Leonard Cohen, Darkness, & “Soul-making”: What Boogie Street Is For


O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,

I never thought we’d meet.

You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:

I’m back on Boogie Street.


Tho’ all the maps of blood and flesh

Are posted on the door,

There’s no one who has told us yet

What Boogie Street is for.

--Leonard Cohen, "Boogie Street"


There’s a lover in the story

But the story is still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering

And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures

And it’s not some idle claim

You want it darker

We kill the flame.

 --Leonard Cohen, “You Want It Darker”


This is a follow-up to my post (Oct. 22, 2:48pm) concerning the rebroadcast of a 2006 NPR interview with Leonard Cohen (in honor of the release of his latest album, You Want It Darker) and how it related to my previous Bob Dylan post (“On Bob Dylan Winning The 2016 Nobel Prize For Literature: Shakespeare In The Alley & The Tower Down The Track,” Oct. 20 at 7:44pm).

However, the Gypsy Scholar (“Tower of Song” program host on KUSP-fm in Santa Cruz) feels he wants to say something more about it, and draw out what he believes are the larger implications of some of the issues and themes that came up in the interview with Leonard Cohen.


Love this Leonard Cohen interview! And L.C. ending by reading the lyrics to the then unreleased poem/song that means so much to the GS, “A Street” (“The party’s over / But I’ve landed on my feet / I’ll be standing on this corner / Where there used to be a street”), makes him swoon!


On the “darker” side, hearing L.C. about the “monastery” actually being part of “Boogey St.” too (not its opposite; release from) was a shocker for a guy like the GS, who had, up to that point, pretensions to the post-religious “monkish” kind of life and so also had aspirations of retreating to the Zen monastery for some practice/path to happiness or “enlightenment.” And so the GS can only bow to big brother poet-jikan for disabusing him of that notion! (“Ha! L.C. confessed that he “hated everybody there” but he never let them know it—and left the monastery on good terms.)


But the rogue Zen monk dispelled even more conventional notions of what a neo-Buddhist existence is like—at least for the artistic temperaments of the L.C. type! In explaining both (a) his reason for becoming a Buddhist disciple of a great Zen Master and exiling himself away from the world in a monastery and (b) his reason for ultimately leaving it (to return full time to “I’m-Your-Man”-type of poet-as-popstar), L.C. must have surprised his audience of spiritually-minded fans (who, like L.C., don’t consider themselves “religious” in the traditional sense).


I mean, he very candidly (you have to admire L.C.’s painful honesty) answers the question about “why” the turn to the monkish life (of which he says he wasn’t looking for another “religion”) by admitting that it wasn’t out of any noble idea of the spiritual life or anything like that. No, L.C. was suffering terribly with his “demons” and, well, fuck . . . even psychotherapy didn’t work to rid him of his “depression”!


Okay. But, again, how many of his many admirers (musically and spiritually) would have thus not assumed that this kind of transcendent cure (when the last, secular option doesn’t work—Western psychotherapy—, then your desperation drives you to the Eastern religion cure) would have succeeded where all other types of techniques or strategies had failed? There’s been this popular misconception (somewhat abetted by L.C.’s own sly references to his Rinzai Zen Buddhist experience) that it was his retreat to the Mt. Baldy Zen Center that got him over his “depression.”


However, according to Sylvie Simmons’ 2012 biography, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, the autumn of 1998, after living in the monastery for a long time, was the worst period of depression when at Mt. Baldy. In the meditation hall listening to the Roshi one day “Jikan” no longer had any idea of what the teacher was saying and only felt “despair”. Simmons states: “The anguish did not abate; it deepened .... The winter months felt crueler than ever; Roshi’s teisho sounded like gibberish. After five and a half years in the monastery and in the deepest pit of depression, Leonard felt that he had ‘come to the end of the road’. So, on a cold winter night in January of 1999, he informed the Roshi: ‘I’ve got to go. I’m going to go down the mountain.” [My emphasis.] L.C.’s note of apology read: “I‘m sorry I cannot help you now because I’ve met this woman.... Jikan the useless monk bows his head’.” (Right, “I’ve met this woman”—what else would tempt monk Leonard-Jikan away from the monastery? Another biography also reports that L.C.’s going down from the mountain also meant “getting back to his work of songwriting.”) 


So, I guess most of L.C.’s fans underestimated his special capacity for being one of those “sensitive and conflicted artist/poet” types—for being so psychologically fucked up! God, you gotta feel for this famous but deeply disturbed singer-songwriter! Well, L.C. was such a young man back in 2006—”just a kid with a dream,” referring to his big comeback late in life—that maybe you assumed that now, at 82, he finally put the demons to rest. (But then You Want It Darker comes out!) But, remember this is the same L.C. who will always be known for telling us all that “There ain’t no cure for love” [1] (and neither religion nor modern medicine can help: “The holy books are open wide / The doctors working day and night”) and for letting the secret—the mad truth—out that “There’s a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in” [2] —the same “tortured artist,” even with a stint in the neo-Buddhist monastery under a real Japanese Zen master!


However, when it came to the question of the outcome of five and a half years living in the monastery, whether the results of what he expected had panned out, whether or not it helped rid him of his life-long “depression,” and did he feel more together and at peace with himself—well, those who were expecting to get a definite, unambiguous answer in the affirmative must have been sorely disappointed.


So, then, with this 2006 interview, we are left with—as to why L.C. abandoned the monastery after five and a half years—the mystery of “personal reasons” that cannot be explained in so many words through a conversation (only, a “song or a poem” could give it expression, quipped L.C., as he could find no way of adequately explaining what happened—okay, let’s listen closer to L.C.’s songs!).


Again, this was some existentially bad news for someone who, like the GS, is irresistibly drawn to L.C.’s songs and poetry (or songs/poetry), and even his novels, for what he can only call “temperamental” reasons. (Maybe, as the new-agers would see it, it must be that astrologically shared “Virgo” thing. September 22.) I mean, those of us who expected some sort of hope of spirituality helping with our native-born “depression” and some affirmation of a higher existence attained, had our hopes dashed for some sort of “salvation” from our existential predicament (L.C. as Jewish prophet-in-song) or “enlightenment” beyond it (L.C. as Zen-Buddhist master).


Fuck, if it didn’t work for L.C., what hope do some of us have left? First the Western psychotherapies fail us, and then Eastern religions fail to deal with the pathologies of our existential anguish! (And thus Van Morrison was right!—“enlightenment, / don’t know what it is”).


Damn, don’t mind telling you that this spiritual let-down makes the GS want to hear some typically dark, somber, and depressive Leonard Cohen song (on the radio), just for medicinal purposes; a kind of homeopathic balm to ease his worried, burning heart! (How about “Waiting For The Miracle To Come”?)


Is it true? Is there really nowhere else to go, nothing outside of “Boogie Street”? (However, looked at differently, is not this viewpoint itself very “zen”? L.C. must know the paradoxical Zen teaching that, in the final analysis, “samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara.” And he must also have heard of the famous Zen-master who went on record to declare that “enlightenment” is “nothing special.” Whether L.C. knows about these paradoxical Zen sayings or not, the GS believes that, in his own boogie-street way, he’s also “on record” with a similar message! [3] ) Jeez, now L.C.’s great lines about “learning to live with defeat,” or “invincible defeat,” in one’s life makes even more sense! L.C. has elaborated on this Beautiful Loser philosophy: “… you understand deeply that this is not paradise, that somehow, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this vale of tears is perfectible; that you’re going to get it all straight. I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win.”


So, speaking of songs of the L.C. variety, let the GS be so bold as to suggest that a case could be made that if there’s nothing but “Boogie St.”—that even a place that’s supposed to take you away from it is also another form of “Boogie St.”—then maybe the only way to deal with this (in any serious ontological manner) is to turn things completely around and start to worship that little-known saint (little-known except on “the dark side of town”), St. Boogie! Indeed, the GS would even go so far as to say that he believes you could also make a strong case that L.C.’s songs (or at least a large, thematically-related strain of them) suggest such an ontologically backstreet via negativa for what ails the post-religious seeker; to wit, a paradoxically downward path (a descensus ad inferos) of a post-Nietzschean/postmodern sort. [4] (Or, maybe it’s of a post-Blakean sort: “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” “walking among the fires of Hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to [new-age] Angels look like torment and insanity.” Cf. Blake’s greatest student, W.B. Yeats: “For Hades’ bobbin bound in mummy-cloth / May unwind the winding path….”)


Yes, admittedly, L.C. regularly engages in “religious” (especially biblical) themes in his songs. And his latest, “You Want It Darker” is addressed to “G-d,” yet in a rather skeptical, cynical, and even contemptuous way—actually, just the way today’s self-identified Jewish or Christian post-religious individual would have it, one whose religiously complex worldview has been termed as a “gnostic-postmodernism.” (“You” could well be the gnostic “Demiurge.”) And, yes, L.C. seeks to be privy to the traditional divine illumination, but, because of who he is, it’s not Holy “Illuminations,” but “profane illuminations” (Walter Benjamin) that put L.C.’s religiosity in a class all by itself and makes for singing those “broken hallelujahs.” Thus, if it’s “transcendence” that’s the goal, then for L.C. it’s a dark transcendence (i.e., one achieved through the ontological backdoor by means which would make a rabbi or priest shudder!) Yet, the crazy thing about it is that, paradoxically, the resulting spiritual achievement is all the better for it—all the more spectacular!


Given all this, the GS would suggest that L.C. is the singer-songwriter-as-prophet of a new religiosity that has yet to be registered on the radar of the history of religion; a postmodern type of (gnostic) spiritual search. It’s beginnings in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century have been singled out as religiously innovative of a particular set of post-Baudelairean writers and poets of “Black Romanticism,” and Sandra Djwa, a Canadian writer, critic, and cultural biographer, in a 1976 essay, locates L.C.’s poetic roots here. (If the GS’s use of the term “prophet” for a lowly singer-songwriter comes off as sheer hyperbole, see Liel Leibovitz’s 2014 biography, A Broken Hallelujah: Rock and Roll, Redemption, and the Life of Leonard Cohen, where the author more than once refers to the poet turned singer-songwriter, as a “prophet.” We read of L.C. “Like the prophet’s of the Old Testament …” and “possessing the sort of voice and vision commonly reserved only for the prophets.” Leibovitz, looking at various L.C. songs having prophetic elements to them, singles out the song “Anthem,” for being “even more bluntly prophetic: ‘Ring the bells that still can ring,’ it declared, ‘Forget your perfect offering / There’s a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in’.” He concludes that “Cohen was channeling millennia of Jewish thought—the crack is a favorable kabbalistic metaphor—and composing an anthem that celebrated what most anthems dared not acknowledge; namely, the irreparable condition of human life.” Keep in mind here that the Jewish Kabbalah contains many heretical elements.) If one had to choose a motto for this type of radically alternative religiosity, it could be: “looking for light in the darkest places” (the last place any self-respecting new-age seeker would think of looking).


However, since L.C. is a (Kabbalistic) Jew who also practices “Zen Buddhism” (yet he characteristically denies ever becoming a “Buddhist”), maybe describing his uniquely wayward spiritual quest as a Western form of the Eastern “Left-hand Path” is more on the mark. L.C. has said in another interview: “I figured, if I am going to go down I would rather go down with my eyes wide open.” [My emphasis] And it’s precisely this “eyes-wide-open” sense of going down (“the way down and out”) that the post-modern gnostic, in seeking liberation, consciously and purposely goes with; is down with everything that has been deemed a hindrance to the religious life or the “spiritual path”—the neglected, the denied, the repressed in traditional Western (monotheistic) religion, including eroticism and darkness —, thus reclaiming and revaluing them. (Cf. the lyrics “I fought against the bottle, / But I had to do it drunk.” In other words, a homeopathic strategy of “fight fire with fire.”) Following the same line of thought, L.C. once offered this gem to an interviewer: “Real spiritually has its feet in the mud and its heart in heaven.” “Mud”—now here’s the nitty-gritty of L.C.’s spiritual path, which relates it to the Eastern “Left-hand Path.”


We must keep in mind here that experts in the field of Tantric tradition have pointed to the ethos of the Left-hand Path as contained in the Hindu aphorism that “the lotus grows in the mud.” There is a saying in Tantra: “no mud, no lotus.” The blossom of the lotus flower symbolizes enlightenment. According to a traditional story, the more muddy and opaque the water, the more beautiful the Lotus flower when it emerges. The Vamacara, or “Left-Hand Path,” utilizes as a means of liberation five activities that most Hindus abhor as sinful, including alcohol and sexual intercourse—“the supreme pleasure of a pair of lovers.” “The beautiful lotus growing out of the mud and slime is the proper image for the ideal results of tantric sadhana.” (B. L. Smith, Hinduism: New Essays in the History of Religions.) (For those unfamiliar with the “Left-hand Path,” simply put, it’s a part of what’s known as the “Tantric tradition,” which worships the feminine power of the universe, the “Shakti,” and is heretical, since it takes up the very vices—even ritual sex, or maithuna—that the traditional Hindu path condemns, and instead uses them as vehicles for liberation; a kind of via contrarius.) And, given that, as student at Columbia, young Leonard could be found “lounging on the bed, chatting about the I Ching and the spiritual benefits of masturbation” (Leibovitz, 2014), L.C. is a natural for the “Left-hand Path”! Translated into Western terms, the Tantric Left-hand Path would be achieving “liberation” through sex, drugs, and rock’in’roll! It would be like worshiping (in L.C.’s terms) St. Boogie instead of St. Paul! (Well, admittedly, not the St Paul that’s as bad as “anal sex,” the one that fucked up the religion of Jesus so bad: “Give me crack and anal sex ... / Give me back the Berlin wall / give me Stalin and St Paul.” This perverted desire is, of course, probably over the top even for a practitioner of the Eastern Left-hand Path!) But, seriously, there’s a much better erotic illustration of L.C. as a poet-singer of the Left-hand Path. L.C., worshipping “Down on your knees,” the woman/goddess who comes to you “light as the breeze,” “there at the delta, / At the alpha and the omega,” / “At the cradle of the river and the seas,” experiences, as he “knelt there like one who believes,” “a blessing come from heaven,” and declares that “For something like a second / I’m cured [I was healed] and my heart / is at ease.”


This Western Left-hand Path is situated in a nineteenth-century Romantic vale. One of L.C.’s poetic ancestors, the “Romantic poet,” the interminably depressed, Keats wrote an important letter one day in 1819. He conveyed to his dear brother on a Sunday morning that he had come up with an alternative “system of salvation.” He passionately laid out what he wanted his brother to seriously consider. After an unflinching, cold-eyed account the hell-hole that is this world and its arbitrary “God” (Demiurge?) of the “superstitious”—this “a vale of tears”—, Keats suddenly offers a glimpse of what he describes as “a faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not [like the Christian one does] affront our reason and humanity.” This heretical “system of Salvation” he terms “SOUL-MAKING.” Under this heretical system, the world, where we struggle night and day with our trials and tribulations, is seen as “a vale of Soul-making.” Here’s what Keats wants to tell his brother:


“Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making’. Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it)…. I think it a grander system of salvation than the chrystiain religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation ….”


In other words, to gloss Keats’ letter, it means, as Dr. Hillman would say: without “pathology” there’s no “Soul-making”—and maybe no “art” either! (According to Dr. Hillman: “The soul sees by means of affliction.... Illness opens doors to a reality which remains closed to the healthy point of view .... The soul’s ... native insight is its native pathology.” Cf. Romantic writer Andre Gide: “…. illness opens doors to a reality which remains closed to the healthy point of view.”)


The Romantically wounded Keats is (even if this letter has long been forgotten among his poetic works) telling us that we can “find out the use of the world”—of “Boogie Street”—it is the “vale of Soul-making.”

Let me, before going any further on this topic, point out that there’s more than a tenuous connection between Keats and Cohen as poets. First off, scholars and biographers have located L.C.’s poetry in the Romantic poetic tradition that began in the nineteenth century. And, moreover, L.C. himself has stated that as an aspiring young Montreal poet he took his inspiration from, and identified with, the Romantic poets, such as Blake, Byron, Shelley, Keats and W. B. Yeats. (“... a young man who was growing up and discovering Byron and Blake.” “It was also a place where a young poet could try to connect with the ghosts of Byron and Shelley and Blake.”) Secondly, concerning Keats specifically out of all the Romantic poets, Liel Leibovitz, in his 2014 biography, reports that when the melancholic young Leonard was trying to make himself a “Poet” in the New York scene in the late 50s he would frequent the “strip clubs and the jazz joints and the oily eateries of St. Catherine Street,” giving “midnight [poetry] readings” at Birdland. Leibovitz then makes the following statement: “Leonard Cohen was reborn as John Keats.” So, there’s a strong link between Cohen and Keats, the poet of “Soul-making.” (And, as we shall see, an eccentric path that goes from St. Catherine Street to St. Boogie Street.)


With this in mind, may the GS be so bold as to argue that even if L.C. doesn’t have a “song” anywhere near such a title, several of his major songs have, in one way or another, echoed this Keatsian theme of “Soul-making” and its implied poetic metaphysics (even if it’s in the strict “love songs”—the “lover in the story”—, where the realms of the spiritual and the sexual are mixed, where the love songs have spiritual overtones and, conversely, the spiritual passages have erotic undertones; you don’t know if the beloved in a song is a lover or a higher power—and therefore the troubadourian, hermeneutical ambiguities of L.C.’s sacred and profane domains). The most obvious song is “Anthem” (with its celebration of the radically imperfect, because of “a crack in everything,” of which L.C. says: “But it’s only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything. I think all other visions are doomed to irretrievable gloom.”), but it also comes through in the songs along the same lines, like “The Window” (where you climb to the crown of the great symbolic rose “on a ladder of thorns”), “Joan of Arc” (where the ashes of her immolation become the “wedding dress” for the sacred marriage of flesh/wood and spirit/fire). This theme of “Soul-making” also manifests as a leitmotif with images of “broken” (along with coinciding images of “wound,” which is cognate with “vulnerable:” capable of or susceptible to being wounded) in songs such as “The Window” (“the whole broken-hearted host”), “Hallelujah” (“not a holy, / but a broken Hallelujah”), “If It Be Your Will” (“on this broken hill”), “Everybody Knows” (“this broken feeling”), and “Born In Chains” (“In every atom broken is a name”). Or, how about this from the beginning of the title track of You Want It Darker? “If you are the healer / I’m broken and lame.” (Cf. what L.C. told an interviewer about his “depression” in 1978: “Somehow, when you have broken down, you find a place where you can’t lie. Otherwise your defenses are so skillful and your bullshit is so abundant that you can come up with something.” Cf. L.C.’s prevalent leitmotif of brokenness (and “crack” belongs here too) with Norman O. Brown, from his visionary Love’s Body: “To be is to be vulnerable [wounded]. The defense mechanisms, the character-armor, is to protect from life. Frailty alone is human; a broken, a ground-up (contrite) heart…. Open is broken. There is no breakthrough without breakage….”)


This poetic theme of “Soul-making” brings me, after turning a hard left [-hand path], to “Boogie Street.” I mean, right in the middle of this song about the dark vision of “Boogie Street” (even as L.C. explains in it the interview) is this surprising transcendent message:


“So come, my friends, be not afraid

We are so lightly here

It is in love that we are made

In love we disappear.”


Yet, L.C. immediately laments that


 Tho’ all the maps of blood and flesh

Are posted on the door,

There’s no one who has told us yet

What Boogie Street is for.


This is the last line of the song “Boogie Street.” So, please humor the GS and allow him to humbly offer a crazy way out (the “crazy wisdom” of “the way down and out”) of the “Boogie Street” existential dilemma by suggesting that someone actually has, in fact, “told us what Boogie Street is for,” but that L.C. may have overlooked him in this instance; overlooked the Romantic “map” that Keats charted. Giving L.C. the benefit of the doubt, if Keats himself was overlooked, then L.C.’s own other songs at least suggested what Boogie Street is for. Indeed, it’s even suggested in the undertone of rich meaning in this song itself, when you hear about the unexpected meeting the archetypal opposites that haunt the alchemical imagination—the personified King and Queen of opposites (a coincidentia oppositorum or “coincidence of opposites”), which are featured in the chorus of the song: “O Crown of Light, O Darkened One / I never thought we’d meet.” This is a classic alchemical unio coniunctio or “sacred marriage” (the coniunctio or coitus refers to the union of divine spirit with the soul, and finally with the body). Therefore the GS would argue that although the song has its protagonist having a transcendent experience outside of “Boogie Street” and then forced to return to it (a spiritual predicament that agonized the nineteenth-century Romantics; having to “come back down,” as they used to say in the psychedelic Sixties) the experience of this unio coniunctio (of the archetypal light and dark) overcomes the ontological separation of Boogie Street and non-Boogie Street. (Hence the Zen realization that this world of samsara is the very same as the “Pure Land;” emptiness and the phenomena of this world are the same or, as the great Mahayana “Heart Sutra” says, “Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form.”) This surprising coniunctio should be the way out of Boogie Street as different from beyond Boogie Street—as the verse indicates: “So come, my friends, be not afraid / We are so lightly here / It is in love that we are made / In love we disappear.” This positive verse shinning through a dark vision seems to the GS to be a poetic equivalent to the “Fear Not Mudra” of the Buddhas; i.e., “Fear Not” the same dull round on the wheel of Boogie Street. I mean, if this isn’t the case, what’s it doing in such a song (and, for that matter, why the constant refrain: “O Crown of Light, O Darkened One, / I never thought we’d meet”)? 


Actually, L.C. had musically broached this archetypal theme in using the alchemical image of the “sacred marriage” of the King and Queen for his 1974 New Skin For The Old Ceremony album. Thus, we can put the same mad truth found in the (gnostic) postmodern via negativa of Boogie Street in alchemical terms; namely, that the long-sought Philosophers Stone is paradoxically discovered to be in the basest element of the nigredo, the rejected black substance of the prima materia (just like the “jewel in the lotus” is discovered in the mud). There is an old alchemical saying that the prized element is unrecognized by all; despised and rejected it is “flung into the street” and thus “picked up anywhere in the street.” Boogie Street? The depth-psychologist C. G. Jung, in his alchemical studies, recognized the significance of this scandalous truth that the alchemical gold can be found in the dung: “We have here, in fact, a new religious declaration: God is not only in the unspotted body of Christ and continually present in the consecrated Host but – and this is the novel and significant thing – he is also hidden in the ‘cheap,’ ‘despised,’ common-or-garden substance, even in the ‘uncleanness of this world, in filth’.” In other words, this spiritual path of the via negativa does not to deny the chaos of backstreet, profane existence in favor of the sacred highroad to heaven, but rather radically affirms that, as Blake told us, all life is sacred. This means that the alchemical sacred marriage of King and Queen does not necessarily take place in some new-age temple of love-and-light, but rather in the midst of our messy, broken and fragmented daily lives—on Boogie Street! And when it happens, you will sing out with L.C.: “O Crown of Light, O Darkened One, / I never thought we’d meet”!


No, you never “thought we’d meet”—as long as traditional Western religious theology succeeds in forever keeping them ontologically, epistemologically, psychologically, and morally apart—but “hallelujah,” it’s “Boogie Street” that makes it possible! A trip down the dark backstreet of Babylon—“by the rivers dark”—, a postmodern move of “radical secularization” (William Irwin Thompson) outside the precincts of the temple or church. Again, the (gnostic) postmodern via negativa/contrarius would not go with a reactionary “return to the sacred” to ward off the steady encroachment of secularization, but go with that secular impulse all the way—pedal-to-the-metal on Boogie Street! Joseph Conrad’s (of the Heart of Darkness) provocative instructions apply here: “Into the destructive element immerse.” (Or, as Van Morrison, that intrepid student of Blake, would have it: “No guru, no method, no teacher.”) L.C.’s postmodern via negativa is reflected in this line from the last song on You Want It Darker: “Steer your way through the ruins of the Altar and the Mall.” (It’s the nineteenth-century Romantic vision of “the ruins”—the world in ruins; disintegration or “falling apart,” especially Western religion in ruins: “Everybody knows it's coming apart / Take one last look at this Sacred Heart / Before it blows / And everybody knows.”) Again, the road religious madmen—souls in extremis—steer their way through is the post-Blakean “road of excess,” of  “crooked roads:” “Improvement makes strait roads; but the crooked roads without Improvement are roads of Genius.”


This is—forgive the GS for saying so—the mad truth of our post-religious age: Boogie Street is “the vale of Soul-making”. (Perhaps an age that was already underway when some of us youthful spiritual seekers were reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf  [about a soul in extremis] and listening/reading Leonard Cohen poems/songs. Those of us who did should recognize that this kind of radically heretical spiritual quest is not suited for everyone, because “everybody knows” it has no dedicated temples or churches—this Cohenesque version of the paradoxical “religion of no-religion”—, and that, if it did, it should have a sign on the entrance as did the advertisement for the Magic Theater: “Not for everyone, but for madmen only!”)


This 2006 interview would tell us “And Why He Left the Zen Monastery.” And so the GS concludes this raving-on meditation on this interview by contending that Leonard Cohen, too, in his own strange, inimitable way, has actually told us “What Boogie Street is for”—it’s for the purpose of “Soul-making”! So, Leonard, we “want it darker” too! [5]



[1] Dr. James Hillman critiques of the negative medical model of “pathology” in clinical psychotherapy, where it’s traditionally seen as totally abnormal to the psyche and hence to be “cured” away. He contends so-called “psychopathologies” may not be “true pathologies in the medical sense,” and instead introduces the term “pathologizing to mean the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective.” However, Dr. Hillman seeks to move beyond not only the medical model of “pathology,” in comprehending psychic trouble and suffering, but also its ancient ancestor in religion. “We suffer, it has been customary to say, because we are either sick or sinful, and the cure of our suffering calls for either science or faith. But in both cases pathologizing has had negative implications. For both sickness and sin imply that pathologizing is wrong.” Therefore, the GS would suggest that if we want a fresh perspective on the pathologizing of the psyche we would be better off listening to L.C. songs rather than the clinical model of psychopathology, because L.C., as poet-singer, speaks for the psyche, the soul (maybe not “soul music,” but rather the “music of soul”; “soul-making” music). “We need a fresh start. We have been confined so long by medical and religious analogies that psychology has been unable to approach what are essentially psychological phenomena from a perspective of its own. Possibly pathologized events would not be so wrong were they viewed less from positions borrowed from material medicine and spiritual religion…. Our attempt to envision pathologizing psychologically is to find a place for it, a way of accepting it, in general and as a whole. We want to know what it might be saying about the soul and what the soul might be saying by means of it. And this attitude must come before making moves to treat it, condemn it, justify it, or do anything else for or against it.” (Re-Visioning Psychology, 1975)


Thus, to the question of curing the soul’s “native pathology” (such as “depression” and etc., or what Dr. Hillman metaphorically terms “falling apart”), he would say: “Hey, hold on there—not so fast!” And, maybe, for the same reason that the great Orphic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, hesitated of being “cured” of his psychopathology: “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.” (Btw: Tom Waits, in the song, “Please Call Me, Baby,” borrows from Rilke: “If I exorcise my demons, my angels may leave too.” Cf. the couplet from the chorus of the song, “On The Level,” off the new L.C. You Want It Darker album: “When I turned my back on the devil / Turned my back on the angel too.”) Actually, the GS would suggest, along the same lines, that if one wants to have a demonstration of Dr. Hillman’s marvelous re-visioning of psychopathology with the idea of “falling apart” (in all its manifold positive meanings, including “broken”: “Somehow,” L.C. once told an interviewer, “when you have broken down, you find a place where you can’t lie.”) and its psychic necessity (the psychic crisis of “falling apart,” whether for the individual or the collective, is actually a prelude to re-integration at another level, and heralds a transformation that is a quantum leap to a new level of being), there’s no better poetic rendering of the psychological concept than L.C’s postmodern spiritual anthem of “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.” (Indeed, it’s as if L.C. was reading Hillman’s 1975 book in 1992!)


[2] I should note here a comparison of L.C.’s mad “Anthem” lyrics with a poem from one his identified poetic mentors, W. B. Yeats. The poem is “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop.” (It’s an intriguing comparison that no one I can find has noticed, despite the obvious connection of poetic sensibilities. It’s also an apt comparison to L.C.’s, since the Yeats poem is part of “Words for Music Perhaps,” a sequence of twenty-five poems focused on Crazy Jane.) The last stanza is a striking parallel to “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in.” Indeed, it seems to concisely sum up L.C.’s treatment of love not only in “Anthem” (“Every heart, every heart / to love will come / but like a refugee”), but in many other “love songs” as well. Yeats, gnostic student of alchemy (“Rosa Alchemica,” 1896) and thus of “Mystical Marriage,” had Crazy Jane proclaim this mad truth to the Bishop: “But Love has pitched his mansion in / The place of excrement; / For nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.” This mad truth incorporates Yeats’ alchemical insight about the “dung,” where the philosopher’s stone hides. (In old alchemical literature, we find it said that the prized element is unrecognized by all; despised and rejected it is “flung into the street” and thus “picked up anywhere in the street.” Boogie Street?) And, like Cohen’s mad truth about the “crack in everything,” it is an anthem for our “falling apart” (Hillman) postmodern age. Thus, it wouldn’t be too much to say that you have to be cracked in the head, like the matron saint of the post-religious (gnostic) via negativa, Crazy Jane (or touched in the head like “half-crazy” Suzanne), to come to the realization of what no bishop could ever come to—that in our time in order to truly love you have to really give a shit about the world, since, for all its un-heavenly boogie-street mud and darkness, it is, after all, the realm of “Soul-making.” Therefore, “come, my friends, be not afraid,” because in seriously considering Crazy Jane’s shitty advice about “love,” it is “By such instructions you prepare / A man for boogie street.”


There is another Yeats poem worth comparison here: the autobiographical poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” where an old, “broken man” recalls all the “masterful images” (from Celtic mythology) that enchanted him when young. He asks out of what “Those masterful images,” which “Grew in pure mind,” began and answers: “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street, / Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut / Who keeps the till.” Here we again have the alchemical motif of the dung (“refuse or the sweepings of a street”), where the gold is hidden. And we also have the left-hand-path paradox of “mud/pure” (like the pure lotus that grows out of the mud). That said, I would also call attention to the same last stanza, which ends with the lines: “Now that my ladder's gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” These remind of L.C’s lyrics, especially from “Born In Chains:” “But all the ladders of the night have fallen / Only darkness now, to lift the longing up.” And, again, I must emphasize the paradox of L.C.’s via negativa—the “darkness” that serves “to lift the longing up.” (For an enlightening read about Yeats’ interest in alchemy, see Gorski, Yeats and Alchemy, 1996. This study goes into detail about which the GS has speculated operating in L.C.’s songs—to wit, the paradox of the transcendent ideal being found in its opposite, in this case the Philosopher’s Stone in the dung of the nigredo, which means “blackening” and is a process of mortifico, of mortification, putrefaction and decomposition; the blackening and death phase before the albedo, or the whitening. To quote Gorski on the alchemical paradox: “By granting spirit’s presence in matter [prima materia], Yeats develops a philosophy that is drawn from the alchemist’s practice of salvaging the philosopher’s stone from the dung heap.” I will connect this Western alchemical “dung” with the “mud” of the Eastern “Left-hand Path” further on in the essay.)

Let’s take a closer look at “Crazy Jane Talks to the Bishop.” In the poem, the Bishop meets Crazy Jane on the road (her “crooked road[s]” or via negativa), who implores her to “Live in a heavenly mansion, / Not in some foul sty.” But Crazy Jane retorts with a heretical left-hand-path truth: “Fair and foul are near of kin, / And fair needs foul”—a “truth,” she adds, “Learned in bodily lowliness / And in the heart’s pride.” This little argument between a madwoman and a churchman—essentially, an argument over the traditional religious dichotomy of heaven and earth (“heavenly mansion” and “foul sty”) is symbolic of the big religious argument of our entire modern era, and, once more, it reflects the argument I’m making here; namely, that the postmodern seeker of the (gnostic) via negativa travels down the low road, using all the neglected, rejected, and repressed elements of Western religion as methods to liberation (staying with, not escaping from, body “lowliness” and the earth; not new-age transcendence, but “embodied spirituality” and “radical aliveness”). This is not, in other words, a spiritual path based on denial, but rather one that leads to a “coming to our senses“ and thus a “re-enchantment of the world,” which (in terms of the poem) means a marriage of “heavenly mansion” and “foul sty,” of “fair” and foul.” (Cf. Blake’s MH&H chorus: “For everything that lives is holy.”)

Crazy Jane’s argument could be compared to “madman” William Blake’s “Argument” in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Here, Blake quotes “The voice of the Devil,” who declares that All Bibles or sacred codes” have been the causes of major errors, including that of the dualism of Body and Soul and consequently “That God will torment man in Eternity for following his Energies.” But, according to the Devil/Blake, the contrary is true: “1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul; for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 3. Energy is Eternal Delight.” For Blake, the marriage of heaven and hell (the sacred marriage) means that “the whole creation will be consumed and appear infinite and holy,” which “will come to pass by an improvement of sensual enjoyment. But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged.” Suffice to say, this diabolical collection of heretical religious instructions from “The voice of the Devil,” along with those from “The Proverbs of Hell,” are indeed “such instructions you prepare / A man for boogie street,” a man—a soul in extremis—who, with madman Blake, is “walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius, which to Angels look like torment and insanity.” No doubt about it—they’re enough to turn any new-age “angel” into a postmodern mythopoetic “devil”! “This Angel, who is now become a Devil, is my particular friend; we often read the Bible together in its infernal or diabolical sense ….” I would only add that this is the way I read or listen to L.C. songs for this essay —in their “infernal sense,” which to me is the literary way of the postmodern via negativa. (Keep in mind that “infernal” for Blake is rich in alliterative association. It comes from the Latin inferus, which translates as “below,” “lower,” “underneath.” When used in the Latin phrase “desensus ad inferos,” it means a “descent to the underworld/hell.” “Infernal” is cognate with “inferior,” which in Latin is inferius. Thus, we could understand Blake’s going with the “infernal” as similar to the way depth-psychologist Jung advises to go with the repressed “inferior function” of the psyche for “individuation,” in order to make it whole.)


I can’t leave this subject without noting that the concept of nigredo (“blackening”) and its stage in the alchemical process has become a metaphor in depth-psychology for the classic “dark night of the soul,” when an individual confronts “the shadow” within. When connected with the fact (a) that “the dark night of the soul” experience has also become a metaphor for “depression” in depth-psychology and (b) that “depression” used to be known in alchemical times as “melancholia” (associated with the planet Saturn), which was one of the medieval “four humors” of one’s psychology, “black bile,” it offers an intriguing way to look at L.C.’s scourge of “depression” and how it relates to his music. Medieval medical treatises (such as Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy) identified scholars, artists, and poets as among those most susceptible to “melancholia” and Renaissance medical treatises (such as Marsilio Ficino’s Book of Life) prescribed listening to music as a remedy. (Both Mary Gauthier and L.C. have told us that sad songs make you feel good. “We all love a sad song…. and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”) However, these early theorists of “melancholia” pointed out that this saturnine psychological malady also had a positive, creative side (just as the original “dark night of the soul” man, St. John of the Cross, became Spain’s greatest poet because of it), which enabled these same scholars, artists, and poets to tap into genius. (Sound like anyone we know today?) This may be why some of these Medieval and Renaissance men and women of genius didn’t exactly want to be “cured” of their melancholia. (Cf. the poet Rilke reservations again: “If I exorcise my demons, my angels may leave too.”)  


[3] Evidence certainly suggests that L.C. must be aware of these paradoxical Zen sayings. “This spirit was reminiscent of Cohen’s Zen awakening; a favorite response to the question of what is Zen held that it was no more than vast emptiness and nothing special. And it was in this spirit that the songs of Cohen’s new album, I’m Your Man, released in February 1988, presented themselves.” (Leibovitz, 2014)


[4] I have emphasized the word down (e.g., L.C. going down the mountain), and hence the downward path (the descensus ad inferos or, as N.O. Brown puts it, “the way down and out”), because of the important symbolic distinction Dr. James Hillman makes between up and down as representing very different orientations or paths. In a 1975 lecture called “Peaks and Vales: The Soul/Spirit Distinction as the Basis for the Differences Between Psychotherapy and Spiritual Discipline,” Dr. Hillman made the distinction between “peaks” and “vales” and how, traditionally, the peaks have always represented “the clamber up the peaks in search of spirit,” which “is the drive of the spirit in search of itself,” whereas the “vales” represent, in religious terms or imagery, “a depressed emotional place—the vale of tears.” Dr. Hillman re-visions the conventional distinction, and champions the lowly “vale” as the “vale of Soul-making” (after Keats). He also reports that he himself, in India, had his “awakening” when he left the peaks and came down to what was known as “the Vale of Kashmir.” Dr. Hillman continued to elaborate this distinction between peaks and vales (spirit and psyche, up and down) in his 1975 landmark book, Re-Visioning Psychology: “Oriental transcendence, once uprooted and imported to the West, urges: rise above psychological hassles and tangles, be wise—not snared, court bliss—not affliction…. In the East this spirit is rooted in the thick yellow loam of richly pathologized imagery—demons, monsters, grotesque goddesses, tortures, and obscenities. It rises within a pathologized world, changed by obligations, agonized.” But in the West, “it arrives debrided of its imaginal ground, dirtfree and smelling of sandalwood, another upward vision that offers a way to bypass our Western psychopathologies …. By turning away from its pathologizings they turn away from its full riches. By going upward toward spiritual betterment they leave it’s afflictions, giving them less and less reality than spiritual goals. In the name of the higher spirit, the soul is betrayed.”


Therefore, as Dr. Hillman would see it, Zen monk Cohen’s defection from the monastery up on the peak of Mt Baldy and going back down into the vale of Los Angeles was an act of staying true to the soul—the quintessential act of a “poet” and not a “monk”—in the “vale of Soul-making.” 


[5] About “darkness,” it should be noted that L.C. uses the term in ambiguous, even contradictory ways. (But, admittedly, there’s seldom anything straightforward about L.C.’s poetic metaphors, especially when they concern feminine figures in his songs!) For instance, on the negative side, L.C.’s song “The Darkness” (from the 2012 Old Ideas album) has the plaintive lines, “I caught the darkness / It was drinking from your cup.” It’s plainly not a good love affair! Then, there’s “By the Rivers Dark” (from the 2001 Ten New Songs album, where the subject of the song is not a woman but the religious life). We hear how “By the rivers dark / I wandered on. / I lived my life / In Babylon.” Then, of course, the song that is the title track from the new album “You Want It Darker,” where the subject being addressed is not a woman but G-d. (And between these two songs is where maybe one of the main tropes of L.C.’s poetry/song has a great ambiguity about it—as bequeathed by the twelfth-century Troubadours: does the poet-singer address a flesh-and-blood woman, or “the phantom of an anima figure,” which in other instances can also be G-d?) Here, again, the darkness seems to be entirely negative.

On the other hand, there is, if you will, light shining through the darkness in L.C.’s disconsolate repertoire of poetry/song (and also in some of L.C.’s philosophical musings on the positive aspects of the “darker things” in life; i.e., loss, defeat, etc.) However, they are not positive in the traditional sense of religion, because the path of the via positiva has conquered the darkness by the light, but because the light is gained—as I’ve tried to point out in this essay—through the darkness of the via negativa; no, not gained in spite of the darkness, but precisely because of it! (Cf. Joseph Campbell: “One thing that comes out in myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.” Btw, in the Western mystical tradition, there’s the concept where the darkness is, uncharacteristically, wholly/holy positive—the via negativa’s “Divine Darkness” of the Godhead. I like to think of it as the Christian version of the Buddhist “Void” of nothingness.)  One of the best examples of this is the song “Lady Midnight” (from the 1969 Songs From A Room album). This “Lady” is highly symbolic (in the sense of the troubadour-poet addressing his anima/muse). And, of course, being “Lady Midnight,” she’s the epitome of, the personification of, all darkness. The song is a dialogue between this mysterious “Lady” and the complaining poet-singer, who petitions Lady Midnight to “hold me” and “unfold me” to no avail: “Well, I argued all night like so many have before, / Saying, ‘Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more’.” After initially spurning his pleas, “Lady Midnight” finally relents (“You've won me, you've won me, my lord,”), but not before she reveals the secret about herself; about what the darkness is for:


“Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor,

She said, ‘Don't try to use me or slyly refuse me,

Just win me or lose me,

It is this that the darkness is for’.”


Now I ask you, couldn’t this last line work to be perfectly substituted for my above argument about “what Boogie Street is for”?



Gypsy Scholar

October 22, 2016