- Leonard Cohen and Philosophy: Various Positions ed. by Jason Holt
At 81, Leonard Cohen is more popular than he has ever been. After decades of being something of a cult figure in this country—a singer and poet popular with bright, sensitive English majors and brooding artistic types who dress in black and smoke clove cigarettes—Cohen officially entered the mainstream in the 2000s. Returning to public life (or “Boogie Street” as he calls it) after years spent living in seclusion at the Mt. Baldy Zen Center, near Los Angeles, where he was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk, Cohen saw his profile rise considerably in the years that followed. This was aided in large part, no doubt, to the seemingly out-of-nowhere success of his song “Hallelujah”—a song which Cohen originally released in the early ́80s to very little notice—which began in earnest after Rufus Wainwright’s cover (which was based on Jeff Buckley’s earlier, superior version, which itself was based on John Cale’s version) appeared on the soundtrack to the animated film Shrek (2001). Then, in 2008, he embarked on his first world concert tour in fourteen years to rebuild his fortune after discovering that his manager and former lover had swindled him out of an eye-wateringly large sum of money. Luckily for Cohen, the tour was a triumphant success, and he more than made up for the money he lost. The wide publicity these shows generated solidified his place in the culture. That same year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the honors kept coming. Cohen would go on to do three more world tours. His 2012 album Old Ideas received rave reviews and was the highest charting album of his career, cracking the top ten in the U.S. and many other countries. Its follow-up, Popular Problems (2014), also did quite well critically and commercially. To date, over 300 artists have covered “Hallelujah”—most of them in the past decade—and the song has become a modern standard, ubiquitous in movies and on television. Even Cohen has suggested that perhaps enough is enough. So while he long existed on the fringes of popular music, in his ninth decade, Cohen is now, more than ever before, a bona fide pop star. [End Page 292]
As if to confirm this designation, Open Court Publishing Company has released Leonard Cohen and Philosophy: Various Positions as part of its Popular Culture and Philosophy series. The volumes in this series focus on all different aspects of popular culture—music, movies, TV shows, athletic franchises, and more—and are written by philosophy scholars but aimed toward a general readership. Even given his increased visibility in recent years, Cohen initially seems like an unusual choice as the subject for a volume in the series. Some other titles include: The Simpsons and Philosophy: The D’oh of Homer, Star Trek and Philosophy: The Wrath of Kant, World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King, and The Red Sox and Philosophy: Green Monster Meditations. That’s odd company for Cohen. Still, these books can be a fun introduction to important philosophers and philosophical concepts, and the volume on our unlikely pop culture icon is no exception.
The editor, Jason Holt, gathers together essays by different authors and groups them in six sections: “Songs of Existence,” “Songs of Beauty,” “Songs of Love,” “Songs of Literature,” “Songs from a Mind,” and “Songs of Religion.” These headings seem purposely broad in order to allow for variety.
Some essays use Cohen’s songs to explain philosophical concepts. Brendan Shea’s “Leonard Cohen as a Guide to Life,” for instance, gives an account of the three major schools of Hellenistic philosophy—the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the Epicureans—and discusses various songs to show Cohen’s affinities with each school. Similarly, Agust Magnusson gives an overview of existentialism and examines the influence of Camus and Kierkegaard on Cohen’s songwriting in “The Existential Cohen.” In a very interesting essay, “Leonard and Lorca,” Edward Winters discusses...