I have always liked this day, this night, which grows increasingly poignant as Time decays. So many lovely souls now lost to the dateless night closing in on us all. So many. My lifeline to the planet’s progress, or egress, CBC Radio’s The World At Six, is 50 years old today. Ho-hum. The police in Montreal are now tapping a journalist’s telephone. The Great American Disaster now slouches towards its inevitably foul finale, with the FBI illegally interfering in an election that, one hopes, will remain the all-time nadir of western democracy. This is a day for reflection and remembrance. The earth has grown still and silent, as life retreats below to wait for spring and more life. A winter chill envelops huddled trees and empty fields. Up here, in the mountains, even people seem to disappear until the tenderness of new green leaves is once more seen. Byron and Algis are off to Mexico. It is usually a melancholy time, yet I find myself thinking of not-so-small mercies, the recent blessings that have come.
By now, I have purchased Leonard Cohen’s latest album, You Want It Darker, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude and admiration. Previously, I thought the title song was cause enough for rejoicing – and, to be honest, I expected no more. Now I find this is one of his very best albums – which, for Cohen, is saying a lot – a compilation of ten exquisite songs almost heartbreaking in their truth and beauty. It was produced by his son, Adam Cohen, who has created a masterpiece of subtle restraint, with plaintive strings, reminiscent of Beethoven’s Last Quartets, always haunting his father’s balefully evocative and irreducibly concise words.
If you are the Dealer
I’m out of the game
If you are the Healer
Then I’m broken and lame –
You want it darker?
We kill the flame…
Leonard Cohen was not well when he recorded this album, it seems. The sessions were held in his house, and the microphone fixed up over a medical chair. No doubt the extreme physical exertions of his recent tours – falling to his knees to sing Hallelujah – exacted a toll. The songs do indeed sound elegiac, yet I hear no sense of an end-time farewell, as some do. Indeed, the gently tinkling piano and the modest cooing of back-up singers lends a hopeful air to extravagantly ambiguous lyrics. Flames may be killed, he might be “out of the game” – but his heart has always been heavy with a love so bittersweet it is barely distinguishable from sorrow. Even the phrase, “I’m ready, my Lord,” which repeats in the title song, is not a quietus – Leonard has long been ready for his Lord, and, unsurprisingly, he still is. Although now he may be:
Has given up on me and you…
I might be that somebody too, so I can dig it – as we used to say.
I’d better drink this glass of blood
Try to say the Grace Try to keep the peace…
They are not words of weary resignation. So many of these fine songs express the equanimity that comes
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought
I’m not sure why Leonard Cohen’s triumph at 82 should so transfix me with joy – yet it does. Possibly it encourages me, at 66, to anticipate many more years of abundance? Possibly. But, listening to all the shitty contemporary music which spurts from my radio if I don’t get there fast enough, I am inclined to think it is because great singer-songwriters may be waning, but they’re not dead yet – and, who knows, they may inspire another generation to match standards that seem anything but standard? Well, Lenny, what a feat!
Equally delightful is Werner Herzog’s latest film, Into the Inferno, now available on Netflicks. Of course, I could not actually see it, but I heard it, and heard about it. Ostensibly a look at volcanoes and volcanologists, it is naturally far, far more than that, delving into matters as deep and dark as those Leonard Cohen toys with. The footage of eruptions and lava-flows is evidently mind-boggling, yet much of this is stock-footage – and Herzog happily admits it. What interests him is the ancient interplay between humankind and this most dramatic display of nature’s destructive potency. Numerous far-flung regions have a mythology inextricably linked to the earth’s proclivity for devouring her inhabitants in a rage of molten rock, of pyro-caustic rivers rushing down at a thousand miles an hour to obliterate all that was once a landscape unchanged in millennia. One South Pacific island even has a relatively recent commemorative cult. Jon Frum, an American GI, parachuted – presumably by accident – into the island’s volcano crater. But, like Jesus, he will one day return, bringing gifts of bubble-gum, candy, and washing-machines for everyone. This is not a barroom yarn. It is a nascent religion – one that could, if circumstances permitted it, dominate half the world. Herzog does not ridicule it either. With his usual wry wisdom, he presents it in comparison with Christianity – and these comparisons are many. Herzog is the perfect polite observer, always eager to understand another’s point of view, and never judgmental. Somehow, he manages to enter North Korea, where a great volcano – Mount Pekatu – has been incorporated into the ruling party’s mythology. Noting the country’s restrictions on media, the director simply informs us that North Korea prefers to be seen from its own point of view. He allows the images to speak for themselves – the “human pixels” choreographed in displays of hundreds of weeping thousands celebrating the nation’s birth. It would be mawkish to comment on such images. Instead, Herzog pinpoints nuggets of information that reveal far more even than his images. The original Kim Il Jong, for example, the fighter against “Japanese imperialism” who fathered the nation, also declared himself the “leader for all eternity” – which is why his son and , now, his grandson have never declared themselves leaders. There can be no other leader. As Herzog shows us, the nominative leaders are always portrayed with the volcano behind them. It is a metaphor for strength, and a symbol of the regime’s connection to North Korea’s vast antiquity. We see students in military dress sing odes to the volcano, and Herzog merely remarks, in his droll way, that it is hard to picture American college freshmen and women performing such a ritual in deadly seriousness. Hard? It is impossible. In Ethiopia, he stumbles across anthropologists who have just uncovered fossilized human remains a hundred-thousand years old. It is only the third such find in all of Africa, and he captures beautifully the mood of scientists whose lives generally involve sweeping through dust and finding nothing. It is, perhaps, his interest in human reactions to the extraordinary that makes Herzog such an exceptionally great director. This, and his willingness to allow his films to jolt off on tangents offering huge digressions. Here, he muses on our distant ancestors, their short lives dictated entirely by a natural world we have now learned to subdue – and will possibly destroy in the process. His film is a powerful reminder of the planet’s proven ability to destroy itself unaided. Herzog’s histories of ancient volcanic events – one of them nearly exterminating the inchoate homo sapiens – are essential to our current dilemma of believing ourselves to be brutal masters of the planet. Nothing matches the earth herself in brutality. We merely float upon an inferno, that can shrug us off whenever it wishes. Thank you, Werner Herzog, for so many wonderful films, so much bizarre fun, and a great deal to think about. Now the Ghoulies are coming to my door…
Paul William Roberts