Introduction By DrHGuy
Emma Philbin Bowman emailed me about her special interest in Leonard Cohen’s Heart with No Companion, a song that personally resonates with me as well. Emma had articulated her perspective on the song in a paper she allowed me to read. I brought up the notion of posting it on this site, suggesting it would fit best if she edited it to focus exclusively on Leonard Cohen (the original paper included her thoughts on another poet as well). That editing recommendation and the idea of posting the paper here are my only contributions.
This is an extraordinarily perceptive discussion marked by Emma’s unflinching willingness to explore, expose, and explain the unattenuated impact of Cohen’s lyrics on herself and inductively extrapolate these distilled discoveries into generalizable, useful insights.
Note: The lyrics of Heart With No Companion are available at the end of this post for reference.
Emma Philbin Bowman
Emma Philbin Bowman (BA English and Philosophy, university college Dublin) often finds herself moved to delight, tenderness, gratitude and awe in response to Leonard Cohen’s presence and his work. She lives and works (and tries to love, meditate and pray) in Dublin, Ireland. She works as a psychotherapist and writer and has a special interest in the vitality and richness of sadness and melancholy. This theme drew her to explore Cohen’s Heart with No Companion, which captures so sparsely and profoundly the value of living through dark times bravely, why we would bother to, and the gifts that come in the aftermath of pain. Emma is also working on a fledgling website: radiant failure.com – another attempt to highlight the value of living bravely and openly when hard things assail us.
Heart with No Companion: ‘a manual for living with defeat’
The voice of Going Home on Old Ideas speaks of a wish to write ‘a manual for living with defeat.’ This captures one of the things Leonard Cohen has come to symbolise: how to live with grace and beauty, amid our many failures and disappointments. He is one of the finest embodiments we have, have ever had, and perhaps will ever have, of the dignity of bearing with what hurts and haunts us.
Leonard lives in the shadow, and he loves from the shadows, and he reminds us that we can too. For me, as for many others, Cohen’s way of being with us, the wry yet tender depths from which he speaks, has come to serve as a reminder of the redemption buried behind imperfection, darkness, failure, weakness, stubborn longing, and the humble battered love that emerge from them.
In Heart with No Companion, (Various Positions), Cohen captures one aspect of this battered love: how our tenderness toward each other can deepen in the wake of defeat. The song speaks to the frequent failure of our longings, the painful gap between what we yearn for and what we are given, and how that gap can be borne. It is an unusual kind of love song – a reaching out toward those who are alone, failing and bereft – to those that no-one else is singing to. But it is more than that: it is also a reminder that when we endure grief and disappointment, we find ourselves able to love differently in their aftermath. It is a call to love – of brokenness, from brokenness, after brokenness.
Cohen sings directly to those who have failed – failed to realise our most cherished, central hopes: ‘Now I sing this for the captain, whose ship has not been built, to the mother in confusion, her cradle still unfilled…’ There are days, years, lives that feel like this: coloured by a profound sense of having failed, by loneliness, confusion and loss. How can we go on, when this is what has happened for us? Yet for each of us (and for some of us many times over), this is the bleak reality: we have not become who we once hoped to be. Some yearned for part of our potential (motherhood, a vocation, a great love) has not come. We have not been able to achieve it. And yet we must go on, or try to go on.
There is something stark and solitary in failing in such essential things: in living, day after day, with such defeats. And in this starkness, we need love not pity; solidarity not reassurance. We need a great and loving lullaby; we need a broken song, which understands the desolate territory in which we find ourselves, and joins us there. ‘O gather up the brokenness/ and bring it to me now’, sings Leonard elsewhere, on Come Healing. Here is a heart that seems to sense how bad we feel, that maybe loves us all the more when we are broken. It offers to receive us, to greet us, to welcome us in.
‘The other side of sorrow and despair’
Cohen begins his song with a declaration: ‘I greet you from the other side/of sorrow and despair/with a love so vast and shattered/it will reach you everywhere…‘ By speaking of this ‘other side’, Heart with No Companion offers more than soothing refuge: it lays down a challenge and an invitation. The song speaks not just of the reality of failure and defeat, but also of a love that can only be forged in dark lands. By doing so, it gives us a why, inviting us to endure our pain and allow it to break us open, if not for ourselves, then for others’ sake. This is a vision both transcendent and unflinching. It speaks of a love that can only arise from brokenness; it celebrates the rarely articulated afterlife our pain carries in its wake.
And yet this invitation, is, in its own way, a comfort also:: When we feel at our very worst, we may need to be reminded that future moments will come in which we will not be swamped in fear and pain, but will have something to give. And we may also need a reminder that we are not alone, that others need us, and that they suffer too. Cohen’s is not just faith that we will emerge from our darkest hours, but that how we learn to wear our wounds within them, counts for something.
This is a faith that we do not have to succeed in order to be our best selves – in fact perhaps we must not – for it is bearing our weaknesses and disappointments that will complete us. In Cohen’s work, failure is never an obstacle to human flourishing – but rather its opposite – the essential kernel we need to transcend ourselves and reach for something deeper. Our sorrows and despair are not ends in themselves, and they are not disasters. They leave a trace within us; they have an afterlife that lives on, that forges tenderness.
Heart with No Companion encourages us to look at suffering through this lens of wry and battered hope. Cohen’s rhythm in all of this is profoundly realistic: there is no end point. His is always a broken healing, one that will dissolve again, that will shatter and fragment, giving way to more suffering before birthing further tenderness, then looping on. And somewhere along the line, our lives will stop: we will die. There is no false promise here, no simplistic myth of a finale in which all is well, simply an invitation to keep going, while we are still here, while we walk among each other. This may be the best we can do: to live through what is hard, to use what we have gained there to embrace each other, reaching back to the wounded from the calm after the storm.
Throughout his work, Cohen speaks to the way that it is our brokenness and our failures that make us whole, even if that wholeness is fragmented and unkempt. The reach of Heart with No Companion recalls us not just to ourselves, but to one another. Borne from personal suffering, its’ voice is determined to draw on that suffering, to bear witness, to accompany and belong to one another, to do this so fully that we may sing to each other from our broken love.
However hopeless, or apparently hopeless, we retain this duty, this promise: Through the days of shame that are coming, Through the nights of wild distress Though your promise count for nothing You must keep it nonetheless You must keep it for the captain, Whose ship has not been built…
This is the expression of someone who knows the horrors will come again – because they always have; who knows hopelessness, yet who is willing to keep a promise, even against the odds. And who will live this vow for the broken ones, for the broken parts of the self.
There is a command here to keep faith with ourselves for the sake of one another; at times we ourselves will not be sufficient reason to endure. In our lowest days and hours, we are so trapped inside ourselves, that the notion that we could ever have something to give another feels thin and ridiculous: our world shrinks to this anxiety, this sadness, this raw wound at the heart of our being. But through Cohen’s words – and, perhaps as essentially, our sense of who he himself has become, we are encouraged to enter it and go on, we are reminded that the captain is out there waiting, somewhere, waiting for our hearts to be wide enough to know his pain, waiting for us to sing to him.
In writing of Heart with No Companion, my wish has been to celebrate its articulation of this broken love that can blossom in the heart of suffering. Cohen reminds us of the kind of transformation that is possible when we find ourselves compelled to spend more time than we might like to in the wreckage. And he reminds us also, that others live there too, and need our song.
Lyrics: Heart With No Companion (Various Positions version)
I greet you from the other side
Of sorrow and despair
With a love so vast and shattered
It will reach you everywhere
And I sing this for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion
For the soul without a king
For the prima ballerina
Who cannot dance to anything
Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Tho’ your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless
You must keep it for the captain
Whose ship has not been built
For the mother in confusion
Her cradle still unfilled
For the heart with no companion …
I greet you from the other side …