Ivan Illich, Breaking the Silence
by Fabio Milana
The Corruption of Christianity is the text of the homonymous programme that the Canadian national radio broadcasted, maybe not by chance, in the first few days of the year 2000. Later on, CBC itself put the recordings of the five parts on sale (remarkably, you can find them on the website of a philanthropic organisation) as well as the cerlox-bound transcript, which circulated in Europe as a German translation with parallel text; this Italian one is the first edition of the text as a volume.
It can't be strictly called ‘conversations’, it is more of an assembly of excerpts from the conversations between Ivan Illich and David Cayley (1997 and 1999), connected and organized by the interventions of Cayley himself, in order to create a summary of the huge material he recorded during those sessions. A redactio longior of this same material was authorized by Illich as a consequence of the great interest the radio Corruption aroused, as Cayley relates while publishing it, with the title inspired by Celan’s The Rivers North of the Future (Anansi 2005; the German translation, C.H. Beck 2006, and the French one, Actes Sud 2007, are now available). Not even this latter version is drawn up in ‘conversation’ form, but as themed accounts, given by Illich himself to an interlocutor who withdraws into the paratext: a gesture of implied adhesion, midway between the philosophical interview pattern, the same Cayley used in the large and well-deserving Ivan Illich in Conversation (1992), and the partnership he achieved in this kind of a ‘two voices self-portrait’ which is the Corruption. This confirms the common wavelength gradually reached by the catholic Canadian journalist with a thinker who was programmatically hostile to the mass media.
In any case, a comparison between the two drafts speaks in favour of a kind of effectiveness of our text, which is not just due to the significance of Illich’s ‘own voice’ passages selected here, or to the editor’s qualified interventions, or even to the ‘dramatic’ intensity of the script, resulting from its necessary concision and from the ‘game of roles’ itself. Naturally, Cayley reminds the reader, who has less familiarity with Illich’s intellectual and human story, of its essential parts, which we could recognize in different phases. The first one is the ‘militant’ one, embracing almost three decades from his arrival in New York in 1951 and including his fifteen-year activity in the Centro Intercultural de Formación, later de Documentación (1961-1976), that he founded in the Mexican city of Cuernavaca to support the campaign against the ‘export’ of development to third world countries; during this period, a crisis occurred in his relationship with the Catholic Church, which led to his giving up the sacerdotal functions with their related privileges (1968-1969). The following phase consisted of mainly anthropological-historical studies, taking on a position of critical distance, rooted in his beloved 12th century, in order to reconstruct the origin of modern certainties, the unconscious axioms of a world submitted to an intense and prolonged technological development; this latter period began in 1978 as a consequence of something similar to an ‘existential breakdown’, according to some witnesses very near to him, and ended fifteen years later with texts of a summarizing nature like the essay collection In the mirror of the past (1992), the retrospective Conversation mentioned above, and the last one in his own hand, the comment on Ugo di San Vittore In the vineyard of the text (1993): inside this work, that has an almost elegiac intonation, for the first and last time Illich recognizes himself too, personally and not in a polemic way, as participating in a typically modern adventure, the ‘bookish text’, which is closed between the two watersheds that forever divide it from the lectio divina of monastic tradition and the era of digital screens. About a possible third phase of Illich’s research, our Corruption documents the most important paths in its three central chapters: the survey on the origin of some modern ‘categories of the political’ from the Christian thought and praxis in the late Middle Ages; the study of the experience of the sight inside a project on a ‘history of the body’, aimed at the affirmed contemporary disappearance of the living and sentient flesh; the ethical problem in a world that has lost a substantial notion of limit, and of the ontological order established by it. Here, though not chiefly here, also lies the newness and the interest of our text.