Christian Thomas

Feyerabend's Teaching Assistant at the ETH Zurich

Board Member of the Fussgängerverein Zürich

Secretary of the International Federation of Pedestrians (IFP)

Letter to Paul on His 65th Birthday

Bracciano, 25 December 1988

Dear Paul,

I would like to congratulate you on your 65th birthday. It seems unreal to me that you should be 65 years old now, because I've been in contact with you for years, which I don't usually have with people of retirement age, but rather with friends of about the same age. This relates so much to the informality of dealings that arose because you once, many years ago, confused my first and last name and I - cheeky as I am - offered you the first-name to solve the difficult problem simplify. No, it's more important that you became and stayed a friend, not even though, but because we sometimes have very different interests and don't always have the same opinion.

Thank you very much for thinking of my birthday. He's been keeping me busy. Not only because of the increasing number of grey hairs. I now see more and more clearly what I can no longer do in life, what might be nice to do; I can see which trains have “departed”. But I also see railway yards full of trains that I still don't know which ones I'll end up on.

You have now completely won me over with your aversion to congresses and commemorative publications. When Hans Peter Duerr wrote to me two years ago that I should do a commemorative publication after all, I didn't think anything bad about it, I vaguely assumed, as he did, that it should be done without your knowledge because you didn't appreciate it, but I thought that when it would be done, you would be happy. But when you then said that I would no longer be your friend if I put together a commemorative publication, I knew that it was no joke. And now that the substitute action has been completed, I also know why you feel an aversion, even a disgust, towards commemorative publications and I have to say, you are right...

I only really became aware of the congresses here in Italy, because here there is an initially unbelievable congress culture which, it seems to me, has ancient, degenerated roots in the culture of the spoken word and has nothing to do with it the congresses of the Anglo-Saxon world staged on the model of manager meetings and has little in common with the seminar in Palermo.

The only thing a typical Italian congress has in common with Palermo is that there is money at the beginning, or at least a hope of money. This is then used to print a usually very large poster that is hung up at the headquarters of the institution organizing the congress. The circulation is (as a rule of thumb) twice the number of people who can be seated in the auditorium, it can also be higher. An important function of the poster is to encourage people who have said they will be giving a talk, or are likely to be willing to give one, to come. Written invitations are sometimes sent as well; but since everyone knows that these may not arrive at all or only after the congress, people are still phoning around. At least those who may attend will still be called.

The congress then does not start an hour late, but everyone knows that it starts an hour later than on the printed programme. An explanation is only required if the start is two hours later, and an apology if the start is three hours later. The reason for the delay is often that at the beginning a political figure, usually the donor, addresses a few words of greeting to the participants. They want to spare him the shame of speaking alone in front of the caretaker and the congress secretary and therefore wait until some people are there. But the keynote speaker also knows that nobody is there at the scheduled time anyway, because the introductory speeches are of no interest to anyone, and he comes too late himself. So the circle closes and when it really starts, you can explain everything with the traffic chaos. The speaker chosen for the opening is usually so clever that (as in Palermo) he does not appear at all at the beginning, but speaks at some point in between, at a time when one can assume that the most people are gathered. By appearing from time to time and being given the floor immediately, he is demonstrating his power and omnipotence, which of course stems from having diverted (or, as in Palermo, promised to divert) the money to finance the Congress. In my opinion, the speeches of the local potentates are far too little appreciated. I hated them and despised them too, until, at an extremely bland congress on Le Corbusier (second half of the afternoon), I suddenly stumbled upon the opening speech by the Lazio region's culture minister, which was a masterpiece of what these kinds of speeches always are: A meaningless rhetorical exercise. If you don't know anything about the topic of the congress, you can talk about the city you're in for three to five minutes if you're of average ability.

But the man mentioned above managed to talk for a quarter of an hour about nothing, not about Le Corbusier, who he only knew was an architect and not about Rome, not about architecture. It was a speech that lasted almost a quarter of an hour without hesitation and without a break, which had no content and I think it works much better in Italian than in any other language because there is an ancient tradition for such speeches. Everyone was applauding, nobody noticed anything. I didn't applaud, because it was only much later, after the congress, that I realized that the culture minister's speech was actually the only one that should have been taped, because everyone else wrote much better in their books than they did at the Congress, and their presentation was only a clumsy imitation of what the Minister of Culture had commanded in terms of self-portrayal. One should finally make a book with the 10, 20 or 30 most meaningless congress beginnings and endings. That would be very helpful for all the poor guys who have to do an introduction but aren't that talented, but it would also be very instructive for those who talk in between, and moreover: if there is a book about meaningless congress beginnings and endings then there really wouldn't be any reason to go there, because you can find that in between anyway in books or in the congress report. In short: I now have a lot of sympathy for your aversion to congresses.

I'm now about to finish with Italy. The three years were rather difficult for me because I missed the network of friends and acquaintances that I only have in Zurich and that I somehow need. Of course, there were a lot of nice and happy things, but I couldn't live here for long. The Italians are very tolerant, they let foreigners do what they want, and that makes life easy. Nobody cares about the small mistakes of others, the motto is "live and let live". That might be ideal for you, but I appreciate a certain basic social consensus that you stick to, and you can expect others to stick to it too. I still resent corruption and sloppiness, roadside litter and abused nature, and always feel it is my civic duty to do something about it. But that is practically a hopeless and lonely fight here in Italy. Maybe I could settle into a different kind of basic social consensus, but I don't see it here. The lowest common denominator is the trivial culture, living out self-expression with consumer goods and this is just not my forte.

My Italy surfeit may also have something to do with the fact that my attempts to find a traffic club here have so far failed. I put a lot of work into it, more than for the organization of a whole series of events, but I was treated like a beggar who wants to beg something for myself. It was completely different in Switzerland ten years ago, it was very easy to generate a wave of synergies that led to concrete results within months.

You're more of a hermit than I am and it's certainly easier for you to live with the direct openness that one encounters here, but which remains non-binding even after years. Nobody asks what you actually do or general information like "I write" is enough. You would certainly like it in Italy that nobody cares what you do here. But I'm missing something and precisely because I'm missing something here, I realize too, what is important to me in life and what I do not want to do without. I will remain in Zurich, even if I may travel abroad more often. I am curious to see where you will settle down as soon as you are no longer attending lectures somewhere, and I hope that you will be in Zurich, at least from time to time, in the "Limmat-Athen". If fate and grace really do hold you in Italy, then Zurich will be the closest place where you German theatre and non-dubbed films and then we'll be able to chat about the late 70s and the 80s at Du Nord.

I hope to see you here in Bracciano in the spring. In June we will move back to the Ütliberg and I will activate my old roots again.

I wish you all the best for the new year of your life and for the entire phase of your life in which retirement is approaching.

Tanti Auguri,