Thursday, June 25, 2015

`The Fidelity of Things'

Not a title in which one would expect to find appropriately deployed allusions to Eugenio Montale and Zbigniew Herbert, among others: Healing Richard Nixon: A Doctor’s Memoir by Dr. John C. Lungren (University of Kentucky Press, 2003). Like many readers, I navigate tributaries of bookish interest flowing into and out of the Mississippi of Literature. Among them is Nixon, the president elected one week after my sixteenth birthday. Few public figures have so often recalled Shakespeare’s heroes and the crippling severity of their flaws. He is our Coriolanus, our Othello, and, like them, never less than baffling and intriguing.

Lungren, who wrote the book with the aid of his son, John C. Lungren Jr., was the Nixon family physician from 1952. Among the epigraphs the doctor gives his memoir is a line borrowed from Nixon’s first book, Six Crises (1962): “But I have found that leaders are subject to all the human frailties . . .” In his preface, Dr. Lungren reproduces a letter from Nixon commenting on an early draft of the book’s foreword: “I would suggest only one small change. The reference to Lear would be understood only by a few Shakespeare scholars. Job—might be a better name. More people read the Bible than read Shakespeare (I hope!)” And the doctor in the same preface quotes Hamlet’s words to Horatio -- “report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied” – before adding: “To the unsatisfied I will report the unadorned Nixon as I knew him: impassioned, guarded, intellectual, introverted, disciplined, emotional, brilliant, deeply religious, and tragic.”

In his preface, the younger Lungren reports he and his father agreed on observations regarding biography made by Richard Holmes in Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage (1996): “. . . it began to pose the largest, imaginative questions: how well can we know our fellow human beings, how far can we learn from someone else’s struggles about the condition of our own, what do the intimate circumstance of one particular life tell us about human nature in general?” Any honest person can see in Nixon a reflection of his own ambition, peevishness, cunning and hunger for revenge. After Nixon’s death in 1994, Lungren composes a sort of eulogy for his friend:

“Unsettled, I thought of the lemon trees that Nixon’s father had planted in Yorba Linda [Nixon’s birthplace in California, in 1913], a grove of trees next to the home Frank Nixon built from a catalogue kit for his family from which Hannah Nixon picked the bitter-sweet fruit for her beloved son Richard and his brothers. In Yorba Linda, the lemon trees no longer exist, but their memory remains as `trumpets of gold,’ portending salvation.”

The quoted passage is from Montale’s “The Lemon Trees” (trans. William Arrowsmith, Cuttlefish Bones, 1992):

“But the illusion dies, time returns us
to noisy cities where the sky is only
patches of blue, high up, between the cornices.
Rain wearies the ground; over the buildings
winter's tedium thickens.
Light grows niggardly, the soul bitter.
And, one day, through a gate ajar,
among the trees in a courtyard,
we see the yellows of the lemon trees;
and the heart’s ice thaws,
and songs pelt
into the breast
and trumpets of gold pour forth
epiphanies of Light!”

In the book’s final paragraph, recounting Nixon’s near-fatal bout of phlebitis just months after his resignation in 1974, Lungren writes: “While caring for Nixon’s crisis of body I witnessed his crisis of soul, the deep moral ordeal and upheaval that returned him to `the fidelity of things.’” The quoted phrase is from the final stanza of Zbigniew Herbert’s “Stool” (trans. Czesław Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott, Selected Poems, 1968):

“how to express to you my gratitude wonder
you come always to the call of the eye
with great immobility explaining by dumb-signs
to a sorry intellect: we are genuine—
At last the fidelity of things opens our eyes.”

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