Review by Sally Paddock, 2008
Leonard Cohen, Beautiful Losers. First published 1966. (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991).
It is painful to write a book review on a dear and favourite book – re-reading it, rather than summarily explaining it, seems to be the only way to do it any justice. Yet Beautiful Losers is an essential 20th century resource for religious experience, thus, it is here. It is also, in miracle proportion, so much more than that.
As an experimental masterpiece of fiction, Cohen's Beautiful Losers mirrors the experimental freedom that characterized the life of the 1960's; as a poetic offering, its rhythmic beauty is a narrative watermark emblematic of Cohen's career as a poet and song-writer; as a prayer to the pulse of the world, however, the experience of Beautiful Losers transcends both its decade and its author. The protagonist, humbled by the mystery of every natural detail – expanding armies of the dead, the grace of an epileptic, an unfamiliar breast – begs the question: “May I Pray At All?” (pg. 94) Through this voice, Cohen seems to speak for a collective western consciousness, a consciousness which, however it has matured at the turn of the 21st century, remains unsettled by the many attempts to muffle prayer and to bleach clean every natural miracle – both dirty and divine.
Rather than bleaching, silencing or de-constructing any natural wonder, Beautiful Losers constructs a story from very common daily habits – going to the bathroom, dreaming of sexual favours, waiting in line at the theatre – and turns each into its own daily, religious miracle. The story is told through the voice of an unnamed protagonist, and by way of a long letter from his dead friend, F. The protagonist's sustained yearning throughout a measurable portion of the book is “To Make A Small Perfect Thing Which Will Live In Your (God's) Morning” (pg. 58). This effort to angle and arrange his position in life so geometrically frustrates him as he pursues the perfect orgasm, the perfect physique, the perfect lifting of a veil off the face of an Iroquois saint, now dead over 300 years. F., on the other hand, has learned to consider every detail of the world to already be a beautiful, perfect chaos: the energy of an angry mob; the religious light reflecting off of a small, plastic acropolis; the pock-marked, plague-stricken face of that same dead Iroquois saint. While his friend struggles to understand the proper proportions of life and death – and what remains of the divine – in God's equation, F., stopping “bravely at the surface” (pg. 4) considers the entire painful, love-able world as evidence of the divine. Indeed, for both of them, “Death Is Your Idea” (pg. 57) God; but F. is comfortable with this idea.
However comfortable F. is, though, he never feels he is quite complete, at least not without passing on his torch of ideas to his tormented friend with the instructions to “teach the world what I meant to be” (pg. 169). Both F. and the protagonist, in their balancing roles as teacher and student, as friends and lovers, as orphans and as adults, step through history, trying to figure out what being a complete human really is and, more importantly, what being a complete saint really means in this, their heaving material world. And what is a saint, for them, in the end? A saint is one who exercises a “kind of balance in the existence of chaos...he rides the drifts like an escaped ski...he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape” (pg 101). It is this state that Catherine Tekakwitha, the Iroquois saint, reaches when – amidst a bed of thorns and torn, self-mutilated flesh – she is able to tell her priest that his voice sounds like “ordinary eternal machinery” (pg. 217). It is from this state that she can announce what its like to “become a virgin” (pg. 212).
For virginity, sainthood and prayer, as espoused by Cohen in Beautiful Losers, is not something to be protected, sanitized or systematized; it is to be painfully and erogenously realized and created throughout the whole envelope of skin and experience. It is to recognize the “ten or twelve...liquid harmonies” (pg. 117) that make up a single bird note; it is to recognize the multitude of memories that make-up one individual life and then it is the ability to forget those memories; it is the ability to blink at the same speed as the movie projector, thereby turning the screen black. Once this is achieved, once (instead of looking for diamonds in the shit) everything becomes diamond, once tiny acts of magic are acknowledged, the whole world becomes one big miracle; earth, its shenanigans, and even the deceiving size of the stars become “the province of eternity” (pg. 105).