The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Out of unbearable loss, a vision of radical hope

Jonathan Lear’s ‘Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life’ shows us how to engage in the world with extraordinary care

(Lucy Jones for The Washington Post)

In December 1995, the philosopher and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear published “The Shrink Is In” in the New Republic. Although it was commissioned as a tactical response to recent media attacks on Sigmund Freud, the essay transcended the occasion. It remains one of the most efficient, balanced and lucid defenses of Freud ever written for a lay audience.

It was also a manifesto of sorts for Lear, who is a unique figure on the American intellectual landscape, possibly our nation’s only practicing psychoanalyst and credentialed philosopher.

“What is at stake in all of these attacks?” wrote Lear, now a professor of philosophy and social thought at the University of Chicago. “If this were merely the attack on one historical figure, Freud, or on one professional group, psychoanalysts, the hubbub would have died down long ago. After all, psycho­analysis nowadays plays a minor role in the mental health professions; Freud is less and less often taught or studied. … The real object of attack — for which Freud is only a stalking horse — is the very idea of humans having unconscious motivation. A battle may be fought over Freud, but the war is over our culture’s image of the human soul. Are we to see humans as having depth — as complex psy­chological organisms who generate layers of meaning which lie beneath the surface of their own under­standing? Or are we to take ourselves as transparent to ourselves?”

I’ve been following Lear for the last few decades, since reading his short book on Aristotle when I was a college freshman. When he has a new book coming out, as he does on Tuesday, with the publication of “Imagining the End: Mourning and Ethical Life,” it is an event for me. It should be an event for all of us, as we struggle to find hope and wisdom in this time of catastrophe, hyperstimulation and stupidity.

A personal portrait of a troubling landscape

Born in New York City in 1949, Lear was raised in West Hartford, Conn., the son of a civic-minded surgeon and an unhappy suburban housewife. He went to college at Yale, graduating in 1970, then spent most of the next 15 years studying and teaching philosophy at the University of Cambridge, in England. It was after his father’s death, at the suggestion of his cousin Norman Lear, the eminent TV writer and producer, that Lear first dipped his toe into therapy. “He took me aside after the memorial service,” Lear recently told me over Zoom, “and said, ‘This would be a good time to talk to someone about your feelings.’”

Lear took the advice and found the experience incredibly useful. “I was amazed by how helpful it was,” he says. A subsequent experience with a psychoanalytically trained therapist in Cambridge introduced him, in much more depth, to the Freudian view of the world. When he moved back to the United States to take a faculty job at Yale, he also became a student at the Western New England Psychoanalytic Institute and Society, in New Haven.

Over the past few decades, while teaching at Yale and the University of Chicago, he has treated hundreds of patients and mentored dozens of other psychoanalysts. He has written, as well, a series of books that fuse psychoanalysis and philosophy, including “Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis,” “Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul,” “Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation” and “Therapeutic Action: An Earnest Plea for Irony.”

Lear is a lovely and subtle writer, someone who has a rare capacity to introduce ways of seeing and interrogating the world that dignify our confusion and pain while also opening up new possibilities for moving forward. He can simplify complexity and complicate what appears to be simple, depending on the need and the audience.

Much of Lear’s writing in “Imagining the End” is of the latter kind. He subjects to close inspection “ordinary fleeting moments” that might otherwise be unreflectively assimilated.

In a chapter titled “When Meghan Married Harry,” Lear pauses for a while on Meghan Markle’s confession to Oprah Winfrey that she and her prince had a secret wedding ceremony, with just the two of them and the Archbishop of Canterbury, a few days before the big public one. They did so, Markle said, to “live authentically.” This claim becomes, for Lear, an opportunity both to credit Markle’s intuition, that there’s something “phony” about the spectacle of the modern royal wedding, and to question whether her notion of authenticity (which involves, among other things, telling secrets to Oprah) is grounded in a sufficiently rich view of what it entails to live the good life. Or whether instead she’s gotten trapped, like so many of us, “one level up,” aware of where something in the culture has gone terribly wrong but stuck within the culture’s exhausted concepts and narratives and therefore unable to arrive at a true alternative. “She subverts the ritual only to be snagged by the concept,” Lear observes.

What might remedy this, Lear writes, drawing on Aristotle, is a culture more alive with the imaginative and intellectual practices of the humanities, a culture in which we engage with the past, and with its greatest thinkers and artists, not to revere or return to the past but to use its resources to reimagine our present and future. “When things are going well,” he writes, “we develop a capacity for critical playfulness, for re-creation and change of the very concepts with which we are thinking. We are freed up for a poetic reinterpretation of authenticity, as well as opened up to the possibility of giving up the concept altogether and living according to different concepts.”

A flourishing culture would be one in which teachers — true teachers — are everywhere. In class, at home, onstage, on screen, on the field, at work, in temple, at the bar. In “Exemplars and the End of the World,” he dwells on a schoolyard incident from his childhood to explore the importance of what he calls “local exemplars” — the people we encounter in our everyday lives who stop us in our tracks, unexpectedly, and change the way we see things from that point on. “He was wearing a trench coat, belted in the middle,” remembers Lear of his elementary school teacher Mr. McMahon, who chastised the young Lear for cursing on the playground. “His hair was in a crew cut, common among men at that time. He might have been a police detective in a television show. He came over, looked me in the eyes, and said in a low, calm voice: ‘We do not use profane language on the playground.’ He then turned around and walked away. That was it.”

There was no punishment. Mr. McMahon never referenced it again. No one else on the playground has thought of it since. For Lear, though, at the age of 10, it was so meaningful that he’s spent the last 63 years reckoning with it, and it has become the seed of a philosophical theory of what it takes to serve in the role of local exemplar for someone else. It requires a humanistic spirit but also a kind of beauty and mystery.

McMahon was able to occupy such psychological space in a boy’s head, Lear writes, in no small part because what he said, and how he said it, were enigmatic. The interaction was pregnant with meaning that the boy could sense but not quite grasp. The playground was a realm that had unwritten rules of behavior. There was a category of things that were “profane” (a word that Lear, like most 10-year-olds, didn’t know) and by implication another category of things that were not profane. Mr. McMahon seemed to understand that Lear didn’t really know what he was doing when he swore — there was an innocence to it — and so there was no punishment beyond that brief censure. And there was a verve to the delivery of the line, consonant with McMahon’s whole trench-coat-police-detective style, that charged the moment with almost cinematic energy. “I have … imagined him smiling to himself, indiscernible to the outside world,” Lear writes, “and thinking, ‘I’ve given that little fellow something to think about for the rest of his life.’

This is a lot of meaning to hang on a 10-second interaction, but that is Lear’s style, and his point. “A universe can open up from an instant, if you’ll just look at it and spend time with it,” he told me. We live in a world overflowing with meaning. We can’t process it all or dwell on it all the time, but we can process more than we typically do. We can do so as thoughtfully as possible, and we can return again and again to those things whose meaning seems to just exceed our grasp, cultivating a virtuous habit of creative repetition and reinvention. To do this, it helps enormously to attend more closely to the people in our lives, like Mr. McMahon, who are “the first responders, as it were, to our need for the experience of something ‘higher,’ ‘noble,’ ‘beautiful.’”

'Inciting Joy' is a gift that's meant to be shared

We can resist, too, the kinds of answers we so often reach for when confronted with overwhelming difficulty and loss: anger, resentment, despair, withdrawal, fantasy. These only exacerbate the problem, especially when they operate under the veil of politics and ideology. Lear begins his new book by recalling a lecture he attended on climate change, zeroing in on a moment during the Q&A when someone in the audience joked that we deserved an Earth that was so hot and poisoned that it could no longer support human life. We deserved our own extinction.

“A young academic stood up,” Lear writes, “and said simply, ‘Let me tell you something: We will not be missed!’”

It was a good enough quip, and people laughed. Then they moved on. Except Lear. Why is it funny, he wondered, this idea that we may destroy ourselves as a species? It was a release, of course. Climate change is a heavy subject; gallows humor exists because laughter is one of the ways we cope with heaviness. But it was more than just a release. It was a retreat, Lear argues, from the intolerable sadness of the situation and from the intolerable complexity of the human experience. We are creators and destroyers, beautiful and cruel. In our absence, ecosystems may heal, but the world will have lost something irreplaceable: us. In an important sense the world will have lost the capacity even to see itself as having lost something. We will not be missed because there will be no human consciousness alive capable of doing the missing. Making light of this scenario may feel, in the moment, like a nod toward cosmic (or karmic) justice, but it reads to Lear like an expression of despair and misanthropy.

The healthier alternative to such despair is mourning, which for Lear is a more expansive activity than just grieving a loss. It is at the center of what it means to be human and to grow and develop psychologically. It is a creative response to what has been lost, whether that’s a beloved spouse, a past version of ourselves, a classroom of murdered children or the Earth as it once was. In the face of loss, our brains go to work. “We get busy emotionally, imaginatively, and cognitively,” Lear writes, “and at least try to make sense of what has happened.”

In the face of unbearable loss, of the kind we’ve become so brutally familiar with, he offers a vision of what he has called “radical hope,” which involves acting with hope in the absence not just of rational justification for hope but in the absence of the conceptual building blocks out of which a better future might be constituted. It entails moving forward in the dark, relying on our values, commitments, relationships, creativity and whatever wisdom we’ve gleaned from experience. We can’t see the other side, or even know that a better future will come into existence, but we can keep moving in what we hope is the right direction. “We have a hunch,” he writes, that “we are onto something important about being human, but we are also in the midst of life and thus in the midst of confusions, contradictions, and unclarities.”

Radical hope is terrifying, in other words. What it’s not, however, is fantasy. It’s an honest reckoning with all that we don’t know and don’t control, along with a refusal to stop hoping or moving forward. This honesty about what we can’t do, paired with a commitment to persist in what we can do, is in stark contrast to the absolutist fantasies that tend to animate the American political response when confronting the most terrifying, and most intractable, problems. We must end the pandemic. We must never wear masks. We must never impose any restrictions again. We must end Vladimir Putin. We must provide a mental health professional for every troubled child. We must vanquish our political enemies. We must eliminate guns. We must arm every teacher.

For Lear the psychoanalyst, these fantasies are often manifestations of the primal human fantasy, which is of omnipotence. The rage is an echo of the primal infant rage when a baby’s need or desire isn’t instantly gratified. “Either you want to be omnipotent,” he told me, “or you want someone else to be omnipotent for you, or you want to kill everyone else. The psychoanalytic insight is that healthy development requires abandoning the fantasy of omnipotence. But that is no small deal.”

But what else can we do but fantasize, I asked Lear, when confronted with tragedies like Uvalde, Ukraine, covid-19 and whatever’s just around the corner? Everybody’s too angry at everyone else. Our politicians are too small. Aren’t we simply, actually stuck? No, Lear answered. Having a global solution is not a prerequisite for acting in the world. Approaching the world with the expectation that every problem must be solved, soon and completely, comes from a failure to reckon with our own and the world’s limits. We are not omnipotent. There is no savior (on this plane of existence, at least) who will come to the rescue. The world is fundamentally flawed.

This is hard to accept. It’s probably impossible to fully accept. But we can try to mourn it. If we do so well enough, Lear believes, we will discover that even when dealing with terrible loss and profound obstacles, there are things we can do. Take care of the people close to us. Work politically to improve things. Appreciate beauty and nobility in others. Be an exemplar for others. Make meaning. Creatively and repeatedly engage with the past. Have hope. Resist despair.

“How do you look straight on at these horrible things but not lose sight of what’s magnificent about human beings?” Lear asked. “It’s hard. It’s hard to be human. Maturity is an achievement.”

There are no answers in “Imagining the End,” or in most of Lear’s work. There are no recipes for maturity. Or plans for a stable peace in Ukraine. What his work does give us is an example of how to engage in the world with extraordinary care. This doesn’t solve everything, or maybe anything. But no one promised us that being human was easy.

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author of “Far From Respectable: Dave Hickey and His Art.”

Imagining the End

Mourning and Ethical Life

By Jonathan Lear

Belknap/Harvard. 162 pp. $29.95

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