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.