Category Archives: Religious Quest in the Modern Age

The Chocolate Side of life

 

The first time I heard Cornel West speak was at the University of Winnipeg in 2015. He pulled no punches in describing the American system of criminal justice “racist.” “I got too much white supremacy inside of me. I got too much homophobia inside of me.”

West pointed out that in America 65% of convictions are against blacks who make up about 20% of the population. Is that not very similar to the situation of indigenous people in this  country. How is it possible to deny that such a criminal justice system is racist? “If you don’t speak out against such injustice the rocks are going to cry out,” West said. He saw that speaking out against such injustice is part of the prophetic system of which he is a part.

When West at the university, he said that every 28 hours for the last 7 years (since 2015) a black or brown man, woman, or child in America was murdered by the police or private security guard services. That is based on a devaluing of black life in America. He pointed out that is true even though we have a black President in the United States with a black Attorney General. During that time not one policeman was sent to jail. Not one. Is that justice?

He said he made that statement because he wants to be an honest man. Of course, Canada, and in particular Manitoba, is much worse than that with its indigenous population.

When I heard him speak in Arizona a few years later, West said, “I have been subtly shaped by the chocolate side of life.” That point of view coloured his speaking out in the prophetic tradition which he gleaned from the Old Testament.  All that was part of his religious quest.

Speaking out against injustice can be a vital part of a religious quest; keeping silent not so much.

Tragic Wisdom of Cornel West

 

In my last post I talked about Cornel West’s tragic vision which was enriched by the poetry of Giacomo Leopardi who wanted to find truth for the sweet ship-wrecked mind. I also mentioned in that post that the philosopher Jeff Sharlet talked about his friend Cornel West. Sharlet talked about how West maintains optimism when, as West himself has said, “we are immersed in a culture of superficial spectacle that generates weapons of mass destruction?” That is a bleak view.

 

How can West remain optimistic in the face of it? West according to Sharlet said “hope is not predicated on the future getting any better. That is the difference between hope and optimism.” West reminds us that he comes from a people that were terrorized, stigmatized, and traumatized for 400 years! They have learned a lot about trauma and know a thing or two about dealing with.

 

West, who is proudly African American, pointed out that it would have been natural for slaves in such a position to lose hope.  He did not say there was an easy way out. As if there could be an easy way out of slavery. West said many of his people just decided they would live a life of honesty, decency and integrity no matter what happened. They took the position that this is what they are called here to do and said to themselves we will just do it. They had no choice. They were not “immigrants” to North America as Ben Carson suggested.  They had been brought to this continent in the most brutal way imaginable. This reminds me again of my mother who had a little framed saying on her wall in her small apartment she lived in before she died: “This is all I have so this is all I need.”

 

West says he tries to emulate that response to injustice even when it seems impenetrable. Sometimes there is nothing he can do about it.  Whether there are consequences that flow from that choice to make this a better a world or not is beyond his control. He will just do his part no matter what. What a great attitude. “There does not have to be a direct connection between being a decent person and there being more decency prevalent in the world,” West told Sharlet.  Sometimes In some moments in history things happen that we cannot control it. That does not mean we should not choose to live a decent life. We just dissent from the injustice if that is all we can do.

 

West said he learned a lot from the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who West calls the greatest literary artist of the late modern world. According to West’s interpretation, “Chekhov said it is just a matter of bearing your truth to the world and doing all you can in your brief journey from Mama’s womb to tomb. We should try to pass that on to the next generation.”

 

West also warned that we might be headed towards an environmental implosion. Corporate greed (fueled by individual demands)  makes it difficult to have a conversation about important issues. If there is no way to fundamentally overthrow or transform the greed of oligarchs and plutocrats, supported by their minions,  and if the patriarchy wants to continue to obliterate women, if straights want to continue to dominate the gays and lesbians and transsexuals, they will do that. I don’t have to be a part of that he says. I can resist. I might not change the world, but I can be a decent person if I choose to be one. The white world can continue to be hegemonic and racist, our mistreatment of indigenous peoples can carry on, but let them carry it on without us. As West said to Sharlet, “I still want to be a person who fights against the period, and I want to fight with others, and if we lose so be it.”  We have no guarantees. What an inspiring thoughtful man! As an indigenous woman at the University of Winnipeg where I heard West speak, told him, “you uplift my spirit.”

 

T.S. Eliot was according to West a right-wing ideologue. But he acknowledged, that even right-wing ideologues have to be right once in awhile. Eliot got it right when he said, in the Quartets, “Ours is in the trying. The rest is not our business.” We are only here to bear witness and to try as much as we can. Or as Samuel Becket said, “Try again. Fail Again. Fail Better.”

 

West, who also said he wants to teach people how to die, asked us to consider what people will say about us. At our funeral will they say we failed?  We made misjudgments. We made mistakes. Hopefully they will see we tried, we held on, we did the best we could. As West said, “We are not pure, but will we lead a trail behind us of integrity, honesty, decency?  If so we have not really failed at all.”

 

To Cornel West resistance to evil is a religious imperative.  He always comes back to religion. He does not waste time talking to us about a personal relationship to Jesus. Instead, he says this is a world of overwhelming oppression, deception, insults, attacks, and brute force repression but will we resist? That is what it is all about for West. We have to rebel against it. But that’s enough. It is enough.

 

The Mind’s Sweet Shipwreck

 

The American philosopher Jeff Sharlet described an encounter with Cornel West in his own office. West told him that many people read and took spiritual nourishment from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  There is nothing wrong with  that he said but people should go deeper than that. He thought Steinbeck let the reader off too easy. I admit I loved that book, but he made an interesting point.  Did he let us off too easy? I don’t think so but maybe I need to reread that classic? West  recommended instead the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher revered in Italy but little read in the U.S—“he starts with what he calls, ‘The mind’s sweet shipwreck.’ To which West added, “ Ain’t that a beautiful phrase?” Sharlet told how in West’s office West was digging through his books to make a point about Leopardi and finally found the book he was looking for. This is how Sharlet told the story:

“Leopardi should be the poet of our times… West prescribes Brother Leopardi for “deep-sea diving of the soul,” a process’s not just personal but essential to understanding “the paradox of human freedom”: that we must summon the strength to resist and endure oppression even as we acknowledge that we are ultimately weak in the face of death and despair. “We are organisms of desire.” West defines the human condition, “whose first day of birth makes us old enough to die.”

 

“Now, this, this is the greatest one,” West says, getting a page of Leopardi’s poems and looking at me with giant poem eyes as if to communicate the gravity of the words in his hand, the necessity of their immediate recitation.  He resumes rocking and reading:

That man has a truly noble nature
Who, without flinching, still can face
Our common plight, tell the truth
With an honest tongue,
Admit the evil lot we’ve been given
And the abject, impotent condition we’re in;
Who shows himself great and full of grace
Under pressure.…

 

West closes his book and stands still. His head shakes back and forth with admiration. That’s too polite a word for the emotion flooding over him: it’s relief, gratitude.”

To know the wretchedness of who we are,” he says. “Yet the fact that we know it, is itself a noble thing, because that kind of knowledge means we can know a whole lot of other things.”

 

The minds may be ship-wrecked but it can achieve knowledge. Sacred knowledge of truth.  That truth can set one free. It won’t be easy but will be free. I call that tragic vision. That is what the religious quest is all about. Seeking truth when it is hard.

 

Prophetic Pragmatism and the Problem of Evil

 

Brother West had a unique answer to the problem of evil. The problem of evil for those who are not familiar with the argument goes something like this:

 

  1. God is all-knowing
  2. God is all- powerful
  3. God is all- loving
  4. Evil Exists
  5. Therefore God does not exist

 

I first heard of the problem of evil when I was 17 years old in 1967. It was an incredible year in my life. I finished high school. I travelled with 4 buddies to Expo 67 in Montreal with my summer wages that were intended to put me through first year of University (most of which disappeared on that memorable trip) and I went to University. My life changed forever.

1967 started with a trip to the University of Manitoba courtesy of our High School. It was part of an introduction to the university offered by the University of Manitoba to all grade 12 students who had an interest in it. I did and I went.

I went to 2 classes. One of them I have entirely forgotten. The other one I remember vividly to this day.  We were “taught” the problem by Professor Arthur Schafer who had recently returned to Manitoba from Oxford University. He said he would prove to us that God did not exist.  Then he presented the argument brilliantly and then fended off all counter arguments from the mostly horrified grade 12 students. It was scintillating. I was mesmerized. I was hooked. I wanted to study philosophy and could hardly wait to graduate.

The best version of that argument that  I have read or heard since was presented by Dostoevsky in the wonderful novel Brothers Karamazov. I intend to go there on a future part of my religious quest in the modern age. West too dealt with the problem of evil.

 

Brother West is a Christian.  But he does not deny evil. Nor does he shrink from it.  We must accept that there is evil in the world and it is real and must be faced. That is fundamental West philosophy though it has not shattered his faith. In fact, it has deepened his faith. Faith that does not acknowledge evil to West is unreal faith. It is fake faith. It is at best comforting illusion and West wants no part of illusions. He wants the hard task of confronting evil. Just like he wants to confront death and says the most important thing to learn is to learn how to die. That is what he wants to teach to his students—how to die.

Brother West is a man of many parts.  A Renaissance man in other words. He is part philosopher, part theologian, or professor, or bluesman. Sometimes he calls himself a “cultural critic” By that he means a man “who tries to explain America to itself.” He has also called that American theodicy an odd expression but by that he means a man concerned about a “central obsession, the problem of evil.  If God exists, why does he or she permit evil? One of West’s mentors, James H. Cone, said that this idea was the fundamental concept in West’s own spiritual quest. According to Cone, West explores the problem of theodicy not in the abstract of heaven nor in the abstract of philosophical debate, but rather in the concrete here and now of the world around him.  He asks: “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?”

As I said earlier, West calls his philosophy prophetic  pragmatic. West does not consider the problem of evil from the perspective of trying to prove that God does not exist. Rather he tries to figure out how do we live in a world with evil and yet maintain not just our faith, but our obligations to others?

Learning how to Die

 

Cornel West is also a University  Professor. He teaches religion and philosophy.  He says he tells his students the first day of each year that he is there to teach them how to die. Can you imagine a professor saying that?  I would have been blown away.

 

In America our life is based on a sentimental denial of death. So many Americans (and of course Canadians are just as guilty) are unable to face uncomfortable truths.  Whether it is race or oppression people don’t want to know the uncomfortable truths. And it is exactly the uncomfortable truths that we need the most West said,

“I teach students how to die. The first time students come to my class I tell them you are here to learn how to die. Plato talks about philosophy as wisdom being learning how to die. When you have dogma there is no growth—that is death. There is no shift in your attention from the superficial to the substantial without death. Only that way can you avoid the mainstream which suffers from so much spiritual malnutrition. In the mainstream you end up well adjusted to injustice. No matter how many toys you have. No matter how big your house you end up well adapted to indifference.”

 

 

According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature.

 

West says that there are many ways to die.

 

“One is what he calls civic death—being part of a civil society but not its public life. That is what happened to blacks with Jim and Jane Crow. You can work for us, you can entertain us, you can titillate us, but you cannot be part of the civic body.

Or it could be psychic death as when our sisters are subject to male domination or gays and lesbians are subject to tyranny: dehumanized, dishonoured and devalued. The same is for the working classes. They are also dehumanized. Reduced to costs and calculations as your job goes to China. Who cares about your humanity? You are only useful to the degree to which you can make us money.

And then there is spiritual death where you just give up. Make your way to the crack house. Or sell your soul for a mess of porridge.”

 

According to West, trying to live a safe life can be one way to die. West argues like Martin Heidegger did:

“Human” comes from “Humando” which means burial. We are beings-toward-death. The journey from Mama’s womb to tomb is fast.  The question is what sort of human being will you be in that short time from Mama’s womb to tomb in a predatory capitalism civilization …that gives titillation and instant gratification as opposed to deep caring and nurturing…people want to live in some safe and secure suburb instead of what Samuel Beckett called “the mess” which is life.”

 

 

West asks us to consider this: What are they going to say about that person in the coffin? What will they say about you when you are in that coffin?  That is what it means to be human. Blacks in America have learned to look unflinchingly at death, he says. 242 years of social death without any social standing will do that. Just like the American constitution which refers to aboriginal people as “savages,” in order for the mainstream to feel good about itself. That is a form of social death too. “You don’t come to any intimate terms with what it means to be human unless you are on intimate terms with death.

You have to wrestle with it the way Jacob wrestled with the angel of death.”  to learn to die you have to learn to deal with such questions West claims. For him the religious quest is a quest for death, or perhaps, a quest for the good death.

Deep Joy: Loving  and Loving Out Loud

 

Cornel West made living part of his religious quest in the modern age. How did he do that?

In his is autobiography which  he called   Loving and Living Out Loud   Brother West tried  to advocate for living with deep joy, even though as I have said earlier, he always starts with suffering. A source of deep joy for him, as I have said earlier,  was music. Particularly the blues and jazz. He is a big fan of Jazz musician John Coltrane, as am I. He says he finds in that music a deep well spring of joy.

On the other hand, like a true Old Testament Prophet he find much to criticize in contemporary culture that he find shallow. As he said,

“You have to have something that sustains you and so much of contemporary culture is a joyless quest for pleasure. The pleasures are insatiable and you never have enough of them, but you never have any deep joy. If you got to the pre-K program and look into the eyes of those precious children and that sustains you that is deep joy. That is to me a sacred calling. I find joy in the writing and lecturing and speaking like Coltrane found it in blowing his horn.”

 

West says that “we are deliberate and joyful misfits, to use the language of the great Arthur Miller.”  We are maladjusted to injustice. We are maladjusted to indifference. We are maladjusted to people in denial.”  He also said: “Justice is the way love looks in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private.” I also personally heard him deliver various versions of that claim. Again this reminds of those Prophets.

West also warns about the dangers of anger. Sometimes anger is called for. As when the powerful oppress the weak. West always opposes that. Yet West also said he learned from Audrey Lord, that  anger is a form of love, engagement and truth telling. But—and this is key—according to West, “You don’t stay with the anger; it is a medium. But you find joy in being of service to others.”

You have to move beyond anger and resentment back to joy. The deep joy that he looks for not shallow joyless pleasures that take up so much time for so many of us. Like me.

The Classics: Wisdom Speaking

 

For Cornel West the search for wisdom is also a spiritual search. Cornel West wrote an article in the Washington Post in response to Howard University and other universities getting rid of their Classics Department.  In fairness to Howard it is a university that does not have the massive dnowments that some of the Ivy League schools have. Howard University is not Harvard. Yet West thought they could do better in their search for wisdom.   Walter Isaacson interviewed West on Amanpour and Company on the dispute.

 

Cornel West believes it is important to preserve and read the classics. He said,

 

“I am convinced we are living in a moment of spiritual decay and moral decrepitude in the American empire. We have to come up with countervailing forces and countervailing weight against the rule of money, rule of mediocrity, rule of military might, rule of narrow conformity, and rule of indifference and callousness. The best classics of any civilization, of any empire, of any culture have to do with trying to convince ourselves to get involved in a quest for truth, and beauty, and goodness, and then for some of us like myself, a Christian, the holy.”

 

To me that sums up the best of the humanities—i.e. the wisdom of civilization. But West believes there has been a deep moral decline in the west and a deep intellectual narrowness has crept in, and that the classics can help us to resist this trend. He says, the reason it does that is

 

“The classics force us to come to terms with the most terrifying question we can ever raise which is what does it mean to be human? The unexamined life is not a life of human according to Plato in his Apology in line 38a. “Human” comes from the Latin humando which means burial, we are disappearing creatures. We are vanishing organisms on the way to bodily extinction. Therefore, the question becomes, ‘who will we be in the meantime?’ What kind of virtue can we enact? What kind of vision will we pursue? What kind of values will we try to embody? And once you raise that question what it means to be human, then you begin to see on the one hand what Shakespeare and Dante have taught us, like Toni Morrison, and John Coltrane have taught us, it’s dark in our history! Most of our history is the history of domination and oppression. The history of hatred. The history of contempt. It is the history of fear driven cruelty. What is the best of our history? Counterweights against that. And that is everywhere you look. Every civilization. Every continent. Every race. Every religion. Every gender. Every sexual orientation. And once you come to terms with that, then the question becomes how do you become equipped? What kind of spiritual and moral armour do you have that allows you to think critically? That allows you to open yourself to others. That allows you to act courageously.”

 

Now if that is not a spiritual quest, I do not know what is. West used Frederick Douglas as an example of a man who did that. He teased out truths from foreign languages as anyone can do. He was already a freedom fighter, but the classics of other countries helped him to find the truth, beauty, and the good. According to West, “He teased out an eloquence. And what is eloquence? “Eloquence is wisdom speaking,” say Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (often referred to as Quintilian) a rhetorician and educator.

 

According to West, the essence of wisdom speaking is having the courage to know how to die by questioning your presuppositions. Every time you let a presupposition go that is a form of death because it allows you to be reborn. It allows you to grow. It allows you to develop. It allows you to mature. If you can learn that, from religion, philosophy, music, or the classics you have the necessary spiritual armour.

As West said,

 

“We live in an empire my brother that has grown powerful and rich but has not grown up. F.O Mathieson used to say, America would in some way be distinctive because it could move from perceived innocence to corruption without a mediating state of maturity.” The nation believes it is innocent. How can you be authorizers of devastation of indigenous people and African slaves and then view yourselves as innocent? “

 

In many ways that is the problem many people have—particularly those who have been privileged and fail to recognize that privilege. How can you fail to look at the crimes produced in the name of your civilization? We all need to grow up and see that we are not innocent, no matter how much we would like to be innocent.

Blue Note

 

 

I don’t really know much about music, but I do know Cornel West loves the blues. And part of that love is the love for the Blue notes. Jeff Sharlet described what a colleague theirs  at Princeton University,  Eddie S. Glaude Jr, the chair of the department of African American studies, and author of Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, said about West:

“There’s a way in which you could think about Cornel as a kind of sick soul,” says Glaude. “In the sense that he begins with the dead, with darkness. He begins with suffering. The blue note. And all too often people want to move too quickly beyond that.”

 

According to Jeff Sharlet:

“That’s the American way,” says West when I raise the question of the blue note and it’s dismissal, the common conviction that looking forward means forgetting the past. “ ‘No problem we cannot solve,’” he says, paraphrasing conventional wisdom. Well, that’s a lie. I don’t know why Americans tell that lie all the time.” He laughs, shaking in his chair, mimicking a voice that sounds like a suburban golfer in pants a size too small. “‘No problem we can’t get beyond.’ That’s a lie! But—it generates a strenuous mood.”

 

What is a blue note in music?  I know very little about music. What a shame. I am told that in the musical realm, these notes “between the cracks” of conventional pitches are called blue notes”. For example, a melody in C major might be sung with a note that is halfway between E and E-flat. As the term suggests, blue notes are thought to be particularly characteristic of the blues.

 

The blue note finds its roots in African-American music at the time of slavery and ended up being widely used within blues, receiving the name “C major blues scale,” or just “blues scale”. The term “blue note” is usually translated as “outside note”, due to the fact that this note does not belong to the natural scale. Like the blues it is rebellious. An outlier. It dissents from the conventional wisdom, like Cornel West. This is like the line he liked so much from the poet Leopardi: “I refuse even hope.”  That is the blue note in prose. Quoting Leopardi again, “Everything is hidden except our pain.” That is what the bluesman sees and hears. But it takes what amounts to a religious quest to see it or hear it.

My Kind of Christian: Mother West and the Kingdom of Heaven

 

Cornel West  has been a professor at Princeton, Harvard and  Union Theological Seminary recently talked about his mother in an interview broadcast on PBS. It was clear that she was the most important woman in his life, and always had been, even though he was married 3 times.

 

On PBS West said his mom was,

“kind of a walking truth and beauty and grounded in the holy, because she believed fundamentally as a Christian woman, as a black woman coming out of Jim Crow Louisiana…She wanted to open herself, to empty herself, to donate herself, to give herself to make the world a better place. She understood if the kingdom of God is within you that everywhere you go you are going to leave a little heaven behind. And any time anybody sees me, they see her because I have to try to do that in my life–leaving a little bit of heaven behind. It could be Socratic heaven, it could be prophetic heaven, it could be a little Richard Pryor comic heaven, but somehow we have to help empower somebody to make the world better and to come along.  Make sure you leave the world just a little more sweet and joyful then when you found it. That’s mom. That’s Irene B. West. Nobody like her. One of a kind.”

 

I only have one small addition to that, because I never knew his mother. I don’t know him. I have heard him on radio and television a few times and I have heard him speak in person at Arizona State University. But one thing I do know, he sure loved his Mom.

Sometimes you don’t have to go very far on a religious quest.  Look close to home. In fact, West made me think of my mother and my mother-in-law. They are the two most amazing women I have ever met. Neither of them ever made grandiose statements about what great Christians they were.  And they were great Christians. In simple everyday ways, both of them were transfused with the best of religion and by that I mean simple but unequalled compassion for others. Thats what I think it means to walk truth and beauty and be grounded in the holy.

 

A Jazzman in the World of Ideas & a Bluesman in the Life of the Mind (Part II)

According to the American philosopher Jeff Sharlet:

“(Cornel) West came to his sense of self by way of a peculiarly American convergence of influences. His is not an “only in America” story but an “especially in America” one, part Emersonian self-reliance, part Motown funk. He’s an intellectual mutt in the best sense, a “freestyle, California spirit,” as he puts it, “rooted in gutbucket blues and jazz dispositions.

 

West sees himself as utilizing jazz-like improvisations in this philosophy. As Sharlet said, in West “the radical hope he tempers with the tragic sensibility he takes from the blues. “I’m a bluesman in the life of the mind,” he says, “a jazzman in the world of the ideas.” West often makes that statement. I heard him say that when we heard him speak at Arizona State University. He obviously thinks it describes him well. I tend to agree.

Jeff Sharlet told the story of interviewing West when he wanted to find a quote to explain what he meant by a comment he had made. He got down on his hands and knees in his office looking for a book on the bottom shelf. Finally he found a volume of poetry by Giacomo Leopardi, a 19th century Italian poet-philosopher. When he founded he yelled joyously, “This is the Leopardi, brother.” He flips through the pages of a green book. Sharlet described it this way:

“Oh, man! See this one? ‘I refuse even hope.’” He repeats the line, his body suddenly slack, staring at me as if to ask, “Do you follow?” I do, or, at least, I’ll try. West begins to read, rocking forwards and backwards at his hips like a metronome. “‘Everything is hidden,’” he reads, “‘Except our pain.’” He looks up. “Deep blues, man.” He returns to the green book in his hand. “We come, a forsaken race, / Crying into the world, and the gods / Keep their own counsel…’” I bend close, following the rhythm of his handwritten annotations down the margins: “blues,” “jazz,” “blues,” “blues,” “jazz.”

 

The bluesman gets no advice from God. He doesn’t even get to have hope. Sharlet described West as the philosopher of the blues this way:

“The blues, West says, is the suffering that’s at the heart of the American story, both tragic and comic, darkly grandiose and absurdly mundane. Jazz is democracy, or “deep dem-oc-racy,” as West likes to say, emphasis on the first word and the second syllable, the sound of a system we have yet to achieve. “Y’see, you take a military band, it’s like”—West bangs out a martial beat. But jazz? He drums a complicated rhythm. “Under. Below. On the side of the note. Not just the note itself, y’see. It’s a powerful critique.” Jazz—improvisation—is his answer to things as they are, the negation of the status quo and thus the affirmation of another possibility.”

 

And all of this is connected in West with the tissue of religion. When West said that Sharlet said he stood very still and closed the book. He shook his head back and forth with admiration of the poetry. He said it was like relief and gratitude for what he had learned West summed up what he had read to Sharlet this way:

To know the wretchedness of who we are,” he says. “Yet the fact that we know it, is itself a noble thing, because that kind of knowledge means we can know a whole lot of other things.

 

West unlike modern Americans who don’t’ want to know the truth or allow their children to know the truth, West was willing to carry his torch to the back of the cave and see what was there. West believes that is what the blues are all about. Learning from the pain. Not hiding from it. Sharlet described a passage in West’s book Democracy Matters this way:

In a chapter that ranges from the Stoic philosopher Zeno to Emmett Till’s mother standing over her murdered son’s coffin, West quotes Ralph Ellison writing on the blues. I’d copied it into my notebook on the train to Princeton.

“‘The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness,’” I read aloud, “’to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.’”

 

When Sharlet caught on the teacher in West came out. He felt like a triumphant teacher.

 

 “That’s right!” he says. “It’s knowledge the way Adam knew Eve. Adam knows Eve. It’s embracing. Some think it’s just sexual, but it’s not just sexual. To know is to be engaged. The blues knows because the song is an action.” It’s recognition of the death shudder, a naming of the pain. “That’s the way in which a song of despair is not despair.” He points to the craggy features of the Irish playwright, Samuel Beckett, staring out from a book cover eye level with West’s desk chair. Beckett, in West’s reckoning, is like Chekov what he calls a literary bluesman. “Brother Beckett. He doesn’t allow despair to have the last word. The last word is what?” He paraphrases Waiting for Godot: “ ‘I can’t go on. I will go on. I can’t go on. I will go on.’ Y’see?”

 

From time immemorial religion has found  sustenance from the deep well of suffering.  I think for West the blues does the same thing.  Not that anyone seeks out suffering. But when it appears at least we can take that from it. West despises what he considers shallow American religiosity that is afraid to look at what is painful. American blues was not afraid to know. That to West is deep religion.