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11/12/2014 12:32 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2015

Why Cornel West Loves Jane Austen

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Cornel West loves Jane Austen.

That's right, Cornel West -- the famous public scholar and political polemicist whose many books include Race Matters, Democracy Matters, and The Rich and the Rest of Us -- cares about the novels of a dead, white, privileged British woman of the Regency Era. I first learned this surprising fact at a convention of the Jane Austen Society of North America in Brooklyn, where he gave a talk on "Jane Austen and Power," not power in terms of oppressor and oppressed as I and everyone else in the audience probably expected, but the power to look within and to change, to transform society from the inside. Since then, I got to spend two hours interviewing this most unexpected and fervent of Austen enthusiasts, and began to see her through his eyes, as a radical for personal virtue as the key to social reform.

"She gets to the depths of my soul," West tells me. "Austen and I are very much a part of the same world. We feel a deep sense of connectedness to family, a deep continuity." The novelist's family supported her creative efforts and served as her first and most loyal readership. Similarly, West reflects, "I've always said that I am who I am because somebody loved me. This is the piety in my life. It would be called 'Grace' in a Christian context, 'luck' in a secular one." Just as Austen insists on complexity and empathy for her characters, West refuses to place her, others, or himself in a stereotyped ideological box, insisting that we "take people for the primary humanity that defines them."

West considers Jane Austen neither "conservative" nor "liberal," but a voice that speaks to everyone. "She is dealing with the raw stuff of resistance, which is candor, self-criticism, and spiritual courage. Without these, one cannot counter the forces of oppression." Her fiction's transcendence of political and ideological lines is evidenced by the diversity of her devotees. West points out that literary historians such as C.S. Lewis and Lionel Trilling retrieved important ideas from her work, and she has garnered enthusiasm "even" among philosophers including Gilbert Ryle and Leo Strauss. "Then you get a leftist like myself in love with the sistah."

Before West spoke at the Austen conference, people had warned him, "Brother West, you gotta watch those Janeites. They're 'out there!'" They assumed that "The Janeites" are superficial Austen fans with a shallow appreciation of her genius and a preoccupation with the sentimental rather than the comic in her work. However, he has found that "the fundamental tilt even among 'Janeites' is a quest for a taste of 'integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue' (in W.E.B. Du Bois's terms). You can be any gender, race, or socioeconomic background and still long for tenderness. Hold on to the non-market values," he urges.

West considers Persuasion, Austen's last completed work, to be one of the greatest novels of all time, right up there with War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment. Like other giants of the genre, it plumbs "the depth of the melancholic wrestling with one's destiny, with human isolation and the breakdown of human communication." His favorite character is Persuasion's protagonist, Anne Elliot, Austen's "culminating character" in her maturity and spiritual development. "So melancholy, lonely and sad. She reminds me of myself."

Though West affirms the universality of Austen, he believes she has unique significance for minorities and reads her novels from a distinctly black perspective. He still remembers how poignantly she spoke to him the first time he read her work forty years ago: "I will never get over the power and vitality of her language. Her Chekhovian sense of the curtailment, the wasted lives of these precious people." Precious people, like heroine Anne Elliot. Thwarted and cramped, their preciousness hidden away, their dreams deferred.

West credits Austen and Chekhov for their acuity in depicting the tragedy of unrealized potential -- of women, in Austen's case. "It is very true of so much of being black in contemporary America. Jane Austen's genius is connected in a highly complicated way to invisibility. Being a nobody, dealing with nothingness in the patriarchal order. How does one go about building a life of integrity in the face of invisibility and nobodyness? Nobody seeing you, hardly anyone caring for you. What people now call 'marginalization.'"

West loves that Austen deals in concretes, "the realities of lived experience -- the angst and anxiety of living," not abstractions such as "marginalization."

Austen speaks to women's fringe status, portraying their perspectives in a historically unprecedented way. "She lets us [men] into women's lives. How do we get out of our own skin and feel what it's like in the minds, souls, spirits of women, to get to the other side of the 'patriarchal wall'? She lifts that veil." To West, Austen is a feminist in her portrayal of the full-fledged humanity of women--their intelligence, agency, creativity--which has been acknowledged in the mainstream for only about the last one hundred and fifty years.

West views the fact that one still has to make a case for Austen's place at the top of the pantheon of great literature as evidence of how much men still dominate. It pains him that writers such as Twain, Emerson, James, and even Brontë could be so harsh toward her. Some people still reduce Austen's work to the question of marriageability--as West satirizes their condescending view, "Look, she found a chap to marry." In reality, "that aspect is at the margins of the central focus on personal growth in her novels, their education of the self in authentic humanitarian values." West agrees with Alasdair MacIntyre's recognition of Austen as the culminating figure in the cultivation of the virtues, the education in Paideia, or "the formation of attention" that is critical to releasing us from the "cultural weapons of mass distraction" that perpetually surround us today.

A "great book," to West, is one that most effectively addresses "the challenge of trying to be a decent person in the world." There is no more fundamental question." In this, he considers Austen to be in a league of her own, due to her profound "eloquence, honesty, precision, and candor" in portraying her characters' struggles to grow, their "wrestling with freedom on the inside." Elizabeth Bennet's climactic personal awakening in Pride and Prejudice exemplifies her author's encouragement of such courageous growth: "Till this moment I never knew myself."

These are the transformative revelations that matter most and toward which we should strive. Austen avowed in a letter of advice to her niece that "Wisdom is better than Wit." West agrees: "The greatest work of art ever created is less than a great life lived, and I believe that. She warns us to avoid the idolatry of wit. The ultimate concern in life is not the novel." One self-destructs when asceticism replaces a higher moral purpose. West evokes the contrasting effects of classical orators Cicero and Demosthenes to reinforce this point: "When people heard Cicero, they focused on his beautifully spoken words. Hearing Demosthenes, people were ready to march, to change. Austen is like Demosthenes. She opens the window to people's feelings. Her work is beautifully written but is not calling attention to itself." The form matters, but is not the end. As a "public scholar," West deliberately prioritizes his message and eschews theoretical jargon.

Wit does make the message more effective, however. Both Austen and West draw on the comic and prophetic traditions to make their points stick, and are profoundly entertaining. "Comedy plays an important role in the expression of pain," West explains, and is central to Austen's portrayals of "incongruity and the need for integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue," the Du Boisian formula to which he returns again and again, like a refrain. We expect a high level of honesty of comic writers -- of Parrhesia, which he defines as "plain, frank, unintimidated speech."

Such speech is what West is known for. I acknowledged to him that I could not help bursting out laughing, despite the horror of the situation depicted, upon reading the preface to Race Matters, in which he described being refused by ten successive taxis in New York on his way to the photo shoot for the book cover, then giving up and taking the subway, arriving late. "It was hilarious," he assured me. Humor can capture such a range of targets, from absurdity to frailty to wrongness to outrage.

What an intriguing duo Austen and West would make as co-authors of a book or collaborative spokespeople. They both cherish the virtue of honesty, and their truth-speaking emanates from the prophetic as well as the comic tradition. West characterizes "Sistah Jane" as "the literary daughter of Shakespeare, the literary critical daughter of Samuel Johnson, and the biological daughter of Reverend George and Cassandra Austen. She was a PK [preacher's kid]!" He regrets that people do not want to talk about her devout Christianity, her groundedness in the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, sermons, hymns, and the way her work is tied to this tradition. "Eloquence, prudence, and providence are the foundation of the great humanist tradition, the PK tradition." One cannot ignore Austen's religiosity and its enriching impact on her literary genius.

What does Austen teach us about how to communicate painful truths about ourselves and our society? Is it possible to speak the truth decorously today and be heard? "That is a difficult question for me because I am so tied to the prophetic tradition," West admits. "It's so hyperbolic, even unfair at times in order to make the point stick. I learn from Austen to try to be as real, as biting, as sincere as you can be while still being tied to some kind of charity/love toward others." Mr. Darcy claims that "disguise of every sort is my abhorrence." Arguably, it is when Elizabeth tells off Darcy that he finally listens, is shocked into self-awareness and the beginnings of reform, and the same can be said of her self-analysis after reading and rereading his pointed letter.

Yet both characters need to learn empathy for each other. West suggests that in the prophetic tradition, paradoxically, one must sometimes stretch the truth in order to tell the truth. He argues that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Austen are stinging and biting, but King is more "extravagant and polemical. Both show charity and compassion. But she is neoclassical and satirical and would not tolerate that kind of extravagant rhetoric, whereas he is more prophetic and explicit. Both are tied to the humane and compassionate."

As Austen's narrator states in Emma, "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure." West concurs, asserting that one must be "jazz-like--open to other discourses, undogmatic, fluid, protean, mindful of one's own limits. This is a Christian and humanist tradition, though these values can be found in other contexts as well." Austen is jazz-like in her complexity: "One can say that she is anti-slavery, but she seems ambivalent toward empire -- she is tied to the navy as an alternative community (as in Persuasion). She is not wholesale in her apparent views, but is no blind pro-imperialist, either."

Self-described as "someone who looks at the world through the eyes of a 'blues man,'" West discerns "a deep sense of underlying limitations" in her fiction: "Anne Elliot does get the man she wants in the end," West reminds us, but "Jane Austen always has a Stephen Sondheim dimension to her work. Her happy endings are open, indefinite. There is always the possibility of collapse. As in Sondheim's Into the Woods, Cinderella gets her man, but then isn't sure she wants him." The narrator states at Persuasion's end that "the dread of a future war [was] all that could dim her sunshine."

Perhaps many of us identify with this strain of anxiety -- the melancholy of the idealist, who wishes things were different, better, permanent, who will always be disappointed by reality, even in joyful moments. There is no human mastery, no control over events, but we must strive for the better, anyway. As West describes it, "Every devil might have wings and every angel might have horns. But we have to sustain our quest for the Du Boisian integrity, honesty, decency, and virtue."

How do we achieve this? The best way, according to West, is to provide models, and that is what great literature does. "It can take you somewhere else. It gives you examples, inspires your imagination, represents other possibilities than one's lived reality." It takes us on the quest of Don Quixote. West believes that the reason "Austen mania" currently thrives in popular culture is the widespread "recognition of the cultural decay in our time, the need to get beyond the instant gratification and raw ambition." Austen provides much-needed exemplars of integrity. It is not about the big estate in Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth rejects Darcy's proposal the first time; she is trying to understand what kind of person he is. West says, "We now live in a society which is ruled by money. Austen's texts are not about the love of money. They recognize the role of money but not the love of money. Charity always trumps cupidity."

People are hungry for virtue, for compelling models of it to emulate, and these are becoming rare in our culture, in which, West laments, "honesty becomes a liability and decency becomes subversive." A "blues man" is about being "a militant for gentleness, a subversive for sweetness, and a radical for tenderness." He views being "a subversive for sweetness" as the core of Austen's sensibility, quoting the ending of Persuasion in which the narrator declares, "Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth's affection." West believes we need to adhere to these "non-market values."

Blues man Cornel West views "Sistah Jane" as a radical revisionary whose promotion of courageous truth-speaking amid a tragicomic theater of humanity challenges us to change society by changing ourselves, by cultivating simple but now revolutionary virtues. Reading Jane Austen's novels will aid us in this endeavor, by showing us how to extend subversive sweetness and radical tenderness to others. People love Austen because they need love. West says she depicts "the deep quest for affection, for fidelity." He claims to be Austenian in acknowledging a debt to those who came before, to a supportive community of kin. Austen's family gave her freedom and supported her creative efforts. "I try to do the same thing with my own family, which spills over into my relationships with my students and friends." West believes that the yearning for the source of good in one's family, even when it is not functioning properly, is a redemptive sign.

Our kin should include the whole human family, but even when we feel alienated, we are not absolved of trying to become and live our most virtuous selves. Many contemporary social problems stem from people's profound isolation from one another and sense of being unloved. West says that's Anne Elliot's predicament. "That is what I admire so much about her," he emphasizes. "Her family fails her, but she holds on."