THE OWL OF MINERVA
When Hegel said “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk” what kind of an owl was he talking about? Actually what he said was Die Eule der Minerva beginnt erst mit der einbrechenden Dämmerung ihren Flug, which – just for the sake of being exact - I don’t know if he actually said it out loud before he wrote it down. The cute couple snuzzling are a pair of Burrowing Owls, Athene Cunicularia; the darker owl staring you right in the face is a little owl, Athene Actua. We’ll be getting to that presently.
There is a restaurant in Toronto that specializes in Korean comfort food but I have no idea why they call their restaurant the Owl of Minerva. An owl is one kind of bird you would never want to eat, along with certain sea ducks, vultures and cormorants so owls won't be on their menu which is why that can’t be the explanation for naming a restaurant after the Owl of Minerva. Owls are not easy to find as we have good reason to know from the repeated frustration looking for Snowy Owls last year.
If you’re lucky you can find owls in the daytime; your best bet is to go to Florida or out west somewhere and look for a Burrowing Owl, which looks a lot like a Little Owl – Athene Noctua – which is in fact the famous owl of Minerva. Burrowing Owls like to hang around out in the open in broad daylight in places like Cesar Chavez park in Berkeley assuming they’re not hiding down in their burrows which, by the way, they do not make the burrows, they appropriate them from those ratty looking ground squirrels that you can find all over the place in Cesar Chavez Park and other locations in the bay area.
Burrowing Owls are very cute – winsome or fetching I would say - and they like to sit there near their burrows blinking at you. Little owls, by contrast, do not hide in burrows but if you want to see one you might want to hire a guide to drive you around in the Doñana National Park not far from Seville or else find someone who can find you one in Portugal. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the guide who drove us around Doñana National Park and found us a Little Owl, but he was a retired British military guy who took us around and supplied a nice picnic lunch in the bargain.
The Little Owl turned up unexpectedly and even John, if that’s what his name was, was excited about it. I’m allowing myself to get distracted here because of my infatuation with owls, but that’s probably because I want something to distract me from what Hegel was actually saying. I have no idea what Hegel would have thought about a Little Owl or if he would have thought it was winsome or not.
He was thinking about the dusk, or the gloom, or let’s face it the fucking Gotterdämmerung that appears to be upon us these days and the business with the owl was just a picturesque way for him to picture what he wanted to say, which was “one more word about giving instruction as to what the world ought to be. Philosophy in any case always comes on the scene too late to give it... When philosophy paints its gloomy picture then a form of life has grown old. It cannot be rejuvenated by the gloomy picture, but only understood. Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.”
My own way of expressing this thought is to remind myself that once people have started to talk about something really gloomy or somber the bad thing has already happened. So here we’re close to the idea of Nachträglichkeit, and this has been coming up in a number of different posts lately but sort of in disguise because nobody is talking directly either about Nachträglichkeit or belatedness, which is the English translation.
Belatedness is the feeling that goes with what Hegel calls “a form of life [that] has grown old.” I’m not the only one thinking about this. Nina Zumel worries about it too. We could call it the world of paper things, or print culture, or traditional literacy. At one time writing letters was a valued art form, speaking of the world of paper things – think of Madame de Sévigné or The Earl of Shaftesbury.
Writing letters was something I enjoyed but I threw away all my letters from René Girard and Ursula K. LeGuin some time after I got my first e-mail account. For writing a proper sort of letter you have to have a certain kind of stationery. It is not comme il faut to just use a piece of 8½ x 11 typing paper for this. You could get this sort of thing with your own name and address made up for you by the local print shop and it wouldn’t cost much more than the anonymous kind you buy at the stationery store speaking of institutions that have completely vanished from the face of the earth.
All of this was tied to the world of paper things, which is something else you might be in mourning about if you have fond memories of that first box of personalized stationery with your name and address centered at the top and blank sheets for the second page of the letter. The envelope came with a return address printed right on it. Mine was a cream color sheet with a sans serif font printed in a shade of blue ink that was called Yale blue. I ordered it from the Yale Co-op. Did it have a narrow blue border? I think it did. All of it got used up long ago. Maybe I should drop in to that Korean Restaurant in Toronto for some comfort food.