It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Recalling Ivan Illich, the man

Not only was Ivan Illich a challenging thinker and illuminating critic of modern, industrialized life, he was a remarkable man who lived life, day to day, year by year, in a remarkable way. And those who knew or even met him briefly were generally impressed as much by the man himself as by his thinking.

As someone has written in an review, Illich was a "conscientious objector to modernism." In a joyful, even foolish way, he sought to keep alive traditions and a sense of humanity and friendship that were under constant attack from all sides - by the degradation of language, by endless schooling, by the accelerating homogenization of jobs, landscape, and culture.

He managed to walk the entire length of the Andes, for instance, and even when speaking to large audiences, he often declined to use a microphone. The one time we saw him speak - in NYC in early 1985 - he made a point of shaking hands with every person who'd come to hear him; and then, he asked us all to simply listen and converse with him, to not take notes or make recordings or treat him as anyone special.

Ordained as a priest, he became one of the Church's fiercest critics. Why did the Church contribute so much to the misguided effort to "develop" poor nations along the American model? Why did it rail so against abortion, he asked, but not against nuclear weapons? And why did the Church - more specifically, why did its head theologian, Cardinal Ratzinger, later to be named pope - rely on scientific definitions of "life" in its arguments against abortion? Illich was, of course, eventually ex-communicated.

Perhaps most famously, Illich lived for the last 20 years of his life with a disfiguring and increasingly painful tumor on the right side of his face; early on, he declined to have surgery, mainly because it might well have affected or cost him his ability to speak.

We understand that Illich wanted to be known and appreciated only for his work, not for his life, or even less for a few brief moments of celebrity. (His grave, in the shadow of a Lutheran church in Bremen, Germany, is marked by a wooden cross, not a stone.) Yet, we cannot help but wonder if an oral biography of the man might not be fitting - an effort to record people's memories of him, so to speak. So many people were touched and deeply impressed by their encounters with Illich, no matter if those encounters were momentary or lasted for many years. He was, in many ways, larger than life. And repeatedly, we've heard people who either met or worked with Illich describe him and his ways with great enthusiasm.

In this vein, we point readers to two warmly and well-written reminisces of Illich that recently have come to our attention, each recalling a remarkable vitality and joie de vivre.

A site called Philia, A Dialogue on Caring Citizenship, describes itself so:

The Philia Dialogue is a global conversation on citizenship. More specifically, it's a conversation on caring citizenship - a notion of citizenship based on contribution, participation, relationship, and a commitment to the common good.

Our inspiration for this dialogue stems from our roots in the disability community. We believe that welcoming the presence and participation of people with disabilities as well as others who have been marginalized or isolated - will revitalize our communities and strengthen our society. In fact, we believe that everyone has an important contribution to make to civic life, and that the health of our society depends on the active participation of all citizens. So we want to make sure that everyone is included in the conversation.

The site specifically mentions Illich as a major inspiration. And among its founding members is a Sam Sullivan, currently the mayor of Vancouver, who recalls spending three days in the company of Illich and his circle at the home of Jerry Brown, former governor of Calif. and the then-mayor of Oakland. One short passage:

When Ivan Illich was born the doctors believed he had a mental disability and should not
be put in school. So from a very young age he engaged in self-study. He also spoke the
many languages of his different caregivers, to the extent that he never was able to point
to one mother tongue. in both his conversation and his writing he would switch
seamlessly from one language to another. I was with him one evening when a number of
his intellectual devotees arrived from various parts of the world. They would be speaking
animatedly when someone would quote a philosopher in German. The conversation
would then switch entirely to German. When someone quoted someone else in French,
the conversation would continue in French, and then move effortlessly to Spanish. Well
into the conversation Ivan realized I was not always following when he directed a
question at me in another language. Because he knew I spoke some Chinese, and he
had once tried (and failed) to master that language, he assured me that the next we met
we would continue in Chinese!

Another recollection of Illich shows up in Ode, a magazine "about the people and ideas that are changing our world for the better." "The forgotten thinker you need to know" recalls a 2001 visit with Illich at his home in Bremen.

Illich was generous with his time, the writers recall: "While the forces of development and a certain vision of progress race forward every day, Illich showed no bitterness the day we spoke. 'I'm not stupid enough to think I can really change anything, but I can poke fun at the system.'

He admitted, though, that he does feel "heartache" for people who should know better, yet choose to stick to the beaten path. He recounted a discussion he once had with the former head of the World Bank, Robert McNamara. "I explained how technology is not always the solution to poverty and injustice. That equality and freedom continue to be an illusion in a world with cars." McNamara replied: "If there weren't any airplanes, I couldn't have gone to Bangladesh last week to discuss emergency aid for a flood disaster. [Illich] asked him whether his talks were a success. 'No,' [McNamara] said, 'procedural problems stood in the way.' Shortly thereafter he broke off the discussion and left to fly his private jet to his vacation home."

Yet another personal essay about Illich, published in 2003, can be found at First Things, a journal of what - religious philosophy? Peter L. Berger, a sociologist, theologian, and co-author of a book that had a strong effect on Illich, The Social Construct of Reality, remembers working closely with Illich, even planning to write a book with him, but later finding their analyses and conclusions diverging irreconcilably. Berger notes this bit of human drama:

After the mid–1970s
our contacts became intermittent. Illich often called me from some airport,
announced that he was coming through Boston, and informed me that he would come
by the house for a short visit. One time he kept a taxi waiting outside while
we talked. Then there was the surreal episode of the migrant scarf. Illich
possessed a rare scarf, made from both llama and alpaca hair, which had been
given to him by a Peruvian philosopher. Illich called me from New York, telling
me that he had forgotten the scarf in the office of his publisher, who was
going to mail it to me; he would then pick it up on a forthcoming visit to
Boston. Illich arrived, but the scarf did not. Next, he asked me to forward it
to Atlanta where, he informed me, he spent every New Year’s Eve with the widow
of Erich Fromm (Fromm lived in Cuernavaca for a while and had become a friend).

The scarf arrived, some days after Illich’s visit, and I duly sent it on to
Atlanta. But a quick recapitulation of Illich’s itinerary made me doubt that
the scarf would reach him in Atlanta either. I then had a vision of the scarf
following Illich, from continent to continent, never reaching him—a metaphor of
unending pilgrimage. (I never did learn where the scarf ended up.)

Berger concludes:

About two years ago I received a short letter from Illich. He regretted that we had seen so little of each other in recent years and thanked me for having given him some ideas that he had not had before. It read like a goodbye letter. I knew
that he had been seriously ill, and I phoned him in Mexico. It was a brief conversation. He said that he was quite well, that he was working. Then he added: “I am ready for departure” (we spoke in German—“abreisebereit”). May his journey be full of glory.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.