The first thing I wanted to transcribe and share in this project was audio I found on youtube of Leonard Cohen on a panel held at the Jewish Public Library of Montreal in June 7, 1964. By sheer coincidence, this was a few months shy of his 30th birthday. This is one of three references I have found of his public involvement with the Jewish Library. He took part in the 1963 Montreal Jewish Forums, as well as a 1964 talk called “Loneliness and History.” Following Cohen’s passing in November 2016, a huge trove of videos flooded youtube. I know this because I had exhausted what was available previously. Although there are now many great videos of him online, this one stood out for several reasons: the forcefulness of his tone, his damning position on contemporary Judaism and art in Canada, and the raw force of his argumentation. The relatively aggressive and precocious tone heard in this document would later smooth out into his infamous cool persona.
In 1964, he had already published his first volumes of poetry (Let us Compare Mythologies, 1956; The Spice-box of Earth, 1963), and his first novel (The Favorite Game, 1963), and that same year he published Flowers for Hitler. But this was before he published Beautiful Losers (1966), which he references below, and then went to New York in 1967 to become a folk singer. The audio is worth a listen, but the following is a transcription of Cohen’s portion, taken from the remastered version of the full audio embedded below and cited in full at the end of the transcription. Note that the information provided in the youtube video description, after some light research, proved to have many errors and so I haven’t linked to it.
Skip to the second file, and find Cohen from minute 42 if you want to listen along:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I stand at the summit of a very bad Jewish education and a very bad secular education. I do not have the luxury to indulge myself in a choice of language since I only have one. I learned French for political reasons, and Greek so I could order groceries. But the language of my spirit is English. Mr. Ravitch manifests an interesting nostalgia for Yiddish and Hebrew, but if he believes that the future of Jewish emotion and spirituality resides in those two languages, he must relegate the entire North American Jewish experience to the outer limits. The fact is that Jewish experience–contemporary Jewish experience for the majority of Jews alive today is English. But it doesn’t matter anyhow because Mr. Ravitch is guilty–that’s too strong a word… He labors in the error that there is no spiritual content without language. It is my primary contention that language only obscures spiritual content and it is in the second realm of the encounters with divinity of the spirit.
[Interruption: “good parallels [?]”]
It’s not good, it’s just true.
As far as Joseph Conrad he is a glorious example and if I can approximate his career in regard to any language I will be more than grateful to the eternal muses. Mr. Ravitch is frightened that the entire Jewish experience will degenerate to some obscure sect, performing a ghostly ritual. If that sect were composed of 36 men, it might be worth the entire religious observance of the diaspora. I also, Mr. Ravitch, although I don’t have anything approaching your background in European Judaism, would caution you to speak less casually about the Jewish eternity. Because the Jewish eternity is not in the hands of one language or another but in higher hands who may choose an entirely different method of communication to reveal his plan. So lets not jump too quickly to involve our destiny in any particular alphabet. I think our destiny transcends an alphabet.
I must say that Mrs. Wisse’s remarks were extremely comforting. So comforting are they in fact that even if I take exception to some of the points, I wouldn’t mention them. And I shall behold her face for the next year as I complete my novel, as my ideal reader. I don’t think, particularly in the Canadian experience, that the writers have abstained the prophetic role. In fact they are kind of maniacs about it. I would say that one of the most common features of a Canadian Jewish writer is a messianic complex: encouraged by the hostility of his readership and the obscurity of his position in the country. But certainly a writer like [A.M] Klein, who titles his book The Second Scroll, surely must be counted among someone who has prophetic aspirations. Adele Weissman’s book The Sacrifice, probably the best Canadian novel to come out of this country, the entire structure of it appears to me to be in the prophetic tradition.
The idea of a real Jewish writer to me is on the par with those people who discuss which meat stores are really kosher. The important thing is nourishment, the label is secondary. Where are the men of the spirit? If they exist among us and speak with their hands, we owe them our gratitude. The world is hostile not only to the Jewish writer, Ms. Wiseman, the world is hostile to the writer, the world is hostile the poet, the world is hostile to any man who will hold up a mirror to the particular kind of mindless chaos in which we endure. That is the glory of the poet, that is the glory of the writer, that is the glory of the Jew: that he is despised, that he moves in this mirrored exile, covered in mirrors, and as he passes through the communities that he sojourns, he reflects their condition, his condition.
To me, his destiny is exile and his vocation is to be despised. In modern times, two groups of human beings have talked identity incessantly at the stars only to tune their ears to some cosmic reply, which is not forthcoming: the Jews and the Canadians.
To be a Jewish Canadian is to really stick your neck out. The cosmos does not respond to argument nor too the greed of comfortable reason. Now the Canadians have turned their country into a continental analyst couch, from which they dissect their dreams, bandaging their anguish with royal commissions, and all the answers are as dull as psychiatry. Deep in that shadow, which is our national heart, we live with the disease–a very special disease, but we never speak it because we do not wish to cure ourselves. The disease is the knowledge for every Canadian that we do not wish to become a nation. We want a flag to stand for us, a picture of a red leaf. A red leaf to soothe us who are so far from the sap of living and the risks of growth. We want literally a standard of living, not a national life. We want cities, ballet, poetry, money, forests but we do not want to own them. We want an abstraction to own them. An abstraction called “America”, an abstraction called “foreign investment.” That mess of pottage that economists have made so palatable that no one dare resist it. We do not wish to own ourselves, to accept the dangers of national loneliness.
But that is not the disease. The disease is knowing that we do not wish to own ourselves. But that is a disease we cannot articulate, it involves a language of danger and honesty too painful to speak so we debate the language itself; we inflame ourselves with the fetishes of identity. Now–I take this seriously–the modern Jew is an expert in this variety of intellectual orgy. And we can teach this country a great deal about the art of losing itself in symbols and aimless self-examination. We can train Canada for an endless symposium for we suffer from a more ancient version of the same failure of courage.
When I speak of myself, I speak of the writer. And the remarks I’m going to follow with I apply to the men who articulate the feelings of our community. Judaism is the secretion with which an eastern tribe surrounded a divine irritation. A direct confrontation with the absolute. That happened once in history and we still feel the warmth of that confrontation, divorced as we are from the terms of it. That happened a long time ago. Today we covet the pearl but we are willing to support the irritation, the burning nucleus and our spiritual life today has the exact consistency of an unclean oyster and it stinks to heaven.
We cannot face heaven. We have lost our genius for the vertical. Jewish novelists are sociologists, horizontalists, and the residue of energy left from that great vertical seizure we had 4000 years ago, that we turned toward ourselves. We knock on our own doors and wonder that no one answers. We create this insane Talmud of identity that must end in psychiatry or Zionism, but never in a prayer or praise. Perhaps our taste for the absolute was too intense. We could not bare the light. We could not stand the annihilation of the world inherent in the light. Perhaps we lost the land because no longer wished to possess it. The light made the cities and the temples irrelevant. Perhaps we can live everyday with the destruction of European Jewry in our hearts because in some unassailable quarter of our psyche, we know that the exile had become meaningless. Just as our exile in Canada has become meaningless.
Now it is not easy for me to say this or to think it. And I accept the censure of those of you who have suffered, which you must direct to one who has not suffered anything but a small spiritual anxiety and that among comfortable circumstances. But the emptiness of our exile in Canada has driven me into arrogance and scalpel thrusts. There is an awful truth which no Jewish writer investigates today, which no Jewish poet articulates. It is a truth that the synogogues and the cultural establishment cannot efface: we no longer believe we are holy.
This is the declaration that I wait to hear going out of synagogues, and from the lips of cultural Jews and ethical Jews. This is the confession without which we cannot begin to raise to our eyes: the absence of God in our midsts. And interesting that in two symposia I have been to within the Jewish community in the past few months, no one has mentioned the word “God.” And I am laboring under the misapprehension that the Jewish people represents that testimony on the earth, and that without that testimony informing its actions, Jewish survival is nominal and no more important to me than Armenian survival or Greek survival.
The absence of God in our midsts is a deep, rotten cavity that has killed the nerve of the people. We are ready to accept psychiatric solutions to our suffering. We are ready to accept ethics instead of sanctity and we will die very badly for our choice. And our monuments will be new parochial schools, and the State of Israel, and a militant Anti-Defamation League, and maybe even a Jewish president of the United States.
Well to hell with these mausoleums! The architecture, look at it, of our new city synagogues speaks of their hideous obsession with safety. Now, before we begin we must face that despair that none of us dares articulate: that we no longer feel we are holy. And our writers will continue to be sociologists and cataloguers. There will be no psalms, there will be no light, there will be no illumination until we can confess the position into which we have decayed. Each generation of men must continue the ancient and holy dialogue between the material secular artificial ethnocentric on the one hand and on the other, the spiritual ascetic natural experiential. Certainly we have built too much on the other side. The balance has hit the ground.
Let us refuse the title, “Jew,” to any man who is not obsessed with God. Let that become the sole qualification of Jewish identity. Let us encourage young men to go into the deserts of their heart and burn the praise of perfection. Let us do it with drugs, or whips, or sex, or blasphemy, or fasting, but let men begin to feel the perfection of the universe. Let us declare a moratorium on all religious services until someone reports a vision. Or breaks his mind on the infinite. Jews without God are lilies that fester. Let us discard the mentality of the minyan, the danger which it was meant to shield us from: lonely self-annihilation in the spirit is unfortunately no longer a danger. Let us make it a danger. Let us see Jewish monasteries, our families are strong enough to support the dialectic. We need our dirty saints and our monstrous hermits. Let us create a tradition for them, for they light the world.”
The questions that follow are worth a listen too.