Imago lacus

The picture above was taken by a dear friend, the American poet Debra Kang Dean (please do not use it without permission). I met Debra three years before, when I went to Walden to work with his late husband Brad, a great Thoreau scholar. Once we spent hours tracking this quotation: "Some men go fishing all their lives without ever realizing it's not fish they are after." We concluded that Thoreau never wrote it, but si non è vero...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

'The Art of Wandering' by Leon Wieseltier

The road is not a line between places; it is a place between places, a place of its own. You cannot understand the ravishments of the road unless you overcome the logistical way of looking at things, which is perhaps the most powerful impediment that our hustling way of life puts in the way of experience. Since we cling to a mainly instrumental view of the road, we have forgotten how to be travellers and we are tourists instead, sitting still before the window and watching the world speed past, when in fact we are the ones who are speeding and it is the world that is still, for those who possess the capacity for stillness. We are too enamoured of destinations. We hunger too much for arrival. We treat the road as an interval between meanings, an interregnum between dispensations, and so we are blinded to the richness of meanings and dispensations in the road itself. If departure is the past and arrival is the future, then the road is the present, and there is nothing more spiritually difficult, or spiritually rewarding, than learning to live significantly in the present. This is accomplished by a schooling in transience, and the road is such a school. Almost as powerfully as the sea and the sky, the road is an emblem of immensity: the horizon into which it disappears is the promise of a release, which is the promise of a horizon, which is the promise of a release. From the stretch of even the most ordinary road, you may infer a suggestion of infinity.

Perhaps this is why singers and preachers have often preferred to wander: itinerancy refreshes and expands the spirit. By means of the unfamiliar, it makes complacence harder (though the cult of the road also has its conventions). The wanderer is the figure who recognizes the gift of alienation. The stranger may be powerless, but he has the force of a fresh eye and an unexpected mind: the inner advantage belongs to him. He knows no stasis. It is of course for sustenance that the singer and the preacher roam from town to town, but not only for material sustenance. The gig is an opportunity to gain distance (which is a gain) and to observe more; to do it differently and better; maybe even to get it right. In some of his songs about wandering, Schubert insisted upon the lucky break of homelessness: "Everything seems clear; nothing is distorted, or withered in the heat of day. Happy in my surroundings, if alone, I go." "There, where you are not, there is happiness." The wanderer may be weary, but so is the man plumply at home, the stationary man, the undiversified man, the solvent man, the man who lives in the illusion that he knows all he needs to know and sees all he needs to see.

Between May 11, 2008 and November 20, 2009, Leonard Cohen, who has called his work "stranger music", played 195 shows throughout Europe, North America, and the Pacific. A world tour, as the promoters call it; except that Cohen's peregrinations, in his eighth decade, cannot be altogether explained commercially "I came so far for beauty", he sang many years ago. He has always championed impatience and fleetingness and the urge for leaving: no sooner did he record a song called "Go No More A-Roving" than he set out to rove. There is nothing like a global itinerary, I suppose, to vindicate a belief in evanescence. For there was an element of conviction to his late far-flung passings-through (which are not yet over: he is about to begin the conquest of Asia), a deliberate quality, the aspect of a Spiritual exercise. The shows were unforgettable. I saw two of them. They were elegant, witty, warm, dark, and light. The love with which Cohen was met by his audiences was oceanic. Cohen's charisma is one of the heartening facts of life, because it is owed entirely to his interiority And - to borrow what the Bible says about the nomadic Israelites - as he camps so does he travel. When the man with the small hat and the large soul took the stage, he commanded it completely. He was quiet and modest and riveting. A few times he feil to his knees, because it pleased him to regard himself as a creature in Service. (How many rock Stars can be found kneeling?) The whole proceeding took place in an atmosphere of graciousness, almost ceremonially. Throughout the show, it was never clear whose gratitude was greater, Cohen's or the audience's. He seemed to find at every stop the sisters of mercy whom he immortalized in one of his oldest and most tender songs. They were seated before him. They waited for him when he thought he just couldn't go on. They brought him their comfort and later they brought him his song. He had hoped to run into them, he who was traveling so long.

At these concerts it was hard to remember that Cohen was once renowned for bleakness. Here the exploration of pain, and the memory of it, was dispelled by an overwhelming desire to praise. The singer's poise had nothing to do with coolness or indifference. His lucidity was without bitterness. He had come to furnish the example of an intelligent acceptance. In this way he raised his listeners up, and they rose. "Even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!": there is nothing like the exhilaration of this broken but lyrical man, the master of irony putting irony behind him, who is certain, absolutely certain, that the garden stays open after the sin, and that failure will not bar him, or anybody else, from grace. The faith but not the church: it is the lasting dream of wayward but devoted sons of the traditions once regarded as divine. And now, wherever this precious man wanders, the famous blue raincoat notwithstanding, people sing "hallelujah!" The Psalmist himself could not have asked for more.

Leonard Cohen
Songs From The Road (Sony, 2010)

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