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I understand that some of Cohen's songs have religious context, so when I heard the lyrics of this song that stated, "You strike my side by accident," I thought it could be symbolism of Jesus being stabbed in his side on the cross. Does Cohen have a specific speaker for this song, or is it left to individual interpretation? If there is no specific speaker, what are some speakers that make sense with the symbolism in the song?

A significant piece of the lyrics:

Well I stepped into an avalanche
It covered up my soul;
When I am not this hunchback that you see
I sleep beneath the golden hill
You who wish to conquer pain
You must learn, learn to serve me well

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold
The cripple here that you clothe and feed
Is neither starved nor cold;
He does not ask for your company
Not at the centre, the centre of the world

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    This is a great question. Welcome to the site. We hope you stick around.
    – user111
    May 7, 2017 at 21:44

2 Answers 2

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I'll try tackle this one, though I should preface that Cohen's lyrics are often impressionistic, combining different motifs without one specific meaning. For example, "Hallelujah" - perhaps his most famous song - combines different Biblical stories (David, Samson) freely, not being easily mapped to one single character.

This song combines different motifs, too. Your interpretation of "you strike my side by accident" could well be correct. This song appears to be partly in the voice of the soul entering the world (the "Avalanche"), partly in the voice of the Deity, and partly in the voice of a scorned lover.

Here is a good thread discussing these and other aspects of the song, such as Gnosticism. Here is some more from Quora. This is an academic paper discussing, inter alia, Cohen's original poem that this song was based on. (I've tried to summarise these sources in this answer, but they are worth reading for further depth.)

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  • I have not run across the academic paper yet, so I will check that out. Thank you!
    – Kristina L
    May 8, 2017 at 13:41
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The song can be interpreted as coming from a personification of Earth itself. In a regular avalanche, a human is buried under earth. Cohen flips this around to describe how the Earth has been buried and smothered by human civilization.

You strike my side by accident
As you go down for your gold

This stanza is a perfect illustration of my interpretation. When humans dig deep underground to mine for gold, we strike at the Earth itself. Of course, this line is also an allusion to the soldier who struck his spear into Jesus on the Cross. But in Steer Your Way, Cohen also compared the Crucifixion to the strip-mining of mountains: "They whisper still, the injured stones / The blunted mountains weep / As he died to make men holy / Let us die to make things cheap."

I've written an essay that examines the full lyrics, arguing for this interpretation: Leonard Cohen's Avalanche is a song about Earth.

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    And Cohen's line in Steer Your Way also echoes Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic: "As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 25 at 17:44

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