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.


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