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Corporeal Transformation: Artistic Expression as Circular in the Novels of Leonard Cohen

By Damian Fitz

The relationship between body and mind is an oft-debated philosophical topic, with the likes of Plato, Descartes, and Hume all weighing in. In literature, however, the issue is less commonly explored as a theme, even if it exists implicitly in the background of many genres, such as love poetry. Leonard Cohen, however, brings it to the forefront as a literary concern. In his two novels, The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers, artist figures exercise power over not only their own bodies but also the bodies of others – sometimes in a figurative sense, but in other instances quite literally. The characters are forced into such struggles, with the text killing off those who do not acquiesce. All those who are involved in the artistic process are physically affected by it. This system, repetitive in nature, is necessary to produce art, which is shown to hinge on constant transformation. In Leonard Cohen’s two novels, the corporeal, representing or mediating the artistic, is subject to interference by those who behold it. This implicates the viewer of art in not just the methodology of art, but the finished work itself, which then in turn affects the creator, thereby rendering artistic expression circular. 

In both novels, the characters spend copious amounts of time defining each other, and, in the process of doing so, themselves. They are, in effect, interpreters of people. In The Favourite Game, Breavman attempts to characterize his relationship with one of his lovers, Tamara, in a short story. She rejects his depiction of her, however, and throws it right back at him, claiming that he “talk[s] like both characters” (Favourite Game 97). In this case, Breavman has really achieved a self-description which is filtered through his readership of one, Tamara. The interaction is therefore a succinct encapsulation of the central system of Cohen’s work, in which art is defined by both the artist and the critical consumer. There are, however, also two characters who attempt to self-delineate without such middlemen, thereby rejecting the communal aspect of the process. Martin Stark, a camper under Breavman’s care, and Edith, I.’s wife, make up this ill-fated pair, and both their efforts are fatal. In his bid for self-determination, Martin ignores his summer camp’s planned activities. Instead he elects to become “the Scourge of Mosquitoes” by willingly letting the “hate[d]” bugs feed on him to more easily smite them (The Favourite Game 224). During one such spree, he is “accidentally run over by a bulldozer” (231). Similarly, in the later novel, Edith dies by pseudo-suicide, intending “to teach [her husband] a lesson” for being domineering and dismissive (Beautiful Losers 7). Towards this end, “she crawl[s] into the elevator shaft” of their apartment so that he will unknowingly crush her, but she is instead killed by a confused “delivery boy” going to the wrong floor (7). Neither is quite self-murder, but both commit acts of corporal sacrifice out of hatred, which in Edith’s case is of an intimate variety, whereas in Martin’s it is quite open-ended and never explicitly explained. They seek to prove a point, using their own bodies as the medium. In this way, they are, broadly speaking, artists. Yet it is not the targets of their work who strike back, but rather machinery piloted by unaware operators, themselves extremely minor characters. Their ends are impersonal and, though only vaguely described visually, implicitly grotesque. Given these details, and the fact that interpersonal relationships are of primary importance in each work, it is as if the novels themselves, through the avatar of machinery, harshly destroy the two characters in retribution for their rejection of the central system of the prose, which demands that art be a dialectical process enacted by both the artist and the muse or viewer (Milton 40). 

Those characters who do base their work around the bodies of others fare better, if not altogether well. The efforts of the artistically inclined and self-absorbed Breavman and F. to make art out of flesh prompt the reader to equate the motive to the medium. Upon this basis, one can explore the implications of Cohen’s extended metaphor of body as art. Breavman’s essential artistic act is to convince Shell, his lover in New York, that “her flesh” is not “an indifferent enemy” so that “she w[ill] . . . let him look at her as he want[s]” (Favourite Game 175). Given that Breavman does the looking and yet it is Shell’s self-interpretation that needs to change, it is clear that her body reflects her inner psychology. In this way, “[t]he body becomes metaphorically linked to texts” (Milton 39), the analysis taking precedence over the content itself. The word “indifferent” implies that it is not her hostility towards her appearance which Breavman seeks to eradicate, but rather her belief that her appearance is beyond anyone’s control. 

To enable his manipulation of her body, Breavman requires that Shell’s self-image be fluid. His efforts towards this end work almost immediately, as Shell forgets to “[brush] her hair” the evening after first spending time with Breavman (Favourite Game 174), thereby breaking a long-upheld routine meant to appease her qualms about her appearance. Breavman further elaborates how he molds Shell in his verse:

Beneath my hands
your small breasts
are the upturned bellies
of breathing fallen sparrows. (Favourite Game 175)

The metaphor, more definitive in tone than comparative, demonstrates how Breavman uses writing to accomplish his goal: with confidence, yet also indirectness. Shell’s malleability is figuratively described by the closing image. Her negative self-image is represented by the birds’ “fallen” state, but the fact that they are still “breathing” implies that her opinion is changeable. In the opening line, the physicality of the interaction is purposefully obscured. It is unclear whether Shell’s breasts are in Breavman’s hands, or “beneath” them in some other way. For example, the reader could interpret this as a direct reference to Shell’s transformation, with her breasts being beneath Breavman’s hands in the sense that, in writing about them, he has control over them, and, by synecdoche, her. The ambiguity ensures that Breavman’s degree of involvement remains a mystery. At most, though, Breavman is only participating at surface level, a fact reinforced by Shell’s name. If one limits the context of interpretation to the natural world, as Breavman’s poem seems to advise, “shell” evokes either ideas of protection and shelter, as in the case of a crab’s exoskeleton, or nourishment and birth if one thinks of a bird’s egg.

Breavman, then, unable to break through the surface level, is blind to the life-giving energy of which Shell is already in possession. This ignorance is alluded to when he first meets Shell in the cafeteria. At that point, “[e]veryone [is] staring at her,” and, by epiphany, Breavman realizes that rather than “love multitudes,” he wants “to be comforted” (Favourite Game 158, 159). Shell’s objectification as an art object and the centre of the room’s attention, however, implies that she contains “multitudes,” bestowed on her by her many onlookers. The use of “multitudes” references Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” in which the speaker’s claim to “contain multitudes” follows an admission of self-contradiction (60), which relates to the “shell”-as-egg metaphor in that the egg has the potential to grow into many different chicks, but the birth of one negates, or contradicts, the existence of the rest. Shell’s name, therefore, is more aligned with the creative potential of the egg than the protective carapace of an animal. Breavman, however, in yearning for “comfort,” reveals he seeks the latter more. Indeed, he connects her name with “sea-shell” himself (Favourite Game 173). Shell induces such a state in Breavman perhaps because she “has the same vision of what [he] might be as [he has] for [himself]” (181). They have settled upon two possible selves, one from each of their multitudes, who are compatible to be lovers. 

Breavman rejects this fate but attempts to leave this “someone lost in [him]” behind when he departs (Favourite Game 186). He realizes that to settle down with Shell would be to extinguish his artistic potential by choosing a single self. Just as he needs full control over Shell’s body image so that he may treat it as raw material for his poetry, he also cannot allow her to control him, as it would disrupt his creativity. This is true not only in a mental sense, but also in a physical one. To lay down roots would interfere with Breavman’s travel and sexual freedom. His corporeal concern is registered in the fact that he does not so much break up with Shell as abandon her to “go to Montreal” (187). It is the spatial distance that he craves. One of his last thoughts before leaving, however, is about the possibility of “embalm[ing] her” (186). He wishes here to keep Shell in her double purpose, both as his muse and as “what he has deemed to be his creation” (Kerber). So, in The Favourite Game, the artistic process is circular in that Breavman constructs Shell through his poetry while simultaneously employing her as a muse for his poetry. Shell is both input and output, and all is conducted through her body, the perception of which is subject to the artist’s vision. Fearing poetic suffocation within a closed system, however, Breavman leaves. His art requires that the relationship complete its circuit by ending.

In Beautiful Losers, F. reinvents his friend I.’s wife Edith in a tangible sense. He describes how he “pull[s] pieces out of the mess and . . . stitch[es] them together” (Beautiful Losers 183). In F.’s efforts there is a marked difference from Breavman’s method. While Breavman only manages to alter how Shell sees herself, F. physically transforms Edith. One can read F. as an iteration of Breavman, more powerful and egomaniacal. By analyzing the name of her tribe, one gets a sense of Edith’s situation; she belongs to the “A––, [which] is the word for corpse in the language of all the neighboring tribes” (5). This linguistic detail characterizes her as a part of “the wrecked world” (183). F., therefore, is shown to be capable of transmuting the ugly into the attractive. Specifically, F. cures “Edith’s acne” (140), a detail which suggests an internal source for Edith’s initial unsightliness. This special attention to interiority harkens back to the opening chapter of The Favourite Game, where it states that “[i]t is hard to show a pimple” as opposed to a “scar[, which] is what happens when the word is made flesh” (Favourite Game 4). In the earlier novel’s context, “the word” implies an external artistic force, and a “scar” thereby becomes a mark of survival and human contact. The “pimple,” then, is the manifestation of a hidden foulness which is harder to bear than the hostility of others (Kerber). To suffer from acne is, like I.’s constipation, indicative of entrapment in a closed system. F.’s efforts, with both Edith and her husband, are clear attempts to open up their systems. 

F.’s work, however, goes past the dynamizing of his subjects. He treats the body as “the vehicle for experiments in totality and perfection” (Purdham). He achieves the latter with Edith, while totality is realized more with I., although, almost by definition, not exclusively. This completeness is achieved in the final book of the novel, which centres around the exploits of an old man who, although a new character, is familiar. He is an amalgamation of I., F., and Catherine’s uncle: I. in that he had been “chased . . . up the trunk” of the tree to the treehouse (Beautiful Losers 243); F. because he is identified as “the Terrorist Leader” and “a Patriot,” alluding to his separatist activism (251); and the uncle because the boy refers to him as “Uncle” (243). The uncle perhaps needs an introduction. He is a major character in the biography that I. is writing, which details the life of Catherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Christian mystic and the first Native American to be canonized as a Catholic saint. Her uncle’s presence within the old man of the final book indicates just how much influence I. has on the patchwork entity. The nature of this combination is the part that is difficult to ascertain. F.’s hope to be “Oscotarach, the Head-Piercer” for I. provides a clue (119). The Head-Piercer is a figure in Native American mythology who “remove[s] the brain from [the] skull[s]” of the dead so as to “prepar[e them] for the Eternal Hunt” (119). F.’s aspiration to be like this being implies a temporally unlimited possession of I.’s mind by which F. will manage to “go beyond the limitations of the corporal body through rebirth in I.’s body” (Milton 43). 

The timeline of this transmogrification is hazy due to the novel’s non-linear narrative. In his letter to I., which comprises the middle part of the novel, F. claims, referring to the head-piercing, that “[t]he surgery is deep in progress” and that he is “with [I.]” (Beautiful Losers 192). F.’s statement that I.’s transition is almost complete while I. is still alive may suggest that the surgery is a purely intellectual or ideological shift, rather than a complete transformation. This is not necessarily the case. Another possibility reveals itself if one considers the instance midway through part one in which F. instructs I., by way of a posthumous note, to “[t]urn on the radio” (76), thereby enticing him to attempt to discern the instructions for his own salvation in the lyrics. The longer letter might, therefore, serve a similar purpose by adding the finishing touches to I.’s metamorphosis. This would make I.’s body a sort of afterlife for F., whose own physique slowly deteriorated as a consequence of the syphilis which eventually killed him. This implies that F. is capable of inserting his spirit and, given that he is recognized by sight in the final book, body into I. by way of the letter. 

Indeed, this route of infusion of F. into I. is possibly confirmed by the trajectory of the novel’s three books. The first ends with I. in his “shack” of a treehouse (142). Then there is “A Long Letter from F.” (151), which is perhaps being read by I. in the treehouse. I.’s name alludes to this, as, in this proposed timeline, his reading is concurrent with the same action by the pronoun “I,” the reader of the novel. The rebirth of F. and Catherine’s uncle in I. facilitates the genesis of the old man, himself a composite figure of the three men. The reader first finds the old man “in the threshold of his curious abode, . . . a secret boys’ club” (242). The treehouse could be taken as a metonym for the old man himself; the dual reference to secrecy and plurality implies I.’s personal metamorphosis into a heterogeneous being. The artist, as represented by F., is here shown to be invasive, or even thieving. Indeed, the old man is, personality-wise, much more like F. in his self-assuredness of action. The only hint that I.’s psychology is present is that the old man, like a befuddled historian, simply catalogues Iroquois translations when asked for a “story” (244-45). The relationship is, therefore, shown to be circular; in stealing I.’s body, F.’s artistic sensibilities are affected in return. The artist may capture another’s physical person, but in doing so he submits to shared authorship. This does not imply that such partitions are necessarily equal; in this case, I. spends the entire novel under F.’s spell and this final transformation seems to be a latent formalization of that relationship, and so the old man is, admittedly, far more akin to F. than I.

While this system of communal creation appears in a near-mystical form in Beautiful Losers, it explains the relationship between body and art in The Favourite Game. In comparing how this operation plays out in the two novels, the major difference that emerges is that while F. manages to pierce I.’s very being, Breavman’s work on Shell is merely surface level. The effect Shell has on Breavman, only briefly mentioned, takes place outside the novel’s scope: “One day what he did to her, to the child, would enter his understanding with such a smash of guilt that he would sit motionless for days, until others carried him and medical machines brought him back to speech” (Favourite Game 244). It is machinery, the enemy of art, which brings him back, thereby showing how brutally even those who submit to the artistic endeavour are treated. The exact reason for his “guilt” is left vague, but it is likely linked to Breavman’s extinguishing of some of Shell’s multitudes. Not only does he wrench her from her stable, albeit unhappy, status quo, but he also, by abandoning her, takes away the relationship with which she had filled the void in her life. He also builds up her newfound beauty only to demonstrate that, in the end, it is useless to her, as it fails to prevent the person who recognized it from leaving her. As has been established, Shell’s potential to inspire Breavman’s writing depends on her self-image. By making her once again “indifferent” to her body, Breavman destroys Shell’s ability to act as artistic source material, and so his creative potential, his “speech,” disappears as well. Cohen here offers a summary of what happens when one member of the parasitic relationship between artist and muse decides to collapse the system. The reality is bleak, as Breavman risks asphyxiation by staying and contracts paralysis by leaving. For her part, Shell is also damaged physically, as she is unable to “catch her breath” (236). With her perfect, closed system suddenly taken from her, her body reacts by becoming open to the point of malfunction. Her beautiful “shell” is broken, emptying her of comfort and leaving her vulnerable.

After these catastrophes, the novel goes on to end on a lighter note. The final, epiphanic paragraph gives the reader a vision of an artistic method devoid of the pitfalls discussed:

Jesus! I just remembered what Lisa's favourite game was. After a heavy snow we would go into a back yard with a few of our friends. The expanse of snow would be white and unbroken. Bertha was the spinner. You held her hands while she turned on her heels, you circled her until your feet left the ground. Then she let go and you flew over the snow. . . . When everyone had been flung in this fashion into the fresh snow, the beautiful part of the game began. You stood up carefully, taking great pains not to disturb the impression you had made. Now the comparisons. Of course you would have done your best to land in some crazy position, arms and legs sticking out. Then we walked away, leaving a lovely white field of blossom-like shapes with footprint stems. (Favourite Game 245)

The favourite game is undoubtedly an allegory for the artistic process. Breavman’s childhood friend Bertha, as “the spinner,” is the source of artistic energy. This is not the first time she serves this role. Just before Breavman recalls the game, he remembers “the body of Bertha, which fell with apples and a flute” (243). The “apples” and the act of falling align her with Eve, Genesis’s most infamous rule breaker, and Breavman’s decision to take up flute-playing in response to her fall marks his birth as an artist (Milton 39). Her name, so similar to the word “birth,” serves to emphasize this event. In the favourite game, if the two players hold hands, they are sheltered within their closed system, which is circular in motion. To open the system by letting go is the duty of the artist, but also leads to impact. In this situation, however, the shock is absorbed by the unconscious medium. It is a near-riskless form of artistic expression, albeit yielding only ephemeral results, a fact which is represented by their being white on white as opposed to the black on white of Breavman’s “blackened . . . page” (Favourite Game 177). In this way, body and text become one and the same. As Milton argues, the game pits the player against their own body through vertigo and allows them to seize control through losing it (40). So, with the stamina provided for them and nothing to worry about but dizziness, the players learn to see their bodies as beautiful even in their grotesque contours. The last word of the book, “stems,” reveals, by way of a floral metaphor, the game to be the origin (the “stem”) of the artistic systems of both novels. The major difference between this and the “game” Breavman plays with Shell is that the consequences of the latter are possibly permanent, as evidenced by Breavman’s breakdown. Both artist and muse expose themselves to bodily harm, but dedicated Breavman returns for more.

In contrast to Breavman’s eventual catatonia, the ending of Beautiful Losers is a victory for F. It is, however, an apocalyptic one, and the question as to whether F. might stand for “friend” or “foe” remains open. After leaving the treehouse and reaching Montreal, the old man goes to “the System Theatre” (Beautiful Losers 247), whose sign famously lost lighting in the first two letters and therefore reads “stem Theatre” (233), marking the theatre as related to the favourite game in function. There, while watching a movie, he, like Breavman, experiences an epiphany when “he [sees] row after row of silent raised eyes, and the occasional mouth chewing mechanically, and . . . when all the eyes [contain] exactly the same image, like all the windows of a huge slot machine repeating bells, they ma[k]e a noise in unison” (248). In that their actions are simultaneous, the audience appears as a collection of automatons. The machine-related diction and simile also help to make this clear. They are only interfacing in a mental sense; completely entrapped by the film, the audience members have abandoned their individual bodies and thereby fail to form personal interpretations. These people, like Martin and Edith, are doomed. The dynamic of the artistic relationship is only moving one way. The old man manages to break the trend, however, by “blinking at the same rate as the shutter in the projector,” rendering “the screen . . . black” (248). He counters the audience’s static response with an active yet “automatic” one (248). He matches the film’s energy, thereby breaking from the system and creating his own experience. In the process, he also does away with his own tangible form, with “the flashlight beam [going] through him” (248), which implies that the projection light does not recognize his corporality either. The art reacts to his interpretation of it in kind. 

At “the Main Shooting and Game Alley” (248), the cataclysmic ending of Beautiful Losers plays out as a grand culmination of the system which Cohen spent the course of two novels elucidating. There, the old man finds a game called “William’s De Luxe Polar Hunt,” in which there are “several ranks of movable tin figures” which can be shot down (250, 251). The name of the establishment evokes the idea that it is the city’s main artery, the perfect place for the old man to put his plan in action. There are two allusions in the description of “Polar Hunt.” The “ranks” recall the rows of eyes in the theatre, retroactively marking the moviegoers as unthinking pieces in someone else’s game. The snowy setting of the game and the fact that the “tin figures” fall recall the final passage of The Favourite Game, now faithfully recreated in metallic form, the game’s high valuation of grotesqueness preserved by the “[w]alrus” being the highest scoring game (251). The difference, however, is that the prey fall without disturbing any snow; there is nothing to analyze other than the “SCORE,” and even this is impossible because the game is “broken” (250, 251). In the finale of Beautiful Losers, the favourite game is robbed of its beauty and emptied of all meaning. One cannot win, lose, or even play. 

Despite this, the old man “commit[s] the instructions to memory, where they merely bec[o]me part of his game” (251). The implication here is that “his game” absorbs all other games into its own totality. It could therefore perhaps be called the game of existence, which is presumably inescapable. This means that all of humanity is caught up in the game, which is proven by how the old man’s playing attracts a crowd of unprecedented size, “all rush[ing] in for their second chance” (252). The entirety of Earth’s population, it seems, needs a second chance, having been burned, at one point or another, by the fated falls featured in the cyclical artistic system. The narrator, however, reveals that “this is not a second chance” (253). Indeed, it cannot be if there is no winning or losing. It is, rather, a totalitarian system which encompasses all, as represented by the old man “reassembl[ing] himself into . . . a movie of Ray Charles” and then “enlarg[ing] himself” to encompass the “moon” and “sky” (254). The old man has captured all, and, as one onlooker remarks, there is seemingly nothing to do but “sit back and enjoy it” (254). That the old man becomes “a movie of Ray Charles,” however, suggests otherwise. The medium recalls the epiphany at the System Theatre, during which the old man rendered himself blind, like Charles. The old man waits for his subjects to become “Prometheans”; he challenges them to seize his now mechanized body, the means by which he performs, and actively interpret it for themselves (249). They must break the old man’s system, which finds much of its basis in F., by ignoring F.’s advice to “[c]onnect nothing” (17). The novel, in this closing scene, exposes itself to be circular in two other ways. For one, the text reveals itself as cyclical in that it starts with an epigraph from Ray Charles and ends with a physical embodiment of him; Ray Charles is both the source material and artistic product. Secondly, plot and message converge, as the reader is trained to complete their task actively and the finale calls for just such a person. By this trick, the book reaches outside of itself to the other participant: the reader.

The deaths of Edith and Martin establish the precedent that characters who flout interpersonal definition, the central concern of Cohen’s fiction, shall be culled from the narrative. Participation is mandatory, yet even those who abide by this rule, such as Breavman and F., do not survive unscathed or untransformed. The experiments of these two major artistic figures on their friends and lovers comprise the favourite game and its derivative forms, all of which rely on a falling apart of the players to produce art. As this process is repeated, more and more people become caught up in it, with their bodies, the key to their liberty, hanging in the balance. In the novels of Leonard Cohen, bodies mediate the artistic experience. The ability of the observers of art to physically alter it and its creator reveals that the mechanics of art are circular. Ultimately, this can be read as a plea for active readership, breaking down the barrier between artist, muse, and consumer; all artistic interaction becomes an act of creation.

Works Cited

Cohen, Leonard. Beautiful Losers. McClelland, 1966.

Cohen, Leonard. The Favourite Game. McClelland, 1963.

Kerber, Jenny L.M. “‘There Is a Crack in Everything’: Preservation, Fortification, and Destruction in The Favourite Game.” Essays on Canadian Writing, vol. 69, 1999. EBSCOhost, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

Milton, Paul. “Beyond Agonistics: Vertiginous Games in the Fiction of Leonard Cohen.” Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 260, 2009, pp. 34-46. Gale Literature Criticism, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

Purdham, Medrie. “‘Who Is the Lord of the World?’: Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and the Total Vision.” Canadian Literature, vol. 212, 2012. EBSCOhost, Accessed 9 Apr. 2020.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” Leaves of Grass, E-book, Duke, 2012, pp. 23-61.