It’s fair to say that Leonard Cohen’s writing often defies easy interpretation. His songs and poems are laden with symbolism, and their intentions are rarely set out without ambiguity. Like many other great poets, his compositions invite you, the reader, to find yourself in them. They invite you to project their insights upon your own life.
As such, the way that people interpret the lyrics often says more about them than anything else. And if Cohen’s spirit hasn’t yet transcended to some higher plane, one suspects it’s sitting in front of its afterlife TV set, allowing itself a wry smile. Cohen is in the news today because NBC’s Brian Williams quoted one of his lyrics proudly on air last night as a way of praising Donald Trump’s big-boy after-dinner decision to throw some big bombs at the bad man in Syria.
“We see these beautiful pictures at night from the decks of these two U.S. Navy vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean,” said Williams as he admired footage of some Tomahawk missiles heading off toward their unfortunate destination. “I am tempted to quote the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons.’ And they are beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments making what is, for them, a brief flight over this airfield.”
The line Williams quoted is from “First We Take Manhattan,” the opening song to Cohen’s 1988 album I’m Your Man, and a song that is not, it’s fair to say, one whose intention was to cheerlead American airstrikes in the Middle East. Pitchfork noted this morning that Cohen once described the song to the Washington Post as “a terrorist song. I think it’s a response to terrorism. There’s something about terrorism that I’ve always admired. The fact that there are no alibis or no compromises. That position is always very attractive. [But] I don’t like it when it’s manifested on the physical plane — I don’t really enjoy terrorist activities.”
In this context, the line that Williams is quoting seems very much an allusion to the latter half of Cohen’s statement — the idea that an uncompromising devotion to one’s ideals almost inevitably ends in violence. In the song, it’s preceded by the following: “I’m guided by a signal in the heavens/ I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin.” These are not exactly rational motivations. They’re the motives of a zealot, cackling in glee as he watches the infidels burn. The “beauty of our weapons” line is one that’s delivered completely straight-faced by the song’s narrator — but, of course, if the listener isn’t given to similar zealotry, it’s served with a healthy side of irony, because we know that there’s nothing beautiful about the death of innocents.
In using these words so happily, then, Williams is essentially identifying himself with the song’s narrator, who is a terrorist and a cheerleader for violence. And thus, despite the cries of outrage this afternoon, it turns out that Williams’ adoption of the line is entirely damn appropriate — but not in the way that our hapless newscaster might have expected.