FOR LEONARD COHEN
Professor & Chair, Department of Philosophy, Union College
I am very grateful to the Centre for Ethics, and to its Director, for this invitation. It is extraordinarily humbling for me to be a part of this panel to celebrate the great Leonard Cohen. I grew up on Cohen’s music, and in fact took my first steps in the English language by translating his songs with the help of an old Spanish-English dictionary. I vividly remember my first encounter with the very word “humbled”, as I made my way through one of Cohen’s many masterpieces Humbled in Love. So, yes, this is humbling indeed.
Being here is also remarkably challenging. I do know Cohen’s music well, but simply because I like it very much. I have no expertise in literary analysis or musicology; I am only a moral philosopher. And while moral themes abound in Cohen’s work, I do not want to over-interpret him. I do not think that he did moral philosophy, at least not in the standard sense of presenting arguments, offering analyses, or constructing theories. I am thus bereft of my usual working tools: I have neither objections nor counter-arguments to offer. Thus, appropriating Cohen’s words, I can at once confess: “you will never see a man this naked”.
Still, with trepidation, I would like to suggest that Cohen’s lyrics do tend to exhibit a certain characteristic that resonates well with my recent work, and with a central preoccupation of a handful of contemporary moral philosophers. The preoccupation concerns the picture of the moral universe presupposed by many mainstream moral philosophers. My point of departure will be unavoidably arbitrary: an isolated line from one of Cohen’s songs. It is of course a remarkable testament to the depth and richness of his music that so many of Cohen’s lines could have served me as a point of departure.
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.
I like dogs as much as the next person, but there surely are major differences between mourning the passing of one’s dog and mourning the passing of one’s father. On my interpretation, the line pokes fun at a certain flattening of moral experience – a flattening that is common also amongst mainstream moral philosophers. Within moral philosophy, the most famous culprit of this sort of flattening is utilitarianism, which seeks to reduce everything to quantifiable units of utility and disutility. From the utilitarian perspective, ultimately the only difference, if any, between the death of one’s dog and the death of one’s father is the amount of dissatisfaction that each of these events may generate. Utilitarians think that all states of satisfaction can be compared on a single spectrum. There are, for them, no qualitative differences between any two dissatisfactions. And it is against this background of pervasive flattening of human experience amongst moral philosophers that I read Cohen line.
To me, this particular line by Cohen evokes another discussion of dogs and humans which also captures the flattening I am considering, although from the opposite direction. As he contemplated his own marriage, Charles Darwin produced a ledger with the pros and cons of this course of action. Under the “Not Marry” column he wrote down items such as “freedom to go where one liked”, “conversation of clever men at clubs”, and “not forced to visit relatives”. Under the “Marry” column, he wrote down items such as “charms of music & female chit-chat”, “children”, “constant companion”, and, most importantly for my purposes today, “object to be beloved & played with – better than a dog anyhow”.
Darwin did not mean this ledger to be published, and I do not think that it is fair to assume that this really is an accurate reflection of the totality of his considered views on marriage. (Even more unfair would be to mobilize this ledger in an effort to impugn Darwin’s towering contributions to science.) But he did produce this ledger, and the ledger does represent a certain way of approaching life – even if not really Darwin’s – that holds great and in my opinion disappointing sway in contemporary moral philosophy. Even if the specific items on a ledger of this sort were themselves unimpeachable, some may still object to the approach, in itself. In other words, some may find Darwin’s very method here at fault: essentially because we believe that not everything in life can (or is supposed to) be individuated, itemized, and ledgerized in this way.
When I have expressed misgivings about this method, colleagues have defended it by suggesting that it simply exemplifies rationality in action. How else are we supposed to rationally decide on a course of action? Perhaps writing down these items so neatly is unusual or quaint. But, they insist, the enumeration and weighing of reasons is the only rational way of approaching life. The alternative is to succumb to unscientific and ultimately obscurantist methods.
My misgivings about this method are inspired by the views of a relatively small group of moral philosophers who have written on the complexity of moral life and on the sorts of moral conflicts we face therein. These authors insist that in addition to mere moral costs, moral stains also exist. These moral stains are rarely expressible as moral costs and, therefore, are rarely ledgerable. Yet, moral stains can conflict with moral costs in ways that do not often resolve neatly: they leave remainders. Sometimes these conflicts are tragic, in the sense that whatever one chooses, one does wrong. Sometimes they give rise to paradoxical situations, such as that we should feel a kind of guilt for the sins of the father, or even guilt (or a special sort of moral feeling known by specialists as “agent-regret”) for doing the right thing. Sometimes we cannot help but harm those we love and violate the principles we cherish; sometimes we most get our hands dirty. And these are amongst the most salient themes in Cohen’s music.
The most celebrated of these moral philosophers who question the sort of moral philosophy that avoids these sorts of conflicts – and a major influence in my work – was Bernard Williams. He rejected the ledgerization of life by means of what he called “the morality system”, built around an oppressive and economistic notion of obligation, such that we cannot escape acting either in accordance or against an obligation, and such that only another moral obligation could release us from any moral obligation. While Williams is widely recognized as a brilliant philosopher, he is also often assumed to be very cryptic, obscure, impractical, a “new romantic”, and somehow pessimistic.
As it turns out, these were the sorts of descriptions regarding Cohen’s music I heard when I arrived to the United States in the early 1990s. Probably the most consistent reaction I heard about Cohen’s music regarded its alleged pessimism: friends would refer to it as “suicide music”. I have always found this interpretation of Cohen’s music to be based on a superficial appreciation of his lyrics – a superficiality that, incidentally, may shed light on that oddity whereby Cohen enjoyed much more respect in non-English speaking countries (though, one assumes, from people who understood English, even if with the help of bilingual dictionaries) than in English-speaking countries. And here the connection to Williams resurfaces.
Williams begins his masterpiece refutation of utilitarianism by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche: “Man does not strive for Happiness; only the Englishman does that”. The pun, of course, is on the influence that utilitarianism – and its attendant superficiality, itself fueled by a furor mathematicus – exerted upon the English (though nowadays upon Anglo-American philosophy more generally). Neither Cohen nor Williams ever struck me as particularly gloomy, even though they both engage, from their respective perspectives, with the complexity of life, a life that just is not as simplemindedly merry as some would want. So, I like to see Leonard Cohen as the Bernard Williams of music; or, if you prefer, Bernard Williams as the Leonard Cohen of philosophy. Going against the grain of their particular cultural contexts, each spoke about the complexity of our moral and emotional life.
As I said at the outset, I do not wish to turn Cohen into a philosopher, but he was a perceptive witness to the complexities of human interactions, and to human frailties and imperfections. Complicated characters and scenes, antiheroes, and “beautiful losers” of the sort theorized by Williams often inhabit Cohen’s songs. I can here just offer glittering glimpses:
On the incongruity between destiny and merit, recall his lines in Came so far for Beauty:
I Practiced on my Sainthood
I gave to One and All
But the rumours of my virtue
They moved her not at all.
Relatedly, on the unavoidability of tragic choices, recall One of Us Cannot be Wrong:
I heard of a Saint who had loved you
I studied all night in his school
He taught that the duty of lovers
is to tarnish the Golden Rule.
On the dignified ambivalence of the cuckolded Cohen’s confession to his wife’s lover in Famous Blue Raincoat:
What can I tell you, my brother, my killer?” What Can I possibly say? I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you”. I am glad you stood in my way.
On the Heraclitean echoes as to the proximity of opposites in Take This Longing:
I would like to try to your charity
until you cry:
‘Now you must try my greed’
On the tension between justice and compassion, in A Singer Must Die:
I will ask for the mercy that you love to decline,
where the defendant further tells his judges:
I thank you, I thank you for doing your duty, you keepers of Truth, you guardians of Beauty. Your vision is right. My vision is wrong. I’m sorry for smudging the air with my song.
And so on, and on, and on.
November 9 2016 was, if I may quote from what I think was Cohen’s only cover (though one which he injected with remarkable new meaning, by singing the famous Canadian traditional to the tune of Mariachi music) “un jour, triste et pensif”. That day found me in New York City, walking not far from Cohen’s beloved Chelsea Hotel, when I received a phone call from my partner telling me about Cohen’s passing. It already was very much a sad and pensive day for me, as I in vain tried to comprehend the results of the United States elections a few hours earlier, and as the lines from Un Canadien Errant: mon pays, malheureux were very much in my mind. At the worst time, Cohen’s voice has become still, he will indeed sing no more. But I want to believe that even when it gets scary out there, it may make sense to say well never mind, it’s ugly but we have his music.