Remembering Ivan Illich

"I believe that if something like a political life is to remain for us in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship. Therefore my task is to cultivate disciplined, self-denying, careful, tasteful friendships." —Ivan Illich

It was this very lived idea and practice of friendship that was one of the greatest gifts; among so many, that Ivan brought to his astonishingly diverse wold wide web of friends. Just as I sought out Ivan in Mexico while I was the Director of the Institute of the Study of Nonviolence in the late 1960's, so Ivan would knock on the door, anywhere in the world, of a writer that he was curious about. "Ah, El Nonviolento," he would joke with me as he whisked me into his library, his soft white serape flying out behind him, his huarachies car-tire soles squeaking as he flew across the red tiles.

Looking me deep in the eyes, his grand nose just inches away, his first question was a crisp, penetrating "Who are your authors?" My breath stopped a moment, thinking, "Who are my authors?"

From that day on my world was flooded with brilliant and subtle ideas as well as a vast bouquet of Ivan's friends of whom he would rattle off names, phone numbers (often wrong; he was strongly dyslexic). "This I who you must meet. Now!" And thirty years later, this circle of friends is still one of the deepest pleasures and catalytic parts of my intellectual and activist life.

Beginning in the late 1960's and on through the 1980's, Ivan would say to me, "I'll give you a week a year, for whatever you want to do with me. Any money you can gather from that, is for you and your work." So it would be a dense, tangled week. Lectures and talks at universities where there was a pot of money, the rest on a shoestring to cover the food and wine, many community gatherings- from early morning breakfasts, to late Italian style dinners with friends. Disciplined, focused, free. Ivan was a totally physical being. I think he came for these weeks to smell, to feel directly the visceral response of these ideas and questions – to see the deep pleasure of understanding. One hell of a week, and off Ivan would go till we met in Mexico, or Italy, or the East Coast.

An example of how Illich would continually create a table to gather around was in the Fall of 1982, when Ivan came to the University of California Berkeley as the Regents lecturer on his provocative work on Gender. It was held on Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. so that more than half of the 700 people in the seminar came were working people and intellectual activists. Rather, they came from all over the Bay Area. Ivan took his Regents Lecture fee and rented a large house above the campus in the Berkeley Hills and invited a dozen friends/collaborators to live together for those four months. Friends came from Germany, Italy, Holland, Mexico, with two Americans. Ivan would replenish the bowl of food money on the kitchen counter so morning, noon, and late at night, there was an abundant table. It was mostly a German-Italian palate: breads, cheeses, pasta, adequate bottles of wine. Good breads and cheeses had just begun arriving in Berkeley. No one ate out and everyone helped serve everybody else and everyone helped clean up, including Ivan. There was always a plate, a bowl, a seat for you and visiting friends, who flowed in from the world. If one needed some extra help, Ivan might squeeze in a paying talk somewhere and pass along the money.

For me, the greatest gift of all was falling in love with an ebullient South Indian Tamil woman, Vijaya Nagarajan,. And a tender, gentle courtship it was. Many thresholds to learn of, to pause at and to slowly cross. Two strong, enduring marriages came out of that gang of twelve.

Ivan was thrifty, generous, catalytic, and usually socially wise on how to keep clusters of widely divergent souls thinking and working together. Through endless drafts and hard late night editing, Ivan would craft his groundbreaking books, along with so many classic essays. We are grateful to have had so many years together.

Lee Swenson is past director of the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence and the Farrallones Institute, and is codirector of the Institute for Natural and Cultural Resources.