It seems fitting that Leonard Cohen—one of the world’s greatest lovers of beauty—slipped away the night before America’s grotesque election. Unfortunately for us, we are left to sort through the rubble with one fewer beautiful dreamer to call upon for the consolations of poetry.

While many of his generation were writing far more overtly political songs, Cohen was more preoccupied by the body politic—by the all-consuming fire of Eros, by sublime encounters with purveyors of tea and oranges, by tossed sheets and tangled bodies, and by the pained longing of David gazing at an unseeing bather. But we would be wrong to think that Cohen’s songs represented a retreat from the politics of his time, or that all they can offer us today is a momentary reverie amidst the continuing nightmare of last week’s US presidential election.

Cohen’s Democracy was written in 1992 in response to such turbulent events as Tiananmen, the Los Angeles Riots, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it is a song that is equally relevant now, in the aftermath of Trump’s victory:

It’s coming through a hole in the air,

from those nights in Tiananmen Square.

It’s coming from the feel

that this ain’t exactly real,

or it’s real, but it ain’t exactly there…

It’s coming from the sorrow in the street,

the holy places where the races meet;

….

From the wells of disappointment

where the women kneel to pray

for the grace of God in the desert here

and the desert far away:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

According to Cohen, the people’s (demos) authority (kratos) is not coterminous with electoral processes or political races. Rather, democracy is that authority that is neither won nor lost, but is shared across difference. More than this, it is the recognition that my own authority (or that of “my people”) is inextricably bound to that of the other/s. Like the erotic encounter, democracy is easily given over to narcissism or violence, but it also affords the very conditions for growth and self-transcendence.

Cohen described the song and its inspiration thus: “It’s not an ironic song. It’s a song of deep intimacy and affirmation of the experiment of democracy in [the United States]. This is really where the races confront one another, where the classes, where the genders, where even the sexual orientations confront one another. This is the real laboratory of democracy.”

Cohen, although a Canadian, was living in California by the 1990s. He remained convinced that the laboratory of democracy that was the United States held the greatest promise—and could become the bitterest source of disappointment—precisely because it is there that democracy is fueled by unbounded aspiration:

 It’s coming to America first,

the cradle of the best and of the worst.

It’s here they got the range

and the machinery for change

and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.

It’s here the family’s broken

and it’s here the lonely say

that the heart has got to open

in a fundamental way:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

If democracy is predicated upon the heart’s opening, as Cohen’s prophets warn, then there is little hope for its flourishing any time soon. The hearts of the people have been walled higher than Trump’s promised barricade, and the wave of hate that has spread across America shows no signs of ebbing. The spiritual thirst of a people longing for change has been quenched by gall. Yet Cohen concludes the song with a fragile and stubborn hope, which may yet serve as consolation:

But I’m stubborn as those garbage bags

that Time cannot decay,

I’m junk but I’m still holding up

this little wild bouquet:

Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.

Cohen returns to a favourite image (used also in Suzanne) of Beauty making its way through the garbage and the flowers, in spite of it all. What remains is unceasing desire, but now inextricably mixed with fragility and loss. Perhaps it here—precisely in the back alleys and among the heaps of rubble—that democracy may unfold once again.

 

5 thoughts

  1. Thank you for this expression of fragile hopefulness, despite people’s fear and disappointment.
    From Anthem; “There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.” I hope Leonard was right.

  2. Called to be…”stubborn as those garbage bags
    that Time cannot decay,”
    feeling like junk but “still holding up
    this little wild bouquet:
    Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”
    …choking and coughing as we sing to ourselves this crazy brilliant loving faith and song of Leonard Cohen.

    Thank you so much for your gift to us, Leonard, as it came to us here through your sister, Jane!

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