Looking for eagles, My Brilliant Friend, patterning, and a brilliant string quartet
by Rob Tiller
On Saturday and Sunday mornings I went up to Shelley Lake to see if I could spot and photograph the eagles. I had no luck on Saturday, though I enjoyed walking around the lake and seeing other birds. On Sunday I located the eagles’ nest and got a brief view of one of them, but it flew before I could raise the camera. I waited around for a while hoping it would return, and some other nature lovers stopped to share eagle news. A photographer named Don said that his buddy got a shot of the eagles mating a couple of weeks ago, which could result in eaglets in a month or so. I didn’t see the eagle again, but I did get a close view of (I think) a red-shouldered hawk.
This week I finally finished the fourth and last book of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. Ferrante has a kind of passionate naturalness, and something that seems fundamentally true. At the start, I had my doubts that I could get involved with a long story of working class Naples, Italian literati, crime families, and complicated female friendships, but I did. I loved some big chunks of it, though by the end I was ready to move on.
I also read again a good portion of The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent. Lent’s subtitle is A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning, and it’s hard to improve on that description. At a high level, the book covers the entirety of our history as a species, and compares and contrasts major cultures and their modes of thought. For anyone interested in why how human consciousness works, it is very thought-provoking. It’s also highly readable.
Lent breaks down the hierarchy that we in the West think of as natural, with rational thought given a privileged position, and all other modes of thinking and sensing viewed as far inferior. He draws a connection between many of our belief systems and the way we generally view nature as separate from us, with it having no importance other than sustaining humans. This orientation has caused us to wreak enormous havoc on the natural world, and indirectly on ourselves. But it is certainly possible to change that perspective, and to view our relationship with nature more as an organic whole, regarding our human lives as vitally connected with those of non-human lives. I’m working on that.
I also came across a lively, much shorter discussion of some of the inherent flaws in ordinary human thinking on Vox.com: Brian Resnick’s interview with David Dunning, co-discoverer of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which concerns people’s tendency to overestimate their own intelligence and abilities. Dunning explains the broad applicability of the theory — we all are prone to such errors — and has a few suggestions as to how to address the problem. Thinking in terms of probabilities, rather than certainties, should help, and consciously seeking to hear the views of others. He’s in favor of cultivating intellectual humility.
There’s a lovely new biographical essay in the last New Yorker magazine by Robert Caro. I’ve been a Caro fan from his first book, and have read each volume so far of his biography of Lyndon Johnson. In his essay, he writes about becoming a journalist who loves to dig through files and provoke people to honesty. As part of his Johnson research, he lived for three years in the Texas Hill Country where the future president grew up. That’s commitment! At age 83, Caro is still working hard on the last volume of the Johnson biography and planning a memoir. Let’s wish him a very long life, with much for him and us to look forward to.
We heard some excellent live music in the last week. The N.C. Opera did a wonderful production of Carmen. The performance we attended last Sunday looked to be sold out, and the crowd was enthusiastic. On Saturday evening at Duke’s Baldwin auditorium we heard the Schumann string quartet. This young group of three Schumann brothers from Germany and violist Liisa Randalu from Estonia, was superb — technically flawless, intellectually rigorous, and emotionally powerful. Their account of Schubert’s great Death and the Maiden quartet was epic — a battle to the death, as first violinist Erik Schumann called it. Before playing a Mozart encore, he also told the audience that it was a privilege to play for us in Baldwin, which he said was acoustically the best hall they’d ever played in. Nice to hear!