There Are Signs
How we got to Patmos and what I learned on the journey
This is the second piece in what I suspect will be a series, circling around the trip that I made to Patmos for the Black Elephant Meta+Physics gathering, slowly surfacing the riches that I found there. The first piece is here. For another route through the experience of that week, I recommend the recent instalments oftravel journal.
I’m body-tired from a long day’s travelling as the plane takes off from Athens, banking out over blue water and the first islands. I don’t like flying, I happily avoid it for years at a time, but Patmos is a hard place to get to, and something told me that I had to go. Anna and Alfie are asleep in the seats beside me. We’ll stay in a hotel on Kos tonight, then complete the journey by boat in the morning.
To distract from the stiffness in my bones, I pull out the Aegean Airlines magazine from the pouch in the back of the seat in front, flip through photoshoots of impossibly romantic island scenes, until I land on a portrait of Akram Khan, the choreographer and dancer, squatting on a south London railway platform. I turn the page and these are the first lines I read:
I’m a realist. We are at the end of our civilisation and it’s the undoing of everything – nature will take care of that. If we still think that nature won’t retaliate, that’s being an optimist, an idealist. There are signs. California was on fire, Australia was on fire… These are scary times. And that’s why civilisations are breaking down, especially modern civilisations, and our kids are inheriting this civilisation.
So this is the point we’ve got to in the timeline, I think: the point where you board a plane for the Island of the Apocalypse and the inflight magazine announces that your civilisation is over.
It’s fifteen years this summer sinceand I set out to write the Dark Mountain manifesto. Around the time our manifesto went to press, I fell in with a gang of misfits that came to call itself the Institute for Collapsonomics, a semi-fictional outfit, known for gatecrashing London’s grown-up think tanks and doing our best to stir up trouble.
I was just past thirty, nearing the end of being young, and after drifting for most of the years since university, I had finally found a voice. When I come across things I said or wrote back then, there’s a brashness that sits uncomfortably with the weight of what I was speaking or writing about. Then again, it was a strange moment. The fall of Lehman Brothers had shaken the certainties of those in power, to the point where my friends and I found ourselves getting invited to meetings with people who wouldn’t have returned our emails six months earlier. At a breakfast meeting in the vast office of the British Foreign Secretary, I found myself trying to explain Facebook to David Miliband. (This was in an era – can you remember or imagine it? – when hardly anyone in politics had been on social media.)
The lasting impact of the Institute for Collapsonomics can be summed up in two words. They came out of Lloyd’s mouth first, walking back from a particularly chaotic meeting: ‘I think we just encountered a new phenomenon,’ he said, ‘the Black Elephant.’
The Black Elephant is an unholy union of two boardroom clichés: the Elephant in the Room, the thing which everyone knows is important, but no one will talk about; and the Black Swan, the hard-to-predict event which is outside the realm of normal expectations, but has enormous impact. The Black Elephant is an event which was quite foreseeable, which was in fact an Elephant in the Room, but which, after it happens, everyone will try to pass off as a Black Swan.
By then, it was already starting to spread. The New Scientist used it to talk about the Icelandic volcano that grounded flights across Europe. Thomas Friedman picked up the concept from a Londoner he met at a conference in Sydney and got his next column for the New York Times out of it. After that, the elephant had flown – it was off to travel the world, while its origins faded into the dead links of long-abandoned blogs.1 Now and then, someone who knew the story would let me know that it was being used by the Singapore military, or a Scandinavian institute for social entrepreneurs.
December 2018. I’m in Paris, the city is full of gilets jaunes protesters, and Vanessa Machado de Oliveira and I are trying to stay out of trouble. ‘I know from past experience that I’m not good with tear gas,’ she tells me.
We’re here for the launch of the Plurality University. Neither of us are quite sure what this is, but anything that sets itself up against the Silicon Valley fantasies of the Singularity has my attention, and there’s an echo of the language of the Zapatistas: ‘The world we want is a world in which many worlds fit.’ We spend much of our time around the edges of the event, talking with Bayo Akomolafe. It turns out to be a good weekend.
But on my panel the first afternoon, I’m feeling frustrated. ‘If we were serious about the depth of the trouble the world is in,’ I say, ‘then we’d be looking for something like Alcoholics Anonymous for a whole culture!’ We’re dealing with a kind of trouble that resembles addiction, only not on the scale of individual lives, but built into a whole way of living and making sense of the world.
Out of all the conversations I’m part of that weekend, it’s this thought that people keep bringing me back to in the months that follow. More than a year has gone by, when I get a voicemail from Vanessa: ‘You’ve got to meet this guy Felix,’ she says. ‘He’s saying the same thing you’ve been saying, about an AA for humanity, but he’s spent years in recovery, so he knows the twelve-step programme from inside. And sometimes he’s in Sweden.’
This is how Felix Marquardt enters my life, the self-described ‘recovering Davos junkie’ who shows up at our door one Sunday lunchtime in the first year of the pandemic, becoming a friend with whom I talk most Friday mornings, including the morning when I hear myself tell him, ‘I think I need to stop talking about climate change?’ and this starts me writing a book.
Early on, I take part in some Zoom meetings called Humans Anonymous, where Felix and a few friends he met in recovery invite those of us whose lives never took the kind of turn that could lead to the door of an AA meeting across a similar threshold, into a space of vulnerability where the external markers of status and achievement lose their relevance. It’s an experiment, an attempt to extend what they have experienced in the rooms of twelve-step fellowships to the rest of us, based on a similar hunch to the one that I had voiced in Paris.
On our Friday calls, Felix talks about wanting to find a different way of gathering the world, an antidote to Davos, based around the values he has met in recovery. His inspiration is the Eranos conference that Olga Fröbe-Kapteyn created with Carl Jung and others, and he soon makes the connection to the gatherings that Ivan Illich and Valentina Borremans convened in the 1960s and 70s at the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca.
Right at the start, the first time we speak, Felix tells me the name he has settled on for the project he is creating, a project which all of these things will turn out to be a part of: Black Elephant.
‘It’s when something happens and it was the Elephant in the Room, but everyone wants to pretend that it was a Black Swan.’
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I know.’
So this is how we got to Patmos. Those Humans Anonymous meetings turned into Black Elephant parades, the idea for an Eranos/Cuernavaca-style gathering goes through various permutations to end up as Meta+Physics. I even introduce Felix to a couple of my old pals from the Institute for Collapsonomics along the way.
It’s messy, this journey. As my twelve-step friends would be the first to say, anything that has a bunch of recovering addicts at its core is going to be messy. Yet I go on learning from it – not least, learning more about the hunch I heard myself voice five years ago at the Plurality University. There’s something here.
During our week on the island, Anna and I are to host an afternoon session each day, trying to bring the ways of sharing space that we’ve learned from five years as a school called HOME to make room for whatever is needed by this curious constellation of people brought together by Black Elephant.
On the first morning, I’ve been asked to introduce our sessions and tell people what to expect, but we don’t yet know what to expect ourselves, so instead I pull out that Aegean Airlines magazine and read them the quote that jumped out at me on the plane: those lines about our children inheriting the breakdown of modern civilisation.
If this is the point we’ve got to in the timeline, I tell them, then I think there may be a couple more clues to be found in this interview with Akram Khan. Clues as to how to live in times like these, what living in such times might call for.
The first clue lies in a story Khan tells when the interviewer asks about his most treasured memory. The story takes place in Australia, where he is performing at the Sydney Opera House. One night, at the end of the show, he’s tired and, instead of walking, he decides to take a taxi back to his hotel. The taxi arrives, he opens the door and the couple behind him assume that he’s opening it for them. Recognising him, they wind down the window, thank him for the show and drive off. He’s left a little stunned by this, but a few minutes later another taxi arrives:
As I opened the door, for the first time in my life I felt I needed to hear my father. I don’t know why. I woke him up. He said, “What do you want?” I got in the taxi and I said nothing. He said, “Are you in trouble with the police?” “No, I am an adult, Abba.” “You need money?” “No, no, Abba, don’t worry, go back to sleep.” I was speaking in Bengali. The taxi driver then asked me in Bengali: “Is your father’s name Mosharaf Hossain Khan?” And I said, “How do you know that?”, because in our culture you don’t call your parents by their name. “Just answer one question. Is your father from Algi Char?” Now, that’s a small village in Bangladesh that just a few people know. So I started to freak out, thinking, “CIA… What do they want? I haven’t done anything!” I said, “Stop the car, who are you?” He said he’d been looking for my father for 30 years. They were best friends in childhood, but my father went to Dhaka City, went to university and then immigrated to London. … So I called my father again. He said, “What do you want, why are you calling me?” I said, “Abba, you need to speak to this man.” He said, “What’s his name?” “Abul Hasherm Mridha. You’ll know him as Billou.” “Hello? Abba?” It’s the first time I heard my father crying.
Just think, Khan says: what if I hadn’t decided to take a taxi that one night? He would always normally walk back after the show. If it hadn’t been for the rudeness of the couple jumping in the first taxi, or if he hadn’t felt that urge to call his father…
Here is the clue, then: we live in a world where miracles happen, events that are off the edge of plausibility, unless we are willing to open to the possibility that the reality we inhabit is run through with patterns of meaning. When everything is under control and running smoothly, the way that modern civilisation has been organised, the cracks through which such patterns could break in or reveal themselves are few and far between. As the order and predictability of our societies continues to fracture, my hunch is that we encounter more events that ought not to be possible according to the logics around which these societies have been structured.2 I’m not talking about a deus ex machina, a magical fix that will get us out of the mess we’re in; that kind of thinking may be common enough among those who would have us worship machines, but it’s the last thing we need. Rather, if only through desperation, I suspect that more of us will find ourselves thrown back on an openness to the strange possibilities glimpsed through the cracks. When this happens, I suspect that we will find more substance there than the ways of seeing and knowing that we inherited could allow us to take seriously, and that this experience will matter in ways that are hard to grasp just yet, ways that are not meant to be grasped, as we learn to inhabit the world quite differently in the times to come.
I said there was another clue, though, and it comes from the final lines of the interview, when Khan talks about his father’s death. ‘Do you dream about him?’ the interviewer asks, and this unlocks another kind of story:
Yes, because I have a lot of anger towards him. He was very abusive to my mum. I grew up with a father who was very frustrated. Every morning he’d scream in my ear, “You’ll amount to nothing. You’re just a shadow.” … And my mother in the other ear would say: “Those who say that you’ll amount to nothing fear what you can actually become.” So I grew up with contradictory parents. … When my father died it was a very tough time for me because I wasn’t really with him in his last days. My humanity didn’t kick in because I didn’t expect him to die. Every day I miss him calling me. He was a horrible man. But he was very unhappy in his own life. And that is the truth.
This was my other message for the company of friends and strangers, gathered on the terrace of the Ktima Petra taverna on the first day of Meta+Physics: if the truth includes unbelievable and beautiful events, such as the sequence that reunited Khan’s father with his childhood friend, then tangled up right in among them is all the shit we are carrying, the unfinished histories of anger and abuse, frustration and loss, the farewells we wish we had said and the ways we go on loving those we found it hard to like.
There are sides of life that have not been welcome at the table of modernity. Truths we are not meant to talk about, if we want to be taken seriously, if we want to get invited back. On the one side, there is the miraculous, the paradoxical patterns of meaning riddled through reality; on the other side, there’s all the many shades of shit we are not meant to name. If we’re to have a chance of relearning how to be human together, here at the end of the world as we have known it – if we’re to find ways of making life work under difficult circumstances and contribute to the possibility of regrowing a patchwork of living cultures – then I want to say that this asks us to bring these sides of the truth back to the table once again.
Writing this piece, I’ve had a sense of a watershed. I’ve been looking for a way in to a whole vein of material that I’ve known I need to write about. Part of me knew that I had to make the trip to Patmos in order to get to the place from where I can write it. (I’m learning to trust my version of the thing that Gordon White describes so emphatically about the role of places and the encounters that happen when he goes there in writing his books.)
And now I’m about to take a month’s holiday. If you’re a paying subscriber, you’ve heard me talk about this already in the video I shared on Monday morning – and if you’d like to get to watch these Monday morning videos, then I invite you to become a paid subscriber. So I’ll pick up the thread that I’ve set running in this piece when I get back – but in the meantime, I’ve stacked up a few other things to share with you while I’m away.
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Thanks for all your support and encouragement.
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While writing this, I discovered a 2020 article on Black Elephants in an academic journal of project management which does trace the concept back to our circle, so it seems its origins are not entirely forgotten.
This line of thought links up with Amitav Ghosh’s discussion of probability and the modern novel in The Great Derangement, a discussion which I pick up on in Part IV of At Work in the Ruins.