Currently I'm returning obsessively to The Gypsy's Wife . I don't mind being conventional!
This obsession been very robust, despite powerful recent distractions, also c/o L. Cohen.
I finally picked up The Book of Longing on Saturday. I'm amused to find myself typing
"finally" there, even though I barely knew that Leonard Cohen existed two months ago, though
I vaguely knew some of his work. I'm still recovering from the consequent orgy of Longing
(a strictly internal orgy, but I do what I can).
Back to The Gypsy's Wife.
The anxiety scales up, line by line, with dreadful power. Much more
than most of Cohen's songs, this one is organised in lines, and each line (except,
arguably, the next-to-last) seems to fulfil the agitation of the previous line and
replace it with something larger, deeper, more threatening, all the way from mild
concern to cosmic ruin and divine judgment. I keep feeling I've got a handle on the
song, and then realising that I've been missing something huge. I don't think this
process is over - one reason why I keep coming back to it.
It's something of a commonplace to say that Cohen uses specifically religious
expressions most freely in secular songs, though this is easily exaggerated.
What about Anthem, or Hallelujah, or (gulp) If it Be Your Will? I don't
think it's a safe principle of interpretation. However, in this particular case
it does seem to hold good. However, the religious references are not there just
to slap on some microwavable ready-cooked seriousness, but with a specific
content. The small story of this particular "marriage spent" is being tied
rather elaborately into large-scale sacred history, and actually looking at the
sacred history yields large rewards very early.
The last stanza manages to bring the song to an end despite being a
huge cliff-hanger. Cohen makes it feel entirely natural to conflate the days before
the Flood (which was itself a judgment on the wickedness of man - and they were
marrying and giving in marriage then, too) with the days before the Final Judgment.
Cohen (as often) shows that he knows the New Testament as well as the Old.
This seems to echo the uncertainty of the Gypsy himself (the Gypsy Wife is the
Gypsy's Wife - so simple, so obvious, so right) whether in the end the judgment
will be on him. It's possible to run through the entire song watching the delicate
hints of evasion and denial play through, so that the hearer keeps taking for granted
what was avoided before, and the Gypsy has moved on to unsaying something else.
His final announcement of judgment (or is it an invitation?) is impersonal,
prophetic, and quite possibly self-ruinous. Woe to you who desire the day of the
Lord! It will be darkness, and not light. The suspension of judgment (is that
also an evasion?) means that we can't tell where we are, or indeed in which
story. Are we "too early" for the rainbow, meaning that we just have to endure
until it comes, or are we "too early" as we might be "too late", with no
hope of seeing it? If there is an Ark, who will be saved in it - the Gypsy, the
Gypsy's wife? Or are these the final days from which nobody is safe?
Cohen is happy to consider that God may take back what he has given - for instance
he more than suggests in ISRAEL (The Book of Mercy) that this includes
the Land of Promise, now unpromised again. Here we have wound things back
more drastically, unweaving the rainbow, which is the token of God's promise never
again to destroy the earth. The dove is not there to find land, it has been
withdrawn, and what can that be but the holy dove? In another way, this is just
another case of love crumbling away, one of so many: so small a thing, and so
precious. The same thing, if you take love (just plain ordinary earthly love, the
substance of marriages successful and not) as seriously as Cohen does.
All this has been, in some respects, rather univocal. But in fact very little
in the song only means one thing. The Gypsy asking about his wife is also
asking for his wife. The evasions are there,
but they are evasions not only of his own complicity in love ended, but
also attempts to escape the fear he feels for her. The ghostly
bride on the table might be (or may be just "is") a subjective vision,
something verging on a hallucination, the externalised return of
something interior and unbearable. In any case, the ambivalence (it's
not as though the Gypsy is less lost than we are) is superlatively
enacted. The words of the ghost are terrible if false, terrible if true,
terrible if understood as a promise for the future, terrible if a known
to be a promise forfeited in the past. The very act of defending against
the dreadful vision turns - as it were without thought or choice - into
catching the bouquet. Somewhere in there is a responsibility the Gypsy
is taking, a possibility for the future not allowed to fail, even if the
cheque he is signing is blank. It's also a fearful thing.
Then there's the stupefying alignment of Salome with the recurrent image
of the threshing-floor. Are we also watching Agave with the head of Pentheus
here? This is such a nuclear option (think: Cohen and his mother; then stop
thinking) that I find myself shrinking back from it in terror. But I've only
just started to trace this through, and this post (like most of mine) is already
too long and self-indulgent. Sorry - I have not time to make it shorter, and my
vanity gets in the way.
And start through it again thinking what happens if, despite everything, the
Gypsy's Wife is in fact the Gypsy's mate, and as much responsible as he.
And it's another tribute to Garcia Lorca. And.. but I have to stop somewhere.
This is a wonderful song. And (would you believe it?), it's by Leonard Cohen.
Before they made me, they broke the mould.