This study engages in a series of reflections on the work of
Leonard Cohen and Bruce Cockburn, two Canadian
singer-songwriter-poets. Although it may, at first glance, seem
odd that these two artists, who are so different in style and
temperament, are brought together in one work, they were selected
because of the way in which they both engage the question of love
in relation to the identity of the subject. From the base of
their work, two subjects are proposed, I and S. The subject I is
drawn from Cohen's work and the subject S is drawn from
Cockburn's work. This study explores the desire of I and S,
specifically, the masculine desire of I and S, as both of these
subjects, in their own distinctive way, yearn and search for
Leonard Cohen has gained status as an international pop icon
representing a dark and mysterious masculine sexuality.1
In popular culture he is probably best known for his music, from Songs
of Leonard Cohen,2 in 1960 to The Future3
in 1990. Yet, in the literary world, he had already in the 1960's
established, before the popular reception of his music, a
reputation as a talented poet with such works as The
Spice-Box of Earth4 and Flowers for Hitler,5
as well as an innovative novelist with the publication of The
Favourite Game6 and Beautiful Losers.7
The intent of this book is not to exhaustively analyze the
breadth and diversity of Cohen's work from the 60's to the
present. Nor does this book attempt to make connections between
Cohen's art and his life. Rather, my intent is to examine the
images of masculine desire that Cohen's work presents through the
construction of an ideal subject. Inspiration for the
construction of this ideal subject is found in the work of the
French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan,8 but also the work
of the German critical theorist Walter Benjamin.9 Yet,
the section on Cohen that constructs this ideal subject does not
attempt to systematically connect the work of Cohen to the work
of Lacan and Benjamin, but attempts to construct a subject who
embodies the style expressed in the work of Cohen, as well as the
work of these two theorists.
This question of style is important and speaks to what may
strike the reader as an imbalance in this book in the treatment
of Cohen and Cockburn-the section on Cohen is about a third the
length of the section on Cockburn. Cohen's style is dense; every
metaphor is a concentration of sentiments which crosses over to
the reader or listener and explodes, producing the displacements
of metonymy. It is in this way that his style is like Lacan's,
who privileged metonymy and who created his famous knots, and
also like Benjamin's, who loved the fragment and expressed
himself in now-times of meaning. On the basis of this
apprehension, the three moments in the Cohen section are written
as a series of concentrated interpretations that, it is hoped,
will lead the attentive reader to multiple associations. Along
stylistic lines, and in keeping with Lacan, the task is not to
employ the discourse of the master, providing systematic
interpretations in the position of "the one who knows,"
but to employ the discourse of the analyst, providing provocative
interpretive statements that incite the desire of the other.
Thus, in my treatment of Cohen, the decision was made not to
be exhaustive and systematic, but to be selective of those
fragments that seemed to point to an ideal subject. For this
task, the decision was made to first concentrate on the 1960's
novel, Beautiful Losers. In that novel, two principal
characters called F and I emerge, and the novel weaves around the
friendship between F and I. I is, for Cohen, the ultimate loser,
but yet, as the novel unfolds, we realize that it is precisely
his status as loser that allows I to become the ideal subject.
I's link to Lacan can be usefully interpreted as an allegiance to
an ideal centered on the subject's encounter with nothingness,
with an always-already ruined original. Desire must move beyond
the illusions of ego security that bind one to particular
material structures in order to arrive at the position of
This book presents the subject I as a subject who achieves
enlightenment through three moments. The use of three moments
reflects a dialectical sensibility, a desire to express movement
in thought and expression which captures conflict and struggle,
as well as the attempt to reconcile, in some fashion, the
conflict and the struggle. The first two moments of I are ones
that unfold in the novel Beautiful Losers. In Lacanian
terms, the first moment is when the imaginary ego of I is
destroyed by the symbolic work of F, everything from exploding fire-cones, to body-building, to the
famous Danish Vibrator. Yet, F's symbolic work harbours its own
illusions, illusions that are based in the pretensions of phallic
power, and the second moment is therefore needed in which I as
loser, especially in his encounter with the love of the
saint-goddess Catherine Tekakwitha, overcomes phallic symbolic
illusions and arrives at an encounter with what Lacanians call
the real, a moment of love defined by nothingness and absence.
This is as far as Beautiful Losers goes in the path
of enlightenment. What is proposed in this book is that a third
moment develops for I (based in Cohen's work in the 80's and
90's, and even though Cohen no longer uses the name I), which is
based on the relationship between the masculine subject I and the
feminine angel. The construction of this third moment in the
masculine desire of I receives inspiration from the work of
Walter Benjamin, especially Benjamin's abiding devotion to a form
of Judaic mysticism. Again, this book does not attempt a
systematic appraisal of the connections between the distinctive
forms of Judaic mysticism in Cohen and Benjamin. Rather, the task
is a stylistic one concerning the coming together of sentiments
that inform the experience of I. In this context, the third
moment of I is one that returns the masculine subject I to the
mundane social-material world in a way that is fundamentally
different from both the symbolic destruction of the first moment
of love and the distanced indifference of the second moment of
love. And this unique and distinctive return to the mundane
social-material world is defined by the encounter the masculine
subject has with the feminine other represented in the figure of
Bruce Cockburn has been most defined by his music, yet the
development of social, political and economic themes in that
music has worked in tandem with a consistent and active support
for international issues of social justice, from the resistance
to dictatorship in Central and Latin America, to the struggle
against landmines in Africa.10 Cockburn is probably
best known in Canada, but has built a strong following in the
United States and Great Britain, as well as continental Europe,
especially the Netherlands and Germany.
Cockburn's musical career took off in 1970 with the release of
his first album, Bruce Cockburn11 which was
soon followed in 1971 with a second album, High Winds, White
Sky.12 Both of these albums reflect a pastoral
mood, a celebration of a peaceful, reflective country way of life
that is in harmony with nature. With Sunwheel Dance13
in 1972 Cockburn's work begins to engage in a spiritual quest
within the context of a celebration of nature. Salt, Sun and
Time14 in 1974, Joy Will Find a Way15
in 1975, and In the Falling Dark16 in 1976,
and Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws17 in 1979,
all speak to the movement of that spiritual quest in a Christian
The 1980's was a decade where Cockburn articulates in his
music an increasing concern with issues of social justice,
especially on the international scene. Humans18
in 1980, Inner City Front19 in 1982, The
Trouble With Normal 20 in 1983, Stealing Fire,21
in 1984, and World of Wonders22 in 1986, all
reflect this theme. Especially important for the latter two
albums was Cockburn's touring of Central America, his horror over
the atrocities committed there by right-wing dictatorships and
his deep support for and commitment to the Nicaraguan revolution.
The release of Big Circumstance23 in 1988
marks a third phase in Cockburn's music, which moves through
1991's Nothing But a Burning Light,24 1994's Dart
to the Heart,25 and most dramatically, in 1997's Charity
of Night.26 Although he continues to sing about
social injustice, his lyrics begin to articulate a higher degree
of suspicion about the possibilities of creating paradise within
the present circumstances of life.
The second section of this book engages in an exploration of
Bruce Cockburn's vision of masculine desire, concentrating on the
lyrics in his music. As was the case with Cohen, there is no
attempt in this section to make connections between Cockburn's
lyrics and his life. Rather, this section involves itself in the
construction of an ideal subject that seems to be suggested by
Cockburn's lyrics. And, again, it is all about style. Cockburn's
style is not that of Cohen's concentrated image, but that of the
journal or travelogue, involving a continuous production of
experiential observations that reflect a distinctive journey
through life. This speaks to why the section on Cockburn needs to
be so much longer than the section on Cohen. It produces an
extended commentary that, in parallel to the lyrics, develops an
ongoing narrative of the ideal subject.
While paralleling the lyrics of Cockburn, the construction of
this second ideal subject is inspired by the work of the French
psychoanalytic feminist, Julia Kristeva.27 As with the
section on Cohen, the section on Cockburn does not attempt to
systematically connect the work of Cockburn to the work of
Kristeva, but attempts to construct an ideal subject who embodies
the style expressed in the work of both Cockburn and Kristeva.
The section based on Cockburn's lyrics constructs an ideal
subject called S. The reason for selecting the letter S is to
contrast it with a designation, common for Lacanians: the use of
S, the so-called barred subject, the subject that has no
authentic origin, but is always-already lost.
As in the section on Cohen's I, the experience of Cockburn's S
can be usefully divided into three moments. Again, as was the
case with Cohen, the use of three moments is motivated by a
desire to express a dialectical movement in the subject S that
captures conflict and struggle as well as the attempt at
resolution. Yet, while I's three moments of love express a
Lacanian and Benjaminian style, S's three moments of love can be
understood to express a style inspired by the work of Kristeva.
And, just as the style of I is influenced by Benjamin's Judaic
mysticism, so the style of S is influenced by Kristeva's
Christian mysticism. The Christian mysticism of S expresses a
belief that the beginnings of life-creation, birth-are
fundamentally good, embody an ideal world that calls out for
expression within material life, not just in the private world of
meaning that exists in isolation from the world, but within the
context of intersubjective relations that are social, political
and economic in expression. Rather than arrive at the awareness
of the nothingness that grounds all existence, as is the case
with I, the quest of S's masculine desire is to both find
expression for that which always-already good (not always-already
ruined) but also, and this is very important, to critique all
those expressions which do not measure up to the image of
paradise that was there in the beginning.
The first moment of the masculine desire of S, expressed in
the lyrics from Bruce Cockburn through to Dancing in the
Dragon's Jaws is one that expresses for masculine desire a
relationship with what we may call, inspired by Kristeva, the
"loving father."28 This is a relationship,
strongly mediated through natural images of sun, wind, and sea,
that establishes an ideal parent for S that is a mother-father
combination. But, as an expression in the beginning, it speaks to
S's child-like apprehension of the good and the ideal that is
unencumbered by the complications of the social-material world.
The second moment of the masculine desire of S is grounded in
the lyrics from Humans to World of Wonders and speaks to
the condition of the "troubled son." This is where the
desire of the son moves out of the comfortable, child-like world
of nature and country-side and encounters the pain of the world
in a dramatic way, worldly expressions that cry out how much the
social, political and economic arrangements of the world do not
embody the ideal, are far from paradise. Yet, S feels the pain
only in relation to the absence of the ideal, not a pure absence
or nothingness, but the extent to which that which could be,
namely, paradise, is not here, yet should be. And at the same
time as experiencing rage at the destruction of the ideal, S also
recognizes that, despite all the horror, there remains the core
The third moment of the masculine desire of S, called
"big circumstance," is expressed in Cockburn's work
from Big Circumstance to Charity of Night. Now, here is
the curious twist. The third moment of I based in Cohen's work
moved the subject away from the indifference of an outlook bound
to symbolic projects toward one that engages with the
social-material world through the mystical figure of the feminine
angel. S's third moment moves in a different direction than I,
but given the distinctive starting-points of I and S, can be
understood to arrive at a similar position. This is surprising,
given that the style and temperament of Cohen and Cockburn's work
are so radically different. The unifying image, in both the third
moment of I and the third moment of S, is that of love. In his
third moment of love, expressed most dramatically in Charity
of Night, S realizes, much as I did, that symbolic projects
of redemption can so easily become illusions that trap the
spirit, and that redemptive love comes through instantaneous
transformative moments that continue to motivate the subject to
action in support of the ideal, while all the while realizing
that any action cannot fully express the ideal.
Concerning the construction of both I and S, some questions
arise which this book would like to address. How, for I and S,
does masculine desire express itself? What is their relationship
to the other of desire, who captivates and fascinates them? And
in identification with the other, what means of expression
unfolds, what forms of signification arise, what kind of poetics?
How does the poetics of I and S relate to the ideal, desire's
search for the primary, the significant, that which is
fundamentally good? What obstacles do I and S face in their
search for a relationship with an ideal other, what kind of
struggle do they each face as they search for love?
How does the love sought by I and S relate to the influence of
the maternal and the paternal? Is the maternal an illusory trap
for masculine desire in its quest for love? Or is the maternal a
necessary ground for the active expression of masculine desire in
its search for love? In what way does the influence of the
maternal frame I and S's access to the other and the ideal? As
for the paternal, is the paternal influence needed in order to
rescue masculine desire from the illusory traps of the maternal?
Or does the paternal carry on the work of the maternal at another
level? Is the paternal simply another mode of the maternal? Given
one path or the other, how does the paternal then influence the
relationship both I and S establish with the other and the ideal?
And what is the status of the feminine other for masculine
desire, for both I and S? How do both I and S meet the feminine
other? What is the influence of the feminine other on their being
granted or not being granted love? What kind of masculine desire
emerges for I and S because of the particular relationship they
each establish with the feminine other?
In terms of space, what type of container is poetically
constructed for the fate of love and desire? Is it small or
large, protective or abandoning? Are its borders tight and thick,
or loose and thin? Is the container constrictive for the active
subject or expansive for the active subject? And what exactly is
the relationship between the construction of the container and
the passive and active modes of the subject?
In relation to time, what is the state of the beginning? Is
the beginning fundamentally good, the ideal base from which
desire searches for love? Or is the beginning already ruined, a
lack of that which is ideal, which the quest for love will need
to come to grips with? In what sense does the later build on the
beginning? Is the later an active building up of the good, or is
the later a continuation of active ruination?
And what about the social material world? What is the
connection between the love attained by I and S and the fate of
justice? How does the desire of I and S for the other's love find
or not find expression in the world of economic and political
ties? Does the quest for love allow for a critical position on
the social material world, one where justice can be named as that
which allows love, and injustice named as that which prohibits
love? This brings into play the question of evil. Does evil
exist, can it be named and fought against from the perspective of
love, or is the consciousness of evil in the form of economic and
political injustice an illusion, a trap for desire, a moment to
be overcome in order to reach the higher moment of enlightenment?
@NOTES = NOTES
1. For an excellent guide to Cohen's life and
work up until 1996, see Ira B. Nadel. A Life of Leonard
Cohen. Random House of Canada, 1996.
2. Songs of Leonard Cohen. Columbia CL
3. The Future. Columbia-Sony CK 53226,
4. The Spice-Box of Earth. Toronto:
McLelland and Stewart, 1961.
5. Flowers for Hitler. Toronto:
McLelland and Stewart, 1964.
6. The Favourite Game. New York:
Viking Press, 1963; Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 1970.
7. Beautiful Losers. Toronto:
McLelland and Stewart, 1966.
8. See in particular the essays in Ecrits:
A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.
9. See in particular the essays in Illuminations.
Ed. Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry Zorn. New York: Schocken Books,
10. For a useful chronology of Cockburn's
musical career up until 1991, see William Ruhlman. "A
Burning Light and All the Rest," Goldmine. April 3,
11. Bruce Cockburn. True North TN-1
(Can), Epic 03812 (US, erroneously titled True North),
12. High Winds, White Sky. True North
TN-3 (Can), 1971.
13. Sunwheel Dance. True North TN-7
(Can), Epic 31768 (US), 1972.
14. Salt, Sun and Time. True North
TN-16 (Can), 1974.
15. Joy Will Find a Way. True North
TN-23 (Can), 1975.
16. In the Falling Dark. True North
TN-26 (Can), Island 9463 (US), 1976.
17. Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. True
North TN-37 (Can), Millenium/RCA 7747 (US), 1979.
18. Humans. True North TN-42 (Can),
Millenium/RCA 7752 (US), 1980.
19. Inner City Front. True North TN-47
(Can), Millenium/RCA 7761 (US), 1981.
20. The Trouble With Normal. True
North TN-53 (Can), Gold Mountain 3283 (US), 1983.
21. Stealing Fire. True North TN-57
(Can), Gold Mountain 80012 (US), 1984.
22. World of Wonders. True North TN-66
(Can), Gold Mountain 5772 (US), 1986.
23. Big Circumstance. True North TN-70
(Can), Gold Castle 71320 (US), 1988.
24. Nothing But a Burning Light. True
North TN-77 (Can), Columbia CK 47983 (US), 1991.
25. Dart to the Heart. True North
TN-82 (Can), Columbia CK 53831 (US), 1994.
26. Charity of Night True North TN-150
(Can), Rykodisc 10366 (US), 1997.
27. See in particular the essays in Tales
of Love. Trans. Leon S. Roudiex. New York: Columbia UP,
28. The term "loving father" is
comparable to Kristeva's "imaginary father" as it
appears in "Freud and Love: Treatment and Its
Discontents," Tales of Love.