Horny Holy Cohen

Writing by Scarlett Smyth. Artwork by Antonia Popescu.


I watched a documentary about the making of Hallelujah, the Leonard Cohen song, a while

ago. It was the last day of the film festival in Edinburgh and I’d seen no movies. My time had

been filled by Fringe shows and I missed the feeling of having some kind of screen between

what I was watching and myself. Seeing live stuff brings this pressure on you as an audience

member; you do not want people to feel like they are doing a Bad Job. It’s tiring, especially when they are doing a Bad Job. I tried to bring a friend to see the Cohen doc with

me, the only one that I knew with a Filmhouse membership (RIP), but she said that she hated

him and didn’t want to spend her money on it (‘he sounds like an old perv singing in your ear

the morning after you’ve had sex with him’ ‘I don’t see what’s so wrong with that’ ‘…’).


I was the youngest person in the screening by at least 30 years, sat in a sea of white hair

fluttering in the AC wind. Before the film started a guy came to introduce it and ask what

version of Hallelujah people had heard first. About half the room put up their hands for

Cohen. Then he asked who’d heard the version by John Cale (I had no idea who that was).

Only about 20% of the room raised a hand for him. Next was Jeff Buckley. The last third

waved an arm in the air. I was one of them. I was also lying. Then, he asked who had heard

Hallelujah for the first time in Shrek. I sank into my seat. There was a very awkward ten

seconds when no one in the crowd would admit to this. Luckily, one jokester at the back

stuck his hand up. Everyone laughed and clapped. The man asking the questions left, the

lights dimmed, the doc played.


There is something that one of Cohen’s collaborators, Sharon Robinson, said that has since

been burrowing through my skull. She prefaced this point by saying that she’d never been romantically involved with Cohen. Then she talked about the way he put women on a pedestal, viewed them as gods – or at least something he could reach God through. They were otherworldly. It was a theme throughout his music, his lyrics, throughout Hallelujah. The intertwining of sex and God, absolution and forgiveness, all granted through women.


When I was a kid I used to make collages of girls from magazines, cut out their bodies, their

faces, their big doe eyes, and soft, pouty lips. I’d plaster them all over my walls. I stalked

them on the internet – googled their relationships, ages, height, weight. I’d draw their faces,

their delicate, perfect pig noses. It was obsessive – the rubble of puberty and jealousy and

admiration exploded throughout my bedroom. And some of them were muses. Men wrote

about how charming they were, about the curls in their hair, how their beauty enchanted and

the ways they made love. How romantic! How glamorous! How beautiful to be immortal in

not just someone’s mind, but the things they create, build, mold with their own two hands.

Why did the adoration feel like illness? Why did I want to butcher up their bodies, too? I read

somewhere that some Native Americans refuse to be photographed because they think the

camera steals your soul. In Little Birds, Anais Nin writes about an artist who falls more in

love with the paintings he makes of his naked sleeping wife (where he cuts off her head and replaces it with someone else’s, so she is unrecognisable to anyone but the two of them) than with her when she is awake and alive. Eventually, she finds him masturbating to the paintings he’s made of her and she becomes so overwhelmed with passion for him that he falls back in love with her ravenous state. What is it in his obsession with her lifeless, dismembered body that she finds so erotic?


According to Beauvoir, nymphs, dryads, sirens, undines, fairies all embody the desired

woman’s role as the natural Other; part of the world, animalistic, but with its own mind. They

are transformed into creatures that man can see a reflection of his own mind in, yet betray a

‘passive and unforeseen resistance that enables him to fulfil himself.’ He is able to conquer

them like he conquers the mountains and oceans, and in that, realise himself as an agent. She

is a mystery that can be overcome, won, mastered, that he can confirm his strength through.

Angels, on the other hand, embody a mystical Other – a way for man not just to conquer

nature, but to reach out his hand to God, and assert himself as Hero, atoning with a being

higher than himself. Cohen claimed they were creatures who existed only as messengers, a

channel for the will, with absolutely none of their own. Their eternal ethereality a guide for

man’s journey to touch divinity – so they are not merely the tools and objects of God, but of

him, too.

I think the reason Robinson’s words are stuck is because of the beauty I see entangled in that

mythology. It made me angry; there is something in me that wants to be as awful as the sea –

that infinite body of rolling energy – to be a messenger without a thought of my own. Does it

make me vain? Does it make me lazy? There’s an ease that comes with being inanimate, with

having no real responsibility, feeling another’s desires flow through you. It’s not something

that can last very long, though.

Then there’s the contradiction between how Robinson said Cohen saw women, and the lyrics

in Hallelujah. The song notes a connection between a love for others – surrendering to their

autonomy – and surrendering to a higher consciousness. That ambiguous line: ‘remember

when I moved in you / and the holy dove she was moving too’ – looking at it now, I can’t tell

who Cohen sees as the channel for that holy dove. Could it be both of them? When writing

about sex, Beauvoir says that you become ‘aware of yourself as flesh and spirit, as the other

and the subject.’ This thing of recognising a person as partly an object which allows you to

see yourself as a subject, but also seeing the subject in them, knowing in some ways you must

be an object to them, too. You open up. She calls it ‘a mutual generosity of body and soul,’

which I always thought was a sweet line.


So why am I hung up on it? It’s not just ‘man objectifies = man bad’. In the same interview

where he said angels were only messengers, channels, he also talked about the Beatniks using

the word to affirm the light in an individual. There’s still this utilisation of women, people,

for art. I’m not sure how you escape this. Isn’t all writing just using people for your daydreams? Why does it feel so bad when Cohen does it? Is it even something I should still be trying to unravel? I can’t see the fruit.

I was the first to leave after the documentary was over. Everyone clapped at the end (I

couldn’t bring myself to – too much like clapping when the plane lands) and stayed in their

seats while the credits rolled and the lights came up. I don’t know if the questions man came

back at the end. I wonder what everyone was waiting for.


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