new_skin_for_the_old_ceremony As a gift to a friend of mine who is retiring soon, a group of friends and colleagues have been asked to write articles about a poem or song.

These texts will be connected by the themes of one, or more, of the four elements – fire, earth, water and air.

I have chosen to write a piece on Leonard Cohen’s Who By Fire which, as you may know or recall, goes like this:

And who by fire, who by water,
 who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
 who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
 who in your merry merry month of may,
 who by very slow decay,
 and who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
 who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
 and who by avalanche, who by powder,
 who for his greed, who for his hunger,
 and who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
 who in solitude, who in this mirror,
 who by his lady's command, who by his own hand,
 who in mortal chains, who in power,
 and who shall I say is calling?

Here is what I wrote:
Life teaches us that asking the right questions is as important as looking for correct answers. This is also an effective  didactic technique as it encourages students to engage in critical thinking without being burdened by preconceptions or clouded by prejudice.

By stimulating open-mindedness we are more inclined to weigh up possibilities rather than worrying about constraints. Questions can be a form of answer in that they raise issues to reflect upon rather than glibly offering simplistic solutions.

Questions lie at the heart of Who By Fire, one of Leonard Cohen’s most  celebrated songs released in 1974 on his album New Skin For The Old Ceremony .

The lyrics are freely adapted from a Hebrew prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, which is traditionally sung in the synagogue on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kipper). For instance, part of it asks: “Who shall see ripe old age and who shall not?; Who shall perish by fire and who by water?”

These are quite literally life or death questions. The liturgical form of the song means that it could be dismissed as pompous sermonizing but for me, it is far more than a common prayer and has a significance beyond a narrow religious interpretation.

While the Jewish faith and ceremonial practices were important inspirations to Cohen, he was not one to offer tired platitudes or to resort to passive subservience to God’s will. Rather than offer a series of confident assertions, the song seems to me to be a check list of human dilemmas and paradoxes. For instance, human sufferings caused by hunger, greed and “mortal chains” are breezily juxtaposed with a reference to the “merry merry month of May”.

Some of these contrasts are also suggested by linking together fire and water since the personalities associated with these elements are quite different. Fire people are outgoing and goal orientated while a water person is more meditative and inward looking.

Of course, there is no positive spin you can place on the fundamental truth that from dust we are born and to dust we return. However, instead of being resigned to an inevitable fate (by water, by sword, by fire etc) Cohen is effectively giving us permission to speak of the awesomeness of being alive and embrace the notion that, in the words of Mervyn Peake, “To live at all is miracle enough”. Above all, in these lines, the poet turned singer songwriter is asking us to share in his private contemplations, turning an inner dialogue into a series of externalized reflections.

In so doing, he implicitly endorses the viewpoint of his fellow Canadian, Neil Young, who famously wrote that it is better to burn out than fade away. Though misconstrued by Kurt Cobain as a justification for suicide, this sentiment is more affirmatively viewed as an incentive to revel in the flames of passion and vitality rather than submit to a “slow decay”. In other words, to embrace the symbolic associations of fire as an element.

leonard cohen

Leonard Cohen in 1974

Each of the three stanzas in Who By Fire ends with the question ‘Who shall I say is calling?’ This is something we might routinely ask when answering the phone but in the context of the song the enquiry has a far deeper significance. We recognise that the unknown ‘caller’ is someone who controls our destiny. Or does He?

My own secular interpretation is that by asking for the identity of the caller Cohen is effectively wondering aloud to what extent we should submit to the will of an invisible deity. By daring to pose the question, he at least raises the possibility that we can be proactive and therefore aspire to being more than just mere puppets guided by hidden strings. This, it seems to me, is far preferable to imagine ourselves as fearful sinners standing meekly before a creator awaiting His judgement.

Ultimately, of course, the question as to who, or what, illuminates and extinguishes our life is as fundamental as it is unknowable. To be human is to accept that there are many more questions than answers yet to cease being curious is a death of the soul. Let us rather speak of life’s awesomeness.