Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Rivers North of the Future

Last Thursday I drove over 1100km, meeting with town officials in the predominantly LDS communities of Raymond and Stirling. After our meetings, I had a good visit with one of the guys, a young Mormon from Surrey my age, about his time of mission, proselytizing in Portugese to the tiny Brazilian community of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

On the drive home up the QE2 Highway, amidst severe thunderstorms, I listened to Ideas on the CBC. It was a sort of "best of" type show, and they played an old clip of Ivan Illich (1926-2002) speaking at the University of Toronto sometime in the 80s. This mercurial priest-historian has captured my attention at various times, with his scathing critique of what passes as "development," in terms of schooling, institutions, and modern culture more broadly. Having been introduced to Illich's thought by my good friend Matt Friesen, it made me remember my friend as well. David Cayley, the Ideas contributor, was featured, along with his recent book culled from conversations with Illich. Apparently, Illich had long wanted to write about his understanding of modernity in relationship to the Christian gospel. He never had the opportunity to do that, but the transcripts of his conversations with Cayley eventually evolved into The Rivers North of the Future.

The title of the book is taken from a poem by the German poet Paul Celan:

Into the rivers north of the future
I cast out the net, that you
hesitantly burden with stone-engraved

The book contains Illich's usual spectrum of thought, which chapters on such themes as "The Gospel and the Gaze," "Contingency, Part 2: The Origin of Technology," "Friendship," and "On Knowing How to Die: The Last Days of Savonarola."

On his final day of conversations with Cayley, Illich said this:

"My work is an attempt to accept with great sadness the fact of Western culture. Christopher Dawson ... says that the Church is Europe and Europe is the Church, and I say yes! Corruptio optimi quae est pessima. [The corruption of the best is the worst.] Through the attempt to insure, to guarantee, to regulate Revelation, the best becomes the worst... I live also with a sense of profound ambiguity. I can't do without tradition, but I have to recognize that its institutionalization is the root of an evil deeper than any evil I could have known with my unaided eyes and mind."

And then, Cayley recounts this story:

"In an interview that Illich recorded with his friend Douglas Lummis in Japan in the winter of 1986-87, Lummis asks him about a "possible future." "To hell with the future," Illich replies. "It's a maneating idol. Institutions have a future... but people have no future. People have only hope." Since there obviously was, and will be, a tommorrow, I interpret this curse in two ways. First, it points to the fact that no sane person can project the future of the economic utopia of endless growth in which we live as anything but catastrophe, sooner or later. Second, and even more important, the future as an idol devours the only moment in which heaven can happen upon us: the present. Expectation tries to compel tommmorrow; hope enlarges the present and makes a future, north of the future."



Blogger James said...

I love that you followed this guy's career. Can I trade you for his rookie card? I've got a limited-edition Massey Lectures all-stars I'm willing to part with.

1:22 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Nice try. I'll only consider such a trade, James, if you put Garrison Keillor's 1979 MVP on the table!

2:29 PM  
Blogger The Ochlophobist said...

Excellent post. Illich's Deschooling Society is a book I return to again and again. But I also love In the Vineyard of the Text, his commentary on Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon, as well as his book Tools for Conviviality. I will definitely get hold of this Cayley work after reading your post. Thank you.

3:12 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

Thanks, Owen. Somehow in this book I'm finding a sort of key to grasping what Illich was always saying, but obliquely. More and more I am seeing his comprehension of the gospel as being at the heart of what he was saying in these books that you mention, especially in his continual focus on the person, and the personal, in its true meaning.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Ostensive Lime said...

great post matthew.
it was a transcript of an 'ideas' interview with illich titled, "the corruption of christianity," that was the primary inspiration (and source) for a crazy 3-day essay writing marathon (which culminated in my submission of one messy, stream-of-consciousness 90-page essay on ethics!).
my dad gave me the transcript when i was in third year at ubc.
now i can find the same book you've featured here at home on my dad's reading table.

and great that you mentioned the dear matthew friesen! he and i talked a bit about illich back when he was in town.
i hope and pray he is well and look forward to his eventual return!

take care matthew;

11:13 PM  
Blogger Winslow said...

It's possible to buy a set of tapes, and perhaps CDs, of the Corruption of Christianity program from its producers, the Canadian Broadcasting Co. (CBC). Or from Amazon, last I looked. This program is well worth it. As Matthew Francis comments, this program and the Rivers North book reveal the roots of Illich's thinking, the assumptions and vision that shaped his thought and that were expressed only implicitly.
There is a great deal of Illich-related material at a Univ. of Bremen site:
Particularly enlightening is the piece, there, by Barbara Duden, which reviews that last phase of Illich's life and thinking. It was written after his death in 2002.

2:53 PM  

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