We're deeply saddened to learn that Gene Burkart, a devoted and articulate reader of Ivan Illich, died this past Saturday. Gene visited CIDOC in the early 1970s and years later got in touch with Illich and his circle at Penn State. He worked as a lawyer in Waltham, Mass., mainly representing immigrants and other have-nots, as he put it. He was hoping, we understand, to see a gathering of the Illich crowd at Penn State this year, the tenth anniversary of Illich's death.
Gene contributed a piece to The Challenges of Ivan Illich with the title, "From the Economy to Friendship: My Years Studying with Ivan Illich." We recommend it as one of the better responses to Illich that one can find, dealing with the essential question: What should I, what can I, do with the knowledge and awareness of the world that I have obtained through Illich's work?
His essay is available for reading here, at the website Scribd. It opens with a quite remarkable anecdote about Gene's first encounter with Illich at CIDOC in 1973. He had gone to CIDOC quite enthusiastically but soon found Illich to be arrogant and hypocritical, a "phony … enmeshed in his own cleverness." But then, while giving a talk to an audience seated on a porch at CIDOC, Illich turned to look at Gene, who was far off to the side: " … 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."
"I found myself in a quandary," he writes further on in the essay. "If all economic activity has a corrosive effect on society, how is one to act ethically? Modern life is tightly bound up by market relations. Illich contrasted the economic with premodern ways of living he called subsistence or the vernacular. He proposed a 'modern subsistence as an alternative to economics as a way to break the cash nexus.' But, I wondered, where were the examples? I knew that many of those who had attempted to live outside the economy in the back-to-the-land movement failed. I admired the success of the Amish but felt no calling to their way; further, I had friends and family I did not want to leave. Also, being married, I could not just force my ideas on my wife. What could I do? Was there no way out?"
"I eventually concluded," Gene writes, "that the best way to understand Illich's work is as a detailed study of the myriad and varied barriers to friendship that exist in modern life."
"Friendship does not lend itself to an accounting, to economics," Gene finishes his essay. "The only way I can hope to show my gratitude [to Illich] is to strive to be for others the kind of friend Ivan Illich has been to me."