Accidentally stabbing himself

Nixon 3

Of the latest crop of Nixon biographies, Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas is an attempt at fairly assessing Richard Nixon, that divisive and unbalanced figure. And yet the verdict is of a leader who Thomas notes was ‘incapable of following his own advice’, and who Thomas sees as depressingly human in his frailties and his ramblings, pettiness, self-deception, cluelessness and contradictions, particularly evident on the White House tapes. Thomas suggests that his slow deliberation, which might also be described as calculation, meant that he circled around the Watergate issue and incriminated himself without actually taking charge of the situation. He could pronounce that cover-ups and grduges were bad while these were exactly what brought Nixon unstuck. There are many little examples of Nixonisms – self-contradictory statements, such as when he jotted in his diary that ‘burden’ is a wrong word for the presidency before going on to note that it is a ‘glorious burden’. And there is more evidence that Nixon was a strange personality to be president: shy, wary of confrontation. He was also impetuous, especially when angry, and aides got used to ignoring his wilder directives. Nixon himself seemed to recognise this, noting that when staff made their own decisions about whether to follow through on orders, they were being admirably strong-minded. Kind historians suggest that Watergate might not have happened if some of Nixon’s staff hadn’t taken seriously his requests for bugging and burglaries.

There are also more anecdotes about Nixon’s slapstick clumsiness, such as when he accidentally slapped a soldier’s face while trying to shake his hand (almost impossible to imagine how this happened), and when, in a cabinet meeting, he dropped his pen after accidentally stabbing himself in the hand and the cabinet members were crawling around on the floor trying to find it for him.

A crowded field

John Lewis Stempel

Nature writing can focus on the sublime, but it can also attend to the usually unnoticed intricacies of the mundane. John Lewis Stempel is of the strain of English nature writers of the latter category, a field becoming more crowded of late (happily) as many writers try to stake out their piece of literary turf by unearthing in prose a piece of literal turf – be it coastlines, ancient laneways or hedgerows. Stempel’s latest book looks at the species of plants and animals that inhabit not the wilderness but farmland, but are diminishing, for various reasons including monocultural farming. A previous book, Meadowlands, looks at simply one field, owned by Stempel, and in patient prose he describes the seasons turning and the history, vistas and sensations of a place most people hardly give a second glance. Possibly because we in the cities are so conditioned to imagine ‘countryside’ as ‘wilderness’ and bypass farmland for more sublime destinations – rainforests, mountaintops. But there is plenty to interest the keen eye in the more mundane landscape.

Against a vending machine God

Catherine Wallace

I like a good series. Catherine Wallace’s Christian Humanism and the Moral Imagination is a series of slim books from Wipf and Stock Publishers (with, I might say, a nice aesthetic sense) that is a response to fundamentalism, an attempt to understand and counter the kind of right wing anger that poses as religion in the US. She is keen to not let fundamentalism be the default strain of Christianity because, she says, Christianity is too important – it has ‘antibodies’ to deal with our society’s problems of consumerism and ‘excessive individualism’.

The book Confronting Religious Denial of Science is particularly interesting because it takes an unusual and surprising tack away from the usual defences of Christianity as compatible with modern science by focussing not on quantum physics and the like, but on story. Wallace is a literary critic, so, she says, she starts with story. And indeed, instead of just jumping headlong into the Victorian era and the rise of Darwinism and fundamentalism, she begins with a story from her own life, about the power and purpose of prayer. She does talk about the history of the supposed clash of religion and science, but points out the loss of the concepts of metaphor and symbol, and focusses on two particular issues – miracles, where she suggests, in unsurprisingly liberal fashion, that we attend to the symbolism, and prayer, where less unsurprisingly, she gets into the issues of meditation and the power of prayer to reorient one’s outlook (rather than prayer simply being addressed to, as she says, a vending machine God). There is plenty of material about Christian mysticism and the traditions of prayer out there but it is somewhat unusual to see this so upfront in a book purportedly attacking the tendency of both fundamentalists and atheists to misunderstand the science/religion relationship.

She also makes the point, which someone as mainstream as Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson would make, that scripture is not something we extract doctrine from, discarding it when we have extracted this ‘essence’. Scripture is not a tree we pluck apples from. It is something that creates the spiritual air we breathe, and as such needs to function as a whole, just as the leaves photosynthesise but cannot do so without the rest of the tree attached. (This has nothing to do, by the way, with the diversity of the human authors of the various books of the Bible or their varying literary styles, but merely refers to the way the Bible is constantly referencing itself and is a caution against quoting out of context.)

Dirty tricks

Tim Weiner

Why Watergate? Tim Weiner’s (above) new book on Nixon, One Man Against the World, is a good summary of Nixon’s rise and presidency, and Weiner’s particular angle, probably not exclusive to Weiner but nevertheless the book’s organising principle, is that Watergate was the product of Nixon’s early-developed habit of dirty tricks and his frustration with trying to end the Vietnam War. Newly opened sources and the transcription of the White House tapes are providing more primary evidence for Weiner’s thesis, as well as spurring the publication of a whole lot of new books on Nixon of late (yay!).

Nixon himself, on the other side as a presidential contender in ’68, initially tried to undermine the peace process, and got away with it. Democrats thought, on the eve of the election, that revealing Nixon’s treachery would be too destabilising, sowing the seed, says Weiner, for a culture of Nixon thinking he could get away with underhanded activity. Once Nixon inherited Vietnam, he continued his dirty tricks to harass protestors and political opponents, while desperately trying to bomb his way to peace. The figures for bombs dropped on North Vietnam are staggering, and the cold calculation of Kissinger and Nixon is chilling, not to mention the fact they were also bombing a neutral country, making them war criminals. Evan Thomas, in the recent biography Being Nixon, comments that Nixon was afraid of personal confrontation, and perhaps this repressed side came out in force in the abstract belligerence of war planning.

At the same time, Weiner also relates, Nixon wanted to be seen as the pioneering international statesman, with his visit to China, in order to appeal to the broad middle and working class ‘silent majority’ who were ‘suckers’ for that stuff.

Nixon is often seen as an amusing historical oddity, an aberration. But Nixon is responsible for moving the US Supreme Court to the right and is perhaps responsible, therefore, says Weiner, for the election of Dubbya Bush. Most sobering is Weiner’s conclusion that US presidents have learned nothing about covering things up since, or perhaps learned that they simply need to be smarter about dirty tricks and illegal war activities – Clinton falling into the former category, and Obama and Bush falling into the latter.

Botanical tidbits

Richard Mabey

There is no doubt that plants suffer from human encroachment, not the least because we can destroy in a matter of minutes what has taken decades to grow, as in Sydney recently where an avenue of hundred-year-old figs was chopped down simply for a wider street. But British nature writer and biographer of Gilbert White Richard Mabey’s new book, The Cabaret of Plants, celebrates the tenacity and resourcefulness of plants, something that we perhaps miss in our urban environment where, as Mabey points out, we labour under the delusion that we control plants. He laments that in our tendency to see plants as either food or decoration we have lost the very Victorian trait of marvelling at the structural and mechanical wonder of plants. The book is a rich lode of botanical tidbits, focusing on a particular species in each chapter, from swampy, tidal marsh plants to orchids and giant waterlilies and boab trees that rose in Madagascar and eventually made their way to Australia. He also points out that plants upset our ideas of what is living and dead and healthy and sick, suggesting that signs of ageing are not signs of disease, and that the capacity of a seed to lie dormant for decades or centuries throws into confusion our ideas of what constitutes a ‘living’ thing. Or ‘things’ – as he points out when discussing clonal colonies of trees that can be classed as many or one organism depending on what definition you are using.


Microclimates, topography, etc.

Vaclav Cilek

Nature writing from the UK, despite being sometimes quite lyrical and compelling, can still have an English sensibleness about it. The writing of Vaclav Cilek, on the other hand, is something else altogether. Although a geologist, and a pretty famous one, as far as geologists go, having appeared on Czech TV, he is also a translator of spiritual texts, and his writings mix direct observation of the environment with poetic flights and descriptions of the mythology, magic and spirituality of the countryside, aspects which seem to have disappeared from, or at least been minimised in more Western European views of nature.

To Breathe with Birds is a new collection of Cilek’s writings that covers topics such as how trees used to be treated like members of the family, or pets, with their own feelings. He relates the history of asphalt, that often unrecognised surface that accounts for much of our cities and towns. There is a story about a martyr’s bones and the mystery of their eventual resting place, descriptions of visions in the countryside, and commentary on the way landscape affects memory (where he refers to Simon Schama’s significant and intriguing book Landscape and Memory). And Cilek refers to the way landscape changes, the way humans have cultivated, abandoned and repurposed the landscape. He offers a nuanced view, emphasising the need for scale, interaction and sensitivity, but doesn’t see change as necessarily bad, suggesting that humanised landscapes can provide plants, always the opportunists, with new environments, and can inadvertently create new ecosystems. But his sharp observation of the complexities of landscape history, microclimates, topography, etc. acts as a caution against the creeping homogeneity of urban environments.



Milan Kundera’s latest, The Festival of Insignificance, is a short novel, pretty much a novella, that, like his other books, mixes fiction with philosophical musings and overt references to the fact that this is a novel we are reading (‘my characters’, he says at  one point). His characters are four male friends of indeterminate age, perhaps middle-aged, living in Paris, who visit the doctor, wait on guests at a party, chat over a drink, or reminisce with a dead mother. Mixed with this are anecdotes about Stalin and his offsiders, digressions into the philosophy of Hegel and Schopenhauer (though not at any length), and commentary on the navel as an object of display in the dress of young female Parisians, which may or may not be a joke playing on the concept of navel-gazing. Kundera (or his characters) also speculates on the effectiveness of jokes in a politically dark time. The writer of the publisher’s blurb for the book seems to have had trouble making any sense of it, and has virtually given up, referring back to previous novels and offering the verbal equivalent of throwing up one’s hands. But the book’s charm lies in its not taking itself too seriously. This fact seems to have put some reviewers off, but rather than the more straight-forward or furiously pedalling American or British novel, it is of the distinctly European style that sees everyday subject matter as a perfectly worthy vehicle for humour, invention and rumination.