Posted by: Harold Knight | 07/12/2010

Cormac McCarthy, J.S. Bach, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Me: Strange Brainfellows

The Custom of the Country, Edith Wharton
In Search of Gay America
, Neil Miller
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
, Alice Walker
All the Pretty Horses
, Cormac McCarthy
The Ambassadors
, Henry James
Letters and Papers from Prison
, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Secular City
, Harvey Cox
The Bach Reader
, ed. Hans T. David and Arthur Mendel
The Age of Capital, 1848-1875
, E.J. Hobsbawm
An American Primer
, ed. Daniel J. Boorstein
Faith and History, Reinhold Niebuhr
Presidential Campaigns
, Paul F. Boller
The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology
, Mark Jordan
The First Salute
, Barbara Tuchman
The Cloud of Unknowing
, ed. William Johnston
The Rhetoric of Fiction
, Wayne C. Booth
and ten or so more. . .

You’d think anyone who had those twenty-five books on one shelf beside him (one of forty such shelves in the room where he’s sitting, and many more shelves elsewhere in his apartment)—and had read all of them—would have some sense of being “educated,” wouldn’t you? Probably not. It’s too random, too cluttered, too disorganized to add up to anything like useful knowledge or clear thinking. Well, I haven’t exactly read all of all of them. The Bach Reader is a resource book—want to know something about Bach? Look in the index, read that chapter or document. Want to know about “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too?” Look in Boller’s index. So I lied. I haven’t read ALL of them.

Besides that, many of them are hopelessly out of date. Not even the most fearless (in this time of reactionary so-called conservatism and perversion of the aims of the Boston Tea Party) liberal will quote Reinhold Niebuhr to support her thinking. And The Cloud of Unknowing? Balderdash. That old religious palaver?

More clutter.

You see, my house is cluttered because my mind is cluttered.  Why on earth would anyone want to read pretentious nonsense like that mish-mash?

A common-sense regulation of economic life does not treat the economic motive as a force which is about to be eliminated from human society. It knows that motive to be one facet of the power of self-interest, which must be harnessed, deflected, beguiled and transmuted in the interest of the commonweal but which can never be completely suppressed (1).

Secularization is a liberating process. It dislodges ancient oppressions and overturns stultifying  conventions. It turns man’s social and cultural life over to him, demanding constant expenditure of vision and competence. Secularism short-circuits the secular revolution by freezing it into a new world-view. It clips the wings of emancipation and fixes a society on the pin of another orthodoxy (2).

What’s the difference between secularization and secularism? OK. One is a process and the other an ideology. I must surely be an old fossil for ever having read about the difference—or for believing the distinction is important.

What made this boom so satisfactory for profit-hungry businessmen was the combination of cheap capital and a rapid rise in prices. Slumps (of the trade-cycle type) always meant low prices. . . Booms were inflationary. . . The profits apparently awaiting producers, merchants and above all promoters were therefore almost irresistible. . . At one point during this amazing period the rate of profit. . . touched fifty percent. . . This period of calm came to an end with the depression of 1857 (3).

Are there lessons to be learned in rehearsing history?

He said that those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart but that it is just that misfortune which is their gift and which and which is their strength and that they must make their way back into the common enterprise of man for without they do so it cannot go forward and they themselves will wither in bitterness. He said these things to me with earnestness and great gentleness and in the light from the portal I could see that he was crying and I knew that it was my soul he wept for. I had never been esteemed in this way (4).

Ah Ha! Now we’re talking. Let’s have some intentional fiction instead of all those old guys trying to figure out the world.  “I could see that it was my soul he wept for.” Oh, to write one sentence like that. Ever.

Where is all this writing about clutter coming from. Well, a bit of personal history. I’ve never been able to sort. I think TLEptics must all be like that, but I don’t know many other TLEptics personally, so I don’t know for sure. I live in a world of make-believe. No, that’s not it. It’s a world of never-quite-knowing-what-to-believe-is-real. That world gives me a strange relationship to things other people take for granted: this computer I’m keyboarding on is real. It’s a thing. It has form, shape, mass (I suppose energy—E=MC2 –you know) all of those things that make something “real.” And I’m real. My body is real. Well, perhaps. Perhaps not. Off we go into the wild bizarre yonder of the seizure that separates mind from body and then, for some indeterminate time afterwards makes everything seem as if, well, as if I could float right through it or it could float right through me, or. . . . I wish I could explain it.

So I’m a bit confused, concerned, wary about what’s real. If I can float through walls and doors and nothing is real, then whatever I’ve touched in this non-real way I’d better hang on to just to see if it ever becomes real. That is, of course, not true. I simply have a difficult time giving up anything that has ever been a part of my physical reality. Or, on the other hand, since nothing seems real, why not lug it all around hoping someday it will make sense. Or, on yet another hand, I better keep stuff (like unopened mail) that might be important some time if I can concentrate on it. Please, Peter Walsh and Nate Berkus, and Oprah, don’t tell me what I need to do to get organized and rid my life of clutter. You ain’t got a clue.

And then there’s this God business. Oh my, oh my. Another of the characteristics of us TLEptics is a heightened religious sense. I’d say it’s a heightened sense of the numinous. “Surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious.” That’s a no-brainer. If my life is already mysterious, why shouldn’t everything seem to surpass comprehension? How could it seem other than supernatural?  I suppose an uncertainty of reality could translate into not quite reaching reality, but it’s much more fun for everything to seem to surpass reality.

So there you have it. Clutter. Of the highest, most transcendent order. Living with those numens. Everything is inhabited by a spirit. So how can I part with anything I’ve ever had? Or thought. Or read. What on earth does Reinhold Niebuhr have to do with Cormack McCarthy? Harvey Cox with E.J. Hobsbawn? If I had an answer, I could get rid of some of these books and write clear, powerful prose (or at least a lovely little novel) and be rich and famous—or at last serene. And maybe be able to organize the few books I’d have left somehow logically. It’ll never happen.
(1) Niebuhr, Reinhold.  Faith and History.  New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949. p. 91.
(2) Cox, Harvey. The Secular City. New York: MacMillan Company, 1965. p. 86.
(3) Hobsbawn, E.J. The Age of Capital, 1848-1875. New York: North American Library, 1975. p. 30.
(4) McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 1993. p. 235



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