A Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen and the light of Greece

Image by Rama: Creative Commons
Image by Rama: Creative Commons
 *     *     *

There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.”
~ Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

For a number of years in the 1960s Leonard Cohen lived on the Greek island of Hydra. It was there, close to the glittering sea of the Saronic Gulf, that he found the solitude and space he needed for the poems, novels and songs he’d dreamed of writing after leaving his native Montreal. It was there that he discovered, in the white-washed and cobblestone village where he’d settled, a way of life and people that moved him deeply. And it was there on the island that he also met one of his great loves, Marianne Ihlen, forever to be remembered in songs such as “Bird on a Wire” and “So Long, Marianne.” Before going their separate ways at the end of the 1960s they shared their love of the island for years, and shortly before Ihlen died this past summer a friend read out a final note to her from Cohen, who wrote, “I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

Cohen kept returning to Greece in later years, as well as paying homage to it in new songs, poems and interviews, acutely aware of how instrumental his time on Hydra had been to shaping his vision of the world, both creatively and personally. It had lent a sensuous grace to his words and music, encouraging a style of song that could be as intimate as prayer or as raw as a sea-storm sweeping over his island home, but it wasn’t until I moved to Greece myself that I understood something else that he’d gained from the country. It had showed him the splendour of light.

The light of Greece has long been praised for its unique and compelling properties. How it reflects off stone and sea with an unrivalled, crystalline gleam; how in high summer it can consume you so completely that you feel as though you’re swimming inside it, suspended in its tempered, liquid glow. It rivers across the mountains and plains of the country with incomparable clarity, as sharp as a blade but mysteriously deep and mesmeric as well. For centuries writers and artists have sought to understand its qualities and contradictions, devoting countless hours and painstaking efforts to its description through a range of inks, words, oils and watercolours, the elusive subject of their work having faded for the day long before they’d finished. And that’s part of its allure, that for all the beauty of its benediction, it’s also a light that easily hurts. There is an ache of longing and desire to it that can never quite be requited. To stand in a high mountain meadow or on an island in the Aegean as evening begins to fold the sun inside itself is to wish that moment to linger for as long as possible, to lengthen out like an endless road into the days ahead of you. The grasses and wildflowers are lent a glimmering lucidity, while the stones and sea shine with an untold and entrancing presence, something unspeakably beautiful but of course transitory as well. And it was this same poignant duality that Cohen’s music and writing offered in its most moving of moments – it was born of that desire for things to be stilled alongside an acceptance of the ephemeral. He was open to both beauty and its loss in this world, and his songs hold the ache of such bewildering light inside them.

To the tower of song, travel well – καλό ταξίδι.

How the light gets in

4 thoughts on “A Crack in Everything: Leonard Cohen and the light of Greece

  1. This is so beautiful. And remember “Days of Kindness”? Sudh a generous and moving memory of his time with Marianne on Hydra…

    Greece is a good place
    to look at the moon, isn’t it
    You can read by moonlight
    You can read on the terrace
    You can see a face
    as you saw it when you were young
    There was good light then
    oil lamps and candles
    and those little flames
    that floated on a cork in olive oil
    What I loved in my old life
    I haven’t forgotten
    It lives in my spine
    Marianne and the child
    The days of kindness
    It rises in my spine
    and it manifests as tears
    I pray that loving memory
    exists for them too
    the precious ones I overthrew
    for an education in the world

    1. Thanks ever so much for your kinds words and sharing “Days of Kindness.” I revisited the poem the day after he died, reminding myself how he retained his connection to the country well into his life. It’s good to read again and recognise that same light that the two of them shared.

  2. Hello Julian
    I originally read this piece on your Facebook page, but this morning, listening to – and remembering – LC, I returned here for more of that light. It is welcome, for after a string of bright and too-warm November days we are hemmed in this morning beneath a heavy slate sky, reminiscent more of Cornwall than of my adopted Catalonia. It will pass, of course, and the light will return. Meanwhile, Leonard is still singing and I have paused over your penultimate sentence. Open to both beauty and its loss. Indeed, so I’m off out now, off to seek the beauty in a grey day.
    Thanks for the light, the words.
    Warmest wishes from Catalonia.

    1. Dear Alan – my sincere apologies for the lateness of this reply. As I write the first tast of spring is on the wind, the snow disappearing into the sodden earth and great tits singing from the apple boughs. On the highest peack a slant of morning sunlight breaks over slopes of snow, casting a brilliant white halo above it. These simple yet rich moments seem to ring true whenever I return to Cohen’s work – his attention to the subtle contours of the human soul and our places of signficance. You describe your November light of Catalonia so well, and I’m aware how each of us leans towards a light that can be vastly different from the next, making this world all the more rich in the process. Thanks for your kind words, and again, my apologies. Hope this finds you well.

      Very best wishes,

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