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Years of Debate Bound in One Volume

By Erik Beach, Contributing Writer

Apart from the oppressed minority of conservatives at the Salient and the many rumored "closet conservatives" on the Harvard campus, University Professor Cornel West '74 enjoys a high degree of popularity among students. His fiery sermonizing lecture style leads students through Afro-American Studies 10, while his support of campus progressive movements such as the Living Wage Campaign lends tangibility to his activist ideals. West is one of the rare highly regarded intellectuals who actually makes time for interacting with his students. However, despite his popularity on campus and intellectual standing in general, it would appear as if certain conservatives such as David Horowitz have nothing better to do than trash Cornel West. Although some of their accusations are not unfounded and are made apparent in The Cornel West Reader, their underlying claim that West has no substance as an intellectual falls flat when faced with the overall figure of West presented in the Reader.

The book's dedication gives the first taste of West's flair for the overly dramatic and sentimental style. It reads "To the memory and legacy of my modern artistic soul mates," then lists twelve artists beginning with John Coltrane and ending with Toni Morrison. West writes in the preface that "This whole [reader]--fraught with tensions and contradictions--reflects my attempt to shatter my own parochial limits and provincial shortcomings."

The Reader contains a wide variety of selections from West's oeuvre, with everything from a short story to television interviews to commentrary on race, politics, literature, music and sexuality. It is a book about self-discovery, and West's efforts to come to terms with himself and the world he lives in. This lofty aim is often undercut by what can be interpreted as grandiose, self serving comments, but one would find it hard to fault West or the book for his unceasing vigilance in attempting to understand himself and his surroundings. What one finds in the Reader is a deeply committed philosopher, questing after what he considers important. One also detects some of the superciliousness that West is accused of, but this idiosyncrasy is hardly enough to overturn his contribution as an intellectual.

One example of what draws criticism is the way in which West writes a short introduction to each excerpt in the Reader. While these introductions often help to shed light on the issue at hand or provide necessary background information, they just as often appear to be needlessly pompous. For example, West's introductions include many phrases such as "it is one of the most requested essays in my corpus." This style leaves him open to critical attacks, and West's views will always render him unpopular with some. He responds that "I do not write or act to win popularity contests."

While one can question the substance of West, one cannot help but be impressed by the volume of his work. Twenty books by West since 1982 are listed in the front of the Reader. His future projects are no less ambitious: West plans a collaboration on African-American and Greek literature with Elemi Mavromatidou along with a long term project on Checkov and Coltrane and more ventuers into literary criticism. His next published works will be Heart of American Darkness, and I Ain't Noways Tired, a "bold venture in intellectual biography modeled on black musical forms."

West himself addresses some of the criticisms of his work and his own misgivings, writing that "I have great suspicion of autobiographical writing. So much of it reeks of self-indulgence and self-absorption, yet any serious engagement with the world includes a questioning of one's self." But he firmly answers the question by stating that "A wholesale critical inventory of ourselves and our communities of struggle is neither self-indulgent autobiography nor self-righteous reminisence."

David Horowitz's "Cornel West: No Light in his Attic" appeared in the Oct. 11, 1999 issue of online magazine Salon (reprinted in the Harvard Salient earlier this fall). In the article, Horowitz lambasts West for what Horowitz sees as his intellectual emptiness and pretension: "While his writings combine the philosophically grandiose with postmodern frou frou, they are singularly lacking in the intellectual power that would sustain either." Horowitz moves from a questionable attack on West's intellect to a ludicrous charge of racism and anti-Semitism. He strikes at the very root of the Reader by ridiculing West's representation of self-discovery, saying "it is as though Georgie Porgie, reincarnated as a Harvard don, stuck in his thumb and pulled out this plumb: I am a Chekovian Christian." Granted, the term "Chekovian Christian" does seem a bit much, and it is used ad naseum by West. One can read the entire book and still be confused as to the exact definition of "Chekovian Christian." But Horowitz's criticism barely skims the surface of either West or his book, focusing entirely on style and presentation and utterly ignoring content and meaning. Ultimately, Horowitz seems to be using West as a vehicle to make his attack on the university system in general, when he writes "For his intellectual charade reflects the political sickness of the modern academy, which has thrown over its traditional calling to the 'disinterested pursuit of knowledge' and assumed a new institutional identity as an 'agency of social change.'" Horowitz ends with the statement that "The Cornel West Reader is a testament to the intellectual vacuum that a progressive education creates."

Fortunately, West still holds a greater influence over both Harvard and society in general than the likes of Horowitz. The Reader is far from a perfect book: his style is easy to criticize, and some of his ideas do come across as muddled and abstract. However, it is on the whole a very positive book, detailing a personal struggle with the many facets of modern existence and questioning how life should be lived in the face of these obstacles. Perhaps if David Horowitz were to undergo the same critical self-examination of his own life and ideas, he would find it less appropriate to ridicule the profound expression of this struggle in The Cornel West Reader.

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