Leonard Cohen’s Last Work, The Flame Gets Published: Discover His Final Poems, Drawings, Lyrics & More

It's a perverse irony or an apt metaphor: Leonard Cohen is best known for a song that took him five years to write, and that went almost unheard on its debut, in part because the head of Columbia’s music division, Walter Yetnikoff, refused to release Cohen’s 1985 album Various Positions in the U.S. “Leonard, we know you’re great,” said Yetnikoff, “We just don’t know if you’re any good.” It might have been Cohen’s summation of life itself.

It wasn’t until Jeff Buckley’s electric gospel cover in 1994 (itself a take on John Cale’s version) that “Hallelujah” became the massive hit it is, having now been covered by over 300 artists. Canadian magazine Maclean’s has called the song “pop music’s closest thing to a sacred text.” One can imagine Cohen looking deep into the eyes of those who think that “Hallelujah” is a hymn of praise and saying, “you don’t really care for music, do ya?”

With the trappings and imagery of gospel, and a sleazy synth-driven groove, it tells a story of being tied to a chair and overpowered, kept at an emotional distance, learning how to “shoot somebody who outdrew ya.” Love, sings Cohen sings in his lounge-lizard voice, “is not a victory march… It’s not somebody who’s seen the light.” If you’re looking to Leonard Cohen for redemption, best look elsewhere.

Used in film and television for moments of epiphany, triumph, grief, and relief, “Hallelujah,” like all of Cohen’s work, makes profane and prophetic utterances in which beauty and ugliness always coexist, in a painful arrangement no one gets clear of. Cohen will not let us choose between darkness and light. We must take both.

In the last years of his life, he brought his tragic vision to a remarkable climax in his final, 2016 album, You Want it Darker. Last month, the final act in his magisterial career premiered in the form of The Flame. The book is “a collection of poems, lyrics, drawings, and pages from his notebooks,” writes The Paris Review, who quote from Cohen's son Adam’s forward: “This volume contains my father’s final efforts as a poet…. It was what he was staying alive to do, his sole breathing purpose at the end.”

Cohen did not leave words of hope behind. One of his last poems issues forth an enigmatic and terrifying prophecy, hammering away at the conceits of human power.


What is coming

ten million people

in the street cannot stop

What is coming

the American Armed Forces

cannot control

the President

of the United States

            and his counselors

cannot conceive



            or direct


you do

or refrain from doing

will bring us

to the same place

the place we don’t know


your anger against the war

your horror of death

your calm strategies

your bold plans

to rearrange

            the middle east

to overthrow the dollar

to establish

            the 4th Reich

to live forever

to silence the Jews

to order the cosmos

to tidy up your life

to improve religion

they count for nothing


you have no understanding

of the consequences

of what you do

oh and one more thing

you aren’t going to like

what comes after


But The Flame is not all jeremiad. In some ways it’s a turn from the grim, oracular voice of "You Want it Darker" and to a more intimate, at times quotidian and confessional, Cohen. “All sides of the man are present” in this book of poems and sketches writes Scott Timberg at The Guardian. “Was he, in the end, a musician or a poet? A grave philosopher or a grim sort of comedian? A cosmopolitan lady’s man or a profound, ascetic seeker? Jew or Buddhist? Hedonist or hermit?” Yes.

Cohen’s work, his son says, “was a mandate from God." The writing of his final poems “was all private." “My father was very interested in preserving the magic of his process. And moreover, not demystifying it. Speaking of any of this is a transgression.”

However else we interpret Leonard Cohen’s theo-mythic-philosophical incantations, he made a few things clear. What he meant by "God" was deeper and darker than what most people do. And to trivialize the mysteries of life and love and death and song, to pretend we understand them, he suggests, is a grave and tragic, but perhaps inevitable, mistake. "You want it darker," he sang at the end. "We kill the flame."

via The Paris Review

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hundreds of Wonderful Japanese Firework Designs from the Early-1900s: Digitized and Free to Download

The Japanese term for fireworks, hanabi (花火), combines the words for fire, bi (), and flower, hana (). If you've seen fireworks anywhere, that derivation may seem at least vaguely apt, but if you've seen Japanese fireworks, it may well strike you as evocative indeed. The traditional Japanese way with presenting flowers, their shapes and colors as well as their scents, has something in common with the traditional Japanese way of putting on a fireworks show.

Not that the production of firecrackers goes as far back, historically, as the arrangement of flowers does, nor that firecrackers themselves, originally a product of China, have anything essentially Japanese about them.

But as more recently with cars, comic books, consumer electronics, and Kit-Kats, whenever Japan re-interprets a foreign invention, the project amounts to radical re-invention, and often a dazzling one at that.

These Japanese versions of non-Japanese things often become highly desirable around the world in their own right. It certainly happened with Japanese fireworks, here proudly displayed in these elegant and vividly colored English catalogs of Hirayama Fireworks and Yokoi Fireworks, published in the early 1900s by C.R. Brock and Company, whose founding date of 1698 makes it the oldest firework concern in the United Kingdom.

These Brocks catalogs been digitized by the Yokohama Board of Education and made available online at the site of the Yokohama Public Library. (Though I've never seen a fireworks show in Yokohama, that city, dotted as it is with impeccably designed public gardens, certainly has its flower-appreciation credentials in order.) Even if you don't read Japanese, you can easily download them: just click here and scroll down until you see their cover images, click on their English titles, and click the "本体PDF画像" link on the next page to get the PDF.

Organized into such categories as "Vertical Wheels," "Phantom Circles," and "Colored Floral Bomb Shells," the catalogs present their imported Japanese wares simply, as various patterns of color against a black or blue background. But simplicity, as even those only distantly acquainted with Japanese art have seen, supports a few particularly strong and enduring branches of Japanese aesthetics.

No matter where you take in your displays of fireworks, you'll surely recognize more than a few of these designs from having seen them light up the night sky. And as far as where to look for the next firework innovator, I might suggest South Korea, where I live: at this past summer's Seoul International Fireworks festival I witnessed fireworks exploding into the shape of cat faces, whiskers and all. Such elaborateness many violate the more rigorous versions of the Japanese sensibility as they apply to hanabi — but then again, just imagine what wonders Japan, one of the most cat-loving countries in the world, could do with that concept.

via Boing Boing/Present and Correct

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A Firework’s Point of View

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download Digitized Copies of The Negro Travelers’ Green Book, the Pre-Civil Rights Guide to Traveling Safely in the U.S. (1936-66)

As an American living outside America, I'm often asked how best to see my homeland by people wanting to visit it. I always suggest the same method: road-tripping, preferably across the entire continent — a way of experiencing the U.S. of A guaranteed to at once to confirm and shatter the visitor's pre-existing perceptions of the country. But even under the best possible conditions, such road trips have their arduous stretches and even their dangers, a fact understood by nobody better than by the black travelers of the Green Book era. Published between 1936 and 1967, the guide officially known as The Negro Motorist Green Book informed such travelers of where in America (and later other countries as well) they could have a meal, stay the night, and get their car repaired without prejudice.

You can learn more about the Green Book (which we've previously featured here on Open Culture) from the Vox explainer video above. Then, to get a fuller idea of the books' content, head over to the New York Public Library's digital collections, where you'll find 23 issues from the Green Book's more than 30-year run.

Digitized by the NYPL's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, they're free to read online and download. Data drawn from this archive and released into the public domain has also given rise to projects like "Navigating the Green Book," where you can explore its recommended places laid out on a map and even plot a trip between any two cities in America according to the Green Book's 1947 or 1956 editions.

Though the Green Book ceased publication not long after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, interest in the America they reflect hasn't vanished, and has in fact grown in recent years. Academia has produced more studies of Jim Crow-era travel over the past decade or two, and this Thanksgiving will see the wide release of Green Book, Peter Farrelly's feature film about the friendship between black pianist Don Shirley and the chauffeur who drove him through the Deep South in the 1960s. "To flip through a Green Book is to open a window into history and perhaps to see, the tiniest amount, through the eyes of someone who lived it," writes K Menick on the NYPL's blog. "Read these books; map them in your mind. Think about the trips you could take, can take, will take. See how the size of the world can change depending on the color of your skin." 

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

An Atlas of Literary Maps Created by Great Authors: J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island & More

Plot, setting, character… we learn to think of these as discrete elements in literary writing, comparable to the strategy, board, and pieces of a chess game. But what if this scheme doesn’t quite work? What about when the setting is a character? There are many literary works named and well-known for the unforgettable places they introduce: Walden, Wuthering Heights, Howards End…. There are invented domains that seem more real to readers than reality: Faulkner’s Yoknapatowpha, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex… There are works that describe impossible places so vividly we believe in their existence against all reason: Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, China Miéville’s The City and the City, Jorge Luis Borges' "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius"….

What sustains our belief in the integrity of fictional places? The fact that they seem to act upon events as much as the people who live in them, for one thing. And, just as often, the fact that so many authors and illustrators draw elaborate maps of literary settings, making their features real to us and embedding them in our minds.

A new book, The Writer’s Map, edited by Huw Lewis-Jones, offers lovers of literary maps—whether in non-fiction, realism, or fantasy—the opportunity to pore over maps of Thomas More’s Utopia (said to be the first literary map), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, J.R.R Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Branwell Brontë’s Verdopolis (above), and so many more.

The book is filled with essays about literary mapping by writers and map-makers, and it touches on the way authors themselves view imaginative mapping. “For some writers making a map is absolutely central to the craft of shaping and telling their tale,” writes Lewis-Jones. For others, making maps is also a way to avoid the painful task of writing, which Philip Pullman calls “a matter of sullen toil.” Drawing, on the other hand, he says, “is pure joy. Drawing a map to go with a story is messing around, with the added fun of coloring it in.” David Mitchell agrees: “As long as I was busy dreaming of topography,” he says of his maps, “I didn’t have to get my hands dirty with the mechanics of plot and character.”

It may surprise you to hear that writers hate to write, but writers are people, after all, and most people find writing tedious and difficult in some part. What all of the writers featured in this collection share is that they love indulging their imaginations, making real their lucid dreams, whether through the diversion of drawing maps or the grind of grammar and syntax. Many of these maps, like Thoreau’s drawing of Walden Pond or Johann David Wyss’s illustration of the desert island in The Swiss Family Robinson, accompanied their books into publication. Many more remained secreted in authors’ notebooks.

There are many such “private treasures” in The Writer’s Map, notes Atlas Obscura: “J.R.R. Tolkien’s own sketch of Mordor, on graph paper; C.S. Lewis’s sketches; unpublished maps from the notebooks of David Mitchell… Jack Kerouac’s own route in On the Road….” Do we read a literary map differently when it wasn’t meant for us? Can maps be sly acts of misdirection as well as whimsical visual aids? Should we treat them as paratextual and unnecessary, or are they central, when an author chooses to include them, to our understanding of a story? Such questions, and many, many more, are taken up in The Writer’s Map, a long overdue survey of this longstanding literary tradition.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Are the Most Influential Books Written by Scholars in the Last 20 Years?: Leading Academics Pick “The New Canon”

It’s a fraught time to be an academic. Budgets have been slashed, departments decimated, political battles sensationalized by partisan opportunists, social media posts intensified into test cases for speech. Yet as corporatism and culture wars have pushed their way into academia in the past twenty plus years, more scholarship has seemed to make its way out into the mainstream, with books by academic historians like Eric Foner and Ibram X. Kendi, literary scholars like Stephen Greenblatt and bell hooks, sociologists like Robert Putnam, scientists like Richard Dawkins, economists like Thomas Piketty, legal scholars like Michelle Alexander, and so on, topping bestseller lists and winning National Book Awards.

Such books distill difficult ideas without dumbing them down, in accessible and often urgent prose. Their popularity speaks to how they address the pressing issues of their times, and undercuts the stereotype of academics as jargon-spewing, out-of-touch inhabitants of ivory towers. And they often have the power to not only radically alter public discourse, but to inspire mass movements and shift public policy.

Most of the more than 15,000 academic books published each year—by university presses or tiny independents—reach only “their core audience of disciplinary specialists.” A few resonate outside their fields yet still fail to find an audience outside higher education circles (nor are they really meant to).

But some books by scholars, like those by the authors named above, “enter the public consciousness,” writes The Chronicle of Higher Education, and thus deserve to be described as “influential” in a broad sense, “like On the Origin of Species or Das Kapital or The Interpretation of Dreams,” as Yale professor of psychology Paul Bloom writes (while also pointing out that none of these books’ authors were professional academics). Under the banner of forming a “New Canon,” the Chronicle asked Bloom and a number of other scholars—including Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics and author of several best-selling popular books—to name what they believed were the most influential scholarly books of the past 20 years.

Each respondent was asked “to select books—academic or not, but written by scholars—from within or outside their own fields.” Each wrote a brief defense of their choice and, in some cases, of their criteria for “influence.” You can read these blurbs at the Chronicle’s site, and just below, see a full list of the picks. Some of the books, the Chronicle concedes, fall “slightly outside our time frame, but we included them anyway.”

Some of them are typically academic works, like Mark Greif’s choice of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling, a book unlikely to inspire a Netflix documentary. Others, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, an impetus for Ava DuVernay’s 13th, were written for the widest of readerships. Do these distinctions make books like Alexander more “influential” than those like Sedgewick’s? It all depends, I suppose, on what we mean by the word—and by what, or whom, or how, or why, or how many we think need to be influenced.

The Better Angels of our Nature, by Steven Pinker

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by Robert Putnam

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander

The History Manifesto, by Jo Guldi and David Armitage

Freaks of Fortune: The Emerging World of Capitalism and Risk in America, Jonathan Levy

What Art Is, by Arthur Danto

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari

Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, by Dorothy Roberts

The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, by Antonio R. Damasio

Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton

A Brief History of NeoLiberalism, by David Harvey

Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement, by Kimberle Crenshaw and Neil Gotanda

The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by Jessica Riskin

Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision, by Barbara Ransby

Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, by Bernard Williams

War Powers: How the Imperial Presidency Hijacked the Constitution, by Peter Irons

Age of Fracture, by Daniel T. Rodgers

Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship, by Daniel T. Rodgers

The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson

Read about all of the books at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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Edward Gorey Talks About His Love Cats & More in the Animated Series, “Goreytelling”

My childhood discovery of Edward Gorey proved revelatory. I recognized my own bewilderment in the blank expressions of his obsessively-rendered Edwardian children. His characters, imprisoned in starched collars and stays, stared at the world through hollow eyes, struck dumb by alternating currents of absurdity and horror. Every youngster with budding goth and New Romantic sensibilities found themselves drawn into Gorey’s weird worlds. Confessed Goreyphiles like Tim Burton and Neil Gaiman took much from a style Steven Kurutz describes as “camp-macabre, ironic-gothic or dark whimsy.”

He gave his readers permission to be odd and haunted, and to laugh about it, but he never seemed to have needed such permission himself. He was as sui generis as he was mysterious, the scowling older gentleman with the long white beard assumed the role of an anti-Santa, bestowing gifts of guilt-free, solitary indulgence in dark fantasy.

But the man himself remained shrouded, and that was just as well. Learning more about him as an adult, I have been struck by just how closely he resembles some of his characters, or rather, by how much he was, in work and life, entirely himself.

A fashionably bookish hermit and Wildean aesthete, a man to whom, “by his own admission… nothing happened,” Gorey organized his life in New York around reading, seeing films, and attending George Balanchine’s ballets. (He rarely missed a performance over the course of three decades, then moved to his famed Cape Cod house when Balanchine died in the mid-80s.) “Despite being a lifelong Anglophile, he made just one brief visit to Scotland and England,” writes Kurutz, “his only trip abroad.”

In a Proust Questionnaire he answered for Vanity Fair, Gorey wrote that his favorite journey was “looking out the window.” The supreme love of his life, he wrote: his cats. Those beloved creatures are the subject of the third episode of Goreytelling, at the top, an animated web series consisting of short excerpts from an upcoming documentary simply titled Gorey, directed by Christopher Seufert, who spent several years recording his conversations with Gorey. The very Gorey-like animations are by Benjamin and Jim Wickey.

If you’ve ever wondered what Edward Gorey sounded like, wonder no more. Hear his solidly Midwestern accent (Gorey grew up in Chicago) as he describes the travails of living with adorable, frustrated predators who destroy the furniture and throw themselves on his drawing table, ruining his work. Further up, he tells the story of a mummy’s head he kept wrapped up in his closet, and just above he tells a story about The Loathesome Couple a 1977 book he wrote based a series of real-life murders of British children by a married couple. “A lot people,” he says, would tell him “this one book of yours, I really find a little… much.”

Goreyphiles out there, and they number in the millions, will thoroughly enjoy these animations (see episode 2, “Fan Mail,” here and 4, “Dracula,” here). Gorey the documentary promises to bring us even closer to the curmudgeonly author and artist. His life makes for a quirky series of vignettes, but ultimately Gorey was a “Magellan of the imagination,” says cultural critic and biographer Mark Dery. “He journeyed vastly between his ears…. So that’s where you have to look for the life. On the psychic geography of his unconscious,” and in the pages of his over 100 satisfyingly unsettling books.

via Laughing Squid

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The “Most Secretive Library in the World”: The Future Library Will Collect 100 Original Manuscripts by Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell & More, to Be Read for the First Time in 2114

Should intelligent life of some form or another still inhabit the planet in the year 6939, such beings might come upon an “800-pound tube of an alloy of copper and chromium called Cupaloy” that was buried 50 feet beneath what was once Queens. The first time capsule, lowered under the Westinghouse exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair contains “35 items one might find in any run-of-the-mill Smith family household,” as Jinwoo Chong writes at Untapped Cities, “including copies of Life magazine, a Sears and Roebuck catalog, cigarettes and seeds of wheat, corn, alfalfa and soy.”

The Future Library, a time capsule-like project presently in the works, takes a very different approach to the concept. “A forest is growing in Norway,” explains an introductory video on creator Katie Paterson’s website. “In 100 years it will become an anthology of books.” The books that will be printed from 1,000 trees planted in Nordmarka, north of Oslo, will not, however, transmit mining and navigational instructions, but a full range of human emotion and personal experience. Or so we might assume. Unlike the 1939 time capsule, we'll never know what's inside them.

Scottish artist Paterson has planned a library of 100 creative works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—one manuscript submitted every year until 2114, when she intends them all to be printed in 3,000 copies each and read for the first time. Almost none of us will be there to witness the event, yet “the timescale is… not vast in cosmic terms,” she says. “It is beyond our current lifespans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativize,” unlike the incomprehensible future of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine or the far-off world for which Westinghouse designed their capsule.

Nonetheless, technological, and perhaps even evolutionary, change has increased exponentially in the past several decades, as have the possibilities for global extinction events. Margaret Atwood, the first author to submit an unpublished, unread manuscript to the Future Library in 2014, is characteristically less than sanguine about the existence of future readers for her manuscript, entitled Scribbler Moon. “It’s very optimistic to believe that there will still be people in 100 years,” she says in the short video above, and “that those people will still be reading.” Atwood imagines a near-future that may not even recognize our time.

Which words that we use today will be different, archaic, obsolete? Which new words will have entered the language? We don’t know what footnotes we will need. Will they have computers? Will they call them something else? What will they think smartphones are? Will that word still exist?

Writers for the project are chosen by the Future Library’s board of trustees. After the canny selection of Atwood, they chose the equally on-the-nose David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, who calls the library “the Ark of Literature.” It is a strange ark, filled with animals few people living now will likely ever see. "The world's most secretive library," The Guardian calls it.  In 2016, Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón submitted his mysterious text. The fourth work came from Turkish novelist Elif Shafak, who named the project “a secular act of faith.”

The latest writer chosen is Man Booker-winning South Korean novelist Han Kang, who described the Future Library as a literal expression of the writer’s thoughts on their duty to posterity: “I cannot survive 100 years from now, of course. No one who I love can survive, either. This relentless fact has made me reflect on the essential part of my life. Why do I write? Who am I talking to, when I write?” Did Jane Austen imagine her readers of 100 years later? Could she ever have imagined us?

Not only is the Future Library an act of literary faith, but it is an ecological one. “The next 96 years do not look promising for the seedlings,” writes Merve Emre at The New York Times, “which are more vulnerable than their ancestors to all manner of man-made disasters.” The project symbolically binds together the fates of the book and the trees, making “the physicality of culture palpable by insisting that we confront the long, laborious process of preserving language.”

In 2020, the collection of manuscripts will be moved to a “Silent Room” in Oslo, a “womb-shaped chamber facing the forest, lined with wood from its trees.” Visitors can come and venerate these secretive future relics in their ribbon-wrapped gray boxes. But their contents—should the ambitious endeavor go as planned—will remain as elusive as the shape of our collective future 100 years from now.

via NYTimes

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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