Video: Leonard Cohen Recites “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” (1966)

“God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” – The Origins

For those unfamiliar with the origins of this prose-poem, the following explanation from Take This Longing From My Tongue by Sean Elder (Salon Jun 15, 1999) is helpful in providing context:

Indeed, his first poetry collection was called “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” and his celebrated second novel, “Beautiful Losers” (1966), told the story of three (or maybe four) lovers who seemed to exist in a world of their own making. The narrator, an amateur anthropologist trying to reconstruct the myth of his life long after the others are gone, is driven and vexed by the memory of his best friend, F. — who, true to his initial, fucks everything that moves: the narrator, the narrator’s wife, the last surviving female members of a Native American tribe the narrator is studying. F. ends up “in a padded cell, his brain rotted from too much dirty sex,” but before he dies he leads the narrator to a revelation, “the sweet burden of my argument”:

God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is alive. Magic is afoot. God is afoot. Magic is alive. Alive is afoot. Magic never died. God never sickened. Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied. Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled. God is afoot. God was ruler though his funeral lengthened. Though his mourners thickened Magic never fled …

In this ecstatic passage (which Buffy St. Marie later recorded as a sort of incantation), Cohen has it both ways — god and shaman, mystic and the pagan — and he didn’t need Timothy Leary to guide him. (Hydra, where he wrote “Beautiful Losers,” was full of pleasure-seeking expatriates then, with visitors that included Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, and Cohen had made the acquaintance of LSD back in New York.) He had his own myths. He didn’t need anyone else’s.

This passage was itself later published as an illustrated book called “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.” The blurb for that volume includes this description:

In the middle of the novel comes a short section that begins with the words. ‘God is Alive. Magic is Afoot.’ The 400 or so words that follow are arguably some of the finest Cohen has ever written. In them he has created an inspirational mantra that explores the real meaning of Magic and God.

Leonard Cohen Recites “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

The words Leonard Cohen recites in this 1966 performance are from a passage from his 1966 novel, “Beautiful Losers.” This passage was itself later published separately as an illustrated book called “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.”

Because Leonard Cohen’s recitation is taken from the “Beautiful Losers” instead of the book, “”God is Alive, Magic is Afoot,” it includes a final section absent from the Buffy Sainte-Marie version:

Old friend, aren’t you happy? You and Edith alone know how long I’ve waited for this instruction.
–Damn you, Mary Voolnd spits at me.
–Your hand’s gone limp.

Leonard Cohen – “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”
Video by Allan Showalter


Buffy Sainte-Marie Sings “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

Buffy Sainte-Marie first released “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot” on her album, Illuminations, in 1969.

Buffy Sainte-Marie – “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot”

Credit Due Department: The images of the three books and the liner notes from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s album were contributed by Dominique BOILE.

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Feb 3, 2011 at

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