The Absence of Olive Sacks

Dear Friends,

My last letter left me with a bad taste in my mouth. It was a bit of a downer. Thank you to many who have responded with kindness. It is very difficult to create something that is critical, meaning well-though-out, without being cynical. Criticism and cynicism are two very different things that are too often equated. The result is a false separation in the world between things that are simple and admiring and things that are critical and cynical. In a lot of ways those last two or three letters were cynical. I don’t want to leave the impression lingering. So let me tell you about what happened to me on Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes a “literary event” is as simple as finding two books next to each other. This accident can create a connection that would not have otherwise been made. Last Saturday, I went into Book Culture where I found this book: Exemplary Comparison from Homer to Plutarch by Olive Sacks.

Medieval exemplary culture is kind of my thing. It could not be more informative, direct and dry. Somehow to me, it is very mysterious as well. Perhaps because I once dreamed of being a scholar, I am curious about the author: This Olive. The book must have been the result of many, many hours of labor and thought.

But skimming through it and notice it is written in many languages and alphabets including the Langue D’Oc with translations into the English. The introduction shows book’s organization as the result of sound, transparent logic. The pages are neat and full.

I search everywhere for some personal touch. Where are you Olive?  The book is dedicated to one Michael Hawcraft. I wonder if the author is a man or a woman. The dedication to a man makes me think the author is a man. But that is just because I like to imagine these intense, forbidden and intellectually stimulating correspondences between tweed-clad gay professors.

This person is a tutor at Oxford. There is absolutely no indication, not even a pronoun, in the book of either sex. The absence of a reference to sex is usually the result of avoidance rather than chance. So that makes me think Olive is a woman. She is trying to be respected in a man’s world and that means hiding her sex. Just like J.K. Rowling.

These are the sorts of fantasies I have as I read through the book. I think about how I’d like to hang it upside down from my ceiling fan so that I could just watch the shapes of the letters, phrases and alphabets drift over my head. It is a silly plan. These are things that used to mean so much and now mean so little since almost no one can understand them any more. And there is no meaning without some one there to create it, right?

I put the book back still making up lives for Olive. Who, I guess when I think about it, is probably a woman. I pick up the book next to it which is a modern criticism of the significance of bedtime stories in children’s lives. I did not write down the title and I cannot find it on the bookstore’s website. There are many books about fairy tales nowadays. What I do remember is that within the first three pages of the introduction, I knew this author was a woman with a harried schedule who started reading Grimm’s fairy tales to her children so that she could do critical research while spending time with her children.

The text felt so here, so now that I knew immediately what her life was like and why she had written this book. Hers is a wholly different endeavor than Olive’s. In some ways it is much less ambitious, for she writes for people now knowing that in fifty years, her research will seem dated and strange.

Olive on the other hand sought to create something that would last forever:

“…it reaffirms the supreme importance of detailed textual analysis in the study of literary and stylistic phenomena. The establishment of the precise details of the particular then forms the basis for general conclusions… The results of such a study may thus transcend the boundaries of time, space and established cultural and literary traditions.”

In some ways, something that is so lasting (I am not sure any work is eternal) requires the total elimination of here, now and the author. On one level, this makes the text dead because it is never alive.

But in other ways, it can live on in endless permutations among letters and alphabets and a blank space where the author never was. I left the story imagining lives around the empty space Olive Sacks left in her book.




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