“Dear Uncle Leonard,” the email from the boy began. “Did anything inspire you to create ‘Hallelujah’”? Later that same winter day the reply arrived: “I wanted to stand with those who clearly see G-d’s holy broken world for what it is, and still find the courage or the heart to praise it. You don’t always get what you want. You’re not always up for the challenge. But in this case — it was given to me. For which I am deeply grateful.”
The question came from my son, who was preparing to present the most irresistible hymn of our time to his fifth-grade class and required a clarification about its meaning. The answer came from the author of the song, who was for 25 years my precious friend and comrade of the spirit. Leonard Cohen was the most beautiful man I have ever known.
His company was quickening in every way. The elegance and the seductiveness were the least of it. The example of his poise was overwhelming, more an achievement than a disposition, and much more than an affair of style.
He lived in a weather of wisdom, which he created by seeking it rather than by finding it. He swam in beauty, because in its transience he aspired to discern a glimpse of eternity: There was always a trace of philosophy in his sensuality. He managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of significance, a genuine feat. He was hospitable and strict, sweet and deep, humble and grand, probing and tender, a friend of melancholy but an enemy of gloom, a voluptuary with religion, a renegade enamored of tradition.
Leonard was, above all, in his music and in his poems and in his tone of life, the lyrical advocate of the finite and the flawed. As he wrote to my son, who was mercifully too young to understand, he was possessed by a lasting sensation of brokenness. He was broken, love was broken, the world was broken.
But “Famous Blue Raincoat” notwithstanding, this was not the usual literary abjection, or any sort of bargain-basement Baudelaireanism. Leonard’s reputation for bleakness is very imprecise. His work documents a long and successful war with despair. “I greet you from the other side of sorrow and despair/ With a love so vast and shattered it will reach you everywhere.” The shattering of love has the effect of proliferating it.
Leonard had an unusual inflection for darkness: He found in it an occasion for uplift. His work is animated by a laudatory impulse, an unexpected and profoundly moving hunger to praise the world in full view of it. His attitude of acceptance was not founded on anything as cheap as happiness.
Leonard sang always as a sinner. He refused to describe sin as a failure or a disqualification. Sin was a condition of creatureliness, and his feeling for our creatureliness was boundless. “Even though it all went wrong/ I’ll stand before the Lord of song/ With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!”
The singer’s faults do not expel him from the divine presence. Instead they confer a mortal integrity upon his exclamation of praise. He is the inadequate man, the lowly man, the hurt man who has given hurt, insisting modestly but stubbornly (except in “I’m Your Man,” when he merrily mocked himself) upon his right to a sacred exaltation.
Leonard wrote and sung often about God, but I am not sure what he meant by it. Whatever it was, it inspired “If It Be Your Will,” his most exquisite song. He sought recognition for his fallenness, not rescue from it. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” He once told an interviewer that those words were the closest he came to a credo. The teaching could not be more plain: fix the crack, lose the light.
All this gave Leonard’s laughter an uncommon credibility. He put punch lines into some of his most lugubrious songs. He delighted in expressing serious notions in comically homely ways. (On ephemerality, from an unreleased early version of a song: “They oughta hand the night a ticket/ for speeding. It’s a crime.”) We laughed all the time. At the small wooden table in his kitchen the jokes flew, usually as he prepared a meal. While he was genuinely in earnest about the pursuit of truth, Leonard had a supremely unsanctimonious temperament. Whether or not darkness was to be relieved by light, it was to be relieved by lightness. Before Passover, which commemorates the biblical exodus, he sent this: “Dear bro, happy Pesach. I miss Egypt! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” Before Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah in the desert, he sent this: “Dear bro, See you at Sinai. I’ll be wearing headphones! Love and blessings, Eliezer.” The laughter of the disabused was yet another of his gifts.
Eliezer was his Hebrew name. We sometimes read and studied together, Lorca and midrash and Eluard and Buddhist scriptures and Cavafy. We could get quite Talmudic, especially with wine. In Judaism there is a custom to honor the dead by pondering a text in their memory. Here, in memory of Eliezer ben Nisan ha’Cohen, is a passage on frivolity by a great rabbi in Prague at the end of the 16th century. “Man was born for toil, since his perfection is always being actualized but is never actual,” he observed in an essay on frivolity. “And insofar as he attains perfection, something is missing in him.
In such a being, perfection is a shortcoming and a lack.” Leonard Cohen was the poet laureate of the lack, the psalmist of the privation, who made imperfection gorgeous.
Leon Wieseltier is the Isaiah Berlin Senior Fellow in Culture and Policy at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kaddish.