Leonard Cohen died on November 7, a day before the election, at eighty-two. Readers of David Remnick’s extraordinarily moving profile in The New Yorker know that he had been preparing for death. Still, it felt like an act of cruel and unusual punishment after Trump’s victory, and like many Cohen fans I couldn’t help connecting his death to the election. Was it a sign of some sort? Had Cohen been so dejected that he decided to call it quits? Did Trump kill him?
You may laugh, but it’s no less plausible a theory than pretty much anything from the president-elect’s mouth. When I heard the news of Cohen’s death, my first thought was: Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. Then I remembered that Neruda, one of Cohen’s favorite poets, died as Pinochet established his grip on power. Neruda was spared the sight of Chile’s grim descent into torture and extrajudicial killing, and the imposition of a regime of murderous silence. But he did not vanish: his poems of revolutionary love were like fireflies in Chile’s dark night, providing sparks of hope that the day of liberation would come.
We cannot afford to abandon this hope. As long as the firefly light of art continues to flicker—as Georges Didi-Huberman writes in La Survivance des lucioles, his monograph on another great revolutionary poet, Pier Paolo Pasolini—we will be safe from what, following Pasolini, Huberman calls “cultural genocide.” We’re a long way from cultural genocide, of course, but the threat that Trump represents to our culture can hardly be underestimated. Trump World is a lurid arena of alt-right social media and mass rallies, where the Leader and the Mob gather to escape their terror of being alone; a place of bellicose clamor and blinding light, where Pasolini’s fireflies can scarcely be seen. Cohen, on the other hand, wrote “songs from a room” (the title of his 1969 album), songs of radical introspection, honesty, and intimacy, the very values that Trump loathes. Cohen called them songs of love and hate, but he wasn’t much of a hater.
Love was his deepest faith, but it was permeated by the messianic Judaism of his ancestors, which accounts for the biblical allusions that run through his songs, what Walter Benjamin might have called their “profane illumination.” And though he was not an explicitly political artist, his songs are already nourishing a spirit of resistance to the new order, much as Neruda’s poems did for the people of Chile after the overthrow of Allende. In “Everybody Knows,” for example, a song full of the mordant humor that coursed through his late work, Cohen remarks: “Everybody knows the war is over / everybody knows the good guys lost.” This was no expression of despair. On the contrary, he was warning against the cynical postures of those who prefer to sit on the sidelines when barbarism spreads. He knew that the war had barely begun, and that the “good guys”—very much including the women he loved so fiercely—had to keep fighting. He never stopped, even as his once dulcimer voice took on the cracked timbre of a frog. May he find the peace that continues to elude us, now that he has left us for his Tower of Song.
Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, and a fellow in residence at the New York Institute for the Humanities.