As part of the 2014 City Arts and Lectures series, Cornell West spoke at the Nourse Theatre in San Francisco on Friday, October 10th. I was excited to finally get the chance to hear him speak and to see him in the flesh. Years ago, when living in Western New York, I drove two hours to see his appearance at SUNY Binghamton, only to find a sold out event and excess throngs of people, both young and old, unable to cram their way into the auditorium. How unusual for a philosopher to attract such crowds, I thought. Could it really be that all of these people are here to listen to a man who writes about nihilism, God and the importance of nurturing the soul? Am I in the wrong place?
I wasn’t in the wrong place. Cornell West excites passionate enthusiasm among a large and wide diversity of readers and admirers; many of them folks who might not otherwise be interested in philosophical thinking or matters of the soul. A good deal of this has to do with his own passion, his authentic spirit and his down-to-earth way of comporting himself. In San Francisco the crowd was large, but not sold out. Nonetheless, it was an adoring audience, filled with young and old people of all colors, many of whom yelled out and muttered appreciatively whenever West made a remark or an observation with which they agreed. One young woman who asked him a question after the end of the talk received a hug from Dr. West, and as we left the auditorium I saw her surrounded by giddy friends, still dreamy-eyed and swooning. This is the sort of adoration normally heaped on music or movie stars. It was refreshing to see an intellectual figure with the charisma and the power of personality to affect youngsters in this way. Maybe there is still some hope for the future!
West was in conversation with Astra Taylor, director of the excellent philosophical documentaries Zizek! and Examined Life. Ostensibly, the topic of conversation was West’s new book, Black Prophetic Fire, but in fact the conversation flowed from one subject to the next, with Dr. West riffing on subjects the way that a jazz musician riffs on musical themes. His wide-ranging comments jumped from observations about historical figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Martin Luther King Jr., to a critique of modern technology, to a meditation on the soulfulness of older forms of music and the soul-lessness of contemporary music. On the one hand, it was an invigorating experience to follow along with the free-flowing movement of West’s thought process. On the other, there were points when I found myself wanting to hear clear and distinct answers to the questions posed by the interviewer and by the audience members. I got the sense that Astra Taylor also, at points, was feeling this way, as she repeatedly tried to get West to answer a particular question, which he repeatedly evaded, about the distinctively “prophetic” nature of the thinkers in his latest book. Nothing ever really came of this, as every time she posed the question West would launch into a passionate monologue about the importance of being soulful that inevitably ended up as a discourse on the topic of music.
But in order to fully appreciate a speaker like Cornell West, I started to realize that I needed to let go and stop expecting clear and systematic answers to the issues and questions, and rather just follow along with the ebb and flow of thought. As his frequent forays into the topic of jazz should have alerted me, West’s thought is more musical than it is argumentative. He picks up on themes and feelings, then runs with whatever connections rush into his mind. And at times these connections bring incredibly provocative insight. For instance, when asked about the power of social media to help bring people together and to move revolutionary movements forward, West suggested that we be careful not to mistake mere “astroturf” for true “grassroots” organizing. The danger of social media, he cautioned is that people become addicted to instant gratification and short, small bits of information. Like an addiction, this can result in the drive for short term pleasure at the expense of the more difficult drive for long-term joy. True joy does not come quickly and easily. It can only be found by being patient, digging deep and nurturing the soul. Social media is superficial, operating at a surface level. The depths of the soul must be plumbed in a different manner; a manner that is found in the music of people like John Coltrane or Billie Holliday. It is here that pain and suffering is transformed into something transcendent and spiritual. But this sort of expression is only made possible by living through the pain of life, meditating deeply on its meaning and significance, and then transforming that suffering into an art form that speaks to others on a fundamental, human level.
Even though I am not a big fan of Colltrane or Holliday, I couldn’t agree more with West’s sentiment. It is a sentiment that I have expressed to students who sometimes dismiss me as an old fuddy-duddy. However, when Cornell West expressed this idea, there was something about him that resonated even with the youngsters sitting in front of us who were fiddling with their I phones. They paused and took notice, somehow being touched by the truth of what was being said.
Most of my life I have had a problem with idealizing the people I admire. Upon meeting my idols, or encountering them in the flesh, they have normally failed to live up to my expectations and hopes. This is my own “twilight of the idols,” my own everyday experience of nihilism. What I am beginning to learn, however, is that this is not really a failing of those that I admire from afar. Rather, it is the result of my own way of thinking. I’m the one who builds up unrealistic expectations by looking for perfection in mere human beings. Listening to speakers like Cornell West in some ways helps me to moderate this tendency in my own thinking by encouraging me to be more patient and to strive harder to understand others on their own terms, rather than on the terms that I myself have established for them. His message that evening at the Nourse Theater – that we should avoid the temptation to seek quick fixes and superficial answers to questions – was not lost on me.