Mister Melancholy: Going down and deep with the late, great, Leonard Cohen

'Enneagram Famous Figures' by Subhuti Healing & Meditation

Subhuti takes Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) as an example of an Enneagram Number Four: the Tragic Romantic.

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“Suzanne takes you down…”

It was his moment. His turning point. At the age of 33, after years of semi-obscurity as a novelist and poet, the sad-faced Canadian guitar player stood in front of a massive audience in New York City and began to sing the ballad that would become his trademark. The audience went crazy. They loved it. But then something unexpected happened: Leonard Cohen stopped singing, half-way through the song, and walked offstage. The audience begged him to come back, but he stood in the wings, hesitating, almost paralysed. Some might say it was just nerves. But when one understands that Leonard Cohen is a Number Four on the Enneagram system of nine personality types, a different reason offers itself:

According to their inner program, Fours firmly believe they cannot have what they really want. So if they dream of success and actually get it, then success cannot be what they really desire. Once they have it in their hands, it becomes almost worthless.

Fortunately, Judy Collins, the American singer-songwriter who had discovered Cohen and invited him to the fund-raiser in New York, was on hand to save the situation. “I’ll go out with you,” she told him, so they went back onstage together and sang ‘Suzanne’. That, of course, was the beginning of Leonard Cohen’s long career.

The Enneagram, by its very nature as a psychological system, is incapable of being objectively proved. As readers of my articles know, every attempt to type an individual can be challenged. However, if ever a type might be transparently clear and beyond argument, it would be the labelling of Leonard Cohen as the Number Four, the Tragic Romantic.

That voice, croaking and crooning like a foghorn in the night. Those doom-and-gloom lyrics, lamenting lost loves and bitter regrets. Those mournful eyes staring at you from the album cover. It all combines to seduce you into a soft, sinking feeling that Fours know so well, taking you down into the comfortable despair of melancholy.


Fours remember that in childhood they experienced a deep sense of loss, which in Cohen’s case is not hard to identify: his father died when he was nine years old. The strategy may have been adopted earlier, because this young boy was subjected to a very serious religious upbringing, in which there was little in the way of light-hearted, carefree frolicking.

“I had a very Messianic childhood,” Cohen recalled, in later years, referring to the intense Orthodox Judaism into which he was born. One grandfather was founder of the Canadian Jewish Congress, the other was a Talmudic writer, and he was soon informed that he was a direct descendant of Aaron, brother of Moses and founder of the Israelite priesthood. Quite a solemn burden for a pair of young shoulders to carry.

As he grew into adulthood, Leonard Cohen evolved from writing poetry, to writing novels, to composing song lyrics. In these creative expressions, we find his attitude to life:

For example, in his best-known song, ‘Suzanne’, the woman who mesmerizes him is beautiful, but she is also “half crazy,” while in the same song Jesus becomes “broken” before the skies can open to redeem him. In Cohen’s equally famous song, ‘Hallelujah’, the secret chord that pleases the Lord is part of a “cold and broken hallelujah.”

In ‘Bird on the Wire’ he tells us:

Like a worm on a hook, like a knight in an old-fashioned book,
I have torn everyone who reached out to me…

Seeking happiness through pain

Cohen suffered periodically from depression, about which he said, “I speak of a clinical depression that is the background of your entire life, a background of anguish and anxiety, a sense that nothing goes well, that pleasure is unavailable and all your strategies collapse.” But this is not the whole picture. As you may have noticed among your friends, Fours don’t necessarily go around with long faces, spreading their misery.

“People think Leonard is dark, but actually his sense of humour and his edge on the world is extremely light,” Judy Collins once commented about her friend.

Here is the paradox that typifies Fours: they rarely think of themselves as miserable. Rather, they see themselves as realistic and authentic, courageous enough to face life as it is, rather than being deceived by sugar-coating and superficial appearances.

In the 1990s, Leonard Cohen withdrew from his musical career to become a Zen monk for six years. He also took time to study the world’s major religions, but abandoned the project because he discovered that his own “cheerfulness kept breaking through.” This remark is significant. It shows how, in comparison to conventional religious attitudes, Leonard Cohen saw himself as light-hearted and even optimistic. And in many of his songs there is a promise of redemption and fulfilment, although only after a lengthy period of soul-searching.

This, again, is typical of the Four approach to life. You can find happiness, it is possible, but you must struggle and grope your way through a long dark tunnel of suffering and pain in order to find it.

“The effect of a sad song is not to depress, but to bring you closer to the emotion and make you feel better,” Cohen once explained. “It’s not uplifting in the sense that it’s like ‘keep a stiff upper lip’ or anything like that, but it does have, for me, when I listen to a so-called sad song, it has a healing quality.”

It was Claudio Naranjo, the Chilean psychologist who helped Oscar Ichazo develop the Enneagram in the 1960s, who termed the Number Four “Seeking Happiness Through Pain” and certainly this seems true in Leonard Cohen’s case. Ichazo himself called the Four type ‘Melon’, which was shorthand for ‘Melancholy’. If you listen to the tone of Cohen’s voice, without even understanding the lyrics, that’s the word that captures its sound.

A ladies’ man?

Naturally, as his fame increased, so did Cohen’s attraction as a potential lover. One girlfriend, Marianne Ihlen, who stayed with him during his years on the Greek island of Hydra, reported afterwards that she’d found herself in competition with an ever-increasing number of devotees who wanted to share his bed.

But Cohen rejected his image as a ladies’ man, commenting, “I was never very good at enjoying it. I was drawn to those intense experiences, and obsessed with those intense experiences for much of my life. But I can’t say that I really enjoyed them. Afterwards, I generally gave myself a bad review.”

This bleak self-criticism was mirrored in his song ‘Death of a Ladies’ Man’, the title number of an album released in 1977, in which Cohen relates a torrid affair, then concludes:

So the great affair is over but whoever would have guessed
It would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed.

This, again, is a typical Four attitude. Whatever experiences you can have, even in bed with a beautiful woman, it’s never quite what you’re looking for. This, of course, reflects the pain of the original loss in childhood – the loss that nothing can replace.

Marianne Ihlen, by the way, attained near-immortality after her breakup with Cohen, having provided inspiration and cause for his nostalgic lament ‘So Long Marianne’.

Another ‘by the way’ aside: the album Death of a Ladies’ Man stunned Leonard Cohen’s fans, not because of its sexual imagery, such as “Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On,” but because Cohen collaborated with producer Phil Spector, who completely wrecked the singer’s style. Cohen’s minimalist approach of voice and solo guitar was replaced with Spector’s ‘wall of sound’, adding enough multiple tracks of instrument overdubs to make Cohen seem like he was surrounded by an orchestra. It didn’t work. Dismissing this bizarre marriage of Spector and Cohen, Rolling Stone condemned it as “the world’s most flamboyant extrovert producing and arranging the world’s most fatalist introvert.”

From the Enneagram point of view, if ever Cohen tried to trade in his downbeat Type Four for an upbeat Type Seven, this was the moment. He himself called the album “a catastrophe.”

Love for drama

Another quality of Fours is their appetite for drama. This certainly suits a poet and songwriter like Cohen, because, after all, ordinary life can’t easily be wrestled into fable. It needs to be artfully blended with dramatic imagination to move from the mundane into the realm of myth.

For example, in Cohen’s classic ‘Suzanne’, the young woman is portrayed as half-crazy, but in reality Suzanne Verdal was the perfectly sane wife of a Montreal artist when she met the Canadian singer. She declined Cohen’s sexual advances, which may be the reason why she made such an impression on him – Fours are typically fascinated by the unavailable – and then went on to travel the world, eventually becoming a choreographer in Los Angeles.

Speaking of drama, in one of his final songs, published years later in 2016, Cohen announced “I’m ready Lord,” meaning he was ready to die. But then, soon afterwards, he changed his mind, saying jokingly, “I think I was exaggerating. One is given to self-dramatization from time to time. I intend to live forever!”

Ready or not, he died just a few weeks later.

People who enjoy speculating on the internet about which songs can be categorized as “the saddest songs ever” frequently include Leonard Cohen’s ‘Alexandra Leaving’ in their top ten. The track was released in 2001, marking Cohen’s return to the public spotlight, as the part of his album, Ten New Songs, created in close collaboration with his old friend, singer-producer Sharon Robinson.

‘Alexandra Leaving’ conveys a double tragedy. It is based on Constantin Cavafy’s poem about the last hours of Mark Antony, when the Roman leader is besieged in the City of Alexandria by his all-conquering rival, Octavius Caesar. Antony already thinks his great love, Queen Cleopatra, is dead and then he hears the sound of musical instruments and voices coming from the city streets. He realizes that Bacchus, his patron god, is deserting him. Within hours, he commits suicide.

Leonard Cohen cleverly weaves the song into a parallel lament for a woman, Alexandra, with whom he shares one last, unexpected night, before she leaves him forever.

It’s worth noting that sadness and happiness are not always opposites. In Fours, we find people who enjoy the intensity of their own feelings of unhappiness. Cohen definitely fitted into this bracket.

He also loved being on the road and between 2008 and 2013 conducted two huge world tours. The fact that he felt compelled to do so by financial troubles – he claimed a former manager had robbed him of millions – may have been a lucky accident for both him and his fans.


In conclusion, let’s leave Leonard with his own self-assessment:

“Seriousness, rather than depression is, I think, the characteristic of my work,” he once told an interviewer. “I like a good laugh, but I think there’s enjoyment that comes through seriousness. We all know when we close the door and come into your room and you’re left with your heart and your emotions, it isn’t all that funny.”

Unless, of course, you’re not a Four. In which case, it might be – funny, that is.

SubhutiSubhuti gives workshops about the Enneagram all over the world and also gives individual online Enneagram sessions. Contact: anandsubhuti (at) yahoo.com

Related articles on the Enneagram by Subhuti

All articles in this series: Enneagram Famous Figures
The Enneagram – a journey with the Enneagram from Oscar Ichazo’s original school to Osho’s Multiversity
The Enneagram: Types – Enneagram type descriptions, childhood environments, problem areas and sentences which characterize each type

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