Leonard Cohen and Me: The Anti-Muse Manifesto

This essay was originally published on Slutever (November 24, 2016)

“How old are you / do you like your thighs” (I Had it For a Moment, Leonard Cohen)

I took a class on Leonard Cohen’s work in college. Near the end of term, we had to meet with our professor to propose a final paper subject. I talked to him for about 10 minutes, outlining a topic I believed to be a nuanced analysis of Cohen’s treatment of his fictional women. When I stopped speaking - probably with a banger of an ending like “so, yeah” - my prof looked me in the eye and said: “so your thesis is that Cohen is a misogynist.”

I wouldn’t describe Cohen as a misogynist. I don’t think it’s that simple - I don’t even really think the term is relevant here. But he certainly suffers from the ancient epidemic of the male artist who believes himself a genius and who only sees women as muses. You know the one.

Our class came across a thematic conceit in Cohen’s writings, which was that he’s most productive in the “space between women” - that is, he’s at his creative peak when he’s between lovers, and therefore that his creativity is in ‘opposition’ with women. For Cohen, 3D women are too distracting, too visceral, too much. So it’s only in between interactions with these real female creatures that there’s time to reconstruct them as muses. Muses function best as creative sites - as a canvas or mirror - when there’s enough distance to project anything you want onto them. The best muses are still, silent, intact, made of marble.

There’s nothing quite like a real life person to disappoint you with their ugly real-lifeness. The greatest infatuations are, after all, the unrequited, unconsummated ones. It’s only when you’re forced to shatter your image of someone that they (often) stop being so alluring.

Many a bespectacled boy has tricked me (as in, I tricked myself) into believing there was a direct correlation between the glass and plastic on his face and above-average intelligence. Chances are, it had more to do with imperfect vision. I often find myself thinking that men who read must have high emotional intelligence, but more often than not they’ve never read outside the White Male Genius Canon in their lives, and wouldn’t know nuance if it smacked them in the face (subtly).

Like Cohen, I am arguably my most productive when I am “alone” - read: outside of a co-dependent relationship. Unlike Cohen, there is less space to be happy being alone when a patriarchal loudspeaker repeats that to be female and not currently dating/married you must be crippled with loneliness. And so you think you feel lonely, even when you don’t.

Like Shell, the main female character in Cohen’s semi-autobiographical novel The Favourite Game, I am often more aware of how I look to others than how I seem to myself. Shell “took the business of being a girl very seriously.” Like Shell, I experience the performance of womanhood/girlhood as fraught and consuming.

Like Cohen via his many literary avatars, I’m prone to a certain kind of objectification, such as a tendency to embellish love-interests of the opposite gender for my own benefit long before they open their mouths. Like Cohen, I understand that this is the easiest way to get what I want out of people I don’t care very much about. Like Cohen, I know that marble is more malleable than flesh.

Is it different when I do these things than when Cohen does them? What are the stakes of identifying with a much older man, of a very different generation, class, coast of an expansive country? Is it subversive when I, a young woman, objectify men? The kind of identification I feel with Cohen isn’t the kind that comes from shared experience. It’s more of an uncomfortable affinity. That I use men as a site for projection is not, unlike the gender-opposite scenario, part of an ancient cultural lineage of seeing women as BODY and never as subject. If I put a man on a pedestal, at least we’ll be able to look each other in the eyes.

Note: I wrote this before Cohen passed away, and I’ve been wondering whether or not to switch “is” to “was.” There’s something very strange about the death of a famous artist. There’s a sense of loss, certainly. But after being submerged in his words for months, it stops mattering whether he exists in reality or not as well. In writing, he has already disconnected his art from his body. That his body is no longer alive doesn’t mean that his words aren’t still filled to the brim with him, that he doesn’t still course through them. So I kept it “is.”