Do you remember what it was like when you were a kid and an adult would read aloud to you? Do you remember how it felt as if you were in a completely different world, each word spoken, each word you heard, formed an image, not in front of you, but around you; you were immersed in the story, you lived in another world.
To me it was torture whenever the adult stopped reading. “Enough for now.” It was never enough. Luckily, I fairly quickly could read on my own. Hiding beneath the covers with a flashlight when the adults had said: Go to sleep now. No more reading. But I needed just another chapter, and another. Never enough.
It really hasn’t changed much. Well, except no one tells me to go to sleep now. I’m aware of the consequences on my own, though, watching the clock ticking forward, knowing another day is approaching hastily, but I need just another chapter.
That feeling – that’s what I talk about when I talk about literature: the being immersed in another world, being swallowed whole, losing consciousness in the “real” world and living for a moment, a few hours, in another.
In my master thesis I wrote about how objects of art, paintings, books, sculptures, interact with the consciousness of people and how this meeting between art and consciousness has the power to change a person. Using the theories of Mikel Dufrenne and Jacques Rancière I showed how Leonard Cohen’s songs, for example, can change the (political) world.
The story of the song is echoed in the simple music, the simple set-up, which points the audience’s attention to the images. This combination of the song and the attention of the audience create the aesthetic object that leads to affect. A broken world unfolds and feelings of fear, anger, distrust, and inevitability reveal themselves. The audience retreats from the meeting with the song and its expression, and these feelings remain with a possibility to change how the audience perceives the world. The song points to these wrongs in the world. It points to how the world is driven by greed and lust, and how it is difficult to keep one’s balance in such a chaos.
The song takes on the shape of an appeal to people. The speaker of the song is trying to choose between life and death, he sees a broken world, people driven by lust and greed, and how these people pass this on to their children along with myths of enmity and need for fight. By way of the images, Cohen shows how human beings are small compared to the universe, yet they have the power to change their world. And this is exactly what the song can do by way of affect and dissensus. The audience is left with the feelings of these horrors happening in the world, and they retract to their world to look upon it with a different perspective.
In the song “Anthem,” we come upon a slightly different tactic in Cohen’s art. As usual, he depicts how the world is broken and at war, but instead of opposing this obvious wrong, he shows how this cyclic state will never change. This is a part of the human conditioning, there will always be conflicts, there will always be fights and hurt in the world. As opposed to “Democracy” and “Stories of the Street,” the song “Anthem” offers a solution. The solution lies in love, in turning towards love, which, as Cohen predicts, every human heart will do eventually. However, they might not do this voluntarily, but as refugees. In my analysis of “Anthem,” I show how this line is very important. It creates a rupture, which according to Rancière is essential to create affect and dissensus.
The song “Anthem” is a perfect example of how Cohen uses the concept of love to create affect. It shows how love, used both as a positive and as a negative, is an emotion that moves everybody. The song also presents Cohen’s idea on the highest form of spiritual love as a goal and an ending point for everything. This is where you transcend the world and the human condition.
In the song, Cohen both embraces and pushes away the world. He cannot be a part of it anymore but at the same time, he says the “killers in high places” will hear from him. Although he knows it will never change, he will not let it happen without speaking up about it.
The song shows how art can make a different. It shows how it creates affect in the audience and possibly changes how they perceive the world. The song becomes political due to the rupture, according to Rancière. The rupture creates affect and moves the audience. When the audience is moved, they might see how the police order keeps certain things invisible and how they are excluded from governing and power.
By showing the many forms of love both in “Anthem” and other songs, Cohen points to what is normally invisible to those excluded. He points to the lack of equality and freedom, to how people are victims of poverty, crime, violence, etc. He also points to the idea of spiritual love as a solution, not to save the world, but to transcend the human condition.
“Anthem” as well as the other songs is heavy with imagery and the intense poetic language that is characteristic for Cohen. It is clearly crafted to create affect, to play on emotions, build up a world in the imagination of the reader/listener and leave them changed. There is great intensity in the images and words, they come together as images rather than language, and they show possible worlds, as Dufrenne says. Whereas “Democracy” and “Stories of the Street” seem to leave the audience in a bleak state, “Anthem” offers a hope. The imperfections of the world, the flaws of human kind become their hope. Through the failures, light enters the mind, and this is where you can overcome the world.
“And that’s how I want to end it. The summer’s almost gone. The winter’s tuning up. Yeah, the summer’s gone, but a lot goes on forever”
From language to imagination, from affect to dissensus, and from dissensus to a possible change of perception, poetry turns to politics. With the theories of Mikel Dufrenne and Jacques Rancière, I have analyzed Cohen’s songs to show how the carefully crafted poetry by way of the audience’s imagination can influence how we look upon the organization of the sensible: who are allowed to speak, what is visible and what is not, and how can we change how the sensible is distributed in our world by way of true politics.
And this is what I talk about when I talk about literature. The power of the written word, the power of the worlds created in our imagination, the emotion that can be transferred from a book to a reader, the intensity of a few lines of a poem, the way you can read something, look up and feel like another person. This is power. This is perfection!
From Narnia to Harry Potter to Tolkien to Ib Michael to Tolstoy to Umberto to Satanic Verses and Kite Runners. I have wandered through the World of Books, the Universe of Stories, not from one end to the other, but around and around, one corner to the other, changing, learning. We learn when we read, it’s not just about the entertainment, it’s about how we for a moment in time can be someone else, can feel differently, can see through another person’s eyes. Be it good or bad, smart or dumb, big or small, reading brings perspective, perspective makes you a better person, as does empathy, which is another great by-product of reading.
Don’t just sit there. Go read a book.