Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Whither Life? Ivan Illich & Mark Edmundson Report From The Trenches

This link, via ALD, arrives at a remarkable juncture. Last month a friend of ours — a contemporary — died of cancer. He claimed he was ready, and certainly embodied that trait. When I mull over his final days and compare them with my present, I suspect there have been times when I was more “ready” than I am now. If I were to qualify my current existence I might say I am maintaining an uneasy stasis — an illusion masquerading as perspective, of course, but the necessary steps beyond it are not altogether obvious to me.

Not long ago I listened to an old CBC interview with Ivan Illich, who provoked an audience of theologians by opening his lecture with, “To Hell with Life!” Illich was responding in large part to the emerging Gaia movement. Gaia and its offshoots foster an inchoate pantheism, which, perhaps to my peril, I don't find nearly as dismaying as Illich seems to. I haven't read any Illich, so I only have this rudimentary sense of where he's going with his assertion, but I suspect he and Mark Edmundson share a similar concern.

“People now pursue a means — staying alive — as though it were an end in itself. Epic measures of energy invest a rank banality, for in truth there is no sustaining meaning to be had, no triumph to be achieved, simply in the maintenance of biological life.” I keenly await Edmundson's book, Self & Soul: The Human Dilemma. As for Illich, the interview can still be obtained here. Scroll down to Listener's Choice > “Listener's Choice - May 13, 2011 - Ideas - Life as Idol.”


Winslow said...

Illich's concern is that the shift to thinking of earth as a giant "system," aka Gaia, and of ourselves as merely immune systems fighting for survival is a move that radically disembodies us, that disconnects us from the flesh and blood that we once experienced and suffered and lived in. As the medical system encourages us to perceive ourselves through its arcane scientific jargon and via mysterious images (CAT, MRI, sonogram, etc.) that only experts can interpret and give meaning to, we are remade into cyborgs. We become less human.
For Illich, the fullest encounters between people are experience in their gut. He has a quite interesting and radical reading of the story of the Good Samaritan that helps him to explain this. You can find him speaking about this and its implications at some length - 5 hours, in fact - on another CBC radio program called The Corruption of Christianity. Don;t tell anyone I told you, but you can find MP3 copies of this program at It is well worth listening to. In brief, Illich argues that the West, this society in which we live now and which faces self-destruction, is best understood as a cracked, perverse, corrupted version of the New Testament. He argues this not from simply interpreting the Bible, for instance, but from rigorously collected and interpreted historical evidence. It's a remarkable piece of work, this, and sheds light on everything he wrote previously. There's a book, too: The Rivers North of the Future, by David Cayley, the CBC man responsible for the programs.

Whisky Prajer said...

Winslow - thank you so much for commenting. I will definitely look into the resources you mention.