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By Rivers Dark: the Leonard Cohen song interpreted
A tale of beautiful loss
So he tells his story again, in a different mythological landscape, walking by the rivers of babylon, an exile from the holy land, suffering for his wrong doings, like the historical story goes after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. But his exile is personal, intersecting with the universal, and likewise his sins are similar to the Jews in their time beforehand: aberration from traditional morality. Leonard Cohen, however, took this detour, in full consciousness. He didn't check out of his existential responsibility to seek truth and honor his emotional and spiritual realities. Nor did he lose his respect for the religion of his birth. But his humility before Yahweh at times borders on masochism, "And (He) gave the wind my wedding ring/and he circled us with everything." The previous line alludes to God looking into his "lawless heart."
It's been ironic to me, in a sense, when most of my contemporaries of the younger generations think of Leonard Cohen as "sensitive music," or even "like church hymns." It is, of course, but my discovery and re-discovery of Cohen's process through his work and his interviews has led me to have more of a view of a conscious sinner; or at least, a mystic betraying and re-integrating traditional religious values into a world that is increasingly sex-addled and carnival-esque in its decadence. At least, as far as this song goes, that's the aspect of Cohen that shines forth. "By the rivers dark, where it all goes down. By the rivers dark, in Babylon." Perhaps that's what the West is these days, the equivalent of Babylon, as many writers have noted. In his tribute to 9-11, "The Day They Wounded New York," Cohen sums up the America-as-Babylon idea without having to name it, "Some people say, they hate us of old/our women unveiled, our slaves and our gold." It could be Egypt, too, though the idea is the same. And luckily for us, Cohen has found the spiritual narrative here in the West, in 21st century Babylon for us, like a tormented sage, struggling to the altar to light a candle for the crack-heads down the street.