TO BE NAUGHT or NOT TO BE – Leonard Cohen: “You Want It Darker” – Part I

Three weeks ago, my brother Stan suffered a stroke. Two days later, he had another in the hospital Then two days later, he had a very serious one. During that same week, he had a heart attack. I have been spending much of my time in the hospital during the last two weeks as I watched my brother generally deteriorate, though sometimes rally. My family debated whether we should help and, if so, how we should help, fulfil his final wish. On Friday afternoon, we learned that Stan had terminal cancer. That explained why, towards the end of last week, he was no longer eating and drank very little. Metastases had spread to his liver. We no longer had to debate. We no longer had to decide.

During this period, in the evenings, I watched an 8-part thriller, the Netflix 2018 series, Black Earth Rising. Out of curiousity, I had turned the first episode on. It was a fictional narrative set in the present against the background of the Rwanda genocide and the war that followed in the Congo in the 1990’s. I could not help but watch. Those events had scarred me.

I had been a member of an international team in 1995 that studied the Rwanda genocide for the international community. In 1996, I and my Norwegian partner, Astri Suhrke, authored the second volume of the five-volume report entitled, Early Warning and Conflict Management, Volume 2 of The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience, Copenhagen: DANIDA. Our volume was focused on the role of bystanders.

In 2003, I co-edited a volume of essays with Govind Rao, including two of my own, on the follow-up to the Rwanda disaster in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was called: War and Peace in Zaire/Congo: Analyzing and Evaluating Intervention 1996-1997, Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press. I also wrote the essay, “The use and abuse of refugees in Zaire,” in the 2003 S.J. Stedman and F. Tanner (eds.) volume, Refugee Manipulation: War, Politics, and the Abuse of Human Suffering (Washington, DC, 2003), 95–134.

Why I watched Black Earth Rising as I gradually learned that my brother would soon die, I do not know. I believe I am writing this short series of blogs to discover why.

The Netflix series begins with Leonard Cohen’s dirge, You Want it Darker. The lyrics follow. (You can see the performance of the song on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD6fvzGIBfQ.)

[Verse 1: Leonard Cohen]
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

You want it darker
We kill the flame


[Verse 2: Leonard Cohen]
Magnified, sanctified
Be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified
In the human frame

A million candles burning
For the help that never came

You want it darker

[Chorus: Leonard Cohen]
Hineni, hineni
I’m ready, my Lord


[Verse 3: Leonard Cohen]
There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

I had met Leonard Cohen in 1960 in Montreal when he was a poet and had not yet become a troubadour. Over fifty years later, in 2016, as a singer/songwriter, Leonard wrote a letter to his female lover from the 1960s, Marianne Ihlen, made eternally famous by his song “So Long, Marianne.” In it, he penned, “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…Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.” He was tying up the strings eternally to his age-old love as he claimed to be “ready to die,” which he soon did.

We can be ready to die, but none of us, I believe, is ready for the sheer awfulness of dying, the suffering, the pain, the utterly abysmal loss of autonomy and dignity. My brother was not angry that he was going to die. He sure was enraged about the process.

Late Friday afternoon, the palliative care doctors entered the picture. At one point, one of the doctors asked Stan directly, “What do you want to happen?” Stan barked back in a clear loud but raw voice, “I want to die.” The doctor asked, “When?” Stan angrily insisted, “Now!” It is one thing to surrender to death. It is quite another to be captured and bound up, made immobile and impotent as death advances. He kept saying to me last week, “I feel all tied up.” Two days before, in a delirium, he confided, “Howie, they are out to get us.”   

I now regularly attend synagogue. I do not believe Stan has seen the inside of a synagogue in decades. But Stan was Job, yelling at God, “let me go.” Stan has been a very good and kind person, if somewhat gruff and sometimes contentious. He did not deserve the torture of losing total control. God’s original identity had been that of a joyful creator; everything He created was pronounced good. Observing suffering on both an individual and mass scale, God assumed the identity of a ruthless tyrant.

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

You want it darker
We kill the flame

God’s ruthlessness was not just individual. It was collective. Who else was responsible for allowing the destruction of almost one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu who were slaughtered in ten weeks in Rwanda?

Magnified, sanctified
Be thy holy name

Vilified, crucified
In the human frame

A million candles burning
For the help that never came

You want it darker

Astri and I wrote about the help that never came, of the UN with 2,000 peacekeepers in Rwanda who were not allowed to intervene, and how the international community stood by as “Never again” became “Ever again.” In his own way, Stan was answering, “I am here.” “I am ready.” Hineini! But instead of death, agonizing deterioration and suffering. Stan, without addressing or acknowledging his lord, the lord of death, the lord who sometimes sanctified and magnified the individual and a community, recognized that, at other times, He vilified them. He allowed humans to be treated as inyenzi, cockroaches. He allowed them to be crucified. He allowed them to be slowly squashed rather than allowed to die with dignity.  

In Matthew 6:9-13, Jews were instructed to pray, familiar to us oldies who once had to say the prayer at the beginning of each school day.

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from evil.

Instead of “hallowed be your name,” Leonard commanded God to “be your holy name.” You are supposed to be the God of goodness. Live up to Your holy name. Instead of our regarding God as holy, we demand at death’s door that God be holy. Thus, chapter 6 of Matthew is inverted. Instead of the instructions being directed towards believers in Christ, they are directed towards God.

Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not (my italics) to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” In Cohen, this becomes, “God, practice Your righteousness so that it can be seen by me. Otherwise You will receive no recognition, the reward You seek, on earth.” Matthew 6:2 begins advising the “hypocrites in the synagogues” not to seek out acknowledgement and recognition for their gifts to the poor. In Cohen, the words become, “to be honoured by me, You must trumpet Your gifts to the needy, to the sick and to the dying.  Laud transparency, not secrecy.”

Matthew 6:5-8 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

But what does Stan need? Yesterday, I prayed for Stan. I recited, “Mi shebeirach.”

Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah,
Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim

. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.

May the one who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, bless and heal those who are ill [names]. May the Blessed Holy One be filled with compassion for their health to be restored and their strength to be revived. May God swiftly send them a complete renewal of body and spirit, and let us say, Amen.

But I was being a hypocrite. Not because I said my prayer aloud rather than in secret. But because I wanted the opposite. I did not want Stan to be healed. I knew he could not be. I did not want his health restored. I wanted him to have as peaceful and untroubled a death as possible.

There’s a lover in the story
But the story’s still the same

There’s a lullaby for suffering
And a paradox to blame

But it’s written in the scriptures
And it’s not some idle claim
You want it darker
We kill the flame

While You, God, want it darker, we kill the flame. We administer as humanely as possible the means to extinguish the spark of life with the least suffering.

In Matthew 6:16-16, we are instructed to fast so that it will not be obvious to others. The latter is unseemly. The unseen is to be esteemed. But you cannot hide that Stan is fasting, that he is starving to death. It is written in his face and in his grimaces.

What has all of this to do with the Rwanda genocide? Listen to and do not just read Leonard’s next verse.

They’re lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn’t know I had permission to murder and to maim
You want it darker

The inaction of the powerful bystanders gave the Hutu permission to murder and to maim. “You want it darker. Hineni. I’m ready my lord.” Ready, aye, ready, said the average middle-class Hutu extremist following the commands of the Akazu, the leading genocidaires. They were taught to say, “Hineni, I’m ready, my lord.” The genocidaires killed innocents in God’s name, with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church at the local level. Some priests and nuns even participated in the butchery – in God’s name. God allows Stan to suffer a debilitating demise and, in doing so, permits genocidaires to carry out their slaughters. That evil is also the responsibility of God.

To be continued

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