Leonard Cohen’s first publication was a book called “Let Us Compare Mythologies,” a phrase that kept nagging me as significant to my trip to Montreal. What if we compared mythologies? Settler versus indigenous; English versus French; Expo 67 versus FLQ 70—what would we find at the other end of that trigonometry?
That line comes from the slim volume’s second poem, I would learn, one with a most elusive title of its own: FOR WILF AND HIS HOUSE. The poem itself is a touching testament to the harsh contrasts of Jewish agency within Christian structuration. You can find it online read by Mr. Cohen himself; he made those recordings in the same period covered by the NFB documentary I mentioned before (“Ladies and Gentleman… Mister Leonard Cohen”).
I read it twice before leaving for Montreal and once again after coming back home; there’s something universal about its tone, and yet a certain secretive particularity made it difficult to fully comprehend. So I googled to see if anything had been written about it and stumbled on a forum thread from 2003, where a “Wilfred” would claim that he, in fact, is the WILF in question: “his house refers to the (then) house of the Student Christian Movement at McGill University in Montreal where Leonard Cohen was studying. At that time I had charge of the house and Leonard was a friend of mine.”
No further insight into that friendship or the poem is offered.
Luckily, someone else in the thread shared excerpts from a 1978 book on Canadian literature that analyzes the narrative arc stanza by stanza, offering this by way of conclusion: “Cohen believes in mythologies, but not in any one system, except that which he can assemble himself by comparison and assembly of fragments.”
With totalizing systems on all sides, the myth of the mythologist free to pick and choose in defense of the self (as someone said of Cohen’s ethos in the documentary) is an attractive one. But it’s also unsatisfactory all these years since 1956. We are now living Leonard Cohen’s assembled afterworld of fragments, and everything still sounds like an elaborate lie.
The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste was founded on June 24, 1834 by Ludger Duvernay in the garden of John De Bélestre-McDonnell on Rue Saint-Antoine, which just happens to be a block from Saint George’s Anglican Church. It is said that nearly 60 people were in attendance, including Americans & Irishmen.
The idea of founding it on this day was to give the French community a galvanizing organ like the Irish had with St Patrick and the Scots with St Andrew, each with their parades and benevolent societies. It was comparative mythology par excellence.
Over the centuries, the SSJB would be a leading force behind the French separatist movement in Quebec. Today, their HQ is found kitty corner to the old École des Beaux-Arts, which they founded, & is now home to the Office Québécois de la Langue Française, the French language watchdog that rails against “smoked meat” (viande fumée, s’il vous plait) and other signage around town.
The SSJB’s headquarters also features the only monument to the October Crisis of 1970, when the insurrectionary activities of the Front de Libération du Québec reached their crescendo with two high profile kidnappings that resulted in one assassination and the suspension of civil rights in the city.
The FLQ styled themselves after and learned from other liberation movements around the world at that time; they even trained with the PLO in Jordan. You can learn about them in several NFB documentaries, including one about the Rose brothers made by the son of Paul. It’s a fascinating look into the minds of two very charismatic and principled figures; it’s also a snapshot of the cognitive dissonance that plagues the whole movement in my view.
Militant “felquiste” separatism has roots in a communist who called his people the white negros of the west. When his manifesto was first published, the NYT put it in the same league as works by Malcolm X, Frantz Fanon, and Che Guevara.
Is it though? Were the French ever really oppressed in that way?
I find it fascinating that the Mohawks, who have no love for any colonizer, do not speak French.
“It was a dance of masks and every mask was perfect because every mask was a real face and every face was a real mask so there was no mask and there was no face for there was but one dance in which there was but one mask but one true face which was the same and which was a thing without a name which changed and changed into itself over and over.”