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Original Essays

Philosophy and Bear Mace

by Jonathan Lear
"Do you know how to use it?"

I was standing at the counter of The Fort — a hunting and camping store in Big Timber, Montana — and had just bought my first can of bear mace. The question made me realize that I was approaching this purchase with the same sense of responsibility that I approach a colonoscopy. Just as I do not expect the doctor to say, "It's good you came in, you do have cancer," it hadn't crossed my mind that I might actually have to mace a bear.

"You've only got four seconds. It's best to do four shots of one second each. Wait till the bear gets close and aim for its chin. That way he'll have to suck it up into his nostrils. Like this!"

It was only then that I wondered how my love of philosophy got me here. For years I have been wondering about the forms philosophical activity can take. Plato wrote dialogues, Socrates wandered about the marketplace questioning his friends, Hegel wrote a book that seems to be World-Mind speaking, Kierkegaard created pseudonymous authors who then went on to write their strange books. Why should this variety of forms matter? Following Aristotle's lead, I realized that if one wanted to chart an abstract concept like the human condition, one had better study the details of human life. It is that thought that led me to branch out beyond my philosophical studies and train as a psychoanalyst. And, then, influenced by Hegel and Wittgenstein, I realized that the concepts with which humans understand themselves and the world are embedded in history and culture. Concepts are like living creatures: they can develop, flourish, fall ill, even die suddenly. But how does one take this thought and do something with it?

I happened upon an answer by chance. About twenty years ago, I went to a lunch-time lecture on the writing of history. In passing, the professor quoted Plenty Coups, the last great chief of the Crow Nation, who said of the transition to reservation life, "After the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground and we could not lift them up again. After this, nothing happened." For some reason that phrase never left me. It was not a constant companion, just an occasional visitor to my consciousness.

In the aftermath of September 11, I sensed a rising tide of anxiety that civilization is vulnerable. People who differed in almost every other respect — conservatives and liberals, secular and religious, Americans and Europeans, those who welcome globalization and those who loathe it, fundamentalist Islam and those determined to stop it — seemed to share this anxiety. Ironically this shared anxiety was driving us apart: it fuels the widespread intolerance that has so tainted contemporary political life. But does anyone understand what we are worried about? Humans are by nature cultural animals. We are born into a culture, and we understand ourselves and the world in terms that are given to us by the culture. But if a culture is itself vulnerable, we must somehow inherit that vulnerability. What would it mean, then, for a culture to collapse — or even, to be destroyed? And what would that mean for us?

It is then that Plenty Coups' words came back to me, only now I had a further thought. Perhaps Plenty Coups was not speaking metaphorically; perhaps he was simply speaking the truth. But what would this mean? It would seem that he was standing witness to a paradoxical kind of happening: that things cease to happen. I wanted to go beyond fashionable clichés like "the end of history" and ask: what would it really mean for things to stop happening? If this is a genuine possibility, it is a vulnerability that marks us all as human. Even though it is unfamiliar, it is a possibility that is with us all the time, even when our culture is robust. Mostly we deal with it just as we deal with the possibility of our own deaths — we ignore it.

Once we start to think about what it means for a culture to collapse, a crucial ethical question starts to press upon us. If we were to have the historical bad luck to be living at a time when our culture was collapsing, what would it be to face such a disaster with courage and integrity? This turns out to be an incredibly difficult question to answer. Precisely because one's culture is collapsing, one can no longer turn to the received tradition of what counts as courage or integrity: for that tradition is part of what is collapsing. In the case of the tribes of the northwest plains, they had understood courage in terms of warrior honor; but intertribal warfare had become impossible. How can one face courageously the fact that it is no longer possible to live courageously — at least, as courage has been traditionally understood? The categories of warrior and chief had become problematic: it was no longer clear what anyone could do to inhabit them. And how does one tolerate a period while one awaits the concepts with which one can understand how to live well? The ethical dangers here are enormous, and it is hard to see what resources one can draw upon to provide a compass through this uncertain terrain.

Plenty Coups used his imagination — to extraordinary effect. When he was nine years old — at a time the tribe was still vibrant, living a nomadic life — he hiked up into the Crazy Mountains and had a prophetic dream-vision. I cannot here discuss the details, but he dreamt that all the buffalo disappeared down a hole and that there was a terrible storm in which all the trees in the forest were knocked down save one, the tree of the chickadee. The elders interpreted the dream to mean that their traditional way of life would come to an end; but that they could survive, even flourish and hold onto their lands if they followed the example of the chickadee. On that basis the tribe crafted a foreign policy which — 150 years later — is still in place. In studying this dream I have come to see how imagination can itself be a human excellence. Imagination is an essential ingredient in the virtue of courage. It helps us to be receptive to the world's teachings and to face challenges in creative yet steadfast ways. I have come to see how this dream-vision could give the tribe the resources with which to save itself and open up a space for a new generation of Crow poetry. Hope for a cultural rebirth was condensed and preserved in the image of a special bird, the chickadee. In my book I try to show how this works.

I wanted to hike up into the mountains where young Plenty Coups had his dream- vision. It was stunning to look out on the very mountain-scape that a young boy approached so many years ago. I thought he'd be pleased to know that, just as his dream predicted, his tribe had weathered the storm. There remain serious problems, to be sure, but there are important sources of hope, creativity and learning that directly descend from his dream. I hiked above the tree line, above snow-packed glaciers that held their own against the August sun. I was surprised to discover that I liked having a can of bear mace strapped to my belt. In a clearing filled with mountain flowers I found a flat rock, lay down and let my mind wander. I did not expect a vision, and I did not want one. I thought with amusement about how a chance phrase I heard at lunch two decades ago had somehow led me up this mountain. On the way down, I heard the call of the chickadee and even saw one in a tree. If Plenty Coups had been there he would no doubt have been able to understand it, in a way that was closed to me. I didn't care. What drew me to Plenty Coups was not that he possessed some special Crow wisdom, but that he was a remarkable human being. As a Crow Chief he left a special legacy to the Crow Nation, but it is as a human being that he has something to teach us all. He faced up to a vulnerability that touches us all; and he figured out new forms of courage, integrity and hope.

By the time I got back down the mountain my legs were tired, my feet hurt and there was a sharp pain in my left knee. I got into the car, started the engine and rolled down the window — and it was then that I saw a bear. He was in the bushes, just off the road. He stopped foraging, looked up, and took a look at me. He was in that intermediate zone, hovering between interest and utter lack of interest. I stared back. I was intrigued that this was the very first moment in which, no matter what happened, I would not need my mace. With the bear, boredom seemed to get the upper hand, and he turned away to forage elsewhere. spacer

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