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Our Nobel Poet, Our Beautiful Loser, Mr. Leonard Cohen

Our Nobel Poet, Our Beautiful Loser, Mr. Leonard Cohen

By Gregory Betts

“Could it be that Canadians have a will to lose which is as strong and pervasive as the Americans’ will to win?”

In March 1961, Leonard Cohen traveled to Havana, Cuba to see what all the fuss was about. The North American counter-culture and, in his home province, the Quebecois separatists, were all agog over the earnest revolutionaries that had successfully staged a coup and ousted the dictator Fugenicio Batista in 1959. Deposed dictators are easy symbols of evil, easy to hate, easy to mock. Iconic rebel leaders Fidel Castro and Che Guevera had overthrown their fascist oppressors. As a bonus, Cuba was still famous for its nightlife. Frank Sinatra and the Havana Mafia were a special kind of hip and intimately connected to the scene there. All of this was appealing to a young poet coming into himself.

When Cohen arrived, though, he realized he was the “last tourist in Havana”. All the fun had gone, replaced by the fear and terror of war, and the zealotry of political true believers. Rebel factions were fighting the revolutionary government from the Escambray Mountains. The Americans were planning their own invasion – what would become the botched Bay of Pigs invasion the next month.

In such a moment, Ernest Hemingway would have joined the revolutionaries, caught marlins with his bare hands. Allan Ginsberg would have served as the people’s poet, taken confession from El Che himself. Arthur Rimbaud would have smoked hash with the soldiers (and then sold them weapons).

Cohen? He realized that he “was exactly the kind of enemy the Fidelistos were describing: bourgeois, individualistic, a self-indulgent poet.” Like his hero, the French poet Charles Baudelaire, Cohen steered his trip away from official cultural frontlines to hang with the unemployed, the “procurers, pushers, whores and all night movie operators.” He saw the joy of life beneath the sadness of the world’s losers. He stood with them on the sidelines of history and let its flow amuse him.

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My two favourite books by Cohen come from the period that immediately followed his trip to Cuba. Flowers for Hitler (1964) — with a title that gave a nice nod to Baudelaire — articulated exquisitely the banality of evil, the potential for horror in all people. It remains a perfect and terrifying response to the Holocaust. Beautiful Losers (1966), his bizarre and absurdly pornographic novel, formalized his standing with the oppressed, taking the position of the Iroquois versus the French, the French versus the English, the Canadians versus the Americans. He remembered that saintliness begins with giving up or losing everything in the world, and that beauty begins with sorrow: “Please make me empty, if I’m empty then I can receive, if I can receive it means it comes from somewhere outside of me, if it comes from outside of me I’m not alone!”

If Dylan was the poet of America’s grandeur, its arrogant brilliance, its spectacular showmanship, and its overwhelming complexity, Cohen was the poet of North America’s shadows, the writhing underbelly and all of its sorrowful ecstasies. If Dylan was the poet who shunned and sneered while in full possession of himself (“You sure got a lot of gall / to be so useless and all”), Cohen was the poet whose failings outstripped himself, but set him amongst the abject and broken souls who still hoped for some kind of redemption (“You’re living for nothing now, I hope you’re keeping some kind of record”). Dylan is, indeed, the Nobel Laureate, the champion of American culture in a moment when the world is panicking at America’s lapse. Cohen is more noble, though, standing in the shadows with the losers of this fucked up world, with the whores, the broken fools, and the poets. From them, to us, he let in a little light that can only be seen in darkness, a broken hallelujah. [S]

The Last Tourist in Havana” (1961)
By Leonard Cohen

Come, my brothers,
let us govern Canada,
let us find our serious heads,
let us dump asbestos on the White House,
let us make the French talk English,
not only here but everywhere,
let us torture the Senate individually
until they confess,
let us purge the New Party,
let us encourage the dark races
so they’ll be lenient
when they take over,
let us make the CBC talk English,
let us all lean in one direction
and float down
to the coast of Florida,
let us have tourism,
let us flirt with the enemy,
let us smelt pig-iron in our back yards,
let us sell snow
to under-developed nations,
(It is true one of our national leaders
was a Roman Catholic?)
let us terrorize Alaska,
let us unite
Church and State,
let us not take it lying down,
let us have two Governor Generals
at the same time,
let us have another official language,
let us determine what it will be,
let us give a Canada Council Fellowship
to the most original suggestion,
let us teach sex in the home
to parents,
let us threaten to join the U.S.A.
and pull out at the last moment,
my brothers, come,
our serious heads are waiting for us somewhere
like Gladstone bags abandoned
after a coup d’état,
let us put them on very quickly,
let us maintain a stony silence
on the St. Lawrence Seaway.

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