These are writings by Olof. They are posted here with permission from the recipients.
November 24, 1991 letter to James D. Tabor:
"Each morning I spend up to an hour closely reading about two pages from Seneca's Epistulae Morales. Although I'm quite aware of the historical/cultural "Bedingtheit" of these letters, I read them nonetheless for personal edification, the same way I once read Nietzsche and, before that, the Bible. That is, my approach is not exactly scholarly. Furthermore, in reading Seneca's letters, I have no agenda other than the immediate enjoyment of sitting in the pre-dawn hours with a cup of coffee savoring both his Latin and his thoughts. My entire existence has its fulfillment in that hour or so. I likewise spend a while afterwards reading a few pages in Schopenhauer's Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit, which I appreicate much more after a first reading many years ago. It is so wonderfully wise, and like Seneca: "mundus"; clean, elegant, refined, devoid of the vulgar."
Olof on teaching students Latin, letter to James D. Tabor, September 6, 1991
"I have wonderful students, bright, energetic, attractive. Some of the 9th graders are terribly immature, but there's always a few who are intellectually precocious. At certain points in the text I practice guerilla tactics, that is, I strike quickly and then immediately move on as if nothing had happened. Just the other day, for example, I discussed the first declension noun "poeta," which is irregularly masculine, because of course most ancient poets were men. This gives me the opportunity to mention in passing Sappho. I describe her and her exaquisite poetry in a couple sentences, point out that she and her clique lived on the island of Lesbos (smiles, chuckles, and penetrating looks of intense curiosity from those sparkling eyes), and, as an afterthought, mention that the Church destroyed most of her works, before I move on to the next word on the upcoming vocabulary quiz. The word "mensis" for month gives me a chance to point out the derivative "menstrual" and I happen to think of the graves of the Old European cultures where menstrual blood was sprinkled over the grave goods as a sacred fluid, rather than something unclean."
"I'm sure you're going to enjoy the orientation at Carolina, a tropical paradise compared to the desert of WA. And speaking of which, I hope you have a great time in Hawaii. You're actually traveling farther than I am even though you're not leaving the country. That's one state I've never been to, one reason being that I wouldn't know what to do once I got there, since I'm not much for beaches and isn't that what you do in Hawaii? Go to the beach? I STILL haven't been to the beach in North Carolina. But they tell me the flowers are magnificent on those islands. That I would like to see. Can you imagine what Hawaii must have been like before the first human settlement and the beginning of species extinction a thousand years ago or whenever it was?"
"Your classes sound interesting. The other day, in B&N, I saw on the front tables two books by a CH scholar, Bart Ehrmann: Lost Christianities and Lost Scriptures. He's a major figure in the field of NT studies. I hope that anyone who is studying NT ends up taking one or two of his courses since it will reveal that the world of early Christianity is not as simple and clear-cut as fundamentalist Christians want to believe. We all go our different directions and must, in the end, be honest with ourselves and be comfortable with where we're at. In the end, I had to side with Mark Twain: "We go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company." I want to end up with my friends and the figures in history I most admire. I would much rather be with the pagan philosopher Epicurus than the self-righteous Paul, even if I have trouble hearing his voice over the crackle of the flames and the anguished screams of the damned -- the sound and sight of which will be a major source of pleasure for those upstairs in heaven, according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
Sometimes I think it would be better to be involved in an occupation which involves little or no controversy, like music or mathematics. The public discourse today is vastly more contentious and venomous than it was a few decades ago. Nixon and Kennedy were quite opposite to one another but there wasn't the bile and hostility you see expressed today, for whatever reason. One of the reasons it's nice to spend time abroad is that the air is free of this bitter enmity between political camps. And there's little sense in debating someone who knows little of history, philosophy or science. 40+% of Americans think the earth is around 10,000 years old. Is it possible to carry on a intelligent conversation with them??
Classes are coming along fine, good students, the administration leaves me alone, bless them. Maybe I'll see you soon at the school. Carry on and study hard!! Yours--Magister Ribb"
"Seriously, too bad about them not letting you onto campus. It seems they're taking the new security concerns way too far.
Things have been going okay. Today I'm off because of a doctor's appointment and the first of 30 radiation treatments (6 weeks). The latter are at 3:30 so I won't have to miss much of school. Tonight is our Latin Club Halloween Party in the media center.
So, things rock along at Western. I hope you are well, doing well in your studies, if not getting A's at least close to A's, and enjoying yourself on top of it. I know that you are able to appreciate the great opportunity you have to be studying at such a fine university.
Olof to me (Erick Mortenson) 11/8/2004. I had asked him about recommending travel to Sweden or Norway.
"Sweden, of course, I know very well, Norway hardly at all, so I can't offer good advice there. Sweden tends to be more urban and more sophisticated (at least they think so) whereas Norway is more rural in character. Swedes tend to be a bit more formal -- some would say up-tight -- than the Norwegians, although all Nordics agree that the Danes are the friendliest. All of these countries are of course very liberal, refreshingly liberal. We do have (remote) family contacts in central Sweden, although there has been little contact in the last few years, partly through my fault -- just other matters and interests more pressing. My interest in Sweden is to a large part purely intellectual and you can't expect a country with a population of 8 or 9 million to have a culture nearly as deep and rich as that of countries ten times that size. Which is not to say I don't love the country. I could move there tomorrow and feel perfectly at home in a matter of months. The Swedes are so civilized; the level of their education is obvious to any visitor. Can you imagine Philosophy as a subject in American elementary schools??? The very mention of evolution in my classroom is a provocation."
Olof to me 2/15/2005. I had just moved to a house that is a few yards from a coffee shop that he would visit when he lived in Minneapolis.
"I don't think I was ever on that street or block but I did spend a lot of time at nearby Dunn Bros. on Hennepin, sitting in the rear right corner near the computers if they still have it set up that way. I still miss the Cities although the nostalgia factor takes a sharp decline after about four or five years, from my experience. But now it's the family more than anything in particular that I miss, like the ASI [American Swedish Institute] or the Int'l Film Festival. We'll see."
Olof to many recipients on 8/8/2005, with pictures from Quito, Ecuador. There were 7 emails in all, each with a picture and story.
I'm emailing five or six photos from Quito, one at a time, in case anyone is interested in what things look like in that far away place. --Olof
This first one is the view from my top-story, 3rd-floor bedroom window, looking south over Quito. Quito is about 18 miles N-S and only three or four miles E-W, lying in a basin about 9000 feet above sea level (2800 meters). It has about 1,800,000 inhabitants. Ecuador is about the size of Colorado.
In 1950 Ecuador and Switzerland both had 3 million inhabitants. In 2000, Switzerland had 4 million and Ecuador had 12 million.
Here is one of my teachers, Alexandra, standing atop Mt. Pichincha to the west of Quito. In the background you see the southern half of the city, containing about 700,000 inhabitants. It doesn't appear on the tourist maps and is more or less off-limits to "blancos" (whites) like myself. Many or most of the inhabitants are in fact not native Quitenos -- many of those from this part of the city are in NY or Spain -- but immigrants from the countryside looking for work. To get to the top of this mountain you have to take a cable car that costs $4. That means few of the city's inhabitants will ever get up here.
Ecuadorians in Spain are like Mexicans in the U.S. -- the money they send home is very important to the economy. -Olof"
"Me again. The native markets are very popular tourist destinations in Ecuador. This one is about an hour from the city in a town called Saquisili. You find a lot of indigenous people selling crafts here, many of them descendants of Incas but many others from other tribes. The Incas were just in the process of subjugating this northern part of their empire when the Spanish under Pizarro arrived in 1531. -Olof"
"All the towns have their big annual festival. This one is in Machachi, in ranching country, where there are a lot of cowboys ("chagras") and this is their parade. Here is Jesus himself decked out like a chagra. Afterwards there was a huge street dance, accompanied by massive alcohol consumption, on the streets off the main plaza. -Olof"
"Hi. I stayed with a family for five weeks. Here's the mom of the house, Rocio ("dew"), with her three sons. It was a very tight-knit family living a hard life by our standards. I went grocery shopping with them once and every little purchase was a major issue. Prices for consumer goods are higher than in the U.S. Gas is $2/gallon. A school teacher makes around $200/month. -Olof"
"Our cabaas (cabins) at the lodge in the Amazon region -- quite comfortable actually. Not at all hot and steamy like I expected and the insects weren't bad either. The jungle is very noisy, at all hours, especially at night, with all sorts of strange sounds. The only seasons they have here are dry and rainy. We practically on the equator. -Olof"
"Last one here. Yours truly on the road to Papallacta, a vocanic springs area. This is typical Andean scenery -- huge vistas. -Olof"
More about Ecuador on 8/21/2005
Yes, Ecuador. I am continually coming across people with a personal connection to the country, people going there or having been there, people who know someone from there. As in Mexico, the money the immigrants send home is a critical part of their economy. My friend Alfredo, who spends his summers in Madrid, tells me that Ecuadorians in Spain are the analogue to Mexicans in the U.S. He has an "elderly" point of view in that he thinks that immigrants are ruining and trashing the country. Maybe it's pay-back time?
Next summer I must, MUST get back to Minnesota, at least for a visit, possibly more than that, we'll see. We could go biking together. I'm a fat-tire guy so may not be able to keep up with you if you're a more serious, long-distance type, although yesterday I went 35 miles, deliberately far since it was my birthday, for the record, you know. I set out before sunrise, to avoid the heat. It was mid-90s yesterday, and humid, worse than the Amazon a month or so ago!
Warmest regards to Keeley! --Olof James
P.S. attached photo: Quito, standing in in line to get a passport, always a line here in the mornings."
Part of an email to Judy that I was copied on 10/18/2005 describing facing cancer.
"Later today I have my first appointment with Radiation Therapy here in Greensboro. I'll write you after that. The pain hasn't been too bad since last weekend, am getting by with one long-acting morphine combined with ibuprofin. But, the pain is always there and relief via radiation will be very welcome. In my more resigned moments I figure this thing is going to get me sooner or later -- it wasn't exactly caught in the early stages -- but all I really want is what I've always wanted even before this happened: some good days (without pain) and the opportunity to put things in order, providing for a minimum of fuss after I'm gone. If I can have that, I'll be happy. It's quality, not quantity."
To Gabriele Rwer on May 19, 2005. Part of his email is translated from German.
Dear Frau Rwer!
Es freut mich sehr brigens, dass Herr D "sich recht gut erholt" hat. Vivat et valeat!
Versuch einer bersetzung:
"...with the ripening of my atheistic outlook. The less I believe in God, the more I believe in life -- one of the reasons I want to spend a week in the Amazon Basin this summer -- and especially in that life that is trampled underfoot and exploited in this world: women (especially of the underdeveloped world), children, animals. And the more sweet and precious every day is, knowing that inevitably you will no longer be "under the sun," as the ancients put it. Transience is the very thing that gives life its value. And, also, how dangerous life is, knowing that "time and chance" happen to us all, willy-nilly, that you are utterly on your own. And the liberating feeling that, in the end, nothing really matters. In the end."
"...beim Reifen meiner atheistischen Perspektive. Je weniger ich an Gott glaube, desto mehr glaube ich an Leben -- einer der Grnde ich in diesem Sommer eine Woche im Amazonas verbringen will -- und besonders an jenes Leben, das in dieser Welt mit F§en getreten und ausgebeutet wird: Frauen (besonders in der unterentwickelten Welt), Kinder, Tiere. Und desto s§er und kostbarer jeder Tag ist, in der Gewissheit, dass unsere Tage "unter der Sonne" -- wie die alten Heiden es ausdrckten -- unabwendbar zu Ende kommen. Vergnglichkeit ist gerade das, was dem Leben sein Wert verleiht. Und auch, wie gefhrdet dieses Leben ist, weil wir wissen, dass "alles liegt an Zeit und Glck", wohl oder bel, das man vllig und total allein ist. Und das befreiendes Gefhl dass, am Ende, nichts macht etwas aus. Am Ende."
This printed email was found in Olof's belongings.
March 11th 2005:
This is really quite amazing, if true, i.e., regular, cyclical extinctions, like something from Hindu mythology...
Profunda super nos altitudo temporis veniet.
(The deep flood of time will roll over us.)
Seneca the Younger, Epis I, 21
[Below is a response to the email by Stephen Estes on March 12th, 2005]
Whether there is a regular cycle or not, scientific cosmology speaks thusly:
The universe is a very rough place. Our quivering droplet of life is a fragile rarity. Earth has taken a beating before, and will again. If we plan to stay here indefinitely, we're toast, or ice.
For example, the Sun is a main sequence star, in its early middle age. Later-- lots later on human timescales but not so far in the cosmological future-- the sun will turn into a red giant. The habitable zone of the solar system, with temperatures at which H20 is a liquid, will be somewhere around Neptune.
Alternately, possibly before the sun gets middle-age spread, the solar system, in its orbit around the galaxy, may encounter zones of gas, dust and rocky matter. The dust could obscure enough solar radiation to chill the earth to into a snowball. Or, the rocky stuff could pummel us, with a range of nasty consequences.
On December 27th, a star about 50,000 light years away popped a gamma ray flash, emitting in a fraction of a second more energy than the Sun normally emits in 100,000 years. Any life within 15 light years of that star was sterilized. Currently there are not any stars of this type near us, but, again, the solar system and other stars are on tour around the galaxy.
The early Earth was a hellish place, bombarded by meteors and comets, rent by earthquakes, choked by volcanos. Analysis of bacterial RNA indicates that life on earth descends from a common ancestor whose nearest relatives are the microorganisms which breathe iron and manganese dioxide in volcanic plumes undersea, in the Pacific. Life can take many forms.
These are not the parables of ancient mystics, but the best current exegesis of a material revelation which is not closed.
Der Mensch ist etwas, das berwunden werden soll. Was habt ihr getan, ihn zu berwinden?
"Alfredo told us to drive by a house that Olof would make a point of seeing by each time he visited. Olof had said it was, of all the houses he knew of in the city, the one he'd most like to live in."
A testament to Olof's humility after he won teacher of the year - emailed to Joy Martin.
"Thanks, Joy, for your card and congratulations. I certainly bamboozled them!
A wonderful addition to this site, thanks to Lew Griffin. The attached pdf's are four letters typed by Olof from 1979 to 1982.
You will need adobe reader to open.
All 4 letters are in the link below. Each letter is 2 pages long, and they are in chronological order.
From Stephen Estes:
ÔÉhere are some excerpts of letters I have from Olof, with some of his timeless observations, plus a couple of reflections leading up to his teaching in Germany. More to come. I've just unearthed some photos and things that we had packed away from our last house move.
Need I say that I never cross-copy sections of letters to another correspondent unless they're quotes? The reason for that is simple: letter writing is as much for me as for the addressee! (November, 1990)
...a few weeks ago... I had a letter printed in the Sunday Forum, as follows:
The occasional letter to The Forum reminds me what a blessing the AIDS epidemic is to us clean-living Christians. It enables us to enjoy in this life a pleasure (according to St. Thomas) otherwise reserved for the saints in heaven, namely, contemplating the sufferings of the damned.
"...In order that they might be all the more pleased with their blessedness."
Shopenhauer appeals to me for a number of reasons: 1) he's the most "eastern" of Western philosophers, 2) his style is wonderfully lucid, 3) his mood matches mine (elitist, quietist, pessimistic) and 4) his writings are laced with excerpts from French, Latin, Italian and other languages, which make me feel very smart for being able to figure them out and bring directly to bear what I have spent years working on. (February, 1993)
Letter to the editor publishied in The Forum, January 8, 1994. (my latest "prank")
The Dec. 31 column, "Obviously, sex still repels many," contained a remarkable assertion, namely that "sex is normal (and) healthy." We all say that, but virtually none of us truly believes it, since even the most secular among us has breathed in the air of a religious culture hostile to the flesh.
From today's pulpit, however, you'll hear the same message, that sex is normal and healthy. But that's the voice of the modern church, leavened by secular values, in defiance of its own ancient tradition.
Even Luther, who enthusiastically endorsed marriage for all, was still the Augustinian monk when it came to sexual intercourse. His statement, "Conjugal duty is not fulfilled without sin," is offensive to modern sensibilities and probably receives scant attention in today's seminaries.
A more recent German, Nietzsche, speaking of Eros, the ancient god of love, noted: "Christianity gave Eros poison to drink. Eros didn't die, of course, but degenerated into a vice.
After two millennia of defamation, Eros will not be rehabilitated overnight.
Yesterday I received a letter from the educational ministry of Schwerin (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) in response to my query regarding teaching English. The sehr geehrte Frau Kulturministerin informed me of opportunities for teaching English both to students and to teachers in continuing education (sowohl an den allgemeinbildende Schulen . . wie auch in der Fortbildung von Lehrkraeften).
So, I've been up most of the night, lying awake in bed, contemplating all this. Later today I hope to fax the documentation she requested, which is one of the reasons I acquired this new toy (fax machine). Although I dread the prospect of uprooting myself (what will I do with all my beautiful plants?!), storing my car, giving up this lovely little, serene apartment, etc., I've no doubt I'd give it all up in a minute if I were offered a job in Germany for a year.
Each day I've been boxing up a few more things and a week from today I leave the apartment. Everything is falling into place....
About a week ago I sent a fax to the U.S. Inormation Service office in Berlin explaining my situation. Today I received a fax from a certain Dr. Ward who heads the English teaching responsibilities for Germany and the Slovak and Czech Republics. I will be able to order videos, posters and the like from Bonn and also use their library in Berlin. ... He appended a... description of Greifswald by a recently visiting U.S. professor. That's where I'll be going to sumer school, of course, and I suspect that Wolgast is about the same. I'm in no way surprised by the dismal portrayal as it merely confirms my impression from a couple years ago when a friend of Kent and I took an evening drive across the "border" from Luebeck.
Sonntag 0935 - ich sitze hier gleich neben der K-W-G Kirche, hre einer Militrband zu, u. schreibe meine erste Postkarte. Morgen frh holt mich Manfred ab und die folgenden zwei Nchte habe ich in Quedlinburg meine Hotelkosten. Bin noch immer reisemde aber werde genug Kraft brig haben um heute eine Stadtrundfahrt zu machen u. di Berliner Luft tief einzuatmen. Ihr werdet oft von mir hren, weil ich oft an euch denke. Dein/ihr, Olof
Sent from Greg Doudna. This is an excerpt from a letter Olof wrote on November 16, 1980.
ÒAnd so you read, and you think, and go about the daily affairs of making money and feeding yourself and you never really know what it's all about. You're painfully aware of how much you're culturally conditioned and, on a much deeper level, conditioned by evolutionary history, having inherited, for example, the stereoscopic vision, prehensile limbs and efficient nervous system from little arboreal mammals living 60 million years ago. Your moods change. Sometimes it seems very bleak, as bleak as an Algerian desertscape from one of Camus' novels, and sometimes you feel very alive and upbeat, enjoying the moment for its own sake. Maybe Goethe has the last word: We may understand the world as much as we wish; it will always contain one half day and one half night. Or maybe Christian Morgenstern summed it all up in one of his poems:
Bifzi, fabzi; hulalemi
quasti basti bo...
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!
Now what can you possibly say to that???