Friday, 5 February 2016

I Carry an Owl to Athens.

by Wolfgang Hildesheimer.
(translated by Joachim Neugroschel)

      One evening a year ago, I stood on the Acropolis and, with a sense of deep fulfillment, I released an owl that I had carried to Athens.
   My decision to do so had taken shape one night when I couldn't sleep. In such dark hours, I make decisions that I then immediately carry out, circumstances at all permitting. This new and so far perhaps boldest decision could not be put into effect all that easily, but its realization could be prepared right away. I dressed and went off to see my bird dealer. His shop is closed at night, needless to say; regular patrons use a concealed night bell. I rang and was soon standing among cloth-draped cages in the nocturnal dimness of the bird shop. The owner asked me what I would like.
   "An owl, please," I said.
   "Aha," he said, winking, as if relishing the shrewd expertise of his client. "You're a connoisseur. Most customers make the mistake of selecting an owl in daylight. Should I gift-wrap it?"
   "No. It's for me. I'd like to carry it to Athens."
   "To Athens---aha!" The bird dealer slowly rubbed his chin with his thumb and forefinger, making the stubble crunch. He said, "Well, then I'd recommend a little owlet. I'm afraid that long-eared owls or barn owls would not be up to the vicissitudes of a lengthy journey. A little owlet, on the other hand, is tough, and its size is more than manageable---"
   "Carry an owlet to Athens?" I said slowly, testing the idea with quiet skepticism. The very rhythm did not appeal to me.
   "The same family," the owner said. I held my tongue. "Nocturnal birds of prey," he added, spurred by the stubbornness of my silence. He was obviously unfamiliar with the nature of my qualms.
   Some of my readers may have possibly experienced a similar dilemma and therefore understand my doubts. In any case, I must confess, common sense won out over philological nit-picking: I bought the owlet. It did not seem worth running the risk of having an owl die shortly before I reached my destination, merely for the sake of all too pedantically refuting an ancient and utterly absurd presumption. Above all, I did not wish to violate the owl's soul by making its bearer the victim of classical associations. Man knows that God created him in His image, and he often has a hard time bearing this burden. But simile and similitude are alien to an animal, and, in my opinion, its animal dignity is enhanced by its ignorance of even the simplest fable about itself. Such were my musings as I walked home through the silent streets, loaded down with the owlet in a brass cgae and a large package of Hartz's owl seed. For my thoughts about essence and being, about man and animals, come to me---if at all---within that dark, suggestive boundary between night and morning, at which hour even a little owlet transcends its earthly shape. I was carrying a symbol in my cage, as it were: the Animal an sich.
   On the other hand, my sense of philological responsibility aroused a malaise, which I vainly tried to escape. What I was carrying in the cage was and would always be an owlet, a bird evoking entirely different images than an owl. While any nonzoologist might mistake it for a real owl, I would know until my dying day that I had carried a little owlet to Athens. In the gray of dawn, I peered at the sleeping bird, which had no inkling of my qualms or its legendary aura; why, the good, harmless creature didn't even sense that it was a little owlet and not an owl. i don't know why I was touched by this latter thought---perhaps, in such hours, I feel more tender stirrings, which bring me closer to creation. In any even, I resolved, come what may to carry this creature to Athens.
   And my resolve was rewarded. Upon consulting The Encyclopedia of Zoology in the morning, I learned that I had, in spite of myself, made the right choice with the little owlet. For, while the barn owl answers to the zoological name of Strix flammea, and the long-eared owl is called Otis vulgaris (which latter adjective is, I am convinced, unfairly borne by this attractive bird), the owlet is known as Athene noctua; and, in viewing the illustration, I realized that this was indeed the bird of the ancient image. here I had it, in black and white, and I need have no qualms about carrying its living likeness to Athens.
   A few days later, I boarded the Orient Express. Sharing my compartment was a gentleman whose exterior bespoke the scholar. He was evidently traveling to Athens, albeit, of course, on a different mission. With restrained curiosity, he watched me stowing the cage on the baggage rack; and while I sat down and pulled my Pausanias from my pocket, his eyes remained glued to the bird, which slept quietly on its perch.
   "An owl," I confirmed, without looking up from my book, feeling a profound peace of mind, a release from all doubts.
  "A little owlet," he said.
  "As you like," I said, looking up from my book after all. "In any case, this bird suits my purpose to a T."
   "Are you by any chance," the gentleman asked with a lurking expression, "carrying this bird to Athens?"
   "That is indeed my intention."
   Now, the gentleman smiled. Inserting a mark into his book, he closed it, put it aside, and made himself comfortable in his corner, as if preparing for a long discussion of an interesting issue.
   "My young friend," he commenced, "you have failed to read your Aristophanes carefully or else you have misunderstood him!" At this point, he paused as if to leave his demolished victim a choice between those two alternatives. But I did not choose---the charges were false; instead, i casually replied before he had a chance to continue: "I know, I know. It is considered the epitome of superfluousness to carry owls to Athens. I am familiar with this attitude. nevertheless, as you can see, I am carrying such a bird to Athens."
   "You mean a little owlet," the scholar said, a bit sharply, it seemed, as though personally resenting my departure from the custom of taking Athena's bird, whether a little owlet or a real owl, to Athens.
   Casually, almost indolently, i played my trump: "Athena's owl, as we know, was a little owlet. The translation of the word glaukoopis as "owl-eyed" is a philological inaccuracy, which I feel called upon to eradicate." I thereby deprived him of any possibility of retorting.
   Nor did the gentleman retort. he was clearly a philologist, and his share of the traditional guilt left him speechless. He resumed reading, and from that point on (we were already passing the train station at Grosshesselohe), he acted as if the little owlet did not exist. He did not vouchsafe it a word, or even a glance, and I must be grateful to him for that, since the bird did a few things that, retrospectively, may not be worth mentioning, but that may have been viewed as troublesome if not unsuitable in the presence of so many travelers.
   Now for some brief advice for those who, inspired by my example, have made up their minds to follow it: owls not being included in the list of declarable objects, one can resolutely challenge any duty demands made by customs-officials. cages, in contrast, are not duty-free, if they come fresh from the factory; however, a cage tenanted by a little owlet is soon no longer new. Gratuities are recommended, But do not count on sympathy from the train personnel, which is always changing; so if you do not know the tongue and body language of the countries you travel through, you will be unable to defend yourself effectively. On the whole, transporting an owl to Athens, admittedly, involves minor trouble, but it would be mendacious of me to deny that it is worth this trouble. Anyone who hopes for similar fulfillment from such actions as pouring water into the Thames or locking the stable door after the horse has been stolen will, I fear, be bitterly disappointed. Granted, the lack of ideal and material expenditures for these last-mentioned actions is attractive, and one is tempted to perform them, but the slight advantage of their simplicity is profusely made up for by the deep satisfaction one feels upon truly achieving one's goal.
   For when I began climbing towards the Acropolis with my owl cages on the evening of my first day in Athens, i was overcome by a feeling of fervent contentment. I was performing an action that, unlike so many of today's experiments, was not aimed at refuting the theses of yesterday's teachers and do-gooders; rather, the point was to confirm their theses. I was convincing myself how useless it is to carry owls to Athens, not because there are so many there---neither I nor any Athenian I know of has ever seen a single owl in that city! No, the action was useless because owls are as useless there as they ultimately are here. Thus, my bliss will be understood by anyone who, like me, prefers doing things whose conception reveals from the very start that they will lead to nothing, so that seeing them through is a pure and blissful end in itself.
   I bought my ticket, walked through the Propylaea, and halted in front of the Parthenon. With trembling fingers, I opened the cage. It was a grand moment. the owl rose into the air and fluttered away, to the pediment of the temple, where it perched for a while.
   A classical sight! Against the blue night of the Attic sky, which brought out the white of the marble, making it look spectrally beautiful, like porous velvet, my little owlet loomed forth, both a living creature and a symbol. I an no one else had carried it to Athens!
   "Look, Selma," I heard a man next to me say, "that confirms the old saying that it's no use carrying owls to Athens. They even perch on the Parthenon."
   "It's a little owlet," the woman replied.
   The man held his tongue, probably embarrassed. He was most likely a humanist too, and his humanism, as is often the case, had developed at the expense of his zoology. However, the man could be helped. i turned to the two of them, easily recognizing a pair of honeymooners, and said, "It is a little owlet, the true bird of the goddess Pallas Athena. Today, most people still do not know this. But they soon will!"
   With these self-confident words, i walked away, certain of their effect. i had helped the newlywed couple attain a more perfect image of classical reality or at least planted the seed of a correction.
   I sold the cage to a scrap-metal dealer and began my trip home the next day. i am a very busy man and must budget my time very carefully. Self-discipline prohibits my extending at will such escapades from my everyday routine.
   A few weeks later, the little owlet returned to my bird dealer. When a nocturnal bird of prey is tamed, it becomes deeply devoted to its master, a peculiarity that must certainly be counted among the zoological oddities. Nature is full of marvelous mysteries, and it frequently takes only a fluke to fathom one of them.

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