Friday, 12 December 2008

On Satan, cigarettes, and Leonard Cohen

They’ve let Leonard Cohen out of his tower for a while, so he’ll be touring Australia in February – and I’ll be going to see him at his Brisbane show! As far as I can tell, he’s someone who only gets better the older and bleaker he gets. He might complain: “Well my friends are gone, my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play” – but our response is to hope that he just keeps on aching: pain this beautiful ought to go on and on. (Kurt Cobain was right to notice this: “Give me a Leonard Cohen afterworld, so I can sigh eternally.”)

Anyway, the prospect of seeing Leonard Cohen reminds me of something I was reading recently: Glen Duncan’s deliciously funny and perverse novel, I, Lucifer (Grove Press, 2002). In the novel, Satan is given the chance to re-enter heaven if he can live a well-behaved life in a human body for one month. He enjoys the experience of fleshiness, and he promptly gives himself up to all manner of debauchery. At one point, he also takes up smoking cigarettes: “I started smoking, too. I’m looking forward to stopping, obviously, since the real pleasure is starting again, but in the meantime I’ve found my rhythm at about fifty a day” (pp. 67-68).

It’s a splendid piece of Satanic reasoning: to start smoking for the sake of quitting, simply so that you’ll be able to enjoy the rasping rabid pleasure of starting again!

In the same way, Leonard Cohen makes you want to find religion just so you can undergo the exquisite pain of losing it again. Or if you’ve already got religion, perhaps he can help you to lose it just a little, so that you can find it again one day “by the rivers dark,
in a wounded dawn.”

        I did my best, it wasn’t much
        I couldn’t feel so I learned to touch
        I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
        And even though it all went wrong
        I’ll stand before the Lord of song
        With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

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