The analysis of "The Captain"

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
dementia praecox
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Postby dementia praecox » Thu Mar 11, 2004 1:34 pm

It was actually Abraham who is given order to kill his son, not Moses. The paragraph from the book of Genesis goes like this:

Genesis 22:7-10
7 Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, "My father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." And he said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?" 8 Abraham said, "God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together. 9 Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son.

This is an important link which connects cultural and subjective essence of the song. The cultural symbolic, the sacrifice of a generation as you pointed out, is more developed in second stanza. There is another paragraph from the book of Exodus which makes this even clearer:

Exodus 13:11-16
11 "Now when the lord brings you to the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you, 12 you shall devote to the lord the first offspring of every womb, and the first offspring of every beast that you own; the males belong to the lord. 13 "But every first offspring of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, but if you do not redeem {it,} then you shall break its neck; and every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem.

I think that there is not enough evidence to regard that ego is being represented by a lamb. The context which surrounds it does not permit it, although in a kind of a metaphorical sense it could be said that the Butcher slaughtering a lamb can symbolize an overwhelming power of the archetype slaughtering the power of the ego. But I think this is too long a shoot. The development in the later stages of the song does not coincide with it. We find the flowers growing at the place where the lamb fell, so this would mean that the ego is actually dead or powerless. That is hard to believe. Since ego is the “observer”, its symbolical definition is difficult, and in most cases is reduced to the storyteller himself. Also the father-son relation is not as simple as it seems at the first glance. There is a point in our lives where we have to stop accusing our parents for the outcome of our own life, and take the burden of responsibility in our own hands. This is one of the turning points in the process we like to call growing up. If I was to take things that simple I could state that “The Captain” is actually a song which deals with the father-son relation in which the son first goes on accusing father for the misleading, and then at some point he realizes that he cannot go on doing this forever, and then he takes the responsibility on his own shoulders; represented by silver bars of command. The point I don’t like here is the accusation of the “father”. If Cohen was a teenager when we wrote this song I would agree that this interpretation is valid. But since he was not (as far as I know), I think that we need to look a little deeper than this. Also the symbolic beauty is greatly diminished. I think what we are dealing in “The Butcher” has more to do with religion. It is not “God” himself that is being accused in the first stanza, but rather an “imago Dei” present in everyone. This “imago Dei” is symbolized by the Butcher. It is he who says: I am who I am.

Exodus 3:13-15
13 Then Moses said to God, "Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you.' Now they may say to me, 'What is His name?' What shall I say to them?" 14 God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM"; and He said, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.' " 15 God, furthermore, said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, 'The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.

The guilt theme comes to surface again later, when in the last stanza our storyteller states that there’s “Blood upon my body”. This could be related to the book of Leviticus:

Leviticus 14:21-32
25 "Next he shall slaughter the lamb of the guilt offering; and the priest is to take some of the blood of the guilt offering and put {it} on the lobe of the right ear of the one to be cleansed and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.

It is as now the storyteller is the one who needs to be washed form guilt. The next verses do not surprise me. The mentioning of soul after the blood is logical, since in ancient time the prevailing belief was that the blood is actually a seat of the soul. The ice upon his soul (frozen up emotions) is probably the reason for the guilt.
jurica
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Postby jurica » Thu Mar 11, 2004 4:15 pm

first, sorry for the Moses/Abraham confusion... it's not first time i've confused Biblical characters. not religious myself, and and although Bible is something of a required read for anyone trying to dig in jewish or western writers, it is also a very large book - which makes it quite hard to realy get to know well.

anyway:
i'm sure Cohen was old enough not to accuse his father of anything, but i do think he wrote some parts of that song (The Captain) from a perspective of a child. if you look at it - it's written in dialogues. i think we have a voice of an adult and a teenager here.
but i sure agree that it's only one layer from which we need to go deeper to understand why he'd be interested in writing such a dialogue.

in The Butcher, there's some dialogue too, and i think that, in the last stanza, it's not the storyteller (let's say Cohen, though it needn't be him) who has 'blood upon his body'. i think this last stanza are words from 'the butcher', not Cohen.
he says: 'lead on, my son', and we know from the first stanza that storyteller is butcher's son.
there's a question of quotes: all butcher's words were in quotes (in Files lyrics), and this last stanza is not. it could mean that storyteller is now a father who realises that he should let his son lead a life he chooses or something like that, but i don't think that: i think he simply lets a character who was a 'third person' become 'first person' (however this is called in English) which is a common practise of 20th century writers, so Cohen had no reason not to use this form.

i'd be very interested what the rest of you make of the third stanza. it's seems to me that it's the key part of the song.
why are flowers growing where that lamb fell? what are the flowers?
and what does it mean that the butcher 'goes round and round'?
it could be interpreted as:
flowers=hippie generation of love and music
round and round=like in Animal Farm: politicians change but their methods remain
...but it just doesn't sound right. it seems banal and doesn't fit in the song well.
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Kush
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Postby Kush » Thu Mar 11, 2004 6:50 pm

why are flowers growing where that lamb fell? what are the flowers?
I really like the image of some beautiful flowers growing where a bloody lamb is butchered. I'm into Salvador Dali's paintings these days (something new each year) and this image is quite Dali-esque. In fact we can think of a bloody lamb under the earth and some flowers growing over it as a painting. Symbolically, it suggests a lot of things to me like continuity of a closed loop life system or interdependence/symbiosis of plant and animal life - we need living plants for our life and when we die we go back to earth and give rise to plant life. Or how something beautiful and something ugly always go hand in hand like a double-edged sword.
But most of all I like the contrasting visual image this sets up of beauty and bloody - still life. And all the interpretations combined.

Two other lines that come to mind related to this image are:

"Each plant has a root that's dipped in blood
And later on we'll find out we're just nameless mud". - Flatlanders (JD Gilmore, B Hancock, J Ely)

"My sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing, there's been some kind of pain" - Bob Dylan

p.s. I think the image/meaning is more complete with the 4 lines taken together.

I saw some flowers growing up
Where that lamb fell down
Was I supposed to praise my lord
Make some kind of joyful sound?

....the narrator is bemused by the inherent contradictions in life and how he is s'posed to respond to it.
Last edited by Kush on Thu Mar 11, 2004 9:41 pm, edited 1 time in total.
I'm your fan
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Re: The analysis of "The Captain"

Postby I'm your fan » Thu Mar 11, 2004 8:39 pm

Can you explain me the meaning of:
"Well, I found a silver needle,
put it into my arm.
It did some good,
did some harm.
But the nights were cold
and it almost kept me warm,
how come the night is long?"
And don't tell me that the storyteller found a silver needle, put it into his arm and it did him good because it kept him warm in the cold of the night!
I want to go a step before (or a layer deeper, as you would say).
What is the meaning (or the interpretation) of the image of a drug-addict?
What is your interpretation of that? How can we go a layer deeper?
Any clues?
I'm your fan
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Analyse of "The Captain"

Postby I'm your fan » Thu Mar 11, 2004 8:41 pm

Dementia Praecox, your analyse of Cohen's lyrics is very lightening.
I leave my hat for you, I can't do anything but congratulate for your analyse. You look like a Doctor!
Tchocolatl
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Postby Tchocolatl » Fri Mar 12, 2004 3:57 am

Now you may say that I really wandering and you may be tempted to tell me to get lost, in a probably more polite - or worst - manner, but, The Butcher, I can't help but to see the Christ story in the Jews History.

I know that some Jews are feeling guilty about this part of their History.

For the guilt, some Jews are saying that it is part of the Jewish culture like the Almighty Mother. And the Passion of the Christ is "good" as anything else to be guilty about.

Anyway it could be the sacrifice of any innocent.

I'm your fan, there is a second degree for me (no surprise, here
:) , the silver needle is any demential medecine or things that you have to do to get by in this demential word, human beings taking very long to acheive what the Christ came to teach them.
***
"He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love."

Leonard Cohen
Beautiful Losers
I'm your fan
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Re:The silver needle

Postby I'm your fan » Fri Mar 12, 2004 12:42 pm

"The Butcher, I can't help but to see the Christ story in the Jews History(...) the silver needle is any demential medecine or things that you have to do to get by in this demential word, human beings taking very long to acheive what the Christ came to teach them".

I've never had thought of it that way. :shock:
I expected some kind of psycheanalytical -or (des)constructivist-explanation.
Maybe I'll have to question my beliefs... Or rather I'll have to had some new points of view in my way of thinking.
Anyway, thank you Tchocolatl :wink:
jurica
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Postby jurica » Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:47 pm

i think this second stanza about silver needle is simply a picture drawn in words... a picture of a guy taking a shot of heroin or whatever which does harm to his health, but also helps him in his dificult times. we all know Cohen had serious drug problem (ending up in hospital and everything)...

perhaps the question is how does that relate to the rest of the song? what did he learn from this?
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Postby George.Wright » Fri Mar 12, 2004 6:54 pm

The silver needle is the weakness of the flesh, ie a drug problem. It gets you high but also does you harm. Cohen was using drugs at the time he wrote this song.
Georges
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Tchocolatl
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Postby Tchocolatl » Sat Mar 13, 2004 3:33 am

Also, silver is the symbol for the intellect.
***
"He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love."

Leonard Cohen
Beautiful Losers
George.Wright
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Postby George.Wright » Sat Mar 13, 2004 3:47 am

and a reference to the silver cord which connects our astral bodies, so it is spiritual as well.
Georges
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Tchocolatl
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Postby Tchocolatl » Sat Mar 13, 2004 4:52 am

I'm your fan, theory could be fun as any other game, as far as I'm concern. Matter of personal taste, nothing more, nothing less. For the rest, you have your free will, like the rest of us.

DP, please do not be too much disturb by the tricksters that we can be sometimes.

Jurica, was he over 30 when he created that song? Really?

Georges, I'll let your soul speaks here. Interesting point of view that I would not have think about.

For me I'll stick to my ground. Silver as intellect, and a sharp one. The arm is the symbol of activity in the material word.

"How come the night is so long?" such a pure cry in the darkness.
***
"He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love."

Leonard Cohen
Beautiful Losers
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Kush
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Postby Kush » Sun Mar 14, 2004 5:07 am

perhaps the question is how does that relate to the rest of the song? what did he learn from this?
The silver needle verse is the only one where the "son" is internalizing the predicament of his existence or talking about how he is dealing with his predicament. (I say "son" only coz' LC the apparent narrator is male, could easily be "daughter").
In all the other verses, the narrator is dealing with an external interaction (1st and 4th verses) or his observation of the external world (3rd verse)
First verse: son to father rebellion
2nd verse: how son is dealing with his situation - by doing drugs.
3rd verse: I've already talked about this - but he talking about the paradox of beauty and violence in the real world and the conflict it raises in himself.
4th verse: father to son.

What did he learn from this? I have no idea except perhaps that the night is very long.
In my mind, the silver needle verse should have been the final verse but I didnt write the song so it's none of my business. But I disagree with silver needle=intellect. Something doesnt have to mean something else all the time. :)
For me the most brilliant imagery is the flowers/lamb one and the rest of the verses are built around it.

As a whole song, I much prefer The Captain. I think the the dialogue between the young soldier and his captain is littered with wry and sardonic humor throughout and with the backdrop of a upbeat country sound it is quite eerie.

The humor is apparent in the very first verse itself, the old and celebrated Captain making a pompous ceremony of handing the silver bars and command to the young but rebellious and outspoken soldier in the midst of a vast and desolate battlefield. And the young soldier is thinking "Command of what you idiot, there's no one here......."
dementia praecox
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Postby dementia praecox » Sun Mar 14, 2004 8:43 pm

What any one of us has to contribute in explaining different aspects of this song is a merely a point of view. I would make a great injustice if I tried to make my point of view into a general truth. The phenomena of poetry is so vast in it's colour that it seems impossible that it will find complete meaning in only one individual mind. Never the less, it is also impossible to avoid subjectivity and see thing as they truly are. Every attempt we take, we take it from a certain viewpoint, and the reason we cannot escape from this is because subjectivity isn't something different from objectivity at all. The statement of Tchocholati that this song refers to different paths person has to take to find elementary truth being in front of him all the time, summarizes my view quite well. Of course, I will elaborate my thoughts in a different manner, but the point remains the same. What it means to be a human? Paradoxically, the essence of it is the lack of essence itself, our freedom. There is no philosophical theory which captures us completely, nor a psychological one, nor can we be taken as only the sum of chemical and physical processes. Some of us are men, some are women, some are introverts, some are extraverts, some are religious, some are atheists, some are white, some are black... The materials we are made of differ much, but it is the way we choose to live that makes us what we are. We create ourselves. We can put a silver needle in our arm. It is one way of doing it, but don't be surprised if nights turn long and cold. We live in a deterministic universe. Our will to fly will not make us stop from falling. But still we feel free when choices are available to us. This is where the creation paradox comes in. "God" created man and made him distinctive from the animals by giving him a power to choose, his freedom. But what kind of a freedom is it if one is punished form "God" himself every time one chooses a "wrong" path. Was I supposed to praise my Lord, make some kind of joyful sound? Thus, "God" has to exit the scene for our storyteller to become completely free. One can choose conventionality. It means ignoring one's freedom and living a life of shallow materialism. If you are successful in being like everyone else, you do not need to make choices. You can turn to authority or to the media for guidance. You can become too busy to notice the moral decisions you sometimes need to make. We are thrown into a world that is not of our own choosing. It can give us pain (I accused him there with his tortured lamb) as well as pleasure (It did some good... and it almost kept me warm); it can lead to heartbreak (do not leave me now, I'm broken down from a recent fall) and loneliness (But the nights were cold... how come the night is long?) as well as love and affection; and most especially, it contains anxiety and guilt (Blood upon my body). And these hard things are not merely possibilities in life: They are inevitable. To live truly means to be aware of the extents of your freedom; of the inevitability of anxiety, guilt, and death. It means further to accept these things and to do your duty to create yourself. Lead on, my son, it is your world.
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Postby Tchocolatl » Sun Mar 14, 2004 11:14 pm

Yes, Kush, sometimes a needle is just a needle. Sometimes it is a needle and something else, second, third degree to the image.

Anyway I do not pretend to search for the truth (as I think the "truth" differs from person to person according to their reality, and again, from time to time as the reality is changing - anyway) in this exercice (or game, if you prefer).

Some reactions are close to mine, some others are not, but it does not matter to me, I found all comments very interesting, and if I do not discuss certain posts, it is just because I take it as they where, or I have learn something new and have nothing to add in both cases.



I do not know if we have the same version but it is said that the narrator is a male, the son of the butcher, in the very first verse :

I came upon a butcher,
he was slaughtering a lamb,
I accused him there
with his tortured lamb.
He said, "Listen to me, child,
I am what I am
and you, you are my only son."



I also like the image of the flowers growing from the sacrifice of the lamb for what he was saying after. Maybe because I never was at ease with the Passion of the Christ. (But I do not feel like to discuss more about this.)

I think that he may have learned some things that he said in "My Secret Life":

I smile when I’m angry.
I cheat and I lie.
I do what I have to do
To get by.
But I know what is wrong.
And I know what is right.
And I’d die for the truth
In My Secret Life.

Hold on, hold on, my brother.
My sister, hold on tight.
I finally got my orders.
I’ll be marching through the morning,
Marching through the night,
Moving cross the borders
Of My Secret Life.

Looked through the paper.
Makes you want to cry.
Nobody cares if the people Live or die.
And the dealer wants you thinking
That it’s either black or white.
Thank G-d it’s not that simple
In My Secret Life.

I bite my lip.
I buy what I’m told:
From the latest hit,
To the wisdom of old.
But I’m always alone.
And my heart is like ice.
And it’s crowded and cold
In My Secret Life.



DP, this is too late for me today to answer you. See you I do not know when, exactly, ok? :)
***
"He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love."

Leonard Cohen
Beautiful Losers

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