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Elaborate lies, Leonard Cohen, and Petra


This is what I had to say in 1976 about the Leonard Cohen lines

Let us compare mythologies;
I have learned my elaborate lie.
In a fanzine interchange I had remarked:
I would reword this as "Come, let us banter about our delusions; I have mine in shape for verbalization."
In a subsequent interchange I elaborated as follows:


It is a trite and banal piece of verse. It is, to use Orwell's description of Kipling's work, a graceful tribute to the obvious. The idea is sophomoric - I say this on the simple grounds that I thought similar thoughts when I was a sophomore and have seen other sophomores do the same since then. (Yes, yes, I know, but I couldn't quite resist.) It is shallow and popular pseudo profundity.

It is, moreover, false in two rather distinct ways. To begin with, the use of "mythologies" is a vulgarity. Each of us has his own Weltanshauung based on a large heterogeneous collection of experiences, symbols, feelings, observations, and theories. The elements of this Weltanshauung vary from he irrational and the unverbalizable to soaring verbal abstractions. Each of us accepts from the culture around us a host of symbols, values, and theories. And each of us modifies and twists the selected components to fit the needs of their own personalities and experience. It is a debased and sloppy use of the language to use "mythology" in this way. There is a Marxist mythology but Marxism is not a mythology.

But this is minor; the English language has been cheapened and debased for millennia and flourishes as vigorously as ever. The important falsity is the assertion, "I have learned my elaborate lie." I have not; he has not; none of us have ever learned our elaborate lies. All that we have learned is achieved at the price of further elaboration. It is one of the stages of wisdom when one learns this.

I will concede that "I have learned my elaborate lie" is good verse. "Elaborate lie" is a rather good turn of phrase. And "learned" admits of several interpretations, although I suspect that neither the poet nor most of his readers have in mind more than one. We could, for example, take "learned" in its most general sense, but this reduces the line to a convoluted way of saying I am I. Or we could take it in the sense of 'come to an understanding of" and arrive at the obvious. Or we could use it the sense of rote learning and rehearsing one's lines. Or one might assume that there is an implied "of" in there.

My rewording is one of the possible interpretations. I had in mind the cynical observation that people who think they are doing the Cohen bit end up doing something that is better described by my paraphrase.

I remarked that it is a trite and banal piece of verse. Let me expand on that a bit. It is not as banal as the work of Rod McKuen, which consists of commonplace thoughts expressed in commonplace words, devoid of originality and sharpness of image. Anybody might have said the sorts of things that McKuen says and anybody does, and if it is chanted solemnly is a misty mood it is poetry, God save us. Leonard Cohen evidently is of higher stature than that. Still. To begin with the thought expressed is not very profound. There is nothing particularly wrong with that, for poetry certainly does not have to treat only the profound; however this is the copybook wisdom of our times treated sententiously. It is not just the content that is banal, however. The language is banal also.

Let me turn for a moment to a quite good line of poetry, that famous line from Petra, "A rose red city half as old as time." There have been those who have asserted that it is one of the best lines of poetry ever written. I wouldn't say so myself, but nonetheless it is quite good poetry. Why? Well, to begin with, it flows well - it is good verse in the technical sense. Scansion, however, is found in the foothills; we must lift our eyes higher than that to see an Everest. The situation and the emotions provoked are not profound so the claim to greatness does not lie there. Petra is an ancient ruined city near modern Israel in southern Jordan.

Consider that phrase, "half as old as time." We have a strong feeling for the immediate past that is rooted in our experience. When I speak of the events of ten years ago, I speak of things that I know well because they are part of my own experience. They are close to me and very real. If I speak of the events of forty years ago there are less immediate and less real; however they have some closeness because they were part of the immediate experience of people I know well. When I go further and further back in time I lose that personal connection. To put it more precisely and more poetically: there is my past, my father's past, and the past. The past is built on a scale greater than we, and it is awesome. We reduce it; we bind it with dates and chronologies, and imagine that we have mastered it. We have not; we have merely affixed labels and mastered the labels.

Imagine, if you will, a traveller standing on a hill side, looking for the first time on this ancient, ruined city. None of the paraphernalia by which we reduce the universe to our scale is at hand. We look down and the magnitude of time is borne unto us. Time, ancient and greater than we, becomes immediate. This city is old; it is of Time and not of us. How old? It is not as old as time, for it was made by men, it had a beginning, and for them, as for us, there was time. It is half as old as time, which is to say that it is not as old as time, but it is of time and not of us. To say it is so many thousands of years old is a cheat. I know what a year is, for I have experienced it myself. I know what a hundred years are for that goes back to the beginning of my grandfather's time, and I knew him. But I do not know and shall never know what a thousand years are. I deceive myself if I that because I know what a year is and that I what one thousand is I therefore know what one thousand years are.

I could go on but I think my point is sufficiently well made. That line from Petra is good poetry; it is clear, simple, and beautiful. The Cohen quotation is not like that. What springs to mind when you say "mythologies": Tales of Greek mythology and, perhaps, Bible stories you learned as a child. Does Cohen mean that or to say something about that? Well, no. He means something else, and that something else is not an experience. It is a second hand word, a word about words and theories. The whole poem is second hand words. We read it and we see nothing and we hear nothing and we smell nothing and we feel no pain and we feel no awe. It is of Mr. Tomlinson, by Mr. Tomlinson, and for Mr. Tomlinson.


Afterword

It isn't easy to critique what one has written decades ago; it is hard to argue with one's past self. In such arguments one has the advantage because your former self can't refute you, but that is to no avail because he will stubbornly never admit defeat. If I cannot quite bring my stubborn past self to brook and make admit his errors, nonetheless I can take this moment to make a few points secure in the knowledge that he cannot refute me.

His plaint about the use of "mythologies" is more than a bit overstated and somewhat wide of the mark. My dictionary lists several meanings for the word "myth", of which two are relevant:

  1. A usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.
  2. A popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone; especially one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society.
and the relevant meaning of "mythology" is a body of myths. The point of this dictionary mongering (an unsavory habit I must admit) is to establish meaningful boundaries for this word, "mythology". An essential feature of myths and mythology is that they are social constructs. That is, they are shared by a segment of a society. An individual's private set of beliefs are not quite the same thing. It is this confusion of the public and the private that I suppose that the whippersnapper was objecting to. It is a fair objection; still the language is convenient. The whippersnapper did not suggest a suitable alternative and I have none to offer.

The force of that objection rests on a reading of the lines in question. There is a natural tendency to read the first line as "Let us compare (our) mythologies. On that reading we each have our own idiosyncratic mythologies that we are requested to compare. The poet then establishes his credentials for participating in the comparison by saying that he is clued in on his own mythology, that he has "learned his elaborate lie." It is this reading that the whippersnapper objected to as being sophomoric; I opine that he had the right of it.

One doesn't have to make that reading. The mythologies to be compared can be public, and the "elaborate lie" can be a mythology that the poet has assimilated. However that reading also is problematic. Mythologies are not elaborate lies. The function of myth is explanation; the function of lies is deception. I fancy that any interpretation of Cohen's lines either must be sophomoric or else must stand language on its head.

The discussion of that famous line from Petra is alright as far it goes, albeit rather wordy. However it does not account for the striking effect of "A rose red city."

Tomlinson, for those not familiar with Kipling's poem by that name, is a man who lives life second hand. In the poem heaven will not have him because he has done nothing good, and hell rejects him because he has done nothing bad. There is no passion or substance to him. Whether the whippersnapper was being too harsh in the final paragraph is a matter I will leave to the reader. The conclusion seems a bit much; reading the paragraph almost persuades me though.


This page was last updated January 1, 2005.

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Hyde County, South Dakota is the pin tail duck capital of the world. Visit scenic Highmore, SD in 2005!