Self-Examination and Self-Revelation In Leonard Cohen’s Music

Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: #2. Self-Investigation Without Self-Indulgence

This is part of a series of posts considering the question, “What makes a song a Leonard Cohen song?” An introduction to the series and links to all posts in can be found atThree Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.

This post centers on Cohen’s vision and perspective in his songs: Self-Investigation Without Self-Indulgence


The work that was in front of me was just to cultivate this tiny corner of the field that I thought knew something about, which was something to do with self-investigation without self-indulgence.


Leonard Cohen1


The first section of this series, The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music, and its expansion, Embrace The Suck, established the central role of the human predicament in Cohen’s musical work, both as an integral part of his underlying philosophical theme and a means of engaging his audience. This entry examines Cohen use of passages from his inner life to construct a vision of the human predicament with the authenticity necessary to resonate with the individual listener.

One’s own behaviors and related intrapsychic material are not the only means of representing the human predicament. Tom Hooper, the director of “King’s Speech,” points out the advantage of another artistic strategy:

If you look at Shakespeare’s history plays, what the setting of monarchy allows is this extraordinary intensification of emotions and predicament.2

In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad portrays the human predicament through the fictional journey of Charles Marlow, an ivory transporter. down the Congo River in Central Africa. Shelley is inspired by the discovery of a seven ton fragment of the statue of an Egyptian pharaoh from the mortuary temple of Ramesses at Thebes to write Ozymandias, his treatise on the same subject. In The Lotus-Eaters, Tennyson embeds the human predicament in a tale of mariners who enter an altered state by eating the lotos, isolating themselves from the reality of the outside world. The list of possible methodologies to accomplish the same end is as diverse as the artists and the arts themselves.

Leonard Cohen describes his technique of choice as “reportage:”

Poetry is an accurate reportage of events that take place [on an interior landscape] and if you attempt to translate them to an exterior landscape it suffers what all those things suffer.3

I consider a lot of my work to be a kind of reportage, trying to make a completely accurate description of the interior predicament.4

Cohen most thoroughly elaborates this notion in his discussion of the origins of “Suzanne” to Harry Rasky:

“Suzanne” – I wrote it in Montreal. I had been working on the melody and the idea. The landscape that was being written out was the landscape around the church “Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours.” She’s down the street. And that was the feeling in the song, those buildings at the St Laurent. I had the melody, I had the accompaniment. And then an old friend of mine, whose name was Suzanne, invited me down to her place near the river. And she served me tea and oranges that come all the way from China and you know the purity of the event was not compromised by any carnality. The song is almost a reportage. It’s just a very accurate evocation of exactly what happened. But the song had been begun. It was as though she handed me the seed for the song. That’s the song and that is the landscape of Old Montreal, that is the church. She becomes of course Our Lady of the Harbor. Notre-Dame de Bon-Secours, Our Lady of the Good Health is her church already there. So Suzanne becomes an incarnation of that Church for sailors, “Notre-Dame du Bon Secours” or “Our Lady of Consolation,” that’s her church. Suzanne becomes of course Our Lady of the Harbour, or she manifests as our Lady of the Harbour. “Notre-Dame du Bon Secours” is a church for sailors. Inside the church there are models of ships hanging. The church faces the river and it is the sailors that are blessed from that church. So the very next verse moves very easily into the idea that Jesus was a sailor, sank beneath your wisdom like a stone. So you know you could establish a real coherence in the song if that was where you went, you know if you liked to do those sort of things. But it hangs together very, very neatly.5

The same concept of concentrating exclusively on the author’s idiosyncratic perspective is evident in his praise of Bukowski:

There are people like Charles Bukowski who make that tiny will glorious, and that’s a kind of writing that I like very much: a writing in which there is no reference to anything beyond the individual’s own predicament, his own mess, his own struggle6

Of course, writing songs (or poetry) about oneself offers no guarantees. Cohen is acutely aware that this tactic is, for example, vulnerable to narcissistic irrelevancy.

I thought I was one of those men that sang about his predicament, and that somehow everybody would connect with it. But I lost my way and began involving myself with speculations that I knew deep down were not really public concerns. The world was no longer attracting me. It wasn’t very entertaining,7

Relevancy is an ongoing concern in Cohen’s mind, even when he is on tour:

One of the reasons I’m on tour is to meet people. I consider it a reconnaissance. You know, I consider myself, like in a military operation. I don’t feel like a citizen. I feel like I know exactly what I have to do. Part of it is familiarizing myself with what people are thinking and doing. The kind of shape people are in is what I am interested in determining … because I want to lay out any information I have and I want to make it appropriate. So if I can find where people are at any particular moment, it makes it easier for me to discover if I have anything to say that is relevant to the situation.8

Cohen’s fascination with aged singers, several instances of which are noted in The Human Predicament In Leonard Cohen’s Music – Part 1, becomes more significant—and more poignant—when he applies this focus on the personal narrative to himself:

Well, as you grow older you do begin to examine that part of yourself that you might regard as exemplary. In other words, as you see another generation forming behind you, you wonder what your obligation to that generation is. And in that sense you feel yourself as a teacher. I think it’s an obligation of each generation to educate the generation that is behind it. And it’s only in that sense that I feel my life in any way exemplary. I feel it may just be a bad example; I’m interested in laying out my life as honestly as I can, and my experience, so that people who read it can benefit from that experience. Not necessarily to follow it, maybe to avoid it.9

And, it is essential to keep in mind that the portrayal of his own situation is not itself the goal but an effort executed in the service of his audience. In this excerpt, Cohen talks with Suzanne Vega about one of her songs he admires because the listener can “leave the song and go off into your own considerations of your own predicament:”

I find it [the song] has the quality of allowing you to leave the song and go off into your own considerations of your own predicament where it becomes a kind of score, a kind of background for your own speculations. And I found myself, after I allowed myself to relax with the record beyond all the implications and obligations of the interview that I knew I would have to do, I tried to expose myself to the record in the normal fashion and I found that you could drift away a lot of the time, which I think is the test for music that I like.10

Note: Of course, not all Leonard Cohen songs are written in first person, singular. As Cohen himself has indicated, “I’m not necessarily the person in all my songs.”11 While an examination of Cohen’s entire discography to explain how songs with an ambiguous nidus (such as “Heart With No Companion”) fit the same self-exploratory model as those songs built around a specific, concrete event (such as “Suzanne”) is beyond the scope of this essay, I would suggest that a resolution resides in the observation made by George Bowering in his review of Leonard Cohen’s Parasites of Heaven:

Leonard Cohen shows any range of his discoveries, mundane to metaphysical, always through his consciousness of singular self. In that way he is the epitome of Western man, formed by post-Hellenic European modes of perception and thinking.12

Those literary literalists whose sensibilities remain conflicted and anxieties unassuaged should feel free to dispose of this particular Gordian Knot by simply excising from consideration, for the purposes of this post, any of Cohen’s songs that don’t appear sufficiently self-focused. The number and quality of songs that survive the cut constitute an oeuvre that would be envied by any contemporary singer-songwriter.

Sigmund Freud, Leonard Cohen, And The Observing Ego

In the preceding post, I stipulated that “a songwriter (or a poet or a novelist) taking the human predicament as his or her core subject is hardly unusual.” Similarly, an artist focusing on his or her own experiences and feelings is a relatively standard approach. Cohen’s modus operandi, however, is unique in its ruthless pursuit of truth. The convenience and false comfort of illusions are eschewed:

You’ve got to recreate your personality so that you can live a life appropriate to your station and predicament. And having illusions makes it very difficult to create an appropriate self.13

The concept of observing ego, a term borrowed from psychoanalysis,14 facilitates an understanding of Leonard Cohen’s extraordinary capacity to cast incidents from his own internal life as portraits of the human predicament immediately recognizable to his audience.

The observing ego is that part of the self that intentionally and objectively witnesses one’s own thoughts, behaviors, beliefs, and emotions with curiosity and accuracy but without judgment (i.e., without assigning qualities of right or wrong, assessing justifiability, excusing or demeaning oneself, …). In psychotherapy, the patient’s observing ego allies with the therapist to overcome the patient’s resistance and conflicts and carry out the work of treatment.

Developing and sustaining an observing ego is a difficult and, all too often, impossible task, even within the private, protective environs of a treatment session and with the direction and support of a therapist. That Leonard Cohen has accomplished a parallel task on his own within the spotlighted arena inhabited by professional performers approximates the supernatural.15 In a real sense, it is the equivalent of Sigmund Freud’s (justifiably) famous self-analysis which became the foundation of psychoanalytic theory.

While there are many, many examples of this phenomenon in his work, these three will, I believe, prove sufficiently convincing. Consider this stanza from So Long, Marianne:

For now I need your hidden love.
I’m cold as a new razor blade.
You left when I told you I was curious,
I never said that I was brave.

… and this lacerating line from Bird On The Wire:

I have torn everyone who reached out to me

… and the final stanza from Chelsea Hotel #2:

I don’t mean to suggest
That I loved you the best
I can’t keep track of each fallen robin
I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel
That’s all, I don’t think of you that often

The words themselves are atypical for a songwriter working in first person. How many songs point out the singer’s lack of bravery, the harm he has caused others who “reached out to [him],” or his failure to have “loved you the best?” (For that matter, how many songs are there like Cohen’s “Going Home” that refer to the singer-songwriter as a “lazy bastard in a suit?”) Now, of those songs that meet that criterion, how many offer those self-descriptions without confessional overtones, rationalizations, jusifications, or any attempt to mitigate or disguise those qualities?

In his songs of self-examination, Cohen is neither a braggart nor a penitent. He does not excuse or accuse himself. He does not present himself as a Nietzschean Superman defying conventional authority or a mendicant pilgrim searching for the source of salvation. He is simply and amazingly—as he admiringly describes George Jones doing—“laying out his situation.”

The Significance Of Self-Investigation Without Self-Indulgence To Leonard Cohen’s Songs

Because Leonard Cohen’s songs are constructed from his self-observations, they are at once particular and universally resonant.16 This resonance is not only innately comforting to a listener but also induces confidence in the singer-songwriter’s skill and authenticity. They also result in a certain affection for the singer himself. As Cohen has noted,

Everybody lives the life of the heart, and we all know what it’s like to feel and break down, and I think we cherish that in our musicians and singers when they reveal that.17

And, Cohen’s unflinching inward gaze—the capacity Jennifer Warnes referenced in discussing his chosen field of exploration

The place where God and sex and literature meet …. I’ve never known anyone with more courage to go where all of us are afraid to go.18

… fosters within his audience a similar courage.

Because those self-observations are distillates free of judgment, rebuke, exculpation, and hope,19 Cohen’s songs offer freedom and refuge from the expectations the world brings to bear—and those expectations one has incorporated from life experiences, inviting trust and open-heartedness.

It is this unique combination of confidence, trust, authenticity, and refuge that allows Cohen to achieve intimacy with the individual listening to his music and explains the sense many listeners have that Cohen is singing directly and individually to him or her.

This self-investigation without self-indulgence is, in fact, the single, irreducible sine qua non of Cohenicity—the transformative element of his work. It leads directly to my personal characterization of Leonard Cohen’s appeal:

Leonard Cohen offers us the possibility of living with grace, dignity, and integrity, without submitting to illusions, without succumbing to indifference, and without indulging in denial of our own failures and flaws, in a world that is too often corrupt and malevolent.


Other Posts In Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song

An introduction to this series and links to all posts in it can be found at Three Characteristics That Make A Song A Leonard Cohen Song: Summary Page.


Credit Due Department: Photo by Rama (Own work) [CeCILL or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr], via Wikimedia Commons

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 April 29, 2014 at


  1. I’m Blessed With A Certain Amnesia by Jian Ghomeshi. The Guardian: July 9, 2009. []
  2. Q&A with ‘King’s Speech’ director Tom Hooper by Walter Addiego. SFGate: Feb 4, 2011. []
  3. Have You Heard The One About Lenny In The Sandwich Bar? by Andrew Tyler. Disc: September 2, 1972. []
  4. Interview / Leonard Cohen by Alan Twigg. Essay Date: 1979, 1984, 1985. ABC Bookworld. []
  5. The Song Of Leonard Cohen by Harry Rasky. 1979. Accessed 23 April 2014 at Leonard Cohen Prologues. Bolding mine. []
  6. Leonard Cohen: Various Positions as interviewed by Robert Sward Montreal 1984. []
  7. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. []
  8. Ladies and Gents, Leonard Cohen by Jack Hafferkamp. Rolling Stone: Feb. 4, 1971. []
  9. An Interview with Leonard Cohen by Michael Harris. Duel: Winter 1969. []
  10. Suzanne Vega Interviews Leonard Cohen October 1992 Accessed 29 April 2014. []
  11. Look Who’s Back at 67: Gentle Leonard Cohen by Frank DiGiacomo. New York Observer: Oct 15, 2001. []
  12. Inside Leonard Cohen by George Bowering. Canadian Literature: 22 July 2013. Accessed 25 Apr 2014. []
  13. Leonard Cohen’s Nervous Breakthrough by Mark Rowland. Musician: July 1988. []
  14. Freud authored the notion of observing ego in 1940, describing it as a split in the ego that allowed the ego to observe itself. []
  15. Notwithstanding the origins of observing ego, my application of that term to Cohen’s work is limited to his song- and poetry-writing and does not imply that Cohen is or is not able to exercise this skill in other parts of his life. Nor does this imply that his music is somehow analogous to psychotherapy. []
  16. Notwithstanding the origins of observing ego, my application of that term to Cohen’s work is limited to his song- and poetry-writing and does not imply that Cohen is or is not able to exercise this skill in other parts of his life. Nor does this imply that his music is somehow analogous to psychotherapy. []
  17. The Prophet of Love Looks into the Abyss: A Conversation with Leonard Cohen by Thom Jurek. Los Angeles Reader: August 27, 1993. Bolding mine. []
  18. Various Positions: A Life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel. University of Texas Press: 2007. []
  19. As Cohen told an interviewer, “I think those descriptions of me are quite inappropriate to the gravity of the predicament that faces us all. I’ve always been free from hope. It’s never been one of my great solaces.” (The Joking Troubadour of Gloom by Tim Rostron. The Daily Telegraph, April 26, 1993). []

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