Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:37 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 18 Jul 2018 | 20:37 | SYDNEY

The liberalism of imperfection


Sam Roggeveen


9 February 2012 16:44

There's an offbeat little essay of appreciation for the lyrics of Leonard Cohen on Slate today by classical musician Jan Swafford. As a confirmed Cohen admirer, I can't resist adding a few thoughts about his politics.

First, I think it's wrong to describe Cohen's music in terms of 'hope' and 'redemption'. Cohen, rather, is a 'gaunt poet with a guitar who promised not to whisk us away to some other, better world but to teach us how to come to terms with this one.' His lyrics are not about redemption, but consolation — even while luridly describing armageddon he takes the time to say that 'love's the only engine of survival'.

But Swafford gets it exactly right when she refers to 'the brokenness of life' as a theme in Cohen's music, particularly in 'Anthem':

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.

Those lines have always struck me as containing a perhaps unintentional political subtext. 'There is a crack in everything' is a sentiment that would be familiar to many political conservatives (and by 'conservative', I don't mean the far-right ideologues of the US Republican Party, but a rich tradition of political thought which takes as its starting point the imperfectability of human nature). 

Yet the consolation here is that, while everything is cracked and broken, it's those very cracks that allow the light (or Enlightenment) to spill in. Perfection, then, is just a kind of darkness, but imperfection carries the promise of improvement through enlightenment. The brokenness of human nature and the imperfectability of human institutions are thus the very things that make progress possible.

That's as neat a depiction of the creative tension between liberalism and conservatism as I have ever come across.

Photo by Flickr user basykes.