Leonard Cohen: Anthem

Anthem, released in 1992 on the album The Future, is among the first songs that come to my mind when asked about a song with a spiritual core message.

Arriving in the Here and Now

At the start, Anthem seems to suggest to simply focus on the here and now. This may already be regarded as some sort of common sense among spiritual seekers, even if it is difficult to accomplish in everyday life, planning ahead and processing experiences from the past …

The birds they sang
At the break of day
Start again
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
Has passed away
Or what is yet to be

Disappointment about the state of the world?

Growing up, it usually doesn’t take long to find out that this world is not an ideal place to be.

When I was young, I was full of hope the world could be made better. Now, I’m not so sure any more … How many generations before mine have tried that? To what end?

Leonard Cohen is not exactly romantic when assessing the chances of creating lasting peace:

Yeah the wars they will
Be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
Bought and sold
And bought again
The dove is never free

So what to make of this realization, if we can accept it? It would be easy to fall into dispair, and stop engaging for positive goals – many may have reacted in this way.

Cohen suggests otherwise in the chorus, the words of which for me rank among the most memorable in song lyrics:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

No reason to lose heart at the state of affairs: It was never meant to be any different! The imperfection, the suffering, the returning wars, … all that reminds us of the true home of the gem buried deep in our souls. That way, we may regard as help what we may have judged as “bad”, “negative” etc. so far. The “cracks” in everything prevent us from feeling at home, from being content, and motivate us to keep seeking for the essence of life.

This, to me, is a fundamental key to accepting the world as it is, and not fight battles anymore that are impossible to win.

Give me signs!

Are there signs that hint to higher aspects of life? Yes, says Cohen – they are everywhere – if only we were able to recognize them:

We asked for signs
The signs were sent
The birth betrayed
The marriage spent
Yeah the widowhood
Of every government
Signs for all to see

Creating collective Karma

The third verse may be read as how people build up karma (“a thundercloud”) – both those in power (“killers in high places”), and common people (“lawless crowd”).

I can’t run no more
With that lawless crowd
While the killers in high places
Say their prayers out loud
But they’ve summoned, they’ve summoned up
A thundercloud
And they’re going to hear from me

Wisdom in the last verse

The last verse before the final chorus offers more wisdom. The whole being more than the sum of its parts refers to Greek philosopher Aristotle.

You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

The last two lines remind me of the story of the rich young man in the bible (see post on Dylan’s Love in Vain). A heart pure enough to receive light “will come but like a refugee”, i. e. needs to be emptied of all it has collected …

Anthem and the Kabbalah

Anthem’s chorus may refer to a school of Kabbalah named after Isaac Luria (1534 – 1572). One of his main concepts is called Shevira – the shattering of the sephirot vessels. In one stage of creation, light poured into the sephirot (10 attributes / emanations) until an overflow made a vessel burst. So light from higher realms is fragmented in our material realm.

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