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Jordan Peterson: Agent of chaos

The infamous Canadian psychologist returns with more lofty self-help sermons. But his quest for order is thwarted by the tragicomedy of his own life.

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If the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson were not so apocalyptically hateful of postmodernism, I would congratulate him on writing the perfect postmodernist novel. A few pages into what is ostensibly a more-of-the-same sequel to his rugged, masculine self-help book 12 Rules for Life (2018), the narrative changes completely. Not since Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire has there been so much happening in that interesting borderland between the information the reader is given and the information the reader might apprehend; between order and chaos, as Peterson might put it.

Pale Fire is presented as a long unfinished narrative poem by an American poet named John Shade, with a commentary by his colleague and neighbour, Charles Kinbote, an obscure, provincial academic from a strange northern land. But Kinbote appears to have wilfully misunderstood the poem and superimposed his own mad fantasies on to it. Only occasionally do we see Nabokov’s true design: “If I correctly understand the sense of this succinct observation,” writes Kinbote, “our poet suggests here that human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece.”

In Beyond Order, the narrative tussle seems to be bounded within Peterson’s own psyche. There is, on one level, an eccentric, bloody-minded but not uncaring psychologist dispensing advice on how to “transform chaos into order” in your life. But peeping out from underneath is the tale of a provincial academic from a strange northern land whose own life seems to be only chaos.

Peterson happens to have written the book – as he reveals in an “Overture” – either under the influence of high levels of the anti-anxiety drug benzodiazepine or during his messy post-use withdrawal. His treatment and recovery from neurological damage has taken him from Canada to Russia to Serbia to Florida. During this period, he was also dealing with his daughter’s chronic illness, the near-death of his wife to kidney cancer, the rapid-onset mega-fame that followed the phenomenal success of 12 Rules for Life, and a book tour that took in 160 cities across the world, in which he addressed crowds of up to 3,000 and was assailed by acolytes, trolls and journalists. All while trying to maintain a “lion diet” of beef and nothing else.

Peterson begins the book with an image of himself waking up from a medically induced coma in a Moscow intensive care unit and ripping the catheters from his arms. He was so delirious, he tells us, the medical staff strapped him to the bed with six-inch tethers. But then he moves testily on, dismissing the idea that these extraordinary personal trials – these “overwhelming thoughts of self-destruction” – are in any way relevant to his subject. Which would be fair enough if the book were not literally about the idea of the personal trial. These experiences may be simply too raw and painful for Peterson to process now; perhaps they will form the matter of his next book. But a reader might legitimately wonder whether following Dr Peterson’s advice will send them, too, into a medically induced coma in a Russian hospital. And this doubt can’t help but distort the advice within the book.

Beyond Order is quite funny. It put me in mind of the 1986 film Clockwise, in which John Cleese’s hidebound headmaster is determined to pretend that everything is fine while his life spirals into disaster. It also contains that quintessentially Nabokovian blend of buried tragedy, inadvertent comedy and an unreliable narrator. And the story that Peterson is narrating is surely one of the most remarkable of our times, even if the moral is often far from clear.

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Before the events that culminated in his waking up in a Moscow hospital, Peterson, now in his late fifties, had spent most of his career as a psychology professor with a small clinical practice and a cult following among University of Toronto students. His rich, involving lectures about myth and psychology could range freely from Cain and Abel to Disney’s Pinocchio, the dominance hierarchies of lobsters to his great hero Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

He was able to reach a wider audience thanks to YouTube – an audience that grew exponentially in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election and the growing campus culture wars. From 2016, Peterson made frequent appearances on the podcast and lecture circuit, opining forcefully about transgender pronouns, the myth of white privilege, and postmodernism, which he sees as a catastrophe. “Postmodernists don’t believe in facts!” he has said. “They believe that the idea of fact is part of the power game that’s played by the white-dominated male patriarchy to impose the tyrannical structure of the patriarchy on the oppressors.”

Peterson may not align himself with the alt-right but his broadsides against the “neo-Marxist radical left”, combined with his zeal for personal responsibility, make him catnip for a certain kind of self-pitying conservative. Still, his pep talks have also helped many people, especially men who feel out of step with modernity. In a 2018 interview, Peterson was asked how young men could be kept from falling into racist and nationalist ideologies. He responded: “Tell them a better story.” He falls back on assorted myths, legends and religious tales, building on ideas about archetypes from Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell to talk about “the hero’s journey”: man leaves home, stares into the dark cave, confronts the dragon, gets the treasure and restores order. He repeatedly urges his listeners and readers to “think of our lives as stories”. In an age of moral relativism, here is a father figure who takes his audience seriously. And here is a grander narrative about truth, being, order and chaos that stretches back to the dawn of human consciousness.

[See also: Sylvia Pankhurst: The great agitator]

It is, however, a narrative filtered through Peterson’s prejudices. He repeatedly identifies masculinity with order and femininity with chaos and makes it clear which side he feels we should favour. The women whom his heroic males encounter are typically agents of disorder (wicked thwarters and temptresses) or, at best, are kindly helpmates (fairies). And while Peterson can talk and talk and talk, I’ve never heard him recount a story in which a conscientious female heroine faces up to a male dragon.

When I first encountered Peterson in 2017 – a lot of the men in my life had become fascinated by his “Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories” lectures – his appeal left me baffled. One friend saw him as “the Jim Morrison of conservatism” because of the biblical and Jungian symbolism (snakes, fire, moons). As Val Kilmer, playing Morrison, says in The Doors movie: “Something sacred. That’s what they want. Something sacred.” Peterson was saying there is something sacred about individuals taking responsibility and sorting themselves out: “You’re an actor in an ancient cosmic tragedy – so start acting like it!”

But then my friend looked at Peterson’s evolving social media persona and was disappointed to discover comments that were almost far-right in sentiment. Like many early adopters, my friend recoiled in a mixture of horror, disappointment and confusion. But it’s not hard to find men who are still in Peterson’s thrall. My brother recently laid a patio for a man who thought he could use some Petersonian wisdom. The man bombarded him night and day with “JP videos” and when my brother asked him to stop, he faced a barrage of abuse.

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If you are only aware of Peterson by reputation, then the content of Beyond Order might take you by surprise. It is a lumpy soup of bromides about marriage, Old Testament commentaries, Jungian archetypes, Mesopotamian myths and endless deconstructions of Disney movies. There’s also a long, nerdy digression on the ways in which the golden snitch in Harry Potter is a metaphor for chaos. It reads more like a compendium of stodgy Sunday sermons delivered by a fire-and-brimstone preacher than a conventional self-help manual or political polemic. There’s much in it that’s genuinely enlightening and often poignant, particularly Peterson’s conviction that we need to be “alert, awake, attentive” in our lives. Being a good citizen, he says, takes “genuine moral effort” and storytelling is a vital moral-ethical tool in his armoury: “To know your story, you must tell it.”

But as you plough on, you occasionally find a shard of something unnerving: petty jibes at young environmentalists, censorious judgements about women who want babies after the age of 29, and hypocritical tutting at couples who cohabit before marriage. Most of his ire is saved for “liberals” who he imagines are trying to take down the sacred institutions of Western democracy by running them through a “Marxist algorithm”. There’s a lot of talk of the “suffering and malevolence” of existence, “the abyss”, the “black elements of soul”, the “horror of the world” – all of which inevitably draws us back to the tragicomic story of the academic whose apparently quiet, ordered campus life spiralled into drug dependency and “overwhelming thoughts of self-destruction”.

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The sermons themselves range from the grandiose (“Abandon ideology”) to the domestic (“Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible”). And, just like a sententious preacher, Peterson can’t help but produce outbursts of giggles, especially when he gets into the issue of lingerie or adultery: “You do not have a life with someone when you have an affair with them. You have an endless array of desserts (at least in the beginning), and all you have to do is scoop the whipped cream off the top of each of them and devour it.”

Within his advice on decor, too, is the bizarre admission that his semi-detached house is so full of Soviet paintings that they “eventually took over” – and that, while purchasing these paintings, he looked at 1,000 every day online for a year. In a footnote, he calculates: “So that’s 1,000 pictures of paintings x 300 days per year x 4 = 1,200,000 paintings.” Would that not send you a little mad? Especially if you despise Soviet communism as much as Peterson does? He is both obsessive and masochistic, infatuated with what he most fears and loathes.

The inadvertent comedy is heightened by his prim Victorian language: “befell”, “repent”, “bequeathed”, “sojourn”, “astride” “turncoat”. Still stranger is the way he combines archaic words with the woo-woo language of modern self-help, such as “manifesting”. Here, he often sounds like teenagers on TikTok, who employ the reality-shifting term “scripting” to mean writing out the specifics of your desired reality – another core Peterson practice.

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Unlike the TikTok teens, however, Peterson has no interest in changing the world. He wants to help people function within it. His work has a political dimension – but mostly it’s characterised by a denial of politics. His main advice is: don’t mess with systems that you don’t understand (especially if you’re a bitter, ungrateful lefty who despises gender and class hierarchies, which are ordained by nature and have been in place “since time immemorial”).

“Sanity,” Peterson claims, “is knowing the rules of the social game, internalising them, and following them.” So, accept the disequilibrium; subordinate yourself to the status quo. “Follow the rules until you are capable of being a shining exemplar of what they represent, but break them when those very rules now constitute the most dire impediment to the embodiment of their central virtues.” Which is to say, only break the rules to uphold the same system.

He occasionally admits that liberals do have some value in coming up with new ideas and rooting out corruption among the rightful conservative rulers. However, he doesn’t give examples of where it’s legitimate to challenge these “rules of the social game”, which, in the Western democracies he so staunchly defends, have hardly been fixed since “time immemorial”.

He also makes no acknowledgement of those who face poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia today – and no references to people who have faced these challenges and successfully campaigned for better treatment, helping society in turn to evolve. Peterson’s final rule is: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.” I wonder what Frederick Douglass or Mary Wollstonecraft would make of that? Or Solzhenitsyn, for that matter.

[See also: “There is no either or when it comes to identity”: Yaa Gyasi on publishing’s race problem and human recklessness]

There are glimpses of a more nuanced pre-fame Peterson when he recounts stories of his patients’ troubles. He listens carefully when treating a young, black, gay man who convulses in his sleep, but Peterson also allows his prejudices to colour his encounters. A woman who fought against the politically correct language of her workplace attracts his admiration, but he gives short shrift to a 20-something environmentalist who was troubled by the effects of human activity on the planet. Her anxieties provoke two pages of ranting in which he describes the young woman as “morally superior”, an “ideologue” possessed by “generic, impersonal, and cynical ideas” and an “anti-human” attitude. Peterson’s upbringing in frozen Alberta has left him convinced that Mother Nature is “hell-bent on doing you in”. He refuses to treat the environmentalist, believing she should “get her priorities straight”. He exhorts his readers to aim high, to choose a worthy cause – so why not the issue that the majority of scientists and politicians agree is the most pressing for the world today? Peterson doesn’t explain.

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The “Rules” format means Peterson can espouse conservative ideas of personal responsibility and self-reliance without having to delve too deeply into the political arguments. Throughout Beyond Order, the same rhetorical tic recurs. He will deliver a few pages of benign common-sense advice with which few sane people would disagree: pursue meaning over happiness; don’t be frightened of what you want; make some time within your marriage to confront the frustrations. But then he will offer a bitter little aside: and that’s why unmarried couples shouldn’t cohabit; and this is why traditional gender roles make life less complicated and therefore better.

In which case, should women go to work or not? Is it OK for them to vote? I genuinely don’t know what Peterson thinks. He is often praised for his courage but his unwillingness to address detail or confront counter-arguments feels cowardly. His grand narrative has left him terrified of the complicating example, phobic of nuance. He takes “evil” very seriously but is blind to its manifestations in the real world. He has plenty to say about environmental campaigners and workplaces looking to be more inclusive, but nothing about the rise of authoritarianism in Hungary, India, Turkey, Brazil, Poland, Russia and the US.

When I describe the effects of this as comical, I’m not being flippant. If a writer doesn’t admit humour into their work, the reader inevitably ends up providing it themselves. Humour accepts that there is chaos in the world and that chaos is not all destructive. It can bring pleasure, solace, lightness. And as insightful as Peterson is on the power of narrative, I think we should be wary of constantly storifying our lives. It’s true that we crave stories, but they shouldn’t always be treated as a kind of salvation. That’s another form of tyranny. Life may be shaped to look like a grand narrative, but there is plenty happening in the footnotes.

Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life
Jordan Peterson
Allen Lane, 432pp, £25

Johanna Thomas-Corr is a literary critic and a New Statesman contributing writer

This article appears in the 10 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Grief nation