Articles & Reviews

Norris & Cohen: The Limits Of Self-Consciousness

By Stephen Morrissey
The Montreal Journal of Poetics, spring-summer 1980

The problem of self-consciousness is very clearly revealed in two recent books of poetry: Leonard Cohen's Death of a Lady's Man and Ken Norris's The Book of Fall. Both deal, at different levels, with the poet's awareness of himself; both reveal to the reader a fundamental unhappiness with existence. Cohen deals with his failure as a poet; he offers both his poetry and his own harsh evaluation of his work. Norris's book deals with a period of his life, the fall of 1977, when he was involved with a conscious reflection on his life: this considers his relationships, both good and bad, and the desire to somehow resolve the dilemma of relationship. The problem both poets also reveal to us is that of the overly self-conscious individual and the fragmentation of action and of the self this causes.

There is the strong odor of the deterioration of relationship in Leonard Cohen's Death of a Lady's Man. In the section "This Marriage" Cohen writes:

Your greed. Your unkindness. Your bitter tongue. Give me time. You never learn. Your ancestors. My ancestors. Fuck you, I said. You shit. Stop screaming. I can't stand it. You can't stand anything. Nobody can live like this. In front of the child. Let him learn. This is no good. Yer fuckn right it's no good.

Nevertheless, there is also an indication of a resolution to the problem of self-consciousness and the separation the poet feels from his wife and from his own poetry. There is much violence and anger in this book, obviously much hurt is behind it. Love and sex rather than creating a relationship now seem to have become a weapon in the destruction of relationship:

I went down to the port with my wife. On the way down I accused her of continuing her relentless automatic assault on the centre of my being. I knew this was not wise. I only meant to rap her on the knuckles and direct her attention to her habitual drift towards bitchiness but I lost control. There is no control in these realms. I became a thug. I attacked her spirit. Her spirit armed itself and retaliated massively.

But what is the resolution to the problem of relationship? There is no direct resolution in Cohen's book—Cohen isn't giving us any answers—but a resolution does exist in the understanding of the problem, and in the clarity with which the problem is explained. One may not like what Cohen is saying but at least he is emotionally honest with the reader, and this honesty might help us to see the problem more clearly in our own lives.

The problem of self-consciousness lies in the separation of what the poet says he wants and what he really wants. One knows what one doesn't want because it is painful; however, we still haven't begun to investigate our own lives with enough clarity or understanding to discover what we really want. In this separation, this division, which I suggest is one of the main sources of anxiety and stress in our society, there is much confusion and restlessness. The individual has become totally fragmented; life has become a series of reactions to pain rather than an action from a clear perception of the problem. The Ă’death of a lady's man" lies in loneliness, separation from one's own desires, (in fact the absence of an awareness of what one truly wants and what one doesn't want), the absence of a tangible awareness that will liberate the poet from the confusion.

While there are occasional moments of peace in the book ("Earlier this evening I thought, At least tonight I have not added to my bitterness") they are slight and few. Cohen stays at the level of anger and rage throughout the book and this may in itself be a form of catharsis, but there is still no understanding or insight that will liberate the poet from his experiences, or that will create an individual who is not fragmented or divided from his own being. And that fragmentation is what Death of a Lady's Man is really about; it isn't "literature", it has more urgency than literature; it is the real world of emotion making itself felt on our consciousness, and for this reason alone I feel that it is a significant book.

Ken Norris's The Book of Fall also helps to illuminate this problem of self-consciousness. Norris discusses death but not in Cohen's terms of the self-immolation of the poet. The Book of Fall begins by mentioning Elvis Presley's death then quickly moves to a dream "death" of Louis Dudek. Fall is also used descriptively as a terminal season but is also a metaphor for the fall from grace or innocence of the poet. Fall is also used to promote a feeling of isolation or loneliness as a life long fact, and this kind of loneliness is a kind of death: "Working my way out of loneliness/ the dark negative space where everything dies". There is also the awareness of the poet's own possible death, for as the existentialists say "as soon as you are born you are old enough to die", and this fact of death must be felt to be a fact if one is to really be alive. Norris writes:

A while ago I thought
"If I am dying
there is so much I have to
come to terms with," ...

or else I would die
in a state of incompleteness, with
nothing achieved, all my life lines cut.
I became resolved about working it all out
until I knew I was still firmly
rooted in life, then my resolve slid away,
all the people in my life
are still kept strangers.
I feel that this passage gives us a major clue into the problem of self-consciousness as it is shown in Cohen's and Norris's books. There is the awareness of unhappiness, of the fragmentation of the self and the actual separation of action from desire, of a kind of estrangement from reality that is common today. There is the apparent awareness of death but no real urgency ensues from this awareness. Both of these poets are working in very personal and private areas of experience; however, an essential part of the awareness they are attempting to explore is missing, and that is that both are afraid, as most people are, to be vulnerable to experience, to experience life without the intervention of the self which judges according to what it finds pleasurable and what it finds painful.

The problem with the self-conscious mind is that it is insensitive to everything but its own feelings of pain and pleasure; it is an exclusive and reductive mode of thinking that is consumed with its own narrow perception, with an ego-centric awareness. If the theme of "survival" exists in Canadian literature it must be in terms of the self, the self which attempts to perpetuate its existence through religion, beliefs, traditions, nationalism and art. Cohen and Norris are aware of their suffering, of their existential position of loneliness and failure, but there is an inability to change anything radically and therefore there is the maintenance of the status quo. If we are to have great poetry it must be written in the presence of death; that is, everything must be open to question and termination, in this there is a catharsis that is the death through an understanding of self-consciousness. We have no real urgency to change because ultimately it is safer to stay in the old position of failed poet, failed lover, Buddhist monk or academic poet, or whatever, however uncomfortable the poet may say it is. Indeed, we love our adversities. Norris writes:

my writing
rises and falls like the fates of great nations
& nothing stands resolved, surely no questions
are answered.

The limits of self-consciousness are drawn by consciousness itself. I think R.M. Bucke would contend that this kind of writing shows the individual on the edge of a leap in consciousness at least on the evolutionary level. That is, any kind of crisis may be viewed as an opportunity and a challenge to our everyday and conventional consciousness: an opportunity to change and grow, to develop as more open and creative people. One would certainly hope this is the case with these two poets. While there is no catharsis or religious experience, an experience of being sensitive to an undifferentiated reality, it is, however, possible that it is the reader who may ultimately benefit and see in the poems his own self-consciousness reflected and thereby change. Cohen is showing us the limits of his self-conscious existence, there is the rejection of what is and the desire for something else, but that "something else" is also a manifestation and extension of what is. And Norris, in his work, gives us a similar problem: the inability to change radically even though one apparently sees the true fall and the results of that fall of one's existence. We are left with the residue of the poet's experience and shown the limits of their self-consciousness.

Both poets have tried to effect a change through the intellect, through words and a deliberate reflection on the problem; perhaps it is now time to allow the self-conscious mind to be itself, to be totally self-conscious and ego-centric. In that exploration of what is there may be the possibility of change; so far, however, Cohen's and Norris's work is a continuation of self-consciousness. The self-conscious mind can go on talking about being free and happy for years, it can even modify one's behaviour, but it can never change one radically.

Feb.9 & 24/80.

Copyright © 2007 The author