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On heroes, Hallelujahs, and tragedy

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Leonard Cohen - Hallelujah Vevo retrieved from YouTube

The Monday after the 2016 presidential election, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen died at the age of 82. While doing post-election reflecting and reading Cohen’s obituary in the New York Times in my Women in World Literature course (amidst our study of the Greek tragedy Antigone), it became apparent to me that the universe is trying to tell us something.

Hillary Clinton, once considered a shoo-in for the presidency and the pride of the Democratic party, lost the election in a stunning upset to a politically inexperienced and frequently offensive opponent, Donald J. Trump. Both candidates were considered potentially the most unfavorable in American election history, Trump with his sexist comments, history of harassment, divisive rhetoric, lack of eloquence or previous political position, abundant misrepresentation or ignorance of facts, and business hoaxes and Clinton with her email server scandal, perceived un-trustworthiness, and impersonal demeanor.

Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room here. Though Hillary Clinton was flawed in her aggressively presumptuous attitude toward her nomination and her chances for the presidency, the American tradition of sexism also played a quite a role in the outcome of this election and the failures of Hillary Clinton and her campaign. Seeing Clinton personally address young girls in her concession speech, telling them that no matter what, “you are valuable and powerful” was… cathartic… That a woman with a hundred times the qualifications of her male opponent, despite having made significant mistakes of her own, would still fall short is heartbreaking to many (myself included).

As we read Sophocles’ Antigone and the election came to a close, it seemed to beg that question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life. A sequel to his Oedipus Rex, the story of a man with an inescapable and terrible fate, the title character of Antigone lives with the misfortune inherited from her father. By burying her brother Polyneices, a dissident in the state, Antigone makes herself a public enemy. Though poised and clever, as a woman plagued by her hubris, she is a target for persecution under King Creon, an overt misogynist. Sophocles crafted Antigone carefully, and his thematic intentions could be interpreted as either quite patriarchal (with Creon a more typical pitiable tragic hero) or radically feminist or even religious (with Antigone as the tragic hero). Ultimately, Antigone dies after hanging herself after King Creon had her entombed alive for defying him.

Antigone’s stubborn pride and ideals contribute to her tragic demise, but what makes her fate worse than deserved is the oppression she experiences as a female in a land ruled by Creon, who at one point exclaims, “No woman’s going to govern me— no, no—not while I’m still alive.” But in taking her own life, there is a silver lining- Antigone’s death was one with pride and dignity,  and it demonstrates a painful legacy- despite the injustice she faced and the flaws of pride she possessed, Antigone is still a hero and ultimately a revolutionary one.

Like Sophocles, folk musician Leonard Cohen was fond of highly allusive and fascinatingly paradoxical words and imagery in his compositions. Cohen is one of the few songwriters of the 20th century said to be a true poet. His song “Hallelujah” is the ultimate testament to this. Though “Hallelujah” has been ruined for countless 90’s/00’s kids due to its clumsy inclusion in the 2001 film Shrek, hundreds of famous artists have covered this song, a treatise of love, failure, and glory to a higher power through its enigmatic lyrics. Cohen never won a Grammy award for his music, but was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. In the mid-nineties, however, Cohen had abandoned his music career to become a Buddhist monk. He took on a name meaning “silence.”

Giving the song another chance, though I’d rejected it since my childhood for it’s presence in a film about a narrow minded ogre who doesn’t want anyone entering his swamp (Sound familiar?), I looked at the lyrics of “Hallelujah,” and the verse that struck me most was:


There’s a blaze of light

In every word

It doesn’t matter which you heard

The holy or the broken Hallelujah


Though I’m certain she is a strong candidate for one, I won’t delve into an analysis that proclaims Hillary Clinton to be a tragic hero. The connection that I will make between all these things, however, is that there is a cruel sense of hope that comes with any disappointment or unfortunate turn of events- one that defies expectations and a current reality. The “blaze of light” Cohen sings of reminds me of the harsh brilliance of Antigone’s suicide and Clinton’s intense concession speech. As he writes, the light is present in both “the holy” and “the broken” Hallelujah.

After a long, and at times unreal election season that was comedic gold for late night television writers, I wondered how Saturday Night Live, with it’s memorable impersonations of the charismatic candidates would handle such an unexpected result. For the cold open of SNL the weekend after the election, Kate McKinnon donned her Hillary Clinton costume and sitting alone at a piano, gave a moving rendition of “Hallelujah.” Still in character after singing, McKinnon’s broken voice as she turned to the audience to say, “I won’t give up, and neither should you,” showed how irony stings, but it proves a point, and one that will certainly not be forgotten.



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The Ursuline Chronicle:The student news magazine of Ursuline Academy
On heroes, Hallelujahs, and tragedy