Here is one of his poems, Premier jour.
It is truly amazing to see how he manages, with minimalist touches and a masterful use of color, to plunge us into the tragedy of a death during childbirth.
And then there is that word, dans (“inside”), recurring in each verse and suggesting a strange telescope effect. One thing is always inside another, everything is connected; the event is inscribed in a wider perspective – the house, the town, the night.
This is why one should not be deceived by the poem’s apparent formal simplicity. In reality, it encompasses both joy and drama, the mystery of life and death; and a dark cosmos (the night), of which we will never know whether it is compassionate or indifferent.
Few games lend themselves to philosophical metaphors like the game of chess.
The two armies, one dark and one bright, have been battling each other for millennia in endless struggle. An abstract fight of mathematical perfection, as mankind’s “terrible love of war” is inscribed within an orthogonal grid which is only superficially reassuring.
The chessboard hides in fact an impossible combinatory vertigo, an infinity of variations. One should not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of the scheme (the estimate of all possible games is a staggering number), and remember that famous Pharaoh who, upon accepting to pay a grain of wheat on the first square and to double the number of grains on the following squares, found himself ruined.
The battle of 32 pieces on the 64 squares inspired, aside from the obvious martial allegories, several poems tracing the analogy between the chessboard and the Universe itself, and between the pawns and human condition.
The most ancient and famous is one of Omar Khayyám‘s quatrains:
Tis all a Chequer-board of nights and days
Where Destiny with men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the closet lays.
This idea of God moving men over the chessboard as he pleases might look somewhat disquieting, but Jorge Luis Borges multiplied it into an infinite regress, asking if God himself might be an unknowing piece on a larger chessboard:
Weakling king, slanting bishop, relentless
Queen, direct rook and cunning pawn
Seek and wage their armed battle
Across the black and white of the field.
They know not that the player’s notorious Hand governs their destiny, They know not that a rigor adamantine Subjects their will and rules their day.
The player also is a prisoner (The saying is Omar’s) of another board Of black nights and of white days.
God moves the player, and he, the piece. Which god behind God begets the plot Of dust and time and dream and agonies?
This cosmic game is of course all about free will, but is also part of the wider context of memento mori and of Death being the Great Leveler. Whether we are Kings or Bishops, rooks or simple pawns; whether we fight for the White or Black side; whether our army wins or loses — the true outcome of the battle is already set. We will all end up being put back in the box with all other pieces, down in “time’s common grave“.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Death many times sat at the chessboard before Man.
In the oldest representations, the skeleton was depicted as cruel and dangerous, ready to violently clutch the unsuspecting bystander; but by the late Middle Ages, with the birth of the Danse Macabre (and possibly with the influence of the haunting but not malevolent Breton figure of Ankou) the skeleton had become unarmed and peaceful, even prone to dancing, in a carnival feast which, while reminding the viewer of his inevitable fate, also had an exorcistic quality.
That Death might be willing to allow Man a game of chess, therefore, is connected with a more positive idea in respect to previous iconographic themes (Triumph of Death, Last Judgement, the Three Kings, etc.). But it goes further than that: the very fact that the Reaper could now be challenged, suggests the beginning of Renaissance thought.
In fact, in depictions of Death playing chess, just like in the Danse Macabre, there are no
allusions or symbols directly pointing to the apocalyptic presence of religion, nor to the necessity of its rituals; for instance, there are no elements suggesting the need of receiving, in the final act, the extreme confort of a priest or the absolution as a viaticum for the next world, which would stress the feeling of impotence of man. Portrayed in the Danse Macabre is a man who sees himself as a part of the world, who acknowledges his being the maker of change in personal and social reality, who is inscribed in historical perspective.
(A. Tanfoglio, Lo spettacolo della morte…Quaderni di estetica e mimesi del bello nell’arte macabra in Europa, Vol. 4, 1985)
The man making his moves against Death was no more a Medieval man, but a modern one.
Later on, the Devil himself was destined to be beat at the game: according to the legend, Sixteenth Century chess master Paolo Boi from Syracuse played a game against a mysterious stranger, who left horrified when on the chessboard the pieces formed the shape of a cross…
But what is probably the most interesting episode happened in recent times, in 1985.
A Dr. Wolfgang Eisenbeiss and an aquaintance decided to arrange a very peculiar match: it was to be played between two great chess masters, one living and one dead.
The execution of the game would be made possible thanks to Robert Rollans, a “trustworthy” medium with no knowledge of chess (so as not to influence the outcome).
The odd party soon found a living player who was willing to try the experiment, chess grandmaster Viktor Korchnoi; contacting the challenger proved to be a little more difficult, but on June 15 the spirit of Géza Maróczy, who had died more than 30 years before on May 29, 1951, agreed to pick up the challenge.
Comunicating the moves between the two adversaries, through the psychic’s automatic writing, also took more time than expected. The game lasted 7 years and 8 months, until the Maróczy’s ghost eventually gave up, after 47 moves.
This “supernatural” game shows that the symbolic value of chess survived through the centuries.
One of the most ancient games is still providing inspiration for human creativity, from literature (Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass was built upon a chess enigma) to painting, from sculpture to modern so-called mysteries (how could chess not play a part in Rennes-le-Château mythology?).
From time to time, the 64 squares have been used as an emblem of seduction and flirtation, of political challenges, or of the great battle between the White and the Black, a battle going on within ourselves, on the chessboard of our soul.
It is ultimately an ambiguous, dual fascination.
The chessboard provides a finite, clear, rationalist battlefield. It shows life as a series of strategical decisions, of rules and predictable movements. We fancy a game with intrinsic accuracy and logic.
And yet every game is uncertain, and there’s always the possibility that the true “endgame” will suddenly catch us off guard, as it did with the Pharaoh:
CLOV (fixed gaze, tonelessly):
Finished, it’s finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.
He had seen the future. He knew the darkness and the light. He always observed the world with no pulling back, in almost cruel honesty, he did not refrain from sharing his own failures. He understood that those very wounds we all carry inside of us, allowed for beauty.
Lately, he looked like a man preparing for death by getting rid of all his masks, one by one.
“It’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.” This he wrote just few months ago to Marianne Ihlen, the muse who had inspired him, and who was in those days approaching her own death.
Leonard Cohen’s itinerary was tormented, in a constant precarious balance between the two ends of the spectrum of experience: vice and exstasy, depression and mysticism, excesses and frugality, cynism and romanticism.
Yet it would be useless to search for any trace of self-indulgence or presumption in his words. Just take a look at any interview, and you will see an almost embarassed modesty (back in the day, his legendary shyness brought him much trouble with live performances), and the courtesy of someone who is well aware of the pain of being alive.
This was the focus of his poems, and his musica. The liturgic quality of many of his lyrics was perhaps to him the most natural register to confront the problem of suffering, but he didn’t hesitate to contaminate it with profane elements. In fact his research was always synthetic, an attempt to conciliate the opposites he had lived through: and it also resulted in a patient work of condensing words (five years to write Hallelujah, ten for Anthem). The goal was achieving, as much as possible, a perfection of simplicity.
It led to verses like this one, capable of summarizing in a brief touch the most authentic idea of love: “You go your way / I’ll go your way too“.
This hunger for transcendence brought the “little Jew” enamoured of the Kabbalah upon different spiritual paths, even locking him up in a Zen monastery — not as a “tourist”, but for six years. Until he realized, as he confessed in his last published single, that his demons had always been shamefully middle-class and boring.
Indeed, that last black jewel, You Want It Darker; a sort of testament or a preparation for the end.
A somber dialogue between the man-Cohen, the Man of every time and latitude, and a God with which no compromise is possible (“If you are the dealer, I’m out of the game / If you are the healer, it means I’m broken and lame / If thine is the glory then mine must be the shame”); a God who refuses to stretch out his hand towards man, leaving him lost in his arranged hell (“A million candles burning for the help that never came”).
A cold, enigmatic God, a mystery from which even the Evil seems to stem, so much so that all horror is likely a result of His inscrutable order: if God wants this Earth a little darker, we stand ready to “kill the flame“.
And it is in this desolate landscape that, as a final breath, as an extreme prayer, comes that heartwrenching hineni. “Here I am“, the word Abraham spoke before setting to sacrifice his own son on behalf of the Lord.
“I’m ready“, Leonard whispers.