by Paul Nonnekes

Title Three Moments In Love In Leonard Cohen And Bruce Coburn
Author Paul Nonnekes
Country & Year Canada 2000
Publisher Black Rose Books, Canada
Pages 184
Notes ISBN 1-55164-176-3. Paperback.
ISBN 1-55164-177-1. Hardcover.
Summary Paul Nonnekes' book is an original and challenging study of two brilliant and idiosyncratic songwriters, whose work has never before been compared in such depth. I was especially intrigued by the way in which Nonnekes constructs for each author a subject-position which extends throughout their work -- so that, for instance, he reveals wonderfully suggestive continuities between such diverse works as 'Beautiful Losers' and 'Death of a Lady's Man.' It makes for essential critical reading. - Stephen Scobie


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 love.

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 enlightenment.

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 the angel.

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 direction.

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 of love.

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?


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 2733, 1968.

3. The Future. Columbia-Sony CK 53226, 1992.

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, 1969.

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, 1992.

11. Bruce Cockburn. True North TN-1 (Can), Epic 03812 (US, erroneously titled True North), 1970.

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, 1987.

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.

Thanks to Paul Nonnekes and Black Rose Books
for information and a copy of the book!