A Manual For Living With Defeat
Lessons From Leonard Cohen – A Manual For Living With Defeat is a compendium of Leonard Cohen’s observations that offer insight into living in this imperfect world. Links to all posts in this series and information about how this collection differs from other sets of so-called lessons from Leonard Cohen can be found at Lessons From Leonard Cohen – Introduction.
Lesson #12 – Part 1: “The abrasive quality of daily life is such that without someone to love, the whole situation is untenable”1
I’ve always felt that the most important thing in this vale of tears was the relationships. I always thought that this was the real politics and that, you know, I think I wrote in purple prose somewhere that the state rose on a festered kiss, that all these institutions were the desperate and dismal alternatives to a failed embrace, and as Ginsberg observed, ‘sex is the sport of the young,’ especially in those days when there were no epidemic inhibitions, so we were all struggling with our own desires, but Marianne consented to live with me, and she brought a tremendous sense of order into my life. She lived in a house very beautifully, it was really a great privilege to live in a house with her, she came from a Norwegian family that had roots in the countryside, and she had been brought up by her grandmother in the war, so she had the education of an older generation. Just the way that she laid a table, or lit candles, or cleaned the house, and she wasn’t by any means confined to these kinds of activities that have come under the suspicion of feminists, but the way she inhabited a house was very, very nourishing. So it was a great privilege to be with her. She would put a gardenia on my table in the morning, and I was able to lead a very orderly life. She’d bring a sandwich to me while I was working. Well, these were not exactly, um, they had a real economic function, my work involved the support of our little family. It wasn’t just that she was the muse, shining in front of the poet. She understood that it was a good idea to get me to my desk. So it was a very nourishing situation.2
People change and their bodies change and their hair grows gray and falls out and their bodies decay and die… but there is something that doesn’t change about love and about the feelings we have for people. Marianne, the woman of So Long, Marianne, when I hear her voice on the telephone, I know something is completely intact even though our lives have separated and we’ve gone our very different paths. I feel that love never dies, and that when there is an emotion strong enough to gather a song around it, that there is something about that emotion that is indestructible…3
What can be done to make a person feel better: I think men and women need each other. I think that women, by and large, are happier with children than without, and I think that men, by and large, are happier with a woman in their lives, and vice versa, than without, and I think people are happier with work than they are with meaningless leisure so that helps with keeping your relationships clean and keeping your work going.4
Lesson #12 – Part 2: “If you do have love it’s a kind of wound, and if you don’t have it it’s worse.”5
Whenever you really walk into [love], which only happens now and then, well it happens with your kids, it happens with your parents, it happens with your mate, if you ever surrender the self – if you ever let the self die for a moment, then of course you’re going to experience suffering.6
People are lonely, and their attempts at love, in whatever terms they’ve made those attempts, they’ve failed. And so people don’t want to get ripped off again; they get defensive and hard and cunning and suspicious. And of course they can never fall in love under these circumstances. By falling in love, I mean just to be able to surrender,for a moment, your particular point of view, the trance of your own subjectivity, and to accommodate someone else. The situation between men and women is irredeemable.7
We are so lightly here. It is in love that we are made. In love we disappear.8
[Love is] a ferocious activity, where you experience defeat and you experience acceptance and you experience exultation. And the affixed idea about it will definitely cause you a great deal of suffering. If you have the feeling that it’s going to be an easy ride, you’re going to be disappointed. If you have a feeling that it’s going to be hell all the way, you may be surprised.9
There’s one [proverb] I like very much. I believe it’s Chinese, and it goes like this: ‘Why do you hate me? I never helped you.’ I like that saying because it evokes the complexity of a relationship, a friendship. Whether it’s accurate or not is really not important. It evokes the complexity that is the background of any relationship.10
I find that people want to name it. The woman is saying, ‘What is our relationship? Are we engaged? Are we boyfriend and girlfriend? Are we lovers?’ And my disposition is, ‘Do we really have to have this discussion, because it’s not as good as our relationship?’ We were having a good time until you brought this up. But as you get older, you want to accommodate, and say, ‘Yeah, we’re living together. This is for real. I’m not looking for anyone else. You’re the woman in my life.’ Whatever terms that takes: a ring, an arrangement, a commitment, or from one’s behaviour, by the way you act. You make it clear by minute adjustments. A woman goes by. You can look, but you can adjust so that it’s not an insult, an affront or a danger. So you’re continually making those adjustments, so that you don’t make anyone suffer. You’re with somebody, and you want to make it work.11
‘Relationship’ … This expression has an ominous, almost sinister connotation. Everyone working on their relationships, always discussing it, that can certainly cause only grief. What we two [Cohen & Anjani Thomas] have, is better – there is no word for it.12
If you’re in the midst of a relationship, you should honour the terms of the relationship. I’ve always believed that. I’ve never been able to follow it, but I’ve always believed it… Monogamous marriage and commitment, all those ferocious ideas, are the very highest expression of a male possibility. [pauses a beat] I’m not good enough for that. It’s a great idea, though.13
Lessons From Leonard Cohen
All published posts in this series can be found at
I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted on June 4, 2018.
- From Folk-Rock’s Poet Laureate Returns by Jeff Bradley (Times Daily: Sept 3, 1988)
- From 1994 BBC Radio 1 Interview With Leonard Cohen
- From 1992 Interview with Serge Simonart..
- Radio Luxembourg broadcast from early 1974, recorded and transcribed by Jem Treadwell. Found at Jem Treadwell’s Leonard Cohen Scrapbook.
- Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988
- How The Heart Approaches What It Yearns – Interview With Leonard Cohen Presented By John McKenna. RTE Ireland, May 9 & 12, 1988. Retrieved from LeonardCohenFiles.
- From Stories Done: Writings on the 1960s and Its Discontents by Mikal Gilmore. Simon and Schuster, Nov 11, 2008. The interview from which this quotation is drawn took place in 1988.
- From Boogie Street by Leonard Cohen
- I’m Blessed With A Certain Amnesia by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: July 9, 2009.
- From Leonard Cohen — Haute Dog by Mr. Bonzai (David Goggin). Music Smarts: July 10, 2010 (archived from 1988).
- Life Of A Ladies’ Man by Sarah Hampson. Globe and Mail: May. 25 2007.
- From Mit Gedächtnisschwund kommt man schon sehr weit by Von Johannes Wächter. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin: Issue 17: 2007, an interview with Leonard Cohen & Anjani Thomas about their connection. Quote via Google Translate.
- From An Interview With Leonard Cohen by Richard Guilliatt. The Sunday Times Magazine (London): December 12, 1993.