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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Alienation and aestheticism in the art of Leonard Cohen Panter, Jack Bryan


The art of Leonard Cohen has been the subject of several recent literary studies and numerous short reviews. Often superficial features of his work distract those studying him and lead them to conclusions which do not account for a number of more important qualities which lie at the center of his art. Cohen's point of view, as it is manifested in his art, is frequently given only cursory attention and this leads to a misinterpretation of his work. The critical approach used in this thesis is designed to illuminate Cohen's position in relation to his art and account for the various apparently contradictory features noticed in his work. This study consists of an examination of Leonard Cohen's prose and poetry from a critical perspective centering on Cohen's "willed self-alienated" point of view. The self-alienated center of consciousness from which Cohen's work originates is delineated and its adequacy as a source of aesthetic and philosophical values discussed. The method of inquiry is mainly interpretive, but Cohen's art is also discussed in relation to several of the main themes and conventions of modern literature from an historical point of view. The basic conclusion of this study is that Cohen's "willed self-alienated" point of view is the source of what are called dynamic aesthetic values. Willed self-alienation may briefly be defined as a chosen mode of existence in which the individual maintains a continuous process of negation of virtually all forms, systems, beliefs, and habits which are in themselves "static" and therefore contrary to life. This process results in a capacity to be self-creative because the individual feels no allegiance to a particular self-conception. Cohen uses this point of view in his art in a way that allows him to exhibit a variety of apparently contradictory traits. This fragmentation of the consciousness at the center of the art must be grasped if Cohen's work is to be fully appreciated. The basic impulse of the willfully self-alienated individual is to "become" other than he is at any particular point in time. The temporal emphasis for such a mode of existence is, therefore, the present moment. An aesthetic perspective emerges directly out of this situation. The main temporal focus of aesthetic concerns is the present and, in the arts, "moments" of perfection. Cohen's willed self-alienation does not permit him to dwell in single perfect moments like Breavman in The Favorite Game. Cohen is concerned with the eternal or expanded moment of consciousness in which the individual is aware of his life and creative ability. The values which emerge from Cohen's art are directly related to a fusion of his willed self-alienated point of view and dynamic aestheticism.

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