Radical Hope: Ethics in Face of Cultural Devastation (Book Review)

Author:  Lear, Jonathan
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Reviewed By: Ryan LaMothe, Vol. XXVII, No. 4, pp. 52-55

Concepts such as neuroses, psychopathology, and transference provide therapists with language that signifies the reality of vulnerability and resiliency in human life. When listening to a patient’s dreams and stories, we are ushered into the presence of vulnerability, we witness their memories of psychological devastation, and we espy their unconscious hope to be alive and real with others. Beyond the language of the consulting room, we are, in the 20th and 21st centuries, keenly aware of violence, oppression, and marginalization that strip a people of their rituals, stories, and ideals, devastating their shared psychic landscape. We see how fear and anxiety can twist psyches into believing the illusion that redemptive violence will shield them from the reality of human vulnerability. How an individual or a community navigates the shoals of crippling losses and fears without succumbing to despair or violence is a question therapists and others attempt to understand and answer. In a beautifully written, poignant, and wise book, psychoanalyst and philosopher Jonathan Lear depicts and analyzes the vulnerability, devastation, and the creative courage of Plenty Coups and his people as they faced violence, terror, and the loss of their cherished cultural traditions.

In writing a review of this book, I must start with a confession. Radical Hope is a very rich and complicated repast that a reader can savor over and over again, discovering new insights with each reading. My review, in short, cannot do Lear’s book justice. My aim is to whet the reader’s appetite by providing a brief overview of the chapters as well as a few intriguing and compassionate perspectives that Lear offers.

In the first chapter, Lear introduces us to Plenty Coups, a Crow chief, and his story of cultural devastation. Speaking to Frank Linderman, Plenty Coups said, “But when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened” (p.2). Lear focuses on the phrase “After this nothing happened,” wondering “what it could mean for history to exhaust itself” (p.3)? Relying on historians, anthropologists, and philosophers, Lear makes his way toward an answer. All human beings, he notes, inherit vulnerability, yet he suggests that Plenty Coups’ narrative reveals a particular form of vulnerability. Threatened by the Sioux with “utter devastation,” the Crow people aligned with the white man. Crow narratives and rituals had previously provided the meaning for facing war, as well as the possibilities of victory or defeat with other tribes. In making a treaty with the U.S. government, the Crow could not have foreseen that much of their lands would be taken from them, their resources depleted, their rituals forcibly denied, or the humiliation and suffering they would endure by being herded into reservations.

This history of the suffering of the Crow people (and other First Nations people) is not unfamiliar to many of us. Yet, Lear argues that the Crow suffered a particular type of devastation, which is manifested in Plenty Coups comment. He notes that when the U.S. government forcibly forbid intertribal warfare, “counting coups” lost meaning and consequently there could be no rituals celebrating Crow victories. “The issue,” Lear declares, “is that the Crow have lost the concepts with which they could construct a narrative. This is a real loss, not just one that is described from a certain point of view. It is a real loss of a point of view” (10). Driving home this point, Lear indicates that prior to cultural devastation Crow narratives and rituals reflected their “insistence” in the face of routine vulnerability. Lear explains that Crow’s traditional ideas and virtues were embedded in their narratives and rituals, and they derived meaning from them because the symbols and rituals were being lived. Life happened, history took place precisely because Crow narratives and rituals provided meaning, even in the case of defeat by the Sioux. Yet, the forcible denial of counting coups by the U.S. government, for instance, rendered their traditional ways of expressing “insistence” unintelligible. Thus, the phrase, “after this nothing happened,” meant that there would be no Sun Dances or counting coups because “it is no longer possible to do so” (p.37). No longer rooted in lived life, these rituals are drained of meaningfulness and without lived meaning nothing happens. Plenty Coups’ remark gives witness “to a loss that is not itself a happening but is the breakdown of that in terms of which happenings occur” (p.38). History exhausts itself. In brief, what happens is meaningful by virtue of our stories and rituals and nothing happens when the Crow are deprived of the actions and stories that formed their daily lives and future horizons.

This vulnerability in the face of cultural devastation, this real threat of the meaninglessness of traditional narratives and rituals, and imminence of the death of the Crow subject would appear to lead anyone to suicidal despair or to ingest the opiate of indifference. In this deep chasm of darkness, though, Lear portrays the spark of radical hope present within the life of Plenty Coups and his people. Plenty Coups witnessed “the death of the Crow subject” and he did “so in order to clear the ground for a rebirth. For if the death is not acknowledged there will most likely be all sorts of empty ways of going on ‘as Crow”” (p.51). Mourning and clearing the ground reveal the radical spark of hope, rather than sentimental stasis of nostalgia or the seductive futility of vengeance.
In the second chapter, Lear sets out to depict how Plenty Coups faced the devastation with a creative and moral imagination that made a path for the rebirth of the Crow subject. Lear begins by pointing out the immense challenges of trying to survive in the midst of a cultural collapse. How can a person be psychologically equipped to handle this devastation? How can one reason morally when one’s telos is ripped from the fabric of one’s life? What does virtue mean, when one’s ideals lay shattered? Lear argues that the Crow tradition carried the tools that enabled Plenty Coups to transform, over time, his understanding of courage. For example, when Plenty Coups was a child he, like other Crow children, was encouraged to “go off into nature and dream” (p.66). In this liminal space, ambiguity and mystery were the soil of transformation. Plenty Coup, as a nine-year old, had a dream he took to the council of elders, one of whom recognized the prescient nature of the dream and the possibility of escaping the implied death of his people. Lear argues that Plenty Coups’ dream was not only a “radical act of anticipation,” it also “gave the tribe tools with which to endure a conceptual onslaught” (pp.78-79). As a psychoanalyst, Lear does not confine himself to the ideas of wish fulfillment, collective unconscious, or Oedipal issues in attempting to understand the dream or divine its function. Lear recognizes that the dream was and continued to be for Plenty Coups and his people a way of facing and living through the painful events of cultural devastation with courage—a courage and virtue redefined. It gave him and his people hope that in time the rituals and stories would be meaningful, though not in the way they could have imagined. Lear, with a sense of awe and respect, recognizes Plenty Coups’ “daunting form of commitment to a goodness in the world that transcends one’s current ability to grasp it” (p.100).

In the last chapter, Lear continues his analysis of radical hope, assessing its justification by juxtaposing Plenty Coups’ stance with Sitting Bull’s (a Sioux chief) response to cultural devastation, as well as making use of the Aristotelian notion of the virtue of courage. Sitting Bull’s courage was rooted in the ideals and values of his tradition. In clinging to the past, Sitting Bull viewed Plenty Coups’ actions as cowardly and his hope as foolish. By Sioux standards, Sitting Bull’s courage was derived from traditional notions of courage and, thus, we would say that he embodied this type of courage. What, then, are we to make of Plenty Coups’ stance—a cowardly or passive assimilation to whites? In what way was Plenty Coups’ courageous, given that Crow traditional understanding of this term no longer seemed to make sense? In what was his hoped based, if the future was uncertain? Turning to Aristotle’s five criteria for the virtue of courage, Lear concludes that Plenty Coups’ radical hope was not mere optimism, which would be a turning away from the bleak reality his people confronted. Instead, Plenty Coups’ actions signified a radical and courageous stance of hope in the face of anxiety and uncertainty. Plenty Coups’ courage and hope were redefined, primarily in terms of the Chickadee who appeared in the dream. “In that tree (the sole tree standing after a terrible storm) is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee is a good listener….He gains successes and avoids failure by learning how others succeeded or failed, and without great trouble to himself….The lodges of countless Bird-people were in the forest when the Four Winds charged it. Only one person is left unharmed, the lodge of the Chickadee person” (pp.70-71). The dream and the Chickadee became a way of redefining the virtue of courage—a courage that is rooted in listening instead of war, wisdom instead of self-certain action. The hope was that the lodge—the Crow people—would be able to survive the devastation of the Four Winds of white expansionism and to retain their Crow identity despite loss and uncertainty.

A final test for assessing Plenty Coups’ response lies, in part, in how the tribe faired as compared to the Sioux. Plenty Coups and other Crow leaders were respected by U.S. leaders and as a result they were, for the most part, able to protect their people. They were not assimilated, though they learned the ways of the whites. They remained Crow in the face of the abyss of cultural devastation and they did so with the leadership of wise men and women.

There are any of a number of reasons why I would highly commend this book for therapists. First, it is a sensitive and compassionate description and analysis of a people who faced massive losses, yet who were able to avoid the Charbydis of violence and Scylla of despair. Second, Lear expands our horizons, inviting therapists to understand trauma and responses to trauma from the perspective of a community and its traditions. Third, Lear offers a deeper appreciation of the complexities of courage and virtue; how they are tied to the web of a traditions narratives and rituals and how ideas and virtues of courage can be transformed in the face of loss. Fourth, Lear’s discussion of Plenty Coups’ dreams demonstrates how the dreams of a leader can serve as a northern star to guide a people who were facing the darkness of cultural devastation. That is, Lear has shown how dreams are not always signifiers of unconscious wishes, past traumas, but rather enigmatic signifiers of the future, which, in this case, served as a vision for a leader as he helped his people mourn, clearing a way into the future.

Finally, Lear’s book, whether intended or not, is timely, because there are people who, consciously or unconsciously, sense their own cultural devastation—real or imagined. There are many Americans, for instance, who were and are confronted with vulnerability in the wake of 9/11 and, in general, our responses, guided by our leaders, have been forged out of the expansionist and imperialistic aims and methods embedded in our history and our traditions. Our virtues of courage and hope are locked into warrior ideals and victory, which are rigidly held because of collective anxiety and fear.

Compassion, empathy, and the willingness to seek understanding are viewed as weaknesses or naiveté. Our intransigence signifies a refusal to mourn and, thus, there is no clearing for transformation of the American subject. As Plenty Coups said, “With all his wonderful powers, the white man is not wise. He is smart, but not wise.” Lear’s book, it seems to me, may serve as an opportunity to reflect on the possibility of radical hope and courage in the face of our current losses, anxieties, and fears.

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