I’m reading a book, “The Holy or the Broken” by Alan Light, about the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah” and I have discovered something about myself. My dreams, particularly the recurring ones that seem to want to tell me something about my inner life, are like songs that tug at us mysteriously, seemingly representing meanings—not ideas, for those are cerebral, these are gut feelings—that go deep inside us, perhaps even culturally.
The book describes how that particular song has become mythic, having been used in venues as separate as weddings, funerals, even in the MVI program observing the 9/11 disaster. It’s played every Saturday by the Israeli armed forces radio network. And it’s been sung by countless artists over the years. It’s been described as spiritual, even though some of the lyrics are decidedly sexual and romantic. The word hallelujah itself, repeated as the entire chorus, is both celebratory and despairing.
We like to think that our dreams mean something, at least to us. And yet often their meaning eludes us. We dream situations that we can seldom identify precisely, mostly that they affect us on some gut level. I’ve awakened from dreams feeling euphoric or despairing without knowing why. The details of my dreams usually fade from my mind in the minutes I’m trying to remember them, while the feelings linger. I have several recurring dreams; that is, the resulting feelings are the same or similar while the details vary. Rarely do I get more than a glimpse of understanding.
The poetry of songs often seems like that. We get feelings from some songs that we can’t explain adequately. “Hallelujah” is one of those. In the book, Alan Light quotes a number of people who attempt to explain the power of the lyrics, from religious figures to musicians. One, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, instead referred to the waltz rhythm and the “ascending notes that lift us”—more non-verbal, gut responses. From its inauspicious beginnings (the album was rejected by CBS Records), it grew in popularity until in 2012 Leonard Cohen was honored for “Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence” by Poets/Playwrights, Essayists/Editors, Novelists (PEN) judges.
The singer-songwriter Paul Simon compared his “Bridge over Troubled Waters” to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in its mysterious popularity. Yet the two songs are quite different in their relative meanings. “Bridge” is a comfort song, a reassurance that the one being sung to is held, somehow, in embrace by the singer. The lyrics, while poetic, are clear. The Carole King song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” and Bill Withers’s “Lean on Me” are much the same kind of songs.
The lyrics of “Hallelujah” refer to the irony of sexual desire and loss, yet they suggest some inner strength that can enable us to endure. One can read them in different ways, different contexts, as they refer to a “broken hallelujah” that feels like life. The listener is comforted, perhaps, by the deep knowledge that life endures, even without the external comfort offered by “Lean on Me.” Cohen himself said, “The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled, but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess.” Hallelujah.
As I think about my recurring dreams—about feeling lost and confused in the midst of semi-familiar surroundings, of inadequacy, even “if they really knew me” kinds of doubts—I’m aware of those feelings mostly suppressed in my waking life. I’m probably not alone in these feelings. That I dream them tells me that my doubts are, for me, universal in the sense that they are a deep part of my psyche. They are not some misunderstanding I have of myself. They are basic to me. And yet they permeate everything I do.
And they are as mysterious as the feelings I have when I hear “Hallelujah,” or Leonard Cohen’s equally mythic “Suzanne.” A way to “embrace the whole mess.”