(Comment) Leonard Cohen’s Song “Suzanne” and His Understanding of Human Nature


1. Boundary of an affair according to Cohen

Below is a stanza from Cohen’s song “Suzanne”

And just when you mean to tell her

That you have no love to give her

Then she gets you on her wavelength

And she lets the river answer

That you’ve always been her lover

… you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind

In an interview, Cohen told the media that the song was about the wife of his friend and he was singing about an actual event that had taken place with her in the past. As suggested in the lyrics, Cohen confirmed that he did not have sexual relations with the woman who was physically stunning, but he told the public in a 1994 BBC Radio Interview, that he only “imagined” having sexual intercourse with her for there was “no other opportunity” and “no other way” to touch her perfect body. While Suzanne’s husband must have been glad that no physical intimacy had taken place, the whole incident must make one wonder whether Suzanne’s husband should still trust her with Cohen alone thereafter. The encounter also must raise a series of alarming questions.

At what point does one commit an “adultery”? When does one become “unfaithful” in a marriage? Is the intimacy of the mind and emotion so distinctively separated from the intimacy of the body that merely omitting the physical act would excuse one from being labeled as an adulterer? Many already know that there is a natural longing in mankind to be accepted, understood, loved and to belong. Many would further note that these are not necessarily physical conditions but social, emotional and psychological attributes as well. Thus, as Cohen may confess and be proud that “nothing” had taken place, he must be advised that there just may have been an emotional affair that had taken place. Jesus, after all, was on to something when he taught “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28) for trust entails dependance and when that emotional dependence on the spouse is breached the trust is also breached.

2. Drowning men’s dilemma

Below is another stanza from Cohen’s song “Suzanne”

And Jesus was a sailor

When he walked upon the water

And he spent a long time watching

From his lonely wooden tower

And when he knew for certain

Only drowning men could see him

He said “All men will be sailors then

Until the sea shall free them

It might be impossible to thoroughly comprehend Cohen’s beliefs through one of his many songs but this portion of second stanza gives us a glimpse of Cohen’s mind and his view on theodicy. Cohen connects the act of walking upon the water as being “a sailor”, then he has Jesus exclaim “All men will be sailors” when Jesus finally figures out that only the suffering and desperate people (symbolized by the word “drowning”) could see him (at this point we must remind ourselves that mankind cannot naturally walk upon the water and Cohen’s Jesus appears to command the act knowing the outcome).

And while the identity of “the sea” is not named, it is clear that the sea is an agent that can cause great drowning and thereby establishing the claim that God is the direct cause of human suffering in order to enable sufferer to “see” the Cross. Contrary to what Cohen appears to express, God often “uses” suffering as an “opportunity” to intensify believer’s trust and dependence upon Him thus one cannot blindly claim that God is the direct cause of all sufferings even if the purpose is to enable the sufferer to understand the Cross.

In the Old Testament of the Holy Scriptures there is a story of a judge named Jephtha in Judges 10 and 11. The story tells us that Jephtha was filled with the Spirit so that he can defeat the Ammonites in a battle. Before the engagement, it was Jephtha himself who made a pact to sacrifice as “burnt offering” the first thing that came out of his house upon his victorious return home and as he returned it was his daughter who came out first to greet him and it caused Jephtha great agony. The rest of the story simply tells us that Jephtha “did to her as he had vowed” disallowing further details but it is clear in the sequence of events that it was Jephtha himself who caused such unnecessary devastation by not simply trusting the enabling presence of the (Holy) Spirit and instead desiring a “guarantee” by the act of appeasement through promise of the burnt sacrifice. At times, it is beneficial to admit that we, as mankind, cause ourselves more suffering and devastation than God ever would.

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