In his bracingly unorthodox new book, Wisdom Won from Illness: Essays in Philosophy and Psychoanalysis, Jonathan Lear has offered one more exemplary argument for a harmonious relationship between two disciplines that mostly remain at odds. Lear has pursued this line of thought, against the grain, by placing Plato, Aristotle, and Freud in conversation with one another for nearly thirty years. Going beyond a sense of reality and truth that simply corresponds with “fact,” the philosophical and psychoanalytic truth Lear envisions both reveals and cures, because truth “is the cure.”
True to his own foundation, Lear’s writing demonstrates a great deal of creative freedom, exploring the ironic interplay between Plato and Kierkegaard, the psychoanalytic dimensions of Shakespeare, J.M. Coetzee, and Marilynne Robinson, and the connections between Aristotle’s ethics and Native American cultural heritage. In relationship to psychoanalysis proper, Lear is not offering a belated entry in the Freud wars or an attempt to repristinate what’s become an unfashionable legacy. Instead of settling or fixating on Freud, Lear argues, we need to work through him: “if psychoanalysis is to live up to its promise of being a moral psychology—one that contributes as it comes to understand what it is to lead a full, rich, meaningful human life—it must find ways to mourn Freud’s legacy and move on.”
On this note, one of Lear’s great contributions is his attentiveness to the power of trauma, and to the possibility of healing by working through the process of mourning. Where experiences of abuse, loss, or injury (both private and public) can leave us speechless, he patiently explores how we might give voice to what feel like inexplicable burdens. Reaffirming the linkage between Plato, Aristotle, and Freud, Lear adds the psychoanalyst Hans Loewald (1906–1993) to the dialogue—an underappreciated thinker who viewed the human psyche as an achievement that consists in a series of losses and re-formations.
For Loewald, the work of mourning has the potential to illuminate what might otherwise feel like a dimly lit path through grief. Hearkening back to Freud, who viewed mourning as melancholy’s uncanny twin, Loewald’s insight (according to Lear) flips the dynamic where “one part of the ego sets itself over against the other, judges it critically and, as it were, takes it as its object.” Instead, Loewald “reverses the locus of concern,” from the expectation of psychic discord found in Freud to the possible “occasion for psychic integration and development.” In his exploration of separation (loss) and internalization (interpretation of loss), Loewald realized that separation (e.g., of a son from a deceased father) can initiate a measure of freedom and personal consolidation of fatherly characteristics that inspires “the maturing character of the son.”
But the reverse is no less possible if the mourner is incapable of what Lear calls psychological re-creation, which is not limited to the private realm. Rather, “one of the tasks of culture is to provide—through rituals, myths, customs, and concepts—a structure of meanings that will help mourners through their grief and confusion.” If to be a mourner is “to recognize, either explicitly or implicitly, that one is at the grief-stricken limits of one’s own understanding,” the Greek grounding of ethical life in the development of the soul can benefit from psychoanalysis’s expansion of the ground whereupon that development can take place. Where the western intellectual tradition has comfortably made room for reason to take the lead, Lear suggests that “reason’s task is [not to lead, but] to communicate well with the soul,” and “psychoanalysis teaches us what such communication consists in.” Said another way, psychoanalytic examination of the subconscious has the potential to expand on Plato and Aristotle’s account of psychological formation by teaching us “a foreign language we have been speaking all along.”
As with the cultural requirements for learning a foreign language, Lear argues that we need to encourage a more robust culture of mourning if we are to achieve integration: a culture where we can intelligibly speak “the non-rational soul into thoughtful, self-conscious life.” In the long run, integration is impossible without determining “what a good mourning environment [relationally and culturally] consists in,” commensurate with the pursuit of a complete, happy and excellent life. In this sense, mourning—which reminds us of our finitude and interdependence—is an integral part of our ethical formation. As both Freud and Loewald described, in refusing to mourn we deny our finitude and dependence, which can produce infantile fantasies of omnipotence that lack firm boundaries between self and other. In Lear’s observations, the same “fantasies are alive in adults, structuring their experience in ways they don’t understand.” Without the resources “to grasp first-personally and self-consciously who we are,” we will inevitably struggle to “find appropriate ways to bid farewell to these distorting fantasies.”
Healthy mourning, then, is not simply an expression of sadness. It is an achievement of integrity and intelligibility. Such an achievement allows us to better come to terms with the death and burial of a loved one, or a part of ourselves, and in turn facilitates the death and burial of our fantasies of omnipotence. Privately and personally, these fantasies have the power to damage our psychological health and relational capacity. Publicly and politically, Lear shows—through novels by J. M. Coetzee and Marilynne Robinson—how such fantasies can become the bedrock of “unjust societies [that] tend to cloud the minds of those who live within them.”
In his reading of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, Lear confronts this dynamic, appealing to imaginative activities that can break through tyrannical constraints. Narrated on the frontier of empire, the novel describes a dreamlike world that is built on a fantasy of conquest and presumed control, fluctuating between assurance of order and fear of chaos.
But in reality the dream is a nightmare, and both authority and peace are merely facades. By managing the limited requirements of empire through the exercise of violence and domination, Coetzee illustrates how conscious actions and associations can cripple emotional and imaginative resources at the level of the subconscious. With the imagination of empire predicated on an ambiguous dream (an ambivalence perfectly expressed in the words “waiting for”), Coetzee eventually sees the barbarians taking on the character of their oppressors, “waiting for the soldiers” in a cycle where fear begets fear. This insight, implicit in the work of Michel Foucault, was made explicit by Paulo Freire, who found that “the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.”
In Lear’s estimation, breaking the cycle takes more than simply voicing awareness of a problem, destroying symbols of oppression, or reallocating power on behalf of the oppressed. Like the practice of psychoanalysis, healing is impossible without a sensitive assessment of the empire’s soul. Through Coetzee’s novel, a therapeutic path of imaginative activity emerges, which Lear sees operating on two levels. First, the story’s narration encourages readers to imagine themselves as complicit in an ethos of injustice. Second, it invites us to experience a distorted, dreamlike condition such that we actively long to awake from the nightmare. In this way, we’re working through the activity of mourning, “or perhaps: the imaginative activity that makes mourning possible.” Echoing Freud, Lear argues that if “melancholia is the condition of being stuck in repetition … mourning, by contrast, is imaginative recreation.” That is, it allows us to take “up the past way and [use] it as an occasion to break out of repetition and create a new future.” For Lear, if the past does not in some way nourish the present and future, the mourner will never have a chance to say “yes to life by saying no to the depressing confines of ‘same again forever.’ ” More than an act of protesting injustice, mourning is a psychological, ethical, and political fight for justice in pursuit of timeless wisdom.
All of which hinges on our ability to cultivate the right kind of responsiveness. But as Lear points out, “this responsiveness is regularly resisted.” He finds evidence of this in Irving Howe’s New York Times review of Waiting for the Barbarians. Instead of exploring the depths and possibilities of the novel’s imaginative action, Howe assumed the self-congratulatory posture of relief that he doesn’t have to live with the guilt and shame of “a serious writer in South Africa” whose consciousness is swamped by “endless clamor of news about racial injustice, the feeling that one’s life is mortgaged to a society gone rotten with hatred … the fear that one’s anger may overwhelm and destroy one’s fiction.” Because Coetzee has spent much of his life outside of South Africa, Howe assumes that expatriation was the only way to stave off depression and literary impotence.
In Lear’s estimation, this is a total dodge that misunderstands what a novel can do, and what this particular novel can teach. First, Howe suggests that Coetzee’s imagination is limited to a form of guilt, and that Waiting for the Barbarians is an attempt to mitigate this guilt or solve the problem of racial injustice in South Africa. Second, by situating Coetzee as a supposed guilt-ridden-problem-solver, Howe is allowing readers of the Times to assume the safest possible posture in relationship to a novel about colonialism and apartheid; namely, that they’re against both. Never does the review consider that Coetzee’s problem is, in fact, everyone’s problem; that the waiting form of life is one we (New York Times subscribers included) too readily accept, obscuring awareness of our own barbaric tendencies or concessions. Instead, Lear observes, “readers get to pat themselves on the back for positions they already hold—and take themselves to be morally uplifted to boot. In this way, the reception of a work of literature can lull an intellectual elite with a simulacrum of making an ethical difference … tranquilized by an illusion of being in a moral vanguard.”
Such illusive tranquility, combined with blunt reinforcements of oppression, nourishes a culture of melancholy where tyranny (of the powerful and the powerless) can become a rule of life rather than an exception. Evidence of melancholy, bordering on national and global psychosis, isn’t hard to come by these days. And where deeply rooted sorrows could be aided by a mournful approach to individual and cultural devastation, the ease of oversimplification perpetuates fantasies that discourage individual and communal integration. Melancholic waiting then seems to produce everything from a lame John Mayer song to violent protest movements and embarrassing (though apparently still electable) political candidates. How can it be—as the inheritors of the enlightenment, an age of reason and progress—that our supposed advances have led to this?
Whether we recognize it or not, Lear says, we are creatures who, in part, “make sense of who we are by making sense of who we were.” Of the many sins that have made Americans who they are, the devastation of native tribes looms large. Lear has done remarkable work in this area, previously in his book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. In it he examined what constitutes meaningfulness, through symbolic, narrative, and conceptual histories as they’re embedded in a useful and active forms of life. If a group of people share in those forms for generations, rendering life together meaningful, what happens when those forms are taken away or rendered meaningless? In Wisdom Won from Illness he returns to the question, and not a moment too soon.
Recounting his inspiration for writing on the subject, Lear says his “imagination was captured by a series of haunting claims made by leaders of the Crow Nation after they moved onto the reservation.” The most chilling of these was delivered by the last great chief of the Crow, Plenty Coup. As Lear conveys, Plenty Coup stopped speaking to his biographer after the move. But upon further request he relented: “When the buffalo went way the hearts of my people fell to the ground and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” The same was echoed by other members of the tribe: “We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of horses from the Piegans and the Sioux, no buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.” Speaking to the same conditions, the medicine women Pretty Shield said, “I’m living a life I don’t understand.”
For Lear, statements like this are not grounds for an impersonal thought experiment or an intriguing anthropological case study. Instead, he works to achieve a level of intimacy with the Crow experience by affirming the universal need to stand witness in the face of individual and communal devastation. Dislocated by force from their sacred land and way of life, the Crow “no longer [had] a way to live according to [their] traditional understanding of the good life.”
Lear calls what the Crow experienced a crisis of intelligibility, which is on one level theirs alone. On another level, the parameters of the breakdown can be experienced by any individual or community whose self-understanding and relationship to their environment is dramatically distorted by something outside their control. Lear unpacks this by offering two ways to understand the loss of, say, buffalo. The first would be if a restaurant that served buffalo burgers exhausts their supply of meat and can no longer serve a menu item. The second would be if restaurants as institutions that served buffalo burgers went out of business altogether. “In the former case it is no longer possible to order buffalo; in the latter case, it is no longer possible to order.” For Lear, Crow leaders like Plenty Coup and Pretty Shield stand witness to the latter. If the Sioux, for example, were to have defeated them in battle and taken over their land, the intelligibility of Crow identity could still be maintained, in that the loss they experienced was in relationship to a respected rival tribe living similar lives that were already a part of their cultural grammar. But when the Crow were overrun by a brute colonial force that had no appreciation for their way of life, and sought to anesthetize their grief through a series of foreign policies and legal impositions, the loss of tribal concepts and affective practices completely altered the trajectory of their future as a people.
The question for Lear goes back to responsiveness: In the face of cultural devastation, what could the Crow do to preserve a coherent sense of collective purpose? Initially, they had to mourn the collapse of a world and a way of being. But through the re-creative process of mourning (more fully accounted for, especially in comparison to rival tribes, in Radical Hope), the Crow established the conditions to reimagine their way of life and revive their own sense of formative identity. Lear illustrates this by quoting Joseph Medicine Crow’s account of fighting in World War II:
Naturally I thought about the famous warriors when I went to Germany. I had a legacy to live up to. My goal was to be a good soldier, to perform honorably in combat if the occasion should occur. I did not think in terms of counting coup. Those days were gone, I believed. But when I returned from Germany and the elders asked me and the other Crow veterans to tell our stories, lo and behold, I had completed the four requirements to become a chief.
For Lear, this is “a moment of retrospective reinvention of tradition.” Far from glancing over the trauma the Crow endured, or ignoring the gap of sixty some years where—from their perspective—nothing happened, this reinventive insight opens the door for the restoration of past forms of life. In this way, Lear finds it instructive that an award-winning Crow hip-hop band calls themselves Rezawrecktion—giving voice to life on “the rez,” while offering “references to old warrior life” and an explicit understanding that “Crow life needs to be understood in terms of death and rebirth. That is, it is part of contemporary Crow poetic culture that the Crow [even without the form of counting coup] have come back from the dead.”
As with his reading of Coetzee, Lear’s account of the Crow is one that better acquaints us with how fragile our forms of life can be, how quickly they can fall apart, and how our responsiveness to cultural devastation can lead to more truthful ways of being. For all of us, this is wisdom well worth heeding. After all, who knows when the intelligibility of our own way of being could be overwhelmed by an external force, or by the chaos or our own making?
Nearly a century ago (1931), Freud gave voice to this harrowing possibility in closing Civilization and Its Discontents :
The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. It may be that in this respect precisely the present time deserves special interest. Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety. And now it is to be expected that the other of the two ‘Heavenly Powers’, eternal Eros, will make an effort to assert himself in the struggle with his equally immortal adversary. But who can foresee with what success and with what result?
If the question felt ominous prior to Hitler’s rise and the advent of nuclear weapons, the extent of contemporary technological advance, libidinal license, and social disorder renders Freud’s comments prescient to say the least.
In Wisdom Won from Illness, Jonathan Lear embraces what’s at stake without settling on apocalyptic prophecies or the self-assurance of human progress. Instead, he reminds us that symbolic clashes of immortal adversaries are always reflected in the internal battles that define who we are as individuals, along with the external battles that determine a fully formed way of life. Facilitating communication between philosophy and psychanalysis, Lear has once again performed his own therapeutic action by inviting a harmonious conversation between the rational and irrational parts of the soul. He stands witness to a kind of thinking and being that consists in developing the right kind of responsiveness to life’s unpredictable vicissitudes. This is hard work, requiring the courage to see and to truthfully speak—as Aristotle said—of the peculiar, mysterious, and sometimes disturbing differences between things. In his latest collection, Jonathan Lear doesn’t just show us how that work is done. He invites our imitation.