Beautiful Losers: Lives of the Saints
For the third time in my life as an ageing child of the sixties, I am reading Beautiful Losers.
The pyrotechnics of this much-acclaimed, maniacally experimental novel obscure the shocking truths it is woven around.
A hidden holocaust
MKULTRA mind control
Nazi experiments on human beings, in particular children
Cohen peppers the novel with references to this tragic story, but uses these horrors as comic triggers. The reader zigzags between heaven and hell, as the amphetamine-gulping narrator gropes for a missing moral centre in a world that has exploded.
When we read it in the sixties, we were shocked, thrilled and titillated. But, as Bob Dylan says, “Things have changed.”
Read in the light of what we know now about the classified goings-on at McGill during the years preceding the writing of this bizarre roman-a-clef, it tends to seem tragic.
Maybe there was even comedy at Auschwitz. I wouldn’t be surprised there were clowns in the barracks, loved for their ability to get a laugh out of the dying and soon-to-be-dead.
Human soap turns up several times in Beautiful Losers, as well. It’s one of those standards of holocaust humour, I guess.
Human soap is really the lighter side of Mengele’s experiments. Almost a euphemism for crimes so unspeakable they are never discussed. Thus the truth slips into the yawning abyss of amnesia, and a whole new generation of mind-controlled patriots are preparing to follow their leaders into Armageddon.
Still — in the light of the documents sitting in Washington, and all that has appeared on the internet and elsewhere over the last few years, as child victims recover their memories and voices and begin to publish their accounts of CIA torture, funded by our governments — Beautiful Losers seems strangely relevant today.
Part of it is set in a Montreal mental hospital, after all, during the days when MKULTRA was running amok in that city.
Other parts are set in the past, when Jesuit missionaries ran equally amok among the Hurons and Montagnais in Quebec. The absent heroine of Beautiful Losers is Katherine Tekakwitha, a Mohawk saint, who survived the smallpox that killed off most of her tribe, and ended up dying as a result of her conversion to Catholicism.
There are references to the orphanage where the narrator, and his mentor F., were raised, and introduced to various forms of rampant abuse.
Leonard was barely thirty when he penned this epic, fuelled by amphetamines and perhaps just a trace of rage, which he disguises behind comedy.
Reading it now, it’s fairly obvious that Leonard knew quite a lot about Ewen Cameron and MKULTRA and the secret experiments on children, including First Nations children, at McGill. He also knew what happened to people who talked too openly about what they knew.
But how much did he know? Perhaps Beautiful Losers was written from bits and pieces of information Cohen heard, and cobbled together into a novel. Perhaps he did not directly witness these horrors, which he recounts in a hallucinatory stream of consciousness manner — after all, it was 1966, he had done LSD, and read The Lamp of Albion Moonlight,by Kenneth Patchen, a novel some say inspired this one
But hallucinations alone — even very well-informed hallucinations — don’t account for the parallels between the events described in Beautiful Losers, and the real, secret goings-on in behavioural labs at the Allan Memorial Institute, hub of secret CIA experiments on various hapless mental patients, and children.
The Nazi connection, which Cohen flirts with but does not develop, is plain to anyone, and now backed up by thousands of pages of declassified CIA documents. Not that those documents mention children, of course. If they did, my generation would have grown up a lot more quickly. We would have stopped believing in fairy tales a long time ago.
There are no documents that survived past 1973, when CIA director Stansfield Turner ordered his staff to shred every piece of evidence relating to one of the ugliest research programs ever to grace the halls of learning.
But Leonard Cohen mentions them in BEAUTIFUL LOSERS. Oh, not too directly, of course, but he alludes to orphans and pedophile scientists and priests, and paints a picture of a world that, back in those days, seemed like the fantasy product of a mind wasted by drugs.
Cohen, the whistleblower, twanging his Jews’ harp in the ruins of what used to be called The Free World.
Cohen the sly operative, shrewdly estimating the limits of what he could say in print. He knew if he told the simple truth, it would not be believed.
And he was right. Not ONE critic ever got the message. No one connected the obvious dots, or followed the trail of breadcrumbs that Leonard dropped for us in the woods. If they had, the trail would have led to the witch’s door, and straight to the oven.
It’s 40 years since Beautiful Losers was first published in 1996. And it’s time for us to reread it, with a copy of John Marks’ The Making of the Manchurian Candidate by our bedside, and our browsers poised to search for real, true stories of the orphans, children, First Nations children, pedophile priests, cynical politicians, and Nazi doctors… all of whom populate the pages of Beautiful Losers.
In mythic form, of course.
Is it surprising that I’ve tunnelled through libraries for news about victims?
Fictional victims! all the victims we ourselves do not murder of imprison…” p. 7
Still a brilliant literary diversion, this tour de force of style and showmanship is built on the bodies of the “fictional” victims whose graves Leonard graces with a book-length epitaph.
“I’ve poisoned the air, I’ve lost my erection.
Is it because I’ve stumbled on the truth about Canada?
City Fathers, kill me, for I have talked too much.” p. 37
Recently in an interview, Cohen called Beautiful Losers a long “prayer.” Strange, how religion tends to blur distinctions and wipe out memory: much like those drugs MKULTRA was giving out to all and sundry. I hope you’ll go out and find an old copy, or buy the new edition, and decide for yourself.