Uncovering The Significance Of “We struggle and we stagger down the snakes and up the ladder” In Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time

quoteup2
So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
quotedown2

 

From Closing Time
By Leonard Cohen

 

Introduction: I am republishing selected posts from Cohencentric, my former Leonard Cohen site, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). When this entry was originally posted Jan 8, 2010, I stipulated that a large proportion of readers may well know the origins of “So we struggle and we stagger / down the snakes and up the ladder.” It turns out, however, that lots of fans familiar with Closing Time are unaware of the object to which those lines allude.1 And even if one already intuitively recognizes the allusion, these lyrics still offer insight into Leonard’s exquisite songwriting skill.

This excerpt from the albertnoonan video of Closing Time from the Leonard Cohen July 11, 2009 Weybridge concert begins just before Cohen sings “down the snakes and up the ladder.”

Leonard Cohen – Closing Time
Weybridge: July 11, 2009

What’s Leonard Cohen’s Game?

The short answer to the question of the origins of the lyrics, as anyone who spent his or her childhood years in a British-speaking rather than American-speaking region – such as Canada – knows, is the children’s game first called and in the UK, still called Snakes and Ladders.

The confusion arose because of those always troublesome American colonies, now marketing themselves as the United States. In the Milton Bradley game sold in the US, snakes were replaced by chutes (aka playground slides) with a consequent name change to Chutes and Ladders.

Now, a psychiatrist trained at a psychoanalytically oriented institute (that would be me) might well comment that there are certain implications of a changing a game sporting phallic snakes to one featuring yonic chutes.

Consider it so commented.

But there is, inevitably, more.

The Morality Play

This may be another “everybody knows” thing that was a revelation to me only because my childhood toys included neither Chutes and Ladders or Snakes and Ladders.2 In any case, I was unaware of the game’s blatant moral didacticism.

The V&A Museum Site (which is also the source of the image of the 1920s Snakes and Ladder game atop this post) includes this description of the game:

Snakes and Ladders has been a favourite race game in Britain for over 100 years. When it was originally devised Snakes and Ladders was a moral game with virtues in the shape of the ladders, allowing the players to reach heaven quickly, while the vices, in the shape of snakes, forced the player back down. Snakes and Ladders is probably based upon a very old Indian game called Moksha-Patamu (see below), which was used for religious instruction and had 12 vices but only 4 virtues. According to Hindu teaching, good and evil exist side by side in man: but only virtuous acts – represented by the ladders – will shorten the soul’s journey through a series of incarnations to the state of ultimate perfection. Human wrongdoing symbolised by the head of the snake leads to reincarnation in a lower, animal form.

Wikipedia’s description of the Chutes and Ladders version follows:

The most widely known edition of Snakes and Ladders in the United States is Chutes and Ladders from Milton Bradley (which was purchased by the game’s current distributor Hasbro). It is played on a 10×10 board, and players advance their pieces according to a spinner rather than a die. The theme of the board design is playground equipment–children climb ladders to go down chutes. The artwork on the board teaches a morality lesson, the squares on the bottom of the ladders show a child doing a good or sensible deed and at the top of the ladder there is an image of the child enjoying the reward. At the top of the chutes, there are pictures of children engaging in mischievous or foolish behavior and the images on the bottom show the child suffering the consequences.

Leonard Cohen Has His Way With Words

The image below is a page from an early draft of “Closing Time” with the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” in boxes (added by me):

For convenience, a printed version of the handwritten words follows with the three sections containing “down the snakes and up the ladder” emboldened (by me):

We’re (broken) lonely & we’re frantic
& the cider’s laced with acid
and the holy spirit’s crying, Where’s the beef?
it’s summer & we’re naked
and the very night is fragrant
with the precious distillations of relief
and I follow my companion
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and she (holds) calls me & I dance her
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower where the rescued hours chime

and I hold her & I dancer
down the snakes & up the ladder
to the tower when the lonely (rescued) hours chime

we’re safely at the other side of closing time

and I watch my baby growing old
the shadow on her shades of gold
the fiddler gay & the wind is cold
and one by one our kisses sold
to closing time

and the planets watch us growing

Closing Time, hosts so many cunningly memorable phrases (e.g., “the Johnny Walker wisdom running high,” “all the women tear their blouses off and the men they dance on the polka-dots,” “the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night,” “busted in the blinding lights of closing time,” and “the Holy Spirit’s crying, Where’s the beef?”), that the object of our attention today,

So we struggle and we stagger
down the snakes and up the ladder
to the tower where the blessed hours chime
[emphasis mine]

is in danger of being just one more phrase that pays, easily lost in the densely figurative  lyrics.

Which is why I take it upon myself to point out that…

Leonard Cohen Struggles And Staggers Within A Mythic Perspective

The imagery evoked by these lines is precisely on point (especially in the final version compared to the earlier iterations), not only within the context of the song but also as its own free-standing, compact, powerful portrayal of individuals contending together, however transiently, in a desperate effort to claim a bit of happiness within the restraints of their self-imposed intrapsychic restrictions, the absolute limitations imposed by time, and the explicit and implicit restrictions of social mores.

And that’s how Leonard Cohen has fashioned a few words alluding to a Canadian child’s game into a concise, distinctively operational contemporary version of the Sisyphus myth.

Just another day in the iconic singer-songwriter biz.

Update: Snakes & Ladders References In Songs By Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, George Harrison, Bay City Rollers, Peter Gabriel…

Comments from Cohencentric posting of “Allusion & Metaphor In “Down The Snakes And Up The Ladder” From Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time

MindSpin January 8, 2010 at 1:29 pm: Snakes and ladders have many mythical and religious connotations. Cohen opens a fistful of words and unleashes constellations. We see as much as we are equipped to see, at any given time. After viewing the interview you posted earlier this week, I can’t help thinking of his remarks on our “apocalyptic dance.”“Closing Time” seems an especially apt metaphor for this moment (or century) in human history. That in no way subverts its relevance to individual experience, of course. What is mortality but cyclical and staggered apocalypse? And what more constructive response than to dance while dancing is possible? That way, though death robs us in the end, at least we have not robbed ourselves or each other of gifts life casts at our feet. Even as we leave the stage, it is good to bury our faces in the roses we found there.

Herb Bardavid August 20, 2015 at 10:02 pm: Alan:Thank you so much for this. I played Chutes and Ladders with my children 30 years ago and never knew what I was doing. And of course any enlighten on Mr. L.C. is more than welcomed by me. You are not the only one wanting to understand as much as possible of our dear friend.

Alex August 21, 2015 at 12:28 am: Love this….the article, the lyrics, your thoughts, Allan. Thank you. I did not know till recently that Snakes and Ladders was not a US thing, and couldn’t understand why some folks didn’t get it….and then I heard, I think it was an episode of Big Bang, and I think Sheldon, talking about Chutes and Ladders, and thought, eh? And realised that was the US version.I’ve always loved these particular lyrics – amongst my favourites, from the personal meaning point of view. And Im highly chuffed and delighted to see the handwritten and extra variations…..Happy Friday 🙂
Alex

Anja August 21, 2015 at 4:32 am: As a (continental) European, changing the name of the game from “Snakes and Ladders” into “Chutes and Ladders” strikes me as typically American: apparently even going down has to be fun! 😉Allen, I very much like the background information that you give regarding this part of the lyrics, thank you! I find it very interesting how Leonard uses concise symbols to communicate in his lyrics and poetry, and how they are able to open up whole worlds of visualizations (I will not be able to hear the song anymore without seeing the gameboard in my mind), associations and (common and personal) experiences. That’s one of the reasons that I never get bored by his lyrics. I sometimes compare them to zip-files (a symbol in itself); there is more to them than you see at first sight.

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  1. OK, one can argue that “So we struggle and we stagger / down the snakes and up the ladder” is a reference rather than an allusion. The difference hinges on whether the link between the lyrics and the object is direct (in which case, it’s a reference) or indirect (in which case, it’s an allusion). []
  2. The reason I didn’t have time to play such games was that I was too busy attending thrice-weekly church services where our morality lessons were served straight up – usually in the form of sermons describing the grotesque punishments of an eternity spent in hell – rather than disguised as a leisure activity. Snakes and Ladders? We didn’t need no stinking Snakes and Ladders. []

2 thoughts on “Uncovering The Significance Of “We struggle and we stagger down the snakes and up the ladder” In Leonard Cohen’s Closing Time

  1. Um ok but … isn’t this the essence of Leonard? How words, thoughts, feelings come & go, not tethered but once created out there to do with as we wish. Am guessing that each & every one of us “sees” different pictures with his words. Love the stories, the lifetimes created (our spoons & knives) in each & every phrase & how it builds & shifts & moves you on. It is a dance & we are the dancers. Love this man, without wishing to possess him, to nail him down. And love you too Allan for continuing to share

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