Owls, Memory and Prophecy
Last evening we went out with friends to eat at a wonderful Greek restaurant on Ashbridges Bay on the shores of Lake Ontario in the east end of the city. When I was waiting outside the house both for my wife to come out and for our friends to arrive and pick us up, I heard the constant and repeated clucks rather than songs of a plump gray bird just larger than a typical sparrow flitting from one branch to another in the pine tree in our front yard. He was moving too frenetically for me to get a good look, but I did notice he had no noticeable colour except for several white streaks on its upper torso. The beak looked black, but I could not be sure, and its breast was lighter gray rather than white. Its tail seemed unusually short.
Needless to say, I am not a birdwatcher and would not really know a sparrow from a warbler, wren, flycatcher or vireo, let alone differentiate among the very wide variety of each species. I wished then that I had one of those apps on a cell phone where you can record the sound of the bird and the phone will tell you what kind you are looking at. Alternatively, you could take a picture and the phone would tell you which type of bird it is. My wife insists I carry around her old phone – mostly I forget – so she can reach me in emergencies, even though she knows I rarely notice if it is ringing and have to be told by a stranger annoyed by my not answering the phone that I should answer. In any case, my phone is an unsmart one, so out of date that it is only useful for making phone calls if I would ever learn to use it or even just hear it. I do feel it, however, if I put it onto “vibrate”
All this is beside the point since, as usual, I did not have the phone on me, though at the moment I really wanted such a phone to make up for my inabilities at keen observation, ignoring the fact that even if I had a smart phone with the right app, I would be so clumsy at figuring out how to use it that the bird would have long started to migrate south again for the winter. Nevertheless, I longed for such an app for I could not really describe the colour let alone shape of its bill though I had been watching the bird for what seemed to be a very long time but was probably only 2-3 minutes. Was the cape a different colour than the feathers on its back? Did it have rings around its eyes? I could picture my embarrassment when my wife queried me and gradually became exasperated at my inability to answer.
When Nancy did emerge from the front door – our friends had not yet arrived – I told her about the plump grey bird that was just larger than a sparrow but had suddenly gone silent and seemingly flew off. I described the repeated clucks and had heard higher pitched tweets and a slightly lower pitched melodious chord but could not identify their source so I pointed out what I thought was a closed in grey nest in the crotch of a branch and the main trunk that I thought (to myself) looked like a very small owl with two twigs sticking up like ears. I thought that the plump bird larger than a sparrow was trying to protect its nest.
“That’s an owl,” Nancy announced after one look. “It’s a very small owl. Its eyes are closed but you can clearly see them. Looks like…” – she gave me a name but I cannot remember what she said. So I looked up pictures of owls this morning. It could have been a screech owl or a young long eared or short eared owl, but I know she did not give me those names. It is evidently very unusual to see an owl in the city. Nancy had brought my attention to the hoot of an owl that very morning and concluded that this must have been the owl she had heard. She then digressed into a story of how she and her father would go hiking at night at their farm tramping through the crisp crust of piled up snow with special field glasses looking for owls, particularly great snow owls. All the while I was feeling stupid for not being able to distinguish between an owl sitting perfectly still and a nest. But I excused myself. After all, I had never seen a real owl before except a stuffed one in our museum.
The only owl I really knew was the Owl of Minerva and the famous saying of Georg Friedrich Hegel from his Phenomenology of Spirit that the “Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk”. The Owl of Minerva was the name of the most important journal of Hegelian studies and was meant to convey that we, as philosophers, can only look backwards to understand the characteristic of an age. We are lousy prophets. Wisdom can only be retrospective and only in hindsight do we have 20/20 vision. That is why philosophy cannot be prescriptive but only analytic and phenomenological, focused on what we have already experienced.
In Ovid’s Metamorphoses that I just referred to in a recent blog, a crow bitches that it is not regarded with divine worship because it has been displaced by the unworthy owl which has an undeserved reputation for wisdom. The crow was a terrible gossip and spread the word that the Owl created by Minerva was really Princess Nycitimene, the daughter of Epopeus, the King of Lesbos, who raped his own child. That is why owls skulk around in the night and are so hard to spot. They live in eternal shame as victims of incest.
Whether they are or are not ashamed, or whether they are or are not ashamed because of a past sexual trauma or because they are incapable of understanding the future, they do take pride (and refuge) in their superior acuity in understanding the past. Of course, this is an ironic inversion of the Greek belief that owls should be revered for their wisdom because they can see so well in the dark – and the future is always black and provides little help to enlighten us about what is about to happen. The owl became the symbol of Athens and associated with Athena not only to be identified with universal and eternal truth but even with the capacity not simply to prophecy but to help bring about a desired outcome as a symbol of Athena’s intervention in the affairs of humans. Hegel inverted the Greek understanding of wisdom by insisting that wisdom be rooted in history and in retrospective analysis as we look wide-eyed and startled at the mess we just left behind.
However, lately I have been betraying my Hegelian philosophical roots. I used to say that if I prophesied something, especially something bad, it would never happen because I would always be wrong. So if I feared a terrible outcome I could really relax since I was so bad at prophecy I could be content that my bleak prognostication would not take place. I have strayed and betrayed my philosophical foundations and engaged in something more akin to Hebrew prophecy. Sometimes, when I am being particularly flippant and superficial, I will blame it on my increasingly failing memory. I cannot analyze the past if I cannot remember it. So if I am going to dance among the shadows, I might as well try to discern the character of the shadows of the future even if I cannot tell the difference between an owl and a bird’s nest right in front of my eyes.
I have been more and more encouraged by recent past successes over the last decade or more. Of course, it was really not hard to discern that the Iraq War was a folly right from the beginning as well as an immoral and politically stupid undertaking by the Georg Bush Jr. administration. Certainly, the ridiculous way the Americans followed up their quick military victory with the dissolution of the Iraq military as well as the civil administration given its previous control by the Baath Party all but guaranteed a developing insurgency and the soundness of the many like myself who outlined disaster. Though the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq War, had been partially politically and ethically justified, there was plenty of evidence from the past that it too would be a disastrous quagmire. So we critics were not just critical bench-sitting quarterbacks in the bleachers who had perfect vision because we were engaged in hindsight. The outcome was just all-too-obvious.
This prophetic propensity has not only taken place concerned with major events of worldwide importance but with Canadian events. In January, I co-authored a draft of a paper that in part dealt with the temporary worker program in Canada and, in particular, that part of the program focused on unskilled workers. In one section, we referred to all the scholarly literature that pointed to the terrible outcomes of such programs – particularly the problem of overstayers and the inevitable exploitation of such workers, that has not yet been part of the current brouhaha in Canada over the current program and forced Minister Kenny to shut the program across the country applied to the restaurant business. The current political mess had become a scandal because of the evidence of Canadian long-term employees being laid off and replaced by temporary foreign workers. We had not anticipated that this negativity would result so quickly. Although our timing was totally off and our focus has been peripheral to the main discussion, we could still claim credit for our muted prophecy about the disastrous character of the program.
Debates focused on whether employers really needed such workers or not and the effects on lowering wages in the particular industry. We had suggested that refugees be brought in for such jobs, sponsored by a partnership of businesses and Canadian churches, synagogues, mosques and community groups. The latter could orient the refugees and monitor their work conditions. The former could provide the monies to employ them and get them initially settled. It would be a positive sum game because the employers would get loyal workers, refugees would get a secure home and sponsors could get the great pleasure of saving lives and helping anther eager new Canadian settle into our great country. And there would be no problem of overstayers. In the next month we will be travelling to Halifax and Calgary to discuss launching pilot programs in those two jurisdictions to see how the program works.
Who says that philosophers are useless even if we do rely on owls that can only look backwards and cannot even see a real owl when perched right in front of us?