The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Betrayer and the Betrayed

In my wanderings through the late, great Leonard Cohen's back catalogue, many of his songs have resonated with me, appearing multiple times in this blog, and even in my sermons. They've usually been the ones about spirituality, about faith, living if tattered, about forgiveness. But two songs touched me in a very different way. One of them I really focused on when I found a CD in the Prius la Caterina's sister kindly gave us. The CD was Cohen's "Songs of Love and Hate"; the song is "Famous Blue Raincoat." The lyrics:
It's four in the morning, the end of December
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.
I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert
You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear.
Did you ever go clear?
Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder.
You'd been to the station to meet every train, and
You came home without Lili Marlene.
And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody's wife.
Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth,
One more thin gypsy thief.
Well, I see Jane's awake.
She sends her regards.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer?
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you.
I'm glad you stood in my way.
If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me,
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.
And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear.


L. Cohen
You can't cope with Cohen unless you do close reading of the lyrics. The song, about betrayal, specifically sexual betrayal, works in an extraordinary complex of emotions.

A once close friendship invoked in the opening lines, but then belied with a slice of irony ("You're living for nothing now"). The story of the friend who, betrayed by his own partner--"Lili Marlene"--turns to his friend, our letter writer's, wife. The affair is witheringly described: "And you treated my woman to a flake of your life/And when she came back she was nobody's wife."

Anger bursts out again, in the flash of memory, and the writer sees his friend in a serio-comic romantic pose, "with the rose in your teeth," and dismisses him again as "one more thin gypsy thief."

Again, the letter writer cools it down, passes on Jane's regards--underlining that he, the writer, is still the man in her life. But then, the reckoning.

The admission that he misses his betrayer. That he forgives him. That he's glad that his onetime friend stood in his way.

The offer of hospitality, and the admission that "your enemy is sleeping/and his woman is free."

Why the sudden turn?

The recognition that he, the writer, had failed "Jane" at some very deep level--that he owed his former friend thanks "for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried."

And we're back to the flash of memory, that Jane came by with a lock of her lover's hair, that the stage is set again, and asking, as in the beginning: "Did you ever go clear?"

And the writer identifies himself as the composer.

Everyone in the song is tainted--the unnamed friend/betrayer who stole from Cohen (the narrator Cohen at least) his peace, and his simple bond with "Jane;" Jane herself, of course; and "Cohen"--"Cohen" who failed the woman he loved, but not enough to see that the trouble in her eyes could be banished.

Not enough to try.

"Everyone betrays everyone," I once wrote, in a flippant but not entirely untrue moment.

We all fail, we all turn away when we're tired and someone we love needs our affirmation. By betrayals small and large, we mar the relationships that surround us.

And sometimes those relationships wither and die from betrayals, whether large or small.

But sometimes--sometimes in the moment of shock in which we feel most betrayed--why, suddenly, we see how we have ourselves betrayed, if only by failing to love as our beloved needs in the moment.

We all let each other down, not just in romantic or sexual relationships, but in many if not all our relationships with others. The friend we listen to an unkind anecdote about. The store clerk we show our anger. The sibling, mother, father, whose need we perceive, but, whether out of fatigue or other reason, we can't or just don't reach out to.

Mostly the betrayals are small, tiny fissures in strong, well pointed brick houses. Sometimes they are catastrophic--or can be if not healed.

Someone once asked me how I could use the Daily Office as my primary form of prayer--didn't it get rote?


But one line, in the Lord's Prayer, never does: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Whenever I hit that line, I become aware of my own need for forgiveness, and of my need to forgive--to pardon, knowing that I, too, am in need of pardoning.

Judas wasn't the only one to betray Jesus that night--Peter did too, and the others who ran, too.

We are all the betrayer and the betrayed.

We all need forgiveness; we all need to give it too, to recognize out shadow selves, and to give what we ourselves most need.

We need to take the trouble from each other's eyes, recognizing that it's been there so long because we--you, Gentle Reader, and me--that it's been there so long because we've never tried.

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