Few people, we imagine, can truthfully describe themselves as a “retired private investment banker, an economist, poet, musician and astrologer.” But those are the words Wolfgang Somary chooses on his personal website.
Somary, born in 1932, was a close friend of Ivan Illich, and he has described their friendship in an essay published by Aisling Magazine, an Irish publication. It’s full of acute observations of Illich at CIDOC in the 1970s and later, in other locations. We highly recommend it:
When some three hundred university students and lecturers attended his nine Bremen talks on the sensual love of God in the sermons and writings of St. Bonaventura, he was not busy hyping that here was a sample of joyful contemplation of God which pastors could not even think of offering. Nor was he offering easy fare: it took four hours of full attention to relish the testimony of one paragraph. And most listeners were pronounced left-wingers with no use for church jargon.
After the marathon in the university aula, the celebration of life continued, as a small crowd flocked to Barbara Duden's home to enjoy her warm hospitality and Ivan's laughter. There the art of listening obliquely was practised without being named. The conversation might revolve around questions such as: What is the nature of Middle C in music? Which novelists analyzed history far better than academics? What has happened to the relationship between value and utility in the last 25-30 years? Why do you have to be old before you can describe what takes place in your body during acupuncture? What is the difference between possessing a Stradivarius violin and owning a stock option? Why were people formerly buried under the hearth or beneath the place where people slept? What was the significance of conspiration among the late Romans and early Christians?
Ivan always had interesting questions. Except once. My phone in Zurich rang early one morning and I heard a weak voice saying: "This is a pilgrim from Benares, who sits in front of your office. Could you give him shelter?"
It was not a joke. Ivan had spent several months in India, where he tried so hard to understand the geni loci, learning some Hindi and Sanskrit as he watched pilgrims bathe, pray, chant, paint their bodies, tell stories, water their buffaloes, feed or chase away monkeys, honk their horns and cremate the dead on the ghats of the Ganga, that his body rebelled.
I found him sitting on the ground, too exhausted to stand up, all his strength having gone into a smile. He settled in with Gabriele and me for a couple of weeks and became as one of our children. Even during his weakest moment, his curiosity would not abandon him. "You have guests from Wall Street for lunch? Could I join you just to listen how people from Wall Street talk about the economy and the world of money? This would fascinate me."
So he dragged himself to the table, could not face apple sauce, and for the first time in my career I was ashamed of my professional colleagues, whose subject of conversation too often consists of borrowed opinions that are reported as news. Perhaps it was this aspect of the human comedy that intrigued Ivan, coming as he did from another world.