It’s a Cold and it’s a Broken Hallelujah

Malcolm Gladwell is right in his analysis of Leonard Cohen’s magnum opus Hallelujah. Its genius lies not in the original composition, but in the fact that it gets just a little bit bigger and richer and more complex with every iteration. Before yesterday, I knew of at least four or five versions, each surprisingly different from the ones that came before. Last night, I heard it performed by Chris Hadfield and Amanda Palmer, as a cap to an evening of talks by hopeful, optimistic innovators. Today, this came through my twitter feed:

Before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the loss of Leonard Cohen, I should tell you that this isn’t about him, at least not entirely. It kind of also involves last week’s presidential election in the United States. Again, before you roll your eyes and click away from another post about the election, you should know that it isn’t about that either, at least not entirely.

I like Leonard Cohen’s work a lot, but I don’t think anyone could call me an expert on it. Similarly, although I’m interested in the politics of our neighbour to the South, I’m still pretty much a neophyte when it comes to the mechanics and subtleties of their electoral system. What interests me, and what struck me as I watched Kate McKinnon re-envision Hallelujah as Hillary Clinton, is the way the universe often throws such interesting (sometimes mortifying) combinations of things at us at once. As Shakespeare once said, “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” There’s the initial shock of it all, the “It’s too much to bear all at once” part, but if one waits and takes a breath, it’s sometimes possible to reflect on why those particular things happened at the same time. What does this particular mix of events have to tell us about life, the universe and everything?

So let’s pretend we’re in Ms. Leask’s grade 12 English class, and we’re analyzing Hallelujah as part of our poetry unit. Well, the biblical references aren’t hard to spot, if you’re at all familiar with the bible. Some of them speak of grace, of pilgrimage, of devotion, in essence, the divine in us. Other lines deal with the dark, the battered, the utter exhaustion of being human. As I said, I’m not a preeminent scholar of Cohen’s work, but I’ve read and listened to enough of it to know that he’s pretty good at presenting this kind of dichotomy. Song of Bernadette speaks of a woman exuding kindness, but who is ignored by those she tries to save. Bird on a Wire describes profound love through instances of frustration and disappointment. Cohen’s verse juggles the divine and beautiful along with the profane and ratty. It’s both honest and cruel, celebratory and cynical. As he himself admits, “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

So why did the universe see fit to take Leonard Cohen away in the same week as the election in the US? Well, whether you saw the results as a victory or a disaster, there seems to be consensus worldwide that many things are broken. Even if you are overjoyed with the new president-elect, you still have to admit that there’s so much work to be done. Is it a coincidence that while the political snow globe begins to settle in the US (or maybe it’s about to be shaken up again, repeatedly), Hallelujah has been playing on heavy rotation in the background? For extra credit, you can take a look at 2016 as a whole, the deaths of great creative and influential minds, political upheaval, the myriad of tragic attacks and shootings…it hasn’t been a year that’s made a lot of sense, now has it?

I like to think that there’s method in the collective madness sometimes. Even if these two events coinciding this week wasn’t part of some cosmic plan (or joke), this strange mash-up can serve as a point of reflection, an opportunity to turn inward and look at the darkness that seems to keep piling up. Maybe, if these two things hadn’t happened, together, neither would have had the same impact, the same opportunities for change and growth. To borrow another image from Cohen, maybe this is just the kind of week that exposes the cracks, the ones through which the light comes in.

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