Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen died yesterday.  He wrote many wonderful songs, but certainly his most famous is "Hallelujah," and rightfully so.

Now I've heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don't really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah

I have no problem with science, and I absolutely refuse to accept the Luddite notion that there is something inherently wicked about our technological civilization, especially in light of the human suffering from disease and starvation that we have been able to mitigate with that technology.  But I also simply cannot accept the idea that the phenomenon of human experience is capable of being reduced to purely materialistic concepts that can be explained scientifically.  So much of what we do and what we experience is deeply irrational and purposeless according to those pure scientific standards, and yet we do them anyway.  There is something within each one of us that points us to something that transcends the cells and neurons and biochemical processes that make up our bodies.  I think we know this intuitively--to be a hardened materialist, you have to have that sense of the transcendent beaten out of you, rather than some sort of reversion to a ground state.

The problem is that this transcendence is somehow just beyond our grasp.  I think we as human beings exist in a perpetual state of reaching for something that we can never quite get to, almost like a cat being teased with a toy that gets yanked away at the last minute.  So, we do many different things to try to breach that gap, none of which are fully sufficient to accomplish what we are trying to do.  But there is a kernel of the real thing in all of those attempts--we may be flailing around in the dark, but we are flailing around in the dark in a room that has the thing we are looking for.

The best argument, to me, for things like diversity and pluralism is the recognition that all of us are the baffled king composing Hallelujah.  All of us are reaching out to find something that we don't understand, using tools that are inadequate for the task, and yet we still get a glimpse of what we are looking for.  We are all in the same boat, and we should cut everyone some slack.

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you
To a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Probably the most improbable thing about this yearning for transcendence is that we often find it in other people--people who are equally clueless, equally flailing around.  Logically, it shouldn't be the case that the flawed and broken pieces that make up people should add up to anything other than a mass of junk.  And, yet, we all know that it can, and it does.  Together we are more than the sum of our parts, and we add up to something that cannot be found alone and in isolation.

The genius of Cohen and Hallelujah is that he recognizes that reality but refuses to sugarcoat the problems inherent in this vehicle for transcendence.  Finding transcendence in each other is a hard road, and there is going to be heartache along the way.  The fact that we still do it, that we still go after something in each other, shows how powerful the end product can be.  We would all stop doing it if it wasn't worth it.  But that still doesn't make it easy.

Well baby I've been here before
I've seen this room and I've walked this floor
I used to live alone before I knew ya
And I've seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a vict'ry march
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

My two favorite versions of Hallelujah are K.D. Lang's version and this new version by Pentatonix.




K.D. Lang's version is deeply personal--it's like you can feel her experiences through the song.  Maybe I am projecting something on to the music that isn't really there, but I often find that LGBT artists have an undercurrent of pain and loneliness that you can hear in their music.  Sam Smith's "Won't You Stay With Me?" has that, as does many of Melissa Ethridge's songs.  This version has it in spades.  She has lived this; she knows love is not a vict'ry march.

Where the K.D. Lang version is specific, the Pentatonix version is universal.  Having multiple singers with very different voices to me communicates the universality of the experience of the communion, in all of its pain and complexity, that Cohen describes in the song--these people are different, but at the end of the day they are telling the same story and singing the same song.

That's really the essence of great art--on one hand, it is a particular person's story and experience, but in another sense it is everyone's story.  That's probably why art is the best way to communicate the notion of the transcendent, whether it is music or poetry or the visual arts or what have you.  This thing that is just beyond our reach is both entirely idiosyncratic and completely universal at the same time.    

Well, maybe there's a God above
But all I've ever learned from love
Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya
And it's not a cry that you hear at night
It's not somebody who's seen the light
It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

There is pretty consistent evidence that shows that being a spiritual or religious person tends to make you happier.  Anti-religious folks interpret this as being a sign that Marx was right and that religion is the opiate of the masses; aggressively pro-religion folks see this as vindication of the inherent correctness of their particular world-view.  I think both of these interpretations are completely wrong.  Religion or spirituality or the search for transcendence or whatever you want to call it doesn't make your problems go away, or shield you from pain and heartbreak. and systems that promise that should be avoided at all costs, because they are selling snake-oil.  If anything, taking seriously religion or spirituality or transcendence runs a big risk of adding to the complications of your life, and exposing you to new and different kinds of heart-break and disappointment.

What it does do, in my experience, it is positions you in a place to navigate those realities of life, it gives you a vocabulary and a framework for finding the good in the midst of the terrible.

"Hallelujah" is not an especially happy or upbeat song.  It doesn't promise you anything concrete when you reach out with your cold and broken Hallelujah toward a transcendence that you understand only in the vaguest possible terms.  But it stays with it all the way through, and it continues to seek this inchoate prize, even in the midst of a world that doesn't seem to validate that hope very much.

"Hallelujah" is a perfect, honest portrayal of the spiritual life, or really just the human experience, period.  It encourages us to keep wandering around in the dark, because it believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is something to find.

I hope Mr. Cohen has found was he was looking for.

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