by Heidi Hochenedel, Ph.D.
In his 1992 album The Future, poet and musician Leonard Cohen combines images, both sacred and profane, to reveal a stunning vision of the apocalypse and the means to salvation. Although Cohen is a Jewish student of Buddhism, he frequently uses Christian mythology in his writing. The purpose of this essay is to read closely the first song on this album, "The Future," in order to uncover a somewhat coherent vision of the apocalypse. We shall see that although Cohen describes the apocalypse from a Judeo-Christian perspective, he also incorporates the Buddhist concept of Nirvana in this song.
The first two lines in this stanza demand both suffering and seclusion. "Broken night" implies sleepless-ness and misery and "mirrored room" and "secret life" imply division and alienation. The mirror image also connotes the reflection of the self. Why does the speaker want these things (division, alienation, and a sense of self) restored to him? Is he (or was he) somewhere where there is no broken night or secret life? As we shall see, the answer to this question is yes. The speaker has seen the future or the end of the world.. As his apoca-lyptic vision develops, it becomes clear that the categories of self and other will become blurred and disappear. In the future there will be no one left to torture because the concept of the self will not exist. It is for this rea-son that the speaker demands the restoration of his self and his solitude.
This stanza is profoundly angry and betrays a desire for violence and self destruction. Crack and anal sex are both potentially deadly pleasures, especially in the age of AIDS. This kind of entertainment connotes an indifference to life and a lust for self destruction. Lust, anger, and lack of respect for self and others are the inevitable ingredients of rape. Clearly the image of the last tree being stuffed up the hole in culture brings powerfully to mind the idea of forced sex. The image of a hole is also that of a void or a lack. If there is a hole in culture, something is missing from it. Culture has a need or desire that must be met by nature, symbolized by the tree. The speaker demands that nature "fuck" culture even after the former has been nearly destroyed by the latter. Although rape is usually an extremely negative image that implies the violent exploitation of one human being by another, it also suggests unity. Sexual union, even a forced one, is a fusion in which two become one. The culture/nature rape image in this stanza implies that culture should become a part of nature and vice versa. The union of the two categories suggests that they become indistinguishable from each other. As we shall see in my analysis of the refrain, this notion of unity constitutes the speaker's apocalyptic vision.
The voice goes on to demand the restoration of symbols of tyranny, destruction, and divisiveness; the Berlin wall, Stalin, and Saint Paul. It is impossible not to be struck by the apparent inconsistency of this list. What is Saint Paul doing here? He is, after all, a model of conversion to Christ. Saint Paul is an icon of good whereas Stalin and the Berlin wall are traditional symbols of oppression. From certain perspectives, however, Saint Paul, too, may be viewed as a tyrannical figure. Like Stalin, who interpreted (or twisted) the word of Marx in order to justify the murder of his critics and the oppression of the Russian people, Saint Paul reinterpreted the letter of the Gospels to correspond with his own religious ideals(1). Both Stalin and Saint Paul interpreted sa-cred texts (for Marx's work is certainly viewed by many as sacred) and adapted them for their own purposes. The works and teachings of both Saint Paul and Joseph Stalin can be construed both positively and negatively, but what is clear in both cases is that their readings of Marx and the Gospels respectively, differed radically from readings that preceded theirs. By comparing Saint Paul, who is widely regarded to be a symbol of good, and Joseph Stalin who is generally considered to have been a force of evil, Cohen deconstructs the categories of good and evil (2). What follows is a description of the apocalypse proper.
According to the speaker's apocalyptic vision, meaning and order will disappear. The categories of the soul or consciousness essential for "measuring," differentiating, and making sense of the world will lose their defi-nition. "Things are gonna slide in all directions" suggests that oppositions set up to categorize the world such as good and evil, God and Satan, self and other etc, will cross the boundaries that define them. According to the speaker's apocalyptic vision, good will become indistinguishable from evil because for him, divine justice is murder (3). From some perspectives, the Judeo-Christian God can hardly be described as good. On judgment day, it is believed that God will essentially murder those who are not saved (i.e. those who do not believe that Christ is the Messiah), thus taking on the role of Satan (at least from the perspective of the damned). Divine justice is murder, and therefore can be viewed as wrong.
It is interesting to note that the speaker uses the past tense to describe the "blizzard of the world." ("The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold and it has overturned the order of the soul.") Is the speaker re-ferring to the past or the future here? This situation is paradoxical because in fact, the speaker has seen the future, placing the future in the past. In this stanza, the categories of time run into each other, crossing the thresholds that define them. The blizzard image in this stanza also creates the idea of a white-out in which ob-jects become enveloped, thereby losing their identity. The order of the soul or mind, is destroyed because it can no longer make distinctions between objects. Significantly, the speaker states that he does not understand the meaning of "repent," which suggests that repentance as a means to salvation is meaningless, or at the very least, impotent. Repentance requires a sense of self and a clear idea of good and evil, but according to the speaker's vision, all of these categories will disappear.
The notion of apocalypse is linked to revelation because it is the book of Revelation that Saint John de-scribes his vision of God's wrath. The seven angels with their seven trumpets dispense seven vials of plague over mankind. When the apocalypse comes, truth will be revealed and God will judge the living and the dead. Both Saint John and the speaker in "the Future" function as prophets who have seen the future. There are, however, some fundamental differences between these two. Whereas Saint John speaks for God, the speaker (as we shall see later) seems to speak from a combination of perspectives. Whereas Saint John describes the ultimate destruction of evil and the triumph of good, the speaker describes the apocalyptic event as murder. Significantly, in "The Future," there is no direct mention of judgment and the truth seems impossible to gage because categories slip into each other, blurring the distinctions necessary to understand reality. Nevertheless, this is the "truth" to which the speaker is referring. From the Buddhist perspective (which is relevant here given that Cohen is a student of Buddhism), there is no real distinction between man and God or between one individual and another. All life makes up the body of the cosmos and it is upon comprehending this essential unity that one is able to attain Nirvana. Nirvana literally means "to blow out" or "to extinguish" (4). and upon reaching this state, the self is obliterated because it becomes conscious of the fact that from the most enlight-ened point of view, it never really existed in the first place. Huston Smith elucidates the Buddhist perspective of selfhood in his book The Illustrated World's Religions:
What is the atta (Pali for the Sanskrit atman or soul) which the Buddha denied? At the time it had come to signify (a) a spiritual substance which, in keeping with the dualistic position in Hinduism, (b) retains its sepa-rate identity forever. Buddha rejected both these beliefs. The body houses no homunculus or ghostly wraith that animates and outlasts it. His alternative view of selfhood comes to light through his thoughts of transmi-gration. Authentic child of India, he did not doubt that reincarnation was a fact, but he disagreed with the way his Brahmic contemporaries conceived of it. His alterative view is captured in the image of a wave. Suppose we are in a boat and notice that a wave is approaching us. Here it comes all right; when it reaches us we rise for a moment, then descend when it passes. Eventually it breaks on the shore and is gone. What are we to make of this? We speak of it as a wave for in a sense it is single; from the gentle swell that sets it in motion to its crashing death on the beach, it is a single identifiable wave that runs its course. Yet at no two moments are the molecules identical. Nothing that is in my next incarnation will be identical with what is me now, but I will still be "me"in the way that the wave retained its identity while moving through its successive stages. What continues from life to life and unites them is a trajectory , a four dimensional form, a causal chain of karmic propensities. Causal connection is solidly affirmed ; but no entity- no physical or psychic substantial substrate - passes from life to life. Hume and James were right: if there is an enduring self, subject always, never object, it does not (5).
For the speaker, who, it would appear, has been influenced by Buddhist thought, the destruction of categories is the revelation of truth. Things will not actually be any different than they have always been. The apocalypse will merely reveal the unity of the world. Consciousness will become aware that categories and boundaries set up to order the world, are illusory. It is murder in the sense that the Western notion of the self and soul will disappear.
The speaker purports to be the unrecognized little Jew who wrote the Bible. On the surface, it seems logical to assume that he is therefore God. The Bible is, after all, the word of God. Nevertheless, the Bible is also an anthology of works written by many different people. Certainly no one Jew is responsible for writing it. The Bible is then, both a divine and human creation. Therefore the "little Jew who wrote the Bible" may be under-stood to be both God and humanity. The speaker goes on to say that he has seen the nations rise and fall. This implies that he is either immortal or sees things from the impersonal perspective of human history. In contrast, the opening stanza suggests that the speaker is Satan. The desire for "absolute control over every living soul," is somewhere between human and satanic and cannot be divine given that from the Judeo-Christian perspective, God already has absolute control. The speaker seems to embody simultaneously the perspectives of God, Satan, and humanity and his text deconstructs these three divisive categories that give structure to human thought, creating the same apocalyptic chaos described in the refrain.
The speaker has already witnessed many mini-apocalypses and is familiar with the various mythologies and doctrines that claim to reveal truth. He dismisses the "stories" stating that love is the only means to salvation, or as he puts it, "survival." His experience has shown that life without love is death. But people have always lived loveless lives and have therefore always been damned. Moreover, murder is an essential feature of human history and reality. Not only is the future murder, so is the present and the past. At this point, the reader is obliged to ask a fundamental question. Is the future distinguishable from the present? Does the one not always become the other? The line "I've seen the future," underscores this question. What does it mean to have seen the future? If the future has been seen, does that not make it a part of the past?
It is difficult to know what exactly is meant by the "ancient western code." Perhaps it is the code of justice (the ten commandments) or the code of language. A code, which is a set of symbols used in secret writing, can also be interpreted as a mask. In this case it may refer to the masks behind which people hide to conceal themselves and their "private lives." If we take it to mean this, the truth (the private life) will be revealed be-cause the code that dissimulates it, will be broken. I think both interpretations are acceptable. Regardless of how we understand the "ancient western code," it has already been broken. The western code of justice has been transgressed in the most atrocious ways, and people's private lives explode in their faces every day. The future appears to be here. In this way the speaker blurs (deconstructs) the past, present, and future.
The image of phantoms on the road and the white man dancing, probably refers to the line; "your private life will suddenly explode." The ghost or "phantom," also described as "a white man dancing," is a common symbol for personal obsession. If the phantoms are on the road, they are revealed for all to see. The image of the white man dancing implies that the phantom is purposefully exhibiting itself, leaving it's owner even more exposed. "Fire on the road" connotes an impassable path. The image of "path" or "way" to God is present in Eastern and Judeo-Christian traditions. When the truth is revealed, it will become clear that the path that the multitudes have chosen, cannot be traversed. Fire is also a traditional symbol for God, as Moses first encoun-tered Yahweh in the form of a burning bush. Fire, therefore simultaneously suggests God's presence and ab-sence.
The image of "a woman hanging upside down" is very interesting. Significantly, on the album, Cohen pro-nounces this line "your woman." Jesus died hanging right side up to redeem the world from sin. The woman hanging upside down is an inversion of this image. "Your woman," the person most revered and worshipped, is now dying perhaps for or because of sins (6). In this case, the subject "you" views the goddess-woman in the same way that Christ's followers viewed him dying on the cross. At the time, Jesus' death seemed like a hor-rible tragedy to Christians, but later it was interpreted by Saint Paul as a sacrifice to redeem all people. Christ became the redeemer, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. The woman hanging upside down is also a sacrificial image. She may be another redeemer, and in fact she probably is, given the fact that for the speaker, "love's the only engine of survival." Nevertheless, there is no way to know, because her fea-tures are veiled by her fallen gown making her unreadable. The poets are therefore needed to interpret her suffering.
The last two lines in this stanza link the "lousy little poets" to Charlie Manson. Why are the poets lousy and why are they trying to sound like Charlie Manson? Perhaps the poets are lousy because they, like Saint Paul, have their minds saturated with preformed ideas of the holy. Just as Saint Paul read Christ's suffering and death from the point of view of a Mithraist (7), the poets read the image of the upside down woman through their own lens, that of Charlie Manson. Manson is, of course, a self-proclaimed prophet and martyr, who can be seen as either good or evil depending on the perspective one chooses to take. The poets interpreting the suffering of the upside down woman are, perhaps, trying to speak with the same conviction and authority of a modern prophet (8).
Once again the voice demands the restoration of the Berlin wall, Stalin, and Saint Paul, but he adds two more items to the list; Christ and Hiroshima. "Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima" brings to mind the say-ing "Give me liberty or give me death." Does Christ represent liberty and Hiroshima death, or is Christianity as explosive and destructive as a nuclear blast? Given the nature of divine justice, both interpretations are equally valid.
The call for abortion is interesting because abortion is both legal ( and therefore moral from some perspec-tives) and, from some points of view, murder. Here, it seems to be judged as a form of murder because in this stanza, fetuses and children are equated. The line, "kill another fetus now, we don't like children anyhow" un-derscores the murderous nature of the present. Our legal system condones murder. Human history and human experience is murder. Divine "justice" as portrayed by the Judeo-Christian tradition is also murder. He (Satan/God/Man) has seen the future and it is the present. In this sense, Cohen has deconstructed the catego-ries of time (past, present, and future) as well as the moral categories of Good and Evil. The future, which is also the present, is characterized by the union of opposites, one becoming the other. This creates both a sense of chaos and unity. If good is indistinguishable from evil and the present is identical to the future, this means that our understanding of such categories is created by consciousness, not discovered by it. The notion that the categories that enable man to make sense of his world are attributed by consciousness and not intrinsic prop-erties of reality, is a classic notion in Eastern thought. This idea is especially important in the Buddhist tradi-tion. From the Buddhist perspective, the human experience of the world is illusory. Man realizes Truth only after he has understood the unity of all things. Although Cohen seems to describe the apocalypse from a Judeo-Christian perspective, the kind of revelation he describes ("things are gonna slide in all directions, won't be nothing you can measure any more") is shared by the Buddhist tradition. Cohen's vision of the apocalypse can be understood to be identical to the experience of Nirvana.
The line that recurs most frequently throughout this song is, "I've seen the future baby, it is murder." This line seems extremely negative, and in fact, sets the tone for the entire song. But is murder really such a bad thing? According to the Buddhist tradition, the primal distinction between self and other is responsible for all evil and sorrow. This distinction, however, is illusory. It is only upon eradicating the concept of self, which is in fact a kind of murder, that Nirvana becomes possible.
There is self and there is truth. Where self is, truth is not. Where truth is, self is not. Self is the fleeting error of samsara; it is individual separateness and that egotism which begets envy and hatred. Self is the yearning for pleasure and the lust after vanity. Truth is the correct comprehension of things; it is the perma-nent and everlasting, the real in all existence, the bliss of righteousness. The existence of self is an illusion, and there is no wrong in this world, no vice, no evil, except what flows from the assertion of self. The attain-ment of truth is possible only when the self is recognized as an illusion. Righteousness can be practiced only when we have freed our minds from egotism. Perfect peace can dwell only where all vanity has disappeared (9).
To attain Nirvana, the self must cease to exist; it must be murdered. Once the notion of the self is extin-guished, salvation is possible. In this sense, murder (or suicide) takes on a positive connotation. Murder be-comes rebirth.
Cohen's vision of the apocalypse implies that when truth is revealed, it will become clear that categories are artificially attributed to reality by consciousness. Without the distinctions that make it possible to comprehend the world, things will "slide in all directions." It will be impossible to make sense of reality. Nevertheless, the need to do so will disappear because man will comprehend his true identity as being part of and one with God. "Love's the only engine of survival" and God is love. God is also indistinguishable from Man and more im-portantly, from Woman. Although it is not clear from the text of this song, for Cohen, spiritual and romantic love are identical and equally redeeming. The image of the upside down woman as redeemer underscores this view.
Copyright of the essay © 1996 by Heidi Hochenedel, Ph. D., Portland, Oregon.
Copyright of the lyrics © 1992 by Stranger Music Inc, Los Angeles.