In July, 1984, Ivan Illich and friends convened for a week-long conference in Maine. The subject: "The History of Economic Man."
Among those who attended were Eugene J. Burkart, a lawyer practicing in Massachussets who in the early 1970s had visited Illich's CIDOC research center in Mexico. Mr. Burkart has written about that CIDOC visit and the Maine gathering in the essay he contributed to The Challenges of Ivan Illich, a book published shortly before Illich's death in 2002.
Listening to Illich speak at CIDOC, he writes, he found the man "to be brilliant; his intellect was dazzling and formidable, like none I had ever encountered; he was charismatic, too. There was a remarkable presence and aliveness about him."
Despite being impressed with the atmosphere of CIDOC, Mr. Burkart had doubts about how or if the activities taking place there could possibly do anything for the poor of Latin America. "After much thought," Mr. Burkart concluded "that Illich was a phony, someone enmeshed in his own cleverness, a dangerous distraction from the pressing social concerns of the day."
"I felt my anger grow with each word he spoke," he writes. "And then a strange thing happened: [Illich] suddenly turned toward me. To see where I sat he had to turn quite far, but I was not sure whether he saw me because I was on the periphery of his vision; and he did not know me. I wondered, Had he sensed my anger? He continued speaking, all the while looking intensely at me, as if he really wanted me to understand what he was saying. I returned his gaze and although I did not understand a word he said, I felt the confusion of my thoughts and feelings inexplicably lifted from me. In those few moments I had the experience of intimately seeing this person, Ivan Illich, for the first time; I then knew he was someone I could trust. But I would not have a direct conversation with him for many years to come."
That conversation took place, as it turned out, at the conference in Maine. There, Mr. Burkart and Illich became friends. Mr. Burkart went on to meet up many times with Illich at Penn State and at his home down in Mexico. He writes:
"The more I came to know Illich personally, the more I would see that friendship was the very center of his life and work. While he never wrote an essay or treatise explicitly on the subject, friendship is a theme that consistently appears in his writing, a connecting thread through all his books. I eventually concluded that the best way to understand Illich’s work is a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life. The kinds of withdrawal and resistance he encouraged, what he later would call askesis, was a new kind of asceticism, practices that are a necessary condition for friendship to flower in our modern deserts."
Identifying Illich's work as a "detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life" strikes us as exactly right.
Also participating in the Maine conference were Susan Hunt, who had worked closely with Illich on his book Gender, and Bill Ellis, a key figure (and founder?) of an organization called TRANET, short for "transnational network about alternative technology." We recall reading about TRANET in the 1970s. Its activities and newsletter (meshing well with Illich's notion of convivial tools) often were mentioned in the Whole Earth Catalog and Co-Evolution Quarterly. (Mr. Ellis works out of Rangeley, Maine, a place we happen to know as the one-time home and final resting place of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. Reich's house, full of "orgone boxes," "cloudbusters," and other questionable apparatus, is open to visitors.)
Google ("knows all, tells all") reveals another memoir of the Maine Summer Institute conference. "Voices in the Wilderness," written in 1985 by Richard Yanowitz as a contribution to a post-conference volume. Evidently, his experience of the conference was not entirely positive: "All week long at the Institute I felt on the verge of going home, variously infuriated, frustrated, perplexed, exhilarated and intellectually energized."
He recalls Illich as an "aloof, imposing, brilliant, erudite, charismatic figure with superbly polished oratorical skills."
He uses gaunt body, voice and language with precision and authority, and even his unspecific foreign accent lends him an air of distinction and perspicacity. His encyclopedic command of his material combined with his philological dexterity give one that helpless feeling of having neither right nor ability to debate (I almost wrote “compete”) intelligently.
While Illich affects to exchange ideas (rather than engage in loathsome “communication”), I experienced many of his statements as pronouncements. He seemed to go out of his way to irritate newcomers to his personality, summarizing complex ideas in pithy terms that sounded outrageous to the uninitiated. At the same time, disagreement appeared both to vex and perplex him: faced on the one hand with the absolute clarity of his Truths in his own mind and on the other with the inability of many listeners to grasp what he had to say (= to agree with him), he must have been torn between frustration over his own apparent failure at lucid articulation and bemusement at the appalling scarcity of rationality (= sanity) in the people he was addressing.
When Ivan joined a discussion, I was dealing with a personality as well as ideas. My mind had to become an intellectual and emotional centrifuge, whirling to separate out the impact of his persona from both the ideological content of a discussion and my own resistance, in the face of his alienating behavior, to hear his contributions with sympathy. The problem was compounded by the Institute’s being a kind of reunion for Illich acolytes and friends, so that I felt like a court hanger-on with mutually unsavory choices: to insinuate myself into the intellectual aristocracy, or, wallowing in alienation, to turn up my nose at this incestuous coterie.
Also attending the Maine conference, Mr. Yanowitz recalls, was John Ohliger (not Ohlinger, as he spells it), a critic of education and especially the adult-education industry and its promotion of "life-long learning."