Ivan Illich Encounters
An invitation to tomorrow's conversation & the recording from a fortnight ago
Among the many things I learned from David Cayley’s Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, one of the details that stuck out was a passing reference to the year that Illich spent at the Wissenschaftskolleg in West Berlin in 1981. This was a newly created Institute for Advanced Studies. One of Illich’s friends, the novelist and literary scholar Uwe Pörksen, has written a memoir of that year with the title Camelot in Grünewald. His colleagues at the institute included two remarkable Jewish thinkers, the sociologist and philosopher Jacob Taubes, and Gershom Scholem, close friend of Walter Benjamin and the first professor of Jewish mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Scholem was then in the last year of his life.
Exploring this further, I came across the photograph above, taken at the inauguration of the institute, where Illich is kneeling at the feet of the elderly Scholem (on the left, his face turned away from the camera), while the educationalist Hartmut von Hentig kneels at the other side. I found the photograph in this chapter from a book by Noam Zadoff, which opens with this quote about Scholem from a letter von Hentig wrote that winter to Nina Fritzche:
So I notice: I love this old man. “Why? There’s no knowing!” You, in any event, would also have felt that way!
Perhaps we are glimpsing a little of that feeling in the photograph of the three men.
The presence of Scholem and Illich, a generation younger, in the same setting over those months in the early 1980s is evocative for reasons I cannot do justice to here, not least because it has set me following threads that will probably lead a lot further than I’ve got so far.
But learning about these things in the context of this autumn’s series of Ivan Illich conversations, co-hosted by my friend, felt particularly appropriate, since David had already been drawing my attention towards Benjamin, Scholem and other members of their circle.
I’m writing this on a Saturday morning because the final conversation in this Illich series has crept up on me. It’s taking place tomorrow night, at 8pm UK time.
And, given that the earlier part of the series has been a round of conversations between three men, I’m glad to report that David and his co-host Marcus Rempel have invited Professor Katharine Bubel and Michelle Berry Lane to take the floor for this concluding session.
I actually don’t know at this point whether I’ll be able to join live tomorrow night, as we have an old friend visiting who we haven’t seen since 2019. But as with the earlier conversations, this Zoom session is open to paying subscribers to this Substack or to David’s. The invitation is behind the paywall on this post.
Meanwhile, the recording of the third session, in which I was in conversation with Sam Ewell, is now available on Marcus’s podcast, or can be watched on YouTube: