It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving // A fitful dream, the morning will exhaustLeonard Cohen -- Alexandra Leaving
Leonard Cohen sang: “Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving“, a deep and beautiful song about facing loss. It’s a bit hard to understand, but speaks to my heart. On the internet I found several personal interpretations1. As one author said: “The greatest works of art allow endless reinterpretation over years or decades, as one’s viewpoint changes with experience and knowledge.” Today I would like to use this song as guidance on how to deal with the loss of (part of) my faith, and yet also be open to a new morning.
Faith, so important to me, seemingly sudden I just lost it. Somewhat similar to what C.S. Lewis said about his conversion2, but in the reverse direction, I found that my faith had simply gone. Nowhere to be found. The place where it used to be was empty. As if awakening from a nice dream, in the sad knowledge that there is no going back to dreams and childhood stories. The feeling of total emptiness didn’t last long, but enough to make me think, and value faith more than before, but differently. Time to ponder how to say goodbye, and look forward: what is left of faith, after the night, when the spell of dreams is broken, a new morning has arrived.
Of course it was all my own fault. I read the wrong books, first one by a professed atheist on modern science and meaning3, and then another by someone who believes in everything, explaining very powerfully how sex, drugs, music, religion, violence are all mystical experiences4. Especially his chapter on the emotional manipulation in the Alpha Course resonated with my own doubts and worries that we’re just play-acting to feel good. Drat it all, but surely a faith that cannot withstand reading critical books isn’t faith at all?
Leonard Cohen sings: “Do not say the moment was imagined // Do not stoop to strategies like this“. That reminds me: just as I won’t believe in overly secure assertions, neither will I stoop to brute denial5.
If anything can revive – or redefine – my faith, it’s poetry. This song by Leonard Cohen is most special. Leonard Cohen said that it refers to another poem about the fall of Alexandria6, and this helps to set the mood for reflecting on lost ideals. But I caught my breath when I read Dante’s Vita Nuova and found there Dante’s vision about the God of Love, carrying away his beloved, foretelling her death which truly happened later. Surely Cohen was describing Dante’s vision in his first verse! “Suddenly the night has grown colder // The god of love preparing to depart // Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder // They slip between the sentries of the heart”. This link with Dante adds meaning to the song of Cohen, because for Dante, his true and tragic loss was also the beginning of a transformation, the ‘Vita Nuova’, or new life.
How to describe why this moves me so? Is it the surprise of the sudden insight that we have here two poets both writing of the same thing? Is it the recognition of loss and the mood it inspired? Even if Leonard Cohen had Dante in his mind (perhaps unconsciously), surely they have both truly seen what they express. Their inspiration temporarily lifted the veil so that they saw what’s normally behind the scenes. And their poetry makes me see such things. It gives me glimpses of how we are connected, even throughout the ages.
The poem, and the connection to Vita Nuova, speak clearly to me that the loss we suffer is very real, and should not be avoided. Applying this to my struggles with faith, it seems to tell me: say goodbye to what’s lost, even if it wasn’t imaginary at the time. It hurts, but the process was started quite some time ago, it doesn’t exactly come as a surprise (Cohen writes: long prepared for this to happen, Dante was prepared beforehand too). Thankfully the books by Dante give me hope that there will be new life after this death.
O faith! I don’t want to dedicate myself to an illusion, but I do need some meaning, mission, or guiding principle. It’s a question of what to do with my life7, now that I seem to have lost my old religious certainties. I’m quite in the blank here, but being open to inspiration must surely be a part of it. And connection with other people. And Jesus, my beloved shepherd and friend.
For Dante, I suppose his new life consisted in giving himself to write the ‘divina comedia’, an epic poem in which he describes his spiritual journey, guided by his beloved, now in heaven. I remember from a course I followed8, that she met him there, and kindly chided him that his first love for her was too earthly. I think earthly love wants to hold and keep someone, whereas heavenly love gives itself. This brings me to some questions I have asked myself: will faith give us solid ground, and is it worth giving yourself to. It seems that my train of thoughts indicates that the answers are respectively: ‘no’ and ‘yes!’
- See here, for example: https://songmeanings.com/m/comments/view/73015924511/#replies
- In “Surprised by joy” he describes how one day he went on a bus trip, and when he entered the bus he did not believe, but as he arrived, he did. Strange and surprising, since he had not spent the trip in thought, nor in great emotion.
- The big picture, On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself, by Sean Carroll. See my review here: https://www.consideringlilies.nl/book-review-the-big-picture/
- The art of losing control, A Philosopher’s Search for Ecstatic Experience, by Jules Evans.
- Although I probably reverted the meaning here. See next note.
- See the full text and the notes here: https://genius.com/Leonard-cohen-alexandra-leaving-lyrics This includes that other poem, which explains very well how it deals with lost ideals. The line ‘do not say the moment was imagined’ then means: ‘do not ignore the warning about imminent death’.
- Midlife in full swing, I suppose :-) speaking of which, I now remember there’s a really good book by Rod Dreher: How Dante can save your life where he describes how the Divina Comedia helped him through the process.
- Dante’s Divine Comedy, by William R. Cook, The Great Courses. Highly recommended!