We Are All Mad About Love Stories: Marianne Ihlen & Leonard Cohen
Social media reminded me that exactly 11 years ago, on October 4, I attended one of the most beautiful concerts in my life (Spodek hall in Katowice, Poland). Leonard Cohen in his later years, but full of life joy, energy, magnetism, with other-worldly effect on the audience. I cannot tell, but it must be a different feeling of life. Even though it is a huge concert venue, in those three hours, incredible intimacy was achieved, giving us more than we could ever expect: poetry, emotions, music and cognizance; he simply pleased us, indulged us, stripped us inside. And he made it all look completely natural so that no one would be ashamed of their vulnerability. Even so, in those three hours, vulnerability became the strongest means because only through vulnerability one could experience what that night offered, assuring us that magic still exists, not only in fairytales but can also be found in adulthood and most of all in yourself. Simply, in those more than three hours, life was kind to us and caressed us. That is why we love poets. That is why we love art.
This concert was part of a two-year tour, just six years before his death, and shortly after his six-year stay at a Buddhist monastery. At one concert (2009, London), his inspiration, love, and inconsistent constant Marianne Ihlen was present. She from the audience, he on stage, sang together the song dedicated to her, i.e. the song that marked their separation (So long, Marianne). Those few moments (documented in the documentary Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love by director Nick Broomfield) contain all the faces of love immersed in an unbearable beauty. Love, sorrow, eternity, finality mixed in perfect splendour. In life itself.
The story of their love began on the Greek island of Hydra, the hedonistic refuge of many artists in the ’60s, the time of free love, open marriages and unlimited freedom. Young and beautiful refugees in search of something different. He was a young aspiring writer, and she was his muse (although that definition as the artist’s muse did handicap her for a while), with a smile and enthusiasm one of a kind. In those years they spent together, Hydra was astonishing, and not just objectively, but also because that is how they experienced it: sun, beach, swimming, creating, listening to music, making love, drinking, talking… Absolutely fabulous. Cohen saved her life after a marriage with a violent husband, who left her for another woman after their son’s birth, and she was there as an inspiration and a real help during his writing. She encouraged him; she had a special sense of identifying unique gifts in others. She helped Cohen see his inner riches and encouraged him to work on them.
At some point during the years spent in a Buddhist monastery, he says: “I’m trying to learn some things about love. Well, love is that activity that… that makes the power of man and woman… that incorporates it into your own heart, where you can embody man and woman, when you can embody hell and heaven, when you can reconcile and contain, when man and woman become your content. In other words, when your woman becomes your own content, and you become her content, that’s love. And you recognize the full equality of that exchange because if she’s smaller than you, she can’t fill you. And if you’re larger than her, you can’t fill her. You know? So there has to be an understanding that there really is absolute equality of power. Different kinds of power. Obviously, different kinds of magic. Different kinds of strength, different kinds of movement, that’s as different as night and day. And it is night and day. And it is the moon and the sun. And it is the land and the sea. And there are pluses and minuses. It is heaven and hell. It is all those antonyms. But they’re all equal. I have experienced it. You don’t have to change the world. There doesn’t have to be any revolutions.” These thoughts on love correspond to the experiences on Hydra. Up until that moment when the island and Marianne become too small and stop fulfilling him.
He had that urge to escape, even when things looked good. He was always leaving. From that moment, real love embarks, the moment when this sublime feeling faces reality.
In the documentary mentioned above and other texts, it simply becomes difficult to bridge this love story from Hydra to the last years of their lives because it practically does not exist, at least not in its original form. At times, it even becomes hard to see Marianne left alone in her love story. He offers her to come to Canada, but it is unfortunate because Leonard is a rising international star and invites many other women into his life. Aviva Leyton (married to Irving Leyton for 20 years) says: “The minute he said that (when he invited her to Canada), he did not need it anymore.” It hardly fits into the frame of a perfect love story. Aviva Leyton continues: “Oh, boy, that was a mistake. Poets do not make great husbands, do they? No, you can’t own them. You can’t even own a bit of them.”
In these moments, I realize I become infuriated and ask one million questions. I begin to judge this story which has already been pre-defined and packed up as a great love story. I wonder why we – the humans – need to build new truths, add, subtract and create them in our own way. Where does this inner urge to create whole worlds based on a few exceptional moments come from? Maybe because we are never satisfied with reality, it is difficult for us to come to terms with it.
I am annoyed by Cohen’s words when he announces “So long, Marianne at one of his concerts: “This song is about a girl I used to live with. I lived with her for about, uh, eight years. Her name was Marianne. And, uh, I used to live with her, you know, for six months of the year and the other six months of the year I would spend with someone else. Then I found myself living with her four months of the year. Then two months of the year. Then by the eighth year, I was living with her a couple of weeks of the year. But I thought it was time to write this particular song for her. I still live with her a couple of days of the year.” The audience is laughing while he speaks with a dose of irony, like a stand-up comedian. It’s a jeering monologue for some woman to whom he occasionally returns and is always there for him.
There are many more moments like this one. And their continual coming back to each other and my incessant re-examination of everything up until the moment when Jan Christian Mollestad, a friend of Marianne, says: “It was a love story which had 50 chapters without being together. She had a compartment of her heart which was always married to Leonard. That’s the beauty of Marianne’s and Leonard’s history, that they had this place for each other till the very end. And it’s not the bitter end. It was a lovely end. It’s a very beautiful ending.” This is literally a description of their life-ending.
One evening Mollestad receives an SMS from Marianne that she’s in a hospital and she’s dying. She asked him to tell Leonard. A few hours later, Cohen sent her a letter: “Well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old, and our bodies are falling apart, and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine. And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye, old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
Cohen died four months later, aged 82. He was indeed very near behind her.
Didn’t I narrow the field of love too much, I thought to myself. I set love in a small predictable frame and condemned her to grow within it. Like in a dark cell. And when there is no space, can it develop in all its splendour? These new questions came as a denial of my previous judgment. And when is love the strongest? When it is free! When it is between free spirits. When they go back to each other to the very end, even though they are not obliged to do so.
Like Leonard and Marianne.