Dance Me to the End of Love (Song Series #12)
All in one week: The anniversary of Kristallnacht. A wave of hate crimes in the U.S., in the wake of a fraught election. And the death of Leonard Cohen, who wrote this song, “Dance Me to the End of Love.”
Dance Me to the End of Love
Guitar: Rob Hinst; vocals + viola: Jen Hinst-White; written by Leonard Cohen
When this one first seduced me, I thought it was just a sexy little song with gorgeous imagery. I didn’t know that Cohen wrote it in response to a particularly chilling detail of the Holocaust. He wrote:
“In the death camps, beside the crematoria, in certain of the death camps, a string quartet was pressed into performance while this horror was going on, those were the people whose fate was this horror also. And they would be playing classical music while their fellow prisoners were being killed and burnt. So, that music, ‘Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,’ meaning the beauty there of being the consummation of life, the end of this existence and of the passionate element in that consummation. But, it is the same language that we use for surrender to the beloved, so that the song — it’s not important that anybody knows the genesis of it, because if the language comes from that passionate resource, it will be able to embrace all passionate activity.”
It is a love song. It is an ache-and-longing song, it is an acute-beauty-and-suffering song, it is a being-human song. But it is also a fear song, a death song.
I’ve been thinking about how the persecution of the Jewish people didn’t begin with killing. It started with scapegoating and pushing people to the edges of society. Kristallnacht is infamous because it marked the start of widespread violence against Jews, and yet it was not explicitly ordered by the Nazi party. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels announced that
“the Führer has decided that … demonstrations [against Jewish people] should not be prepared or organized by the Party, but insofar as they erupt spontaneously, they are not to be hampered.”
And finally: It’s worth noting that Nazis not only sought to exterminate the Jewish people, which would have been horrific enough, but also dehumanized and slaughtered a host of other people: people with disabilities, LGBT people, authors and artists considered “subversive,” anyone perceived as a political opponent, trade union leaders, Catholic and Lutheran clergy, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Slavs and Poles and Roma (Gypsies) and many more.
I love “Dance Me to the End of Love” for so many reasons. It is so specific, so human, and any good writer knows if you want to humanize your characters, if you want to avoid writing characters who are flat stereotypes, what you do is add specificity, add unique human details. Dance me to your beauty, like a burning violin. Dance me to the panic, till I’m gathered safely in. Lift me like an olive branch, be my homeward dove—
This is a song of love and longing and cruelty and beauty, and depending on the moment I sing it, it can be more one thing than another; but lift me like an olive branch: this week I’m singing this song in prayer as much as passion.