Compulsive blessings and the silence beyond words: quotes from Ivan Illich

The libertarian website LewRockwell.com has a nice retrospective on Ivan Illich – well worth reading for anyone unfamiliar with his ideas. Illich is one of my favorite thinkers. Whether or not you agree with all his positions – and I certainly don’t – I think there’s no denying he is one the most consistently challenging social philosophers of the second half of the 20th century.

Reading this retrospective, which included the first quote below, prompted me to dig out my own copy of Illich’s 1969 classic, Celebration of Awareness. Here’s a brief garland of quotes from two of the most striking essays included in that work.

From “Violence: A Mirror for Americans“:

“The compulsion to do good is an innate American trait. Only North Americans seem to believe that they always should, may, and actually can choose somebody with whom to share their blessings. Ultimately this attitude leads to bombing people into the acceptance of gifts.”

“Eight years ago I told the late Bishop Manuel Larrain, the president of the Conference of Latin American Bishops, that I was prepared if necessary to stop the coming of missionaries to Latin America. His answer still rings in my ears: ‘They may be useless to us in Latin America, but they are the only North Americans whom we will have an opportunity to educate. We owe them that much.'”

Illich foresaw something like the rise of radical Islamist ideology way back in 1968:

“I submit that foreign gods (ideals, idols, ideologies, persuasions, values) are more offensive to the ‘poor’ than the military or economic power of the foreigner. It is more irritating to feel seduced to the consumption of over-priced sugar-water called Coca-Cola than to submit helplessly to doing the same job an American does, only at half the pay. It angers a person more to hear a priest preach cleanliness, thrift, resistance to socialism, or obedience to unjust authority, than to accept military rule. If I read present trends correctly, and I am confident I do, during the next few years violence will break out mostly against symbols of foreign ideas and the attempt to sell these. And I fear that this violence, which is fundamentally a healthy though angry and turbulent rejection of alienating symbols, will be exploited and harden into hatred and crime.”

Yes, and be used by anti-Western governments to solidify power, as in Libya under Qaddafi, Iran under the Ayatollahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban.

From “The Eloquence of Silence“:

“The science of linguistics has brought into view new horizons in the understanding of human communications. An objective study of the ways in which meanings are transmitted has shown that much more is relayed from one man to another through and in silence than in words. Words and sentences are composed of silences more meaningful than the sounds. The pregnant pauses between sounds and utterances become luminous points in an incredible void: as electrons in the atom, as planets in the solar system. Language is as a cord of silence with sounds the knots – as nodes in a Peruvian quipu, in which the empty spaces speak….

“To learn a language in a human and mature way, therefore, is to accept the responsibility for its silences and for its sounds. The gift a people gives us in teaching us their language is more a gift of the rhythm, the mode, and the subtleties of its system of silences than of its system of sounds. It is an intimate gift for which we are accountable to the people who have entrusted us with their tongue. A language of which I know only the words and not the pauses is a continuous offense. It is as the caricature of a photographic negative….

“It takes more time and effort and delicacy to learn the silence of a people than to learn its sounds. Some people have a special gift for this. Perhaps this explains why some missioners, notwithstanding their efforts, never come to speak properly, to communicate delicately through silences. Although they ‘speak with the accents of natives’ they remain forever thousands of miles away.”

This is from a talk Illich gave to prospective missionaries learning Spanish, Catholic priests who wanted to work among the then-newly arrived Puerto Ricans in New York City. Illich goes on to classify linguistic silences into three, broad categories: “the silence of the pure listener”; “the silence of syntony,” of waiting for the right words or Word; and “the silence beyond words,” which is equally “the silence of heaven or of hell,” of love or despair.

“There is still another silence beyond words, the silence of the Pietí . It is not a silence of death but a silence of the mystery of death. It is not the silence of active acceptance of the will of God out of which the Fiat is born nor the silence of manly acceptance of Gethsemane in which obedience has its roots. The silence you as missioners seek to acquire in this Spanish course is the silence beyond bewilderment and questions; it is a silence beyond the possibility of an answer, or even reference to a word which preceded. It is the mysterious silence through which the Lord could descend into the silence of hell, the acceptance without frustration of a life, useless and wasted on Judas, a silence of freely willed powerlessness through which the world was saved. Born to redeem the world, Mary’s Son had died at the hands of His people, abandoned by His friends and betrayed by Judas whom he loved but could not save – silent contemplation of the culminating paradox of the Incarnation which was useless for the redemption of at least one personal friend. The opening of the soul to this ultimate silence of the Pietí  is the culmination of the slow maturing of the three previous forms of missionary silence.”

I admit I don’t read nearly as much Christian theology as I should. So perhaps I shouldn’t be as struck as I am by the insight in these last lines, that Jesus’ greatest source of agony was the loss of Judas. (Was this mentioned in The Passion of the Christ?) It seems somewhat at variance with Augustine’s contention that the greatest source of pleasure for the saved in heaven will be to look down on the eternal torments of the damned. It reminds me instead of a line from a poem by Elie Wiesel: “The Silence of God is God.”

For more Illich quotes, scroll down to the end of the aforementioned retrospective. Naturally, the author selects quotes favorable to a conservative libertarian point-of-view. But a lengthy list of links to other online articles by and about Ivan Illich is provided, as well.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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