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

They're lining up the prisoners
And the guards are taking aim
I struggled 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?


3 Answers 3


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".


First, let me correct the OP's quote. According to the official video, the line is

I struggled with some demons; they were middle-class and tame,

with "struggled" in the past tense.

So what does this line actually mean actually mean?

It could mean a lot of things, but what I think it means is that at some time in the past, 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 now he sees the prisoners killing the guards, which is a much more evil thing to do than whatever moral dilemma was that the narrator struggled with; "permission to murder and to maim" trumps any "middle-class and tame" moral dilemma. So Leonard Cohen is contrasting the narrator with the guards, saying that the guards have no moral compass whatsoever.


I think Leonard Cohen is saying that his struggles and those of Messianic Jews are significantly more difficult than anything that Satan’s demons can bring.

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    Please explain why you think that.
    – bobble
    Commented Dec 9, 2022 at 15:15
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    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 0:50

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