I saw a therapist for several years who was a big reader like myself except we didn’t have much in common as far as books were concerned and one of the points on which we differed was that, when it came to biographies, he was always mostly interested in the subject’s early years, childhood traumas and first loves and so on, whereas I always found those years a little boring and favored, instead, the final years. How did this person face death? What was their decline like?
A few months ago I woke up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning feeling anxious and frantic and a little ashamed of something I’d done the night before, drinking with a friend, and so in the quiet early hours before leaving for work I conceived of, and began working on, a project that would hypothetically go on for several years if I stuck to it. I wasn’t sure that I WOULD stick to it but I told myself that yes, it was set in stone and I was committed, because honestly I was just trying to keep my mind busy until the hangover’s shame subsided (as it does). The project proved to be a pretty good time, though. A bit of catharsis for some unpleasant stuff going on at home. And so now, after a few months of steady work, I’m almost 10% done with it. Like 7.2%. That 10% maker was originally going to be the point at which I showed it to people.
Then Leonard Cohen died.
What I think makes for the most interesting third act of a biography is when its subject has the mixed privilege of knowing they’re at the end. Gore Vidal, griefstruck and afraid, drank himself into catatonia. John Cheever started getting comfortable with his sexuality. Norman Mailer surrendered his machismo and turned gracious.
In the final months of his life Leonard Cohen was working in his home studio, writing and recording, pushing himself to finish old projects despite the pain from a compound fracture in his spine and the general ache of his illness (he was suffering, privately, of an unspecified cancer, and proved allergic to the meds that might’ve dulled it).
Leonard Cohen lived in a Buddhist monastery for a few years in his 60s. Mount Baldy, in California. Drove down for a fish filet from McDonald’s once in a while, a glass of wine at home, but otherwise kept with the monks. When he finally came down for good, and started to look at picking up his life where he’d left it, he found that his manager had stolen all of his money. He was in his 70s and broke.
So first he released a book, then a new album, and then – despite his longstanding aversion to it – he went on tour. Over the next few years he performed hundreds of shows, reclaimed his fortune (doubled it, allegedly), released a few albums, appeared on talk shows and basically reassembled his life – and I guess I’m dwelling on it because I’m preoccupied at the moment with this idea of like The Sanctity of Work, of knowing what you’re good at and what you love and then devoting yourself to it completely. Obsessively. And it’s not that Cohen harps on this subject in his writing so much as it’s just embodied in the man himself, this virtue of tireless dedication, and it’s clearest in what we now know to be the last chapter of his bio. The image of this old man, once a portrait of virility and wandering, winnowed, finally, by sickness and pain, writing and recording obsessively in his home studio (he can be heard saying to somebody, in a late recording, “Darling, can you get my hearing aid? I can’t hear a fuckall.”).
Cohen told David Remnick, in his penultimate interview, that one of the blessings of age (and perhaps of his condition) was that he no longer heard the voice in his head that told him, whenever he was trying to create something, “You’re fucking up.” He’d made peace with who he was. “I haven’t got the chops,” he used to say of himself, downplaying his talent. “I’ve got one chop.” But he’d made the best of that chop. Mastered it.
I’m working now on a low-stakes project that also happens to be the biggest thing I’ve done. A several-year commitment I’m hoping to stick to. Maybe I won’t. But a good portion of it is already done, and I’m having a good time at the helm. It’s for that website I’ve mentioned here and there. In the wake of Cohen’s death I’ve decided, for pointless emotional reasons, to launch the site earlier than planned. It won’t be super riveting to probably anybody but myself, and I’m cool with that, but I mention it here because it’s taken lots of time and thought and effort to get this far and, yes, the project is characterized by the admittedly exhaustive exercise of my one chop, which will soon grow grueling for anybody, but I’ll submit it here for your consideration.
This project is fueled by several motives but the release of it, the decision to quit these endless revisions and carry forward, is sparked by the sudden departure of that person who will never again come back to create, to console or to guide, but to whom you nonetheless feel indebted, more so than ever, and you go about your day in a fervor now because that person persists as this ghost sitting thoughtful and quiet in the car with you, at the bar with you, and what you’re facing, when propositioned with paying this person back for all that he’s given you, is the transaction of some vague spiritual currency whose accounting can only be taken, finally, in your own Final Chapter, weighed in the palm of your heart. And the big tribute, ultimately, is to shine a light through the crystal that is You – and it’s many-sided and it’s got a weird shape, yes it does, and it’s absolutely RIVEN with flaws, God bless it – so as to project some semblance of artistry upon your personal sliver of the cosmic canvas. And, in so doing, announce to that person, to that poet in his hat and the empty space that held him, “This is what I became, thanks to you. I’ve got reasons aplenty to hide it. But I wanted you to see.”
The project starts this week.