Podcast: Leonard Cohen – The Flame
Hi, this is Thanh Dinh, and welcome to the Radio of Resistance. To everyone who is practicing social distancing, this episode is dedicated to your patience and understanding. And to those of you who are fighting on the front line – doctors and nurses – this episode is dedicated to your strength and your sacrifices. Please do remember that we are all on the same side of the war, and the Radio of Resistance is here to pick you up and pull you through.
So, in this week’s episode, we will be discussing Leonard Cohen and his lifelong search for something to fill the void of depression and solitude.
Well, let’s get it done with all the big words. After all, words are there just to be read and heard. And what can the big words do if they do not serve the above purposes?
So, The Flame. A collection of drawings, notes, and poems/song lyrics by the man of our longing heart, Leonard Cohen. The one with the infamous quotes: You want it darker, we kill the flame.
Who is the “you” and who is the “me”? Apparently, there is a famous argument for those questions between Peter Dale Scott and Leonard Cohen, ever the rebellious man. I suppose there is a correct understanding of the phrase, but then, we all have the choice of another meaning, another understanding. After all, is being correct all the time that important? There will always be wrongs amidst an ocean of rights.
For example, the moths running to the flame. To us, their fate is but a silly and foolish one. And to them, that is their passion, their dreams, their hopes.
Or like reaching for the extending hands of a lover who never loves us. An outsider’s perspective will tell us how wishful we are. But how about us?
I have a friend who told me his ordinary story the other day in an England nursing home. Or perhaps it was the geriatric department of some hospitals.
He said, You know, the only stories I heard from them was how regretful they were for not doing the things they love, or saying the things they meant, just because of a stranger’s view. And at that moment, I had decided. I decided that I will not, under any circumstance, be that elderly and sickly person, wishfully and regretfully looking back on my life in front of an ordinary psychologist kid.
Yes, there will always be wrongs amidst an ocean of rights. The wrongs that we don’t regret, the wrongs that we don’t have time to regret, the wrongs we deeply regret. But in the end, like my dearest friend said, They will not matter to us anymore.
So, the feud. In a letter to Peter Dale Scott, the most vicious poem exchange ever, I suppose, Leonard Cohen wrote:
If you have not been asked
To squat above the dead
Be happy that you’re deaf
Not something worse instead
He will make it darker
He will make it light
According to his torah
Which Leonard did not write
Ignoring the feud between the intellectuals, if we can call it that, perhaps Leonard Cohen wished for us to take something in that “darker” for ourselves. Who said God wanted it darker, and who said we wanted it darker? And should we be happy that we are deaf, not something worse instead?
Let’s talk about PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which seems to be the main theme of The Flame. Be it a veteran of war or a veteran of love, we are, after all, soldiers weathering a bigger war than our own selves. The war to live on. The war to survive. The war to exist and to not kill the flame.
Let’s talk about the veterans who whimper at the simple touch of a hand. How much courage do they have to muster, just to open their eyes and wake up to live another day?
Or, let’s talk about the veterans who whimper at a loud bang or the sound of the fireworks. Something so beautiful can also hurt another person so deeply. Is it the flower they hear, or is it the sound of their comrades died exploding?
Perhaps you want it darker. Perhaps you want it light. And in this battle where we face You brow to brow, we only hope to survive. Another tomorrow goes by. We wake up to the sound of the wind and the sound of our comrades falling down, and hope that in your mercy, we would not go down the same way.
Don’t go down the same way. This is a call to arm. Whatever you are waking up to, don’t go down the same way.
Let’s talk about Natsume Soseki, with his famous work, Kokoro, which had saved many person, and had saved me.
Kokoro may not be a stranger to many well-regarded literary readers. But I won’t go too deep into analyzing the impressive work that stays above me and above many other works. After all, that would be futile. A heart filled with wounds will always be larger than whatever I can offer.
I will only focus on the one quote that is relevant to what I want to discuss:
“I am a lonely man,’ Sensei said. ‘And so I am glad that you come to see me. But I am also a melancholy man, and so I asked you why you should wish to visit me so often.”
In a sense, aren’t we all hold that same melancholy heart within ourselves? A heart that’s always doubting, always hissing at kindness, always crying.
Well, in a perfect world, there would be some cure for this melancholy that is cursing and crushing our hearts. But since this is not a perfect world, the cure can merely keeps the melancholy at bay.
And that is totally fine. After all, only that melancholy can remind the wounded soldier of the love he once held dear. And once in a blue moon, the heart with the same melancholy will ever so gently remind you that, Ah, the moon can be this beautiful. The sky can be this blue. And life can be this tender and loving.
Like a mother to her children, the same melancholy will gather you up and tuck you in a blanket made of dreams.
An almost lover you once had returns to your side, saying, Maybe we should change. Whatever that’s everywhere and in between us, let’s change it.
A long-distance friend you once lost in between the lines of ignorance and death comes back when you call, saying, Take better care of yourself. You don’t know how much you mean to me.
And so, what choice do we have but to live on. Inspite of ourselves, at the worse moment, there will always be a hand reaching out to carry us on. Be it our comrades, or some sort of being higher than our comrades, they pick us up and pull us through.
So I have to disagree with Natsume Soseki. Of course, a melancholy heart will always find a chance to doubt humanity. Nevertheless, we also have the choice to believe.
Believe that the ugly, fat cat will return to our side, purring and warming our tears away.
Believe that the strangers we met on the street will one day comes back, craddling us in their hand, and carry us through a whirlpool of sadness and cold storms.
Believe that one of these days, it will be over. No matter what it is, how cruel, how hurtful, how malevolant, it will be over.
And this also applies to my dearest friend. You said that there’s a choice. To believe, or not to believe. Also, how shitty you think the Bible is. I laughed at it, but my dearest friend, this is my half-assed answer to your serious question: If I am left with no choice, as you said, between doing the thing or die at gun-point, I will fight against the gun and go my own way. Sure, I can bite off more than I could chew, but my friend, I will chew it up and spit it all out.
Let there be choices. And let us choose the ending we want, at least, because after that, there will be none of us no more.
Anna Gavalda once wrote in her book, “Life, Only Better,” that went along the line of, Whatever doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. Whatever doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. Period.
Perhaps at the initial reading, or hearing of the quotes, you may think that the author’s view is too pessimist. But no, it’s the most positive thought that you will ever come across.
You don’t have to be stronger after surviving the fight. You only have to survive the battle. And that would be enough.
Talking about one of these days, in “And Even If Love Was Lost,” Chapter 10 I wrote in the same pessimistic-optimistic view:
“You are not the same man I saved on that rainy day, Nha.” I smiled, though I doubt that my smile can do anything to comfort me or him.
“And you don’t like the me right now?”
“Does it even matter?” I laughed.
Because, Nha, like all of those one-of-these-days we were talking about, I could never have you.
Maybe we can’t all have the one of these days of our dreams. And of course, thinking that simply reading more books and doing more good deeds will bring Lady Luck to our side is only wishful thinking.
But does it ever stop us from dreaming?
In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus posits that the moment we begin to hope is also the moment we begin to suffer despair.
I have no right to go against who, perhaps, had been the testament to how life could be worse than it is right now. Nevertheless, I try to ask for permission to refuse to hope, only because we will suffer despair.
If there were no darkness in the night, the moon would not shine so bright.
And perhaps all the “one-of-these-days” won’t come through. Perhaps we will not live to witness a true happiness that is construed up through books and papers.
But does it even matter? We go on to hope, and we go on to suffer despair. Perhaps we should all act in accordance with Leonard Cohen’s wise words:
It is so much fun
To believe in G-d
You must try it sometime
Try it now
And find out whether
G-d wants you
To believe in him.
As an atheist, I have little knowledge about religion. Thus, I won’t argue with Leonard Cohen, or any representative of any religion. Nevertheless, there is one thing I will always happily agree to: try believing. Whether the thing you want to believe in a religion, or simply to believe in a lover who may never return, try believing.
And see if those things, if they want you to believe in them.
Or perhaps like that kind of man Leonard Cohen is tired of in The Stranger Song, we can all reaching up for the sky just to surrender.
And then leaning on your window sill
He’ll say one day you caused his will
To weaken with your love and warmth and shelter
And then taking from his wallet
An old schedule of trains, he’ll say
I told you when I came I was a stranger.
It seems that Leonard Cohen would agree with Albert Camus. The hope that you had weakened his will with your love and warmth and shelter will not change the fact that he was a stranger.
But does knowing that make you change your course of action – make you close off your shelter, your love and warmth?
Let me know your answers. Send them all to the mailbox firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a story you can’t tell anyone, send it to the same mailbox. You should try believe in that mailbox, then, and see if that mailbox believe in you.
This is Thanh Dinh, and you are listening to the Radio of Resistance.
Oh, and before I turn off the mic, here is a poem to encourage all heroes in this time of social distancing and self-quarantine:
Let’s talk about the broken heroes –
the ones fall at the battles,
the ones full of scars,
the ones who, on a rainy day,
simply do not survive.
Let’s talk about the broken heroes –
the ones who fall short of God’s favor,
or even human’s favor.
Or – or they don’t have to be heroes:
They can be just a human, falling short of being human
and falling short of survive.
The wars they have been to, alone,
with thunderstorms far beyond their capacity and
too little weaponry to fight against them.
The love they give in return to
coldness, hardness, and cruelty of men.
The sacrifices they make simply because
their hearts are too big,
and life is too small.
Let’s talk about my sister,
who has a brain polyp
and keeps on forgetting the life that she lives
since the start of time.
Let’s talk about how she is too trusting
but is never trusting enough to heal her broken heart.
Yet she persists.
Looking at her across the screen,
and across the ocean at the same time,
smiling, faking a happy face,
“Don’t worry,” she says, and I think of
all of us.
Let’s talk about all of us who
have more than once in our life faking a “Don’t worry.”
Because what else is stronger than a fake “Don’t worry”?
Let’s talk about our strongest armor – let’s talk about love,
and all the hopes that one day will turn into disappointments.
But what can I say about all of those – I am merely a person
whose heart grows weary quicker than a century of loving
Don’t let me fool you into the trap of sentiments:
instead, just spare some of your hard times on talking
about the broken heroes,
about my sister,
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