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The Opening Lines of Joan of Arc by Leonard Cohen

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I think that the album ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ is a philosophical journey through life and it’s polarities. Leonard Cohen introduces the theme of ‘Love and Hate’ with Avalanche. In the song a man tries to control a woman, but is unable to perfect it, because she is inherently powerful. He finds her desirable but himself ugly. Cohen introduces the theme of polarities with attraction to the other and repulsion of the self.  Like a yin yang, all opposites contain some of the other. Nothing is absolute.

He concludes the album with ‘Jon of Arc’. I think it is about another element between love and hate, the connection of life and death. The emotional landscape of all humans is affected by our mortality. People keep falling off the edge of the world, and we don’t know where they go. What song can help us with this? The old songs have grown bitter. People want a new story. Our favourite stories are about heroic individuals.

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Anyone who has read a history book knows that stories go on for a long time. If death was absolute then the stories would end with the people, but they do not. However Leonard Cohen bridges the gap between life and death even further. This is a heroic story of an individual meeting her end, but also has a strong mythical element – it is about how life and death are wedded together in the hearts of every man, up until their death and beyond it.

‘Now the flames they followed Joan of Arc
as she came riding through the dark;’

This sentence is exciting because the storyteller observed from a distance. He tells us that he saw Joan of Arc riding, and the flames followed her. Joan of Arc is on horseback and travelling. This represents life itself – journeying forward alone though the darkness. Well almost alone – life has a stalker. The stalker is death! Cohen uses mythical imagery to tell us that wherever life is, death is not far behind. Once it gets going Fire moves around and flames reach upwards. This means it is of the masculine principle. It has visible outward effects on other objects. It behaves like death.

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She has some control, but is carried by her horse.

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She is of the feminine principle, but in her intensity she is travelling on horseback and propelled forward.

The fire represents death. It actively follows her. Death doesn’t need to be carried on a horse – it has it’s own energy. Perhaps she knows the fire is there, perhaps not. Either way she is focused on her goals, and propelled towards them.

Cohen decided to personify the fire, and give a voice to death itself. This is a very exciting element of the song. What is it like to speak to death? Perhaps it is just like being wedded to death, which is every mans experience anyway. Joan of Arc keeps her cool.

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Perhaps it is unfair to call Death a stalker. In the song Cohen doesn’t say that Death hates Joan of Arc. Actually Death is full of admiration for her, especially when he sees how boldly she meets him. Death isn’t good or evil. It is only the opposite of life. It is an element, and it has a way of behaving, but it has no bad intentions towards us. The Fire of the song is not a nasty reaper. He is wedded to life and a likable character.

Joan of Arc is both a historical and a mythical woman. The song is an inspirational story about what it means to be human, and confronting mortality.

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Leonard Cohen’s Avalanche

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‘Song of Love and Hate’ begins with ‘Avalanche’. His guitar strums ripple outwards to create a flat landscape. The character speaks to us coldly and clearly. He speaks impassively about his direct experience of a natural disaster of the heart.

We don’t know if he is unfeeling or detached or whether it is just his way of speaking. He is critical of his appearance, calling himself a hunchback. He says he ‘sleeps beneath a golden hill.’ I think the ‘golden hill’ is a sexual reference to a particular woman. I think the relationship is a sexual one, but not with complete awareness – he sleeps. This connects to the idea of his soul being ‘covered up’. So two types of covering up perhaps occurring. A sexual covering up of his physical body by her, and a mental covering up of his soul with the coldness of detachment.

Women have great power over men, and he is greatly effected by that. He doesn’t want to be so vulnerable or easily manipulated. Rather than be subject to the storms of a woman’s power he chooses to detach but enjoy her body. This gives him a sense of being superior to her. This appeals to his dark heart and his ambition increases. He now wishes to elevate himself to Godlike status, and have the woman serve him. He gives her clear instructions and directions, and sees her as being under his command and control. This brings a satisfaction to his frozen heart. He offers the reward of freedom from pain, if she will do as he says.

She is now a captive, and dependent on him. People who are trapped may appeal for their freedom. He clarifies to her that they are not friends, because he is too important – ‘at the centre of the world.’ However his sense of self importance only comes from having her as his captive. This is problematic, and he returns to criticizing his deformed body which he calls ‘ugly’ and ‘grotesque’.

If no one deserves enjoyment, then why should he wish them to enjoy how he looks? He reins himself in, reminding himself that his ugliness is unimportant, because his power is absolute. He is drawn to the woman, but her physical proximity increases his awareness, and then he feels ugly again.

She is his powerless slave, and holding the keys makes him feel powerful. The contradiction is that he does need her, and is equally trapped by the relationship. The longing for the flesh, which he supposed to be simple, is not so. Although passive, she increases his own self awareness, and that is what dissatisfies his snakelike soul.

My favourite lines from this song are –

‘Do not dress in those rags for me,
    I know you are not poor;

you don’t love me quite so fiercely now
    when you know that you are not sure.’

He sees himself as a man with his soul covered up, because he finds himself unbearable. This perspective also means that he has a superficial perspective on women. But when he gets close to a woman he finds himself changing, and this attitude more difficult to maintain. He tells her that he doesn’t think she is poor spiritually and that he has knowledge of her deeper self. He wants to get her body through her open mind, and not by keeping her trapped.

He acknowledges her moves towards him, but says that she shouldn’t make them unless she is serious.

Actually these lines stand out as what could be a kind sentiment appealing for honesty. I think it’s Cohen’s own inner critic which chooses to render this statement as sadistic. He sees himself as utilizing a trick of reverse psychology in the hopes of manipulating her further, and he hates himself for this.

Cohen seems to be inviting us to view himself as he sees himself in his most depressed state – A cold man who tries to keep others captive so that he can retain a little sense of power. When a woman gets close to him, he feels he tricks her into feeling more, whilst he secretly aspires to remain a detached observer of the whole scene. This way he can can have a sort of love life, without the trouble of being emotionally manipulated.

The narrative is a bit incomplete because he doesn’t suggest what might happen next. For me the last line ‘It is your flesh that I wear.’ isn’t very powerful, especially compared to the rest of the song. It would be more exciting to break away from the characters at a dramatic moment. Also the women is so under described that sometimes we forget she is there at all, and his monologue might be confused as being purely directed at himself. More references to the woman’s physical presence would really help us to understand his struggle. I like the description of ‘the golden hill’ but I think he could clarify if it is a sexual reference or not, so that the story is strengthened.

It is still a fantastic Cohen song, and what a perfect introduction to the albums theme of love and hate. Maybe he doesn’t tell us more within the song, because the next chapter is found in the following track ‘Last Years Man’.