A wise friend reminded me yesterday that the lotus grows from putrefaction. Everywhere we look, nature teaches this lesson, that new hope rises only where something has been destroyed.
This has been a difficult time for me. In typical generational fashion, an apropos song lyric has been braiding itself into my thoughts, jutting into awareness when I wake in the night. It embarrasses me, a Fleetwood Mac song that was hugely popular but not particularly hip and cool even when it was the soundtrack of every room I entered one life-changing year three decades past:
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost…
And what you had…
And what you lost
A pervasive sense of loss seems to be today’s soundtrack. Everywhere I look, people mourn the erosion of their home places to commercial culture, the loss of the industries that gave their communities and work-lives a particular character, the depletion of their civil liberties, the fading of civil society, the disappearance of whatever sense of safety they may have carried in another time or place. I cannot say how much of this feeling is grounded in inarguable reality and how much of it lubricates our way down the Slough of Despond we have dug into our own thoughts, only that a mood of loss pervades.
And now another friend has sent me a useful way to think about it in Charles Taylor’s piece in the New York Review of Books on Jonathon Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.
The book tells of the Crow people, forced by encroaching white power a century ago to trade a way of life shaped by hunting and battle for settled life on a reservation. A powerful account from the great Crow leader Plenty Coups says it all: “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.”
Taylor explores Lear’s use of the symbol of the “coup stick,” a kind of ceremonial stake warriors planted in the ground to declare a boundary-line that could not be transgressed without risking one’s life. He makes the point that when the life-way conditioned on the coup stick became no longer possible, in a very real sense, life itself lost meaning:
This background allows Lear to give a real sense of what is lost when a culture disappears. The warrior could try to defend the line of his stake, and fail. But in the condition to which the Crow were reduced on their reservation, where neither hunting nor war was any longer possible, something more drastic occurred. It was no longer possible even to try to defend one’s coup stick, because nothing one did could have such a meaning. As Lear explains, “Counting coups makes sense only in the context of a world of intertribal warfare; and once that world breaks down, nothing can count as counting coups.” Lear imagines someone going to a restaurant to order a buffalo hamburger. He is told that he can’t have it because the last buffalo has been killed. Very different would be the predicament if we were transported to a future where restaurants no longer existed, and words like “ordering” no longer had any meaning. The first case is one of de facto impossibility; the second shows a radical impossibility.
A culture’s disappearing means that a people’s situation is so changed that the actions that had crucial significance are no longer possible in that radical sense. It is not just that you may be forbidden to try them and may be severely punished for attempting to do so; but worse, you can no longer even try them. You can’t draw lines or die while trying to defend them. You find yourself in a circumstance where, as Lear puts it, “the very acts themselves have ceased to make sense.”
Taylor takes pains to distinguish such acts of cultural obliteration from even the great pain inflicted on a worker in a dying or defunct industry, such as a third or fourth-generation farmer who can no longer sustain life following her parents’ path, or the child of generations of coal miners who can never himself return to the mines. The culturally obliterative acts are a “fate,” he writes, “that we in ‘advanced,’ more ‘complex’ societies have been imposing for many centuries on ‘indigenous’ or ‘tribal’ peoples.”
“The situation is quite different in a society like that of the Crow,” Taylor writes. “There are no alternative careers waiting for an ex-warrior; he probably has a wife and children, but what does it mean to be a father if you can’t hand on the skills of a warrior? If a relatively limited range of significant actions becomes impossible, how can a person find a meaningful life?” Lear describes the result as “the real loss of a point of view,” a transformation wherein the “brave acts” of a former world are “now a somewhat pathetic expression of nostalgia.” Lear quotes a Crow woman as saying this: “I am trying to live a life I do not understand.”
Certainly, this distinction is real. But I think it is less a hard dividing-line than a progression of shades along a continuum, with loss of meaning at every step. The usual course of such dislocations follows putatively helpful (but often, even if sometimes unintentionally, destructive) interventions, from reservations to the prison-industrial complex I’ve written about a lot lately. These interventions “don’t manage to imagine the lives of the supposed beneficiaries themselves or engage with their feelings; and so they can’t break the cycle of apathy, despair, and self-destructive behavior, and this induces further apathy and despair.”
The radical hope of the Crow peopleâ€”the lotus that emerged from the dissolution of their cultureâ€”was based on a radical act, intentionally redefining the basic values that carry cultural meaning. Here’s how Taylor summarizes the steps Plenty Coups took to initiate this redefinition:
Plenty Coups was able to help bring about this kind of redefinition for his people. He drew on the established practice of going into the wilderness to seek a revelation through a dream. The dream he reported foretold in thinly veiled terms the end of the Crow way of life, but it also promised a kind of survival for the Crow, provided they could listen “like the Chickadee,” that is, observe others, and find new ways of going on. These were, of course, at that stage wholly unknown, but the dream was the basis for the hope that somehow, beyond just biological survival, the Crow way of life might continue in a yet to be defined new form.
This is what Lear calls “radical hope.” Hope can only exist if you are uncertain about a desired outcome. If it’s really a sure thing, your anticipation of it can’t be hope. But here we have something more extreme than uncertainty: the very shape of this hope remained to be defined. The dream told the Crow that the old standards of courage and shame were going to lose their validity. And yet they would not be left completely adrift in a world without meaning and direction; new standards would emerge if they learned to watch and observe like the Chickadee.
There is undoubtedly much to contest in the new meanings the Crow people adopted, which entailed a much closer relationship with the U.S. government and its institutions. But the way I am thinking right now, the specific content to which this hope eventually attached itself is less important than that it could arise and be sustained.
Lear’s mind-bending analysis of radical hope reminds me of something I need to remember: that new possibility’s prerequisite is the willingness to leave the safe harbor of meaning and direction, to launch ourselves into the teeming decay and drift there, watching for signs of new life. They say lotus seeds can sleep for years, then send up flowers and fruit at the same time. There are records of seeds having lain dormant for two centuries after they were shed, finally germinating when the right conditions of nourishment (ample moisture, ample decay) have been met.
There are no simple explanations for human events. The former holder of the record for most murders on campus, Charles J. Whitman, was one of those “pure products of America” (to co-opt William Carlos Williams’s phrase): Eagle Scout, Marine, first photographed at two years old holding a pair of the rifles he was taught to shoot almost before he could walk. But that was 1966. Here’s something I learned this morning: the 23 year old “loner English major” who broke Whitman’s record, killing 33 people (including himself) at Virginia Tech yesterday, was brought to this country at 8 years of age from South Korea (the very model of a modern economic miracle, Western-style, a country brought into being by U.S. occupation in 1945).
Moisture and decay, tears and loss, waiting for the lotus to bloom.