Reading Leonard Cohen on Yom Kippur
Spending too much time in synagogue on a given day (or in a given week) sets your mind off on tangents. (Like: will they ever turn the air conditioning up? Who is this guy with dreadlocks and tzitzit I’ve never seen before? Dear Lord this melody is painfully slow!) In my case, toward Leonard Cohen. Which is to say, I was already thinking about the song “Who By Fire?” well before I discovered this evening that Something Is Wrong on the Internet.
“Who by Fire” is Cohen’s rendering of Amnon of Mainz in a hipster beret with every possible way to die—it’s like the cumulative opening scenes of Six Feet Under in a song: Who by autoerotic asphyxiation? Who by driver in next car text-messaging? Who by mob hit?
OK, I lied. Leonard Cohen is not so graphic. And he’s deep. (What I really think is that he’s, like, deep) Like this: “Who by avalanche?/ Who by powder?/ Who for his greed?/ Who for his hunger?” He does not seem like a guy with a sense of humor.
And, later, as part of a comment on Cohen’s fear of sincerity:
He cannot even report that the Grim Reaper has arrived—and may do so in many miserable ways—without reducing it to a joke, to a secretary passing the awful news of imminent death on to her bossy boss: “And who shall I say is calling?”
So, yes, that joke is there—but I highly doubt that it has anything to do with Cohen getting snarky with the Grim Reaper. (In fact, the Grim Reaper should have nothing to do with this discussion.) To explain, look at the English version of the Unetaneh Tokef, the passage from the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur liturgy on which Cohen’s lyrics are based. Two quick notes, first—it sounds better in the Hebrew, and if you’re pressed for time, the third paragraph is the most lyrically relevant:
Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness, for it is awesome and frightening. On it Your Kingship will be exalted; Your throne will be firmed with kindness and You will sit upon it in truth. It is true that You alone are the One Who judges, proves, knows, and bears witness; Who writes and seals, (counts and calculates); Who remembers all that was forgotten. You will open the Book of Chronicles—it will read itself, and everyone’s signature is in it. The great shofar will be sounded and a still, thin sound will be heard. Angels will hasten, a trembling and terror will seize them—and they will say, ‘Behold, it is the Day of Judgment, to muster the heavenly host for judgment!’—for even they cannot be vindicated in Your eyes in judgment.
All mankind will pass before You like a flock of sheep. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the destinies of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict.
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!
For Your Name signifies Your praise: hard to anger and easy to appease, for You do not wish the death of one deserving death, but that he repent from his way and live. Until the day of his death You await him; if he repents You will accept him immediately. It is true that You are their Creator and You know their inclination, for they are flesh and blood. A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust, at risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.
Cohen’s lyrics aren’t a sarcastic welcoming of the Grim Reaper; they’re the (possibly distracted, possibly bored, possibly terrified) reaction of someone standing, for the first, second, or third time in ten days, hearing the cantor chant, “Who will live and who will die…” and responding in turn. It starts with a line drawn directly, “Who by fire, and who by water,” but quickly spirals off tangentially: “Who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate.” Rather than an imagining of all possible ends, all the imagined ends are a reaction to the original; they are, I’d argue, all at least thematically related to an end the original lists. Its divergences eventually do begin to show the liturgy’s list as insufficient and serve, to some degree, to undermine it, drawing the power of life and death, degradation and humiliation, out of the power of the divine and into the hands of humanity. “Where is God,” it seems to ask, “in all of this horrible, trivial, mundane terror of my and our existence?”
This brings us to the puzzling line—“And who shall I say is calling?” It’s puzzling, in part, for exactly the reasons that Wurtzel dismisses it above: that it can easily appear at first glance to be itself dismissive, insincere, and sarcastic. But in the context of a petitioner at prayer on a day at which even the angels, he’s just read, are trembling in fear, to ask, “Who shall I say is calling?” cannot be anything but sincere.
The association of the question with a secretary’s response leaves it deliciously ambiguous—we, the listeners, can’t say with certainty who is calling and who is answering. The question could mean, “Who am I, to petition for mercy on this day?” Or, “How am I to stand in relation to God, or to the eternity in which he may be absent, or to the Nothingness in which he does not and never did exist, but which is still so vast as to seem almost holy?”
On the other hand, the question could just as easily mean something along the lines of, “By whose decree?” Cohen’s songs, at their bleakest, depict an inter-human cruelty only made more painful by the way in which it is unthinkingly casual. Cohen doesn’t sing for Hattie Carroll, lament on behalf of the poor, or damn the military-industrial complex; he asks, “who in solitude, who in this mirror, / who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand”?* And this is the decree of God? That we should be condemned “to live in a house that is haunted / by the ghost of you and me”? When the speaker thinks of particular examples of the fates he reads, there seems to be a kind of shirking of responsibility to attribute them to God: I hurt her and she hurt me and we both cared and we both kept doing it—but these were things we did to us.
Were Cohen concerned with larger issues of Evil and Justice and filled with a righteous condemnation, perhaps this wouldn’t hold. But the sadness of his lyrics is caused less by the sense that the world should be better than it is than by the sense that the people in it, himself included, should be better than they are. Or at least just a little less cruel.
But all of this, and everything (or at least most of) what I left unexplored, disappear when one sees only hipster snark and ignores the relationship between the lyrics and the petitioner at prayer.
*He wrote a thirteen-minute song, “Please Don’t Pass Me By (A Disgrace)” about the everyday act of seeing a beggar on the street and not giving him money—and finding in it such total, self-destructive cruelty that he stopped performing the song in the early 1970s because it was painful to him—both to perform and see his audience not get the point.