Critical Analysis of God is Alive (1966) by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is one of those artists of rare breed who drew creative inspiration from the rapidly changing social and cultural atmosphere after the Second World War. He is also one of the most versatile and accomplished artists, in that his genius is evident in various art forms such as music, poetry and the novel. The lyric poem in question (‘God is Alive’) is part of his 1966 novel ‘Beautiful Losers’. One of the most original thinkers of his era, Cohen experimented with words and ideas in all his works. This is true of God is Alive too, where Cohen’s personal religious beliefs are artistically and lucidly articulated in poetic form. This essay will argue the following points: ‘God is Alive’ was a radical act, in that it came amidst the rampant atheistic tendencies of the hippies generation; it is also deeply meaningful and insightful, as the poem lends itself to many layers of interpretation; the literary style of the poem is unique in terms of its fluidity, making it amenable to adaption into song or spoken word.

The 1960’s were a period of radical social change in North America. With California as its epicentre, the Hippies movement represented a collective rejection of traditional wisdom and morality. Instead of it, it sought to explore mystical experiences and alternative social arrangements, where artificial constructs such as nations and religions would have little relevance. As a result, the Hippies advocated free love, experimented with eastern schools of philosophy and promoted an ultra-liberal culture that included use of recreational drugs. Although the underpinnings for this movement have much merit, somewhere down the line it lost direction and some aspects of the Hippies culture have become decadent. It is in this context that the true value of God is Alive comes to light. God is Alive is a brave counter-current argument in support of the need for God. The argument in the poem is not only to show the hand of God in the workings of society, but also to make a case for the need for one. Liberally drawing from the Christian traditions of the gospel and the sermon, the poem has an unmistakable quality of one being delivered from a pulpit. (Benson & Toye, 1997, p.47)

While admitting to the poem’s Christian references, it should be noted that the message is universal and secular. Based on Cohen’s own personal tryst with Zen Buddhism, one could interpret the poem through the lens of eastern mysticism as well. The open ended puzzles and questions raised in the poem can be equated with ‘Koans’ and ‘Haikus’ of the Zen tradition. Read with this understanding, the poem becomes extremely complex and deep, with each line containing a body of wisdom and insight behind it. That magic is said to spawn in an empty mind (“It spawns in an empty mind”) is a clear reference to the philosophy of Zen meditation. The repeated use of the word ‘mind’ is further support for this point of view.

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