So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
– From “Closing Time” by Leonard Cohen
Leonard Cohen’s Lapidary Lyrics Obscured
Concise, elegant, overdetermined lines and images supersaturate Leonard Cohen’s lyrics. In a song like “Closing Time,” rife with cunningly memorable phrases — the Johnny Walker wisdom running high, all the women tear their blouses off and the men they dance on the polka-dots, and I swear it happened just like this: a sigh, a cry, a hungry kiss, the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night, busted in the blinding lights of closing time, and the Holy Spirit’s crying, “Where’s the beef?” – competing for the listener’s attention, even gems such as the object of our attention today, “So we struggle and we stagger /
down the snakes and up the ladder,” may be underappreciated or overlooked altogether.
This two-part post is an examination of a Cohen song fragment undertaken to enhance the understanding of the concept contained in those few words and to then use those lines to demonstrate Cohen’s genius as a songwriter.1
The second of these posts will deal with Leonard Cohen’s songwriting skills exhibited in these lines. Today’s entry is devoted to the cultural notions embedded in the snakes and ladder down and up which, respectively, we struggle and stagger.
Why Is Leonard Cohen Singing About Snakes And A Ladder?
It turns out that, notwithstanding Leonard Cohen’s mastery of American dialect and customs (“where’s the beef” is, after all, the phrase in his lyrics, not “where’s the poutine”), he sometimes lapses into Canadian. Typically, that just means folks from the U.S. are subjected to the letter “u” showing up in words where it has no business (e.g., The Favourite Game), but in this case British empire-building and American marketing have combined with Cohen’s Canadianism to cause a potential knowledge gap, especially for those residing outside the British Commonwealth. And who is to resolve this problem if not DrHGuy?
This musical excerpt from “Closing Time” begins just before Cohen sings the pertinent lines:
Leonard Cohen – Closing Time
Weybridge: July 11, 2009
Video by albertnoonan
What’s Leonard Cohen’s Game?
The short answer to the question of the origins of the lyrics, as anyone who spent his or her childhood years in a British-speaking (rather than American-speaking) region knows, is the children’s game that made its way from ancient India
to England where it came to be called called Snakes and Ladders. The French version of the game marketed in Canada is called Serpents et Echelles [Snakes and Ladders].
The confusion arises from those always troublesome American colonies now calling themselves the United States, where the game became known as Chutes and Ladders.
Indeed, in the Milton Bradley game sold in the US, snakes
… have been replaced by chutes, aka playground slides.
At this point, a knowledgeable and skilled psychiatrist might well comment that changing a game’s phallic snakes to yonic chutes carries certain psychosexual implications.
Consider it so commented. One also notes that while organized religions have invoked extraterrestrial visitors, promoted machines that detect ones spiritual state, and accepted all manner of miracles, none have yet held a playground slide guilty of tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
But there is, inevitably, more.
The Morality Play
This may be another “everybody knows” thing that was a revelation to me only because my childhood pastimes included neither Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders.2 In any case, I was unaware of the game’s blatant moral didacticism, which raises the possibility that others might be similarly naive.
The V&A Museum Site (which is also the source of the image of the 1920s Snakes and Ladder game pictured earlier in this post) offers this description of the game:
Snakes and Ladders has been a favourite race game in Britain for over 100 years. When it was originally devised Snakes and Ladders was a moral game with virtues in the shape of the ladders, allowing the players to reach heaven quickly, while the vices, in the shape of snakes, forced the player back down. Snakes and Ladders is probably based upon a very old Indian game called Moksha-Patamu, which was used for religious instruction and had 12 vices but only 4 virtues. According to Hindu teaching, good and evil exist side by side in man: but only virtuous acts – represented by the ladders – will shorten the soul’s journey through a series of incarnations to the state of ultimate perfection. Human wrongdoing symbolised by the head of the snake leads to reincarnation in a lower, animal form.
The description of the Indian game at 5 Classic Board Games With Disturbing Origin Stories differs in some particulars but the theme remains clear.
Over there [India], the game was known as Vaikuntapaali or Paramapada Sopanam, which meant “the ladder to salvation.” Sure enough, all this “salvation” business has to do with Hinduism, and all those snakes scattered across the board are temptations. Except that, in this version, landing on a snake’s head didn’t just send you back a few squares. The idea is that for each temptation you land on you die and have to go through life all over again. Vaikuntapaali was meant to illustrate how even a successful life can be ruined at the zero-hour due to one small screw up. Some of its original squares of “evil” included disobedience, vanity, vulgarity, theft, lying, drunkenness, and debt. As you advance through the game, you have to contend with still greater challenges such as rage, greed, pride, murder, and, yes, lust. As though the game we know today isn’t frustrating enough, in the Indian original it is virtually impossible to advance to the end without landing on at least several temptations. It’s almost as if whoever came up with this fun party game viewed everyone as some kind of a Hell-worthy sinner, especially those with the unfortunate luck to land on temptation after temptation for eternity
Victorian England bought into the notion that virtues like thrift, penitence and virtue took the player to the top of the ladders while mischievousness and misbehavior cause the player to fall behind.
A more explicit and graphic explication of the British game, with several examples charting bad behavior and punishment can be found at Snakes and Ladders – Vintage Jane: 28 August 2013. An excerpt follows:
Thrift brings fulfillment …
but don’t brag about it because conceit results in friendlessness!
Wikipedia’s description of the Chutes and Ladders version follows:
The most widely known edition of Snakes and Ladders in the United States is Chutes and Ladders from Milton Bradley (which was purchased by the game’s current distributor Hasbro). It is played on a 10×10 board, and players advance their pieces according to a spinner rather than a die. The theme of the board design is playground equipment–children climb ladders to go down chutes. The artwork on the board teaches a morality lesson, the squares on the bottom of the ladders show a child doing a good or sensible deed and at the top of the ladder there is an image of the child enjoying the reward. At the top of the chutes, there are pictures of children engaging in mischievous or foolish behavior and the images on the bottom show the child suffering the consequences.
I would suggest that the impact of the morality lesson is attenuated when misbehavior results in a symbolic slide down a favorite piece of playground equipment.
Part 2 Coming Up: Leonard Cohen Has His Way With Words
Note: This core idea of this two-part post comes from Down The Snakes And Up The Ladder With Leonard Cohen, which was published at this site on January 8, 2010.
- For a similar exercise, see Cohensubstantiation – Leonard Cohen Transforms Mundane Tea Into Suzanne’s Exotic Elixir, [↩]
- I should point out that the reason I didn’t have time to play such games was that I was too busy attending various church services where our morality lessons were served straight up – usually in the form of reminders that the “wages of sin are death” and sermons describing the invariable and direct cause and effect linkage of impure thoughts or misbehavior and an agonizing eternity spent in hell – rather than disguised as a leisure activity. Snakes and Ladders? We didn’t need no stinking Snakes and Ladders. [↩]