Death is an impossible idea to stare at for too long. “The mind blanks at the glare,” as Larkin wrote. We can spend our lives trying to ignore the knowledge of our sure extinction but it will wait on the horizon either way. It lurks out of sight unless we muster the courage to raise our eyes from our lives to see it.
Leonard Cohen was brave enough to look up. It will be said that his death at the age of 82, which was reported this morning, is another tragedy in a year that appears to have been mainly constructed from disasters. I’m not so sure that it should be called a tragedy to die with such grace and wisdom. If there is such a thing as a good death, it appears at least from a distance that Cohen found it.
He was doing good work until the very end. Just three weeks ago today, on his birthday, Cohen released his fourteenth record ‘You Want It Darker’. It is a remarkable record, full of poetry, black humour and, of course, intimations of mortality. On the title track he uses the word ‘Hineni’, the Hebrew word meaning ‘Here I am’. He sings: “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready, my lord.” Cohen’s songs were always touched by death but by the end, after a lifetime of contemplation and Zen meditation, they’d achieved a state of humble acceptance when facing the abyss.
There is more evidence of his grace in the letter he wrote this July to Marianne Ihlen, his former lover and muse, who was then on her deathbed. In the face of death it is easy to slip into inanities or meaningless platitudes, but that was not Cohen’s way. He wrote: “Well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
He saw clearly what was coming. A few months ago, after reciting the words of a new song to the New Yorker editor David Remnick, Cohen told him: “I don’t think I’ll be able to finish those songs. Maybe, who knows? And maybe I’ll get a second wind, I don’t know. But I don’t dare attach myself to a spiritual strategy. I don’t dare do that. I’ve got some work to do. Take care of business. I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”
He was right of course. It is hard to speak so plainly about death, but he achieved it. The simplicity of Cohen’s language – both in speech and in song – is thoroughly deceptive. Kris Kristofferson once told him that he wanted to have the opening lines of ‘Bird of the Wire’ inscribed on his tombstone. They are simple, short and perfect: “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
Cohen would work on songs and poems for months, turning sentences patiently. ‘Hallelujah’ took him five years. He was wise but he was also fucking funny. Just put on ‘The Future’ or ‘Everybody Knows’ or ‘Tower of Song’. I once asked him for advice about writing – or at least I tried. He was in London to release his album ‘Old Ideas’ in January 2012, a masterfully crafted record that felt like the return of old truths and forgotten melodies. In front of a room full of music journalists I was allowed the microphone to speak. At those sorts of events there’s always one: the babbling fool who just starts talking and never gets close to a question or a point. Mortifyingly, in front of the great poet, that was me. I think eventually he just gathered that I needed some help. “I’m reminded of the advice my old friend Irving Layton, who has passed away now but probably is the greatest Canadian poet that we’ve ever produced, and a very close friend,” he said. “I would confide in him, and after I’d told him what I planned to do and what my deepest aspirations were, he’d always say to me, ‘Leonard, are you sure you’re doing the wrong thing?’”
Take Leonard’s advice. Do the wrong thing instead of the ordinary thing, which is to call his death a tragedy, dash off a Facebook update or a tweet about how sad it is, post a meme comparing him to Bowie and Harambe and then carry on regardless. The harder thing to do, the wrong thing, is to look death as squarely in the eye as Cohen managed and to meet it with his clarity, his humour, and his grace. Then ring the bells, that still can ring…