Beautiful Losers
Leonard Cohen

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“God Is Alive. Magic Is Afoot.”

Beautiful Losers

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I first encountered this passage in its musical setting, recorded extempore by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It’s the reason I acquired and read the book. More about that below.

In the book, this is one long paragraph. Having remembered it as poetry for years, I have taken the liberty of imposing a line structure and some “stanza” separations. (These breaks are my own additions; I don’t know how closely they match Buffy Sainte-Marie’s printed version.)

“God Is Alive. Magic Is Afoot.”

from Beautiful Losers

Copyright © 1966 by Leonard Cohen

God is alive. Magic is afoot.

God is alive. Magic is afoot.

God is afoot. Magic is alive. Alive is afoot.

Magic never died.

God never sickened.

Many poor men lied. Many sick men lied.

Magic never weakened. Magic never hid. Magic always ruled.

God is afoot. God never died.

God was ruler though his funeral lengthened.

Though his mourners thickened Magic never fled.

Though his shrouds were hoisted the naked God did live.

Though his words were twisted the naked Magic thrived.

Though his death was published round and round the world the heart did not believe.

Many hurt men wondered. Many struck men bled.

Magic never faltered. Magic always led.

Many stones were rolled but God would not lie down.

Many wild men lied. Many fat men listened.

Though they offered stones Magic still was fed.

Though they locked their coffers God was always served.

Magic is afoot. God rules.

Alive is afoot. Alive is in command.

Many weak men hungered. Many strong men thrived.

Though they boasted solitude God was at their side.

Nor the dreamer in his cell, nor the captain on the hill.

Magic is alive.

Though his death was pardoned round and round the world the heart would not believe.

Though laws were carved in marble they could not shelter men.

Though altars built in parliaments they could not order men.

Police arrested Magic and Magic went with them for Magic loves the hungry.

But Magic would not tarry.

It moves from arm to arm.

It would not stay with them.

Magic is afoot. It cannot come to harm.

It rests in an empty palm.

It spawns in an empty mind.

But Magic is no instrument.

Magic is the end.

Many men drove Magic but Magic stayed behind.

Many strong men lied.

They only passed through Magic and out the other side.

Many weak men lied.

They came to God in secret and though they left him nourished they would not tell who healed.

Though mountains danced before them they said that God was dead.

Though his shrouds were hoisted the naked God did live.

This I mean to whisper to my mind.

This I mean to laugh with in my mind.

This I mean my mind to serve till service is but Magic moving through the world, and mind itself is Magic coursing through the flesh, and flesh itself is Magic dancing on a clock, and time itself the Magic Length of God.



text checked (see note x1) Feb 2005

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Content warning: level 4.

Beautiful Losers

Copyright © 1966 by Leonard Cohen

Book One
The History of Them All

What is most original in a man’s nature is often that which is most desperate. Thus new systems are forced on the world by men who simply cannot bear the pain of living with what is. Creators care nothing for their systems except that they be unique. If Hitler had been born in Nazi Germany he wouldn’t have been content to enjoy the atmosphere. If an unpublished poet discovers one of his own images in the work of another writer it gives him no comfort, for his allegiance is not to the image or its progress in the public domain, his allegiance is to the notion that he is not bound to the world as given, that he can escape from the painful arrangement of things as they are. Jesus probably designed his system so that it would fail in the hands of other men, that is the way with the greatest creators: they guarantee the desperate power of their own originality by projecting their systems into an abrasive future. These are F.’s ideas, of course. I don’t think he believed them.



40 What is a saint? A saint is someone who has achieved a remote human possibility. It is impossible to say what that possibility is. I think it has something to do with the energy of love. Contact with this energy results in the exercise of a kind of balance in the chaos of existence. A saint does not dissolve the chaos; if he did the world would have changed long ago. I do not think that a saint dissolves the chaos even for himself, for there is something arrogant and warlike in the notion of a man setting the universe in order. It is a kind of balance that is his glory. He rides the drifts like an escaped ski. His course is a caress of the hill. His track is a drawing of the snow in a moment of its particular arrangement with wind and rock. Something in him so loves the world that he gives himself to the laws of gravity and chance. Far from flying with the angels, he traces with the fidelity of a seismograph needle the state of the solid bloody landscape. His house is dangerous and finite, but he is at home in the world. He can love the shapes of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love. It makes me think that the numbers in the bag actually correspond to the numbers on the raffles we have bought so dearly, and so the prize is not an illusion.




—Do they hunt in Heaven, or make war, or go to feasts?

—Oh, no!

—Then I will not go. It is not good to be lazy.

—Infernal fire and torturing demons await you.

—Why did you baptize our enemy the Huron? He will get to Heaven before us and drive us out when we come.

—There is room for all in Heaven.

—If there is so much room, Black-Robe, why do you guard the entrance so jealously?

We do not see well through tears, and although that which we see through tears is bright it is also bent.
Book Two
A Long Letter from F.

Note (Hal’s):
The lyric passage transcribed above as “God Is Alive. Magic Is Afoot.” can be found here.

— end note

I believed that I had conceived the vastest dream of my generation: I wanted to be a magician. That was my idea of glory. Here is a plea based on my whole experience: do not be a magician, be magic.



I remember a story you once told me, old comrade, of how the Indians looked at death. The Indians believed that after physical death the spirit made a long journey heavenward. It was a hard, dangerous journey, and many did not complete it. A treacherous river had to be crossed on a log which bounced through wild rapids. A huge howling dog harassed the traveler. There was a narrow path between dancing boulders which crashed together, pulverizing the pilgrim who could not dance with them. The Hurons believed that there was a bark hut beside this path. Here lived Oscotarach, meaning the Head-Piercer. It was his function to remove the brains from the skulls of all who went by, “as a necessary preparation for immortality.”


The Afterlife


Book Three
Beautiful Losers

An Epilogue in the Third Person
The second chance is the essential criminal idea; it is the lever of heroism, and the only sanctuary of the desperate. But unless it is wrenched from fate, the second chance loses its vitality, and it creates not criminals but nuisances, amateur pickpockets rather than Prometheans.



text checked (see note) Feb 2005

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Background graphic copyright © 2004 by Hal Keen