Leonard Cohen Has Left Us, But His Words Have Taught Us How to Carry On Without Him

Ring the bells that still can ring.

“Do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

There couldn’t really be more profound symbolism to the death of one of the great symbolists of our age. Leonard Cohen — poet, singer, writer, polymath — is gone, and his death has come in the same week that America, his adopted home, elected a president who is the antithesis of everything Cohen was and everything for which he stood.

Cohen died at 82. He knew it was coming. As he related to to The New Yorker’s David Remnick last month, he was ready for, if not resigned to, death. It should come as no surprise to us that a man of such deep spirituality would have thought deeply about the end of his time in this world, and if anything, it sounds like Cohen had little in the way of regret or frustration. In this respect, his passing is sad, but not tragic: Cohen lived a long and full life, and when that life came to its end, he was not only surrounded by those he loved — he was blessed with the perspective to see death coming.

“Do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

Cohen studied the Bible as much as he studied the Talmud, the Buddhist scriptures, and all manner of other spiritual texts. Remnick’s feature is a portrait of a man whose exploration of spirituality was central to his life, a mission that both complemented and drove his dedication to art. So perhaps he’d recognize that quote from Thessalonians 4:13-18, one that’s been bouncing around in my head all morning. I never really studied the Bible; I’m basically agnostic, and being educated at a deeply religious school served only to turn me off religion. But some things stick, and that phrase is one of them.

When I grieve for Leonard Cohen, it is because he has been an inspiration — a word that’s overused, but in this case, represents the most pure of truths. His writing has provided inspiration for my own work; his insights and his wisdom have provided me with ways to live my own life. I grieve because he is gone when the world needs him most. It is one of life’s great ironies that wisdom comes only with experience, and it reaches its apogee just as we are deprived of the chance to use it. But Leonard Cohen, at least, has set his learnings down in words, and song. They remain available to us. We will need them.

“Do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

If the words of our greatest poets give us anything, it is hope — hope that mankind can transcend the basest parts of our nature, that we can be as capable of love and kindness as we are of hate and cruelty. I expect we’ll see the lyrics to Cohen’s 1993 song “The Future,” from the album of the same name, quoted at length over the coming days — and perhaps the coming years, because they seem awfully prescient right about now: “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions/ Won’t be nothing, nothing you can measure anymore/ The blizzard, the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold/ And it’s overturned the order of the soul.”

That’s how it feels today. That’s how it’s felt ever since Tuesday night. That’s how it will continue to feel, I expect, for the next four years, and perhaps even beyond that. But when things feel truly hopeless — and god, sometimes they really do — I find myself turning to another song on The Future, one of Cohen’s most famous, one he cited himself as “the closest thing I could describe to a credo,” a song called “Anthem”: “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

“Do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

The last words we heard from Cohen on record come in the reprise to You Want It Darker’s “Treaty,” a song that apparently took him decades to complete. It is about love and compromise and understanding, rendered —  as ever — with compassion and dry wit: “I wish there was a treaty we could sign/ It’s over now, the water and the wine/ We were broken then, but now we’re borderline/ And I wish there was a treaty, I wish there was a treaty/ Between your love and mine.” If only there were a treaty that any of us could sign right now.

Instead we face division and rancor and hate, and we have to do it without one of our greatest voices against all of those things. His time is done. He’s going home. He’s earned his rest. And those of us left here on this stupid planet must remember that there is love, there is compassion, there is beauty to be found, even in this darkest of times.

“Do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

There was a time — before his accountant stole all his money and forced him to tour again, thus (perversely) catalyzing a creative renaissance — when I thought this might be the last new song we’d hear from Leonard Cohen. It’s the last song on 2004’s Dear Heather, and one of the most beautiful songs in Cohen’s canon.

I love the way that by the end, it’s not Leonard singing any more — it’s his backing vocalists, singing the refrain as he leaves the stage. Even then it seemed laden with symbolism, but now the signified is a reality: Leonard is gone, and the music keeps playing, more beautiful than ever. It will always play. And we must keep singing alone.