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Letters

Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994

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Come on over

Towards the end of his review of H.R. Haldeman’s Diaries (LRB, 21 July), Christopher Hitchens comments on Richard Nixon’s fondness for thuggery and the vicarious admiration he had for those who could practise it without the trammel of law. There is no finer illustration of Nixon’s interest in such matters than the following, recorded by Haldeman in his diary on 15 November 1969 (‘P’ is the President):

Vietnam march and mob grew violent tonight as groups tried to march on Vietnamese embassy. Police busted it up with tear gas, but they roamed streets breaking windows etc. We were in Ehrlichman’s office working phones when P came in about 9, stayed until 11. Interested in whole process. Had helpful ideas like using helicopters to blow out their candles, etc. (The marchers were all carrying candles in the night as a dramatic gesture for TV.) Very relaxed. Said was like watching an old movie, keep thinking something interesting will happen.

It is not at all clear which old movies Nixon is referring to, but presumably one can rule out all films in which the White House is burnt to the ground, however interesting that might be.

Fires are a recurring theme of the Nixon Presidency, and of the Haldeman diaries. Two days after Nixon’s Inauguration in 1969, Haldeman lit a fire in his office without realising that the chimney was blocked. Smoke poured into the office. Rose, Nixon’s secretary, ‘was furious, smoke all through the West Wing. Fortunately, I went to the Cabinet meeting and missed it all.’ In October 1970, at the so-called West Coast White House in San Clemente, Nixon called Haldeman up and asked: ‘How are things at your place?’

I said fine and started to talk. He interrupted and said we’re having a fire here. Laughed and said house had caught fire from his den fireplace. Told me to come on over. Place full of smoke, hoses, firemen, and water. Not too much damage. P took me in his bedroom (he was padding around the patio in pajamas, slippers, and a weird bathrobe when I arrived), said there was no problem. It was full of smoke, I could hardly breathe. He said he loved smoke and would sleep there, I talked him into the guest house. Finally to bed about 1.

A really weird day especially the last parts of it.

Ten months later, in August 1971, there was another really weird day, on this occasion at Camp David – no weird bathrobe, however. Nixon ‘had ordered a fire in the fireplace, although it was boiling hot outside, and when I walked in, his study was completely filled with smoke and Manolo’ – Nixon’s valet – ‘was running around with papers trying to get the fireplace to draw. Kind of incongruous in August in Washington.’ Two weeks after Manolo’s efforts as human smoke extractor, ‘the P was down in his study with the lights off and the fire going in the fireplace, even though it was a hot night out. He was in one of his mystic moods.’

A few weeks before he died, Nixon was photographed at his New Jersey home, sitting in an armchair beside a roaring fire, in the fireplace. He did not look especially mystical, but he did look as if he was trying to look like an old man in an old movie. And bearing in mind Nixon’s record with fire, one can’t help thinking something interesting is about to happen.

Charles Thomas
Des Moines, Iowa

Der Tag

J.M.C. Burton (Letters, 23 June) is quite right to find excuses for the German D-Day meteorologists because Zentralwetterdienstgruppe data for the period, whose existence Burton denies and which I have examined, demonstrate that their short-range forecasts of the weather elements were reasonably accurate. But for operational success, more than this was needed – the implications of a forecast for action purposes had to be clear. German meteorological weaknesses lay not in the forecast but in, among other things, faulty operational interpretation by naval and military executives who lacked suitable criteria on which to base their orders and actions. For example, the German Navy set the outside wind limit for the Allied landing-craft at Force 4, whereas in fact Admiral Ramsay accepted a Force 5 with an occasional 6. This error was important, because the Germans were reading their wind Force 5 forecast for 6 June as meaning ‘invasion not possible’ while we, with a fairly similar forecast, were saying ‘marginally possible’. So we surprised them. If like Eisenhower they had put a couple of real sailors in their forecasting team they might have done better, but being badly briefed, and unmilitary and unnaval, they can, I think, be excused. The main lacunae were naval and military, not meteorological.

Their confident long-range forecasts were, however, less excusable. Before June 1944 the Allies had found that our own five-day efforts were operationally unacceptable. But the German High Command still actually believed such long-range views as Lettau’s, mentioned by Burton, which anticipated no invasion in the weeks ahead. Scientifically unsound and operationally naive, this gave no fewer than five of the High Command an excuse to absent themselves in body and spirit from Normandy. To make such a long-range operational forecast was unwise and to believe it was military folly.

Is the following quotation relevant? ‘When riding en route to the Inauguration ceremonies Jack Kennedy asked Ike about D-Day. To his surprise Ike didn’t credit his success to the epic’s grand design. Instead Ike said the Allies probably prevailed because they had superior meteorologists.’ We meteorologists thought it was because of superior soldiers and sailors, but who are we to query what Ike said?

Lawrence Hogben
Soyans, France

Compatibility

Edward Wilson (Letters, 4 August) thinks it ‘bizarre’ that I should ‘derive … Isaac Watts’s crimson robe from a Polish Jesuit’. Let it pass that I didn’t quite do that. The point is that my invocation of Matthias Casimire Sarbiewski (1596-1640) isn’t a quirky bright idea of my own. Sarbiewski’s neo-Latin Horatian poems, published in 1625 and 1628, were Englished by G. Hils in 1646, and in that form have been edited by Maren-Sofie Rostvig and reprinted in Los Angeles in 1953. Apart from Watts there are English versions of Casimire by Cowley, by Henry Vaughan in 1651, by John Hughes in 1720 and by the Baptist hymn-writer Anne Steele (1717-78). Another translator of Casimire was the one poet whom Edward Wilson quotes against me, John Norris of Bemerton (1657-1711). Does this induce Wilson to think my ascription to Casimire of a decisive influence on Watts seem less ‘bizarre’? I fear not, even though in his Reliquiae Juveniles (1734) Watts begins his ‘To Dorio. The first Lyrick Hour’ by saying: ‘There’s a Line or two that seem to carry in them I know not what Softness and Beauty in the beginning of the Ode of Casimire, where he describes his first Attempts on the Harp, and his commencing a Lyrick Poet.’ All this documentation, and more, I had to my hand when I wrote The 18th-Century Hymn in England, where I intimated as much, hoping thereby to avoid any parade of pedantry. But I was wrong: the review by Margaret Doody, and subsequently the letters from Wilson, show that literary scholarship is now so competitive and industrialised that if you don’t put your professional credentials on the table, it will be supposed you don’t have them. If Wilson wants to check on me (which I doubt), I direct him to John Hoyles’s shamefully neglected book of 1971, The Waning of the Renaissance 1640-1740. (The date just squeaks in under the wire strung to preserve the common conviction that the intellectual world began again in or about 1968.)

LRB readers have had to put up with the citation of Wilson’s authorities against mine, prompting the suspicion that we’re arguing not with but past each other – which is true. I am concerned with English poetry, and with Watts as a poet; Wilson and Doody are concerned with things they think more important, to which Watts and his poems are at best mere illustrations, more commonly just debating-points.

Wilson now says that I am ignorant of ‘Christian hermeneutic tradition’. So I am; though I know that there is such a tradition. So far as I have looked into it, it is sterile, it has nothing to say to me as a suffering person at the end of the 20th century. The verses which Wilson persists in pressing upon me from Isaiah 63, provoked from Lancelot Andrewes in 1623 (Wilson obligingly quotes it) a gloss or explication for which the kindest word is ‘quaint’. Watts, on the other hand, in a poem (not the famous hymn) which explicitly glosses the same verses while shearing away their barbaric, ancient Israelite connotations, presents me with a figure whose blood I can (figuratively, to be sure) drink when I am at the communion-rail, as I could not, however figuratively, drink the blood of ‘the man from Edom with red garments from Bozrah’. When Watts claimed to ‘christianise’ the Scriptures, he meant what he said: his was a modernising so radical that it left the Christian hermeneutical tradition in tatters that only antiquarians like Edward Wilson try to piece together. Whose blood does Wilson drink when he comes to the communion-rail (if he does)? It is an impertinent question, but inescapable. T.S. Eliot in 1926, applauding Lancelot Andrewes, declared Donne inferior to him in that ‘Donne has, on the one hand, much more in common with the Jesuits, and, on the other hand, much more in common with the Calvinists, than has Andrewes.’ Just so; two generations after Andrewes, Isaac Watts became just what Eliot in dismay foresaw: a person who, like Donne, sympathised with Jesuit and Calvinist alike, as mainstream Anglicans could not. We have only to look at our hymn-books to see that Watts’s modernisation carried the day. It is our good fortune, and yet no accident either, that Watts was also an elegant and scrupulous poet.

Donald Davie
Silverton, Devon

Doggerel

What perverse trick of memory caused Wendy Doniger (LRB, 4 August) to quote what she called ‘the old limerick’ in French? There are no limericks in French, old or otherwise. The form simply does not transpose. Rules of prosody can be set aside, although in French with difficulty, since they spring so naturally from the spoken language. But the sounds and rhythms of the language, and above all the fugitive nature of tonic stress, cannot accommodate the limerick. The rhyme scheme aabba is, I suppose, possible, though I have never encountered it. Englishmen have tried to write limericks in French, if memory serves I believe George du Maurier had a go, but it did not and cannot work. I do not believe any French writer has been tempted. Wendy Doniger’s example is a patent translation, and a poor one, since the result cannot be read as verse, even doggerel verse; it could be improved, but the result would still be forced and false. I do not know the original, but it is easy to reconstruct it. The first line, ‘There was a young fellow of Dijon’ (Didge-un is the required pronunciation, to give a rhyme with ‘religion’), has a typically lolloping rhythm which cannot be reproduced in French.

It has to be accepted that the limerick, with its curious ability to accommodate philosophical thought or cheerful obscenity, is indissolubly tied to the English language, as, for example, the prose form of the contrepèterie is to French, in which it produces books full of gross obscenities, whereas the transfer to English gives only the flat and laborious spoonerism, with one or two irreverent exceptions that I will not quote here.

The book under review reminded me that Théophile Gautier did not agree that dogs need people:

Que les chiens sont heureux!
Dans leur humeur badine
Ils se sucent la pine,
Ils s’enculent entr’eux;
Que les chiens sont heureux!

Gerald Long
Paris

Proper Authority

That Peter Kramer has written an almost bad book on Prozac is one thing; that Stuart Sutherland has written a bad review is entirely another (LRB, 7 July). Dr Kramer’s book is bad, not least because he bases his extensive conclusions on a mere 12 cases. His idea of Cosmetic Psychopharmacology misses the point by a clinical mile. Prozac, like another new anti-depressant, moclobemide, has a particularly beneficial effect on social phobic anxiety. The link with improved confidence is self-evident. Psychiatrists are well aware of the benefits and limitations of Prozac: it is no better than any of the other anti-depressants but can be remarkably well tolerated by patients. With depression increasingly being viewed as a chronic relapsing disorder, akin to diabetes, tolerance and compliance are very important in management.

Dr Sutherland, however, is throwing out the patient with the pill. His examples are simplistic, and in blaming Dr Kramer for naive use of facts, he should take more care with his own. Lithium is rarely, if ever, used solely for treatment of depression; only occasionally to boost the effect of other anti-depressants. The statement that ‘it is well known that almost everybody recovers from mild depression’ is meaningless in the clinical sense: what is even better known is that a very high percentage of people do not recover from chronic depression without help.

The evidence that psychiatrists are more gullible than other members of the medical profession is dubious. If the persistence of psychoanalysis is any guide, they tend, if anything, towards the conservative.

Robert Kaplan
The Liaison Clinic,

Astonishing Mistake

Apologies to Francis Crick for the psycho/typo gremlin which intervened between my brain, fingers and keyboard and transformed his Astonishing into an Astounding Hypothesis (LRB, 7 July)!

Steven Rose
Milton Keynes

Poor Chap

I admit we Naffs have little sense of fashion. I for one have trouble keeping my shirt-flap tucked in. Nevertheless, when I read in your esteemed pages of Sir Hardy Amies (LRB, 21 July) terming dandies in white dinner jackets ‘effortlessly naff’, it stings. Indeed, as one who has made enormous effort to bear up under the strain of being a Naff, I think it outright foolhardy.

Clayton Naff
Tokyo

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