As we slide towards the mid-winter solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, my thoughts have been turning towards the topic of love. In the darkness of the afternoons, a song has come back to haunt me, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ by Leonard Cohen. Cohen was the ultimate ladies man, a well-spoken gentleman poet, who gave up his career as a lover to become a Zen monk.
The song appears to come from his monastic room, from an older man thinking about reviving his love life. He still manages the occasional triumph. However, he recognises that eventually, he will suffer ‘invincible defeat’. There is an air of tragedy to this love, as ‘the wretched and the meek’ seek love:
And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go
A thousand kisses deep.
But what does it mean, a thousand kisses deep? It’s an almost mystical phrase. Perhaps it’s a state of love where there is total absorption, a loss of a sense of self and a merging with the other. At the same time, Cohen seems to be speaking about a state of meditative absorption. Only Leonard Cohen can sing about passion and compassion in one verse:
Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea.
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me.
He seems to be saying that there are limits to love if it can only find expression in sexual activity. It’s led to him becoming a scavenger, like a pirate ship roaming the oceans in search of prey.
That doesn’t stop him trying to turn new tricks and get his fix on ‘Boogie Street’ – an image he uses elsewhere for romantic encounters. He’s still thinking about all the things that he hasn’t done yet with his lover. But he recognises that all this romantic activity will only end in ‘invincible defeat’. The question is: when does he cut his losses?
Indeed the question for all of us is: when do we cut our losses with relatively limited romantic love and let go into the ‘masterpiece’ (or is this ‘master peace’) of a more encompassing form of love, perhaps being in love with life?
And once we’ve decided to cut our losses, how will passion transform into compassion? There are clues:
I made it to the forward deck,
I blessed our remnant fleet,
And then consented to be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep.
The forward deck is presumably higher up, giving him a broader perspective. From here he can see that he’s part of a remnant fleet of older lovers. He feels compassion to see these battered lovers and realise that he is one of them. Then consciously, with awareness, he allows his ship to be wrecked ‘a thousand kisses deep’.
Here the phrase suggests a more encompassing love, similar to his previous romantic love, only this time entered into with awareness, choice and profound sense of compassion for the limits of our human state. So is this a mystical song, showing us how we can transform relatively limited passion into unlimited compassion? I believe so.