A couple of people have questioned me privately about the Leonard Cohen song The Traitor, and about Cohen's comments on the song,
"[The Traitor is about] the feeling we have of betraying some mission we were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it; then coming to understand that the real mandate was not to fulfill it; and the real courage is to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you find yourself".
What on earth does he mean, and why am I so excited about it? For the latter, check with my psychiatrist. For the former, my take on the song is this:
The Traitor is another of those instances, as in The Partisan, where Leonard Cohen uses a military metaphor to speak of life in general and human love in particular. Many of us hold high ideals: some great quest or other that we pursue. These are often laudable things: finding true love, finding the absolute love of God, becoming enlightened, spreading the Gospel, writing the great novel or some such other impossible dream . We catch sight of our great and manifold ideal, symbolised by the swan, the rose and the suntanned woman and for the sake of this perfect vision we forsake all, leaving our mother's home (though not without telling her to keep our room ready for our return) and set off on the noble quest like a soldier venturing to war. We are watched all the while by the judges who wait expectantly for our failure. But the pursuit of this perfection is self defeating. Our own imperfection kills any chance of gaining the desired other because even if we nearly reach it, once it is in relationship with us, our flaws destroy it. The judges note our failure to attain the great goal, and urge us on to greater effort. We struggle on, caught between our idealism and the reality of who we are until, at last, the perfect visions fade and leave us in possession of a lesser, harsher reality. The faded rose is threaded with wire to keep up the appearance of freshness, the swan is revealed as a clockwork toy. The great love of the suntanned woman is seen as mechanistically sexual. We are incapable of warning the others behind us who are in the process of making exactly the same mistake, so instead we settle into a grateful acceptance of what is real, while the judges deride us for our failure to attain the illusory goal - which they believe in but are unwilling themselves to risk all in pursuit of.
The point of the song is that our noble goals -whatever they are - are illusions and our true destiny lies not in attaining the goals (which is impossible) but in learning to be real. Unbeknown to us, our failure itself is the actual goal the Universe has sent us to pursue. The end of illusion and the acceptance of reality is the great prize. Others deride us for treachery to the great cause but in our failure and desertion we have actually won everything. There is the courage of the captain who leads in pursuit of the great cause. But when the great cause is shown to be a mirage, there is a greater courage needed: to accept the loss of all that we have based our hopes upon and the acceptance of "our idle duty" - our need to live with what is actual.