Tour de Feathers

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Dear Maud,

I am a lover of birds – of Penguins, Pelicans and ducks.

My nearest Penguin at present is Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a novel set, we infer, in Stalinist Russia, and narrated, we know, by one Nicolas Salmanovich Rubashov, one time Commissar of the People, but now a prisoner awaiting trial for ‘counter-revolutionary crimes’.

The book has undeniable power; its potency lies in the ideas it presents. One stands out: a stark justification of state brutality, unnervingly persuasive. Its essence? That ‘respect for the individual and social progress are incompatible’.

Take that! And this: ‘Moral cowardice has driven many to martyrdom.’

So, is Rubashov guilty? It matters not, Maud, because whatever the verdict, the man is doomed. As he himself writes: ‘We are doing the work of prophets without their gift. We replaced vision by logical deduction; but… proof disproved proof, and finally we had to recur to faith – to axiomatic faith in the rightness of one’s own reasoning. The fact is: I no longer believe in my infallibility. That is why I am lost.’

Though, fortunately, not lost to us.

In the late 1930s, when Darkness at Noon first saw light of day, one W. Macneile Dixon gave a series of lectures on the subject ‘Why are we here?’ Published in Pelicans as The Human Situation, these exquisite disquisitions return a verdict of their own: ‘Viewed from first to last, and all in all, who can deny to the architecture of nature a certain stateliness, or refuse to recognize in it a singular genius at work?’

Replace ‘nature’ with ‘this book’ and you have my view of this tour de feathers. It is, in short, a masterpiece – my Bible, no less. As a celebration of life, it is hard to top.

It can and must speak for itself:

Reason, for all the flourishing of her trumpets, has had no greater success in illuminating the grand problems than the imagination. From the central keep of the world’s mystery its arrows fall idly back, as from the walls of the medieval castle the bolts of the archers.

I rest my case, Maud, and move with haste to my third precious bird.

Dougal is his name; duckliness is his game. Since his immaculate reception, my avian orphan has been more of a hoot than a quack – until Sunday, that is. For early that morning, as I watched in awe, our duck Dougal made his maiden flight. Fence after fence he overflew before turning for home; commencing his descent over Eggnham Castle, he skirted Yeoman’s Hut only to misjudge his height and put down in the yard next door.

Time and space parted. Vaulting the fence, I came muzzle to face with a bemused-looking dog, in whose mouth I saw my woebegone duck, his head hung low, one tiny bright eye holding mine in mute appeal. So Dougal is dead, I thought, and went hollow with woe.

How does one reason with a Rottweiler? Poorly. As it trotted around and about, I made my pathetic pleas. Fortunately, even a dog tires of holding a duck in its mouth. The Rotter dropped Dougal and lo! that duck rose from the dead. With difficulty, I returned him to his den, where his recovery continues to this very day.

There is, Maud, a moral to this story. When I know it, you will too.

Of one thing I am sure: this missive has flown too near the sun, and plummets now to its timely end.

Yours etc.