is hate speech. I had been thinking about the several hours on campus last June when armored tanks rolled down the quad. I had been thinking, like everybody else, about what it means to be not at home in the world.

I’ve spent what feels like my whole life listening to Leonard Cohen. Walking empty midnight streets in Giuliani’s New York; driving through Indiana on I-80 in the snow, and stuck in Chicago, in a bad love affair; in the Knoxville airport after my grandmother’s funeral; swaying to “I’m Your Man” with my daughter. I saw him in concert only once, in December 2012. He brought his usual sublime game: dark suit, fedora, bended knee, slow-pumping arms; less a shtick than a liturgy. When someone threw flowers on the stage, Cohen gallantly passed them out to the band; when the band played, he took off his hat and knelt before their guitar and drum and violin solos. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the old man in the sharp suit, a traveler from an antique land, “ladies and gentlemen, tonight, we know you’re hurting.” It was a few days after Newtown. “I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but I promise that, tonight, we’re going to give you everything we’ve got.” It wasn’t enough; how could it be? I think, maybe, that was his point.


Anahid Nersessian is an assistant professor of English Literature at University of California, Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Anahid Nersessian is associate professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of Utopia, Limited: Romanticism and Adjustment (Harvard University Press, 2015), The Calamity Form: On Poetry and Social Life (University of Chicago Press, 2020), and Keats's Odes: A Lover's Discourse (Chicago, 2021). With Nan Z. Da, she founded and co-edits the Thinking Literature series published by the University of Chicago Press. 


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