Holding On to Radical Hope

John William Waterhouse, "Pandora"

John William Waterhouse, “Pandora”

New Year’s Day

As New Year’s Day is a good time to write about hope, today’s post is about Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. I’ve been reading Radical Hope in my Restorative Justice Faculty Reading Group and posted my reflections on the first section of the book earlier. Although the book is more about prophetic vision than poetry, I think literary inspiration follows a similar path. The way that the Crow nation used a dream vision to chart its transition from nomadic warrior society to reservation-based agricultural society shows us how we can use poems and stories to guide us through out own challenges.

Lear is an anthropological philosopher who is interested in how Chief Plenty Coups in the 19th century figured out a way to keep the whites from destroying Crow culture. In my previous post I tell how Plenty Coups received his name, planting coup sticks being a war maneuver where a Crow warrior would plant his coup and then refuse to leave it, even if he had to die defending it. As a result of a visionary dream that Plenty Coups had as a boy, years later he deliberately laid his coup and his headdress on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, signaling the end of the traditional Crow way of life. Here’s Lear on the how his youthful vision would guide Plenty Coups when he became the Crow chief:

In the preceding chapter I hypothesized that young Plenty Coups dreamt on behalf of his tribe. The tribe was anxious—indeed, a way of life was anxious about its own ability to endure. Through the interpretation of the dream the tribe surmised that the traditional ways of life—and thus the traditional ways of being a Crow—were coming to an end. And yet they gathered confidence that they would survive. In this way, the Crow hoped for the emergence of a Crow subjectivity that did not yet exist. There would be ways of continuing to form oneself as a Crow subject—ways to flourish as a Crow—even though the traditional forms were doomed. This hope is radical in that it is aiming for a subjectivity that is at once Crow and does not yet exist.

And further on:

[My] aim is to establish what we might legitimately hope at a time when the sense of purpose and meaning that has been bequeathed to us by our culture has collapsed.

Lear goes on to look at how the Crow were fairly successful once they moved to their reservation. He contrasts them with the Sioux, led by Chief Sitting Bull, who was also guided by a dream. As Lear sets it up, the question is how we interpret and act upon inspired vision.

Here’s an excerpt from Plenty Coups’ dream, which he experienced during a vision quest. (As often occurred with young Crow members, he cut off two fingers in order to have the dream.) In this section of the dream he has just had a vision of a tremendous storm in which the “Four Winds” begin a war against the forest, knocking down all the trees but one:

“Listen Plenty-Coups,” said a voice. “In that tree is the lodge of the Chickadee. He is least in strength but strongest of mind among his kind. He is willing to work for wisdom. The Chickadee-person is a good listener. Nothing escapes his ears, which he has sharpened by constant use. Whenever others are talking together of their successes and failures, there you will find the Chickadee-person listening to their words. ..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. Develop your body, but do not neglect your mind, Plenty-coups. It is the mind that leads a man to power, not strength of body.

Plenty Coups’ dream vision led the the Crow to acknowledge that the white man could not be defeated and that it would therefore be necessary to collaborate with him. By contrast, the vision that guided the Sioux was a messiah-led peyote religion that asserted that performing the Ghost Dance would protect warriors from bullets and lead to the defeat of the whites. Lear makes a convincing case that Plenty Coups did a better job of interpreting his vision than did Sitting Bull. Rather than engage in a wish fulfillment that was shallowly optimistic, he used his vision to accurately read reality:

Plenty Coups had to acknowledge the destruction of a telos—that the old ways of living a good life were gone. And that acknowledgment involved the stark recognition that the traditional ways of structuring significance—of recognizing something as a happening—had been devastated. For Plenty Coups, this recognition was not an expression of despair; it was the only way to avoid it. One needs to recognize the destruction that has occurred if one is to move beyond it.

To examine Plenty Coups’ vision, Lear applies Freudian dream analysis, which looks at both the dreamer’s anxieties and desires. I actually think that Lear would have found Jungian dream analysis more useful because, through applying Jung’s interpretive system to dreams, visions, and literature, we come to see how things are out of balance (thereby rendering us sick) and what we must do to restore health.

Whether one turns to Freud or Jung, however, Lear’s excellent case study lends support to one of the guiding principles of Better Living through Beowulf. I believe that our poets function as social shamans, tapping into deep historical and social currents and presenting them to us in symbolic or figurative language. It is then up to us to read and interpret their poems and stories and figure out a way forward.

And there is always a way forward, even though, at times, that way may just involve protecting a life-affirming vision from forces that threaten to destroy it. Plenty Coups’ vision of a Crow nation in a post-Crow world is one example. Soviet science fiction keeping alive a vision of human freedom in the darkest years of the Stalin regime is another.

Do you want to have radical hope as you move into 2014? Then immerse yourself, emotionally and intellectually, in the leading poets, dramatists, and fiction writers of the age. Don’t settle for sentimental poems and indulgent novels, which will just confirm your existing view of the world, but choose authors who will challenge you. They will help you see clearly the reality within which we move, and this reality includes the possibilities that exist for authentic liberation. Such literature will provide a true foundation upon which to build a life.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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