There has been some controversy among Leonard Cohen fans about the Christmas version of Hallelujah I posted here a few days ago, sung by an autistic Irish girl. There were noisy objections that the song had been subverted by being recast as a Christmas carol, with correspondingly altered lyrics. I grant that it is odd to try to top a Cohen lyric. But one fellow writes on the Cohen fan site,
“after all it is a song about FemDom, bondage, domination and (hush) SEX. ‘She tied you to her kitchen chair, she broke your crown she cut your hair and from your lips she drew a Hallelujah’..... ‘I remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too and every breath we took was Hallelujah. ?..’ .. about as far removed from a Christmas carol as it gets.”
Actually, no. Are we so out of touch with our Western cultural heritage that Biblical allusions are no longer recognized?
Perhaps that is the secret of Cohen’s success. As he once observed of his popularity in Norway, “maybe they like me because they can’t understand the words.” Would he be so popular if everyone understood his religious commitments? Other poets have fallen out of popular favour for as much. The late great TS Eliot, for example; not to mention Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan. It does not do to let them know you’re not on Satan’s side.
But it is also striking how those who think Cohen is writing about sex think of themselves as the true cognoscenti, and look down on those who suggest otherwise.
“It seems that MANY of us, who apparently have the intellectual acumen to ‘understand’ the lyrics,” one member of this sophomore squad writes, “are thinking the same thing. What are these people thinking?? It's sad, discouraging, and in a real way, terrifying. What has become of literacy?“
But then, a lot of people took Freud seriously too.
Also striking is how this class of readers seem offended at the existence of Christianity. “to change his lyrics into something about a baby boy that's come to save us all.. is pretty twisted,” writes the original complainant. How dare these filthy Christians lay their hands on it?
No, the quoted lines are not about female domination or bondage. These are Biblical references. Is the Bible about sex, then?
Do I really need to explain? Perhaps I do. The lines, “She tied you to a kitchen chair/
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair” might sound to some like kinky sex, but they are more clearly about Samson and Delilah.
|Samson and Delilah have wild abandoned sex.|
4 Some time later, he fell in love with a woman in the Valley of Sorek whose name was Delilah. 5 The rulers of the Philistines went to her and said, “See if you can lure him into showing you the secret of his great strength and how we can overpower him so we may tie him up and subdue him. Each one of us will give you eleven hundred shekels of silver.”
6 So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.”
7 Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
8 Then the rulers of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them. 9 With men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame. So the secret of his strength was not discovered.
10 Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.”
11 He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
12 So Delilah took new ropes and tied him with them. Then, with men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the ropes off his arms as if they were threads.
13 Delilah then said to Samson, “All this time you have been making a fool of me and lying to me. Tell me how you can be tied.”
He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” So while he was sleeping, Delilah took the seven braids of his head, wove them into the fabric 14 and tightened it with the pin.
Again she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and pulled up the pin and the loom, with the fabric.
15 Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” 16 With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.
17 So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.”
18 When Delilah saw that he had told her everything, she sent word to the rulers of the Philistines, “Come back once more; he has told me everything.” So the rulers of the Philistines returned with the silver in their hands. 19 After putting him to sleep on her lap, she called for someone to shave off the seven braids of his hair, and so began to subdue him. And his strength left him.”
Not exactly glorifying sex either, is it? His lust was Samson’s downfall.
Moreover, if it were about bondage, why a kitchen, and not a bedroom, chair? There seems to be an allusion to the idiom “tied to his wife’s apron strings.” Which fits the Samson story.
The other line cited above as clearly sexual is “I remember when I moved in you, the holy dove was moving too and every breath we took was Hallelujah.?..”
Under what circumstances, even bondage or female domination, does the sex act involve a “holy dove”?
Indeed, in some early version of the lyrics, that line reads “Holy Ghost.” In other words, it appears to refer to the Annunciation. Nothing to do with Christmas?
|Mary and the holy dove have wild, abandoned sex|
Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. 36
Of course, one might argue that what is depicted cannot be the Annunciation, because the man is speaking. Mary was a woman. But in Jewish mysticism, Kabbalah, God is both male and female. And the sex act is commonly used as an image of inspiration. Inspiration: literally, drawing in breath. “Every breath we drew was Hallelujah.”
Granted that there are sexual allusions here. But sexual love is used as a metaphor for the divine love throughout the Western tradition: in, for example, St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. The Dark Night of the Soul:
O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.
And on my flowering breast
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing an air from redolent cedars blown.
That is explicitly not about sex.
It is also clearly there in the Bible: the Song of Songs.
|Song of Songs|
My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh that lies between my breasts. My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms in the vineyards of En-gedi. Ah, you are beautiful, my love; ah, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves. Ah, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly lovely.
I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens. As an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his intention toward me was love. Sustain me with raisins, refresh me with apples; for I am faint with love. O that his left hand were under my head, and that his right hand embraced me!
Your lips distill nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon. A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a garden locked, a fountain sealed. Your channel is an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all chief spices– a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden that its fragrance may be wafted abroad. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits….
Nope, not about sex.
And it is central to the Jewish mystical tradition, the Kabbalah. One can assume that Cohen, descended from celebrated Rabbinical scholars, knew this tradition well enough. He is clearly relying on it when he addresses God as both father and lover in the song “Lover, Lover, Lover”:
I asked my father,
I said, "Father change my name."
The one I'm using now it's covered up
with fear and filth and cowardice and shame.
Yes and lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me,
yes and lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover come back to me.
He said, "I locked you in this body,
I meant it as a kind of trial.
You can use it for a weapon,
or to make some woman smile."
Traditionally, in Judaism, the study of Kabbalah is restricted only to older scholars steeped in holiness, “who will be sure to study it in the spirit of holiness in which it was written.” This is at least partly because “the sometimes explicit sexual imagery used in Kabbalah... could focus the student’s mind unnecessarily on sexuality. Instead of divesting this imagery from its physical sense and understanding it abstractly, the student may become preoccupied with thoughts about sex itself, which could be debasing or even lead to illicit lusts, or worse” (Kabbalah Online).
The reception of Cohen’s work here illustrates the concern. Another writer suggests that “we can all agree” that the chorus of “Hallelujah!” refers to the moment of orgasm. As with Hermann Hesse, another widely misunderstood spiritual writer, is it wise to put this stuff out there, deeply valuable to some, but also so badly misleading some others? Do they end up, as the old Rabbis feared, leading some down the primrose path to that other place?
I guess it is proper enough; because Jesus did exactly the same:
9 His disciples asked him what this parable meant. 10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
‘though seeing, they may not see;
though hearing, they may not understand.’
Let he who has ears to hear, hear.
The song begins with a clear religious reference—a reference so unambiguous that it is willful to understand the song in other than a religious sense. Those who still insist on doing so have surely chosen their own path:
Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
So this song is sung in the spirit of the psalms. It is a prayer. Not incidentally, King David and the Psalms are strongly associated in the Jewish tradition with the Shekhinah, the visible and audible presence of God, which is conceived as feminine.
Granted, the next line seems not to be addressed to God: “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” So who is “you”?
It is, the next verse suggests, King David-presumably as the type of the mortal human seeking a relationship with God.
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof”
The song then refers to the story of David and Bathsheba.
|Bathsheba receives David's letter|
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
No, Cohen did not see a neighbour bathing on their roof from his room in the Chelsea hotel.
2 One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful, 3 and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” 4 Then David sent messengers to get her. She came to him, and he slept with her. (Now she was purifying herself from her monthly uncleanness.) Then she went back home. 5 The woman conceived and sent word to David, saying, ‘I am pregnant.’”
Again, not a glorification of sex. David’s great sin. He then had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed to cover up his crime.
The secularist interpreters mock those who have “Hallelujah!” played at their funerals, as has become common: “..quite a strange song, especially for a funeral, but some men have no taste at all..”
However, the idea of the “secret chord” in the first line seems to be a reference to Sullivan and Proctor’s famous composition, “The Lost Chord,” which was in fact written as a funeral piece. Nothing strange about it, then. The reference seems clearer when you notice that the opening lines of Cohen’s song are sung over a keyboard riff.
|The Lost Chord|
Seated one day at the organ,
I was weary and ill at ease,
And my fingers wandered idly
Over the noisy keys.
I know not what I was playing,
Or what I was dreaming then;
But I struck one chord of music,
Like the sound of a great Amen.
It flooded the crimson twilight,
Like the close of an angel's psalm,
And it lay on my fevered spirit
With a touch of infinite calm.
It quieted pain and sorrow,
Like love overcoming strife;
It seemed the harmonious echo
From our discordant life.
It linked all perplexèd meanings
Into one perfect peace,
And trembled away into silence
As if it were loth to cease.
I have sought, but I seek it vainly,
That one lost chord divine,
Which came from the soul of the organ,
And entered into mine.
It may be that death's bright angel
Will speak in that chord again,
It may be that only in Heav'n
I shall hear that grand Amen.
The connection with the present song seems obvious. “That great Amen”? That “Hallelujah”? Cohen as songwriter and poet would of course know the prior piece. It is introduced at the very beginning of the composition as a part of its setting.
As in Sullivan and Proctor’s song, so in the Bible, David’s music is presented as a cure for “pain and sorrow”--Saul’s melancholia.
|David sings Solly Wolly Doodle all the day.|
23Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.
Hence, too, Cohen’s song.
“It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah”
Surely “the minor fall, the major lift” refers on one level to sin and redemption. Hence to King David’s great sin, of having Uriah killed to take his wife, Bathsheba, which nevertheless God forgave him for. Hence Samson’s sin of telling Delilah his secret weakness, from which nevertheless he was finally redeemed in pulling down the Philistine temple. In other words, sin is part of the framework of redemption. It is only when we are “baffled” that the divine light gets in.
In the case of both figures, Samson and David, the specific sin was lust. So, yes, in this sense the song is about lust—but as an instance of sin.
“There's a blaze of light
In every word
It doesn't matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah”
I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch
Yes, these lines too are about physical sex, but again, as a failure. It is represented as a false alternative, a substitute for the reality of love. God, you may recall, is love. Eros is a bogus substitute for agape.
Cohen recorded a second version of the song with different lyrics, less clearly spiritual in nature. Among the new words:
“Baby, I've been here before.
I know this room, I've walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew ya.”
This sets the situation: the end of some romantic relationship. With the implication that this is a repeated experience—something inevitable. “Man is in love and loves what vanishes.” If you love anything in the physical realm, you are necessarily setting yourself up for loss.
But he might also still be speaking to the feminine aspect of God. It is then the repeating story of the human-divine relationship, of always falling back into sin.
|Paris, 1941. Nazi selfie|
Yeah I've seen your flag on the marble arch,
But listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
No it's a cold and it's a very broken Hallelujah.
This seems another criticism of Eros as false love. Purely sexual love is love as a victory of one ego over another—the use of another as an object. It is like the love of a gourmand for a steak—is he really concerned with the welfare of the cow?
Any love that is purely sexual is purely selfish; although, of course, love can also be purely selfish without being sexual, and love can be both sexual and unselfish. True love is a denial of self. “He must grow greater, and I must grow less.”
The reference to a marble arch representing victory might summon images of the Nazis marching through the Arc de Triomphe during Word War II. That would surely have resonance for a Jew. But an even stronger resonance might be the Arch of Titus in Rome, the original model for the Arc in Paris and for other victory arches throughout Europe. Which, not incidentally, commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple.
|Relief from Arch of Titus: Romans parading their booty from the Second Temple|
Purely selfish love is the defeat of God’s people.
There was a time you let me know
What's really going on below,
Ah but now you never show it to me, do ya?
Snigger. He’s obviously talking about a woman’s vagina, right?
“’Going on below’ refers to the most earthly of things: sexual arousal. This lyric explains how the speaker no longer has intimate access to his lover, and more crassly, her sex.” – Genius lyrics.
Well, plausibly, but really only when she is standing upright. Which means, not in the context of sex, doesn’t it? Who has sex standing or sitting up? Maybe if tied to a kitchen chair? And what really “goes on” in a vagina outside of sex? Urination? Menstruation?
Bit of a stretch to make it sexual.
“Below” in human terms more plausibly means “below the surface.” That is, sharing her feelings and her true thoughts. The problem is diagnosed as a relationship without real sharing, which is to say, the sharing of thoughts and emotions. As opposed to bodily fluids.
An even more plausible explanation, it seems to me, is that the singer is indeed here again addressing God. He is getting no answers in his prayer life. Hence “below” would have an easy and obvious meaning: this physical, mortal world. Note that Kabbalah conceives of the created world as a matter of “shells,” concealing the divine glory below their surface. Evil hardens the shells; virtue exposes the light through their cracks.
The singer, like David, is expressing his bafflement.
Maybe there's a god above,
But all I've ever seemed to learn from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew ya.
Aha! Cohen is expressing doubt about the very existence of God!
Maybe. Or maybe he is speaking idiomatically, as we might say, “maybe Cohen is a great poet, but he can’t make a decent liver sandwich.” That is, not really expressing doubt that God exists, or that Cohen is a great poet, but asking “Why is it that...” You know, the problem of evil thing. You may have heard of it. And, at the same time, for the comment to make sense with the next line, you must accept the reference “God is love.” That suggests, in turn, that any references here to love are ultimately references to God.
And Cohen is giving his answer to the problem of evil: it is our own failing, in that we love selfishly. Or rather, we are selfish instead of loving.
Even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Note that: yet again, he reprises, this song is a prayer to the Lord.
Could it really be much clearer?