Inicio parte II
West is fond of citing a scene from one of his favorite plays, Tennessee Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire. Blanche DuBois, “the American Hamlet,” in West’s words, is a Southern belle fallen on hard times and forced to move in with her sister and brutish brother-in-law. There she finds solace for a while in the arms of a workingman named Mitch. Only, she poisons the relationship with lies—she calls them “magic”—of a mythical past at odds with the truths of her morbid mind and her years of suffering. Clued in by Stanley, Mitch confronts her, ripping a shade off a lamp to see her in the light of the bare bulb. “That wonderful moment,” West says, one afternoon, widening his eyes and rearing back in a look of horror to play the part of an outraged Mitch: “Let me see who you really are!”
West tells the story with as much sympathy for the deceiver as for the deceived; Blanche no more knows who she really is than Mitch does. “To thine own self be true,” advice given by Polonius to his son in the original Hamlet, is in West’s thinking one of the most fundamental challenges each of us faces. Torn between books and the world, it hasn’t been easy for him.
Around the same time Kierkegaard transformed West’s understanding of religion, the particulars of American history converged to reveal the reality of race in its rawest form: the murder of Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968. That year, the Black Panthers came into West’s life when they opened an office close to West’s church, Shiloh Baptist. West walked over one Saturday after choir practice. “Young black brother? They said, ‘Come on in!’”
West knew the image: the black leather jackets, the berets, most of all the guns. The year before, Bobby Seale had led a contingent of armed Panthers in a march on Sacramento to protest a bill that would outlaw loaded weapons in public. “Looked like a little army,” remembers West. There were guns in the office next to the church, too, guns West was glad for—as much guarantee as could be had that the people gathered there wouldn’t be killed like Martin. “The problem of violence is that it’s often connected to revenge and hatred,” West says now. “But certain forms of violence are tied to love on a deep level. Self-defense is self-love.” The guns, for West, were on the same plane as James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud,” released that year.
But West never took up arms himself. “I could never join because of my Christian faith,” he says. “You had to be an atheist. My whole life as a person on the left, I’ve been saying, I’m with you, but I’m a Christian. I’m with you in part because I’m a Christian. But I’m never fully with you because I’m a Christian.”
The book West that grew from West’s early ’80s talks at Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Church, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, was an attempt to reconcile his twin passions, both of which he saw as fatally flawed in practice, through the lens of blackness. He believes in Marx’s radical critique of capital and empire, but he also believes in God. To West, Marxism without what he calls “the love ethic” is inhumane, just as Christianity without a systemic economic and political analysis is incomplete. And what would blackness contribute? Death; or, to put it another way, the blues, a sensibility both tragic and comic that was lacking in the utopianism of the left and the messianism of religion. American blackness, he hoped, would bring both down to earth by drawing the church into the frontlines for social justice and pushing genuine radicalism—disciplined, patient, and pious, in the Westian sense of “subversive memory,” an ongoing engagement with one’s intellectual ancestors, black and otherwise—into the main currents of American life, or, at least, African-American life.
He published his next major work, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism in 1989. It’s driven by almost lyrical lists of opposites paired, as in his description of pragmatism as a philosophy of “profound insights and myopic blindness” that’s equally the product of America’s revolutionary roots and its history of slavery, our “obsession with mobility” and a longing for fixed rules. The same instinct that leads us to discount theory, philosophy, even the idea of ideas—the anti-intellectualism of American life—is that which drives us toward innovation and the invention of new things. Or, to turn this seemingly fair trade upside down: our talent for technology comes at the cost of the perceptive powers with which we might understand our own creations.
Therein lies the rational miracle of West’s vision of a “prophetic pragmatism.” He takes that last paradox—technological innovation without ideas, invention without the context with which to comprehend—and performs pragmatic ju-jitsu. Whereas academic philosophy seeks either ultimate truths or proof that no such truths are possible, pragmatism “evades” the question, instead trying “to deploy thought as a weapon to enable more effective action.” The super-agents of pragmatism are action-oriented philosophers, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Dewey to West’s own mentor, the late Richard Rorty, thinkers who commit themselves to “continuous cultural commentary,” drawing their ideas from the world as they find it and wrapping those ideas around the circumstances of any given moment. A cultural critic—the label West has come to prefer to “philosopher” or “theologian”—attempts to “explain America to itself.” That explanation is itself an action, an intervention, a heroic attempt at what West calls “American theodicy.”
Theodicy is a term more common to theology than philosophy. It is, essentially, a word for the central question of West’s life, his self-declared obsession: “the problem of evil.” Theodicy asks, “If God”—or simply the universe—“is good, why does he permit evil?” It’s the thorny knot at the heart of the self-help conundrum, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” It’s a risky question, one not easily reconciled with the pragmatic tradition. One possible answer is nihilism; another is sanctimony and self-regard. James H. Cone, the founder of black liberation theology and one of West’s mentors early in his teaching career, cites West’s transformation of the question of theodicy as crucial to the importance of West’s project, prophetic pragmatism. West, he says, locates the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven but in the concrete of the world: “How do you really struggle against suffering in a loving way, to leave a legacy in which people would be able to accent their own loving possibility in the midst of so much evil?”
West calls himself a libertarian, but he’s not the kind who mistakes selfishness for wisdom, the fool who knowingly declares “I got mine and tough luck for you if you don’t.” Libertarianism, in West’s view, is a collective affair. The chains that bind the slave also entrap the slave owner; the prison of poverty requires the affluent to act as wardens. We’re all locked in a box together—and that means that we can only win our freedom to be individuals together. Both slave and slave-owner must free one another and themselves from the framework of slavery, the rigid structures of thought—the matrix, a term present in West’s work long before the movies—that prevent us from imagining a better way of being.
West sees glimmers of that imagination in Barack Obama, but he thinks the new president, like the Panthers years ago, is torn between his best and worst inclinations. “They both got gangsters around ’em,” he says. For the Panthers, it was Eldridge Cleaver and the men who loved bullets more than books; for Obama it’s establishment goons like Larry Summers and his protégé Timothy Geithner. West has a personal beef with Summers, with whom he tangled when he was teaching at Harvard and Summers was the university’s president (Summers was later forced out). But now he sees Summers as simply one more representative of a certain political style. “These folks have no history whatsoever to being fundamentally committed to justice for working people. Nobody else on the team ever thought about defending poor people. Rubinites? No history of it. Arne? In Chicago?” As in Arne Duncan, Obama’s Secretary of Education, who has pledged to run schools like businesses. “Please. Rahm? Please! What are we talking about here? He does not have one figure from the social movements who helped promote his campaign. It’s the typical move of a newcomer who wants to reassure the establishment. ‘Hey, I’m not going to upset you. Please realize your boys are giving me all the advice I need.’”
West campaigned for Obama in Iowa, Ohio, Texas, South Carolina, and all over the airwaves, but it was strange advocacy. He derided change as an empty slogan, reminded anti-war crowds that Obama isn’t anti-war, and warned African Americans against voting for Obama just because he’s black. “I got trashed like I don’t know what. I’d get emails from inside Obama people, ‘You’re hurting the campaign, you’re going to impede the first black man from becoming president with your critique on television, blah, blah, blah.’”
Obama staffers sing West’s praises in public, but in private resentment simmers even now. “Dr. West,” a White House source told me on condition of anonymity, “he would go on, I don’t want to say on a rant, but on a hoop, as we say in the black church. He might say something that if you were writing his comments, you would prefer him not to have said.”
But Obama, West believes, understood. “Because up until the end he’s still allowing me to go to Ohio and do 15 events a day, Cleveland 14 events, Columbus 14 events. He knew I had some ability to bring folk in. With Barack, you got a brilliant and clever strategist, and I’m always suspicious of strategists. It’s the distinction between the quest for truth vs. the quest for power. My calling is Socratic”—asking tough questions. “His calling is one of running the country”—delivering answers broad enough to satisfy the majority of people most of the time, truth be damned at least some of the time.
“I think he has progressive potential. But it will be events that push him. The irony is we’re now living in age of Obama and Barack Obama may be reluctant to step into his own age. We got to help him do it.”
I ask him if, given the chance, he’d take a White House job to help Obama in that direction. It’s late in the evening and we’re picking at desserts after dinner and five hours of conversation. West startles for the first time, his brow furrowing, his eyes narrowing. He looks like I’ve just called him an Uncle Tom.
“That’s not my calling!” he says, rebuke in his voice. Then he softens, laughing to himself. “Yeah, brother, you find me in a crackhouse before you find me in the White House. I’ll go into the crackhouse before I ever go that far inside.”
The last time a Democrat took the White House, West almost gave up on America. “I was ready to go,” he says. Ready to leave behind two decades of radical activism and writing during a political “ice age,” ready to leave behind two failed marriages. It was January 1993, Bill Clinton’s inauguration: West watched it from the other side of the world, in his adopted homeland, Ethiopia. He’d moved there with his third wife, Elleni, Ethiopian royalty, after a fashion, a direct descendent of the modern nation’s founder.
“Brother Lerner,” he told Rabbi Michael Lerner, with whom he was working on a book of black-Jewish dialogues, “I may not be coming back.”
“I understood the attraction,” says Lerner, a longtime activist like West who’d considered making aliyah to Israel. “Being in a society where you’re not a minority, where there’s a possibility of being more regular, less bizarre. We discussed it many times, the possibility of him staying there, a life with his wife, a princess, made him feel like he was not going to be an outsider. Cornel is a very lonely person. For a long time, I thought I was his best friend,” says Lerner. “But he had probably about 1,000 best friends. He was best friends with everybody. That made him more isolated. It was more like he had a whole lot of one-night stands. Not sexual, of course, but in terms of intimacy. People would fall in love with him, and I believe he genuinely fell in love with them. It was such a series of people and so many, that you couldn’t possibly–there was no depth to those friendships. So much intensity, but no depth.” Lerner isn’t calling West shallow. He believes West is one of the most profound thinkers he’s ever encountered. “West has a prophetic consciousness,” he says, language no honest rabbi dispenses lightly.
But that’s the trouble. When West speaks of love, he means it in the biblical sense of the prophets. “Hesed,” he tells me one evening in Princeton, the Hebrew word for “lovingkindness.” “Steadfast commitment to the wellbeing of others, especially the least of these,” West says. That demands a lot of love, but West doesn’t stop there. “Justice is what love looks like in public.” For him, justice is not vengeance but fairness; the respect he believes should be accorded every soul. “And democracy,” he continues, “is what justice looks like in practice.” That is, a society where there is justice—a vast, public lovingkindness—for all.
West is steadfastly anti-utopian. He thinks perfectionist illusions drive both religion and radicalism to murderous ends. He knows that love for all is a hopeless cause, that thus justice is a hopeless cause, too. Democracy? Not a chance. It’s a blues dream of a jazz impossibility.
But still, he can’t help dreaming. I ask West why he came back to America. His marriage was fading—“it’s hard to pursue a vocation and have a high quality relationship,” he says—but his star was rising, as Race Matters turned into a bestseller and he became a different kind of royalty at home in America. “Cornel West became ‘Cornel West’,” as his former student Eddie Glaude puts it.
West’s answer, though, is both more personal and more abstract. “Two reasons,” he says. “My mother”—West’s father died in 1994—“and the music.” The Whispers, The Stylistics, and The Dramatics; Curtis, Marvin, and Aretha; Sinatra, Sassy, and Coltrane. “In the end, as a bluesman, as a jazzman, it’s about the life that you live that is artistically and musically shaped. And you can do that in the academy, you can do it on the street, you can do it in the library, you can do that on the basketball court, you can do it in the nightclub.”
You can even do it in America. In fact, for West, you must. Simple opposition—to racism, to oppression, to American empire—is no more an option in his mind than submission. “I’m for the revitalization of democratic possibility within the empire,” he says. “I’m still part of the American grain.”
West is sometimes criticized from the left as a reformer rather than a revolutionary. There is a sense in which that is a radical understatement. West is a conservative, in the truest, oldest sense. He’s inspired by Giambattista Vico, an 18th century Italian philosopher who in his New Science—his attempt to construct a theory of almost everything—pointed to the common roots of “human” and the Latin humando, which means “burying.” To be a scholar of the humanities—to be human—is to begin with the dead, to see that our futures are linked to our pasts, to acknowledge, deep in our bones, the truth of our own dying selves, “from womb to tomb,” West says.
For him, this is a present fact. Several years ago, he was diagnosed with Stage IV prostate cancer, given just months to live. Instead, he has thrived. But the cancer isn’t gone, merely “contained.” Then again, that’s the way it’s always been for him. One day, in the midst of a riff on some of his heroes, Richard Pryor and Toni Morrison, Malcolm and Martin, he comes to an abrupt halt. It’s the death shudder. Imperceptible if he didn’t tell me, just a pause, a consideration of what unites them all. “It’s always there,” he says, and he’s grateful for it; the death shudder makes him glad to be alive. “Wrestling with death,” he writes, “not simply as some event that’s going to happen to you at the end of your life, but calling into question certain assumptions and presuppositions that you had before you arrived—that’s learning how to die.” That, for West, is the beginning of freedom. “To learn how to die in this way is to learn how to live.”
There’s something almost funny about that paradox. Not funny “ha ha” but funny like the blues, the absurdity of a situation—from slavery to segregation to a simple broken heart—so painful that the bitter laugh of the blue note becomes resistance to suffering. “Subversive joy,” West says. It’s an American tradition, John Coltrane’s jazz and Bessie Smith’s growl, the deepest rhymes of hip-hop and even the wisdom of dead white men. “The impassioned odes to democratic possibility in Walt Whitman,” West writes in Democracy Matters, “the dark warnings of imminent self-destruction in Herman Melville.”
Consider Moby-Dick, he says one evening at a bar across the street from his office. It’s the quintessential American novel, and look how it ends: the whaling ship dashed to smithereens, crazy Ahab gone beneath the sea, and only the narrator, Ishmael, left alive, clinging to a coffin in the whirlpool that has swallowed them all. “Most critical,” says West, hunching forward and giving me a great, gaptoothed grin, waiting for me to catch up. “The raft,” he says, running his fingers along the edge of the table, nudging me toward his favorite kind of ending, tragic and comic at the same time. “The coffin constitutes a raft. He’s spared to tell the tale.”
© 2009 Jeff Sharlet. A version of this article appeared in the May 28, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone.