The Hoped-For Home

I finished Ivan Illich’s In The Vineyard Of The Text some time last fall, and I wrote about it once at that time, warning that I might write several times more because I had found so much in it that provoked me to reflection.  I never did get the chance to write what I had planned, but I was recently reminded of one of its ideas, so I will take the opportunity now to make good, at least in small part, on what I promised those several months ago.

At one point in the book, Illich describes a kind of utopian space where those who have learned to approach reading as a kind of spiritual discipline can gather in community.  “I dream,” he says, “that outside the educational system there might be something like houses of reading, where the few who discover their passion for a life centered on reading would find the necessary guidance, silence, and complicity of disciplined companionship needed for the long invitation into one or the other of several spiritualities or styles of celebrating the book.”  The kind of reader that he imagines for this place is “one who has made himself into an exile in order to concentrate his entire attention and desire on wisdom, which thus becomes the hoped-for home.”  There are thus two kinds of places being described here: the physical houses where readers might come together, and the hoped-for home of wisdom that such readers seek, and I think that these two places come to inform each other, creating between them an image of homes that are characterized by a love of wisdom and an image of wisdom that is characterized by a love of the home.

I am powerfully drawn to this utopian vision.  Though I cannot imagine the conditions under which it might be accomplished in its entirety, not for me, not at this time, not given the ways that my priorities of family and community currently constrain me, I nevertheless find it a beautiful ideal, one of many often incompatible ideals, to be sure, but no less beautiful for that reason.

Illich’s vision attracts me so strongly because it implies an approach to reading that I find myself insisting upon more and more as time goes by, one that I hope to outline more fully at some later time, one that is characterized by a threefold discipline: close and attentive reading; thoughtful and patient reflection; and learned and leisurely conversation.

What is common in these three things is time.  The text is treated, not as a task to be completed, not as an item to be checked, but as a site through which an intellectual and spiritual discipline can be exercised.  It becomes, to use the dominant metaphor of Illich’s text, a vineyard, a garden, a forest, in which the reader walks and lingers and then shares with other readers.  This approach to the text takes time.  It requires that we make a time, that we create or shape a time that is suitable and respectful of the text and of our fellow readers.

Illich’s utopian vision, therefore, is less about reserving a space for its own sake than it is about reserving a space where time can be dedicated to the needs of a convivial community of reading.  The hoped-for home, in other words, is not primarily a matter of a physical space, though certain physical spaces may be more or less conducive to it.  Rather, it is the opportunity, the time, the discipline to read well and to do so in community, to read in the pursuit of wisdom.

If this is the case, and I believe that it is, then it may be that the hoped-for home is closer to us than it first seemed.  All it would require would be readers committed enough to reading well that they would make the proper space and the proper time for their texts and for each other.  All it would require is for these readers to form intentional community with one another, to go along with one another, to spur each other along the road to reading.

This kind of community probably even exists among us already, at least in part, at least in rudimentary and provisional ways, in the times that we already reserve to reading well, though they be sporadic and uncertain, and in the times that we give our fellow readers around our tables, even if they be infrequent and unpredictable. We must begin by cherishing and nourishing these times of the hoped-for home that we have already been able to fashion in our lives.  These times, however small, however tenuous, are precious.  They must be carefully maintained.

We must then seek diligently to expand the compass of the hoped-for home, to discipline ourselves to a slow and careful reading, to a thoughtful and patient reflection, to a learned and leisurely conversation.  We must make of these things a kind of all-informing passion, a passion that comes to order the life of the mind in such a way that it opens onto worship.  I am much concerned lately with how I might begin to accomplish this in my own hoped-for home.

  1. Though, I haven’t read this, it feels very much from what you are saying that the whole thing goes deeper, not just reading, but to psychology, to language, to study communication, to become rhetors of the human being. Which, I don’t know if I have mentioned it before, but this is mentioned in the ‘Essential Erasmus’ that I have just recently been reading, where it mentions that his greatest strength was not simply being intelligent, but that he studied language, he studied literature and communication, and was a skilled rhetor, to the point where criticism against him is defeated by the fact that his critics are nowhere near being at the level of rhetorician that he was and are talking out their ass. This, it was, that made a light go on, and gave me a conclusion as to why we are bad readers in this day and age- we do not study language or communication, we are not good rhetors at all.

  2. John Jantunen said:

    I would add to “a slow and careful reading, to a thoughtful and patient reflection, to a learned and leisurely conversation” the capacity to embrace life with an equal passion for it is only those who drink, in this fashion, from the spring of life who can truly bring what the reader needs to bring to the art of reading.

  3. Curtis,

    I am not sure that I would use the word rhetoric, because rhetoric is about technique, and the kind of reading Illich is imagining here has little to do with language as technique. It has more to do with discipline. You could discipline yourself to rhetoric, of course, and I think Illich would find value in this, but he believes that the end product of reading should be worship rather than persuasion, so he remains at odds with the goals of traditional rhetoric.

  4. The text doesn’t use ‘rhetotic’, but implies more a study of technique, and of content. It doesn’t imply anywhere either that Erasmus was a person who employed rhetoric, but was a person who studied language, and style, in the sense that he understood them. It seemed to imply that becoming a rhetor, had more to do with how and what you read, than anything to do with using ‘rhetoric’, but much more to do with understanding nuance, communication, eccentricities, hidden meanings, unusual styles, sophisms and so on, as the study of works and texts, not simply as something to do with flat out disarming argument, or argument at all. I am running on the air given by the introduction.

  5. John,

    I think this is where you would part ways with Illich. Speaking as a writer of fiction, you emphasize the need for experience, whereas Illich understands the act of reading as a kind of self-imposed exile. This does not mean that he disparages experience, because he lived a very full and interesting life, and it does not mean that he ignored the issues of his contemporary world, because his work is very engaged with the social and political problems of his time, but it does mean that reading is a way for him to step apart from the world, at least for a time, in order to gain a perspective on it.

    In much the same way as you would say most writing is not worth the time it takes to read it, so he might say that much of what we call life is not worth the time it takes to live it.

    Of course, there is perhaps a connection between his understanding of reading and the fact that he never wrote any fiction.

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