Hearts With No Companions: The Broken-Hearted Lovers of Leonard Cohen

When asked about the modesty of his popular success, Leonard Cohen made an interesting comment to an interviewer in the 1990s.  This was long before his recent resurgence of Hallelujah billboard success, when he was even less well-known than he is today.  But Leonard already appeared to know his target demographic quite well.  "I will never be a huge mainstream success," Cohen noted, (and I paraphrase him here), "but there will always be a core group of fans that will always cling to my songs,: "These people could generally be categorized as 'the broken-hearted...'"   Or, to use his ontology in  Heart With No Companion, a track off of his 1985 album, Various Positions, his fans are people whose personal journeys still hang in a state of absence, their life's mission incomplete, their union with the Holy Other still a distant thought. 

While one usually gets the sense Leonard himself is speaking in his first-person-narrated songs, it's not a categorical given.  Especially with the opening line of this song, one wonders if his personal contentment had truly reached the phase of which he speaks:

So I greet you from the other side

 Of Sorrow and Despair

 With a love so vast and shattered

 It will reach you everywhere.

Of course, many mystics and saints of history write of the paradoxical process of reaching a state of inner bliss and then, subsequently, seeming to lose their inner light for years on end.  One can hope Leonard himself spoke from such an enlightened state at the time of writing these lyrics (indeed, this track is from the same album as another righteousness-bearing melody, If It Be Thy Will), but the well-read bard may have simply been spending lots of time mulling over Soren Kierkegaard's existentialism and wondering how the knight of faith might feel after conquering the dragon of despair.    Either way, it's a great place to be.  

And if there's any unconditional and all-encompassing love worth having - be it from Jesus, Yahweh, or Leonard - then the opening song lyrics describe that type of love succinctly.   Then, the voice of love speaks to us, the broken-hearted fans or whoever just happens to be listening, in what becomes the song's refrain:


And I sing this for the captain,

 Whose ship has not been built,

 For the mother in confusion,

 Her cradle still unfilled.

 For the heart with no companion,

 For the Soul without a King,

 For the prima ballerina,

 Who cannot dance to anything.

On the surface, he covers what a pop psychologist might call "a feeling of incompleteness in the core life arenas..." The core life arenas would be, using the order and words of the above lyrics: work (captain without ship), parenthood (mother without kid), love and relationships (lover/heart without companion), spirituality (soul without god/king), arts and creativity(ballerina that can't dance).   But puttingthat breakdown in print here appears ugly in light of Cohen's more expansive, lyrical images.  

On a deeper note, he chants on for those of us still refugees in this world, and one might even be reminded of the Dietrich  Bonhoeffer's famous quote: "Before God, and with God, we live without God."  But it's more than that.  Nor does the song have to be explicitly religious or spiritual:  in fact, the promise of idealism and lofty social "shoulds" and "should nots" inherited by children born into Western materialism is rarely a promise that is kept.  So one must make their own, more authentically realistic promise, even if its value appears meaningless, or embarrassing, at the time.

Through the days of shame that are coming

 Through the nights of wild distress:

 Though your promise count for nothing

 You must keep it nonetheless...

Not really the kind of stressful nights that most pop songs lament, where a cherished lover has changed his or her mind on the relationship: this is the everyday struggle of many, whether they voice it or not, and the acknowledgment by the singer that maybe all that pain, sadly,  means nothing to no one.  Is there a point to anything in life?  It's not a yes/no question.  It's one that can only be responsibly answered by honoring the commitment to one's own deepest yearnings. 

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