Fascinating Pigeons, the New Treasures of Pompeii, and the Mystery of “Skeleton Lake”
Helen Macdonald reviews a “joyous” book on pigeons: “A decade ago I went to a racing pigeon club meeting with my boyfriend of the time, who lived in a bungalow on a farm in the Midlands and kept a loft of Janssens, checkered blue racing pigeons resembling town pigeons that had spent too much time at the gym. The meeting was in a Portakabin on what I think was a carp fishery in the middle of winter. There were stands of damp alders outside, and a ferocious easterly that rocked the cabin with every squall. Inside was a hissing Calor gas fire, steamy fug on the windows, and a crowd of men sitting on plastic chairs. Apart from my boyfriend they were all over fifty. There wore padded fishing waistcoats, tracksuits, tattoos and leather jackets with pigeon badges, and they talked at length of feeding regimes, wind directions, release points, the trials of flying the north road. Old personal scores were raised and not settled, much was made of the misguided love of bird protectionists for murderous bloody hawks, and I was silent the entire time. I was fascinated by everything I heard, but for all the contribution I made, I could have been a pigeon. Though of course then I’d have been of far more interest to the men in the room. Which is fair. Pigeons are incredibly interesting.”
The mystery of “Skeleton Lake”: “Hundreds of skeletons are scattered around a site high in the Himalayas, and a new study overturns a leading theory about how they got there.”
Facebook to hire journalists—again: “On Tuesday, the platform announced plans to hire what it is describing as a ‘small team’ of veteran journalists – likely fewer than 10 at the outset – to choose content that will be featured in a section of the news tab, a much-discussed product Facebook will begin testing on portions of its U.S. user base toward the end of October.”
Adam Kirsch replaces David Yezzi as poetry editor at The New Criterion.
The new treasures of Pompeii: “From gorgeous artworks to grimacing corpses, archaeologists are still uncovering the truth about life—and death—in the doomed city.”
Essay of the Day:
“Russians revere literature more than anyone else in the world,” Gary Saul Morson writes in The New Criterion. Great writers “see into the essence of things,” and what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn saw and recorded in The Gulag Archipelago is how easy it is to commit acts of great evil:
“Solzhenitsyn reports how it was mere chance that he did not become supremely evil. When he was finishing his education, he and his classmates were offered the opportunity to do something nobler than physics, a job of great moral importance which also entailed social prestige and material reward: they could attend the NKVD training school. These students had been raised to regard the NKVD as a supremely moral organization. Realizing how close he came to becoming an interrogator himself, Solzhenitsyn reflects: ‘And just so we don’t go around flaunting too proudly the white mantle of the just, let everyone ask himself: “If my life had turned out differently, might I myself not have become just such an executioner?” It is a dreadful question if one answers it honestly.’
“Solzhenitsyn turned down this coveted offer out of some inner intuition ‘not founded on rational argument. . . . It certainly didn’t derive from the lectures on historical materialism we listened to: it was clear from them that the struggle against the internal enemy was a crucial battle front, and to share in it was an honorable task. . . . It was not our minds that resisted but something inside our breasts. People can shout at you from all sides: “You must!” But inside your breast there is a sense of revulsion, repudiation. I don’t want to. It makes me feel sick. Do what you want with me. I want no part of it.’ And yet, he reflects, some of us did join, and if enough pressure had been applied, perhaps all of us would have. In that case, ‘what would I have become?’ The passage that follows is one of the book’s most famous: ‘So let the reader who expects this book to be a political exposé slam its covers shut right now. If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? . . . From good to evil is one quaver, says the [Russian] proverb. And correspondingly, from evil to good.’
“The contrary view, held by ideologues and justice warriors generally, is that our group is good, and theirs is evil. ‘Evil people committing evil deeds’: this is the sort of thinking behind notions like class conflict or the international Zionist conspiracy. It is the opposite of the idea that makes tolerance and democracy possible: the idea that there is legitimate difference of opinion and we must not act as if God or History had blessed our side as always right. If you think that way, there is no reason not to have a one-party state. The man who taught me Russian history, the late Firuz Kazemzadeh, used to say: remember, there are always as many swine on your side as on the other.
“A heart is not good or evil once and for all. Sometimes a heart ‘is squeezed by exuberant evil[;] and sometimes it shifts to allow space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances . . . close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.’ We are never closer to evil than when we think that the line between good and evil passes between groups and not through each human heart.”
Poem: Morri Creech, “The Sentence”
Receive Prufrock in your inbox every weekday morning. Subscribe here.