Heart with No Companion:
‘a manual for living with defeat’
This piece was originally written about ten years ago and published by Allan Showalter who has hosted a Leonard fansite for many years. I wrote it because I loved the lyrics to this slightly lesser known song, and because I felt it captured what I call 'the after life of sorrow' - the positive humanizing impact that wrestling with gloomy moods and difficult circumstances can have on our capacity to love.
Now that Leonard Cohen has left this dimension, it seems clearer than it has ever been how deeply beneficient his presence among us has been, and how profoundly we loved him, and how powerful his transmission to us was. (I find myself thinking of Aristotle's concept of Eudaimonia - a type of flourishing more profound than happiness. "Even in circumstances which are stressing to an individual, a virtuous person will always act in a good manner, carrying himself in a better way and will not be brought down by a weak spirit." For Aristotle, the reputation and 'trace' of a man after his death, fully revealed the extent of his flourishing... the goodness of his life...
The voice of Going Home on Old Ideas speaks of a wish to write ‘a manual for living with defeat.’ This phrase captures one of the things Leonard Cohen has come to symbolise: how to live with grace and beauty, amid our many failures and disappointments. He is one of the finest voices we have, have ever had, and perhaps will ever have, of the value of bearing with what hurts and haunts us.
Leonard lives in the shadow, and he loves from the shadows, and he reminds us that we can too. For me, as for many others, Cohen’s way of being with us, the wry yet tender depths from which he speaks, has come to serve as a reminder of the redemptive beauty of imperfection, darkness, failure, weakness, stubborn longing, and the humble battered love that emerge from them.
In Heart with No Companion, (Various Positions), Cohen captures one aspect of this battered love: how our tenderness toward each other can deepen in the wake of defeat. The song speaks to the frequent failure of our longings, the painful gap between what we yearn for and what we are given, and how that gap can be borne. It is an unusual kind of love song - a reaching out toward those who are alone, failing and bereft – to those that no-one else is singing to. But it is more than that: it is also a reminder that when we endure grief and disappointment, we find ourselves able to love differently in their aftermath. It is a call to love – of brokenness, from brokenness, after brokenness.
Cohen sings directly to those who have failed – failed to realise their most cherished, central hopes: ‘Now I sing this for the captain, whose ship has not been built, to the mother in confusion, her cradle still unfilled...’ There are days, years, lives that feel like this: coloured by a profound sense of having failed, by loneliness, confusion and loss. How can we go on, when this is what has become of our most essential dreams? Yet for each of us (and for some of us many times over), this is the bleak reality: we have not become who we once hoped to be. Some yearned for part of our potential (motherhood, a vocation, a great love) has not come. We have not been able to achieve it. And yet we must go on, or try to go on.
There is something stark and solitary in failing in such essential things: in living, day after day, with such defeats. And in this starkness, we need love not pity; solidarity not reassurance. We need a great and loving lullaby; we need a broken song, which understands the desolate territory in which we find ourselves, and joins us there. ‘O gather up the brokenness/ and bring it to me now’, sings Leonard elsewhere, on Come Healing. Here is a heart that seems to sense how bad we feel, that maybe loves us all the more when we are broken. It offers to receive us, to greet us, to welcome us in.
‘The other side of Sorrow and Despair’: The beautiful Afterlife of Sorrow…
But Heart with No Companion offers more than soothing refuge: it speaks of the qualities of love that can arise from brokenness, and of how an acute tenderness can be blown open in the wake of defeat. The song speaks of the reality of our failures, but also of a love that can only be forged in dark lands. In this, it manages to encourage us to endure our pain and open our hearts wider in its wake, for others’ sake. This is a vision both transcendent and unflinching. It reminds us that failure and pain will never go away, that ‘days of shame are coming’ and always will. All we can do, amid such onslaughts, is hold fast to our promises, even when we cannot see the point.
The song begins with a declaration: ‘I greet you from the other side/of sorrow and despair/with a love so vast and shattered/it will reach you everywhere…‘ What is this other side of sorrow, and why does it matter so much that we remember it?
When we are at our very worst, we may need to be reminded that future moments will come in which we will not be swamped in fear and pain, but will have something to give. We may also need a reminder that we are not alone, that others need us, and that they suffer too. But Cohen’s is not just faith that we will emerge, but that how we learn to wear our wounds within these hours, days of our suffering, counts for something, not just within us, but later, for others.
This is a faith that we do not have to succeed in order to be our best selves – in fact perhaps we must not – for it is our weaknesses that will complete us. In Cohen’s work, failure is never an obstacle to human flourishing – but rather its opposite - the essential kernel we need to transcend ourselves and reach for something deeper. Our sorrows and despair are not ends in themselves, and they are not disasters. They leave a trace within us; they have an afterlife that lives on, that forges a more tender heart.
Heart with No Companion encourages us to look at suffering through this lens of hope: not a Hollywood type of hope, more hope amid the wreckage. Cohen’s rhythm in all of this is profoundly realistic: there is no end point. His is always a broken healing, a healing that will dissolve again, that will shatter and fragment, giving way to more suffering before birthing further tenderness, then looping on. Somewhere along the line, our lives will stop: we will die. There is no false promise here, no simplistic myth of a finale in which all is well, simply an invitation to keep going, while we are still here, while we walk among each other. This may be the best we can do: to live through what is hard, to use what we have gained there to embrace each other, reaching back to the wounded from the calm after the storm.
Throughout his work, Cohen speaks to the way that it is our brokenness and our failures that make us whole, even if that wholeness is a fragmented, scarred, battered, and unkempt. The reach of Heart with No Companion recalls us not just to ourselves, but to one another. Borne from personal suffering, its’ voice is determined to draw on that suffering, to bear witness, to accompany and belong to one another, to do this so fully that we may sing to each other from our broken love. However hopeless, or apparently hopeless, we retain this duty, this promise:
Through the days of shame that are coming
Through the nights of wild distress
Though your promise count for nothing
You must keep it nonetheless
You must keep it for the captain,
Whose ship has not been built…
This is the expression of someone who knows the horrors will come again – because they always have; who knows hopelessness, yet who is willing to keep a promise, even against the odds. And who will live this vow for the broken ones, for the broken parts of the self.
There is a command here to keep faith with ourselves for the sake of one another; at times we ourselves will not be sufficient reason to endure. In our lowest days and hours, we are so trapped inside ourselves, that the notion that we could ever have something to give another feels thin and ridiculous: our world shrinks to this anxiety, this sadness, this raw wound at the heart of our being. But through Cohen’s words – and, perhaps as essentially, our sense of who he himself has become, we are encouraged to enter it and go on, we are reminded that the captain is out there waiting, somewhere, waiting for our hearts to be wide enough to know his pain, waiting for us to sing to him.
In writing of Heart with No Companion, my wish is to celebrate its’ articulation of this broken love that blossoms in the aftermath of suffering, bravely borne. Cohen reminds us of the kind of transformation that is possible when we find ourselves compelled to spend more time than we might like to in the wreckage. And he reminds us also, that others live there too, and need our song.
(Some of these themes are explored in my workshop Embracing Sadness)
Postscript & LInks, November 2016
Yeats wrote these words in Sailing to Byzantium. Leonard seemed often to embody them, showing us how the soul could louder sing... Click on Yeats words for a beautiful reading from Leonard of In Flanders Field. The second link is from a speech given by Cohen in 2011, to the Spanish King, and finally, his last interview.