18 November 2008

Wrestling with Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen

In this month's UUWorld I read Barbara Merritt's article about her process of coming to understand the song. Since I went through a struggle with it myself I thought I would share:

I was baffled by this song for a long time, to the point that I became so frustrated that I refused to listen to it for many months. Then I saw the movie Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. In that movie he talks about his zen practice and how it informed his life and perspective. This is crucial to the understanding of this song.

The thing that got me was the opening:

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

That line, "...you don't really care for music, do you?" was the one that stuck in my craw. Whose talking to whom? David, Cohen, me, God, a generic everyman? Given my default protestant christian cultural perspective I couldn't make sense of it. But when I got the fact that zen was involved it became immediately clear.

This is a conversation within himself trying to grapple with God. This song does not make sense to me if the personal God of typical christian belief is being addressed. But it does make very clear sense as a celebration (and sometimes lament) of our embodiment.

God, in the sense of a true transcendence, does not have human qualities. By definition a truly transcendent God is beyond human qualities, therefore to assign a human quality such as 'caring' makes no sense. Thus the whole piece is about the fact that we are embodied and the incredible contradictions that arise from that fact. The 'Lord' he's referring to is the very king doing the composing. It is in the nature of being an embodied being that WE are pleased with music, not that transcendence that we call God.

The song is an extended meditation on the consequences of embodiment and how we react to it, wrestle with it, and in some moments surrender fully to it. The beauty of it is the struggle with being at the mercy of our bodies, but also finding a transcendent grace in that imprisonment.

Here's some performances on YouTube:
Jeff Buckley
K.D. Lang
Rufus Wainwright
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