Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Love and the Broken “Hallelujah”

Still from the Pentatonix video “Hallelujah”.
(Image courtesy of Billboard.)
[EDIT: In all the fretting and concern over the election, I completely missed the news that Leonard Cohen died Monday, Nov. 7, at the age of 82. Now I’m glad that I had the chance to write this post before his passing. Shalom, Leonard, and thank you for this gift you gave us.]

Recently, the Texas a cappella quintet Pentatonix released a cover of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 song “Hallelujah”, which at 300 covers and counting may be the most re-recorded single in popular music history. My sister Peggy came across the official video on a Christian website and linked the page to her Facebook feed. Our parents sang in barbershop choruses when we were growing up, and we both sang in high school choruses, so we both appreciate good vocal music.

To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever listened to the song the whole way through before. I’ve seen Shrek only once — the penalty of never having your own children and living hundreds of miles away from your siblings’ kids; since I didn’t remember it was featured in the soundtrack, it must not have made a big impression on me at the time. Since then, I’d heard the first and second verse here and there, but not performed in any way that would grab my attention. But I’ll listen to anything Pentatonix records, even “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”. They’re that outstanding.

Listening to the Pentatonix version did more than wring out tears. I realized I’d heard the song before, but I’d never listened to it. It’s more than a love song; it’s an epiphany.

This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by “Hallelujah.” That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say, “Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.”…

 The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, “Look, I don’t understand a f**king thing at all — Hallelujah!” That’s the only moment that we live here fully as human beings. (Leonard Cohen, quoted in Rolling Stone, “Book Excerpt: Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ in ‘The Holy or the Broken’”)

Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah ….

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah ….

The baffled king composing “Hallelujah” — Saul’s harpist becomes the hero-king who, in his pride and power, arranges the death of his loyal general in order to take the Hittite’s wife. (Your faith is strong but you needed proof /You saw her bathing on the roof /Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you ….) David’s first child by Bathsheba dies, and his favorite son goes into fatal rebellion (“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”). Nathan prophesies that the sword shall never depart from his house (And a sword shall pierce your heart as well, the prophet tells the Virgin Mother; her son brings not peace but a sword). The broken-hearted warrior-poet is thrust beside the tax collector, to beat his breast and cry, “Have mercy on me, O God …. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

In reference to the song, U2 vocalist Bono observes, “I’ve thought a lot about David in my life. He was a harp player, and the first God heckler — as well as shouting praises to God, he was also shouting admonishment. ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ That’s the beginning of the blues.” (The broken and bleeding body on the cross screaming, Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani? And Chesterton, awed by the moment, said, “Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”)

But Cohen switches the imagery: another ruler of Israel, another warrior-poet, first figuratively blinded by lust and flattery then stripped of his strength by his treacherous leman and literally blinded by his enemies. Stripped of his power and humiliated by men, Samson is forced to place his trust in the Lord, and in doing so finds the courage to embrace his own destruction. But the kitchen chair is modern, and it forces us to look again at the narrator, who tells us what no textual critic could know — the chord structure of David’s song: It goes like this /The fourth, the fifth /The minor fall, the major lift … C – F – G – A minor – F – G, the pattern of Cohen’s song, and we know now the baffled king is Cohen himself, pleading with someone who “[doesn’t] really care for music”.

The only moment that you can live here comfortably in these absolutely irreconcilable conflicts is in this moment when you embrace it all and you say, “Look, I don’t understand a f**king thing at all — Hallelujah!”

Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil? Job of Uz, a man “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil,” loses everything he was given; yet he refuses to “curse God and die”. But though he refuses to accuse God of injustice or malice, neither can he bring himself to believe that his travails are merited; and indeed, they are not. Torn by the contradiction and paradox, Job is brought to humility by Transcendence. He does not understand because he cannot understand: the mortal mind can’t encompass the Absolute, the Infinite.

“As we bless God for the good, so we must bless Him for the evil.” Those are the words of the Talmud. They’re words beyond understanding, but if we cannot say them, we cannot hope. Bitterness, yes … but hopelessness, no. The Jewish way is to bless and to hope, and to bless and to hope, until blessing and hope surmount the pain and even the bitterness, and the living learn how to go on. … God is righteous. God is good. It’s people who sometimes forget; who let evil rule them; who lose the sense of the image of God within them and become beasts of prey. … “Blessed is the God who will judge righteously.” He does not forget. Sometimes it seems as if He needs time to assimilate everything He has seen, and to react to it and give recompense. But you’ll see it …. He does not forget! (Mel Mermelstein, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685, cit. in Roy H. Schoeman, Salvation is from the Jews: The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming, p. 147)

Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “To be Irish is to know that eventually the world will break your heart.” The love of God doesn’t reaffirm us in our special goodness. It breaks our heart to remake it. It is neither the powerful nor the influential who enters the kingdom, but rather the mortal, sinful man. Like Job, we enter this world with nothing, and we take nothing with us when we leave. While we remain mortal, the reasons why God does and permits some things will forever remain beyond our minds’ reach. For who has known the mind of the Lord? He gives, and he takes, and we don’t know why; give praise to His Name (hallelu yah).

Thy Will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Cohen recorded the first two verses in 1984. But the Pentatonix arrangement goes on to draw its third and fourth verse from a version Cohen recorded in 1988, a version more secular and more sexual, but not completely without religious references.

Baby, I’ve been here before.
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I knew you.

Yeah, I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,
But listen, love is not some kind of victory march,
No it’s a cold and it’s a very broken Hallelujah ….

In “And So It Goes”, Billy Joel tells his love, “So you can have this room to share /And you can have this heart to break.” It’s the same room; but where Cohen the believing, observant Jewish Buddhist has moved out of it, Joel the apikoros still lives there, merely offering to share the isolation. Joel offers his heart to be broken almost as a convention; in truth, we wonder if it isn’t so armored by his silence (My silence is my self-defense) that it can only be slightly scratched rather than smashed. His protestations of love are too rational: he’s ready to be disappointed, but not to be left howling in existential agony. For all that “And So It Goes” is a lovely song, it’s hardly a cri de coeur. It’s more a wistful remark from a soul whose passion, if not spent, is kept safe for something else, a soul that can’t embrace the paradoxical ambivalence of love with a cry of “Hallelujah!”

Love doesn’t conquer all — or, rather, we are the ones conquered by love, left bleeding and bewildered by a passion that shatters our defenses and opens us to wounds made by the Other. We all kill the one we love, wrote the impoverished, humiliated Oscar Wilde from his memory of prison: the coward with a cruel word, the brave one with a sword. (Is it the sword her son brought that pierced the Virgin’s heart — the sword that cleft Israel into his disciples and his enemies?) The foppish, scandalous wit who had flirted with God even as he indulged his fleshly appetites was finally cornered by the Hound of Heaven in a cell in Reading Gaol, cast there for his impertinent folly. The world had broken his heart.

Maybe there’s a God above,
As for me, all I’ve ever seemed to learn from love
Is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.

Yeah but it’s not a complaint that you hear tonight,
It’s not the laughter of someone who claims to have seen the light
No it’s a cold and it’s a very lonely Hallelujah.

The point to all this heart-breaking? To let us out of the prison of our autonomy and let grace flow in. To enable us to give ourselves to others, fully and unconditionally. In the end, here around the campfire in a universal wilderness indifferent to us, all we have is each other. Everything else, from poetry to politics, is ephemeral; everything that really matters is contingent on that fact — that we need each other to be fully human ourselves. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

Without God, we are literally nothing; there is nothing we can offer Him that He didn’t first give to us — even love. You and I are not the center of all things; we are but dust; and if we are loved, it isn’t because we deserve it or because we have a right to be loved, but rather because others choose to love us as a gift. Power is an illusion; wealth is corruption; pleasure is but a momentary spasm; and wisdom begins in knowing that we really don’t understand a f**king thing. Hallelujah.

Memento quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris. Naked you came from your mother’s womb, and naked you shall return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Hallelujah.

Thank you, Pentatonix, for pulling me into this song.