Selected notes from the past few years featuring Cohen

Eszter Bencsik

18th of February 2017, Saturday

I woke up late. Looked out the small window overhead. The lights of the chapel on the other side of the driveway shone in through the heavy snowfall but it was dark otherwise. Knew it was late nonetheless; I had stayed up yesterday, playing music in the basement studio of the clergy house. Was exhausted when I finally went to bed. I’ve always found it hard to get up while it’s still dark outside. Not ideal in the Arctic winter.

Sitting on the bed, duvet around my shoulders, summoning up the courage to run to the shower through the freezing corridor, I was becoming aware of the house shaking with the sound of Leonard Cohen’s music. This was not one of those days when the Priest is too disillusioned with life to get up.

Dressed, I opened the door that led down to the farm by the sea. I observed the enormous bay at the bottom of the hill. Its black sand was lighting up under the first rays of the lowly rising sun. On the other side of the bay the small houses of the fishing village were dark. I stood in the doorway for some time, feeling the unforgivingly harsh wind and ice flakes hitting my cheeks and soaking them as they melted. The joy one gets when being alive is undeniable. I watched as the first sheep ventured down to the beach, walking slowly amidst the whale skeletons and driftwood scattered in the sand. I like to think of how, for centuries, Icelanders used driftwood, coming through the sea all the way from Scotland and Scandinavia to build. Their homes came from the sea. This is an incomprehensible solitude within the world, the sense that one can never take for granted the mercy of nature.

I was standing there in the doorway, watching the sea and the dark, stormy landscape, and from above, from the kitchen, I heard First We Take Manhattan shouting all over this abandoned corner of the world.

I shut the door and ascended the stairs. In the kitchen, the music was almost unbearably loud, and the Priest was dancing wildly to it, her crazy red curly hair flying all over. I put the kettle on the stove to heat up some water for a filter coffee, leant on the counter and watched smiling as the Priest kept dancing, shouting the words of Ain’t no Cure for Love.

A truck passed by the house. One could see its light sifting through the storm outside, the darkness for a minute, then see the truck drive past the chapel for ten seconds, then the taillights, slowly fading into the storm outside. The truck was coming from the nearby town, through the mountains. That’s a dangerous drive in this weather. But today is Saturday, and the fishermen in the village across the bay need their weekly groceries.

The coffee ready, I decided to cook something for the Priest and myself. She had just come back from one of her funeral tours around the region. Her kids were here last night; they came home with me from the school. It was a nice day in the school: we played football in the field and we talked about the point of art, about the cave paintings and Dórey especially had interesting insights. Then, in the evening, Dórey and I cooked pancakes, Himri went down with the tractor to stack some hay in the stables and Njáll and I played music later in the evening. But by the morning they were gone, so I was alone to take care of the kitchen. I looked around at the mess: pans everywhere and in the middle, a Cohen-collection. I was extremely unwilling to do any of the washing up.

Priest sat a moment, laughing, and started shouting at me about how her funeral speech she delivered some days ago was the most beautiful she had ever written. She stood on a chair and began reciting it. It was about the immortality of death, and the weight of life that looks beautiful when the end is kept in sight. She laughed at the more grandiose parts and cried in between them. Crazy, she is crazy.

4th of November 2018, Sunday

I went to have tea (I detest the ordinariness of the idea of going for coffees and not only do I therefore drop the expression, but I’m also now too proud to ever have coffee on a date) with C. A beguiling guy. I met him at a party last week. Seemed the person I would have really liked to fall for. He started discussing Leonard Cohen, and he sounded, oh, I saw through him right that moment, he sounded, no, he was so phony! And he liked Cohen, no doubt. Nevertheless. There is only one thing more difficult than taking Cohen’s art seriously: it is to take someone seriously who takes Cohen’s art seriously in public. Appreciating Cohen ought to be done in private or impersonally, uninterpretatively. Anything else is tasteless.

I recall M saying that no-one who likes Leonard Cohen can be a bad person. I worshipped his words. I worship them no longer.

5th of February 2018, Monday

I read today on the Internet that Chelsea Hotel was about Janis Joplin. Got very upset. Why do I ever read the Internet? I love Chelsea Hotel for the line ‘for the ones like us who are obsessed with the figures of beauty’. And so, I always take the line ‘well, never mind, we are ugly, but we’ve got the music’ to express the insatiable hunger for ethereal beauty more than anything. More than the literal meaning, that is, the acknowledgement that there is a serious lack of beauty to accommodate. And then, for this to be about Janis Joplin!... I saw on the Internet a photo of Janis Joplin. Why do I ever watch the Internet?

L would be appalled at yet another manifestation of my shallowness, not to mention MG, who would insist, as she always does, that I only ever want the world to fit my notions, and so unfairly discriminate based on immaterial things. Except, of course, that she puts it another way. But the way she puts it makes no sense at all – this is the only interpretation of her words that can do anything. Anyway, whatever it is exactly that she wants to say is founded in a misunderstanding – as everything between us, really. The Trauma: not being heard despite endless attempts to convey my meaning. Perhaps this is why I developed a moderate ability to be precise. What she doesn’t understand and what is upsetting about Janis Joplin creeping into the Chelsea Hotel is the material basis. Give me something material and I will interpret it into my world with the most minimal personal connection. But when something is given an uninterpretable meaning like the photo of a long-dead person, that’s disrespectful. Cohen’s naturalism is simultaneously the greatest and the most disastrous thing about his art, no doubt. Why can’t we be perfect? I recall how Wittgenstein suffered from the unattainability of moral sainthood. The thing is: perfection can be seen and once it is, everything falls short. That’s what Cohen does in providing delightful little background stories for his pieces: he shows the way to an ultimate ideal of human life and crashes it straight down. Cruel. Easy only for him: he’s the only one who has a personal connection with all the details of his life. He’s the only one in the position to interpret as needed.

17th of March 2017, Friday

No-one who likes Leonard Cohen can be a bad person, M said today, sitting in the sitting room overlooking the harbour. I worship his words, so, consequently, I now worship Leonard Cohen. But in my less self-absorbed moments I know that Cohen still escapes me. Cohen, right now, is the Priest to me, and so she is a good person. Perhaps the opposite, Cohen is made good by the Priest. Still, Cohen is pain, Cohen is the melancholy beauty of suffering in life, the urge for the manifestation of wonder at the horrors of the world. In other words, everything that I want him to be, without real understanding.  

6th of December 2020, Sunday

I’ve walked past Goldfinger’s Tower every morning for the past three months. I walked past it yesterday, too, on my walk with G, though I failed to mention it. He was similarly awestruck by it and I still see it as he did yesterday for the first time. I love Goldfinger’s Tower. It is startling. It never fails to be startling. I love its pretentiousness, the ridiculousness of its failure, too, the whole backstory of how Goldfinger fled Hungary long before buildings like this got built by the regime he approved of architecturally from a safe distance. Then when the Tower, Goldfinger's magnum opus finally stood erect, he was so convinced of its comfort for people of all classes that he demonstratively moved in with his wife only to get fed up with it two weeks later – and thus the perfect story symbolising the whole lot of Hampstead intellectuals was born.

To be entirely fair, there is one solace to such a shameful failure of faith in ideology and art: though the Tower wasn’t to satisfy his needs, he did live in a house in Hampstead which looks exactly like the worse type of socialist-realist summer camp buildings for the children of cramped Budapest-schools near Lake Balaton, which seasoned Hungarians have learnt to ignore or reinterpret somehow in their own childhood-memories. It’s to be found under 2 Willow Road, and functions now as a museum and, as such, the neighbourhood is unanimously proud of it. An idea to the urban planners of towns by the Balaton.

Anyway, I walk by the Tower every day, as I say, and I often hum Chelsea Hotel to myself. At those times, I occasionally make a detour towards the Portobello market just so that I can observe the Tower from its other sides, too. I sing to myself. ‘Obsessed by the figures of beauty’, I sing. I feel grand. There is a wild joy I feel. Figures of beauty. Goldfinger’s Tower.

31st of August 2019, Monday

Talking to this beautiful and troubled girl in the bar. So beautiful. So troubled. Has the most enchanting speaking voice. And a noble nose. Told her about the Priest dancing in the middle of nowhere to Leonard Cohen. The image was vivid in my mind. It’s one of the most vivid images in my mind: this crazy, manic, wonderful woman with long, violently red hair, dancing in a small kitchen of a clergy house somewhere on the shore of an enormous bay of the Norwegian Sea, singing Leonard Cohen at the top of her lungs, stopping only to recite some of her best funeral lines.

The beautiful and troubled girl was crying as I was depicting the image. And she didn’t even know what I knew: the many let-downs and bitter disappointments the Priest had encountered in her life. Her life when she was not yet a Priest. When she wasn’t yet living in the most hidden-away corner of the world but instead resided in California. The weight of an exhaustingly long series of weightless events. Her many attempts to adapt. Her month-long course on how to lead a household so that she wouldn’t have days when her 10-year-old children had to make dinner, clean the house and find her crying in bed, naked. This is what colours my image of the dancing Priest.

Somehow the image of the pub, of me talking to this girl fits faultlessly with the memory itself. Except that the Priest-memory is, I’m quite convinced, true, whereas the pub-image is not. There were five other people at the table, all of them memorable. But in my mind, I only told the story to the girl.

22nd of November 2019, Friday

I have been revelling in pain. I’m enjoying it immensely. It feels real. Substantial. Never in my life have I been this far away from depression – the dread of weightlessness of life. No; I attribute meaning to everything these days. Minor happenings highlight the inherently tragic feature of life. I especially like sharing these observations with others in dramatic ways like leaving a pub crawl early or discussing my midnight-ventures down by the cold and black river. Agreement confirms the substance of human suffering. I would like to discuss one other thing, something which is really worth discussing and not only for purely onanistic reasons like the motivation behind discussing the river. I would like to talk to someone about Cohen’s I Want It Darker. He wrote it just a couple of months before he died. I oscillate between finding it chilling and pretentious. But this fact about his imminent death at the point of the song’s release (and I deeply dislike knowing facts about Cohen’s music, it almost without exception makes the piece itself seem mundane, clumsy, a fortunate but uncalculated outburst of life) seriously tips the balance in the former direction. I’ve observed closely the death of half a dozen people and they all made their goodbyes a few months in advance, even when they were entirely healthy. This phenomenon is well-reported on, anyway. People feel their deaths and especially Cohen seems the kind of person who is far too honest ever to use death for sensationalistic purposes. And so, when he says, ‘I’m ready, my Lord', that is deeply meaningful and is one of the closest of anything I’ve observed to be coming from the other side of death. It’s perhaps a little tragic that he needs such a legitimation  to be taken seriously by the likes of me: deeply hopeful agonists of his art. But there’s nothing I can do, Cohen is always balancing on this fine line between touchingly profound and fraudulently melodramatic, and even when he tries to be decisive and open to the point of sacred insanity, like incorporating the most pathetic aspects of pop culture like badly performed rap or cheesy choirs of whiny sopranos so as not even to give rise to any pretence pretension, the result is unconvincing, tryhard-ish, overcomplicated, and one wishes that he had found a purer way of capturing his moments of transcendence. Perhaps this is what his kind of art is doomed to be, a constant struggle between the receiver and the piece itself for faith in genuine, immaterial truth. Alternatively, the struggle is his and his own only. At any rate: may we be privileged enough to behold many more such struggles in art.

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