Your Perfect Body

“Suzanne” by Leonard Cohen.

I was brought up in a pretty traditional Christian environment that regarded all sexual desire outside of marriage as pernicious. You could be a good Christian or you could be a slave to earthly desires, but you couldn’t be both.

Then one of my older brothers brought “Songs of Leonard Cohen”, Leonard Cohen’s first album, into the house.   I have no idea why I put it on ever but I did.  And I was mesmerized by the entire album but especially “Suzanne”. The first verse is about desire: Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river and feeds you tea and oranges and gets you on her wavelength and so on. I got it. Then the second verse: Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water… and when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him, he said all men shall be sailors then until the sea shall free them. Cohen linked the two, the fact that only “drowning” men could really grasp the spiritual significance of his “lonely wooden tower”, and that this drowning was linked to being immersed in Suzanne’s seductive “tea and oranges”, in her “wavelength”.  That blew my mind.  This was a Jesus I had never heard of at church or Saturday morning bible school.  What was he doing in a song about “Suzanne”, a strange woman who lived near the harbour and obviously offered more to you than just tea and oranges.

You are drawn to both Suzanne and Jesus because they “touched your perfect body” with their minds. Your body was not corrupted by either Suzanne or Jesus, but made perfect by both.  It was the most mysterious and allusive image in the song: your perfect body.  It suggested to me a state of transcendence, of moving beyond the shabby physical reality of sweat and moles and smell and hair into a kind of ecstatic sensual encounter that made everything beautiful.

I began to believe that the two forces were not in opposition but were intimate companions on the quest to realize yourself as fully human, as a complete person, to become perfectly aware of beauty and spiritual truth. I began to believe that conventional Christian morality was, in comparison, petty and legalistic, a culture of sad equations and inhibitions, and that sexual intimacy can and should be a sacred experience.

A few years later, I saw a film, “Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen”, a short biographical piece by the National Film Board of Canada.  At one point, Cohen was going to read some of his poetry.  And off-camera director or technician said, “now remember, Mr. Cohen; no dirty words.”   Cohen showed umbrage and said, “there are no dirty words. Ever.”

No, there aren’t.

I think that towards the end of his life, Cohen began to believe his own press, and began to cater to his audience of worshipful wannabes.  I think he began to believe that there really were “dirty words”.  Pity.

As for myself, I’m not compromising.  There are no dirty words.  Ever.