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The gift of darkness

On his 82nd birthday two weeks ago, 21 September, Leonard Cohen released the title track of a new studio album, ‘You want it darker’. What a birthday gift! It is extraordinary. Even if the rest of the album, due out on 21 October, doesn’t live up to the promise of this track (though I can’t see it trailing too far behind), well, we still have this.

In essence the song is liturgical, punctuated as it is by a refrain from the Kaddish calling for the magnification and sanctification of God’s name. The surrounding text is indeed dark, but it’s not pessimistic. It expresses confusion and bemusement, but it does so with nuance and dignity. And it holds together some of the great themes of human existence and the providence of God, but it does this in a delicate and euphonic way. All said – and I hesitate to add this in case I am unwittingly summoning the gods of prophecy fulfilment – it is a perfect ‘adieu’, a perfect swansong to mark the close of a remarkable life’s work of tracing the boundaries and the convergences of the spiritual and the incarnate life. It sounds like a solemn ‘nunc dimittis’, a cry like that of Simeon in the temple: “Now, Lord, let your servant depart in peace, according to your word”.

“You want it darker”. The ‘You’ here is God. The song is a prayer; it both confronts God and submits to God. In this sense, it is a kind of contemporary psalm. Cohen faces the great problem of theodicy, the terrible truth apparent in both life and scripture, that unrelieved darkness seems often to be part of the divine plan. All of nature, and human history in particular, is “red in tooth and claw”. Human freedom might account for some of the devastation, but much of it – all of it in a certain sense – is because God is “the dealer”, and these are the cards God has dealt. The world has been handed over to suffering.

Is there respite from this darkness that God has willed? There is the assurance, of course, that there is “a lover in the story”, that the worst anguishes of life take place only under conditions set by a dispensation of love. And there is prayer, a “lullaby for suffering”, with its promise of being heard. But often love doesn’t come and prayers are not heard. God does not intervene. God does not come to the aid of those who are “vilified, crucified, in the human frame”, not even to the aid of Christ. Christ’s prayer to have the chalice of pain taken from him is ignored, and his agonised demand to know why his God has forsaken him goes unanswered.

There really seems to be no limit to God’s appetite for darkness. The singer is scandalised. He has “struggled with some demons” himself, perhaps adding to the darkness of the world in his own “middle class and tame” way. But this hardly registers on the scale of the darkness that God has permitted, has allowed to proceed without caring to intervene. The calamitous story of the Shoah seems to be suggested. “They’re lining up the prisoners/ And the guards are taking aim.” Does this refer to the unspeakable fate of European Jews in the camps? One million prisoners were killed in Auschwitz alone – “A million candles burning for the love that never came”. Sufferers appeal to the love of God, but God wants it darker, and – “We kill the flame” – humankind, our own kind, obliges. What a sorry tale it all is.

And yet there is a deeper current in the song. Undergirding Cohen’s moody complaints and sardonic rebuffs is the beautiful gravitas and restraint of the “Hineni, hineni” refrain, sung by a synagogue choir and cantor. “Hineni, hineni” – “Here I am; I am ready”, signifying, each time it is used in the Hebrew Bible by Abraham or Moses or Samuel, a readiness to do or to accept the will of God. It most immediately brings to mind the ‘Akedah’, Abraham’s binding of his son Isaac, preparing him for sacrifice on Mount Moriah. In the context of Cohen’s song, this brings us back to the dreadful themes of God willing greater darkness, of God willing the death of a young life, willing the extinguishing of a flame, even the life-flame of a son – even indeed of God’s own son.

But something else is happening here too. It is through the scandalous narrative of Abraham on the mountain that the chosen people are weaned from a culture of human sacrifice, that they are led towards the revelation that it is mercy, not sacrifice, that God wants. Of course we have no divine permission “to murder and to maim”. Of course God’s silence in the face of murdering and maiming is not a sign of indifference. We are bound by an ethical call, a call not to kill, which is in effect God’s last word on the matter.

The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who narrowly escaped the camps and who lost family members to the Nazis, reads the Akedah this way. Rather than God’s order being countermanded by the angel, it is countermanded by the manifestation of God himself, in the face of Isaac. Abraham, knife in hand over the exposed throat of his son, is restrained because he discerns in Isaac’s face the deepest divine imperative, that “Thou shalt not kill”. “The epiphany of the face is ethical,” Levinas says. It is in the face of the other that the will of God is proclaimed. And so, with his last ‘Hineni’, Abraham submits to God’s will to unbind Isaac and sacrifice a ram instead.

Read this way, Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hineni’ is in the tradition of resisting the murdering and maiming, of standing ready before God to preserve the flame, not to kill it, of siding with the widow and the orphan and the stranger, with the migrant and the prisoner and the Jew, of protecting the flame of life wherever it makes its demands – but all the while complaining about God’s proven propensity to “want it darker”. The issue is irresolvable. It brings us face-to-face with the obscurity, the mystery – the darkness – of God. But by setting himself in this position of unstable equilibrium, poised perilously between submission and complaint, Cohen finds himself in the excellent company of the Psalmist, of Job, and of Jesus Christ himself.