Leonard Cohen’s Language of Symbolism: The Book of Mercy, Various Positions, And The Unified Heart

Foreword

Ongoing readers may recall from Leonard Cohen Album Logos: More Best Of Leonard Cohen Album Identifies Six Icons that the back cover of the More Best Of Leonard Cohen album designated the Unified Heart as the album logo for Various Positions. Today’s entry makes good on a promise made in that same post:

An examination of the fascinating connection between the Unified Heart symbol and the Various Positions album, authored by the go-to guy for matters of the (Unified) Heart, David Peloquin, is forthcoming.

Both David and I are engrossed by the symbolic graphic images introduced by Leonard Cohen over the years. David’s role as guest author on this site is, in fact, the result of his interest in Cohencentric’s Leonard Cohen album logos series. This is an essential and long overdue correlation of an aspect of Leonard Cohen’s work that has been all but ignored until now. The enigmatic graphic images that grace so many albums, books, and CD booklets augment and amplify the imagery in his poetry. They also stand on their own, doing the specific work that only skillful use of the language of symbolism can do.

Leonard Cohen’s Language of Symbolism: The Book of Mercy, Various Positions, And The Unified Heart

By David Peloquin

Introduction

Allan Showalter’s sober timing on the repost of this essay coincides with the planetary pandemic darkness of the Covid19 virus. We know we will never be the same, and we know most of us will have our lives touched in some way before this is over. Yet, through all the confusion, fear, suffering, and loss that the virus has unleashed, there is an unquenchable light that glows bright despite the darkness. Everywhere, we see beautiful outbreaks of care, compassion and love. Our courageous frontline health professionals, who are the true heroes and in the unprecedented crisis, deserve and must have our full support. We also see so many others, ordinary citizens, who have opened their hearts, and reached out to help those in need in any way they can. What we are witnessing is the generative energy of the Unified Heart embodied. As Leonard often pointed out, even the most sublime spiritual concepts are not real until embraced personally; until they are embodied in the individual soul space of an undivided heart. This compassionate, ever brighter light shining in the darkness brings hope and strength to us all, and demonstrates that despite our differences, the heart is only One.

Many thanks to my gifted, multi-talented friend, Martin Ferrabee, who has graced us with two new sublime images. Martin’s Unified Heart was designed, solely by the artist, for the repost of this essay. It speaks for itself, and embraces in one single, luminous image, all that I have tried to say with so many words. My partnership with Martin on Leonard Cohen projects continues to refresh and inspire my own artistic life. The fact that he has a wicked sense of humor doesn’t hurt either. Our web master, Allan Showalter, continues tirelessly to explore and document all things Cohen. Allan’s web site is an invaluable resource for all of us who celebrate the visionary life of Leonard Cohen. Always a pleasure working with you Allan!

Leonard Cohen’s Unified Heart icon is the central and most profound image in his language of symbolism. When fully embraced, the Unified Heart informs and harmonizes all of the other enigmatic graphic images devised by Cohen over the years. This essay brings together two works, both released in 1984; Book of Mercy, and the album Various Positions. The Unified Heart is at center of a meditation on these luminous projects.

Cohen first introduced the Unified Heart image, a variant on the Star of David, in 1984 on the cover of Book of Mercy. He described the symbol as “A version of the yin and yang or any of those symbols that incorporate the polarities…and try and reconcile the differences.”

Cohen was working on another project at the time: the album Various Positions. Although the Unified Heart was not graphically depicted on the album or mentioned in the lyrics of Various Positions, the two projects are intimately related in theme and content. Ira Nadel described Various Positions as “the musical counterpoint to Book of Mercy,” which is an insightful perspective and a guide to what follows in this discussion. The Unified Heart is a symbol of reconciliation and harmony that not only correlates Book of Mercy and Various Positions but also represents an expression of universal truth in Leonard Cohen’s language of symbolism, informing his entire life’s work.

In transcendent art, the symbol does not refer to itself, but points inward to deep, formless, ineffable reality. Its referent is beyond thinking, beyond words. This kind of truth is found in the experience of stillness; the silence between words. That is why such symbols cannot simply be explained. The inner landscapes they refer to must be experienced directly. The purpose of authentic art has always been to open what in alchemy was known as Windows to Eternity; Fenestra Aeternitatis.

In 1987, Robert O’Brian interviewed Cohen. This exchange delivers a key piece of information about Leonard’s use of symbolic imagery:

RO: The painting featured on your first album jacket (Songs of Leonard Cohen) is beautiful. What does it mean? Beauty in chains?

LC: These things cannot be explained; they have to be embraced.

When fully “embraced,” the Unified Heart informs and harmonizes all of the other symbols, literary and graphic, in Leonard Cohen’s work, including the haunting image above.

Book Of Mercy

Book of Mercy is Leonard Cohen’s most deeply personal book. He told Robert Sward in a 1984 interview, “Book of Mercy is a secret book for me.” It was written during an intense moment of reassessment of his life and art and remains his sole effort to publish a book of psalms. Book of Mercy allows us to witness the struggle of a soul engaged in what Cohen described as “a sacred kind of conversation.” The reputation of this meditative collection has grown steadily, and the book is now widely considered one of the finest compilations of confession and spiritual longing ever written. This quote from Rabbi Mordecai Findley is definitive:

I think Leonard Cohen is actually the greatest linguist alive today. I read his poems aloud at high holidays, from Book of Mercy. I think Book of Mercy should be in our prayer book.

If one reads Book of Mercy superficially, it is easy to miss some of its most exquisite nuances. Most assume that the entire book is addressed to a male deity, the Judaic God of the Hebrew Bible and the Torah. That reading is an important one and has obvious validity. A deeper meditation reveals that many passages are also addressed to what appears to be the Shekinah, the feminine presence of God; a variation on Cohen’s lifelong conversation with the Muse. Furthermore, there are many references to the esoteric symbolism of Kabbalah, such as “kingdom” and “crown.”

A few examples follow:

4
…I rose up carefully, and I went out of the house to rescue the angel of song from the place where she had chained herself to her nakedness. I covered her nakedness with my will, and we stood in the kingdom that shines toward you, where Adam is mysteriously free, and I searched among the words for words that would not bend the will away from you.

6
Out of the mist and dust you have fashioned me to know the numberless worlds between crown and the kingdom. [Keter in Kabbalah is the sefirah of the crown, Malkhut of the kingdom]

17
Our Lady of the Torah, who does not write history, but whose kind lips are the law of all activity. How strangely you prepare the soul…the Angel of Darkness explains the difference between a palace and a cave—O bridge of silk, O single strand of spittle glistening, a hair of possibility, and nothing works, nothing works but You.

And finally, a direct reference to the Unified Heart:

42
I turn to you, who unifies the upward heart.

Traditionally, the upward triangle or heart is masculine, the yang energy that is in much need of healing and reconciliation in our world. The downward feminine heart represents the yin aspect. In the song Come Healing, from Old Ideas, we are given more information:

O troubled dust concealing
An undivided love
The heart beneath is teaching
To the broken heart above

The sublime image below is the work of Martin Ferrabee, whose art has generously graced this repost of Language of Symbolism. The lines he chose are from the last verse of Come Healing, which are tied in very closely with the spirit of the entire essay:

Come healing of the reason (yin, upward heart of masculine reason)
Come healing of the heart (yang, downward heart of feminine compassion

Various Positions

The creative moment in Cohen’s life that produced Book of Mercy also gave birth to another work of transcendent beauty, Various Positions, the album that included Dance Me to the End of Love, Night Comes On, If It Be Your Will, and Hallelujah.

Cohen’s account of what was unfolding for him during the creation of the songs on Various Positions is significant:

I could really see and intuitively feel what it was I was doing, making or creating in that enterprise…I could sense a unity; Various Positions had its own life, its own narrative. It was all laid out and all of a sudden it all made sense. It was almost painfully joyful.

This kind of creative breakthrough, which for Cohen was consciously spiritual, has been reported countless times. It resonates closely with the confession of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, in a similar reverie wrote,

I am glad to the brink of fear… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.

In the same interview with Robert Sward, Leonard Cohen offers a key explication of the “various positions” themselves:

LC When you’re gathering songs together…they generally fall around a certain position, and this position seemed to me like walking, like walking around the circumference of a circle. It’s the same area looked at from different positions.

[The discussion continues on the nature and role of what Cohen calls the “tiny will”]

LC: …from time to time you’re thrown back to the point where you can’t locate your tiny will, where it isn’t functioning, and then you’re invited to find another source of energy.

RS: You have to rediscover the little wills in order to take up various positions again.

LC: Yeah, that’s right. The various positions are the positions of the tiny will.

The Unified Heart

Guided by Cohen’s perspective, we can correlate Book of Mercy and Various Positions by seeing the image of the Unified Heart circled by the themes of the prayers and the songs. We can consider, as we walk around the circle, how each theme, with its limited perspective of the tiny will, assumes different strategies in relating to the ineffable central energy of the Unified Heart. This sublime symbol points to a reconciliation of all such perspectives, of all dualities. The Unified Heart is One Heart; it is “undivided” but covered with “the troubled dust.”

Here are lines from Cohen’s poem, ‘The Cold’ from Book of Longing:

The rain unhooks my belt
The wind gives a shape
To your absence
I move in and out
Of the One Heart
No longer struggling
To be free

The “absence” in the poem is not a lament. It is a sublime confession of one who has accepted the invitation to embrace the new source of energy. It is the same formless absence confessed in Emerson’s metaphor of the transparent eye-ball. Only one who knows this experientially can “move in and out” of the One Heart; no longer struggling to be free. If this non-dual embrace feels like a paradox, then you are very close to the gateless gate of Zen, and the “energy” and freedom of the One Heart. This quote from integral philosopher Ken Wilber goes right to this point with lucid exposition:

Paradox is simply the way nonduality looks to the mental [mind] level. Spirit itself is not paradoxical; strictly speaking, it is not characterizable at all.

As a meditation teacher, I often remind my students that paradox, in authentic spiritual practice, is a clue that you are in the right place. Paradox often scares away the “tourists” who simply scratch their heads and move on. The serious student realizes that a profound symbol such as the Unified Heart is a kind of spiritual technology, known by many names, including what in Hinduism is called a Yantra. Leonard Cohen use of graphic symbolism is very much in the tradition of the Yantra. These symbols are aids to meditations and can lead to transcendent insight, which is how this Hindu Yantra image is to be employed by the meditator.

Variations on the interlocking triangles are found in many ancient cultures, as Leonard was well aware of from the beginning. A symbol of this kind can never be reduced to one single meaning; assigning “meaning” to the symbol will render it useless as a meditation tool. As Joseph Campbell pointed out, meaning is of the mind, and is related to thinking. A true symbol of spiritual technology is never about thinking or explaining; it is always about what Cohen calls the embrace, which always includes and transcends thinking. In meditative terms, as Ken Wilber gives it, “cognition is necessary but not sufficient.” In other words, some explanation is useful, but one enters and embraces the energy of absence, of formless consciousness, by moving beyond thought.

When a competent teacher offers a symbol, (like the Yantra) it may guide a student to their center, to wholeness. Leonard is a masterful teacher, and he is masterful in his use of the language of symbolism as spiritual technology. One way to enter Leonard’s sanctuary of song, as he has called it, is to take it personally and to follow up on his invitation to find a new source of energy. And where is it, this source? From the song Come Healing:

Behold the gates of mercy in arbitrary space

The gate, the center, is everywhere and nowhere. This is the Infinite Nothingness of Ein Sof in Kabbalah. In essence, this is what meditation practice is about. Although the traditions are always described as “mystical,” they are not at all mysterious to the adept. Meditation practice opens into landscapes of the spirit that are inhabitable. What may seem at first to be mysterious soon becomes the new commonplace, the new ordinary. Cohen told Sylvie Simmons that his Zen name, Jikan, means ordinary silence or the silence between thoughts. Leonard tends to make light of this publically, but the bestowing of this name by his teacher, Kyozan Joshu Sasaki Roshi, was a profound honoring of his friend, Leonard Cohen. It was a way of saying that Leonard’s poetry and music are born from the silent, ineffable Source.

This essay is no more than a brief introduction to Leonard Cohen’s use of the language of symbolism. If you have gleaned some sense of the beauty and deep significance of the One Heart, and have an understanding of what spiritual technology is for, then other symbols that Leonard Cohen has offered may eventually open to you “Like a lily to the heat.”

Here is a final lyric that has the flavor of the various positions. This from the lovely and underappreciated Anjani Thomas album, Blue Alert with music and vocals by the incomparable Anjani, and lyrics by Leonard Cohen. The song is Never Got to Love You. Here is the chorus:

I never got to love you
Like I heard it can be done
Where the differences are many
But the heart is always One.

My hope is that this little treatise may serve to gently remind you that you can take Leonard Cohen at his word and consider his generous invitation. He didn’t come to fool you…

 

David Peloquin teaches Insight Meditation in talks, workshops, seminars, and private instruction. His teaching draws from the well of the all the great wisdom traditions. David’s three-year-old grandson Simon recently taught him to use face time, and he now works with a limited number of students in cyberspace. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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 first posted June 3, 2015. David’s Introduction and Martin’s graphics have been added to the original essay.

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