Leonard Cohen: No Cure For Love

/ by Svetlana Slapšak

In October 2010, Leonard Cohen had a concert in Ljubljana, in a newly-opened sport center called Stožice. The concert lasted much longer than expected. Cohen enjoyed himself before a public of fans mostly in their forties, fifties and sixties. My husband and I were 61 and 62, not yet at the mythical 64 put forth by Paul McCartney in his lovely ragtime song, the threshold of old age for those who grew up around 1968. We could not afford the tickets at that moment, and it was too late when we decided to go anyway. In fact, I found the solution at the last moment, since I was walking with crutches already, due to my arthrosis: I borrowed my mom's wheelchair, which she did not use much, and we entered the concert for free – me as a handicapped person and my husband as the accompanying helper. The concert was sheer magic. It gave us back the feeling of being together in something familiar and passionate, our thirty-six years of fun, love, alliance and camaraderie, always at a secure distance from conformism, bourgeois habits, certainty and boredom. While waiting for the taxi late in the freezing Ljubljana night, we started a heated debate about Cohen's notions of love, the whole range of meanings and polysemic chains he was opening in his songs over so many years. We continued the debate with my mom back home. She was still awake, and ready to smoke an extra cigarette on account of Leonard Cohen and the memory of past times. She died a year later, at the age of 91.

Cohen's notions of love, and especially “no cure for love,” haunted me for the whole year afterwards, and I eventually put it as the introductory quote in an article about the concept(s) of love in Antiquity, as discussed in late Hellenistic sources. Leonard Cohen not only forged the notions of love that formatted my understanding and practice of love, but he also helped me understand some of things that wound up as my lifetime occupation. To put it simply, Leonard Cohen is among my many official, non-official and accidental teachers.

There ain't no cure for love, there ain't no cure for love

All the rocket ships are climbing through the sky

The holy books are open wide, the doctors working day and night

But they'll never ever find that cure for love

There ain't no drink, no drug, ah tell them, angels

There's nothing pure enough to be a cure for love

...

I walked into this empty church I had no place else to go

When the sweetest voice I've ever heard, whispered to my soul

I don't need to be forgiven for loving you so much

It's written in the scriptures, it's written there in blood

I even heard the angels declare it from above

There ain't no cure, there ain't no cure, there ain't no cure for love

 

The ancient anthropological complex of love is so complicated and polysemic, that we can only discuss the fragments which confirm certain continuities. Paul Veyne recently offered an anthropological overview of love in different contexts of Roman society, in a diachronic perspective: it can be only partly comparable to the Greek situation within an approximate diachronicity. The continuity he defined is the relation between love and power.

One of the fragments of continuity concerning ancient love, which can be traced throughout the European cultural history, is certainly the crypto-notion of “Greek love,” the other is a mythological invention of the “lesbian.” I restrain myself here to hetero-sexual relations in a specific chronotope: my choice is the late Hellenistic, culturally globalized Mediterranean world, in which radically changed social and cultural relations have already changed sexual identities. How the already passé male citizen's power-fueled sexuality was re-worked into nostalgia, how the reality of the emerging female citizen's sexuality was channeled to a more detailed map of female desire, and how the new positioning of genders shifted to social and economic negotiating, with a new touch of consumerism. Leonard Cohen's verses, in this context, serve to exemplify one of the striking differences between some forms of love in antiquity and the predominant form of love in modern Western cultures, deeply marked by the relation of love, culpability and faith. The cure for love, in ancient terms, mystified in poetry, dramatized in scenes or in prose, and pragmaticized in medical texts of antiquity, is inevitably and only one: sex. Some of the conclusions by ancient authors pertaining to physiology and desire have been used in today's medical experiments, especially in diagnostics of love-sickness.

When Plutarch discusses Eros, the god of love, he points to the lack of definite features: “For he is neither female nor male; again, neither god nor man, neither stupid nor yet wise, but rather composed of elements from everywhere, and bearing many qualities in a single frame. For his audacity is that of a man, his timidity a woman's; his folly argues madness, his reasoning good sense, his impetuosity is that of a wild animal, his persistence that of adamant, his love of honor that of a god. Now all this, Athena and the gods are my witnesses, I cannot explain, but still it is something like this, and I've come close to the general idea." This Eros can be read as a rhetorical-stylistic figure of “something-like-this,” the incomprehensive, the elusive, the non-intelligible - but powerful...and not curable. The new faces of Eros in Plutarch's world indicate, with no doubt, some new anthropological inscriptions of the global Hellenistic world: fragile masculinity, deprived of phallic power which derived from the democratic citizenship, diversity of intimacies, loneliness in the city. And this also indicates the new position of women. This closes down the chapter in ancient history of love which was characterized by the rule of phallos, and encrypted in the arbitrary power of Eros and notions of illness and therapy, opening the notions of sexual negotiating, shared pleasure and dependence on the social-cultural context.

I omitted here the argumentation and the examples from the texts of Lucian, Athenaeus and Alciphron, of no importance for this sad and thankful moment. It is just about Leonard Cohen, on the day when he died, and about the immense power of his words and his voice to make people think, remember love and love the memory.

....
Svetlana Slapšak

trained in Classical Studies/Linguistics at the University in Beograd. Retired professor of Anthropology of Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender at ISH, Ljubljana Graduate School of Humanities since 1996. Dean of ISH 2004-2014. Published cca 70 books. Writes academic books/articles, essays, novels, travelogue, drama and translates from Ancient Greek, Modern Greek, Latin, French, English, Slovenian and SCB languages.


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