Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Not Wise, but Otherwise

Theodore Dalrymple:

So Owl gave me the first intimation in my life that all are not wise who claim to be learned. And Owl was a hint also that the clever could be the most foolish of all.

But why did owls symbolise wisdom in the first place? The splendid photos in my book, succinctly titled Owls, suggested a reason: owls seem to have only two states, the serene calmness of sleep and the most intense alertness when awake. Try as we might not to anthropomorphise, owls look serious; they indulge in no foolish or redundant movement. This is nonsense, of course: owls are bird-brained. And one of the things that I learnt from this book, delightful to me because completely useless, is that the Owl of Minerva does not necessarily spread her wings at dusk: nearly forty per cent of the 133 extant species of owls are diurnal, not nocturnal. I bet you didn’t know that.

...The law of unintended consequences is one of the hardest for people to learn because it is so unflattering to our conception of ourselves as rational beings, and because (if it is a law) it suggests inherent limits to our power. We shall never fail to commit errors.

Those excerpts are indeed all from the same essay, an essay which just so happens to be about two of my favorite things: owls and unintended consequences. Naturally, I had to acknowledge it.

Once in my teenage years, after a soccer game, some teammates and I were eating dinner at a restaurant. Somehow, the conversation turned to deciding which animal we each resembled. The consensus was that I was, of course, an owl. Possibly because of my wide eyes, serious expression and quiet bookishness. Or possibly because of my ability to move silently and swivel my head 270°.

Whatever the case, I shortly thereafter underwent the ritual to adopt the owl as my spirit animal. Climbing a tree under a full moon, I hooted and prayed for a vision, while doing my best to resemble a feathered harbinger of death. Soon, my sacred quest was rewarded by the rustle of prey in the leaves below, which turned out to be my mom who had come looking for me. She did admit that my downward swoop was silent and terrifying, at least.

Since then, I have been blessed with the supernatural abilities to win any staring contest and to snatch up a swiftly running rodent with my bare hand.