November 6, 2002: A moment with...

A moment with...
Cornel West *80

Photo by Denise Applewhite

After a publicized dispute with Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, Cornel West *80 returned to Princeton this year as the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion. West was a member of Princeton’s faculty from 1988 through 1994, serving as professor of religion and director of the Program in African-American Studies. This semester he is teaching a freshman seminar on The Tragic, the Comic, and the Political. Here, he speaks with PAW’s Argelio Dumenigo.

What kind of reception have you had since returning to Princeton?

It’s been just wonderful. It’s a magnificent community characterized by a very deep, genuine respect.

How about the response from alumni?

I think it’s very important that we have a number of different voices among alumni, as well as students. You’re never, ever going to have any unanimity on one’s own virtues. (He laughs.) The important thing is that the dialogue goes on.

What do you see as your role as a professor?

My role as a professor is first and foremost to read and teach, to unsettle and challenge young minds and hearts and souls. It’s really a profoundly Socratic calling, to unsettle and disturb and unnerve, but in the end to have affirmed the quest of each and every student. It’s their quest for wisdom and knowledge, wherever it takes them.

You are often described as a “public intellectual.” What do you think of the term?

You know, I’ve never used the term in relation to myself, but, I’ve never denied it either. I’m more of a public teacher. But, yes, certainly a public intellectual is someone who wrestles with some of the larger issues in society and thinks in a syncretic and synoptic manner to try to bring different, disparate, isolated elements together in light of a vision, an analysis.

You know, when I think of a public intellectual, I think of Erasmus, one of the greatest public intellectuals, but he would never use that word; he was a Christian humanist. David Hume. Thomas Payne. Lionel Trilling. Princeton’s own, my dearly beloved brother [Columbia University professor] Edward Said [’57]. People would call them public intellectuals, but they would never use the term themselves. T. S. Eliot, of course, was probably one of the greatest so-called public intellectuals. He was a poet, trying to make sense of things. I’m teaching a course next semester on public intellectuals and religious traditions, just to try to demystify the term.

What was your reaction to the media attention to your return?

Some of the attacks were pretty vicious and ad hominem, but I think that, in general, whatever goes on at Harvard gets attention. And don’t get me wrong; Harvard’s a great place. But when you get the president — brand new — of Harvard and a highly visible black intellectual clashing in a serious fashion, then you’re going to get a lot of press. The sad thing is that the press took off with very little sense of the facts.

You take stands on many things, for example, as a supporter of Andrew Cuomo in the New York State governor’s race this summer . . .

Absolutely. From Cuomo to Sharpton to Nader [’55] to Paul Wellstone. I’m going out to Minnesota to support Paul Wellstone. I think being a professor is being an example of someone who tries to rethink and teach as well as live one’s visions and one’s ideas. Again, it’s very Socratic — that thought is continuous with action and belief is not something simply to hold, but it’s simply something to enact. In that sense my political activism is really quite continuous with my intellectual pursuits.

I’m struggling over the issue of divestment from Israel right now. I’m considering arguments on both sides. I don’t think that divestment is at this moment an effective strategy, as much as I am highly critical of the Israeli occupation. I think that Israel and South Africa are very different social and historical animals. Divestment has to be something that opens persons up and tries to accent some possibility of reaching some kind of consensus, and I think in some ways divestment as a tactic would backfire on those of us who are critical of the Israeli occupation and specifically of [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s policies. And it’s very important to separate that from any anti-Semitism. You see, the distinction between criticizing the policies and the government versus hating the people who reside in the country — that’s very important.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a book called “The Tragic, the Comic, and the Political.” In part it has to do with my own wrestling with modernity and the problem of evil but, specifically, it kind of zeroes in on how do we deal with freedom in light of its various kinds of limitations. How do we deal with disappointment and disenchantment without falling into despair? I’m looking at some of the greats from Sophocles to Dante, Shakespeare to Chekhov, to John Coltrane to help us answer some of these questions.


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