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There's a stanza in Leonard Cohen's "You Want It Darker" that goes like this:

They're lining up to prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggle with some demons
They were middle class and tame
I didn't know I had permission
To murder and to maim
You want it darker

Hineni, hineni
I'm ready, my Lord

The beginning of the verse and the end seem very related; it seems to be talking about mass killings of prisoners such as was done during the Holocaust. The middle two lines, though, seem a little different; they're talking about "demons" who are "middle class" and "tame".

What's this line referring to, and how does it fit with the theme of the rest of the verse?

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2 Answers 2

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What does "I struggled with some demons; they were middle-class and tame" actually mean?

It could mean a lot of things, but one thing that it could mean is that the narrator struggled with some moral dilemma — should he do something or should he resist because it's wrong? Here, the metaphorical "demons" would be on the side of doing it.

And "permission to murder and to maim" trumps any "middle-class and tame" moral dilemma.

What does this really mean? Here's my interpretation: Leonard Cohen is contrasting the narrator with the guards — while the narrator has struggled over whether or not to commit much less heinous acts, the guards are killing the prisoners dispassionately, without experiencing any moral qualms.

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I think that @petershor had it almost right, but not exactly:

"Having demons" usually means "struggling with something" - fear, anguish, guilt etc. In my opinion, the narrator is fighting with his own demons, his own sense that he is not trying to stop the injustice of killing the prisoners; the guilty conscience of being passive.

But those demons instead of pushing him to do something against further murders are just at worst mildly annoying (tame) and push him to reaction that you could expect from someone from the middle-class, which is not doing anything that would endanger your own status, except maybe some half-hearted comments, which are quickly silenced - if God is not doing anything, then I guess you/the guards have permission to "murder and maim", just like in the fragment earlier "A million candles burning/ For the help that never came".

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