The Dark Shapes Ahead
In the guilds of the middle ages, a journeyman was someone who had completed his apprenticeship and was competent in his craft, but had not yet risen to the level of master. The word could be misleading – “journey” is actually “journée”, referring to the status of a day-labourer – yet there is a long tradition of the wandering journeyman, moving from place to place to learn more about how his craft is being practiced. In parts of Europe, this continues to the present day.
The Guild of Resilients is a new association whose members come from across Europe. Its aim is to cultivate the skills required to thrive in uncertain, turbulent times. Its founders have asked me to investigate what it might mean to be a “journeyer” in the practice of such skills.
In the summer of 2012, I will be travelling across Europe in search of people, places and projects that have something to teach me about deep cultural resilience. Along the way, I want to learn more about the history of the guild, the figure of the journeyman – and other wandering traditions – and hopefully make some useful connections between those I meet.
Culture and Resilience
I want to use this journey to think more about what we mean when we use terms like “resilience”. As a starting point, I’m going to suggest that resilience might be best understood as the capacity to endure.
I am particularly interested in the role that culture plays in this: culture in the narrow sense of the arts – because I suspect that those who have dedicated their lives to their creative work have useful lessons for how we make a good job of living through difficult times – but also culture in the broader anthropological sense, the ways of being and doing and seeing which give shape to life in a particular place and time. I’ll have more to say about this, as the journey goes on.
For now, I am looking to visit people and projects around Europe that might have clues for me about what it means to endure. I have a few in mind, already – but I’m also asking for your suggestions. You can contact me on Twitter (@dougald) or by leaving comments on this site.
I will be setting off from Stockholm on the evening of July 8th.
For the following two weeks, I will aim to visit a different place or project each day, gathering stories and ideas.
After that, I will be slowing down and spending some time with other Resilients – first in Croatia, then in Denmark – reflecting on what I’ve learned so far and deciding what to do with the latter part of my time as a journeyer.
I will be adding the places I visit along the way to the map on this site – as well as some of the places that I have visited already in the journeys that have led me to this project.
The invitation and support to undertake this journey came from FoAM – a network of cultural laboratories dedicated to reimagining the future – who are the initiators of The Resilients project.
The Resilients has been made possible with the support of the Culture Programme (2007-13) of the European Union.
Note: I’ll be updating the Latest Plans page with news on where I expect to be when.
The dark shapes ahead are islands. Beyond them the sea shines and the sky seems a soft reflection of its light, and beyond both of these, the faded darkness of the next line of islands. This goes on for hours.
The thousands of islands – tens of thousands – that merge into the Stockholm archipelago are one of the gentle wonders of Europe. This side of midsummer, their trees are a deep green that fades easily into darkness on a cloudy evening. Here and there, where land meets water, a red-painted house by a small landing stage. Where the channel tightens, you can see old fortifications: a marker of the times in which Sweden was a great power in Europe, and in which power in Europe was settled with armies and navies.
Today, the big ships sailing through these straits are cruise liners and ferries full of Swedish and Finnish holidaymakers. Three hours into the crossing, as we pass into the open waters of the Baltic, the disco of the MS Silja Serenade is screaming with children in party clothes playing musical statues.
We are living through a moment of crisis in Europe of a kind that has not been seen for generations: not since the 1930s, or the summer of 1914. I hear this from people whose reading of events I do not find easy to dismiss, and I see traces of it in the news stories I follow. I do not think it is possible to talk about ‘resilience’ in Europe today without doing so against this background.
And yet it remains a conscious effort to hold this in focus, while the blur of normality goes on around us.
All week the air seemed to be holding its breath, until by Saturday the only answer was water. We went swimming twice: diving in the afternoon from a jetty at Ulriksdal, then again at almost midnight, closer to home, the sky not fully dark, walking down to the shore in our dressing gowns. The surface of the water was black and silver, a different substance to the one we swam in earlier.
I had been thinking about the slipperiness of history, how it escapes our grasp. When we study a war in school, the first facts we learn are the last to be known to anyone who lived through it: when it was over and which side won. Those who do not remember the past may be condemned to repeat it, but hindsight is very nearly the opposite of memory. To remember is to be returned to a reality that was not yet inevitable, to recall the events which shaped our lives when they might still have gone otherwise.
I imagine conversations taking place in Europe in the 1930s, as history darkens, and two thoughts come from this.
First, that there is no wise moment to leave a bad situation, when leaving carries a cost. There is only a choice between two kinds of foolishness: to be too early and risk losing much for nothing, or to be too late and risk not being able to leave at all.
Then, a second thought, that leaving may not be an answer to anything. This is not to speak against self-preservation, only to notice that it is not always a sufficient cause to carry us through.
If someone were to ask me what kind of cause is sufficient to live for in dark times, the best answer I could give would be: to take responsibility for the survival of something that matters deeply. Whatever that is, your best action might then be to get it out of harm’s way, or to put yourself in harm’s way on its behalf, or anything else your sense of responsibility tells you.
It seems to me that, if we can talk about such a thing as the tasks of resilience, then today these tasks will share that quality of taking responsibility: not an impossible, meaningless responsibility for the world in general, but one that is specific and practical, and may be different for each of us.
- Background photograph: fhwrdh (Creative Commons)