Decline of the West

December 2, 2009

Ten years ago, in the final pages of a collection of his selected writings, Cornel West gave readers a look at the work he had in progress, or at least in mind, for the years ahead. One would be “a major treatment of African-American literature and modern Greek literature.” Another was “a meditation on Chekhov and Coltrane that delves into the distinctive conceptions of the tragic in American civilization and of the comic in Russian civilization.” He would be writing an intellectual autobiography “modeled on black musical forms.” Nor had he given up on plans to complete a study of David Hume. There would also be a book on Josiah Royce.

West described his projects as “bold,” “challenging” and “exciting.” These are adjectives, it must be said, better left in someone else’s hands. But the books did sound interesting, and I looked forward to them – especially the one on Royce. In recent years, whenever West released an album of vocal stylings or appeared in a sequel to The Matrix, I would think, “Maybe he’s finally gotten that out of his system and will go back to work on The Spirit of Modern Philosophy.” (Royce was stressing the importance of Hegel's Phenomenology back when Kojève was just a gleam in his daddy's eye.)

I have been following West since the early 1980s, when his papers were appearing in journals such as Social Text, Boundary 2, and Cultural Critique, as well as the occasional issue of The Village Voice. His first three monographs were interesting if not definitive. More appealing in a lot of ways are the two volumes called Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, published by Common Courage in 1993, which I have turned to a few times over the years for a shot of energy; the lectures and essays reprinted there are West at his best, shifting between theoretical and vernacular vocabularies in a way that suggests a fusion of Dialectic of Enlightenment and Democratic Vistas by way of Run DMC.

Cornel West’s work was once bold, challenging, exciting. The past tense here is unavoidable. His critical edge and creative powers might yet be reborn (he is 56). But in the wake of his latest book, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, this hope requires a considerable leap of faith. Published by Hay House, the book also bears a second subtitle: “A Memoir.” It is the most disappointing thing I have read in at least a year.

This is not the intellectual autobiography West promised a decade ago. In essence it is a fawning celebrity profile -- one in which reporter and superstar have somehow fused into a single first-person voice. And in fact that turns out to be quite literally true. In the final pages, West pays tribute to David Ritz, his collaborator, who has undertaken similar projects with Marvin Gaye and Grandmaster Flash, among others.

“David Ritz and I have worked together to sculpt a voice that I hear as my own,” explains West, or someone trying to sound like him. “Many of my other books were written in what I consider an ‘academic voice.’ Brother West is rendered in a ‘conversational’ voice.”

In this respect, of course, the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University is following the lead of David Hume – who, after writing A Treatise of Human Nature, published numerous very popular essays with the help of a writer from Entertainment Weekly.

The problem, to be clear, is not that this is meant to be is a popular book, or even that West himself could not be bothered to write it. Brother West offers much evidence that amour propre and self-knowledge are not the same thing. One tends to be in conflict with the other. A memoir will often show traces of the struggle between them.

Not so here. That battle is plainly over. Self-knowledge has been taken hostage, and amour propre curdled into self-infatuation.

One whole page at the start of the book reads as follows:

I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind, and a jazzman in the world of ideas. -- Cornel West

It will not be the reader’s last encounter with this sentiment. West repeats it at least a few dozen more times -- never with any variation or development. (Clearly this is minimalist jazz: West plays one note, then goes up half a step, then back again.) The rich history of writing by African-American intellectuals -- the essays by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Amiri Baraka, to make the list no longer than that -- has left no discernible trace on this book. Some of West's own work from the 1980s suggests he has thoughts on that tradition, as well as capacity to contribute to it. But here we are just reminded every so often that he likes to think of himself as a performer. This is not enlightening.

The broad outlines of West's life are interesting enough. His family lived in California, along the edge between the ghetto and the lower middle class. As a teenager in the 1960s he had one foot planted in the church and the other at Black Panther Party headquarters. His academic career started with getting his B.A. from Harvard in three years, then picked up speed. He has had bestsellers. His love life sounds complicated enough to merit an HBO mini-series.

But all of this is just penciled in. There is seldom much detail and never any depth. West makes a few references to academic mentors. He notes his intense interest in various philosophers or authors. Yet there is never a sustained effort to grapple with them as influences on his life and thinking. He mentions his own scholarly books on Marxism and pragmatism (for some odd reason forgetting that he also published one on African-American theology) but does not describe the process of thinking and writing that went into them.

That is not to say that Brother West fails to discuss authorship at all. You catch glimpses of its joys as rendered in the clunky prose of his collaborator: "I like seeing Race Matters translated into Japanese, Italian, and Portuguese. I like seeing The American Evasion of Philosophy translated into Chinese, Spanish, and Italian. I like that there are hundreds of thousands of copies of my book Democracy Matters translated into Spanish. There’s also an edition that’s selling in the French-speaking world. I like the fact that all nineteen of my books are still in print with the exception of the two that won the American Book Award in 1993.”

If sketchy in other regards, Brother West is never anything but expansive on how Cornel West feels about Cornel West. He is deeply committed to his committed-ness, and passionately passionate about being full of passion. Various works of art, literature, music, and philosophy remind West of himself. He finds Augustinian humility to be deeply meaningful. This is mentioned in one sentence. His taste for three-piece suits is full of subtle implications that require a couple of substantial paragraphs to elucidate.

As mentioned, his romantic life sounds complicated. Brother West is a reminder of Samuel Johnson’s description of remarriage as the triumph of hope over experience. One paragraph of musings following his third divorce obliged me to put the book down and think about things for a long while. Here it is:

“The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high -- and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”

No doubt this is meant to be inspirational. It is at any rate exemplary. Rendered more or less speechless, I pointed the passage out to my wife.

She looked it over and said, “Any woman who reads this needs to run in the opposite direction when she sees him coming.”

Returning to the book, I found, just a few pages later, that West was getting divorced for a fourth time. Seldom does reader response yield results that prove so empirically verifiable.

The longest episode narrated in Brother West is its account of the conflict with Larry Summers, then president of Harvard University, starting in October 2001. West reports that Summers began their now-legendary meeting by indicating that they should join forces against the neoconservative Harvard prof Harvey Mansfield.

“Help me f___ him up,” said Summers (according to West, says his quasi-ghostwriter).

West had recently released his first hip hop CD, so perhaps Summers thought this would put him at ease. Not so. West says he made clear to Summers that his feeling for Mansfield was collegial.

With popping a cap in a fellow faculty member’s ass now off the table, the exchange then took the form that has now become famous, culminating in Summers’ demand that West make himself available for fortnightly meetings to evaluate his grades and publication plans.

“If you think that I’m going to trot in here every two weeks to be monitored like a miscreant graduate student,” West says he said, “I’m afraid, my brother, that you’ve messed with the wrong brother.”

As the conflict continued to escalate -- ultimately leading to West’s departure for Princeton -- he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He has been in treatment and is on the mend. Meanwhile, alas, West has not published a single one of the books he said he was working on 10 years ago. The last one before Brother West was a collection of inspirational passages that is usually shelved in the self-help section.

I would much prefer to think that all of this is a matter of his life being in turmoil throughout this decade, rather than Larry Summers being right about anything. But the painful truth is that West's work has grown ever less substantial over time. He has gone from being a public intellectual into a mere celebrity -- someone well-known for being well-known. Brother West marks the extremity of that process.

Legend has it that the blues guitarist Robert Johnson acquired his haunting style by selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. West, as a “bluesman of the life of the mind,” has clearly also been to the crossroads. The devil gave him a team of publicists. I don't think this was a good bargain on West's part. It left him unable to recognize that self-respect is often the enemy of self-esteem.

But where there’s life, there’s hope. West might eventually tear up the contract. Perhaps the professorial bluesman should take his own trope seriously and undergo a long period of what jazz musicians call "woodshedding."

The woodshed is where you retire with your instrument. You practice and practice -- and then you practice some more -- and eventually something happens. You reconnect with the instrument. Your fingers shape the sound in a fresh way. In the woodshed you don’t think about the audience, because there isn’t one, apart from the crickets and termites, who don’t much care and aren’t going to be impressed in any case.

It is clearly time for Cornel West to take himself to the woodshed -- and not for a weekend either. He needs to perform for the crickets for a good long while, until he finds something new and meaningful to play. His greatest gift to the public and to himself might be to ignore both for as long as possible.

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