The Depth Charge
Recording from Ivan Illich conversations #2 – and invitation to this Sunday's event
The artist Ansuman Biswas once wrote to me that Ivan Illich’s ideas were like a depth charge that had gone off below the surface of our culture, the shockwaves still rippling outwards, even after his death.
Before I began to meet Illich’s surviving friends and co-conspirators, Ansuman was one of the first people I came across who shared my experience of being shaken and brought alive by encountering Illich’s work. He’d read Deschooling Society at the age of sixteen and it made sense of so much that was incomprehensible about the world in which he found himself.
When I met Ansuman, I remember thinking this guy had the best CV of anyone I had ever heard of, let alone met. He had flown a magic carpet in the Cosmonauts training programme while dressed as a genie, been employed as an ornamental hermit in the English countryside, travelled with shamans in the Gobi Desert, designed underwater sculptures in the Red Sea, directed Shakespeare, translated Tagore and played with Oasis. I didn’t know you were allowed to live a life like that.
A few weeks back,shared an essay from called, ‘Instead of Your Life’s Purpose’, which carries plenty of advice that rings true to me, including this:
Instead of imagining yourself as the hero of a Hollywood movie, imagine yourself as a particularly hearty ancestor that you might brag about when drunk: the one who rode bareback, founded a town, fought a grizzly bear, raised 10 kids, saved her son’s life by drinking the governor under the table, and went to the frontier to stay one step ahead of the hangman and her gambling debtors.
Among my adopted kinfolk, Ansuman is one of the wild uncles who redrew the boundaries of what I thought a life could hold – and Ivan Illich is a legendary grandfather, because here too was a man who knew the secret of stepping through unexpected doors, a man around whom stories gathered. No one seems quite sure how many languages he spoke, but at least a dozen. It’s said that, knowing the Classical language, he taught himself to speak modern Greek in afternoon by quizzing the gardener of the household where he was staying.
Here he is, the year he turned seventy, introducing himself in a lecture to the American Catholic Philosophical Association:
I am a hedge-straddler – in German, a Zaunreiter, which is also an old word for witch. With one foot, I stand on familiar ground. There, ancestral generations have prayerfully cultivated a garden into whose trees they carefully grafted pagan Greek sprouts. The other foot, dangling on the outside, is weighted down with foreign mud and reeks of odd scents.
And he delivered sentences that go off like explosives. This was brought home to me by a post today from:
Every once in a while you stumble across written words which hit you like a ton of bricks, and if a ton of bricks hit you then one thing is for certain — you will be left fundamentally changed. An encounter like this, when words, and the ideas they represent, so powerfully impress themselves upon you, it can only leave you speechless — almost gasping for breath as the waves of change seem to overwhelm you. Something has happened deep inside you which means you will not see this topic, concept, entity, or whatever it is in the same way ever again.
The ‘paradigm-changing cognitive blast’ that Hadden is describing was the payload of a seemingly ‘innocent promotional piece’ that I’d written ahead of an earlier event in this series of Ivan Illich conversations, in which I quoted Illich’s startling response to the student who asked him, ‘Don’t you care about the children starving in Africa?’
The same depth-charge effect is scattered throughout his writings, often contained within a single line. Here he is, turning familiar assumptions about economic development inside out:
All through history, the best measure for bad times was the percentage of food eaten that had to be purchased.
Or here, showing us the cultural poverty of the rich world, seen through the eyes of a young Mexican friend on a visit to Europe in the 1970s, amazed at the inability to offer hospitality:
Señor Mueller behaves as todo un senor [a true gentleman might be the English equivalent]. But most Germans act like destitute people with too much money. No one can help another. No one can take people in—into his household.
Over recent weeks, Marcus Rempel andhave brought together three of us whose lives have been shaken and shaped by the impact of Illich’s thinking. As I said in the opening conversation with Illich’s friend and collaborator David Cayley, I don’t know who I would be, if I hadn’t met the work of this strange thinker at the time in my life when I did.
The second conversation in the series was between David and Sam Ewell. If you weren’t able to join live for this, then you can watch the video here:
Or listen to the recording on Marcus’s podcast.
This coming Sunday, I’ll be joining Sam to pick up the threads of this conversation and to see where it connects to the questions I find myself carrying these days. Among other things, I hope to pick up on Illich’s writings on peace, from the early 1980s, when he was involved in the anti-nuclear movement in West Germany, and his reflections on silence, which recurs as a theme throughout his work, including in the short talk, ‘Silence is a Commons’, a text to which I keep returning.
The live session will take place on Zoom at 8pm UK time on Sunday, 12 November 2023. If you’d like to join us, these sessions are open to anyone with a paid subscription to this Substack – you’ll find the link below the paywall on this piece. If that’s an obstacle, then drop me an email and I will comp you a subscription for a month so you can join.
And I’ll share the recordings publicly when they are online.
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