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Leonard Cohen                                                   




(‘Several kinds of ambiguity’)


Delivery. Degrees of strength of voice, sense of degrees of self (commitment), degrees of commitment to certain meaning, to a certain meaning, even to the certainty of meaning itself. We are apparently being offered degrees of self-imbrocation, degrees of self-presence, degrees of involvement in song. Yet in reality what we have is a certain kind of involvement; for it is a question of quality, not of quantities of presence such that there is less or more, but differing kinds as a result of this quantitative variation (for we perceive different flavours of voice, not degrees of flavour). A question of self-presence, his: a form of presence denied (although his personal presence is strong… ) therefore again a different kind of presence, of voice, of meaning; as if veiled, concealed behind a mask, as if only a part of the truth is… or can be, revealed (and then, provisionally…).


Spoken. Sprechen-stime. Half-sung, half-spoken (like Dylan, ‘voiceless’?). Self half-given: half-denied. Withdrawn from enunciation, withheld, deferred, and so in this way meaningful; a meaning of… meaning deferred. In contrast to full presence, this reserve in the voice: a reservation of meaning, meaning restricted; or not yet chosen nor performed… The lack of this… this fullness, its effect on our interpretation is plural, a poly-semantic delirium; ambiguity possible, irony manifest, denial speculative. Unsureness as a virtue (and we feel this is again a measure of self-protection, a mask). Reticence in the performance of meaning; reticence of finality in the mind of the intelligent. If not in the mind of the true believer (even if he is …witness his later work and the influence of Buddhism). So it is that fully sung versions -his songs as sung by others- with their committed delivery, lose the poly-semanticism which is the gift of his lyrics as sung by himself… One style of singing equals one meaning, a fundamentalism of sung meaning.


Deferral of meaning as (another kind of) meaning. It is a question of the content of expression, the lyrics, and the means of expression, the use of the voice…uniting to offer the meaning (the signified). Even if that meaning appears to be a denial of or refusal of meaning. A rhetoric of deferral; all the better to persuade…


Example by opposite. Richness of meaning and insight as due to these two, the lyric content and its delivery. Listen to Ian Curtis, whose desperate -and always full-voiced- delivery backed by the insistence of Joy Division’s music, completed the meaning of the song lyrics he penned. One completing or actualising the potential of the other. But Cohen is unlike Ian Curtis (in general) due to Cohen’s distance from his lyrics: Curtis’s delivery indicates a dangerous or symptomatic self-identification with the content of his own songs.


Proximity. When Cohen is not so eager to find some distance from his lyric content, as in the early songs (‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’), the middle period polemic (‘The Future’) or the later songs (‘Ten New Songs’) a certain reflective standing back still obtains. This effect is because in the first case (‘The Songs of…’) the relationships are of a fragile or delicate nature, and the manner of observation is of a subdued or restrained character in tune with bearing witness. In the later case (’Ten New… ‘) his belief system, or faith, nevertheless required a self removal from enunciation (Buddhism) symbolising a certain removal from worldly attachments; also the doubling of voices (most sung as a simultaneous duet with Sharon Robinson) suggest a meditative element asking for reflection on the meanings, and furthermore a choral element which offers comment with detachment, or mediated presence (the reported speech effect) of witness after the event, as in classical drama.


Of the songs written in between, the topics or politics of presentation or confession (persona) demand a certain ironic detachment or ‘troubling’ of the meaning. Even when in full denunciative mode (‘The Future’). In these as in other songs, but most especial in these songs of greatest commitment, greatest proximity, there is still. Or as a result the questioning presence of irony or voice… for he giveth and he taketh away, and speaks in tones taken from the voices of those we would not admit…


Giving and taking. Offering then retracting (another kind of ambiguity). In certain songs (‘Tower of Song’) a retraction (‘but I may be wrong’) follows a strong statement (‘a mighty judgment coming’) so leaving the listener with a choice of meanings - with an ambiguity (in this example the half-heartedness of the disavowal -bathetic- also contrasts to the strength of the original assertion, suggesting a self awareness of apocalyptic posturing). So it is that in the vocally more committed songs it is here precisely that the ironic or stepping back effect of a semantically contrasting or negating phrase following on immediately after is employed. Not a simultaneous undermining of singular meaning (as in the quantity of presence, or quality of voice), but a subsequent; topic-comment type, modification of meaning (statement/‘retraction’).


Multi-voicing. The adoption of many persona, the presence of contradictory voices, of phrases and of words within the phrase; a find of sung ‘free indirect discourse’, where changes in tone and delivery indicate different origins for the voice (different persona) or of a change of attitude towards the word or phrase sung (its truth value). All these ambiguities of voice, these ghosts and guests, visitants and revenants, bidden and unbidden, contribute to the poly-vocality of the songs, there peopling in the plural, and so to their polysemy; their semantic ambiguity or richness. This extension of meaning is the equivalent of that from a restricted lexical cohesion (the simple meaning of commonsense realism) to an extended lexical cohesion (the kind of meaning often used in poetry, often referred to as its ‘symbolism’, its ability to reach general topics, to extend into metaphysical realms of meaning). And so we move from a single ‘Truth’, a telling, an instruction, a performance in imperative mode, to the co-presence of mutually conflicting ‘truths’, irreconcilable points of view – ‘dialogic’ in the proper sense of the term. And we find ourselves in the self-contradictory presence of a guru who offers no final truths, even if he offers critiques of our materialist love of the world: a love which appears to kills its object even as it limits the range of the subject.


Or both in one. As when assertion and denial co exist on the (syntagmatic) level of succession – without the last phrase having the ‘last word’... Or: as when a single voice offers both, an idle voice caught in an ironic delivery; simultaneous assertion and denial; the presence of a middle voice? So posing for the listener the perilous question: which ‘truth’ to chose, which ‘insight’ to follow? Irony may offer the negative, or the undecidable co-existence of both meanings… perhaps indicating the presence of a genuine aporia in the problem alluded to… So leaving the final choice at the mercy (of the ideology… or mood) of the listener.



‘…but I may be wrong.’






Copyright 2008, Peter Nesteruk