There is no fanfare when Ivan Illich sweeps into the room, no formal announcement of “here he is, ladies and gentlemen,“ but the man’s arrival this evening sparks definite excitement, the kind of medium-voltage electricity that a second-tier movie star might generate. Heads turn, a hush falls over the room, several Nikons click into action.
Most of the 35 people seated or standing among the curved rows of metal folding chairs, ourselves included, recognize Illich even if he doesn’t look quite as we know him from the few photographs we’ve seen. Many of this crowd - or so we imagine - are avid readers of his, aware of his intellect and reputation but seeing him, now, for the first time. We’re fans, in other words, eager to watch this dashing and sometimes fierce intellectual swordsman show off his skills.
As it turns out, we won’t be disappointed.
The audience Illich has drawn is a mixed one. Among others, we notice several graying gents, perhaps professors at Columbia University, just a few blocks away, along with some young Europeans - or so we peg them, based on their short hair and foreign-looking boots. A few elderly women have seated themselves as a group, and over there we notice a priest.
It’s February 1985 and the bunch of us have convened in a room within Cathedral House, the rectory of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, located at 110th St. and Amsterdam Ave. in Manhattan. This room has a large fireplace at each end, and in-between a series of beams, its ceiling is painted red and purple. On the walls hang architectural renderings and watercolors showing the cathedral, which has gone through many re-designs since construction began maybe 100 years earlier; the plan is to never finish the building, to always keep it as a work in progress.
We’ve come this far - in our particular case, all the way from a studio apartment in Brooklyn - to hear Illich talk for four evenings. The advertisement in the New York Review of Books that alerted us to this “opportunity with Ivan Illich“ cited several topics: gender, which is the focus (and title) of Illich’s most recent book; water in the city, as investigated in a book he’s about to publish in Dallas; and quite appropriate for this, the largest gothic church in the Western Hemisphere - it’s big enough, in theory, to swallow New York’s more-famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral - the 12th-century roots of the modern individual.
Illich removes his woolen serape - hardly the most common garment to be seen during winter in New York. He’s wearing a blue blazer, a blue sweater, grey pants. His greying hair is “scattered,” we pencil into a blue-and-white-covered German steno pad we’ve brought along for the sake of posterity.
Having inspected the table where he is to sit for the evening, Illich embarks on a tour of the room. To our surprise, he makes a point of introducing himself to each and every person in the audience, face to face, shaking their hands. “Hello, I am Ivan Illich, I am supposed to speak here tonight.”
“Very curious,” we overhear him saying to the old ladies.
“My name is Ivan Illich. I’m speaking here tonight.”
Nobody is overlooked. Everyone appears pleased by this gesture.
Illich approaches us, extends his hand, says, “Hello, I am Ivan Illich.”
“Very nice to meet you,” we stand and reply, adding that we’ve “read all of your books.”
“Oh, then I’ll have to stay on my toes,” he replies, or something to that effect. Another groupie, we imagine he’s thinking, another sycophant, and yet, there’s a warm, genuine smile on his face. He looks us in the eye.
We can’t help noticing the lump on his right cheek, just below the temple, beneath his sideburn, about the diameter of a 50-cent piece.
Illich moves on and finds several friends are present. The first to catch his eye is that Catholic priest we’d noticed - black clerical suit, white hair, Irish complexion - and as Illich approaches him, his hand out, it is obvious that these two go back a long way. They chat, Illich looking down at the shorter man, and then he moves on.
There’s a youthfulness about Illich, and he’s certainly “on,” we take note. He smiles a good deal and sometimes, he blinks both eyes at the same time. Several people are taking photos, with flash and available light, all from a discreet distance. The show has begun.
We had discovered Illich four years earlier, almost by accident while travelling in Asia, and since then, we’ve attempted to read everything by and about him that we can find. This has meant scouring alternative bookshops in Greenwich Village, running down the microfilm of old Saturday Review articles at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza, and wangling introductions to friends of friends who’ve actually spent time at CIDOC, Illich’s “anti-university” down in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and who have documents and audio cassettes to share.
It was at a bookshop in Hong Kong, at the Kowloon terminal of the Star Ferry, that we bought our first book by Illich, the late-’70s collection of essays called Toward a History of Needs. Until that moment, we knew only Illich’s name, and that only in passing, mainly from the Whole Earth Catalog. (Later, we’d realize that that countercultural publication took one of its main slogans, “Access to Tools,” from Illich’s 1973 book, Tools for Conviviality. That book was a major inspiration to the alternative, or appropriate, technology movement.)
Toward a History of Needs turned out to be a major challenge for us, an exceedingly difficult book to make sense of. With its dense language, unfamiliar terms like use-value, and concepts like scarcity and conviviality, it was like nothing we’d ever attempted to read before. On paper, at least, we’d always been sympathetic to the Whole Earth credo - back to the land, off the grid, appreciate good tools, and so forth - but we’d never read much in the way of economics, sociology, politics, history, or the philosophy of technology. About the closest we’d come to the critique of technology we’d soon encounter in Illich was Joseph Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason, a marvelously lucid analysis of what computers should and should not be used for. Fortunately, we’d bought a couple of other books in Hong Kong, so we were not without something to read when Illich’s essays proved so difficult.
Our next stop was Thailand, where we met up with our father, then 72, who was working there for six months (helping the national oil company to plan a new refinery), and he was largely responsible for getting the Illich lightbulb to switch on for us. One evening at our hotel, he happened to skim the Illich essays and then, he explained to us how the essay called “Energy & Equity” argues that the car, for various reasons, is not good for society but the bicycle is.
This simple contrast made immediate, intuitive sense to us, and grasping it encouraged us to try Illich’s book again. We’d never much liked cars and had never owned one, and here we were, travelling by bus and train and foot in a still-relatively car-free Asia.
Indeed, just before arriving in Thailand, we’d taken a one-day jaunt into mainland China - north by bus from Macau - and there, we’d seen a bike-centric culture up close, albeit for a brief moment. Even pre-Illich, the sight of so many bikes - groaning under the load of many sacks of rice while moving quietly along country roads, a cacophony of bells at a busy city intersection, thousands of bikes parked in along row in front of a university - had been eye-opening. (And yes, we’d been prepared to appreciate such scenes by photos from China that we’d seen earlier.) To say the least, we were primed to understand and to agree with Illich’s radical endorsement of the bicycle.
Within days of getting that first real taste of “Energy & Equity,” we were off to Nepal and then India, settling into the rhythm of traveling on the cheap in the “Third World” and greatly enjoying its challenges and what we soon came to understand was a sprawling scene, a great feast that moved north and south with the seasons. And now that the code to Illich had been cracked, even if only a little, we were able, in our own limited way, to understand more of the book, to enjoy its aphoristic language, and to have its observations and arguments underscored by what we were seeing and experiencing each day. It was a powerful combination, to be reading Illich while traveling in a world so far and so incredibly different from New York City and the New Jersey suburbs, where we came from.
Upon hitting London, we immediately acquired a copy of Tools for Conviviality, and this book managed to engage and impress us even more. Here is a book, we soon came to believe, that everyone should read: It is so sane, so well-reasoned, makes so much sense, and its language is so free of jargon and down to earth. It offered such a gentle and alluring vision of a well-organized and soft-impact society - what the Whole Earth people had been trying, all along, to bring into being, even if they never stated their vision explicitly in Illich’s terms.
We were, in a word, jazzed - and even more so, four years later, sitting here in Cathedral House, waiting for Illich to start. His talk, someone informs us, is one of a series of so-called Gaia Lectures, organized by the church and a New Age outfit called The Omega Institute, headquartered in Rhinebeck, NY. The Very Reverend Dean James Morton, top cleric at St. John the Divine, introduces Illich, recalling his meeting this strange, impressive man in the 1960s, at Saul Alinsky’s Urban Training Center in Chicago.
Illich starts by inviting us to engage in a conversation with him, to refrain from taking notes or recording his talk. There is, though, a microphone situated on the table where he’s sitting, and he follows its wire off to his left to find his brother Sascha fiddling with a tape recorder on the floor. Illich laughs and says OK, there’s not much he can do about that. (Sascha is an architect, we learn, living in New York; he eventually moves to Nantucket and in 2009, passes away.)
Next, Illich moves to introduce someone in the audience, that priest we’d noticed. It’s none other than Joseph P. Fitzpatrick, S.J., a longtime friend and collaborator of Illich’s, we happen to be aware, a renowned Fordham University sociologist who worked with Illich in the 1950s and 1960s, first in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, then in Puerto Rico, and then as a co-founder of CIDOC. Illich calls Fitzpatrick “my teacher.” Only years later, when hearing David Cayley’s first radio program about Illich, for which Fitzpatrick was interviewed, do we grasp how important this man is, and not only in relation to Illich.
Illich starts his talk. He tells us it has been a “strange route to his concern with sewer systems.” He talks of the “basic heterogeneity of Western society,” “issues of self,” and how it is “highly illegitimate to write history as I was taught,” applying modern concepts to earlier times.
In the old days, he says, people “walked,” but today that activity is referred to as “self-transport.“ But, he says, “one couldn’t talk to Napoleon about ‘transporting’ troops to Russia.”
From 1974 to 1980, he explains, he worked on a “cultural history of Western ideas, looking at the Church from 12th to 17th centuries and trying to explain what he saw in the language of the Far East” - an attempt to “take me out of the present.”
“I failed,” he says.
He then tried to “make my home in the 12th century and very early 13th century,” writing a history of scarcity. “Values and scarcity could not have been discussed 200 years ago. As a theologian, the Western world of education, technology, health care, ends-means relationship with which I have to … cannot be understood unless he frames philosophical discussion in a theological search.” Our notes are full of gaps.
He states that his “basic hypothesis” has been informed for 25 years by “my teacher” Gerhard Ladner, author of a book called The Idea of Reform.
Modern, Western society “can best be understood as a perversion of the glorious uniqueness of the Message,” Illich states. The “reform” that Ladner writes about is an attempt to “become one with God by turning away from social reality. … by turning to somebody else, a new individualism comes into existence.”
As he would later discuss at length in Rivers North of the Future, Illich speaks about how the Gospel frees people to establish loving relationships in an unprecedented by volatile way: “I pick who will be my neighbor.”
“Christian origins of economic concepts is the corruption of something beyond” our understanding, he says, “more horrible than reason can grasp.”
He speaks of the “institution of the body,” notes that “to have a body is a modern concept.”
Somehow, he segues to the topic of water - or, more accurately, waters. Many, perhaps all cultures, it seems, speak in their creation myths about the “separation of waters.” Ancient Rome “turned water into fountains as way of demonstrating its power.”
The idea of circulation - of fluids that flow through a circuit and return to their place of origin pretty much unchanged - is a quite modern idea, or image. The idea that the human body circulated blood was first put forward by William Harvey. French physicians, Illich notes, couldn’t accept that blood circulated in French bodies - perhaps in those of English people, but not us.
Closely related to the discovery of blood’s circulation is “the three-dimensional sense of the inside of the body,” Illich tells us. And soon, he explains, people such as Gregory Bateson and Heinz von Foerster, a friend of Illich’s develop the concept of cybernetics, in which a stuff called information flows through circuits and feedback loops. Some part of this concept, Illich says, is “profoundly irrational.”
He seeks to contrast the “free gift” of nature’s water with “the control of water.”
Ecology, he says, is “a projection of economic concepts onto the world,” the main one of which is, of course, scarcity. The “history of scarcity” has been Illich’s Big Topic for years, now. And tonight, he is telling us that the assumption of scarcity permeates our thinking and conception of the world, all the way down to the level of birds and fish competing for specific niches in the ecosystem and even microbes fighting for oxygen.
It is the “circulation of value that underpins economics. Energy, information, value, sexuality - all of these are said to circulate,” Illich says.
And the concept of “information presumes that binary bits exist and are circulated as a ‘stuff,’” he states.
Later, while taking questions from the audience, Illich elaborates on his thinking about information, a topic that happens to interest us a good deal. Perhaps it’s on everyone’s mind, because outside this room, in the cubicles of Corporate America and in the living rooms of its worker bees, the “personal computing revolution” is well underway and this, we’re told, is the Information Age.
Illich points out that information is conceived of in terms of “bits” that people, or machines, “exchange” with each other. And underlying this exchange, he says, is the assumption that one side of the transaction has fewer bits, or less information, than the other.
A man in the audience challenges Illich on this, referring at some length to Gregory Bateson, a biologist who was largely responsible for applying the concepts of cybernetics - messages, feedback loops, homeostasis, systems theory, and so forth - to not just machinery but the dynamics of families, the AA cure for alcoholism, and schizophrenia. Famously, Bateson has defined information as “a difference that makes a difference.”
Illich is not impressed and unleashes a blast of sarcasm. Palms together, walking back and forth, he gazes upwards in mock prayer: “Ah, Saint Gregory, Saint Bateson.” (Alas, so rapt are we by this performance that we fail to make any notes of what’s actually said; memory will have to serve.) As it happens, we share a fascination, albeit naïve, with Bateson and his use of cybernetics but still, it’s great fun to see what another hero of ours thinks of him.
Later that evening, we come to understand that our fellow Batesonian has a near-religious attachment to Bateson. In fact, he is acknowledged by Morris Berman in a 1981 book, The Reenchantment of the World, which argues for a cybernetically-based healing of modern consciousness. A few years later, we will read - in In the Mirror of the Past, a collection of essays - Illich’s critique of this book; rather than a re-enchantment through cybernetics, Illich speaks of the disembodied “cybernetic nightmare.”
After Illich’s talk this particular evening, Dean Morton invites a few of us to his private quarters to sit and have a beer with Illich. We gladly accept. While we and others sit on chairs and a couch, Illich sits on the floor, his back to wall and his legs splayed out like an overgrown teenager, loose, relaxed, and limber. Morton asks if anyone wants a beer. “I will have two,” Illich states. And he does. The beer, served in aluminum cans, is of some quite pedestrian brand and “light,” as well. Illich, the celebrity guest, makes no fuss, and he definitely seems to enjoy the beer.
The group of us are no great match for Illich but graciously, he answers our questions and hangs out with us for 30, maybe 45 minutes. The Batesonian is there and challenges Illich’s comments on the commodification of seemingly everything. (And again, we listen carefully but take no notes.) Illich tries to explain his thoughts but this interlocuter is not to be persuaded. Later, in a car headed downtown, he tells us and several others that due to the time he once spent in a seminary, he understands that it’s celibacy that most likely causes Illich’s gruffness and somewhat odd interpretation of things.
Several of Illich’s evenings at St. John the Divine involve two separate sessions. The first is about his thinking on Gender and it involves only ten of us, at most, sitting around a table with him. He eats some dinner while talking and drinks red wine, but he doesn’t share the bottle with us. Two incidents during these sessions make a lasting impression. At some point, Illich has an exchange with a woman at the table. She doesn’t understand part of his argument, he explains it some more, she responds and then, suddenly, he smiles warmly. “You’ve helped me understand something I didn’t know before,” he tells her. “Thank you.” We wonder if he’s just flattering her, putting on a show for his rapt audience, perhaps even flirting. The woman is obviously pleased to be commended this way.
Another evening, we’re mid-discussion when a guy from the Omega Institute enters the room. “Folks,” he announces, “don’t forget that Dr. Illich will be speaking later, upstairs. Please pay at the door and ….”
At this, the mention of money, Illich glares and then, rips into him. “How dare you ask these people to pay you? These are my friends, my guests! I refuse to have anything to do with an organization that holds weekend yoga retreats on Caribbean islands.” His disgust is palpable. (Has he truly been unaware of Omega’s involvement, tricked into appearing under its logo? Is this just the last straw, unleashing an anger that was building all along? It seems unlikely that Illich would have knowingly associated himself with such an outfit, but who knows?)
Omega man is speechless, blushing at the door. He hears Illich out and is together just enough to respond that “we should discuss this later, Ivan.”
Quietly amused at seeing this pipsqueak put in his place by the great Ivan Illich, the rest of us struggle to keep a straight face. Illich is a bit ruffled but is quick to get back to explaining the sad loss of gender, and the evening continues.
(There is more to this money story. At that evening’s second session, someone who identifies himself as a community organizer stands up to ask why people are being charged for admission to these talks. “Many people in the neighborhood would like to attend but cannot afford it,” he says.)
It’s during one of the early sessions around gender that we ask Illich if he has seen the issue of a journal called Feminist Issues, in which some California University at Berkeley professors respond to his lecture series at that campus a few years before. Those lectures were jam-packed and highly controversial, and papers presented in this small-circulation journal, which we’d stumbled onto a few months ago at the St. Marks Bookstore, are highly critical of Illich. No, he says, I’ve not seen it. We promise to get him a copy.
And the next evening, we present it to him. “May I pay you for this?” he asks. No, we tell him, we’re pleased to make this small contribution to his work.
At the very end of Illich’s series of talks, we ask Illich to sign a copy of his Gender book for us. He is more than happy to do so, and writes a small paragraph thanking us for the opportunity to converse as we have.
“You know where to reach me?” he asks, sincerely - a somewhat surprising but flattering question, considering how little we’ve contributed to the week’s discussions. (We had tried to ask smart questions, but nothing had truly clicked with Illich. Clearly, we just weren’t sufficiently well-read in history or other topics to respond well. Our enthusiasm was evident, however, we’re quite sure.) In fact, we do know how to reach Illich, for he regularly publishes in his books the number of a postal box in Cuernavaca. “Thank you very much,” we tell him.
That evening, there is a small party upstairs in the rectory. It’s for the Illich family, no more than two dozen people. We’re not invited, and we’re polite enough not to crash, but somehow, we end up hanging around just outside the room where it’s taking place, and we can’t resist taking a quick peek. The room is busy with adults but there is Illich, on the floor again, playing and chatting with several delighted young children. And he looks delighted, too. It obviously is a family scene and we stay removed.
Hanging out with us is an elderly woman whom we’ve met at the talks earlier in the week. She lives in a home for the elderly a few blocks away. She’s quite alert and very happy to have heard Illich speak. We’ve been chatting and at some point the two of us decide it’s time to leave. We hold her hand to help her down the stairs. We walk slowly. Suddenly, Illich himself shows up just behind us. He’s wrapped in his serape, leaving his party and family behind. As we move out of his way, he pauses, rests his hand on our shoulder, and says, “That’s very good.” (That we’re helping this person so directly, we assume he means.) And then, he’s gone, down the stairs, around a corner, out into the cold.