You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

‘From a certain point there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’ This is one of Kafka’s Zürau Aphorisms, written during the war – between 1917 and 1918 – just after he received a diagnosis of the tuberculosis that would eventually kill him. ‘From a certain point there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.’ Why? Because there is always the temptation to give up? Or, more suggestively, because there is always the temptation to turn back, to turn round: to go back, say, to the past, to the place from which one started, to retrace your steps; or simply to turn back to the time when you can choose to give up, or choose again what you really want to do; as though progress, or completion or commitment, depends on reaching the point from which there is no more turning back. At that point, it is implied, we have finally made our decision. The crisis of choice is over; we are no longer in search of exits and alibis; we are no longer seduced by alternatives and deferrals. It is the point at which we know what we want; we are no longer the complicated, conflicted creatures we were until this point. Our doubts are finally in abeyance. We are, in a certain sense, free. The point from which there is no more turning back suggests, of course, that there has already been a certain amount of turning back, or a certain amount of wanting to turn back. As though a desire to turn back is what we always have to contend with – as a temptation, or simply as a choice. As though we are also driven by a desire for uncompleted actions, by the pleasures of indecision and uncertainty and deferral, by the desire to give up. ‘He has the feeling,’ Kafka writes in another aphorism, ‘that merely by being alive he is blocking his own way.’

Kafka clearly wants us to think about our relationship with the opportunity, with the option of giving up; or to the giving up which turning back, or blocking our own way, can sometimes entail. And about the way the idea of giving up figures in our lives, as a perpetual lure and an insistent fear. The giving up that involves leaving ourselves out of what we had wanted, or thought we had wanted. The giving up that is linked to a sense of impossibility, or of possibilities running out, of coming to the end of something. Of needing to exempt oneself. Excluding oneself – perhaps because one lacks the wherewithal or the know-how or the courage or the luck – from a project one had taken to be one’s own. ‘A courageous person,’ Jonathan Lear has suggested, ‘has a proper orientation towards what is shameful and what is fearful.’ We tend to think of giving up, in the ordinary way, as a lack of courage, as an improper or embarrassing orientation towards what is shameful and fearful. That is to say we tend to value, and even idealise, the idea of seeing things through, of finishing things rather than abandoning them. Giving up has to be justified in a way that completion does not; giving up doesn’t usually make us proud of ourselves; it is a falling short of our preferred selves; unless, of course, it is the sign of an ultimate and defining realism, of what we call ‘knowing our limitations’. Giving up, in other words, is usually thought of as a failure rather than a way of succeeding at something else. It is worth wondering to whom we believe we have to justify ourselves when we are giving up, or when we are determinedly not giving up.

Of course turning back and giving up are not always the same thing: turning back in a book one is reading is quite different from giving up on the book. Turning back on a walk can be quite different from giving up on the walk. When we want to turn back the clock we are not giving up on time. Turning back, in short, may involve reconsideration; giving up suggests abandonment (and if we really give up there is no turning back). Both are reversals of a kind, expressions of doubt about progress and desire, or at least about direction and purpose. So it is essentially an anxiety about intention that Kafka is alerting us to: the intention to sabotage our intentions, to doubt our desires, or our capacity to fulfil them. The temptation to give up may sometimes be different from the temptation to turn back, but each temptation tells us something about giving up, which is always a special case of changing our minds, of revising our intentions, of second thoughts, of destroying something. For our purposes, I want to read Kafka’s aphorism as, ‘From a certain point there is no more giving up. That is the point that must be reached’; and to say that our relationship to giving up is as formative in our lives as, say, our relationship to being helped; and to suggest, by implication, that there can be a tyranny of completion, of finishing things, which can narrow our minds unduly. Our relationship to giving up and our relationship to being helped confront us with what we take our dependence to be; our dependence on what we need, and need to do, and on what we need not do, or are unable to do. When we give up, or undermine, our dependence on our ego-ideals – on our fantasies about the people we believe we should be – both our dependence and the nature and function of our ego-ideals is exposed. When our preferred versions of ourselves are not an inspiration, they are a tyranny (a tyranny with which we can humiliate ourselves). Our history of giving up – that is to say, our attitude towards it, our obsession with it, our disavowal of its significance – may be a clue to something we should really call our histories and not our selves. It is a clue to the beliefs, the sentences, around which we have organised ourselves. If giving up tends to be the catastrophe to be averted, what do we imagine giving up is actually like? Not to be overly impressed by giving up shows us what we do then value. We make a world out of it.

Heroes and heroines are people who don’t give up; they may sometimes turn back but they ultimately persevere. And as we shall see, tragic heroes are our catastrophic examples of the inability to give up. In that sense tragedy invites us to re-evaluate certain versions of giving up. Kafka’s heroes are often extremely tenacious: they very rarely give up, despite the many inducements to do so (what is heroic in heroism is precisely the resistance to giving up, or perhaps the phobia of giving up). To be arrested for no apparent reason, to wake up as a beetle: these things would involve, one might think, at least a strong wish to give up. But what is striking about Kafka’s heroes is how patient they are in their hopelessness and their helplessness. ‘There is hope but not for us.’ Rather tantalisingly, hope does exist; we just can’t have it ourselves. Logically we can then ask: in what sense does it exist? What relationship can we have with it? We might answer that it is something we want that eludes us: it exists only in our wanting it, which may or may not be good grounds for giving up on it. So to give up on hope would just mean to give up on wanting it, just as giving up is always giving up wanting something or someone, giving up wanting to be someone. What has always to be given up, in giving up, is the wanting. ‘There is a destination, but no way there,’ Kafka writes in another aphorism. ‘What we refer to as way is hesitation.’ We can’t give up on wanting a destination. Hesitation is integral to wanting, a moment of reconsidering giving up. We can’t give up, it seems, on having ego-ideals, on there being people we would like to be, places we would like to go; on there being always an as yet unattained self. There is something we want, or think we need (hope, destination, not turning back, satisfaction), but because we cannot give up wanting it we have to redescribe the process of wanting, how we go about wanting it (if there is hope but not for us we have to hope differently; if there is a destination but no way there we need a new attitude to destinations). The hunger artist never gives up on wanting to fast even though it is going out of fashion as a popular entertainment; but in order to go on fasting he must never die of hunger; to be a hunger artist means never to complete one’s starvation, just as in sadomasochistic relationships the sadist must never kill the masochist because he needs to go on torturing him. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive, but as it turns out you may have to travel hopelessly and never arrive. You will certainly never arrive at exactly what you had anticipated.

The title of Kafka’s parable ‘Before the Law’, in English translation, suggests that there was a time before the law, and that we are all before the law by being subject to it. ‘Before the law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country walks up to the doorkeeper, and asks to be admitted to the law. But the doorkeeper informs him that he cannot grant him admittance at this time. The man considers and asks whether that means he will be admitted at some future time. “That’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.”’ The man, in an endless deferral of what he wants, sits there until he dies, but just before he dies the doorkeeper, ‘to reach his failing ears’, bellows to him at the top of his voice: ‘No one else could gain admission here, because this entrance was intended for you alone. Now I am going to shut it.’ The man doesn’t give up until he is given up on by the sadistic doorkeeper. We should notice that no thought is given to what the aftermath to giving up would be like, to the way giving up would look. In the background of a Kafka story there is often the promise of something, but of something that never happens, as though Kafka’s theme is not what was once called existential dread, but tantalisation. The lure of foreclosed possibilities. The very real freedom of being able to turn back, or to give up, seems to be a freedom Kafka fears: he wants to reach the point from which there is no turning back, no turning back from wanting whatever is wanted. And wanted at whatever cost. As though wanting, for Kafka (and not only for Kafka), is like an addiction. The self-cure for having been tantalised is either to turn the tables and become the tantaliser, or to give up on wanting: two forms of revenge, two forms of cruelty to oneself.

Kafka, who gave up all the women he thought of marrying, could not give up on the theme of giving up. So even when he writes about the perennial theme of finding a way of giving up on suffering – one’s own and the suffering of others – he finds a way round it that seems at once ingenious and true: ‘You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world – that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature – but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.’

We might ask, in a pragmatic way, as Kafka would not have: for what purposes would it be useful to write that? One purpose would be to try and work out where, in what situations, giving up doesn’t work, or can’t work. You can turn away, turn your back on the sufferings of others, but it might be the case that this turning away is the only suffering you can genuinely avoid. We suffer from not acknowledging the suffering of others. So another useful reason for writing that particular aphorism is to warn people of the cost to themselves of ignoring, or wanting to avoid, the suffering of others. Once again in Kafka it is the giving up that has to be given up on, as though for Kafka the struggle was always to get to the point at which there was no turning back. Kafka’s concern – the theme of many of his parables, and the desire of many of his heroes – is the cost, the suffering involved in giving up. How not to give up is his obsession (in the language of Freud’s late mythology of the instincts, Kafka was always trying to avert the triumph of the death instinct, but without affirming the life instinct). We could conclude that for Kafka giving up was a forbidden pleasure: the allure of giving up, the joys of failure, had to be resisted. Having given up was the unthinkable, the unwritable, for Kafka. But in the service of what? Of not wanting to be the kind of person who gives up? Or, in Freudian language, of betraying one’s ego-ideal, the person one wants to be?

There​ are at least three salient meanings of giving up that recur in different forms, all of them at the heart of Kafka’s preoccupations: defeatedness and sacrifice, or failure and compromise, or weakness and realism. The ambiguity of the phrase ‘giving up’ in English is instructive: to give up is always to give something up; something or someone is sacrificed. And sacrifice, whatever else it is, is a sadistic pleasure. To put it another way, perhaps we should not underestimate the pleasures of giving up, however forbidden or shameful they may seem to be. No one writes in praise of giving up, any more than people write in celebration of shame. The question I want to broach is not why do we give up, but why don’t we? Why are we less interested in having given up than avoiding giving up? As though giving up mustn’t be thought through, or as though following it to its logical conclusion leads merely and solely to thoughts about suicide. What are we doing to ourselves and others, sometimes, by not giving up (something that tragedy is there to help us think about)? ‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide,’ Camus wrote in 1942. ‘Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.’

In this passage from The Myth of Sisyphus – Sisyphus being the absurd, tormented, exemplary master of not giving up – Camus proposes the ultimate or absolute form of giving up, suicide, as the one truly serious philosophical problem. And clearly everything depends on (or everything we believe we should be using our time to do depends on) the always contestable assumption (or conviction) that life is worth living – a question that never occurs to a child, except histrionically. It is, as we all know, in adolescence that the question begins to dawn (in adolescence we begin to wonder whether pleasure is worth the trouble). That life is worth living doesn’t tend to present itself to us as a belief; we are more likely just to go on living as if it is true. So when we begin to question it as though it were a belief, we have to all intents and purposes asked ourselves: what is worth surviving for? Darwin’s answer – somewhere between a riddle and a joke – is that survival is worth surviving for (survival entailing reproduction ad infinitum). Freud’s answer, more commonsensical and just as disturbing, is that pleasure is worth surviving for. Marx’s answer is social justice, non-exploitative social relations. Each of us, of course, may want or need to have our own answers, while also wondering why good reasons – or indeed any reasons at all – are required to go on living, when no other animal seems to need them. Reasons, of course, are made with language.

Good reasons (or, as Winnicott more interestingly calls them, right reasons), and reason itself, are what suicide provokes us to think and talk about: what is it that sustains someone’s wish to go on living, as opposed to giving up on or attacking that wish (and it is always worth considering what or who giving up is an attack on). There are always two perhaps obviously striking things about suicide (though that they are obvious should also give us pause): it is always profoundly disturbing, and it makes everyone who knows the person obsessed by causality, by the question of how and why it could have happened, and what anyone could have done to prevent it (Winnicott said that whenever someone told him they wanted to kill themselves, he never tried to dissuade them, he just tried to ensure they were doing it for the right reasons). It seems almost unintelligible, or perhaps someone’s failure, that a person could do such a thing, as though the ultimate wish to exempt oneself – to expel oneself, to leave oneself out of one’s own project – is a doubt, or a violence, too far. We feel that life itself is something that can’t be given up, or given up on (or that life had to be made sacred to keep it valuable). And it is never clear to us, as the inheritors of a sacred cosmos, whether suicide is a triumph of individual agency, or the triumph of something other than this supposed agency (something, say, only a devil could tempt one with); it is never clear to us whether suicide is what we call a choice, or the abrogation of choice – the choice, among other things, to give up choosing. We are left wondering what, if anything, could predispose someone to suicide. What could it be about a life, or supposedly about life itself, that could make this decision unequivocal? And why, by the same token, might someone need to feel that suicide was not in their repertoire?

And yet, of course, before any suicide there is a history of more or less serious refusals, and avoidances, and supposed failures. Before suicide come the other, minor forms of giving up. In the ordinary course of events, when we give up, or give up on something or someone, we are not ostensibly asking whether life is or is not worth living: we are asking either whether what we had wanted to do is worth doing, or whether we have the ability to do it. When I give up I am admitting failure, or acknowledging loss of desire, or seeking the pleasures of sabotage. But giving up, for whatever reason, has become in this situation what I want, what I want to do.

Freud​ described one version of what I am calling the wish to give up as the death instinct: ‘We have been led to distinguish two kinds of instincts,’ he wrote in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, ‘those which seek to lead what is living to death, and others, the sexual instincts, which are perpetually attempting and achieving a renewal of life.’ What has led Freud to this is never made clear, other than what appears to be a pervasive self-destructiveness in the people he treats. Freud uses psychoanalysis to ask: why are people addicted to their own suffering? What makes them give up on and attack their own enjoyment so enthusiastically and ingeniously? Despite the fact that, as Freud wrote, ‘since the assumption of the existence of the [death] instinct is mainly based on theoretical grounds, we must also admit that it is not entirely proof against theoretical objections’; and, as Freud’s follower Ernest Jones wrote, ‘no biological observation can be found to support the idea of a death instinct, which contradicts all biological principles.’ The death instinct, I want to suggest, was Freud’s way of broaching the part of the self that wants, at its most extreme, less life rather than more life; the part of the self that wants to give up, to give up on, perpetually attempting and achieving a renewal of life. And in this version, once again, giving up is deemed to be wholly destructive; as though believing that life is not worth living can only be destructive, as opposed to being plausible or convincing, or realistic, or even compelling. Freud can be seen to be delegating to a so-called instinct the part of oneself that loves, that desires, giving up; and by calling it an instinct – by giving it a quasi-biological status – he avoids simply saying that there is a part of ourselves that has very good, convincing, alluring reasons to give up on life and that often doesn’t really want to go on living. That there is a continual debate going on inside us – what Freud, upping the stakes, calls a war – about whether we really believe that life is worth living, whether life is worth the trouble. And it is easy to see why an émigré Jew in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century might feel this, not to mention his contemporaries. Like alcoholics who need everyone to drink, the desire to live is implicitly described as something like an addiction, or an official order, rather than as a kind of question, or conflict.

When Freud suggests in his paper on narcissism that ‘hate is older than love’; when he proposes that the organism wants to ‘die in its own way’ and writes of the ‘instinctual forces which seek to conduct life into death’, he is not merely writing about the fact that, as it were, something inside us eventually kills us; he is also arguing that there is a part of the self that actually desires death, that wants to kill off the so-called life instinct, that doesn’t want survival at all costs, despite Darwin’s preferred truth (though Darwin did, of course, show us that our lives are nothing special, and that there is nothing special about this fact). Freud’s two ‘mythical’ instincts, Eros and Thanatos, describe what Freud takes to be this constitutive war within us. ‘The aim of Eros,’ he writes, ‘is to establish even greater unities and to preserve them thus – in short to bind together; the aim of the destructive instincts is, on the contrary, to undo connections and destroy things.’ One of the reasons giving up has such a bad press – we never say ‘she is really good at giving up’ or ‘giving up is good for you’ – is that the giving up that occurs regularly in everyday life is felt to be an ominous foreshadowing of, or reminder of, the ultimate giving up that is suicide, or just of the milder version of living a kind of death-in-life; or, in Freud’s language, the insidious, ‘silent’, incremental triumph of the death instinct, the numbing of passion, the destruction of everything enlivening. As though giving up is a really bad sign. As though wanting to give up is the worst sign, and the wish to give up is something we should be extremely wary of in ourselves. As though it is like a virus, or a contagion. And there were versions of psychoanalysis after Freud – most notably those of Melanie Klein – that were more or less about the workings of the so-called death instinct and about working out the ways in which it might be contested and managed.

When Freud writes of the silent working of the death instinct, he is describing something insidiously and sometimes secretly undermining of our vitality, of our drive for the future (which is one form of more life). And so the reason Freud proposes something that is by his own admission ‘theoretical’ – neither verifiable nor falsifiable empirically – and that has no obvious biological validity (how could there, in Darwinian terms, be an instinct to not survive?) is, I think, that he needs to find a way of addressing or acknowledging or talking about a modern human experience, the wish to give up. The most secular wish of all, one might say.

We should note, in passing, that in describing Eros and Thanatos Freud makes no mention of the incest taboo, even though his description of the project of Eros – ‘to establish even greater unities’ – might seem to include incestuous desire. But the incest taboo may be a pale shadow of the most horrifying and disturbing taboo of suicide, of not wanting to live, of finding that the suffering of life is not worth the struggle. That life itself may be unbearable. Whether we pathologise it as depression or as what psychiatrists call ‘suicidal ideation’ or as any of the other devitalising, enervating illnesses we are prone to, giving up, for some reason, is the thing we must not do. I want to suggest that we are, or may be, unduly terrorised and intimidated by the wish to give up, and that the daunting association of giving up with suicide has stopped us being able to think about the milder, more instructive, more promising givings up. And has stopped us thinking truthfully about suicide. If sex needs to be detraumatised by uncoupling it from incestuous desire, giving up needs to be detraumatised by detaching it from suicide. If we need to talk about instincts in this context (though we don’t need to), I want to redescribe Freud’s death instinct as a ‘giving-up instinct’, as a way of taking giving up more seriously. And that means not giving it an aura of earnest portentousness – we could, for instance, see Sisyphus as a comic turn. Giving up, which is in everybody’s repertoire, should be taught in schools. We need to wonder what giving up would look like, would sound like, if suicide was not the paradigm, or the only paradigm, of giving up, and if it was not taken for granted in some quasi-religious sense that life is essentially worth living. We are torturing people when we force people whose life is torture to go on living.

Perhaps we should bear in mind Johnson’s various definitions of ‘giving up’: ‘to resign; to quit; to yield; to abandon; to deliver’. Apart from ‘abandon’, these are strikingly unpunishing words from a man who knew much about what could make life unbearable (it is indeed shocking what people will put up with; it is astounding how few people kill themselves). It has been surprisingly difficult to decriminalise giving up, in all its forms.

So-called tragic heroes, as I mentioned, are people who never give up; or rather they are people who seem either unable or unwilling to give up. People for whom giving up is not really an option. It could be said that what they suffer from is precisely the refusal to give up. There is something unrelenting about the way they conduct themselves, something omniscient about the tyranny they inflict. Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Timon (and Hamlet in a different way) can’t be deflected or significantly dissuaded from their stated aims. Tragedy is what is created by people who refuse to give up. And by the same token it explores, often by implication, what it might be at any given moment to give up. It makes us wonder what catastrophe is being averted by not giving up. For the tragic hero giving up means a change of heart, or changing one’s mind. It means giving up on an organising set of beliefs. Like the tyrant, the tragic hero is an extreme version of a person who needs to overly regulate the complexity of their own mind. In this context, giving up is disillusionment, which always brings with it the possibility of either reillusionment or a greater realism. To be disillusioned is to allow doubt, is supposedly to see something more clearly, whatever that may feel like, whatever the consequences (a love affair, a revolution, a religious commitment, a choice of job). So at one end of this imaginary spectrum there is giving up as a kind of enlightening disillusionment, which brings with it the question, and the possibility, of a future; at the other there is the terminal disillusionment that leads to suicide. Giving up as a transitional state, or as an absolute and determinate ending; giving up as a making sense of an ending, or as a sabotaging of sense-making, and of all future endings. Giving up as the bearing of loss, or as the abolition of loss. It is a question of where we get our ideas about giving up from, or our pictures of giving up from; a question of what we imagine giving up to be like. Or of what we can use giving up to do. And this is where tragedy can be instructive.

Macbeth​ suggests one direction: if suicide was not our model for giving up, sleep might be. Every night we give up: give up consciousness, give up thinking, give up vigilance, give up alertness, or inertia, give up, and give up on, waking life. In Johnson’s terms, we yield. (We could use other terms: we quit, we abandon, we deliver ourselves over to unconsciousness.) We might think of sleep as the benign, nourishing, restorative version of giving up; as a rather more reassuring, indeed enlivening picture of what it might be to give up than that offered by suicide. Sleep is the antidote, and the clue, to a more ample sense of giving up. Macbeth, it is worth remembering, is a man who can’t sleep, just as he can’t give up on the project of murdering and usurping Duncan once it is broached. He is unable to sleep after murdering Duncan, and unable to give up on his desire to become king. The two things, of course, go together.

Macbeth very quickly gets to Kafka’s ‘certain point’ from which there is no giving up or turning back. One of the shocking things about him is the sheer velocity of his ambitious determination. ‘It is in the nature of Macbeth to be swift and utterly single-minded,’ the critic Michael Long writes. As though there must be no time for hesitation or revision or doubt. As though there is a danger that momentum might be lost. A change of heart – or even the possibility of giving up on the usurpation of Duncan – must not, cannot, be contemplated. Only very early in the play does Macbeth momentarily consider turning back. ‘We will proceed no further in this business,’ he tells Lady Macbeth, to which she replies: ‘Was the hope drunk/wherein you dressed yourself? Hath it slept since? … Art thou afeard/to be the same in thine own act and valour/as thou art in desire?’ There is no acknowledgment of Macbeth’s misgivings, only accusation of his cowardice and inconsistency. She humiliates him for his self-doubt, as though hesitations are signs of weakness. It is salient that sleep is invoked here (the word ‘sleep’ is used more in Macbeth than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays), but as a kind of dereliction of duty: Macbeth’s hope, his ambition, seems to have slept, or like a drunk he has slept it off. There is no suggestion that by sleeping on the decision to murder Duncan he might have come to his senses. Self-doubt, and doubting itself, has to be attacked – attacked through mockery – to create the conditions in which a change of plan or a giving up (‘We will proceed no further in this business’) are rendered impossible, inconceivable. This is what the critic Wilbur Sanders has referred to as ‘the compelling energy of defiance’ in the play.

It is of course when Duncan is asleep that they plan to murder him: ‘when Duncan is asleep/– whereto the rather shall his day’s hard journey/soundly invite him’. In a play full of thresholds and transitions, as many critics have pointed out, the threshold of sleep, and of falling asleep, is abolished in the play. In the second act Macbeth, frightened, says:

Methought I heard a voice cry, ‘Sleep no more!
Macbeth doth murder sleep,’ the innocent sleep,
sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care,
the death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
chief nourisher in life’s feast.

To make the case against the murder of Duncan – and the unnatural, illegitimate transfer of power it entails – Macbeth has to make this wonderfully eloquent defence of sleep and its restorative powers. If you murder sleep – in this case by murdering your king – you destroy your life-source. Macbeth can no longer give in to sleep, and Lady Macbeth sleepwalks – another threshold between sleeping and waking. It is, as the doctor says, ‘a great perturbation in nature, to receive at once the benefit of sleep, and do the effects of watching’; she is ‘troubled with thick-coming fancies/that keep her from her rest’. Escalation sabotages, and insures against, the possibility of revision, as though it were the most urgent necessity to reach that certain point from which there is no turning back. For the tragic hero and heroine, choice must give way to apparent or supposed inevitability.

In Macbeth sleep is celebrated and mourned as that restorative giving up in which consciousness and purpose and ambition are paused, or relinquished. Sleep is presented as the natural parallel and antidote to Macbeth’s unrelenting determination: he cannot and will not ‘sleep in spite of thunder’. Tragic heroes and heroines, as Macbeth makes so abundantly clear, are like people trying never to sleep. They are people who cannot interrupt themselves or be interrupted. They are people who have refused the benefits of giving up, or even of hesitation, people for whom giving up feels like giving up everything. Not being able to give up is not to be able to allow for loss, for vulnerability; not to be able to allow for the passing of time, and the revisions it brings.

Giving up requires a sense of an ending: it is knowing, in so far as it is possible, when the business is finished. A sense of an ending, of course, may not involve a sense of completion. Things can often end before they are finished: there are ruptures and abandonments and failures of nerve, loose ends that continue to trouble us. Plenty Coups, chief of the Crow nation, told Frank B. Linderman, a local hunter and trapper, that after the Crow were confined to a reservation, and the buffalo they depended on were destroyed, the life of the tribe effectively came to an end. Their lives were ruptured. ‘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.’

After this nothing happened. It is very difficult actually to imagine this experience. The Crow had lived in a land they understood to be given them by God; when it was taken away there was nothing they could do but give up on their lives. Just as people tend not to be mad but to be driven mad, people tend not to give up but to be forced into giving up. It is this that the tragic hero resists, and at great cost. The Crow, overpowered and outnumbered by the white colonisers, could neither resist nor redescribe their predicament. In Radical Hope, his book about the Crow, Jonathan Lear explained that battle had been a means of protecting their way of life, from other tribes and then from white men. Before battle the Crow would perform what they called the Sun Dance: ‘The Sun Dance, being a prayer for revenge, was naturally saturated with military episodes.’ ‘What is one to do with the Sun Dance,’ Lear asks, ‘when it is no longer possible to fight?’ For a culture faced with this kind of devastation, he suggests, there are three choices:

1. Keep dancing even though the point of the dance has been lost. The ritual continues, though no one can any longer say what the dance is for.

2. Invent a new aim for the dance. The dance continues, but now its purpose is, for example, to facilitate good negotiations with whites, usher good weather for farming, or restore health to a sick relative.

3. Give up the dance. This is an implicit recognition that there is no longer any point in dancing the Sun Dance.’

The Crow in fact gave up their Sun Dance around 1875, about a decade before they were moved into their reservation. ‘One needs to recognise the destruction,’ Lear writes, ‘if one is to move beyond it. In the abstract, there is no answer to the question: is the Sun Dance the maintenance of a sacred tradition or is it a nostalgic evasion?’ We should consider, as Lear begins to do, what not giving up would have entailed. The options seem stark: mourning the Sun Dance (what Lear, as a psychoanalyst, calls recognising the destruction in order to move beyond it); or simply maintaining a sacred tradition even though the dance has lost all its practical and sacred function, and therefore runs the risk of degenerating into the self-parody of nostalgia. Why not give it up? If this was a quantitative question, which it isn’t, we might ask how much we can bear to lose, or give up. Or, more simply: how can giving up be redescribed, and with a view to what exactly? There is pragmatism – redescription in the service of an appealing or at least viable future – or mourning, a felt relinquishing of the past in the hope of more life emerging. Pragmatism or mourning?

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Vol. 44 No. 3 · 10 February 2022

Adam Phillips writes that the Crow ‘gave up their Sun Dance around 1875, about a decade before they were moved into their reservation’ (LRB, 6 January). In fact the Sun Dance never stopped. It was banned in America in 1884 but continued as a hidden practice until ‘permitted’ again in 1934. The right to practise the Sun Dance was finally guaranteed by the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

The same happened in Canada. The Sun Dance was banned under the Canadian Indian Act of 1895, and ‘permission’ returned by the 1951 Amendment of the Indian Act. Here too the Sun Dance never stopped: it was practised in hiding and ‘permitted’ on Banff Indian Days to encourage tourism. For Canadian Plains nations including the Blood Tribe, the Sun Dance is still very much alive, still sacred and still important. The pandemic didn’t stop it either. It took place last summer, only with smaller gatherings and enhanced protections for Elders.

Kristy Trinier

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