Saturday, July 7, 2018

With Wandering Steps and Slow: Maps of Meaning

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, by Jordan B. Peterson, is a kind of atlas and a kind of blueprint. So what sort of place does it map? What sort of building is it for?

Peterson sets out from and closes his opus with biblical and gnostic passages. For his epigraph:

I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundations of the world. (Matthew 13:35). 
For the final word, capping a long passage from The Gospel of Thomas, apropos of Peterson's closing claim that 'the lie is the central act in this drama of corruption':
 [...]Jesus said, "Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate, for all things are plain in the sight of heaven. For nothing hidden will not become manifest, and nothing covered will remain without being uncovered."
Clearly, Maps takes us on a spiritual journey. If you do little besides read it and watch the World Cup, it might take you a week or so to read. Peterson tells listeners it took fifteen years to write, and that he went about rewriting each sentence fifty times. So, with that sort of devotion in mind: if you prefer the metaphor in the subtitle, I suppose that the building must be a church. I imagine it would look something like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia:

This image captures the sense I got of Maps of Meaning as an unfolding process, a cathedral with cranes and scaffolding, rooted in the medieval and yet under construction in our own time. The mixing of metaphors seems intentional, deliberate. So let's keep it going:

Peterson's work is also a kind of psychological encyclopedia, a complicated love-child of neuroscience and literary criticism, a memoir and dream journal, a treasure trove and a dragon's hoard, an alchemist's alembic and a bold bid for the reassessment of Jung's reputation. While the text itself, falling like the philosopher's stone into the ever-flowing river of existence, made hardly a ripple when it was published twenty years ago, a new audio version read by the author has just been released, which should make it much more accessible. I read the original text, courtesy of an Interlibrary Loan. Quite misleadingly shaped like a college or graduate school textbook, perhaps more than anything else Maps of Meaning is a cri de coeur from the Canadian psychologist's younger self. It's the recognizable source of many of the arguments which have made him famous and infamous. It's the basis of principles of his which, declaimed now from so many platforms, have proved ameliorating and odious, depending on who you ask.

Just as Peterson quotes copiously from his sources, in what follows I thought it appropriate to offer as guideposts plenty of quotations from his Maps, to better allow people to draw their own conclusions as I make such points as I have. I'll first try to deal briefly with some commonly raised issues, though, so as to clear the air a little:

The sharpest critiques, as I understand it, come from those whose politics and very identities are bound up with concerns for social justice, and who take Peterson's emphasis on personal responsibility, as something distinct or at least distinguishable from social context, to conflict with their striving as and for a community. The "Preface: descensus ad infernos" paints a picture of the author struggling to understand just this conflict, of course operating within the particular background of his upbringing and social circle, and under the bias of his own temperament, fears, and interests. The latter, I'd note, are conspicuous in little stylistic choices here and there. For instance, the opening lines of the narrative pick up on that epigraph: 'I was raised under the protective auspices, so to speak, of the Christian church' (xi). Such qualifying phrases ('so to speak') are frequent. Another: 'Of course, my socialist colleagues and I weren't out to hurt anyone' (xiii). Some might find this narrative voice off-putting. I found it illuminating. Taken together with Peterson's use, particularly in the opening and then intermittently throughout, of his own dreams, family anecdotes, and letters, it gives a concreteness and presence to what otherwise can become highly abstract and tendentious material. The only stylistic moves I couldn't abide are his byzantine application of parentheses and brackets, which seem designed to accommodate as many explicit meanings within the already dense text as possible. Particularly grating are frequent cues to (read: so-and-so) and tiresome use of "scare" quotes. Just as Peterson puts it: 'Despite my verbal facility, I was not real. I found this painful to admit' (xvii), it seems his authorial persona is loath to let go of the manuscript, to allow the reader room for interpretation. Still, much as in his rhetorical flights viva voce, what he has to say is exhilarating, if a little breathless. 

If Peterson writes from his own experience, and attempts to shape how we understand it as part of his own process of discovery, I think that's understandable. If he falls under the spell of taking his own experience as normative, and is unable to see that appeals to personal responsibility ring rather differently to different persons, it is a blindness he seems to be working on, anyhow, by reading and engaging with an astonishing amount of what other people have thought and said about these essential moral and societal issues. One other common critique, that he's either obvious or offensive, then, doesn't resonate with me. His reading of wide swathes of scientific and humanistic literature seems credible; his claims deep and substantial; his motives compassionate, if challenging and at times tone-deaf. When he does make obvious statements, or asks obviously rhetorical questions, for that matter, he makes it clear that he's building to something. And Peterson is capable, like any raconteur professor, of telling an old story in an engaging way. He maintains just enough connection to the tension between the esoteric and the explicit at work in his epigraph to keep me reading without feeling like I'm going too headlong down the psychoanalytic rabbit hole. Some of the figures and diagrams chosen to illustrate the text, though, look pretty silly.

On to my own illustrations. These are the passages I found most insightful, and why.

In the course of a discussion of cognition and vicarious experience, we get an intriguing definition of greatness in stories: 'it is the encapsulation of meta-skill in a story that makes that story great' (76). This meta-skill, glossed as 'the pattern of behavior that generates new skills,' seems like a way of talking about the effect of reading something interesting. Those works which give the impression of meta-skill, I submit, are those which we continue to regard as great. Great books teach us how to read them over and over and find them forever interesting, and naturally we seek to apply this attention to the world, and to share these books, and still more to cultivate this skill of skills. So it seems to me, but then I'm a teacher.

Of all the authors he cites, Peterson seems to recur most often to Jung, an author I've read primarily in quotation. So this passage is another helpful definition'the "collective unconscious" that constitutes the basis for shared religious mythology is in fact the behavior, the procedures, that have been generated, transmitted, imitated, and modified by everyone who has ever lived, everywhere. Images of these behaviors and of the transcendent "place" where they occur (the universe of chaos and order) constitute metaphors, symbolic images' (93). Whenever scientific and philosophical people get going on metaphors, I prick up my ears. The place and the way are the central metaphors in Peterson's book, and this claim about their basis in the collective unconscious, and its relationship to embodied experience by individuals, seems critical for any of this to be more or less than poetry.

A few pages later, we get an especially tantalizing taste of Peterson's bifurcating, omnivorous style, when he calls Moses 'an allegory of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor or, even more generally, as the rebellion of the [world-destroying (flooding)] savior against society' (97). How generally we choose to read or apply the story seems to determine the flavor of the metaphorical images accompanying it, ranging from the abstract yet immediate (oppressed against the oppressor) to the mythologically terrifying yet vague (what is a flooding, or is it world-flooding, savior?). These parentheses and brackets are made to do an awful lot of work here. They subsume the whole endeavor of social justice within a mythic-religious frame, twice over.

Even more rangy and promiscuous is a paragraph amplifying the circle as image of the 'state of origin.' In the course of a few lines, Peterson moves from Plato's Timaeus, to yin and yang, to the round chaos of alchemy, to 'the God of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last" (Revelations 22:13),"' to the claim that ' the Kingdom of God, promised by Christ, is in fact re-establishment of Paradise (although a Paradise characterized by reconciliation of opposing forces, and not regressive dissolution into preconscious unity)' (144). To say that all these are in some respect the same thing is a powerful manifestation of the subject matter itself, recapitulated in the style of the writing here.

Peterson's clinical practice seldom comes to the fore in Maps, but one allusion to his authority on such matters makes its appearance as he is delineating the positive and negative valences of the Great Mother archetype: 'the existence of representations of the twin aspects of the unknown allowed for practice in adaptation in the face of such representations...Similar "rituals" underly every form of successful modern psychotherapy' (169). 'Underly' looks like a misspelling, but the larger point is that psychologists who know what they're doing enact in some form the ancient myths--and that it works. That's wild. A handful of authors are cited in the footnotes to this passage; the references seem fairly dated now, but it's beyond me to remark upon their stature or whether they're representative of 'every form of successful modern psychotherapy'. Similarly, I don't know enough to comment much on the neuroscience Peterson summarizes. I am curious, though.

Along with the map and the way, the metaphor of movement comes into play, both regarding the individual and the abstract representation. Metaphors upon metaphors, raised by Peterson weighing in on Freud and Shakespeare: 'Freud moved information about behavior from the implicit narrative to the explicit theory (or at least, to the more explicit theory). Shakespeare performed a similar maneuver, like all storytellers, at a more "basic" level--he abstracted from what was still behavioral, from what had not even yet been captured effectively in drama' (177). I like that 'performed,' and I think Harold Bloom would admire the agonistic framework of the argument here, though he might insist that Shakespeare, genius that he was, created and showed people how to act in certain ways, rather than abstracting from ways people actually were. But Peterson's preferred literary critic is Northrop Frye, as we'll see.

In the context of the hero's relationship to the Great Father, Peterson quotes from the part in Daniel 7:13-14 about the 'Ancient of days' (187). It reminds me of the status of Philip Pullman and JRR Tolkien in contemporary literature. A couple of folks on the Pilgrim in Narnia blog made the point that Bloom's theory of anxiety of influence could help make sense of Pullman's disparaging statements about Tolkien and CS Lewis. The image of the death of God as depicted in The Amber Spyglass clearly draws on the biblical vision (to the consternation of many readers): "they helped the ancient of days out of his crystal cell; it wasn't hard, for he was as light as paper, and he would have followed them anywhere, having no will of his own, and responding to simple kindness like a flower to the sun..." Reading metaphorically, then, Pullman's attitudes towards Tolkien and God still seem open to interpretation. I hope to say more about this in another essay.

Early on, Peterson poses the difficulty of evaluating competing moral truths or values: 'we lack a process of verification, in the moral domain, that is as powerful or as universally acceptable as the experimental (empirical) method in the realm of description' (10). He recurs to this much later at the tail-end of a dense paragraph, concluding/hypothesizing: 'the ability of those who hold an idea to withstand challenge without wavering constitutes one [nonempirical (?)] affective criterion for determination of the truth of that idea--or at least of its intrapsychic utility' (191). I suppose that if he had a way of measuring this statistically, reliably, he'd be willing to bring that 'nonempirical' out of its brackets and lay its question mark to rest. Again, though: cranes and scaffolding. Peterson's penchant for pugilistic displays of lively give-and-take with all comers seems to be his way of subjectively testing the determination of the truth of his ideas, in the meantime. He has also, problematically, asserted his capacity to judge the sincerity of others' beliefs, without explaining how his psychological training bears on this (a topic highlighted in the Q&A at Aspen, but also coming up whenever Peterson tells atheists that they aren't actually atheists, and tries to lay out his pragmatic argument above their indignant protestations).

Perhaps it is a kind of intuition born of experience, as one of the respondents to The Atlantic suggested. I think it also has a more mythological-representational component. Peterson acts on and acts out his ongoing pursuit of 'knowledge of the grammar of mythology,' which, he goes on, 'might well constitute an antidote to ideological gullibility. Genuine myths are capable of representing the totality of conflicting forces, operating in any given situation' (217). This language of totality in myth vs. partiality in ideology strikes me as fair, but opens itself up to an unhelpful regress, a reductio ad absurdum. On his most recent appearance on Joe Rogan's show, they both sing the praises of the honesty of unedited interviews, and take journalists to task for picking and choosing or otherwise meddling with the faithful representation of a conversation. Now, long as this essay already is, I can't very well quote and comment on every line of Maps. The whole point is that this essay represents a selection of what I take to be most valuable. I mean, what is this, Funes the Memorious? The book is still there for others to read, of course, and maybe that's where the distinction lies: the audio or full transcript is not always published. What is published, I would argue, is a poetic, rather than scientific, truth. But what I mean by Peterson enacting a mythological representation is contained in that next sentence on p. 191, so maybe I should have quoted it: 'Hence the power of the martyr...' I sincerely hope Peterson keeps that archetype at bay on the level of the metaphorical, and we do not see it enacted too literally.

One of my favorite literary martyrdoms is surely that of Archimedes, recounted in Plutarch's Life of Marcellus, and so I'm a fan, too, of this pun: 'belief in Euclidean presumptions is dependent upon acceptance of practical experience as sufficient certainty. The Euclidean draws a line in the sand, so to speak, and says "the question stops here"' (237). Peterson manages little flashes of humor now and then; but then it's on to Kuhn and his theory of paradigm shifts.

Mercifully, unless I missed a footnote, we are spared flow.

On the heels of the death of god, Peterson waxes prophetic: 'our current miraculous state of relative peace and economic tranquility should not blind us to the fact that gaping holes remain in our spirits' (245), and again: 'at the end of this, the most cruel and bloodthirsty of centuries, we are in danger not only of failing to understand evil, but of denying its very existence' (309). Steven Pinker, in his recent books, might dispute the characterization of the 20th century, for all its atrocities, on the basis of relatively low mortality rates. But that only strengthens, I think, the aptness of Peterson's warning about the spiritual shoddiness of the culture. The more material security and well-being we enjoy, the less impetus, perhaps, we have to seek transcendent fulfillment.

The book's epigraph, already referred to, comes from a passage in Matthew 13; towards the middle of the book, the parables preceding it--of the mustard seed, of the leaven--are quoted more fully (13:31-35). Peterson brings these in as examples of Jerome Bruner's "triggers" and Joseph Campbell's "mythologically instructed community" (409). He comments: 'The word, in meaningful context, is meaningful precisely because it provides information relevant to episodic representation, per se...predicated upon culturally determined values and beliefs, and could be said, in a manner of speaking, to contain them' (255). If the argument becomes particularly tortured there, I think it is because of Peterson's instinct for the primacy of the individual, despite the emphasis of Bruner and Campbell on socially charged connotations; the parables in Matthew and the tension between esoteric teaching and gospel revelation seem to point towards the same issue. Just as at the start of the book, the next quote comes from Jung: 'hence one could say--cum grano salis--history could be constructed just as easily from one's own unconscious as from the actual texts.' A fascinating thought experiment. It strikes me that reading everything in a Jungian way, we could hardly construct history any other way. Curiously, we also get the stub of an argument here against 'well-meaning "foreign aid" projects,' relying on the centrality of cultural differences this time, rather than subsuming them under a decisive individuality and collective unconscious. The illustration of the 'American-Indian prophet' resistant to agriculture, from the anthropologist Peterson quotes next, seems to clinch the importance of a culturally-bound understanding of the myths of the Great Mother. Individual and group are in tension, by all means; the group identity seems to take precedence when the group is religiously, mythologically unified. I would suppose Peterson deems our society to not quite meet the criteria.

Along similar lines, Peterson evades easy pigeonholing as a henchman of the right wing: 'the tyrannical attitude maintains society in homogeneity and rigid predictability, but dooms it to eventual collapse. This arrogant traditionalism, masquerading as moral virtue, is merely unexpressed fear of leaving the beaten path, of forging the new trail--...lack of faith in personal ability and precisely equivalent fear of the unknown. The inevitable result of such failure is restriction of meaning--by definition, as meaning exists on the border between the known and the unknown' (281). Illuminating as this is with respect to meaning, faith and fear, the most interesting element lurking here is the masquerading of arrogant traditionalism as moral virtue. It cannot have escaped Peterson's attention that this would precisely characterize him in the eyes of his detractors. This, too, is an element of the unknown he must have willingly embraced. Whether courageously and humbly, or arrogantly and with unconscious cowardice, I do not presume to declare.

From time to time, Peterson lays down an aphorism, in the fashion of another of his most-quoted forebears, Nietzsche: 'the unknown brings wakefulness to the sleeping' (301). He adds: 'threat...produces dramatic heightening of interest and consciousness. This means that consciousness as a phenomena depends in large part on activation of the ancient circuitry designed for response to the unknown...apprehension of the mystery which transcends the current realm of adaptation (that is, the permanent mystery of mortal limitation) produces permanent consciousness, at least in principle.' Existentialism meets serpent archetype, meets neuroscience. Stirring stuff.

Here's an image to rouse the somnolent:

Delacroix's lithograph from a French translation of Goethe's Faust Part 1 supplies Peterson with his Figure 57: The Devil as Aerial Spirit and Ungodly Intellect (only the drawing appears in Maps; the caption, translated into English, reads: '
I like to see the Old Man now and then, / and take good care to keep on speaking terms.') On this note, he remarks: 'the arrogance of the totalitarian stance is ineradicably opposed to the "humility" of creative exploration. [Humility--it is only constant admission of error and capacity for error (admission of "sinful and ignorant nature") that allows for recognition of the unknown, and then for update of knowledge and adaptation in behavior' (316). But I wonder if it is also hubris to be so sure that someone else has definitely not got hold of the truth, if true humility might consist sometimes, or ultimately, in resting with the best answer one can believe in, and not in going albatross-laden to the ends of the earth, nor lightly flitting over the city of lights...

Another author Peterson greatly admires, of whom I've read only one short compendium of essays, is Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn. Quoting extensively from his work in the latter part of Maps, he connects it back to the mythological structure thus: 'the practice of voluntary engagement in the "revaluation of good and evil," consequent to recognition of personal insufficiency and suffering, is equivalent to adoption of identification with Horus (who, as the process that renews, exists as something superordinate to "the morality of the past"). This means that the capacity to reassess morality means identification with the figure that "generates and renews the world"--with the figure that mediates between order and chaos. It is "within the domain of that figure" that room for all aspects of the personality actually exist--as the demands placed on the individual who wishes to identify with the savior are so high, so to speak, that every aspect of personality must become manifested, "redeemed," and integrated into a functioning hierarchy' (367). This passage helps to make sense of the destination to which the maps have been tending, towards the full flowering of personality and potential, the identification with the heroic archetype rather than the group, for the benefit of the group's living viability. It is spoken of as a wish, which seems appropriately self-aware, and aligns nicely with the lovely things Peterson says elsewhere about wishing upon a star.

From a couple of brief quotes from Niebuhr, Peterson passes on to another major source, Piaget's notion of the moral judgment of children as manifested in play, in games: 'this capacity for infinite transcendence, which is the ability to abstract, and then represent the abstraction...does not come without a cost...abstract thinking in general, and abstract moral thinking in particular, is play: the game, "what if?" (371). Though the cost he refers to seems to be the loss of a previous formulation of morality, again I wonder if there is something inherently impossible to capture in abstraction, as we saw before in the transition from Shakespeare to Freud; if there is an element of poetic genius, of playful spirit or sorrowful music, which continually escapes delimiting in conceptual categories, even those of the psychologist equipped with mythological apparatus and brain science, and which we lose to our peril. I think McGilchrist, in service of the Master, would concur.

If part of Peterson's project tends towards a resetting of the humanities on a scientific footing, a yearning which reaches back to Aristotle's Poetics, he seems shaped in this by his reading of Frye. 'The semantic analysis of narrative--criticism--allows for derivation of abstracted moral principles' (374)--this proposition is keyed to a long note by Frye on p. 491, where he writes, 'the poetic imagination constructs a cosmos of its own, a cosmos to be studied not simply as a map but as a world of powerful conflicting forces....its presence gives a very different appearance to many elements of human life, including religion, which depend on metaphor but do not become less "real" or "true" by doing so.' I can't wait for the sequel, Worlds of Wonder, with this as its epigraph.

On pp. 496 and 497 we get substantial notes quoting from two of my great guiding stars, Kierkegaard and Socrates. I don't think Peterson makes very good use of his French, though--there's not a whiff of Montaigne in this bloomin' buzzin' book! And not near enough William James, for such a thorough-going pragmatist...

At long last, Peterson comes back around to Jung--and Eliade--for a fuller treatment of alchemy. I find the metaphorical account of alchemy giving way to modern science fascinating, and wish I knew more about the medieval context. I've often surmised that in place of a renaissance, what cultural rebirth would look like at our stage in history would be rather a revaluation of the medievals, a re-vindication of the great labors of Augustine, Aquinas, Dante, et al. Something like this has happened here and there, I guess, with Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites, GK Chesterton and the Inklings, Johan Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages and Corey Olsen's lectures on Tolkien and Boethius--and the whole revolution in the spoken word brought about by the new media, so that like Augustine seeing Ambrose, we may someday soon find it strange to see someone reading silently--but it's precisely their fragmentation, their smallness, perhaps, that would preserve these little phoenix from going the way of the schisms and crusades and inquisitions, which make the medieval world so pleasant to forget. For Peterson, the watchwords are redemption and interest: 'The alchemists assumed, implicitly, that further exploration might bring redemptive knowledge...this meant that they implicitly recognized that (interest-guided) exploration was key to the (redemptive) expansion of being' (415). For him, I take it, this continues to be the underlying presupposition of science. And having read this long book, I cannot help but feel fortunate to live near the vanguard of it.

To sum up some takeaways for myself--again stressing that anyone who reads Peterson will likely find something else to ruminate on, there's much more in there: information and competence over dominance; self over ego; judgment, selection, and interest-guided associations over analysis, synthesis, and traditional canons; wisdom over science. Memory, consciousness, and attention look to be largely open questions, as do love and friendship; even the most egalitarian teaching, modeling, and participating still begin with ground rules, with some tacit values that look, for convenience' sake one might say, Christian. Poems, too, have their structure. Stylistically, though, caveat pedantry.

For more:



The Atlantic (older and more recent)

You'll note there that Conor Friedersdorf intends to give Peterson a 'full, appropriately complex accounting of his best and worst arguments...soon.' Whereas I have enjoyed giving, to whomever reads it, this partial, whimsical playlist of quotes. I hope you'll let me know what you think!

Ruskin, Morning at Venice

No comments:

Post a Comment