On Radical Hope by Jonathan Lear — Part 4

Black-capped Chickadee

When he was nine years old, Plenty Coups underwent a traditional rite of passage which involved leaving the tribe for a few days and through solitude and fasting experience a dream-vision. On his second night in the wilderness, Plenty Coups dreamt that he met a buffalo bull who turned into a man wearing a buffalo robe, and who showed him a plain in which countless buffalo emerged from a hole in a ground. Suddenly, the plains were empty, and out of the hole in the ground came animals which looked similar to the buffalo but were spotted. Plenty Coups was then shown an old man sitting under a tree, and was told that he was looking at himself. Finally, Plenty Coups witnessed a terrible storm in which the four winds blew down all the trees in the forest except one. He was told that inside the tree was the lodge of the Chickadee, and that the Chickadee-person was one with the least physical strength but strongest mind, who was willing to work for wisdom and never missed a chance to learn from others.

Plenty Coups recounted his dream to the tribal elders who then interpreted it. They said it foretold a time when the white man’s herds would replace the buffalo, and that only by becoming like the Chickadee and learning from the experience of others would the tribe be able to survive and hold onto its lands.

Jonathan Lear believes that Plenty Coups’ prophetic dream was most probably a response to the tribe’s communal sense of anxiety. Plenty Coup would have had this dream in 1855 or ’56, by which time the advance of white settlers had pushed rival tribes into greater proximity with one another, and the escalation in inter-tribal warfare and diseases such as smallpox had reduced the Crow’s population by about half. The dream was part of the process by which the tribe’s anxieties could be metabolized and represented in narrative form. And it gave Plenty Coups, as a future chief of the tribe, the imaginative resources needed to cope with the “storm” or cultural devastation that was coming. In particular, Lear thinks that the values represented in the dream by the Chickadee came to articulate a new form of courage.

For Lear this is a crucial point, because the primary virtue around which Crow life had revolved was courage in battle. The ultimate act of courage was symbolically represented by the planting of a coup-stick, which expressed a Crow warrior’s resolve to die rather than retreat. Lear analyses this and other acts of courage as marking a boundary around Crow life which demanded recognition even from the Crow’s enemies. This is what Lear calls the Crow’s “thick” conception of courage, by which he means a concept rooted in a particular culture and historical circumstances. What happened to the Crow, however, was that the possibilities for practicing their traditional way of life would become restricted to such an extent that such thick concepts eventually became unintelligible. A virtue like courage simply could not be realized as it had been in the past. How does one retain a sense of virtue or ethics when the very concepts which had informed one’s cultural understanding of what is good collapse?

According to Lear, the values expressed in the dream through the figure of the Chickadee represented a kind of radical hope. It is radical in the sense that the values transcend the finite ethical forms manifested by thick ethical concepts. Plenty Coups’ vision was not of a future form of life, but of a commitment to the possibility of ethics even after the concepts with which one had understood the ethical ceased to make sense. Lear explains this point as follows:

“It is difficult to grasp the radical and strange nature of this commitment. For, on the one hand, Plenty Coups is witnessing the death of a traditional way of life. It is the death of the possibility of forming oneself as a Crow subject — at least, as traditionally understood. On the other hand, he is committed to the idea that by “listening as the Chickadee listens” he and the Crow will somehow survive. What could this mean? We would have to understand the Crow as somehow transcending their own subjectivity. That is, we would have to understand them as surviving the demise of the established ways of constituting oneself as a Crow subject. In that sense, it is no longer possible to be a Crow…. Still, on the basis of his dream, he commits himself to the idea that — on the other side of the abyss — the Crow shall survive, perhaps flourish again. The Crow is dead, long live the Crow! This is a form of hope that seems to survive the destruction of a way of life. Though it must be incredibly bly difficult to hold onto this commitment in the midst of subjective catastrophe, it is not impossible. And it is at least conceivable that this is just what Plenty Coups did.”

This kind of commitment, Lear argues, is ironic in Kierkegaard’s sense of the term. It is a recognition or more precisely a hope, that by giving up a traditional way of life new possibilities will open up and another way of flourishing will become possible. It is a commitment undertaken despite the fact that these future possibilities cannot be comprehended in advance.

Lear draws on many biographical facts about Plenty Coups’ life to suggest the ways in which he followed the wisdom of the Chickadee in the face of cultural devastation. One episode Lear places great emphasis on is Plenty Coups’ participation in a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, when he laid down his coup-stick and headdress. By this act, Lear believes, Plenty Coups acknowledged that the traditional forms of fitting or virtuous behaviour were no longer appropriate. But he did so in a way which was itself fitting, that demonstrated “in these radically altered circumstances” that it was still possible “to think about what it was appropriate to do.” Plenty Coups’ actions did not just mark an end to a way of life, but sought to creatively reinterpret traditional ideals from within a radically new context.