"story of isaac"

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
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"story of isaac"

Postby socks0820 » Sun Feb 27, 2005 5:08 am

Anyone have any interpretations of "the story of isaac". I'm writing a paper and have a few ideas but i'm interested to know what other people think. Thanks :) :D
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Postby tom.d.stiller » Sun Feb 27, 2005 5:35 am

Hello socks0820,

I won't offer a full interpretation right now, but maybe it will be helpful to check out this hyperlink: Leonard Cohen about "Story of Isaac"

And the search function of this board will lead you to several interesting discussions on certain aspects of the "Story of Isaac".

Just one remark that might appear somewhat cryptic: Christian mythology has to offer another "story" about a father who sacrifices his son "for the sake of the world". Therefore it might lead you somewhere to check into the words of "The Butcher" as well.

What kind of paper is it you're going to write? Will you be ready to make available what you find out?

Cheers for now.

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Postby jurica » Sun Feb 27, 2005 12:30 pm

it's obvious that it's to a most part political song. it may be against govermants, sects, even authorative people with no formal pover - all the people who are manipulating other people into doing evil.

when writing about it do not forget the context of the 60s, but also do not forget that Leonard was never much of a peace protest kind of guy. "Militant pacifists" as i like to call them. this song may be to a degree directed to them also.

the most interesting part to me is the last stanza:
mercy on our uniform
the men of peace and men of war
the peacock spreads his fan.

i don't want to impose my oppinions onto you, but i think there are some interesting insights into the song itself here.
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Postby Anne.A.L » Mon Feb 28, 2005 6:57 am

Whenever you see the words "altar" and "sacrifice" and "father" in any of Cohen's work, remember the meaning of his name in Hebrew -- "priest".

According to the Encyclopedia of Religions, priests (in all religions) have "two identifying factors. The priest, first, perfoms a sacrificial ritual, usually on a fixed location such as an altar. Second, the priest does so as a specialist on behalf of a community or congregation."

In the Jewish tradition sacrifices (the prerogative of cohanim) could only be offered in the Temple. When it was destroyed in 70 CE priesthood became irrelevant and was replaced by a religious leadership of scholars, the rabbis. The rabbi is a teacher. (Literally, "rabbi" means "my master"). But because he does not perform sacrifices he is not a priest. (The Catholic priest, on the other hand, still performs a sacrifice-- he offers Jesus' flesh and blood, so he gets to keep the name.)

Although Cohanim (i.e, anybody called Cohen or some variation of the name) do not perform sacrifices anymore, they still have some specific responsibilities and duties, one of them being "the worship of the heart". "We will render the offering of our lips instead of the bulls." (Hosea 14:3) That seems to me to be exactly what Cohen does -- rendering the offering of his lips, worshiping from the heart.

I'm not saying that it's what the song is about. It's just one of the layers. In my opinion Cohen could not possibly have written it without thinking about his lineage, his father's line.

"There is a place where the generations often meet. A very curious place. It's generally an altar or a chopping block. This is a song for my father."
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a few more comments...

Postby socks0820 » Tue Mar 01, 2005 9:59 am

The Paper that I'm doing on "story of isaac" is a line by line analysis. I'm a music student and I'm singing this song for a class and part of the assignment is to write this paper. I've done a fair amount of research and for the most part I'm finding that LC is fairly ambiguous about a specific message in the song but more leaving the song to just be a statement. It is what it is...talking about it being a reference to generations sacrificing other generations. Mainly older men sending younger men to war to eliminate competition. Anyway, those are a few of the thoughs I have on the song as of now...thanks for the replies.
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The last stanza...

Postby socks0820 » Tue Mar 01, 2005 1:50 pm

Maybe this shows my literary ignorance but what does the last line in the song really mean?

"And mercy on our uniform,
man of peace or man of war,
the peacock spreads his (deadly) fan"

thanks again :) [/i]
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Postby jurica » Tue Mar 01, 2005 2:35 pm

peacock spreads his fan to show off. it's not easy to comprehend these three lines. it has many layers.

soldiers show of when they are marching. they show their strength.

kings and politicians show their success after and during the war by showing their faces before their people.

parents brag about their children being good at this or that.

sportsmen rise their hansd like peacocks spread their fans when they win.

i think he wants to say: someone is sending children to their death so he can spread his fan as if it was his, not their victory.
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Postby tom.d.stiller » Tue Mar 01, 2005 3:18 pm

I agree with jurica. There are some more aspects, however, to be discovered. I can't do any thorough research right now but I provide a link: Peacock Symbolism
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Postby ~greg » Thu Mar 03, 2005 1:20 am

Wilfred Owen was the most famous of the WWI "war-poets".
And Cohen almost certainly was aware of him.

And, if so, then, to some degree, or other, he must have
been, consciously, or unconsciously, aware, of the following
poem, when he wrote 'The Story of Isaac':

-Wilfred Owen

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb, for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an Angel called him out of heaven;
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

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Postby Ghoti » Thu Mar 03, 2005 3:28 pm

I've always taken the final stanza to be an illustration of the irrelevance and bigotry of war. The soldiers and politicians spread their fans in war and in peacetime. all it is is pageantry. Cohen is mocking the self importance of soldiers and of war.
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Postby Paula » Thu Mar 03, 2005 4:44 pm

I always took it to mean - just because I am wearing a uniform does not mean I am a man of peace or war I was just told to do it. The peacock aspect I took to be the spread of the uniform into a massive fan when the body of men wearing it appeared and spread out over the horizon.
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Postby ~greg » Fri Mar 04, 2005 1:26 pm

"The Peacock" was a famous transsexual
living in Montreal in the late 1960s.

The story goes that 'The Peacock' (so named
by his drill-instructor, a well known flaming
homosexual, in boot-camp) had been stationed
in Japan at the end of world war II, where
he had befriended a small geisha girl and a
large dog, or a small dog and a large geisha
girl (no one knows for sure which.) In any
case one day the geisha girl found herself
incapable - quite contrary to all proper protocol
and tradition - of not laughing at him, rather
than with him - and it was this, they say,
that ultimately led to his downward spiral,
culminating, almost inexorably, in his
self-castration one day with the sharp
edge of a fan. The ginkgo trees were all in
bloom and dropping their fan-shaped pink petals
at the same time too as a matter of fact, which is
said to be significant.

After that The Peacock studied up on the finer
points of the true and fine Japanese art of self
expression with multi-colored fans, a large
number of which he always carried with him
at all times ever since (if he's still alive)
or ever after (if he's not.)

The Peacock had no prejudice against
either "man of peace" or "man of war".

If he was at all interested in a man,
of whichever stripe, he would signal his
(now virtual) lust, by spreading the
appropriately multi-colored fan in
the dude's face.

The funny thing is that they weren't
called "men of peace" and "men of war"
in the late 1960s in the homosexual
community. They were called "doves"
and "hawks" instead.

Thusly Cohen betrayed the existence of
a large and unwieldy generation gap between
himself and the now younger homosexual community.

Which forgave him this, as well as innumerable
similar lacunae, --because "he's such a righteous dude."

The Cohen community, however, all of whom are homosexual,
has never been able to stifle a loud guffaw whenever
they hear those lines in 'The Story of Isaac".

Thus repeating, almost as if in memoriam,
the story of The Peacock and the geisha girl
and her dog 'Blood-Clot' (in Japanese).

I'm sorry, -but I just had to point this out
-when I see you blog-generation kiddies
floundering around in the muck and mire with
things like this.

Traditions like this must not be lost!

They should be found!

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Re: "story of isaac"

Postby MDCitizen » Mon Dec 13, 2010 6:40 am

Recently, someone with whom I work was showing me an exercise in the book from which
she is learning Hebrew, and that exercise was a translation of the story of Isaac. I haven't
thought much about that song in many years, but as soon as I realized what my friend was
reading I made her stop. When I first heard Cohen's Story of Isaac, I was only 15 or 16,
and had no children. I knew my basic bible stories, but I never really thought much about
the reality of them until I heard this song. This song gave me the creeps then and I was
startled to find that it hit me just as hard now. That whole story is just awful on so many
levels. That poor little boy! And what about his mother? I cannot understand accepting
a deity who demands such evil.

But as I get older, I see mankind doing the same thing, over and over, and whose son gets
knifed is as random as a game of musical chairs. And yet, all the men who "build the alters
now to sacrifice these children" were once little boys.
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Re: "story of isaac"

Postby Lilifyre » Wed Dec 15, 2010 10:24 pm

Like so many of Leonard's songs, this one has many layers of meaning. The obvious is that it is a telling of the Biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac. Another layer shows the cruelty and futility of war. It is also the competition/strife between father and child. Then there is the hidden meaning that is personal to each person who hears it. This last, is different for each individual and possibly may go completely unnoticed, even by that individual, expressed in a gut feeling that the song evokes.

For me personally, it strikes a cord of familial abuse. My lifelong abuser was my older brother. The words of this song scream to me of the pain and helplessness I faced for many years. Was that meaning put there intentionally by Leonard? Almost certainly not. But it is there for me. This is certainly not the only song/poem/writing to have this quality. That is one of the attributes of language. That is part of being human. Leonard is a master of this art form. I do believe he intentionally writes in a way that allows for this personalization to take place. Perhaps this is why each person who covers one of his songs, evokes a different feeling to the same words. If this were not so, then any person with an acceptable voice would get the same response from "Hallelujah" as the next. But each cover of that song comes out totally different. Maybe that's why Leonard has no problem appreciating any of the many versions of his songs covered by others. In fact, he welcomes all of them.

"Well, that's my story
I admit it's broken and it's bleak
But all the twisted pieces fit
A 1000 kisses deep."
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Re: "story of isaac"

Postby Geoff6 » Wed Dec 21, 2016 3:50 pm

Hi Socks, did you ever get round to finishing your line by line analysis of Story of Isaac? I would love to have a read of it. Where can I find it?

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