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|Written by Janet Creery|
|Sunday, 30 November 2008 19:00|
Back in 1992, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, and long before 9/11, Leonard Cohen put out a collection of songs called The Future. 'I've seen the future, brother, it is murder,' sang Cohen on the title track as the leaders of America announced the New World Order of global capitalism.
Cohen's vision was a reactionary recoil against all this market-driven freedom:
Give me back my broken night
My secret room, my secret life
It's lonely here, there's no one left to torture
Give me absolute control
Over every living soul
And lie beside me baby
That's an order
Cohen was able to predict the key cultural current of the next fifteen years: the continued rise of a fundamentalist Christian right underpinning the reactionary regimes of George W. Bush, and the rise of a fundamentalist sect of Islam - which eventually slammed into that stronghold of Western capitalism, the Twin Towers, almost a decade after the album’s release.
What's most disturbing is the way the lyrics capture feelings not unfamiliar to those of us who consider ourselves progressive:
Take the only tree that's left
And stuff it up the hole
In your culture
Anyone with New Age leanings, or even just sceptical about the triumph of materialism, can relate the dark vision of the refrain:
Things are going to slide in all directions,
Won't be nothing
Nothing you can measure anymore
The blizzard of the world
Has crossed the threshold
And has overturned
The order of the soul
There is something weird and haunting about the way the Cohen weaves together different submerged voices of rebellion against a world of triumphant materialism. The voices speak of something fundamentally wrong with the self that we construct our world around. When you consider not just the reactionary politics of the last decades but also the growing rates of psychological illness in North America, Cohen’s prognosis seems fundamentally accurate.
But what of the future, from here on in?
Atypically for Cohen, he had one very hopeful song on the album, called "Democracy":
From the wells of disappointment
Where the women kneel to pray
For the grace of God in the desert here
And the desert far away
Democracy is coming to the USA
It's coming to America first
The craddle of the best and of the worst
It's here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it's here they got the spiritual thirst
Throughout the nineties I glimpsed signs that Cohen was right -among the many Americans at the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, for instance - but I finally gave up and settled into pessimism.
Then, a few weeks ago, I picked up Barak Obama's The Audacity of Hope. Flowing as smoothly as a Grisham novel, it delivers a searching analysis of why Americans - including even Obama himself - might look up to Ronald Reagan or George Bush. Having plumbed the depths of the American psyche, it offers a more peaceful and progressive route to the expression of traditional American ideals.
The author of that book is now the president of the United States, and it seems Canada's master of melancholy was right not just in his dark predictions but in his bright ones, too.