Spiritual Connection- Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne”

Leonard Cohen, Canadian poet and songwriter, wrote his 1960s ode “Suzanne” (listen while you read if you want :)) about his friendship with a woman of the same name, Suzanne Verdal. The slow, hypnotic mood of the song draws listeners in, the world Cohen creates is enhanced by his artful lyrics. While many different interpretations of the song can be derived from the poetic lyrics, I believe that “Suzanne” examines Cohen’s spiritual connection to Suzanne that teaches him to have love for everybody around him. Throughout the song, Cohen uses rich description, point of view, and allusion to construct a picture of this relationship, and make the listener feel as if they are experiencing it as well.

Suzanne takes you down to her place near the river
You can hear the boats go by, you can spend the night beside her
And you know that she’s half-crazy but that’s why you want to be there
And she feeds you tea and oranges that come all the way from China

Here, our narrator is describing not only the setting he and Suzanne are in together, but small details about Suzanne herself. Cohen appeals to numerous senses in this section, placing us “near the river” where we can “hear the boats go by”, we can taste the “tea and oranges”, putting listeners in the same place as the narrator. Further, the fact that Suzanne “feeds you” these specific items “that come all the way from China”, as well as the implication that she’s “half crazy” are all little idiosyncracies that imprint a unique picture in audiences’ minds. We, as listeners, are immersed in the narrator’s experience through these details. Taking the experitential aspect a bit farther, Cohen uses 2nd person perspective in this song. Most songs may adopt 2nd person perspective when their story is directed towards a lover or an ex, but the subject in this case is the listener. Cohen is telling us that we think and feel the things that the lyrics are depicting. (Another layer of this song is how he says “you”, yet we also assume that the experience he is describing is his own, merging narrator and listener into one. This oneness contributes to the sense of community among humanity that Cohen comes to describe/imply later in the song, but I won’t go too in depth about this idea).

And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open

Cohen leaves the narrative of Suzanne to explore a biblical comparison. He refers to Jesus as “a sailor when he walked upon the water”, then depicts him on “his lonely wooden tower” (the cross on which he was crucified). As Jesus watched from the cross, He announced, to “drowning men”, that “all men will be sailors then”. The contrast between Jesus’s divine act of walking on water and the condition of those who are drowning seems to imply the superiority of Jesus over others; yet, Jesus still dubs ordinary men as “sailors”, a term also used to describe himself. This allusion shows how this divine, revered figure still considers his fellow humans as equal to himself. Additionally, when Cohen refers to Jesus as “broken”, it recalls Suzanne’s flawed personality (“half-crazy”). The reference to Jesus plays in directly to the second to last stanza, where “Suzanne takes your hand and she leads you to the river”:

And the sun pours down like honey on our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning

The sun pouring down “like honey on our lady of the harbor” gives audiences a sense of divinity that was brought up before by the allusion to Jesus, implying Cohen’s own spiritual connection and reverence for Suzanne. As Suzanne shows us “where to look” for the faces of others humans, “heroes” and “children”, within the river. The faces are among the most discarded aspects, “garbage” and “seaweed”, but Suzanne still sees the faces and shows us how to see them, too. Suzanne’s moral nature, superior to others’ in Cohen’s mind, yet egalitarian, is compared to Jesus’s by the similarity of their described circumstances. THis reinforces Cohen’s spiritual connection in their relationship. In both cases, Cohen, as well as audiences, are taught to see the humanity in everyone by these divine figures.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger

In both The Stranger by Albert Camus and the movie Trust (1990), the characters seem unaffected by the norms of the world around them. Meursault of the former appears to be detached and unconcerned with the happenings of society, and the actors in the latter portray their characters with deadpan expressions and unrealistic dialogue. As both of these pieces of media are commentaries on the restrictions of societal norms, the unrealistic and often unemotional appearance of the characters amplifies the social mores that are being critiqued.

In The Stranger, Meursault does not value the things that society tells him to value. The character of the people he surrounds himself with does not concern him, nor does the expectation that one should cry at one’s mother’s funeral. He does not follow the widely accepted way of living and does not care about what people think others should care about. His seeming indifference to the world is received harshly by his peers. During his court case, he is persecuted mostly for the abnormal way in which he acts. Through the harsh contrast between Meursault’s unemotional and uncaring nature and society’s (as shown through the jury) expectations of others, we see the ridiculous nature of imposed societal norms.

In Trust, the actors deliver their lines in a way that is lacking emotion that may make viewers cringe. This muted unrealistic performance of some is matched by heightened unrealistic performance of others in the film. The absurd behavioral patterns of Michael’s father and Maria’s mother compared to Michael and Maria’s subdued and abnormal approach to the world illuminates the strangeness of societal patterns and norms.

Breaking our Brains (The Elephant Vanishes)

In the short story “The Elephant Vanishes” by Haruki Murakami, our nameless narrator’s world is rocked by the absurdity of an elephant vanishing with no trace. He fixates on this event especially because he was the last person to see the elephant and his caretaker. In this time, he saw the elephant and caretaker impossible shifting sizes, possibly leading to the elephant’s escape.

The narrator’s regimented world of breakfast routines, reading the paper front to back, and selling monotonous kitchen supplies is entirely changed by this absurd, inexplicable occurrence. The rest of the world seems to follow suit. Newspapers cover the disappearance of the elephant and try to propose reasonable solutions to the event. However, no hypothesis makes sense, and people eventually lose interest in the story.

This story mimics our own news cycle. A terrible, most often complex, event will occur, the public will react, attention will gradually shift away, and the issue is left unsolved. Issues that require great critical thinking will be left untouched as people do not want to or cannot think outside of the binaries that the world has set into place. If an easy, readily available solution was given in response to the issue, the public’s unease would be solved. Because this is not the case, public attention wanes, news publications grow less and less involved with the story, and the issue is left untouched by those who are not dedicated to solving it.

Bonds of Love: Jessica Benjamin’s Theory of Identity

Benjamin argues that one becomes a subject by having someone else, who also recognizes themself as a subject, recognize you as such.

This differs from Freud’s model of identity as Benjamin’s centers one’s capacity “for agency and relatedness” rather than separation from another. Benjamin denounces Freud’s theory for the purpose of neglecting such connection as integral to one’s subjectivity. She argues we become more of an individual when interacting with other subjects and that knowing oneself “in the context of  knowing another” contributes to identity formation.

According to Benjamin, her proposed formation of identity (that recognizing oneself, recognizing another self, and being recognized by that other self) is necessary to eliminate hierarchy (which arises out of Freud’s model) and create equality. This hierarchy is evident in Freud’s assertion that one is an individual when they realize they are not something, implying superiority and centralizing one identity (i.e. a child is not their mother). Benjamin formed her theory on the basis that one’s identity does not rely on the invalidation of another self to become whole. If this hierarchy is not eliminated, Benjamin asserts that there will always be a power imbalance where one person controls the identity of the other.

An application of Benjamin’s theory may be a younger person wanting to sit at the big kids/adults table. To become a part of the “in group”, to be a revered, cooler, older person, the younger person must be recognized by the older folks, who the young person recognizes as subjects and have recognized themselves as subjects in sitting at the “big kids” table.

This illuminates the power dynamic between those already recognized, an “in group”, and those wishing to be recognized. There could be a faction who recognizes one another, but refuses to recognize someone outside of the group. This upholds a certain sense of superiority of the “in group”, and is exemplified in our society with systemic hierarchies in regard to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, etc. Those who hold material as well as non-physical power can control the recognition of another group as worthy of personhood or not.

To eliminate this superiority and hierarchy, one must always recognize another as a subject who wishes to be recognized and also recognizes you, as we are all humans who have no superiority or right to grant or deny subjectivity to another. Of course, I am contradicting myself by saying we have no right to grant or deny subjectivity so we must always grant it, but Benjamin’s theory is also based on a contradiction.