Like a Bird on a Wire

7 Aug

[This is a creative piece written to entertain my readers and all characters other than Ajoy and I, appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. Two images of Leonard Cohen attached to this post are from a public internet source]

19:27 06-08-2019

One of the epiphanic moments of my recent visit to New York took place when I went to see the Leonard Cohen Exhibition (“A Crack in Everything”) at the Jewish Museum at Fifth Ave. and 92nd St. This museum is located “in the former Felix M. Warburg House, along the Museum Mile in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, New York City”.

My son Ajoy had thoughtfully booked tickets to the exhibition on 9 June 2019.

I shouldn’t take it for granted that everyone reading this has heard of Leonard Cohen (1934-2016). I was introduced to his music shortly after I left college in 1967. The first Cohen song that made an impression on me was what might arguably be his best known song, “Suzanne”. This number was released on a 1967 album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen”.

Leonard Cohen was a Canadian poet, songwriter and singer whose music is sometimes surreal and mystical. The listener cannot be blamed for filtering Cohen’s musical phrases through the plug-in of his or her life’s experiences. Since experiences appear to undergo subtle changes each time we examine them, the takeaway is different each time.

The exhibition was billed as: “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is the first exhibition entirely devoted to the imagination and legacy of the influential singer/songwriter, man of letters, and global icon from Montréal, Canada.

“The exhibition includes commissioned works by a range of international artists who have been inspired by Cohen’s style and recurring themes in his work, a video projection showcasing Cohen’s own drawings, and an innovative multimedia gallery where visitors can hear covers of Cohen’s songs by musicians such as Lou Doillon; Feist; Moby; and The National with Sufjan Stevens, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Richard Reed Parry, among others.”

Thomas A.Harris MD of “I’m Ok, Youre Ok” fame comments on neurosurgeon Dr. Wilder Penfield’s experiments with how the human brain functions in cognition (1951). He found that by touching the temporal cortex of the patient’s brain with a galvanic probe, transmitting a weak electric current, the patient could recall past incidents or buried memories in a vivid psychical experience. Penfield was trying to understand how the brain uses its 12 billion cells and which unknown number of these cells store memories that can be played back under clinical conditions.

The multimedia exhibition at the Jewish Museum acted as a musical galvanic probe which activated some memories which had been buried for ages.

When I heard “Suzanne” at the Jewish Museum as part of a multi-media experience, the image of a brilliant young lady friend named Malaha flashed through my mind.

Well, my friend Malaha was suffering from deep depression and I knew she was on Lithium treatment. One evening I got a phone call from her to say that she would like to visit me. Normally this would not have been considered unusual, but it was pretty late in the evening.

Somewhat doubtfully I agreed and then she dropped the bomb… I would like to stay the night at your flat… When I began to tell her why that might not be a good idea, she told me she was halfway to my place when she had this urge to throw herself out of the autorickshaw in which she was travelling. So she stopped the ride and went to a shop to telephone me. “I couldnt think of anyone else to call”, she said. “I have nobody…”

I told her she could come, not heeding all the warning signals that flashed through my mind. This was an emergency and I was being called on to help a very dear friend in need. Sometimes we dont have to do anything more than just be there for people in our lives.

She arrived at about 1900 hrs and I was shocked at how her normally beautiful eyes had sunk in and had dark circles around them. She looked furtively at me, silently asking many questions.

She was looking for the slightest sign of rejection or disgust as a trigger for self-flaggelation or even worse, serious self-harm.

Malaha sat for a little while without talking much. I organised some soup and toast for her. She then said goodnight, went to the guest room and crashed out!

I was sure that the Suzanne picturised in the eponymous song was unwell and under treatment. Cohen was using this bizarre situation to help examine his own life and feelings..

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbor
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

A critic comments on Cohen’s “Suzanne” in the following words:

“The water symbolizes feelings and subconscious,so it’s associated with Suzanne (=someone you dismiss as “crazy” with your rational intellect)and Jesus (because faith is not a rational thing,but only “drowning men could see him”,that could mean “only those who are in distress”,but also “only those who dive deep into the subconscius mind)…it’s kind of Jungian: it’s a song about Anima,I guess. About the feminine part who nurtures (“feeds you tea…”) and is deeply associated with water and water-like objects (like the mirror)…”

The key line in this verse is, “While Suzanne holds the mirror”… All such experiences are opportunities for us to examine our own lives and be grateful for the grace by which we didnt spill over the edge.

Malaha slept till 1400 hrs the next afternoon and left, thanking me for taking her in at a bad moment in her life.

After she left, I plugged in my Walkman and played a Cohen tape. With some trial and error I located the other great Leonard Cohen song which I think is helpful to describe the contemplative response to a powerful psychic experience:

Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free…

Cohen’s words are persuasive when he asks for forgiveness…

And if I, if I have been unkind
I just hope you will let it go by
And if I, if I have been untrue
I hope you know it was never to you…


2 Responses to “Like a Bird on a Wire”

  1. Pragnya August 7, 2019 at 3:52 pm #

    Very interesting Ajit how some people have visual associated with songs and how each have different stories.

    Cohen is one of my all time fav and like you Suzanne has that impact for most. This piece took me back to the late 70’s.

    • Ajit Mani August 7, 2019 at 11:03 pm #

      Wonderful to hear from you Pragnya! I am aware that time is running out and I must tell the stories that I have to tell… I find that all new stimuli point back into my past… the images from my past are vivid and cannot be erased. My second book, “RETURN OF THE YAKSHI”, set during the Naxal outbreaks of the Sixties and Seventies in Kerala should be out this month. I have used a string of historical events as background to unpack some of my most indelible memories and most intense feelings.

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