Leonard Cohen

You Want It Darker | Love Itself

“You Want It Darker”, Leonard Cohen 2016

Lyrics | Interview | Recording

Lyrics

If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game
If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame
You want it darker
We kill the flame

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the love that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game
If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame
If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my lord

Hineni
Hineni, hineni
Hineni

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Interview

The following interview originally aired on CBC’s Information Morning-Cape Breton on January 10, 2017. Listen here.

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Recording

Official YouTube audio release, 2016

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“Love Itself”, Leonard Cohen 2001

Lyrics | Analysis | Recording

Lyrics (minus the repeated stanzas)

The light came through the window,
Straight from the sun above,
And so inside my little room
There plunged the rays of Love.


In streams of light I clearly saw
The dust you seldom see,
Out of which the Nameless makes
A Name for one like me.


I’ll try to say a little more:
Love went on and on
Until it reached an open door-
Then Love itself
Love itself was gone.


All busy in the sunlight
The flecks did float and dance,
And I was tumbled up with them
In formless circumstance.

Then I came back from where I’d been.
My room, it looked the same-
But there was nothing left between
The Nameless and the Name.

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Analysis

One of the gifts of a liberal education is that it teaches us how the past infuses the present. Two influences on Western civilization that pervade our culture are the ancient Greeks and the Bible. Both of these are evident in Leonard Cohen’s powerful new song, Love Itself. This year I have used the song in my Humanities class to teach students the lesson of the past’s influence on the present.

The full meaning of a song is expressed only through the singer‘s voice. The melody and the voices of Cohen and Sharon Robinson add greatly to the meaning of the lyrics. I hope readers will find a way to listen to Love Itself. But here we must focus on the words.

Cohen is meditating “in my little room” when “straight from the sun above../ there plunged the rays of love”. A mystical experience of great significance, we gather, has overwhelmed Cohen. Two images in the first stanza have their origins in, or are explicated by, Plato (even if Cohen himself was not fully aware, when he wrote the song, of the images’ provenance). The idea of the sun as representing the divine has its source in Plato’s parable of the cave. In this parable, Plato compares the human condition to people living in a deep underground cave who think that the cave is the whole of reality (as deep-sea fish, if they could think, would believe that the sea is the whole of reality). But then some truth-seekers, drawn by the light above, climb out of the cave and come to see that there is a higher reality. The higher reality is illuminated by the sun which represents the divine.

In Cohen’s song, however, it is not just rays of illumination which plunge into his room, but rays of love. It is love which carries the illumination. This image too derives from Plato. For Plato, love is always an intermediary between ourselves and that which completes us (we would not seek love if we were complete in ourselves). There are many forms of love, but the highest is that which seeks completion in what is best, namely the truth, the good, or the divine. In Plato’s view, then, love is an intermediary between the finite, or the human, and the infinite, or the divine. In Cohen’s song, love is just such an intermediary. It carries the mystical insight from the divine, allowing Cohen to see “the dust you seldom see”, as we see the dust in the air when the sun shines through a window. Then “love itself was gone” and Cohen is left with the experience of being tumbled up with the dust “in formless circumstance”. In other words, love
performs its intermediary role, departs, and leaves Cohen with the mystical experience itself. But what is this experience, and what is the “dust you seldom see” with which Cohen is tumbled up? To answer these questions, we must turn to imagery derived from the Bible.

In the Bible, God makes humans from the dust of the earth, infusing that dust with divine spirit. When we die, we return to the earth from which we came: “from dust onto dust”, as the funeral service says. In his mystical experience, Cohen “sees the dust we seldom see”, because he sees not just the ordinary dust out of which we are made, but the dust as infused by the divine. He clearly sees, or feels, that he is one with all the other things made by God. Why is God referred to as the Nameless? When Moses is given the Ten Commandments, he asks God to make Himself visible. God cries to Moses that He cannot be seen or named. He is beyond language, and so Nameless: “I am who I am”, God exclaims to Moses. It is only finite things, like humans, that can be named or delimited by words (as in Genesis when God asks man to give
names to the newly created plants and animals).

In the final stanza, the mystical experience has dissipated, and Cohen returns to the mundane world. In one sense, the world is as it was before: a chair is still a chair, and Leonard Cohen is still Leonard Cohen. But now the ordinary has become extraordinary, because the commonplace and the sacred have become one in Cohen‘s eyes: “But there was nothing left between/ The Nameless and the Name”. The mundane world has been spiritually transfigured.

The spiritual transformation of the mundane world is what religion and significant art achieve for us. Love Itself effects this transformation, and it does so, as all art must, through evoking ideas and images whose origins lie deep in our culture’s past. Love Itself works its magic, even on an atheist like myself.

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Recording

Original Album Recording: Ten New Songs 2001

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