donderdag 6 maart 2008

Reading Leonard Cohen's Scorpion

One book of poetry which I read frequently when I was about seventeen was Leonard Cohen's The Energy of Slaves. Rereading it now, it strikes me how unremittingly bleak most poems are. Back then, they must have fitted my mood just fine.

Leonard Cohen's The Energy of Slaves appeared in 1972, a year after his album, Songs of Love and Hate. Compared to his earlier albums, Songs of Love and Hate is much darker - where some of the work on Songs and Songs from a room are wistful and melancholical in an almost light-hearted manner, the tone on Songs of Love and Hate is much more serious, sometimes sardonic and mocking.

One poem from The Energy of Slaves which hit me immediately upon reading it the first time was Scorpion. Rereading it, it hit me again. The poem is a lyrical, defiant declaration of love of a woman to the scorpion - a brooding, solitary, but in some way heroic figure. The love which is sung in the poem is not an easy love: it is one which consumes and may ultimately destroy the singer. There is a tragic kind of mutual dependency here: the scorpion keeps his woman captive, in a way, in his own isolated sphere, at the same time, his woman is his window on a world he hates. There are many ways to read the poem: as the testimony of a love which lives despite everything: despite the dangers of the outside world, despite the hints of a very abusive relationship strewn throughout the poem, etc. It may also be a very rueful and puzzled comment by a male figure - the scorpion himself - on the love and loyalty shown to him despite his own tricks and his own malice.

The 1971 album, Songs of love and hate, starts off with one very much about both: Avalanche, a brooding, menacing anti-love song which may, perhaps, very well be read as the scorpion's answer to his beloved:

You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn what makes me kind
The crumbs of love that you offer me
are the crumbs I've left behind
Your pain is no credential here
It is the shadow of my wound

But, back to Scorpion:

O rare and perfect creature
who has made your nest in me
I'm on my way home to you
singing with the lips
you bloodied out of jealousy
I am your world
I am your wall

I'm on my way home to you - from where? Where has she been? The mention of bloodied lips and jealousy may hint at an act of violence between the two lovers - yet she decides to, despite all that, return to him. The last two lines here are wonderfully paradoxical: I am your world I am your wall - at the same time, the lover is the scorpion's window to the outside world, on the other hand, she presents herself as his protector, his shield, his wall.

You are the last scorpion
who never longed to be a man

What does it mean to long to be a man? Perhaps in a way we become human only when we enter a relationship of mutual, interpersonal love - becoming human only in the eyes of one's beloved, at the same time world and limit to the world. The scorpion heroically and defiantly rejects this. Compare the following lines from Avalanche:

You strike my side by accident
as you go down for your gold
The cripple that you clothe and feed
is neither starved nor cold
he do not ask for your company
not in the centre of the world

And, later on, puzzled:

I have begun to long for you
I who have no greed
I have begun to ask for you
I who have no need
You say you've gone away from me
but I can feel you when you breathe

Continuing Scorpion:

It is only in my heart
that you can dream
of your relentless invasion
of the sunlit plain
when you moved among the numberless
and a woman far more beautiful
than I am
was your invisible queen.

The lover feels unequal to the scorpion, knowing she falls short of his standards; at the same time, she is very much aware of how much he does in fact depend on her. But what does the invasion, the moving among the numberless, refer to? A dream or fantasy of collectivity, of transcendent purpose, by an ultimately isolated and hopelessly alienated individual?

Scorpion scorpion
master of the hollow stone
I will not let them crush you
I do not like their reasons
My heart is numb and swollen
from keeping you
in the safety of your anger
I never could foretell
the loyalty that would claim me
They will not wear you on a brooch
they will not watch you
in a paperweight
I am your dominion
I am your exercise

Again the lover presents herself as the scorpion's protector against a hostile outside world, though perhaps the "I do not like their reasons" means that the offences she suffered for her labours are not forgotten. Her tone is defiant but tired at the same time. On the one hand, her lips are bloodied, her heart is numb and swollen, on the other hand, there are stark declarations of self-sacrifice. Especially in the harsh last lines:

You hate the world I visit
and I am punished
by your solitary truth
Everything you say about the world
is true

Why did the poem hit me? I think that I immediately related the two actors in the poem - the lover and the scorpion - as two conflicting sides of myself. The solitary, withdrawn scorpion, content with himself and his powerful (if ultimately impotent) dreams about his "relentless invasion of the sunlit plain", and hating the world outside him. And the lover, mediating with difficulty between the scorpion and the world that surrounds him, protecting him from those that wish him harm, yet receiving little in way of thanks. And the lover's feelings of insufficiency in the face of her implacable scorpion. In some way, the scorpion, self-assured in his uniqueness and his beauty and his lack of needs above all, represented an ideal I knew I was not equal towards.

I recall being about three or four years old and stroking the cat, and wondering whether the cat had an "internal world" just like I had. And then wondering whether my parents had. Somehow the eyes were important here, as I reflected that the cat had eyes, and so did my parents, but was there anything "behind" them, or were the eyes empty and opaque? Somehow the idea that they had an inner world like I did seemed very odd to me, though at some point I guess that I simply accepted that they had, even if I saw little argument to support the assertion. I've read that a "theory of mind" is supposed to be common to all human beings, but I doubt it. I do have some kind of "theory of mind" but it's a very weak, tentative theory. But to make a long story short: the social sphere, interacting with other people, and all that, did not come very naturally to me. I was always most happy with the company of a book or a sheet of drawing-paper and my "internal world".

My parents took nevertheless a lot of care to teach me the basic rules, to be attentive, to not ignore my playmates, and all that. And in pre-school and high school environments where a some eccentricity was rather well tolerated, I thrived just fine. So I assimilated quite well. Where in some areas I still have trouble, I have my strengths as well.

But sometimes I wonder whether I did not lose something on the way. And that's when the figure of the defiant, solitary scorpion who does not even need the outside world is strangely attractive.

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