“Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” is the 84th entry in The Popular Culture and Philosophy Series, a collection of books which, according to its website, “present essays by academic philosophers exploring the meanings, concepts, and puzzles within television shows, movies, music and other icons of popular culture.”
The same website also describes “Leonard Cohen and Philosophy” and the book’s editor, Jason Holt:
Want to know what Cohen and Kierkegaard have in common? Or whether Cohen rivals the great philosophical pessimist Schopenhauer? Then this book is for you. It provides the first thorough analysis of Cohen from various (philosophical) positions. It is intended not only for Cohen fans but also undergraduates in philosophy and other areas. It explores important neglected aspects of Cohen’s work without attempting to reduce them to academic tropes, yet nonetheless it is also useful to academics — or anyone — beguiled by the enigma that is Leonard Cohen.
Jason Holt is a published poet and a philosopher who specializes in aesthetics and the philosophy of mind. He’s an associate professor at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is the editor of numerous books, including The Daily Show and Philosophy, and he is the author of Blindsight and the Nature of Consciousness.
“Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” is a collection of 20 essays, written by different authors and varying in style, theme, and, especially, accessibility. They deal with a wide range of issues, including the metaphysical world created in “Suzanne” (Can You Touch Someone’s Body With Your Mind by Rachel Haliburton), the poetics of relationships (Leonard Cohen On Romantic Love by Simon Riches), and the phenomenology of time (The End Of The World And Other Times In The Future by Gary Shapiro).
Of these entries, the most impressive, by my lights, are Babette Babich’s Hallelujah and Atonement and Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer? by Jason Holt.
Hallelujah and Atonement uses philosophical instruments to discover and analyze rarely considered aspects of the ideas and concepts embedded in and evoked by Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Babich writes knowledgeably of the shadings of meaning introduced by Nina Simone’s cover of “Suzanne,” insightfully examines second person referents (“you”) in “Hallelujah” and “Suzanne,” and explains why Psy’s “Gangham Style” works for listeners regardless of gender in terms of a precept set forth by Simone de Beauvoir. This is intriguing, gratifying reading.
Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer? is a delight, in part because it is straightforwardly comprehensible and in part because it takes an epistemological approach to a question that has repeatedly appeared in critical and casual writings about the Canadian singer-songwriter and has been the central point in multiple confrontations between fans and non-fans of Cohen. Holt offers a unique contribution by employing formal philosophical methodology to redefine the argument. (Spoiler Warning: He arrives at the correct conclusion.)
Portions of “Leonard Cohen And Philosophy” are a bit of a slog for someone like me whose academic experience with philosophers and philosophical concepts consists of a single sophomore course taken to meet a humanities requirement (Art History was already full) at commuter college in the Ozarks; heck, there aren’t even any photos (in my review copy, at least). The effort is, however, rewarded; this volume presents perspectives not to be found elsewhere and offers readers a fuller resonance with Cohen’s work.
Q&A With Jason Holt
1. The Popular Culture and Philosophy Series comprises an eclectic group of subjects, including, among others, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Simpsons, Bob Dylan, Mel Gibson, The Atkins Diet, Harley-Davidson, U2, and Bullshit. What were the reasons that led to the 84th book in the series being devoted to Leonard Cohen?
It was high time to do a book on Leonard Cohen, especially considering the wide range of topics already covered in the series. I guess many of us involved in the book thought, “How has this not been done already?” I mean, no one disputes the quality, depth, or significance of Cohen’s work. Perhaps it’s that the series focuses on popular culture and, in his way, Cohen challenges the very distinction between high and popular art (and culture) itself.
2. Who do you see as the primary audience for Leonard Cohen and Philosophy?
Cohen fans, certainly, especially those who find the philosophical connections intriguing. Many people appreciate the spiritual and religious aspects of Cohen’s work, but these are situated in an aesthetic and conceptual landscape that also includes philosophy. Of course you don’t need this approach to appreciate Cohen, and there’s always the risk of losing the art in the analysis, but—such disclaimers aside—enough people should find that the book enhances their appreciation of both Cohen and philosophy.
3. How knowledgeable were you about Cohen’s career before you started working on this book?
I’ve been a pretty diehard Cohen fan since my late teens, so I’ve known a good deal about his work and a decent amount about his life. Most of what I learned in putting this book together concerns different interesting ways of linking Cohen and philosophy, many of which I hadn’t anticipated. For instance, it hadn’t occurred to me before that “touching someone’s body with your mind” isn’t just a poetic and captivating phrase, it also implies certain commitments and raises key questions about the relationship between mind and body.
4. A variety of authors, writing from different perspectives, contributed chapters to Leonard Cohen and Philosophy. From your point of view as editor, what are the common threads or recurrent themes in the book as a whole?
The most common thread is the notion that part of what makes Cohen such an important artist is addressing, in his unique way, subjects of universal importance: love, sex, death, the meaning of life. Such universality connects him to humanity in general and philosophy in particular. In one sense, then, Cohen shows the links between—triangulates, really—ivory tower and mainstream matters of concern.
5. Cohen’s first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 and his most recent studio album, Old Ideas, was released more than 55 years later, in 2012. Have there been shifts in the content or expression of philosophical concepts manifested in Cohen’s work over his career?
Most people tend to become more philosophical, more reflective—less engaged in one sense but perhaps more engaged in another—as they age. It would be hard to imagine “Tower of Song” or “Going Home” on Songs of Leonard Cohen. Cohen hasn’t shied from such inevitability, and has made great use of it in his work. In a way the most recent work can’t help but appear rather more reflective, more summative. Still, though, I find such coherence, such unity in Cohen’s work as a whole, it’s unmistakably his. I think in many ways Cohen’s concerns and worldview are more or less the same as they’ve always been. Old Ideas is much farther down the road than Mythologies, but I think it’s the same road.
6. Similarly, Cohen initially wrote his songs (and poetry, of course) strictly on his own. Later, however, he began collaborating, most notably with Sharon Robinson. Do the philosophical conceits of these collaborative efforts differ from those of his solo efforts?
If you were to ask me what my favorite Cohen song is, I’d probably say “Everybody Knows,” which of course was co-written by Robinson. I think there’s something paradoxical about that, almost as though the right collaborative scenario distills Cohen’s individual artistic vision. It’s certainly a credit to him that he can produce artwork in both isolation and collaboration, where many artists tend exclusively toward one or the other. Many existentialists (like Sartre) believe that authenticity (being true to yourself) is something an individual must do on their own, while others (like Jaspers) believe authenticity depends on a special relationship with another. Cohen, in his creative flexibility, illustrates how neither path is exclusive and how each of the different modes of authenticity can work.
7. Douglas Fetherling wrote that Cohen’s work is “what Soren Kierkegaard would have written for laughs if he’d been that kind of fellow.” Is it possible Cohen and Kierkegaard both suffer from stereotyping as purely melancholic chaps because they present serious ideas with gravitas?
To a certain extent, probably. But it’s not as if the stereotypes are entirely groundless. In certain ways Cohen rivals Schopenhauer, the great philosophical pessimist (including the Buddhism but excluding the misogyny). I think the stereotypes of Cohen as purely melancholic are rooted in an understandable but often misleading and unfair need some people have to oversimplify things. It makes for easy judgment and avoids the effort of dealing with conflict and complexity. Life and people are often far more nuanced and complex than such mental laziness can find comfortable. Those facing such challenges honestly are particularly prone to such easy reduction and shallow dismissal by others and are often essentially punished for their virtues. Another important point is that irony is easy to miss, and so Cohen and Kierkegaard, both ironists in their different ways, are susceptible to misinterpretation.
8. According to the blurb for the book, “It explores important neglected aspects of Cohen’s work without attempting to reduce them to academic tropes….” What are a few of those important neglected aspects?
Under the umbrella of philosophy, there are various such neglected aspects of Cohen’s work. For example, there’s a provocative line associated with Theodor Adorno that “there can be no poetry after Auschwitz.” It’s hard not to read Flowers for Hitler as challenging that pronouncement on a very deep level. There are also some interesting parallels between Cohen and noted philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, even Socrates), schools of thought (stoicism, epicureanism, existentialism, etc.), and subject matter (the meaning of life, the nature of beauty, the relationship between mind and body), and that’s not even counting the more discussed spiritual and religious elements. The basic idea is that philosophy provides a lens through which to view and appreciate more richly part of what makes Cohen’s work significant.
9. I was especially taken with the chapter you wrote, “Is Leonard Cohen a Good Singer?” What attracted you to this excellent philosophical question and how did you approach it?
For matters of taste, I’ve always thought there should be a middle ground between an “anything goes” view (no standards) and a “convergence view” (only one correct standard). As much as I am a Leonard Cohen fan and think he’s wonderful, I don’t presume that my preference should assert itself over others. Good standards limit judgment without compelling taste. Still, many in my experience who dismiss Cohen as a singer do so for unjust reasons. That unfairness always bothered me, and I wanted to explain that to myself and give some answer to them. Many have different forms of style prejudice, for instance. Since Cohen is for some an acquired taste, many people who dismiss the voice simply aren’t in a position to discern much less judge the qualities that others appreciate. You don’t have to like his voice, but you can’t unfairly dismiss it either.