I read an excerpt from Alan Light's The Holy or the Broken online recently and decided to pick up the book from the Library on impulse. Like most people of my generation who know it through Jeff Buckley, I love the Leonard Cohen song "Hallelujah."
And then it sat in my "To Read" pile for some weeks while I decided whether or not I really wanted to bother reading it. Honestly, how much is there to say about one song? How compelling can a whole book about it be?
As it turns out: Quite a lot, and very compelling.
The secret to this book is that it isn't just about a song. It's a meditation on pop culture over the past few decades. Because "Hallelujah" traced arguably the most unusual and unique path of any pop song during that period, it offers us a singular perspective through which to view recent history and the changes wrought in our culture.
Because the song has endured through so many changes and found its place in so many different circumstances for so many different reasons, it says a great deal about who we are and what's important to us.
Because it resonates with us in ways that are so unexpected, it serves as a very different sort of mirror onto ourselves.
This song is difficult, it refuses to yield easy or obvious answers about its meaning or intent. This song is endlessly layered and adaptable, but it's built on a core of stark simplicity. Exploring how this song has been used, by whom and for what, is fascinating.
I sometimes feel that modern culture does everything in its power to avoid confronting the mysterious, dangerous, complex and unknowable aspects of our existence. We value comfort and convenience too much to allow true mystery into our lives.
Ancient cultures, by contrast, had no choice but to confront such mystery head-on.
Existence is still mysterious, dangerous, complex, and unknowable, whether we're comfortable acknowledging that or not. By drawing on ancient tales from the Old Testament as his inspiration for "Hallelujah," Cohen threw open a window that shows us this unadulterated truth — he brought an ancient awareness of it into the modern era, and made it human and fragile, eternal and enduring.
That ancient awareness still speaks to us, still moves us, as powerfully as ever.