Leonard Cohen Under a New Light

Leonard Cohen Under a New Light

Leonard Cohen performs in London in 1979. | Photo by Adam Beeson

Two books, a biography and a collection of poetry, take a deeper look at the late musician’s inner life and Zen practice.

By Matthew Gindin

I was always working steady
But I never called it art
I was funding my depression
Meeting Jesus reading Marx
Sure it failed my little fire
But it’s bright the dying spark
Go tell the young messiah
What happens to the heart

—“Happens To The Heart,” The Flame

October saw the arrival of two treats for fans of the late Leonard Cohen. The first, Matters of Vital Interest: A Forty-Year Friendship with Leonard Cohen, is written by Cohen’s long-term friend and fellow Zen student Eric Lerner. The second, The Flame, is a posthumous collection of Cohen’s poems, late songs, and notebook fragments curated by his son, Adam. Both books are chronicles of Cohen’s struggles with the life of art and the art of life. And they are shot through with his perennial themes—darkness and light, spirit and flesh, love and despair, and failure and acceptance.

Lerner, early on in Matters of Vital Interest, recounts the time he asked Leonard if he’d ever read the American philosopher William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which two kinds of religious people are outlined: “the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and the sick souls who must be twice-born in order to be happy.” The healthy-minded go in for religious paths of optimism and worldliness that affirm life as good, while the sick souls see life as suffering and a problem to be solved.

“That’s not a bad description of IT,” replied Cohen. IT was Cohen and Lerner’s name for the problem that haunted both of them—the sense that the things of this life offered only a temporary, deceptive refuge, and that there was something beyond, something more real that they desired even though they could not name or meet it. A divine discontent united them. Matters of Vital Interest follows Cohen and Lerner’s 40-year pursuit of a solution to IT, often in the circle of the Zen master they shared, Joshu Sasaki Roshi (1907–2014).

Lerner’s telling of their friendship is funny and revealing, written in his evocative, easy prose. Lerner pulls off the stunt of being self-deprecating while also bringing to life the swaggering, tongue-in-cheek bravado and hard-won wisdom that the two Jewish Buddhists shared with each other like a fine cognac (something they also shared with each other not infrequently).

Lerner depicts the two as holy rascals with their heads in the clouds of divinity while struggling with the world of family and career. Although both Cohen and Lerner clearly revere the women in their life, their conversations often circle back around to an expressed desire to freely pursue both sex and spirituality while seeing themselves as trapped by their domestic loves and duties. For this reason, many women—and men—may find parts of the book hard to read. As Lerner tells it, he and Cohen at times veer between grating escapism and locker-room conversation. On the other hand, Lerner’s unflinching honesty in this and other matters is often refreshing.

For most of us who only know the late Cohen’s public persona as a gentleman poet, secular saint, retired ladies man, and self-deprecating elder statesman of the arts, Lerner’s book unveils a messier picture of Cohen the human being. Matters is remarkable for its gritty depiction of both Cohen the hustling, sly, broken survivalist, and Cohen the tender, present, and devoted father of  two children who once told Lerner he would be happy if his tombstone simply read “Father.”

In the end, the book becomes a heartbreaking evocation of Lerner and Cohen’s friendship as they face down the harrowing debilities of old age, chronic pain, prescription drugs, and Cohen’s deterioration from leukemia. The two trade barbs, witticisms, and comforts by email all the way, right up until moments before Cohen’s death. Cohen had fallen during the night, and wrote Lerner afterwards of how sweet it was to be back in bed again, hit by “waves of sweetness that felt overwhelming.” Lerner emailed his friend back several times hoping for a response that never came.

Lerner and Cohen viewed their longtime Zen master, the iconoclastic and irreverent Sasaki Roshi, as an enigma to wrestle with together. Matters of Vital Interest opens a candid window on the two men’s relationship with Sasaki, who Cohen, the more consistent and serious disciple of the two, remained deeply dedicated to years after he no longer idealized Sasaki as an enlightened master. Cohen, who spent years as Sasaki Roshi’s personal cook and was an ordained monk at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center in California for five years in the 1990s, always characterized his relationship with him as a deep friendship…


F. Kaskais Web Guru



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