Monogamy is not the first word that comes to mind when the name Leonard Cohen is heard. He was, to say the least, a bit of a lad.

I have just finished Sylvie Simmons' excellent and very readable biography of the great poet and musician. She quotes the Guardian's Robin Denselow describing Cohen's London gigs on his first European tour as being about “self-obsession, cynicism, non-communication; it is two strangers frantically making love in a shadowy hotel bedroom.” Perhaps this observation was more prescient than the critic knew at the time.

Leonard went through women like the London to Edinburgh train goes through stations. He was insatiable. And the tortuous process of writing, thinking and – eventually – performing accompanied his relationships with a self-referential singlemindedness that is both impressive and shocking. His approach to sex is as hard to admire as his stamina is hard to ignore.

But, as with many great artists, it is out of the flawed humanity, this wrestling with spirituality and sensuality, that their pips get squeezed and the fruit is pressed out.

Or is it?

What is clear with Leonard Cohen is that not once does he dissemble, lie or pretend to be what he is not. Selfish and self-interested he might be (although the way he fulfils his responsibilities towards his children is honourable and his generosity to friends and disadvantaged people – see the stuff about his gigs in mental institutions in Europe – remarkable), but he is not a hypocrite. His walking out on commitments to women seems to me to be deplorable, but none of his women seems to be surprised.

What I found moving about his 'pension restoration' world tour in 2008 was that here was a man of 75 who is now at peace with himself. Maybe, as George Melly once observed with evident relief and gratitude, age silences the torment of a rampant and enslaving libido. Cohen performs with humour, generosity, humility and wonderful skill – at ease with himself and the musicians who bring his music to life.

When I once expressed my admiration for Cohen in a blog post, I got a blasting response to the effect that he is simply a shameful louche. All I can say is: so was Mozart, but I haven't heard anyone suggest his liturgical settings should not be used in church.

Cohen comes over as a remarkable artist and a man whose suffering and searching has lasted a life time, leaving in his wake as many casualties as credits. But, I guess, like the older men in John 8, who, having demanded that the woman caught in adultery be stoned (and not in the sense that Cohen regularly got stoned), began to leave first, those of us who have lived longer recognise our own catalogue of failings and should be less swift to judge. Cohen, at least, is relentlessly honest.

So, now I am on to Christopher Browning's 'Ordinary Men' – another shocking exploration of the human condition and our easy acquaintance with avoidable cruelty. More anon.

 

So, we read yesterday that the Israeli government has given permission for another thousand settlement homes to be built. And the outside observer might be forgiven for wondering if peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Palestinian can ever be more than wishful thinking.

Or, to put it differently, is it ever possible for one generation, haunted by nurtured histories of enmity and mutual injustices, to choose to create a memory for the next generation that breaks the cycle of hatred, suspicion, provocation and self-justifying violence?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, noting the death of the last person to fight on the First World War (I think) once spoke about “when memory becomes history”. His point was basically that once the bearers of memory have died, we are left with history as a commodity to be re-shaped, traded and totemised. When there is no living witness to refute the nonsense, it is left to the ideologues to shape the history narrative in such a way as to justify current preoccupations or priorities.

(As an aside: when clergy move to a new post I encourage them to learn the history of the new parish, but to recognise that people there will speak and act from the memory – the newly-appointed priest might learn the history, but an not share the memory.)

I guess this is on my mind today because I have just finished reading Tony Horwitz's excellent pursuit of the American Civil War, 'The Confederates in the Attic'. Funny it may be, but there is something disturbing about the way we – and not just the people we think are mad – appropriate 'memories' regardless of the accuracy or propriety of doing so. Horwitz illustrates well how the myths about the Civil War are more powerful than the facts or the reality. (You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.)

As always, the language tells its own story. The Civil War is known in the South variously as 'the War of Northern Aggression', 'the Lost Cause' and 'the Recent Unpleasantness'. We write the 'history' in order to create a 'memory' that justifies who and how we behave now – especially in relation to those who (inconveniently) share 'our space'. Closer to (my) home, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland view the Battle of the Boyne in 16XX differently.

Anyway, I am now on to Sylvie Simmons' 2012 biography of Leonard Cohen. And what raises its head at the beginning of Cohen's story in Montreal, Canada? The segregation of French and English in Quebec. However, she does also quote Canadian poet Irving Layton, speaking about Cohen and defining 'genius' in the same way I have previously described a prophet: “the ability – a very rare ability – to see things as they actually are. You are not fooled.” (p.51) If a genius is rarely appreciated in these terms, a prophet is rarely welcome in his/her own home.

There is no escape. This is how tribal human beings are. We don't have to be. We can choose not to be. But, this demands a self-sacrificial decision to prioritise the future over the past and to create a reality that will prove to be a more hopeful and positive 'memory' for those who will inherit the history we are making now.