When Cornel West speaks, his body seems to perform its own kind of abstract reasoning. The gestures imply an inductive process that stands in relation to what he is saying but that is untethered by mere words. His signature gesticulation is the wind-up with the right hand, the wrist pivoting manically inside a gold cuff-linked sleeve (“My outfit,” Cornel West explains in his new memoir *Brother West: Living and Loving out Loud*, “makes me feel cool and ready to face the world”). This is usually followed by a clenched fist, which is then brought over his shoulder and delivered into his outstretched left palm in an ecstatic release. The linked series of gestures seems to coincide with the verbal condensation of a truism, the deliverance of a swirl of free-associations (represented by the wind-up) in a verbal package (the fist) to a receptive audience (the eagerly outstretched palm). “I am first and foremost my momma’s child and my father’s kid,” he will say, his wrist pivoting rapidly close to his ear. Then the fist clenches and the hammer drops as his tone rises: “We’re all born under circumstances NOT OF OUR OWN CHOOSING.” In proximity to the man, you are compelled to nod along. The performance of Cornel West is integral to the appreciation of his thought. One’s ability to appreciate the truth he expounds, after Max Weber’s formulation, does not strictly rely on a close relation between what Cornel West says and its syntactical meaning; it is rather as a participatory audience in communion with his charismatic presence that we generate meaning from the utterances of Cornel West.
Cornel West inhabits a world of hyperbole. Every qualitative statement he makes finds itself couched in the superlative; the profusion of shout-outs in his new memoir serves to endow his world with the kind of breathless contour that only someone ecstatically convinced of his own importance could supply. West’s mentor Richard Rorty is “the most influential American philosopher of our time”; West’s colleague Paul Krugman is a “prophetic economist” whose “sheer presence…is an intellectual delight”; Prince, whom West collaborated with for one of his musical side-projects, is “the incomparable musical genius of our time.” His assistant Mary Ann becomes in this rhetorical topos “the inimitable marvelous assistant Mary Ann.” We, listening to Cornel West, are initiated into a world where the mere act of being in Cornel West’s presence justifies our own sense of self-admiration.
I am sitting in the front row as Cornel West reads from his new memoir and speaks extemporaneously about himself, his beliefs, and whatever else comes to mind. Because the seats are in such high demand, the lecture is being simulcast inside a larger auditorium down the hall, as well as being broadcast live over the Internet by WNYC, a public radio station in New York. Outside, stacks of signed books are being sold for $26 a pop, and, for some reason, over the course of the two-hour talk, someone intermittently keeps busting out a few brief bars of a whistled tune. When West takes the stage, he invites some fifteen students in matching uniforms from Raleigh, North Carolina to troop onstage and recite an invocation. “I am now. I am the future. The world depends on me. The world depends on me to be its servant,” they say in unison. “The world depends on me to think critically. We are the future. We are now. We are the Cornel West Academy of Excellence.” I enter the lecture hall with a sardonic remove from the spectacle I am preparing to watch; I leave in a kind of awestruck daze. Without really being aware why, I shell out the $26 to obtain my own copy of *Brother West* and stay up until four the next night reading it. Finishing the book, I am as uncertain as I was before I began. Is Cornel West an academic charlatan, a snake oil salesman in the world of ideas, or is he a sublime genius whose talent simply does not conform to what is generally demanded of an academic?
The obvious knock on the academic career of Cornel West is that his talent lies less in the content of his thought than in the manner in which he is able to express it. The intellectual merits of Cornel West’s books were rather infamously slandered by the National Review’s Leon Wieseltier as “completely worthless.” West’s works, Wieseltier argued way back in 1995, “are monuments to the devastation of the mind by the squalls of theory,” the mushy output of someone unconcerned with academic rigor who is constitutionally incapable of thinking and reasoning with clarity. The racial implications of Wieseltier’s attack—that West’s success is an unfortunate by-product of affirmative action—are offensive and stupid; a white academic able to speak as spellbindingly and with an equivalent capacity for extemporaneous academic citation would find just as much acclaim within the academy; his name is Slavoj Zizek. What is fair in Wieseltier’s broadside, however, is a criticism echoing that of Larry Summers, Harvard’s president during West’s time there, who placed West’s tenure under review because he had failed “to write an important book on a philosophical tradition to establish his authority and ensure his place as a scholar.”
Though he would never admit that the criticism of his academic bonafides has any merit, West seems to argue in his new memoir that such a criticism entirely misses the point. West is not, in the narrow sense of the word, an academic; he is a “bluesman in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas.” A bluesman, as West understands it, has a different mandate than an academic. His calling to teach is intimately bound to a call for social justice, a call to come to the assistance of the lowliest, to provide a public forum for discussions about abstract things like justice and love. The bluesman is a prophet, not a scholar. If this is inimical to the mandate of a “research institution” like Princeton, where faculty are expected to publish original research in peer-reviewed journals, Cornel West does not seem to care, and many believe it is to Princeton’s credit (and, undoubtedly, their financial benefit, considering how often he is commissioned to speak at university-sponsored fundraisers) that they do not press him on the subject.
This being said, *Brother West: Living and Loving out Loud* is further afield from the world of academic discourse than is customary for even Professor West. It is a rambling hagiography, self-glorifying to the point that it even comes outfitted with its own creation myth. As a kind of parallel to the scene in the Gospel of Luke where the child Jesus is greeted by the rabbis at the temple as one of their own, West’s mother relates the following anecdote at the beginning of the memoir: “Christenings are usually not that memorable…but yours was different…Well, son, as soon as your father and I carried you up to the altar where Reverend Branch began his blessing, something happened—something I’ve never seen before or since. The Holy Spirit just took over. Everyone began to shout. Reverend Branch himself started shouting—‘This child is anointed! This child is anointed!’…It was a phenomenon that none of us could explain.”
Another rather confounding aspect of the book is that it is ghostwritten by Davis Ritz, who has made a career ghostwriting biographies for singers like Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and Aretha Franklin. That John McCain or Hilary Clinton would employ a ghostwriter is to be expected; that Cornel West, a tenured academic, would do so is…well, I’ll let my editors choose the word to describe it.
Cornel West, it appears, is struggling with some demons. Having fully cemented his inclusion in the rarefied air of the “public intelligentsia” and achieved as much personal success as is conceivable for an itinerant academic (by the memoir’s eighth page, West has made narrative excursions to Germany, Princeton, South America, Los Angeles, New York City, Japan, New Orleans, and his home, Sacramento), Professor West is now ready to survey how he got here and what has been left in the wake of his meteoric rise to the top of the cultural landscape. The most obvious detriti are his three failed marriages and numerous other broken relationships, each of which began with unmitigated passion (for example: “that was the year I fell for Mary Johnson, fell in love so completely that I hardly knew what hit me,” or “there was an excitement in my relationship with Hilda where the sexual, intellectual, and spiritual all came together.” See also: “Our connection was powerful and romantic. Intimacy happened in a hurry. I felt like, This is the woman I’ve been looking for. Michele felt like, This is the man I’ve been looking for. The search was over.” Or, “She had deep wisdom, not of the academic or intellectual variety, but wisdom of the heart…Elleni entered my life as one of those angelic figures whose soul glows with sunshine.”), and each of which eventually fizzled out as West pursued career opportunities rather than settling down.
He is, understandably, less interested in probing the mysteries of his failed relationships than he is in probing the reasons for his success. The few times, however, that he attempts to understand them shed light on what exactly it means to be a “public intellectual”—in West’s terms, a “prophet.” The true public intellectual is not an observer or critic of culture. He is rather a public figure who can sublimate his inward gaze into something universal, whose solipsism is so profound that it comes to embody our collective solipsism. Personhood as such is dissolved in the act of performing Cornel West, and in his charismatic presence we witness the kind of dissolution of individuality that substantiates all the seeming clichés he spouts about brotherhood and cultural identity. In a revealing passage about his relationships, West says “I’ve avoided [psycho]therapy because I worry about how it might exacerbate narcissistic tendencies…I’m not sure I know myself well enough to share my whole self with others. This, in part, might explain my volatile relationships with women. One might argue that because I don’t know myself, the more time I spend with a woman, the more various parts of myself emerge—parts that are, in fact, foreign to me. In short, my whole self emerges, and it is precisely my whole self that strikes me as a stranger.”
What would Cornel West talk about in a psychotherapeutic session? The elaborate construction of his identity as revealed in *Brother West* is impervious to psychoanalysis. His attempt at it here is entirely misguided; there is not a “whole self” that he is capable of revealing to a woman in the context of a stable married relationship, in which one’s self is defined by the consistent performance and appropriation of duty. Cornel West does not publish like a normal academic because Cornel West as a public figure is defined not by the appropriation of duty but by the appropriation of performative discourse. He is defined by the breathless audience, the contours of a world where everything is hyperbolic and where every lived reality is an exegetic key to ecstatic truth. Psychoanalysis is predicated on Oedipal complexes, distortions of the subject engendered by the subject’s interaction with the outside world. A public intellectual like Cornel West, on the other hand, is Narcissus, and we are the pool into which he casts his gaze.
Toward the end of his speech, Cornel West related an anecdote that also appears in the book. While waiting in an airport lounge, he was approached by a stranger who wanted to shake his hand. The man, it turned out, was Bob Dylan’s drummer. Bob Dylan and he, the man said, “travel the world together, and sometimes your name comes up. Both Bob and I love and respect you. Once, when I mentioned you to Bob, he said something I’ll never forget. ‘Cornel West,’ said Dylan, ‘is a man who lives his life out loud.’” This is, of course, the source of the memoir’s subtitle, Living and Loving Out Loud, an assessment that could not be more apt. Leaning back from the podium, Professor West paused for a moment. “The cover of the book you’ll see the smile of someone who’s full of joy,” he reflected. “Eyes, lips, nose…even my fro’s kickin’ it.”