Considering a classic novel and a new biography of “the Blessed Catherine.”
(Originally published in the October 2005 edition of The Literary Review of Canada)
307 pages, softcover
and the Jesuits
Oxford University Press
256 pages, hardcover
Leonard Cohen’s narrator in Beautiful Losers begins his bizarre confession with a question: “Catherine Tekakwitha, who are you?” In almost the same breath, he asks, “Can I love you in my own way?” He later gives himself a task: “Catherine Tekakwitha, I have come to rescue you from the Jesuits.”
Biographer-historian Allan Greer in Mohawk Saint: Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits comes to clarify late 17th-century Mohawk-Jesuit relations and place Tekakwitha, the first North American proposed for sainthood, in the context of her Iroquois heritage and her new-found Catholicism. He manages to honour the influence of both priests and clan mothers in her life.
Catherine Tekakwitha, the most thoroughly documented indigenous person of the Americas in the colonial period, was by many accounts — both Jesuit and Native — a saint, if not a Saint. After her death, her disfigured face, ravaged by childhood smallpox, miraculously turned white. Mysterious visitations took place, first to her clan mother, Anastasia Tegonhatsihongo, and her friend Therese Tegaiaguenta, and then later to her priest, Father Claude Chauchetière. Many who called out in her name claimed to be cured of illness or disease.
Beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1980, and associated with ecology and virginity, she is officially the “Blessed Catherine Tekakwitha” now awaiting canonization. Famous for her quest for sacred knowledge and mystical, even ecstatic, experience, she was the leader of a group of Mohawk women who converted to Catholicism and “renounced sex and marriage, while disciplining their bodies with fasting, flagellation, and deliberate exposure to the pain of fire and the discomfort of cold.” None of these practices was foreign to Iroquois traditions.
Sickly from birth and made weak by her ascetic penance, she died at age 24, in Kahnawake, Quebec, on April 17, 1680. Father Chauchetière, who frequently drew correspondences between his significant dates and hers, died on April 17, 1709.
His story is her story; hence, Greer’s book serves as a dual biography, as much on Chauche-tière’s interdependent story as Tekakwitha’s independent story. “A Christian ascetic and holy woman,” Tekakwitha devotes herself to Christ and Chauchetière devotes himself to her memory. He comes “to see Catherine as his spiritual superior and view his encounter with her as a transformative moment.” What is remarkable here is that every aspect of the encounter — colonizer to colonized, man to woman, priest to layperson, educated to illiterate — tilts in the opposite direction. Greer makes clear that no other 17th-century historian of Indian-Jesuit relations so generously recognizes the spiritual superiority of the Native over the European. His one criticism is that Chauchetière’s biography insufficiently treats the Iroquois context of Catherine’s life and Iroquois spirituality in general. Greer’s biography rectifies both errors.
Cohen’s nameless narrator in Beautiful Losers poses a question and immediately answers it: “What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love.” Catherine Tekakwitha, by achieving — much like Simone Weil in our time — “a remote human possibility” and expressing “the energy of love” in her interactions with her community, may be considered a Cohenesque saint.
Cohen links her to divinity through her prayer (credited to Father Claude Chauchetière’s assiduous record keeping) toward the end of the novel: “My Jesus, I have to take chances with you. I love you but I have offended you. I am here to fulfill your law. Let me, my God, take the burden of your anger.” Early in the novel, the narrator’s wife, Edith, cries out to Tekakwitha: “Help me, Saint Kateri!”
In a 1999 interview with Winfried Siemerling, Cohen gets personal with his saint: “I have a statue of her on my stove in my house in Montreal. She is one of my household spirits. I think she embodied in her own life, in her own choices, many of the complex things that face us always. She spoke to me. She still speaks to me. There’s a very beautiful bronze statue of her in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. I used to put some flowers there.”
What, we may ask, is a Jew, the grandson of rabbinical scholars, a member of his synagogue who lights candles on Friday night, doing with a Catholic saint in his house?
One short answer is that Cohen grafts things onto his life and art — Zen meditational practice, Catholic symbolism and imagery — as much as he excises them. In his grafting, Cohen resembles Allan Greer’s Tekakwitha, who successfully integrates her Christianity with her Iroquois heritage. Like Catherine, he grows by addition rather than subtraction.
Another short answer is that Montreal, the city of Cohen’s birth and imagination, is in its iconography as inescapably a Catholic city as New York, in its energy at least, is a Jewish one. Cohen has a history of grafting Christian images and themes to his songs. One thinks immediately of “Suzanne,” “Song of Bernadette,” “Sisters of Mercy,” “Joan of Arc,” and so on.
Is Catherine Tekakwitha worthy of sainthood in both Cohen’s and the Catholic Church’s definition of the word?
The answer would seem to be yes. She meets Allan Greer’s requisites of canonization: “narrativity” (living on as a story after death), “corporeality” (a venerated body and healing force) and “textuality” (vita sanctora by Fathers Claude Chau-che-tière and Pierre Cholenec). She has some-thing else going for her: her unpenetrated body, her virginity.
She achieves “a remote human possibility,” a life of prayer and service to others, severe discipline and sacrificial virginity, and personally administered pain. Self-abuse and self-denial, according to Greer — “The spiritual/somatic experience of using pain and discomfort to cross the line into sacred ecstasy” — links “Indian -converts at Kahnawake, nuns in Montreal, and saints in medieval Italy.” In Book Two of Cohen’s novel, F., in his long letter, looks at Native deprivation, some of it self-inflicted, and comments: “O God, forgive me, but I see it on my thumb, the whole wintry village looks like a Nazi medical experiment.”
Despite F.’s disquieting analogy, the spirit of the novel as a whole seems respectful of self-willed pain. Neither Cohen nor Greer treats the issue one-dimensionally, nor do they regard it exclusively as a form of masochism.
Greer broadens his penitential vision to include Nietzsche’s understanding: “Not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering was the curse which till then lay spread over humanity — and the ascetic ideal gave it meaning!” According to Greer, what Catherine Tekakwitha sought was “the empowering knowledge that lay deep in the heart of the European supernatural.” What Father Chauchetière sought and found in Catherine Tekakwitha was a New World example of holiness.
Greer acknowledges Cohen’s novel in his biographical history. He notes how Cohen intersects Tekak-witha with Marilyn Mon-roe and “concocts lurid fantasies for his narrator and has him coupling in a variety of ways with the nubile virgin.” Greer also underscores the carnivalesque strategy at work in the novel, the “use of obscenity for the traditional purpose of shocking the reader and undermining authority,” and remarks on Cohen’s shrewdness “in picking up on and caricaturing the exotic/erotic theme” that runs through the 17th-century Jesuit hagiographers and their imitators.
With its intermingling of poetry and pornography, the sacred and the profane, Beautiful Losers must have been a very strange book when it entered the publishing world in 1966. It seems no less strange now.
It is as strange as Hubert Aquin’s Prochain Epi-sode in its politics, as strange as André Breton’s Nadja in its chase of the feminine. Yet somehow, interstitially, between the cracks in the mockery and surrealism, love seeps through. Everything is a game in the novel, everything can be mocked, and yet the love feels real and the prayers feel real even when mocked. The Book of Strange is also the Book of Longing and the Book of Prayer.
Cohen’s novel tries hard not to be a love story much as Moulin Rouge tries not to be a movie about love. How can you have love surrounded by so much spoof and subversion? Doesn’t irony undercut love? Not quite. Everything in Cohen’s fictional world may be a form of play or game, but the love still feels real. You leave the novel convinced that Cohen bears Catherine Tekak-witha an element of love and that the narrator is in love with F. Love blends with riotous postmodern gamesmanship.
Constipated and alone in a treehouse, the narrator summons the dead in a mode of address that Eli Mandel characterizes as “clown-saint-word-magic language.” There are four main characters in the novel, three of whom are dead: a politician-philosopher F., a narrator, his Indian wife, Edith, and the Mohawk saint, Catherine Tekakwitha. George Woodcock refers to the characters as moving “in memory within a pattern.” But what is the pattern? Mandel sees “a murderously ambiguous seduction/repulsion pattern” in early Cohen, including Beautiful Losers. Cohen careens toward an object and veers from it; he idealizes and mocks his idealization. He raises Catherine up in order to knock her down.
The declared purpose of the novel is to unveil the virgin, to shatter the icon. But, strangely, the narrator neither unveils nor shatters. Catherine remains elusively out of reach. “Do I have to love a mutant? Look at me, Catherine Tekakwitha … limp in the groin. Look at you, Catherine Tekakwitha, your face half eaten … What is this fucking of a dead saint? It’s impossible.”
One of the challenges of reading the novel is to determine at any given moment what voice it is written in. How do you trap a voice long enough to analyze it when it shifts from mood to mood, tone to tone, faster than any analytical equipment you can bring to bear on it? The central voice in the book — strangely brisk and boisterous for a death-haunted, God-haunted narrative — praises, ridicules, idealizes, mocks, blasphemes and reveres, often in the same breath.
Beautiful Losers says as much about its readers as any reader is likely to say about it. You can read the novel politically, sexually, mythically; you can read it as meta-fiction, as hallucination; you can read it as a late Beat work. The novel’s characters are Beat in Jack Kerouac’s sense of the word’s associations with beatific and beaten; they lose beautifully.
You can read the novel theologically. The quest in Beautiful Losers is for God (or the Goddess), and for magic and mystery. Are magic and mystery still, in Cohen’s word, afoot? The tentative conclusion F. draws is that they are afoot because of “the New Jew,” “the founder of Magic Canada, Magic French Quebec, and Magic America.”
“Every generation,” says F., “must thank its Jews … And its Indians.”
Beautiful Losers is a political novel (you get a keen sense of the politics of grievance in Quebec), a homosexual novel (aside from the narrator’s necrophilic relationship with a dead Indian, the main love bond is between F. and the unnamed narrator), a pornographic novel (it seems at times stuck in the oral and anal stages of Freud’s development grid). And it is a book of drunken poetry and heart-piercing prayer, with almost as many prayers as Cohen’s Book of Mercy.
Along with passages you’d want to frame or recite in a storm, there are pages of self-indulgent twaddle. Sometimes you find yourself agreeing with Stephen Scobie that Beautiful Losers “is the craziest Canadian novel ever written, the most beautiful, the most obscene, the most irrational.” Sometimes you’re happier with George Wood-cock’s assessment that it is tedious. “The burlesque element is overdone; the pop art use of comic strips and junky advertisements … scenes of fellatio, cunnilingus, masturbation, masochistic self-torture, and mechanical sexual stimulation follow each other in a diminuendo of effectiveness.”
Most of the time, I rest comfortably with Cohen’s own take: “Beautiful Losers is a love story, a psalm … a satire, a prayer, a shriek … a joke, a tasteless affront, an hallucination … a Jesuit-ical tract … a disagreeable religious epic of incomparable beauty.” Beautiful Losers is a giant Roy Lichtenstein painting with a frantic white man chasing a serene Indian whose overhead bubble reads: “I’m sorry I can’t be Rabelaisian for you.” The novel, haloed and hallucinogenic, is the sort of book for which the word phantasmagorical seems specifically invented. As much graphic novel and comic book as traditional narrative, it changes voice as frequently as Sin City shifts scenes and storylines.
As readers, we are unaccustomed to having our sacred stones juggled so recklessly. We are not used to rapid transport from play to prayer, from brothel to prayer-house. As F. proclaims, “games are nature’s most beautiful creation. All animals play games, and the truly Mes-sianic vision of the brotherhood of creatures must be based on the idea of the game.” In Beautiful Losers, no line separates the sacred from the secular. The house of play is also the house of prayer.
In words transcribed from radio interviews with Eli Mandel and Phyllis Webb, Cohen says: “I was writing a liturgy … a great mad confessional prayer.” Is Catherine his mother-confessor? Lines attributed to his grandfather in “Lines from My Grandfather’s Journal” seem comfortable in his own mouth: “It is strange that even now prayer is my natural language.”
The prayers in Beautiful Losers range from the long Catherine-inspired dance-prayer of “God is alive. Magic is afoot” brought to song by Buffy Ste. Marie to short invocations of presence and mystery. The narrator asks, “Is All the World a Prayer?” The answer seems to be yes. Catherine reverently prays, “O God, show me that the Ceremony belongs to Thee. Reveal to your servant a fissure in the Ritual. Change Thy World with the jawbone of a broken Idea. O my Lord, play with me.”
F. regards prayer as translation. “A man translates himself into a child asking for all there is in a language he has barely mastered.” At the close of the novel, Cohen translates himself into the prayer voice of the Jesuits: “it is essential that the miracles sparkle again … and thus extend the cult of the saint … that one may invoke her with confidence everywhere … that she becomes again by her mere invocation … the sower of miracles that she was in former times.”
Noting the increase of Kateri Circles throughout the world, Allan Greer points to shrines at her birthplace in Auriesville, New York, and at Kah-nawake where her body is interred, burgeoning web sites, children’s books, devotional books and two parallel vice-postulators, in the United States and Canada, orchestrating her canonization campaign. The cult of the saint gathers momentum. The sower of miracles lives on as a cultural and spiritual presence.
Leonard Cohen’s prayers may be answered.
J.S. Porter is the author of The Thomas Merton Poems (Moonstone, 1988) and Spirit Book Word: An Inquiry into Literature and Spirituality (Novalis, 2001).