Leonard Cohen on the emergent self, improvisation and excellence

In an interview in the Guardian newspaper Leonard Cohen was asked about what he has learned from being back on stage at the age of 74 and he gave this reply:

I’ve been grateful that it’s going well. You can’t ever guarantee that it’s going to continue doing well, because there’s a component that you don’t command.

What component is that?

Some sort of grace, some sort of luck. It’s hard to put your finger on it – you don’t really want to put your finger on it. But there is a mysterious component that makes for a memorable evening. You never really know whether you are going to be able to be the person you want to be or that the audience is going to be hospitable to the person they perceive. So there are so many unknowns and so many mysteries connected – even when you’ve brought the show to a certain degree of excellence.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

What I take from what Cohen is saying is the idea of an emergent self which is paradoxically formed by, at the same time as it is forming the interaction with the audience. He is not sure which Leonard Cohen he will find until he actually finds himself in the interaction with the audience. The person he aspires to be and the person the audience perceives may be two slightly different things: so Cohen emerges in the social interaction between him and his audience. His performance constantly adapts to a form of mutual ‘hospitality’, which I take to mean the preparedness to entertain the other.

In improvising into the unkown he recognises the potential for things turning out differently from the way he might anticipate. And this despite the fact that he and his support band have brought the show to ‘a certain degree of excellence’. Improvisation, then, is not a lazy, undisciplined activity that arises out of not practising or turning up unprepared, it is something that emerges from being highly prepared in the intense engagement with others in the living present. There are no guarantees, so excellence is not some kind of fixed and static state, but is being rediscovered  and renewed constantly.

For me Cohen demonstrates a profound understanding both of the way in which the self emerges in social improvisation, at the same time as setting out an emergent theory of excellence. He also shows a strong reflexive capability and a good degree of wisdom.


3 thoughts on “Leonard Cohen on the emergent self, improvisation and excellence

  1. Pingback: Improvising in management « Reflexivepractice

  2. Sam

    Perhaps this uncontrollable factor is related to his collapse on stage in Barcelona. Cohen does seem to have a spontaneous fragility when performing. I’m not sure if this is his real character or part of the act of being ‘Leonard Cohen’


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