Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

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William T. Vollmann – “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”

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photos: PHILIPPE MERLE/AFP/GETTYIMAGES

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The Atlantic Magazine Interview

Writers Can Do Anything
William T. Vollmann, author of Last Stories and Other Stories, explains why he works by an assassin’s credo: “Nothing is true; all is permissible.”

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JOE FASSLER JUL 16, 2014
By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Claire Messud, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Tan, Khaled Hosseini, and more.
Doug McLean
William T. Vollmann surely takes artistic freedom as seriously as any living writer. His books—sometimes to the dismay of his publishers—routinely compare length-wise with the King James Bible and Infinite Jest. His three most recent books include a series of trangender self-portraits, an investigative report on nuclear power in post-Fukushima Japan, and this month, a whopping collection of what he calls “ghost stories.” Through it all, he deploys writing styles that range as widely as the broad topics he covers—war, economic inequality, fetishists, prostitution.

Vollmann, in other words, always writes the book he wants to write.

 

In our interview for this series, Vollmann discussed a short, paradoxical aphorism from the 11th-century cult figure, Hassan-i Shabbah, a mystic and religious leader who retained power using a stable of trained killers. In his unpacking of the maxim’s many paradoxical layers, Vollmann explored how freedom—in art, governance, and life—must be protected, and yet must have its limits.

Last Stories and Other Stories is a sprawling, enchanting casket of curiosities. Over 600 pages long, and copiously epigraphed, these stories range from novella-length to just a single paragraph. In their elegant, elegiac meditations on death and the afterlife, we cross broad terrain, including geishas in ancient Japan, vampires in preindustrial Bohemia, and bombings in modern-day Sarajevo.

Vollmann’s previous book of fiction, Europe Central (2005), won the National Book Award for Fiction. He spoke to me from his writer’s studio in Sacramento, where he lives.

William T. Vollmann: Hassan the Assassin, also known as the Old Man of the Mountain, was a legendary figure from 11th and 12th century Persia. He lived in a mountain fortress with a gang of young men he’d hired to be assassins, guys who were prepared to kill and die for him. He’d reward them for their work by drugging them with hashish—the words assassin and hashish actually have the same Arabic root—and they’d wake up in a cave filled with wine and beautiful women. He had brought them to paradise, he’d tell them. If they did his bidding, they would end up there forever.

Hassan the Assassin lived by a proverb that’s long been an object of contemplation for me:

Nothing is true; all is permissible.
I haven’t followed this line as any kind of guiding principle. These aren’t necessarily words to live by. But it’s a deeply resonant maxim, one that contains within it many layers of meaning, and there’s a great deal to be learned by looking at its two parts and turning them around. As a credo, it can be inspirational—or alarming—on many different levels.

If we apply “nothing is true; all is permissible” in its most immediate, literal meaning, it appears to be a horrible, dangerous idea—though perhaps perfect for an assassin. Saying “Nothing is true” is the same as saying “Everything is true,” as far as I’m concerned. Because if nothing is true, don’t all claims to truth have equal weight? If all is true, any form of human behavior becomes valid. Who can say it’s wrong to kill another person for money—or merely for hashish? All is permissible. You might read these lines as an insistence on the relativity of ethics, and they could even be applied to excuse a kind of moral nihilism.

At the same time, I see a kind of freedom in these words. In my book The Rainbow Stories, I spent time writing about communities in San Francisco where there’s a lot of BDSM stuff. The people in that world love to pretend all kinds of fantastic or preposterous or sometimes very frightening-sounding things—but none of it’s true, and so all of it’s permissible. Viewed one way, the Assassin’s maxim could be used to excuse terrible, harmful behavior—but it also could be instructive for role-players, gamers, and others who want to live out their fantasies on their own terms. It’s a reminder that the fictional aspect of the fantasy makes it permissible.
In fact, when we’re working in solely in the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb becomes a very uplifting idea. For me, as an artist, it’s been a great help. While I’m working on a book, it’s a reminder that I don’t have to worry about making a mistake, about writing “poorly,” or about taking on a difficult or ambitious project. I try to remain open, reminding myself that all is permissible as I work. Of course, that doesn’t let me off the hook later—ultimately, I have to live with any work I publish and make public. But it’s a very freeing feeling during the composition process, when I try to keep in mind that nothing is off-limits.

Sometimes, this is very difficult. There have been times when I’m writing about things that are personally embarrassing. Like any human being, sometimes I can’t help but wonder—what are the people I know going to think about this? So I have to remind myself that all is permissible. Art has to be a free space. Language has to be a free space. And I just shouldn’t worry about that kind of thing while I’m working. I might pay the consequences later, but that’s not my problem while I’m doing the writing.

I feel the same way about the publishing marketplace. I’ve always thought the exchange of words for money is no more and no less problematic than any other kind of prostitution—and it’s important that we prostitutes control a certain amount of our production (and reproduction, for that matter). If I’m writing a book and I’m warned, “Oh, this is unsaleable, you need to make it shorter,” or, “It has to be this, or that,” I’m proud to say I don’t pay attention.

When we’re working in solely the realm of the imagination, the assassin’s proverb is a very uplifting idea.
Though this is becoming more difficult. As large publishers turn into monopolies, and the MBAs who are running them—maybe editors used to run them before—are steadily tightening the screws, they feel more and more that they get to call the shots. The last couple books I’ve written have had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. This had never happened before, but I couldn’t get them stricken from the contracts. So did the only thing I could: I just ignored them. This could mean that my book will be rejected, and I’ll have to pay my advance back, and a very unfortunate situation might develop. But I can’t let that outcome dictate what I want to do.

At the end of the day, when I’m dying, I want to think I did what I felt was best for the words I was writing. This may mean, at any time, that I won’t be publishable anymore. There’s all kinds of pressure on people to do this and that, and not this and the other thing—but I think I would feel ashamed, and despondent, if I let others dictate the terms of my work. If I let others tell me that nothing I wrote was true, and every demand of theirs was permissible.
This Assassin’s maxim was especially useful to me as I wrote the latest of my Seven Dreams series, called The Dying Grass, about the Nez Perce War of 1877. It was a very challenging project because I decided to invent what’s essentially a new form. You don’t read this book like other books: instead, as you read from left to right, the page works like a stage. The left-hand part of the page works like the forefront of the stage, and the right edge of the paper is the backdrop. And so, there might be conversations on the left hand on the page—and what people are actually thinking might occur in the center, and perhaps landscape descriptions appear in the back, or occasionally when they really strike somebody, they appear in the front. This approach gives the page a kind of dimensionality, multiple layers of foreground and background.

An example: In one scene, my protagonist, General Howard, and his aide-de-camp walk through a battlefield—and there are all kinds of wounded, lying there, calling for help. There’s a cacophony of voices, spread across the page. One wounded confederate solider in particular is crying for help, way on the right hand side of the page, lost among all these other voices. But gradually, this voice moves farther and father to the left—and suddenly, it’s in the same column as the main characters’ dialogue. So the reader can see right away they’re engaging with this guy.

It took years to figure this out and make it work. It’s just a very weird-looking thing. But it turns out to be very easy to read. There’s so much white space, that it’s almost like reading a play or a movie script or something like that. Much less dense than my books usually are. But I had to overcome my own resistance and fear when I started it. I thought it would be too difficult. I worried I’d put a couple of hundred pages into it, and no one would be able to make sense of it. Then I’ll have lost years, I told myself. But I ended up being proud of it, and very fulfilled by the experience. It was a wonderful experiment. And it helped me to remind myself that nothing is true, that reading in strict left-to-right rows of text is not necessarily the only true way, and all is permissible in art.
Of course, the same freedoms extend to science. It’s in part because nothing is true scientifically: No scientific observation can be proven true forever and ever, and great, widely accepted theories fall and will continue to. It’s crucial for the health of science that any thought experiment is permissible, that we’re always allowed to question even the most entrenched ideas. To the extent that science is like art, you want it to be a free space. No scientist should be told what to think, or what not to think. We’re all hoping that as a result of this freedom, scientists will get closer and closer to amazing new discoveries about the nature of reality.

But the difference is that art is mostly powerless to hurt people. When you extend “all is permissible” into the real world, it can become dangerous. It can encourage a certain lack of conscience—the unnerving side of the scientific method, which underlies so much of our culture today. Science doesn’t ask what is right—it just asks what is true. And a wonderful discovery that a scientist makes could lead to something that destroys life on earth.

Does evil exist in an artistic context? In other words, should some things not be permissible in art? I would say no. There have been people who think that it does. Plato thought certain kinds of music should be banned from the Republic because they were too effeminate, or voluptuous, or whatever, and would weaken the body politic. I prefer to think that all should be allowed in art. And that, in a way, comes down to my political belief about the right of the self. The First Amendment: What a great idea! Why not universalize that, and say we all have the right to express ourselves. Even if we hate what other people are saying—all the more reason to cherish the freedom that we are giving ourselves by giving those other people the right to make bad art, or to be Nazis marching down the streets of Skokie—whatever it is.

When looked at this way, “nothing is true” is a great, democratizing idea: If there is no objective truth, no person or entity should have the right to impose ideas on anyone else. In this sense, “nothing is true” leads naturally to the conclusion that “all is permissible”—if all ideas have an equal right to exist, people should not be given more or less freedom on the basis of their ideas.
But once we leave the world of art and ideas, and start talking about actions and behavior, it seems important to say that only some things are true. Extended to the realm of politics, the Assassin’s proverb quickly takes on troubling significance. I think of George W. Bush with the Iraq War: no weapons of mass destruction, no link between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda, nation building was another fraud, none of the proposed justifications were true. It was all bullshit. And how many thousands have we killed? So, we can say, he acted as if nothing was true, but all was permissible—including torture. That’s the definition of an unjust war. If political leaders are applying “Nothing is true; all is permissible,” we can be sure they’re going to be doing evil things. It’s the same thing as saying the ends justify the means.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered insist only some things are true, but feel all things are permissible.
You see this with environmental issues as well. About a year ago I started working on a nonfiction book about coal versus nuclear power. Not so much about which is better or worse—they’re probably both awful—but what ordinary people think about them. I’ve found that so many Americans, especially in the coal counties of West Virginia, really don’t believe in global warming. But I suspect that a lot of the political leaders who say that they don’t believe in it, actually might think that it’s possible. They’re acting like nothing is true, and all is permissible. To take this stance, and behave as though all forms of rhetoric are justified in the pursuit of power, is harmful and irresponsible.

Some of the more frightening people I’ve encountered are the ones who insist only some things are true, but also feel that all things are permissible. I remember one time I was interviewing a Russian special forces guy in Belgrade during the Bosnian War. He really liked to kill people. He wanted me to join him. He told me that if I would just give him my passport right then, he would burn it, and then I would be completely dependent on him. He’d make me into a new man. He’d give me food and cigarettes. I wouldn’t get much sleep. He’s teach me how to jump out of airplanes, and rape muslim women and slit people’s throats, and I would become a real man like him. At some point, when he was making this very enticing offer, he took a bayonet and put it to my throat, pressing it almost hard enough to cut into my skin. My interpreter was quite afraid that the guy was going to cut my throat. And I was afraid, too. There wasn’t a lot I could do about it either, except try to be calm and accepting of whatever was going to happen. Every war journalist, I suppose, has moments like that. But that was definitely a moment that it seemed that he felt nothing I believed was true, and he felt that all was permissible, including killing me. He felt his point of view was truer than mine, and he had the latitude to do whatever he wanted about it.
He was creating, in his mind, this new order. He’d been with the Russian special forces in Afghanistan, and he conceded that they shouldn’t have been there. That was their place, and the Russians should have stayed out. And now the Muslims needed to be quiet, as he put in, in Serbia and in Bosnia because that wasn’t their place. He was a big believer in ethnic cleansing. I believe anyone has the right to any opinion, no matter how deranged. The problem is, it went beyond that. This stuff, which was just a sick fantasy, was something that he and a lot of other violent people were busy making into something true. Every day, they were going out there and removing the Muslims, so that it would not be a Muslim place anymore.

If only some things are true—then it holds that only some things are permissible, because there can be right and wrong. Once you’re willing to say that only some things are true, but all is permissible in the attainment of that truth, you are on very dangerous ground.

When I worked out my moral calculus in Rising Up and Rising Down, I began with the assumption that maybe is not too controversial: The self has certain rights. The self has the right to defend itself—violently, if need be, or not. And it has the right to defend others, or not; violently, or not. To the extent that we infringe on those rights, unless there are other compelling considerations, considerations of proportionality or discrimination, I would say we are committing evil.

So it seems to me the only just political credo would be: “Some things are true, and some things are permissible.” Anyone who says anything different, and has political power or a gun, needs to be watched carefully.

But if a writer says that only some things are true—saying only these aesthetic rules are true, and these things are never permissible, for all time—then I’m inclined to say, screw you.

I think that for an artist, certainly, it’s good to remember that nothing is true for all time—and therefore, that all is permissible. You shouldn’t get struck in any one truth. Every idea, every identity is doomed to die, just as we are. I think that’s one reason I try so many different approaches in my books—I don’t want to limit myself to one approach, one artistic self.

The last couple books I’ve written had maximum-length provisions in the contracts. I did the only thing I could: ignore them.
And why shouldn’t ideas continually change, when there’s so much we can never know—will never know? Death, for instance, will always escape us. I just finished writing a book of ghost stories, though I don’t really believe in ghosts. I can’t say there’s not an afterlife—nothing is true, after all, and there might be—and though I’m not holding my breath, I have to admit we can’t really know what death is! That’s why we’re always engaging with it, trying to understand death by animating and personifing it, by giving it some sort of life and face. And death, of course, is nothingness—so we’re always doomed to fail. And yet, it’s this effort itself that forms our only possible relationship to death. I like to think that creating these quite absurd characters—ghouls and ghosts, dead people, scenarios in the grave—was actually my way of trying to imagine something that helps me prepare myself for death. And maybe readers will feel something of the same.

With death, we know for sure that nothing we imagine is true—and so it might be that nothing is permissible, nothing will be permissible after we die, very likely. In the meantime, all is permissible in trying to understand death, because whatever we understand won’t be true anyway—so it doesn’t matter. We can only project ourselves onto it.
So this saying of Hassan the Assassin’s holds many things at once: it is nihilistic, it is democratic, it is brutal, it is fair. For me, in the end, it’s a reminder of the shifting terrain of self-knowledge—how nothing is true for long in our hearts, how anything can change in us, and how often one transforms in one’s attempts to know oneself. I am continually surprised in my autobiographical writing at how much my understanding of myself has changed. I recently put out a book of transgender self-portraits, and when I put on a wig and photographed myself, or drew watercolor pictures of myself as a woman, I thought: Who is this person? It’s not really me—this person, this woman, doesn’t exist. In another hour I’m going to take off the wig and the breast forms and wash off the lipstick. Yet I’m staring at this person in the mirror who is alive and looking back at me, and I don’t know this person at all. It’s very eerie. I couldn’t really have believed the strangeness of it if I hadn’t done it. Who was that person, looking back? It’s a reminder that everything we think about ourselves can change, our very notions of ourselves can change, and even the notions we’re surest of still change and die, they always will, like us.

 

JOE FASSLER is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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'Last Stories And Other Stories' book promo image.
‘Last Stories And Other Stories’ book promo image.

Ivan Illich & Jerry Brown – Natural Affinities?

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THE ART OF SUFFERING

by Jerry Brown

When in 1976, I first met Ivan Illich at the Green Gulch Farm, he told me that his current focus was the study of economics. Then, I didn’t understand that by the word economics, Illich meant a way of life where things are experienced only under assumptions of scarcity. Illich saw this as profoundly wrong.

For him, creation was a gift, accessible to every man and women–without any expert ministrations or institutionalized services. His critique of schooling, the pursuit of health, high technology and sexual equality all challenged core beliefs in progress and the capacity of progress to reduce suffering and improve the human condition.

When I try to understand Ivan Illich, I am forced back upon my experience in the Jesuit Novitiate in the 1950’s. There, I was taught Ignatian indifference to secular values of long life, fame and riches. It is only through that mystical lens that I can grasp the powerful simplicity of the way Illich lived. He had no home of his own and relied on the hospitality of friends. He traveled from place to place with never more than two bags. He refused medical diagnosis, any form of insurance and gave away whatever savings remained at the end of each year.

On December 2, 2002, Ivan Illich died in Bremen, Germany at the home of his friend, Barbara Duden. Three months earlier, he and I and two friends shared the pleasure of walking together through the streets of Florence, Italy. We enjoyed a leisurely meal in a small, typically Tuscan restaurant. Laughter and Chianti flowed freely. As I got up to pay the bill, I noticed Ivan coming back from the cashier. He had already taken care of it.

Among the serious thinkers I have had the privilege to meet, Ivan Illich alone embodied in his personal life as well as in his work, a radical distancing from the imperatives of modern society. From Deschooling Society (1971) to In the Vineyard of the Text (1993), he bore witness to the destructive power of modern institutions that “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they consume the earth.”

Ivan Illich was the rarest of human beings: erudite, yet possessed of aliveness and sensitivity. He savored the ordinary pleasures of life even as he cheerfully embraced its inevitable suffering. Steeped in an authentic Catholic tradition, he observed with detachment and as a pilgrim the unforgiving allure of science and progress. With acute clarity and a sense of humor, he undermined, in all that he wrote, the uncontested certitudes of modern society.

In his last visit to Oakland, he invited the local archbishop to discuss matters of Catholic theology that greatly troubled him. Before he died, Illich wanted to engage ecclesiastical representatives in a conversation about corruption in the early church and the evolution-as he saw it–of Christian charity from a personal act to planned institutional services. This he called the corruption of the best becoming the worst- Corruptio optimi quae est pessima. His interlocutors arrived at my loft and were ushered into the library. Illich spoke at length, summoning up his vast store of Church history. He tried one subject, then another, but the bishop and his clerical assistants seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at.

Two days after Illich died, the New York Timesprinted an obituary that was a polemic rather than a thoughtful remembrance. The writer described Illich as a preacher of “counterintuitive sociology” to “a disquieted baby-boom generation,” using “Jesuitic argumentation” and “watered-down Marxism.” He also quoted a deceased Timesliterary critic who said in 1989 that he would “especially” discard Illich’s books from his personal library. Given Illich’s frontal assault on the status quo, it is not surprising that the paper of record would so interpret his work.

In the Seventies, facing sharp criticism from the Vatican, Illich withdrew from the active priesthood and refrained from speaking ever again as a Catholic theologian. Instead, he focused on the nature of technology and modern institutions and their capacity for destroying common sense and the proper scale for human activity. Illich identified the “ethos of non-satiety” as “at the root of physical depredation, social polarization, and psychological passivity.” Instead of welfare economics and environmental management, Illich emphasized friendship and self-limitation.

At first, Illich offered trenchant social criticism, particularly in Tools for Conviviality (1973) and Medical Nemesis (1976). In later years, he turned his attention inward and to what one of his friends called an ancient way of doing theology. In an essay entitled, The Cultivation of Conspiracy,Illich wrote: “Learned and leisurely hospitality is the only antidote to the stance of deadly cleverness that is acquired in the professional pursuit of objectively secured knowledge. I remain certain that the quest for truth cannot thrive outside the nourishment of mutual trust flowering into a commitment to friendship.”

In the last twenty years of his life, Ivan Illich suffered increasingly from a persistent growth on the side of his face, which he never treated, nor had diagnosed. In explaining why he voluntarily suffered, he said simply: nudum Christum nudum sequere.I follow the naked Christ.

In what was his most provocative and perhaps final comment on the “pursuit of health,” Illich wrote:

“Yes, we suffer pain, we become ill, we die. But we also hope, laugh, celebrate; we know the joy of caring for one another; often we are healed and we recover by many means. We do not have to pursue the flattening-out of human experience. I invite all to shift their gaze, their thoughts, from worrying about health care to cultivating the art of living. And, today with equal importance, the art of suffering, the art of dying.”

Jerry Brown, governor of California from 1975 to 1983, is mayor of Oakland.


 

The New York Review of Books, Volume 13, Number 8 · November 6, 1969
Outwitting the “Developed” Countries

By Ivan Illich

It is now common to demand that the rich nations convert their war machine into a program for the development of the Third World. The poorer four fifths of humanity multiply unchecked while their per capita consumption actually declines. This population expansion and decrease of consumption threaten the industrialized nations, who may still, as a result, convert their defense budgets to the economic pacification of poor nations. And this in turn could produce irreversible despair, because the plows of the rich can do as much harm as their swords. US trucks can do more lasting damage than US tanks. It is easier to create mass demand for the former than for the latter. Only a minority needs heavy weapons, while a majority can become dependent on unrealistic levels of supply for such productive machines as modern trucks. Once the Third World has become a mass market for the goods, products, and processes which are designed by the rich for themselves, the discrepancy between demand for these Western artifacts and the supply will increase indefinitely. The family car cannot drive the poor into the jet age, nor can a school system provide the poor with education, nor can the family icebox insure healthy food for them.

It is evident that only one man in a thousand in Latin America can afford a Cadillac, a heart operation, or a Ph.D. This restriction on the goals of development does not make us despair of the fate of the Third World, and the reason is simple. We have not yet come to conceive of a Cadillac as necessary for good transportation, or of a heart operation as normal healthy care, or of a Ph.D. as the prerequisite of an acceptable education. In fact, we recognize at once that the importation of Cadillacs should be heavily taxed in Peru, that an organ transplant clinic is a scandalous plaything to justify the concentration of more doctors in Bogotá, and that a Betatron is beyond the teaching facilities of the University of Sao Paolo.

Unfortunately, it is not held to be universally evident that the majority of Latin Americans—not only of our generation, but also of the next and the next again—cannot afford any kind of automobile, or any kind of hospitalization, or for that matter an elementary school education. We suppress our consciousness of this obvious reality because we hate to recognize the corner into which our imagination has been pushed. So persuasive is the power of the institutions we have created that they shape not only our preferences, but actually our sense of possibilities. We have forgotten how to speak about modern transportation that does not rely on automobiles and airplanes. Our conceptions of modern health care emphasize our ability to prolong the lives of the desperately ill. We have become unable to think of better education except in terms of more complex schools and of teachers trained for ever longer periods. Huge institutions producing costly services dominate the horizons of our inventiveness.

We have embodied our world view into our institutions and are now their prisoners. Factories, news media, hospitals, governments, and schools produce goods and services packaged to contain our view of the world. We—the rich—conceive of progress as the expansion of these establishments. We conceive of heightened mobility as luxury and safety packaged by General Motors or Boeing. We conceive of improving the general well-being as increasing the supply of doctors and hospitals, which package health along with protracted suffering. We have come to identify our need for further learning with the demand for ever longer confinement to classrooms. In other words, we have packaged education with custodial care, certification for jobs, and the right to vote, and wrapped them all together with indoctrination in the Christian, liberal, or communist virtues.

In less than a hundred years industrial society has molded patent solutions to basic human needs and converted us to the belief that man’s needs were shaped by the Creator as demands for the products we have invented. This is as true for Russia and Japan as for the North Atlantic community. The consumer is trained for obsolescence, which means continuing loyalty toward the same producers who will give him the same basic packages in different quality or new wrappings.

Industrialized societies can provide such packages for personal consumption for most of their citizens, but this is no proof that these societies are sane, or economical, or that they promote life. The contrary is true. The more the citizen is trained in the consumption of packaged goods and services, the less effective he seems to become in shaping his environment. His energies and finances are consumed in procuring ever new models of his staples, and the environment becomes a by-product of his own consumption habits.

The design of the “package deals” of which I speak is the main cause of the high cost of satisfying basic needs. So long as every man “needs” his car, our cities must endure longer traffic jams and absurdly expensive remedies to relieve them. So long as health means maximum length of survival, our sick will get ever more extraordinary surgical interventions and the drugs required to deaden their consequent pain. So long as we want to use school to get children out of their parents’ hair or to keep them off the street and out of the labor force, our young will be retained in endless schooling and will need ever-increasing incentives to endure the ordeal.

Rich nations now benevolently impose a straightjacket of traffic jams, hospital confinements, and classrooms on the poor nations, and by international agreement call this “development.” The rich and schooled and old of the world try to share their dubious blessings by foisting their pre-packaged solutions on to the Third World. Traffic jams develop in São Paolo, while almost a million northeastern Brazilians flee the drought by walking 500 miles. Latin American doctors get training at the New York Hospital for Special Surgery, which they apply to only a few, while amoebic dysentery remains endemic in slums where 90 percent of the population live. A tiny minority gets advanced education in basic science in North America—not infrequently paid for by their own governments. If they return at all to Bolivia, they become second-rate teachers of pretentious subjects at La Paz or Cochibamba. The rich export outdated versions of their standard models.

The Alliance for Progress is a good example of benevolent production for underdevelopment. Contrary to its slogans, it did succeed—as an alliance for the progress of the consuming classes, and for the domestication of the Latin American masses. The Alliance has been a major step in modernizing the consumption patterns of the middle classes in South America by integrating them with the dominant culture of the North American metropolis. At the same time, the Alliance has modernized the aspirations of the majority of citizens and fixed their demands on unavailable products.

Each car which Brazil puts on the road denies fifty people good transportation by bus. Each merchandised refrigerator reduces the chance of building a community freezer. Every dollar spent in Latin America on doctors and hospitals costs a hundred lives, to adopt a phrase of Jorge de Ahumada, the brilliant Chilean economist. Had each dollar been spent on providing safe drinking water, a hundred lives could have been saved. Each dollar spent on schooling means more privileges for the few at the cost of the many; at best it increases the number of those who, before dropping out, have been taught that those who stay longer have earned the right to more power, wealth, and prestige. What such schooling does is to teach the schooled the superiority of the better schooled.

All Latin American countries are frantically intent on expanding their school systems. No country now spends less than the equivalent of 18 percent of tax-derived public income on education—which means schooling—and many countries spend almost double that. But even with these huge investments, no country yet succeeds in giving five full years of education to more than one third of its population; supply and demand for schooling grow geometrically apart. And what is true about schooling is equally true about the products of most institutions in the process of modernization in the Third World.

Continued technological refinements of products which are already established on the market frequently benefit the producer far more than the consumer. The more complex production processes tend to enable only the largest producer to continually replace outmoded models, and to focus the demand of the consumer on the marginal improvement of what he buys, no matter what the concomitant side effects: higher prices, diminished life span, less general usefulness, higher cost of repairs. Think of the multiple uses for a simple can opener, whereas an electric one, if it works at all, opens only some kinds of cans, and costs one hundred times as much.

This is equally true for a piece of agricultural machinery and for an academic degree. The midwestern farmer can become convinced of his need for a four-axle vehicle which can go 70 m.p.h. on the highways, has an electric windshield wiper and upholstered seats, and can be turned in for a new one within a year or two. Most of the world’s farmers don’t need such speed, nor have they ever met with such comfort, nor are they interested in obsolescence. They need low-priced transport, in a world where time is not money, where manual wipers suffice, and where a piece of heavy equipment should outlast a generation. Such a mechanical donkey requires entirely different engineering and design than one produced for the US market. This vehicle is not in production.

Most of South America needs paramedical workers who can function for indefinite periods without the supervision of an MD. Instead of establishing a process to train midwives and visiting healers who know how to use a very limited arsenal of medicines while working independently, Latin American can universities establish every year a new school of specialized nursing or nursing administration to prepare professionals who can function only in a hospital, and pharmacists who know how to sell increasingly more dangerous drugs.

The world is reaching an impasse where two processes converge: ever more men have fewer basic choices. The increase in population is widely publicized and creates panic. The decrease in fundamental choice causes anguish and is consistently overlooked. The population explosion overwhelms the imagination, but the progressive atrophy of social imagination is rationalized as an increase of choice between brands. The two processes converge in a dead end: the population explosion provides more consumers for everything from food to contraceptives, while our shrinking imagination can conceive of no other ways of satisfying their demands except through the packages now on sale in the admired societies.

I will focus successively on these two factors, since, in my opinion, they form the two coordinates which together-permit us to define underdevelopment.

In most Third World countries, the population grows, and so does the middle class. Income, consumption, and the well-being of the middle class are all growing while the gap between this class and the mass of people widens. Even where per capita consumption is rising, the majority of men have less food now than in 1945, less actual care in sickness, less meaningful work, less protection. This is partly a consequence of polarized consumption and partly caused by the breakdown of traditional family and culture. More people suffer from hunger, pain, and exposure in 1969 than they did at the end of World War II, not only numerically, but also as a percentage of the world population.

These concrete consequences of underdevelopment are rampant; but underdevelopment is also a state of mind, and understanding it as a state of mind, or as a form of consciousness, is the critical problem. Underdevelopment as a state of mind occurs when mass needs are converted to the demand for new brands of packaged solutions which are forever beyond the reach of the majority. Underdevelopment in this sense is rising rapidly even in countries where the supply of classrooms, calories, cars, and clinics is also rising. The ruling groups in these countries build up services which have been designed for an affluent culture; once they have monopolized demand in this way, they can never satisfy majority needs.

Underdevelopment as a form of consciousness is an extreme result of what we can call in the language of both Marx and Freud “Verdinglichung” or reification. By reification I mean the hardening of the perception of real needs into the demand for mass manufactured products. I mean the translation of thirst into the need for a Coke. This kind of reification occurs in the manipulation of primary human needs by vast bureaucratic organizations which have succeeded in dominating the imagination of potential consumers.

Let me return to my example taken from the field of education. The intense promotion of schooling leads to so close an identification of school attendance and education that in everyday language the two terms are interchangeable. Once the imagination of an entire population has been “schooled,” or indoctrinated to believe that school has a monopoly on formal education, then the illiterate can be taxed to provide free high school and university education for the children of the rich.

Underdevelopment is the result of rising levels of aspiration achieved through the intensive marketing of “patent” products. In this sense, the dynamic underdevelopment that is now taking place is the exact opposite of what I believe education to be: namely, the awakening awareness of new levels of human potential and the use of one’s creative powers to foster human life. Underdevelopment, however, implies the surrender of social consciousness to pre-packaged solutions.

The process by which the marketing of “foreign” products increases under-development is frequently understood in the most superficial ways. The same man who feels indignation at the sight of a Coca-Cola plant in a Latin American slum often feels pride at the sight of a new normal school growing up alongside. He resents the evidence of a foreign “license” attached to a soft drink which he would like to see replaced by “Cola-Mex.” But the same man is willing to impose schooling—at all costs—on his fellow citizens, and is unaware of the invisible license by which this institution is deeply enmeshed in the world market.

Some years ago I watched workmen putting up a sixty-foot Coca-Cola sign on a desert plain in the Mexquital. A serious drought and famine had just swept over the Mexican highland. My host, a poor Indian in Ixmiquilpan, had just offered his visitors a tiny tequila glass of the costly black sugar-water. When I recall this scene I still feel anger; but I feel much more incensed when I remember UNESCO meetings at which well-meaning and well-paid bureaucrats seriously discussed Latin American school curricula, and when I think of the speeches of enthusiastic liberals advocating the need for more schools.

The fraud perpetrated by the salesmen of schools is less obvious but much more fundamental than the self-satisfied salesmanship of the Coca-Cola or Ford representative, because the schoolman hooks his people on a much more demanding drug. Elementary school attendance is not a harmless luxury, but more like the coca chewing of the Andean Indian, which harnesses the worker to the boss.

The higher the dose of schooling an individual has received, the more depressing his experience of withdrawal. The seventh-grade dropout feels his inferiority much more acutely than the dropout from the third grade. The schools of the Third World administer their opium with much more effect than the churches of other epochs. As the mind of a society is progressively schooled, step by step its individuals lose their sense that it might be possible to live without being inferior to others. As the majority shifts from the land into the city, the hereditary inferiority of the peon is replaced by the inferiority of the school dropout who is held personally responsible for his failure. Schools rationalize the divine origin of social stratification with much more rigor than churches have ever done.

Until this day no Latin American country has declared youthful under-consumers of Coca-Cola or cars as lawbreakers, while all Latin American countries have passed laws which define the early dropout as a citizen who has not fulfilled his legal obligations. The Brazilian government recently almost doubled the number of years during which schooling is legally compulsory and free. From now on any Brazilian dropout under the age of sixteen will be faced during his lifetime with the reproach that he did not take advantage of a legally obligatory privilege. This law was passed in a country where not even the most optimistic could foresee the day when such levels of schooling would be provided for only 25 percent of the young. The adoption of international standards of schooling forever condemns most Latin Americans to marginality or exclusion from social life—in a word, under-development.

The translation of social goals into levels of consumption is not limited to only a few countries. Across all frontiers of culture, ideology, and geography today, nations are moving toward the establishment of their own car factories, their own medical and normal schools—and most of these are, at best, poor imitations of foreign and largely North American models.

The Third World is in need of a profound revolution of its institutions. The revolutions of the last generation were overwhelmingly political. A new group of men with a new set of ideological justifications assumed power to administer fundamentally the same scholastic, medical, and market institutions in the interest of a new group of clients. Since the institutions have not radically changed, the new group of clients remains approximately the same size as that previously served. This appears clearly in the case of education. Per pupil costs of schooling are today comparable everywhere since the standards used to evaluate the quality of schooling tend to be internationally shared. Access to publicly financed education, considered as access to school, everywhere depends on per capita income. (Places like China and North Vietnam might be meaningful exceptions.)

Everywhere in the Third World modern institutions are grossly unproductive, with respect to the egalitarian purposes for which they are being reproduced. But so long as the social imagination of the majority has not been destroyed by its fixation on these institutions, there is more hope of planning an institutional revolution in the Third World than among the rich. Hence the urgency of the task of developing workable alternatives to “modern” solutions.

Underdevelopment is at the point of becoming chronic in many countries. The revolution of which I speak must begin to take place before this happens. Education again offers a good example: chronic educational underdevelopment occurs when the demand for schooling becomes so widespread that the total concentration of educational resources on the school system becomes a unanimous political demand. At this point the separation of education from schooling becomes impossible.

The only feasible answer to ever-increasing underdevelopment is a response to basic needs that is planned as a long-range goal for areas which will always have a different capital structure. It is easier to speak about alternatives to existing institutions, services, and products than to define them with precision. It is not my purpose either to paint a Utopia or to engage in scripting scenarios for an alternate future. We must be satisfied with examples indicating simple directions that research should take.

Some such examples have already been given. Buses are alternatives to a multitude of private cars. Vehicles designed for slow transportation on rough terrain are alternatives to standard trucks. Safe water is an alternative to high-priced surgery. Medical workers are an alternative to doctors and nurses. Community food storage is an alternative to expensive kitchen equipment. Other alternatives could be discussed by the dozen. Why not, for example, consider walking as a long-range alternative for locomotion by machine, and explore the demands which this would impose on the city planner? And why can’t the building of shelters be standardized, elements be pre-cast, and each citizen be obliged to learn in a year of public service how to construct his own sanitary housing?

It is harder to speak about alternatives in education, partly because schools have recently so completely pre-empted the available educational resources of good will, imagination, and money. But even here we can indicate the direction in which research must be conducted.

At present, schooling is conceived as graded, curricular, class attendance by children, for about 1000 hours yearly during an uninterrupted succession of years. On the average, Latin American countries can provide each citizen with between eight and thirty months of this service. Why not, instead, make one or two months a year obligatory for all citizens below the age of thirty?

Money is now spent largely on children, but an adult can be taught to read in one tenth the time and for one tenth the cost it takes to teach a child. In the case of the adult there is an immediate return on the investment, whether the main importance of his learning is seen in his new insight, political awareness, and willingness to assume responsibility for his family’s size and future, or whether the emphasis is placed on increased productivity. There is a double return in the case of the adult, because not only can he contribute to the education of his children, but to that of other adults as well. In spite of these advantages, basic literacy programs have little or no support in Latin America, where schools have a first call on all public resources. Worse, these programs are actually ruthlessly suppressed in Brazil and elsewhere, where military support of the feudal or industrial oligarchy has thrown off its former benevolent disguise.

Another possibility is harder to define, because there is as yet no example to point to. We must therefore imagine the use of public resources for education distributed in such a way as to give every citizen a minimum chance. Education will become a political concern of the majority of voters only when each individual has a precise sense of the educational resources that are owing to him—and some idea of how to sue for them. Something like a universal G.I. Bill of Rights could be imagined, dividing the public resources assigned to education by the number of children who are legally of school age, and making sure that a child who did not take advantage of his credit at the age of seven, eight, or nine would have the accumulated benefits at his disposal at age ten.

What could the pitiful education credit which a Latin American Republic could offer to its children provide? Almost all of the basic supply of books, pictures, blocks, games, and toys that are totally absent from he homes of the really poor, but enable a middle-class child to learn the alphabet, the colors, shapes, and other classes of objects and experiences which insure his educational progress. The choice between these things and schools is obvious. Unfortunately, the poor, for whom alone the choice is real, never get to exercise this choice.

Defining alternatives to the products and institutions which now pre-empt the field is difficult, not only, as I have been trying to show, because these products and institutions shape our conception of reality itself, but also because the construction of new possibilities requires a concentration of will and intelligence in a higher degree than ordinarily occurs by chance. This concentration of will and intelligence on the solution of particular problems regardless of their nature we have become accustomed over the last century to call research.

I must make clear, however, what kind of research I am talking about. I am not talking about basic research either in physics, engineering, genetics, medicine, or learning. The work of such men as Crick, Piaget, and Gell-Mann must continue to enlarge our horizons in other fields of science. The labs and libraries and specially trained collaborators these men need cause them to congregate in the few research capitals of the world. Their research can provide the basis for new work on practically any product.

I am not speaking here of the billions of dollars annually spent on applied research, for this money is largely spent by existing institutions on the perfection and marketing of their own products. Applied research is money spent on making planes faster and airports safer; on making medicines more specific and powerful and doctors capable of handling their deadly side-effects; on packaging more learning into classrooms; on methods to administer large bureaucracies. This is the kind of research for which some kind of counterfoil must somehow be developed if we are to have any chance to come up with basic alternatives to the automobile, the hospital, and the school, and any of the many other so-called “evidently necessary implements for modern life.”

I have in mind a different, and peculiarly difficult, kind of research, which has been largely neglected up to now, for obvious reasons. I am calling for research on alternatives to the products which now dominate the market; to hospitals and the profession dedicated to keeping the sick alive; to schools and the packaging process which refuses education to those who are not of the right age, who have not gone through the right curriculum, who have not sat in a classroom a sufficient number of successive hours, who will not pay for their learning with submission to custodial care, screening, and certification or with indoctrination in the values of the dominant elite.

This counter-research on fundamental alternatives to current pre-packaged solutions is the element most critically needed if the poor nations are to have a livable future. Such counter-research is distinct from most of the work done in the name of the “year 2000,” because most of that work seeks radical changes in social patterns through adjustments in the organization of an already advanced technology. The counter-research of which I speak must take as one of its assumptions the continued lack of capital in the Third World.

The difficulties of such research are obvious. The researcher must first of all doubt what is obvious to every eye. Second, he must persuade those who have the power of decision to act against their own short-run interests or bring pressure on them to do so. And, finally, he must survive as an individual in a world he is attempting to change fundamentally so that his fellows among the privileged minority see him as a destroyer of the very ground on which all of us stand. He knows that if he should succeed in the interest of the poor, technologically advanced societies still might envy the “poor” who adopt this vision.

There is a normal course for those who make development policies, whether they live in North or South America, in Russia or Israel. It is to define development and to set its goals in ways with which they are familiar, which they are accustomed to use in order to satisfy their own needs, and which permit them to work through the institutions over which they have power or control. This formula has failed, and must fail. There is not enough money in the world for development to succeed along these lines, not even in the combined arms and space budgets of the super-powers.

An analogous course is followed by those who are trying to make political revolutions, especially in the Third World. Usually they promise to make the familiar privileges of the present elites, such as schooling, hospital care, etc., accessible to all citizens; and they base this vain promise on the belief that a change in political regime will permit them to sufficiently enlarge the institutions which produce these privileges. The promise and appeal of the revolutionary are therefore just as threatened by the counter-research I propose as is the market of the now dominant producers.

In Vietnam a people on bicycles and armed with sharpened bamboo sticks have brought to a standstill the most advanced machinery for research and production ever devised. We must seek survival in a Third World in which human ingenuity can peacefully outwit machined might. The only way to reverse the disastrous trend to increasing underdevelopment, hard as it is, is to learn to laugh at accepted solutions in order to change the demands which make them necessary. Only free men can change their minds and be surprised; and while no men are completely free, some are freer than others.


 

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Books written by Illich

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Short biography – Ivan Illich

Theologian, educator, and social critic Ivan Illich (born 1926) sought bridges between cultures and explored the bases of people’s views of history and reality.
Ivan Illich was born on September 4, 1926, to Ivan Peter and Ellen Illich in Vienna, Austria. His father came from an aristocratic and Christian family; his mother’s family was Jewish. His childhood was spent growing up in the homes of grandparents and wherever his parents might be at the time. His father’s career as a diplomat politically protected the Jewish members of his family during the 1930s; yet Ivan was classified as “half-Jew” in 1941 and his family secretly fled from a Hitler-controlled Austria to Italy. In Florence at the age of 15, his father and grandfather having died earlier from natural causes, Ivan began taking care of his mother and younger twin brothers.
He entered the University of Florence where he majored in chemistry. At the age of 24 he graduated from the University of Salzburg with a Ph.D. in history on the work of the popular historian Arnold Toynbee. He prepared for the priesthood at the Gregorian University in Rome and became ordained in 1951. It was here that he met Jacques Maritain, the Catholic philosopher, who was to become his mentor and lifelong friend. Through him, Illich discovered the ideas of Thomas Aquinas and built a Thomistic philosophical foundation for understanding the world.

Stretching the Limits of the Priesthood

In 1951 Illich came to America hoping to study at Princeton University, but his interest quickly changed. On his first day in New York he heard through casual conversations about large numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating into other ethnic neighborhoods. After spending a couple days observing and visiting with them he asked to be assigned to a Puerto Rican parish. In his ministry he sought to make them feel at home in their new country by reinstituting their cultural and religious traditions. He sought to have Spanish materials made available to the children. His popularity among the Puerto Rican community grew and after just five years, in 1956, at age 30 he was made a monsignor and accepted the position of vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico.
During the decades of the 1950s and 1960s Illich continued his work within the church, yet his commitment often brought him into conflict with those in and outside the church who had different agendas. While in Puerto Rico, and later in Mexico, he threw himself into the study of education and was outspoken in his criticisms of formal schooling. He ridiculed the notion of development in U.S. programs such as the Peace Corps, believing that such volunteer programs damaged not only the people in Latin America but the volunteers themselves. He claimed that the Alliance for Progress was an alliance for the middle classes, and he questioned the motives of missionaries who came to him for further study. He refused to withdraw support from a politician who advocated birth control. He withdrew from his role at the Vatican Council in protest over its political timidity. In essence, he sought de-institutionalization of the church. In 1967 he was summoned to Rome before the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. He refused to answer their questions. Six months later Rome moved against him with documents he claimed were cribbed from U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reports leaked to the Holy See. At that point Illich voluntarily suspended himself from the priesthood, although he never resigned nor was he removed from the priesthood. He insisted that neither his faith, morals, nor theological views were at variance with the gospel and that they were orthodox, even conservative.

Awakening People to New Possibilities

Recognizing that Puerto Rico was perceived largely as a U.S. puppet, Illich moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961 and established there the Center for Intercultural Documentation. The focus of his work remained unchanged as he sought to establish a bridge linking the two Americas and to train individuals for religious work in Latin America. By the mid-1960s the institute through its research seminars was attracting worldwide individuals concerned with social and economic issues. Illich viewed the center as a place for free, committed, and disciplined intellectual inquiry, yet many participants viewed it as an unstructured forum for political expression. Although still attracting students and economically sound, the center was not accomplishing its original purpose. Therefore, in 1976 it was closed.
The next several years Illich traveled and studied oriental languages and culture with the dream of writing the history of Western ideas in an oriental language. Subsequently, believing the task to be too great, he returned to an old intellectual home, to the study of 12th-century philosophy. Here, while teaching at the University of Marburg in Germany, he sought to find a fulcrum for lifting contemporary people out of their socially-constructed, conventional perspectives and out of a worsening world situation. He sought to enable them to understand how their commonly viewed reality (what is taken for granted or as certain) was historically constructed and can be changed. In the early 1990s Illich taught part of the year at Pennsylvania State University and continued to reside in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Illich became known as a brilliant satirist and critic of contemporary institutions. In the early 1970s he called for a reexamination of existing social institutions. For example, he argued that schools are a lottery in which everyone invests but few win. As a result of perceived failure, those students who don’t succeed in schools are stigmatized and suffer discrimination. In contrast, he proposed to correct this unjust situation by de-schooling society and thereby making it impossible to discriminate on that basis. Later, his thought penetrated to new depths when examining the professions, particularly the medical profession and how it leads individuals to become dependent and to assume less responsibility for their own lives.
In the 1980s Illich’s thought shifted and again reached new levels of analysis. He stated that changes in our current situation can be attained if individuals “awaken” to the fact that each person’s understanding or perspective of his or her world, a world that each of us takes for granted and as certain, is seen as being formulated and handed down over the centuries. Such conventional perspectives lock individuals into certain solutions and prevent recognition of new ways of living in the world. For example, in his work ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind he shows how our way of thinking has made three shifts throughout time. The first shift that changed our ways of seeing resulted from the introduction of the alphabet. A second shift in our thinking came in the 12th century with the development of the written page as we moved from an oral public and a spoken reality to a written reality and a literacy paradigm. And finally, the computer and word processing have created a new watershed of change in which our thoughts were increasingly arranged more by the logic and efficiency of a technical tool than by the natural meanings embodied in a live discourse and spoken tradition.

Further Reading

An extensive six hour interview titled Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Conversations with Ivan Illich was broadcasted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1989. Transcripts and this highly informative dialogue can be ordered from Ideas, P.O. Box 6440, Station “A”, Montreal, Quebec, H3C 3L4.
A major political article by Francis Duplex is Gray, including biographical information, “Profiles,” appeared in the New Yorker (1969). A discussion of Illich’s writings was in Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series, Volume 10. Articles critical of his view included “The ‘Deschooling’ Controversy Revisited: A Defense of Illich’s ‘Participatory Socialism,” by Carl G. Hedman in Educational Theory (1979); “Towards a Political Economy of Education: A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society” by Herbert Gintis in Harvard Educational Review (1972); and “Illich, Kozol, and Rousseau on Public Education,” by Jonathan Kozol in Social Theory and Practice (1980). A selected list of major works by Illich which trace the development of his thought included: Celebration of Awareness: A Call for Institutional Revolution, introduction by Erich Fromm (1970); De-Schooling Society (1971); Tools for Conviviality (1973); Medical Nemesis, the Expropriation of Health (1975); and ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, with Barry Sanders (1988).

from: Gale Encyclopedia of Biographies

Robert Bringhurst – Language, Myth and Poetry

I find that Robert Bringhurst brings to the world a unique perspective of humans and their role in nature. He argues the idea that humans are merely part of nature and the idea that we are here to rule nature and to separate it from our lives will not only remove us from reality but also move us along the path of extinction.  His is a powerful treatment and integration of story, myth, poetry and language, related to biology and physics. A book of collected essays and talks is in his “The Tree Of Meaning”.
 

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From the Poetry Foundation:

Robert BringhurstJason Vanderhill

One of Canada’s most revered poets, Robert Bringhurst is also a typographer, translator, cultural historian, and linguist. Born in 1946, he studied comparative literature at Indiana University and poetry at the University of British Columbia. Bringhurst’s own poetry draws on his experiences with Native American myths and storytelling, as well as his training in philosophy, comparative literature, and linguistics. Bringhurst’s poetry is known for its wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and linguistic clarity. He is eclectic in his approach to literature, taking inspiration from sources as diverse as the Bible, the ancient Greek poets, and the epics of the Haida, one of Canada’s native tribes. In the Observer, Kate Kellaway described Bringhurst’s poetry as “rare but never rarified.” She continued: “Bringhurst aims high: he attempts to grasp the essence of what it is to be alive… He also has the curiosity of a scientist. He never overindulges in emotion. His writing is at once lyrical and spartan. And yet he is witty. And while he has no taste for lamentation, many a poem catches, calmly, at the heart.”

Bringhurst has published over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-1982 (1982), The Blue Roofs of Japan (1986),Conversations with a Toad (1987), The Calling: Selected Poems 1970-1995 (1995), and Selected Poems (2009). In an interview with Intelligent Life, Bringhurst spoke about his poetry’s interest in philosophical questions rather than personal exploration: “I am not my favourite subject. The earth is a lot bigger and more interesting than I am. I also have a strong desire, as I was saying, not to be trapped in my own time. The poetry of the present, when it isn’t playing language games, is routinely full of self-display and personal confession—or to put it more kindly, it is full of self-exploration. In classical Greece or Tang Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, and in the great oral cultures that were native to North America, there was very little art of that kind. Artists in those times and places were interested in human relations too, and had serious questions to ask themselves—but most of the time they found it more fruitful and more powerful not to deal with the self directly.”

Bringhurst’s book The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) is considered one of the most influential reference books on typography and book design. The work has been translated into ten languages, and is now in its third edition. Reviewing the book, the writer Roy Johnson noted that Bringhurst “can conjure poetry out of the smallest detail, and he offers a scholarly yet succinct etymology of almost every mark that can be made—from the humble hyphen to the nuances of serifs on Trajan Roman or a Carolingian Majuscule.”

Bringhurst has also published many books of prose, including mediations on philosophy, language, music, art, and ecology. Recent titles include The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology (2006) and Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2009). A translator and cultural historian as well as a poet, essayist, and typography expert, Bringhurst’s  work with the Haida, a Canadian tribe, includes helping to translate their epics into English. His books on Haida mythology and story-telling include The Raven Steals the Light (1984), A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers (1999), and Nine Visits to the Mythworld (2000), which was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize. Bringhurst’s other awards include the Wytter Bynner Fellowship, awarded by US Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. Married to the poet Jan Zwicky, Bringhurst lives on Quadra Island, British Columbia.

CAREER

Worked as journalist in Beirut, Lebanon, 1965-66, and in Boston, MA, 1970-71; dragoman in Israel and Palestine, 1967-68; law clerk in Panama Canal Zone, 1968-69; University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, visiting lecturer, 1975-77, lecturer in English department, 1979-80; School of Fine Arts, Banff, Alberta, poet-in-residence, 1983; Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, adjunct lecturer, 1983-84; Ojibway & Cree Cultural Centre Writers’ Workshops, Atikokan & Espanola, Ontario, poet-in-residence, 1985; University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, writer-in-residence, 1986; University of Edinburgh Scotland, Canada/Scotland Exchange Fellow and writer-in-residence, 1989-90; Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Ashley Fellow, 1994; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, writer-in-residence, 1998-99; Frost Centre for Native Studies and Canadian Studies, Trent University, conjunct professor, 1998—. Military service: U.S. Army Intelligence, seconded to Israeli Defense Force, 1966-68; Judge Advocate General’s Corps., 1968-69.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

POETRY

  • The Shipwright’s Log, Kanchenjunga Press, 1972.
  • Cadastre, Kanchenjunga Press, 1973.
  • Deuteronomy, Sono Nis Press, 1974.
  • Eight Objects, Kanchenjunga Press, 1975.
  • Bergschrund, Sono Nis Press, 1975.
  • Jacob Singing, Kanchenjunga Press, 1977.
  • The Stonecutter’s Horses, Standard Editions, 1979.
  • Tzuhalem’s Mountain, Oolichan Books, 1982.
  • The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems 1972-82, McClelland & Stewart, 1982, Copper Canyon Press, 1985.
  • Ocean/Paper/ Stone, William Hoffer, 1984.
  • Tending the Fire, Alcuin Society, 1985.
  • The Blue Roofs of Japan, Barbarian Press, 1986.
  • Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, McClelland & Stewart, 1986, Copper Canyon Press, 1987.
  • Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters, Alcuin Society, 1986.
  • Conversations with a Toad, Lucie Lambert, 1987.
  • The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995, McClelland & Stewart (Toronto), 1995.
  • Elements, with drawings by Ulf Nilsen, Kuboaa Press (New York City), 1995.
  • Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press (Kentville, Nova Scotia), 2009.

PROSE

  • Boats Is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language, and Design, Edition Rhino (New York City), 1997.
  • A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World, Douglas & McIntyre, 1999.
  • (With Warren Chappell) A Short History of the Printed Word, Hartley & Marks, 1999.
  • Thinking and Signing: Poetry and the Practice of Philosophy, Cormorant Books (Toronto, Canada), 2002.
  • The Elements of Typographic Style, 3rd edition, Hartley & Marks (Point Roberts, WA), 2004.
  • The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology, Counterpoint Press (Berkeley, CA), 2006.
  • Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking, Counterpoint Press, 2009.

OTHER

  • (Editor with others) Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver), 1983.
  • (With Bill Reid) The Raven Steals the Light, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1984.
  • The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii, photographs by Ulli Steltzer, Douglas & McIntyre/University of Washington Press, 1991.
  • The Spirit of Haida Gwaii (television documentary), CBC, 1992.
  • (Editor, and author of introduction and notes) Bill Reid, Solitary Raven: Selected Writings, Douglas & McIntyre, 2000.
  • (Translator and editor) Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas, Nine Visits to the Mythworld, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 2000.
  • (Editor and translator) Skaay Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, Canada), 2001.

Guest editor of Arabic literature and Greek issues of Contemporary Literature in Translation, 1974, 1976; contributing editor, Fine Print, beginning 1985. Author of Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, 2004; and The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning, 2004. Contributor to anthologies including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, The Penguin Book of Canadian Verse, The New Canadian Poets, Inside the Poem, and World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Antiquity to Our Time.

FURTHER READING

BOOKS

  • Contemporary Poets, 6th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 1996.
  • Inside the Poem, edited by W. H. New, Oxford University Press (Toronto, Ontario), 1992, pp. 93-100.
  • Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry, Oxford University Press, 1997.

PERIODICALS

  • Antognish Review, volume 85-86, 1991, Peter Sanger, “Poor Man’s Art: On the Poetry of Robert Bringhurst,” pp. 151-169.
  • Books in Canada, 1995, Scott Ellis, review of The Calling, pp. 30-31.
  • Canadian Dimension, July-August, 1996, Terren Ilana Wein, review of The Black Canoe, p. 42.
  • Globe and Mail (Toronto), December 24, 1983; June 24, 1995, Chris Dafoe, “Robert Bringhurst: In Ink and Paper,” pp. C1-C2.
  • Journal of Canadian Poetry, volume 12, 1998, Iain Higgins, review of The Calling, pp. 27-46.
  • Library Journal, volume 101, 1976, Norman Stock, review of Bergschrund, p. 819.
  • Maclean’s, July 12, 1996, John Bemrose, “The Timely Wisdom of Traditional Tales,” p. 56; July, 1999, John Bemrose, review of A Story as Sharp as a Knife, pp. 56-57.
  • New York Times Book Review, September 28, 1986, Jorie Graham, “Making Connections,” pp. 32-33; February 9, 1992, Karal Ann Marling, “A Noah’s Ark of the North,” p. 13.
  • Poetry, volume 144, 1984, Robin Skelton, “Recent Canadian Poetry,” pp. 297-307.
  • Quill & Quire, volume 61.5, 1995, Michael Redhill, review of The Calling, p. 36.
  • Star (Toronto), April, 1995, Philip Marchand, “Simplicity Motivates Poet’s Work of a Lifetime,” p. H6.
  • Whig-Standard Magazine (Kingston, Ontario), March 26, 1988, Larry Scanlan, “Notebook: Interview with Robert Bringhurst,” p. 25.

OTHER

  • The Reader Winter 1995—Robert Bringhurst, http://collection.nlc-bnc.ca, (March 6, 2000).
  • Review of The Elements of Typographic Style, http://www.mantex.co.uk/reviews. (March 6, 2000).