‘Emotion is Autobiographical’: Father-Son Relationships in the Writings of Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen Relaxes
Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, London, June 1974. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

On the anniversary of his death, another look at the remarkable Leonard Cohen.

Where does one begin when writing about Leonard Cohen? Is it with audacious student whose literary ability was astounding audiences while still an undergraduate at McGill; or with the boundary-pushing post-modern novels; or with the astonishing longevity of his music career? The best place to begin, it would be appear, is with an event which has permeated Cohen’s career in its entirety – from poetry, to novels, to songs – a profoundly traumatic incident that happened to a nine-year-old boy: the death of his father. ‘Nathan Cohen, Leonard’s father, was a prosperous Canadian Jew’[1] who fought in World War One. However, ‘after his return from the war, Nathan suffered recurring periods of ill health, which left him increasingly invalid…in January 1944, at the age of fifty-two, Leonard’s father died.’[2] Perhaps such an event was the catalyst for Cohen’s literary genius, an avenue whereby creative expression could emerge; for, as Cohen would later say, ‘emotion is autobiographical’[3] and the history of literature has shown that there can often be no stronger, more desperate emotion than that of the fatherless child.

Despite losing his father so tragically early in his childhood, biographies of Cohen recount the extent to which he idolised his father: ‘Leonard wanted to fight wars and win medals…the boy had proof that his father had been a warrior once.’[4] The proof was the .38 gun belonging to his father, engraved with his name, rank and regiment. War and his father later collided again in his song ‘Story of Isaac.’ While filming a documentary on Cohen, Harry Rasky asked him about the song, with Cohen reticent in his response, saying, ‘The ‘Story of Isaac,’ I don’t remember much about that one…You have to have force of a real emotion to carry the song through from beginning to end.’[5] First appearing on Cohen’s second album, Songs From A Room, released in 1969, ‘Story of Isaac’ has been categorised by critics as an example of ‘the quintessential Cohen song – thoughtful, engaged, frightening, and musically austere.’[6] One can be in no doubt of the song’s voice, bearing Cohen’s distinctive grief .

‘Story of Isaac’ utilises imagery from the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac from Genesis 22. Whereas Christian theology interprets Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac as a foreshadowing of the crucifixion, in Jewish theology, the story seeks to condemn human sacrifice: ‘the Akedat Yitzchak is commonly spoken of as “the sacrifice of Isaac” rather than “the binding of Isaac.” As a result, there is a tendency to forget the story’s “punchline”: Human sacrifice is precisely what God does not want.’[7] Cohen’s lyrics are in keeping with the Jewish theological tradition of Abraham and Isaac as well as making the father-son motif central to the lyrics. It begins, ‘The door it opened slowly,/ my father he came in;/ I was nine years old.’[8] Here appears the autobiographical detail, however, the loving father-son relationship between Cohens Junior and Senior is not present in the description of the father who ‘stood so tall’[9] and whose ‘blue eyes they were shining/ and his voice was very cold.’[10] Yet there is still an intimate connection established with the use of possessive ‘my’ and the display of trust demonstrated by the speaker to the father figure in the second stanza: ‘Then my father built an altar,/ He looked once behind his shoulder,/ but he knew I would not hide.’[11]

The final two stanzas see a shift in tone to one of accusation and anger, as demonstrated through the directness of ‘You who build these altars now/ to sacrifice the children/…you have never been tempted/ by a demon or a god.’[12] Here, Cohen has taken the biblical story and transformed ‘it into a protest about violence and atrocities both ancient and modern, public and personal.’[13] Its political connotations are nuanced and ambiguous, potentially Cohen is intimating about the threat of nuclear war, and certainly his disdain for organised religion is evident. There is, however, an intriguing change in the father-son motif in the final stanza, a surprising dénouement. Cohen writes, ‘And if you call me Brother now,/ forgive me if I enquire:/ Just according to whose plan?’[14] A possible interpretation of these lines could be Cohen reflecting on his elevation to head of the family in the wake of his father’s death; ‘Cohen had painfully inherited his father’s role, most noticeably at moments of Jewish ritual and ceremony’[15] and perhaps his anger at being treated as a man, being called ‘Brother’ by adults in his community while still only a child, is the driving force in his song. ‘Story of Isaac’ is ‘short on beauty’[16] while grief and poignancy are prevalent.

‘To the memory of my father/ Nathan B. Cohen’[17] reads the dedication of Cohen’s first book of poetry, 1966’s Let Us Compare Mythologies. It is a canon replete with autobiographical details and emotional reflections, ‘of the forty-four poems which went into its making, something like twenty-four have the “I” as the major participant in, or raconteur of, the event of the poem.’[18] The book is filled with images of Cohen’s Montreal and audacious remarks about love from one so young. Yet, its emotional zenith and literary triumph is in a small poem concealed in the first half of the book: ‘Rites.’ So raw was the sentiment of it that ‘Rites was ‘excluded from his Selected Poems, 1956-1968, the poem painfully recounts the impact and sorrow caused by the death of Cohen’s father.’[19] The imagery is graphic: ‘Bearing gifts of flowers and sweet nuts/ the family came to watch the eldest son,/ my father; and stood about his bed/ while he lay on a blood-sopped pillow.’[20] The contrast of ‘sweet nuts’[21] with ‘blood-sopped’[22] and ‘his heart half rotted/ and his throat dry with regret’[23] is uncomfortable for the reader, such pronounced contrast between life and death. Furthermore, Cohen’s use of punctuation allows his poetic voice to reclaim his father from his family members; they have come to visit the ‘eldest son’[24] but Cohen is quick to emphasise he is ‘my father.’[25]

The tone of ‘Rites’ is one of embitterment towards the feeling of powerlessness Cohen was left with in the wake of his father’s death, particularly caused by his uncles’ overbearingness. Cohen critiques their gifts: ‘it seemed so obvious, the smell so present’[26] with the repetition of ‘so’ illustrating his sentiments further. Moreover, he describes their actions with a negative tone: ‘but my uncles prophesised wildly,/ promising life like frantic oracles.’[27] Perhaps this is the centre of where the frustration evident from Cohen’s narration lies; his uncles promised life but it was a futile promise, his father still died. In the end, the image the poem ‘Rites’ leaves us with is one of a desperately sad nine-year-old boy: ‘and they only stopped in the morning,/ after he had died/ and I had begun to shout.’[28] This illustration of noise is all the more poignant in lieu of how Cohen was expected to behave at his father’s funeral, ‘with his uncles and aunts around him, his mother along suffering, while he repressed his feelings.’[29] ‘Rites’ is without a rhyme scheme nor a formulaic rhythm, it is unadulterated emotion, memory at its most raw made tangible through poetry. Whereas the death of his father became more autobiographically diluted and the father-son motif more of a poetical device by the time of writing ‘Story of Isaac’, in his earliest works, Cohen’s portrayal of his father-son relationship was at a devastating level of candour.

In 1963, Cohen gave an interview on Canadian television about his novel The Favourite Game, and was asked whether it was in anyway autobiographical. He responded: ‘The emotion is autobiographical because the only person’s emotions I know about are my own. The incidents are not autobiographical. I apologise. I’m terribly sorry. I cringe before the tyranny of fact but it is not autobiographical. I made it all up out of my little head.’[30] If the slight smile Cohen gives while saying these words do not suggest otherwise about how autobiographical it is, an examination of the novel certainly does. Before The Favourite Game, Cohen wrote two short stories dealing with his father’s death, ‘Ceremonies’ and ‘My Sister’s Birthday.’ The latter’s title refers to a specific detail surrounding Nathan Cohen’s death that, having been told ‘the funeral would take place the following day [after his father’s death]’[31] Leonard pointed out that it was his sister, Esther’s, birthday that day. The innocence of that detail is moving; by the time the account of his father’s death appears for a third time in The Favourite Game, ‘it was a more poised account, partly due to Leonard’s writing having matured considerably in the time between these abandoned stories and his first novel, and partly from the distance accorded by having ascribed it in the latter to a fictional character (although Leonard has confirmed that it happened as he wrote it in the book.’[32]

There are a considerable number of similarities between the hero of The Favourite Game, Laurence Breavman’s account of his father’s death, and Cohen’s personal account. In the novel, ‘the mirrors of the house were soaped, as if the glass had become victim to a strange indoor frost corresponding to the wide winter’[33] just as ‘Masha had the maid soap all the mirrors in the house’[34] in accordance with Jewish custom. Breavman expresses antipathy towards his uncles, ‘his uncles joked with friends of the family. Breavman hated them’[35] just as Cohen described in ‘Rites.’ Furthermore, in the novel, Breavman talks with his mother about his father’s body, commenting that ‘”He looked man, didn’t he?”’[36] as well as remarking that ‘”his moustache [was] really black. As if it was done with an eyebrow pencil.”’[37] In reality, the conversation took place between Cohen and his sister, ‘later that night when Esther asked Leonard if he had dared to look at their dead father, each confessed that they had, and agreed it appeared that someone had dyed his moustache.’[38] There is a beauty to this story, another mark of childlike innocence that the biggest concern upon seeing his father’s dead body was not that it was a dead body, but that his moustache was not how they remembered. However, the most obviously autobiographical element with regards to Cohen’s father’s death is when Breavman ‘the day after the funeral [he] split open one of his father’s formal bow ties and sewed in a message. He buried it in the garden, under the snow beside the fence where in summer the neighbour’s lilies-of-the-valley infiltrate.’[39] It is not an event Cohen plucked from his head; ‘Leonard has since described this [note in the bow tie] as the first thing he ever wrote. He has also said that he has no recollection of what it was and that he had been “digging in the garden for years, looking for it. Maybe that’s all I’m doing, looking for the note.”’[40]

Breavman could be Brave-Man, could be Bereaved-Man – he certainly is, despite Cohen’s protestations, in some way a strong resemblance of his creator. ‘And what is it like to have no father? It made you more grown-up. You carved the chicken, you sat where he sat. Lisa listened, and Breavman, for the first time, felt himself dignified, or rather, dramatized. His father’s death gave him a touch of mystery, contact with the unknown. He could speak with extra authority on God and Hell.’[41] The death of Cohen’s father meant the cessation of his childhood, he ‘had painfully inherited his father’s role, most noticeably at moments of Jewish ritual and ceremony.’[42] Furthermore, just as Breavman is able to yell with abandon, ‘”Fuck God!”’[43] so Cohen’s attitude to religion changes irrevocably with his father’s death, arguably originating ‘in his resentment against God for the loss of his father and the consequent anguish that he, his mother and his sister suffered.’[44] Thus, Breavman in The Favourite Game is the trajectory for unbridled grief and anger. The fictional Breavman can express in narration all Cohen could not articulate as a nine-year-old boy.

Cohen’s bitterness towards God and the Jewish religion can be found in his poem ‘Priests 1957’ from his collection, Spice-Box of Earth, where again the autobiographical father-son motif is present. In clever Hebraic wordplay, (Cohen means ‘priest’ in Hebrew), Cohen describes a dysfunctional Jewish family in the tailoring business where ‘Beside the brassworks my uncle grows sad.’[45] Autobiographical elements overwhelm this image and Cohen’s father and uncles worked in a high-end clothing store in Montreal. Then Cohen writes, ‘My father died among old sewing machines,/ echo of bridges and water in his hand./ I have his leather books now. And startle at each uncut page.’[46] Although Nathan Cohen ‘did have bound volumes of Chaucer, Milton and the Romantic poets, [they were] as much for show as for his own enlightenment; he had liked the idea of literature, if not the reality.’[47] However, implicit in Cohen’s description of his father’s books in ‘Priests 1957’ is that his father was prevented from reading his books because of familial expectation: ‘Must we find all work prosaic/ because our grandfather built an early synagogue?’[48] In sonnet form, which contains Cohen’s frustration, he appears to lament how cruelly short his father’s life was, and that a man, who was in his eyes a war hero, should have become saddled with the family clothing business. It is not the memory of his father upsetting Cohen, it is his father’s forgotten legacy as the hero with the proudly-engraved gun.

In addition to the intimate father-son motif repeatedly appearing in Cohen’s writings, his quasi father-son relationships with other poets and mentors incorporate the intimacy and affection of a son writing about a father, ‘and it is very easy to place a quasi-Freudian, psychological interpretation on some of his later relationships with older men: were the likes of Irving Layton, A.M. Klein, and Joshu Saskaki Roshi simply literary and spiritual mentors, or emotional replacements for the father that Cohen never properly knew.’[49] (Roshi was a Buddhist monk and spiritual mentor to Cohen when he pursued Buddhism). Perhaps the most influential pseudo-father-son relationship Cohen developed was with the poet Irving Layton, ‘the rough and tumble poet rogue, became a substitute father in many ways, a guiding rebel.’[50] Cohen embalmed Irving in his poems such as ‘To I.P.L.’, here describing Layton as ‘more furious than any Canadian poet.’[51] In a slightly more surreal poem, ‘Last Dance at the Four Penny,’ Cohen imagines him and Layton dancing the freilach, describing ‘while we two dance joyously’[52] and ‘As for the cynical,/ such as we were yesterday,/ let them step with us or rot.’[53] Layton’s son later described Cohen as being his father figure, which is ironic considering how much of a friend, father and mentor Layton Senior was to Cohen. A clash of artists’ egos tore Cohen and Layton’s relationship asunder, but Layton’s bravery in pushing the boundaries of Canada’s poetic tastes left an indelible mark on Cohen and shaped his own literary bravery.

In addition to Layton, Cohen also had an important relationship with A.M. Klein and, reflecting on the latter’s mental breakdown, wrote the affecting ‘To A Teacher’ where he lamented Klein being ‘Hurt once and for all into silence,/ A long pain ending without a song to prove it.’[54] Although the song is addressed to Klein as a teacher, out of reverence for all Klein taught Cohen, the final stanza reaches a zenith of intimacy: ‘Let me cry Help beside you, Teacher./ I have entered under this dark roof/ as fearlessly as an honoured son/ enters his father’s house.’[55] In explicitly referring to his relationship with Klein as being like that of a father and a son, Cohen is able to fully express just how important Klein was to him as a writer and mentor, further emphasised when he describes being in Klein’s presence as being like the ‘honoured’ son. It is sobering to think that Cohen lost not only his father, but also the two father figures of Layton and Klein.

‘Emotion is autobiographical’[56] states Cohen and it is undeniable that the emotions he felt upon losing his father appear frequently throughout his writings, sometimes in explicitly autobiographical detail, such as in The Favourite Game, and sometimes in a more nuanced way and as a poetic motif as in ‘Story of Isaac.’ Each time the father-son relationship motif appears it is yoked with a conglomeration of complex feelings and sentiments: resentment, grief, despair. But only Cohen could employ sardonic wit to describe being elevated to head of the household as requiring having to carve the chicken for dinner. Similarly, only Cohen could emotively describe the searching, the digging, for what he wrote in his father’s bow tie. In the writings of Leonard Cohen, the father-son relationship is void of hope and celebration, but the poetic poignancy translates as literary brilliancy. The emotions Cohen has not just felt but endured are passed to the reader, who in turn absorbs the agony of the loss of a father. In the hands of Cohen, the father-son relationship becomes a weapon of expression, one that he has felt its blow.

[1] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.4.[2] Ibid. p.8.[3] Cohen in footman Leonard Cohen, as quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah, (Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43.[4] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012).p.9.[5] Leonard Cohen as quoted in Rasky, H., The Song of Leonard Cohen: A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film, (Mosaic Press, 2001), p.95.[6] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994) p.93.[7] Telushkin, J., Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, its People and its History, (HarperCollins, 2000), p.17[8] Cohen, L., Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, (McClelland and Stewart, 1973), p.139.[9] Ibid. p.139.[10] Ibid. p.139.[11] Ibid. p.139.[12] Ibid. p.140.[13] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.217.[14] Cohen, L., Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, (McClelland and Stewart, 1973), p.140.[15] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994), p.21.[16] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.219.[17] Cohen, L., Let Us Compare Mythologies, (McClelland and Stewart, 1966), p.7.[18] Gnarowski, M., Leonard Cohen: The Artist and His Critics, (McGraw-Hill Ryerson Press, 1976), p.4.[19] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994), p.21.[20] Cohen, L., Let Us Compare Mythologies, (McClelland and Stewart, 1966), p.7.[21] Ibid. p.7.[22] Ibid. p.7.[23] Ibid. p.7.[24] Ibid. p.7.[25] Ibid. p.7.[26] Ibid. p.7.[27] Ibid. p.7.[28] Ibid. p.7.[29] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994), p.21.[30] Cohen in footman Leonard Cohen, as quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah, (Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43.[31] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.13.[32] Ibid. p.13.[33] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.24.[34] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.13.[35] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.25.[36] Ibid. p.25.[37] Ibid. p.26.[38] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.13.[39] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.27.[40] Simmons, S., I’m your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.13.[41] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.28.[42] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994), p.21.[43] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.15.[44] Nadel, I., Leonard Cohen: A Life in Art, (ECW Press, 1994), p.23.[45] Cohen, L., The Spice-Box of Earth, (McClelland and Stewart, 1961).[46] Ibid.[47] Footman, T., Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah, (Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.17.[48] Cohen, L., The Spice-Box of Earth, (McClelland and Stewart, 1961).[49] Footman, T., Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah, (Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.15.[50] Rasky, H., The Song of Leonard Cohen: A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film, (Mosaic Press, 2001), p.16.[51] Mythologies 46[52] Cohen, L., The Spice-Box of Earth, (McClelland and Stewart, 1961).[53] Ibid.[54] Ibid.[55] Ibid.[56] Leonard Cohen, as quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah, (Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43.

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