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Culture & Religion

Cornel West Adores Jane Austen

Of course he does.  And West’s passion for the things he loves is uniquely infectious.  When he tells us what he thinks—about anything, from the history of jazz to Obama’s Nobel—it is tough not to listen. And when you listen to West talk about Austen, he makes you want to read (or re-read) her novels immediately.  

The Divine Jane,” a video produced for the Morgan Library‘s current show on Austen, stars West.  It’s cool, and only sixteen minutes long. Also featured, commenting on their love of the novelist: Siri Hustvedt, Harriet Walter, Colm Toibin, Sandy Lerner and Fran Lebowitz.  They are all compelling in diverse ways. 

Why is it interesting to hear people talk about Jane Austen? Is it because that, like Shakespeare, we can revisit her at various times in our lives and have various responses?  Her novels focus on the things we all endure—love, heartbreak, desire, education—and about the unique tyranny of Other People’s Opinions.

At one point the documentarian poses this question to the commentators: “If you were giving a dinner party for Austen, who would you have?” Lebowitz’s answer is best: “If I had Jane Austen to dinner, I wouldn’t invite anyone else.”

In his 1996 New Yorker piece on the raft of late-nineties Austen-related films, Martin Amis reminded us of what W. H. Auden—not exactly accurate, in Amis’s view, but nonetheless notably—wrote of her:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me; 

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass. 

It makes me most uncomfortable to see 

An English spinster of the middle-class 

Describe the amorous effects of “brass,” 

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety 

The economic basis of society

Read Amis on her. Read Auden on her. Watch the latest iteration of Persuasion. And listen to West’s opening lines in “The Divine Jane.” He is precise: “She was preoccupied with freedom.” She was also preoccupied with people’s passions, and with the ways in which they communicated their power over one another. Her gift, and her weapon, is West’s as well: verbal seduction.

Why can’t West produce an entire course on Austen, tape it, and place it on YouTube? This would be the best Christmas gift of all.


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