Reading “Fever” by Raymond Carver

I’d like to begin by thanking Tyson Woolman for bringing up Raymond Carver in response to one of my recent videos. Today I found “Fever”, in a collection titled, American Short Story Masterpieces (Edited by Raymond Carver, himself, and Tom Jenks). I believe the story had initially appeared in a collection called, Cathedral, which I’m planning to read in full.

“Fever” is a strange story. It doesn’t contain any dramatic event, any transformation of a situation, any turning point in the world depicted in the story. The dramatic and transformative event has already happened prior to the story. The story is formed almost like a delayed response to that event. If there is a transformation throughout the story, it is interior transformation–interior to the main character.

What is the story about? It is about coming terms with a loss. The loss of a marriage. But, more accurately, it is about coming to terms with it, understanding it, in the right way. Accepting the loss isn’t just about accepting the end of the relationship. It’s about accepting the end of the world (and the end to a period in one’s own identity), where that relationship was an essential part. The central character, Mr. Carlyle, is a school teacher. He has two kids. His wife left him a few months prior to the moment we find him at the outset of the story. We read that his wife left him to be with one his colleagues, Mr. Hooper. Mr. Hooper and Mrs. Carlyle (Eileen) are now living their new life in Southern California. The summer is coming to an end and Carlyle, having to go back to his teaching job, needs to find a babysitter for his kids. He has bad luck finding a good babysitter. While he’s dealing with his day-to-day life, his job, the babysitter problems, a new romantic interest, Eileen continues calling him. She is presented as a somewhat New Age-y character. She talks about karma, good vibes, and that sort of superficial spirituality. We don’t know much else about her, but we join Carlyle’s position and get irritated with her and her stream of unsolicited advice.

Eventually, Eileen helps him find a babysitter: an older lady, named Mrs. Webster, who is an acquaintance of Mr. Hooper. It turns out that Mrs. Webster is the ultimate babysitter. She is great with the kids, reliable, kind, and genuinely caring. Things begin falling into place. His new romance starts taking root, as well, but his heart is still (at least occasionally) preoccupied with his wife and the hope of her return. Soon after things begin to settle, the fever begins. The fever coincides with a bad news: Mr. and Mrs. Webster have decided to move to Oregon for financial and family reasons. The great babysitter will soon leave them.

There is a strong (symbolic) link between two of the characters in the story, namely Eileen and Mrs. Webster (I won’t get into a mapping between Hooper and Mr. Webster, though we could explore that, too). Why do I see this correspondence? They are both associated with perfect starts, with hope, perhaps also with a sense of permanence, “things are going to work out!” And, they both end up having to leave. What is crucial, and I think Carlyle’s coming to understand this point is the heart of this story, is that both women have no ill intention toward him. His wife left him for reasons that had very little to do with him. She wanted to pursue her life with Hooper! She wanted to be an artist and live her New Age life in Southern California (maybe learning about Eastern Spirituality and becoming a life coach!). Mrs. Webster, similarly, has to leave for her own reasons. My great art teacher, Kevin McCormick, used to emphasize this insight–when we were working on John P. Shanley’s play The Dreamer Examines His Pillow–that it’s possible to love someone while being unable to give them what they need. In the case of the characters in “Fever”, Mrs. Webster and Carlyle’s wife, Eileen, both are unable to give him what he needs, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about him. In my mind, the difficulty of grasping this point is what gives Carlyle the fever. In his feverish state, he tells the story of his marriage to Mrs. Webster, from the beginning to the end. He can hardly cope, and coping requires him to revise the idea of his life and his world, to let go of what is irretrievably lost.

Toward the end, we read about Carlyle:

… he understood it was over, and he felt able to let her go. He was sure their life together had happened in the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing–though it had seemed impossible and he’d fought against it–would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he’d left behind.


On Atheism

Most discourse about atheism that I have heard comes from within a theistic paradigm. And a theistic paradigm that hasn’t yet engaged with atheism is incapable of understanding it. Think of the typical, impulsive set of questions that are raised when someone encounters atheism for the first time: So, what is the point of living [without God]? What is the meaning of life [without God]? Why be moral [without God]?

These impulsive and defensive questions carry within them a more basic question, which is more difficult to articulate. It’s something like, “Who am I supposed to serve, then?” Or, “Where is my master, then?” The questions reflect of an inertia, a lingering attachment to particular presupposition, namely that the principles governing a human life should be sought outside of that human life. Accordingly, it is not considered that living an ethical life is derived from an understanding of human life. It isn’t considered that knowing what it means to be human person means knowing what it means to be a good person.

The inertia reflected in impulsive questions (from atheism) show up, in other situations, especially when someone asks an inappropriate follow-up question. (1) A asks B, “Are you going to drink poison?” B responds, “No.” A follows up: “So who is going to drink poison?” (2) A asks B, “Did you beat your boyfriend?” B responds: “No, I didn’t” A follows up: “So who beat their boyfriend?” (3) A asks B, “Are you going to talk about religion?” B responds: “No.” A follows up: “So who is going to talk about religion?”

In all the above cases, Person A is attached to a presupposition: Someone has drunk poison (it’s just a matter of figuring out who). In the same way, it is assumed that someone has beat their boyfriend and someone is going to talk about religion. Attachment to presuppositions is why these questions aren’t genuine questions, but interrogations (Deleuze). The person who interrogates believes that they already have most of the answer, and there is only a small piece missing from what they know, perhaps a mere admission. The interrogator isn’t prepare to change the form of their thinking. Most often, the interrogator wants the other person to submit to them or admit something.

I said already that the questions asked from atheists are defensive (“So, what is the point?”). The person who is asking these questions wants to protect their World against the atheistic intrusion. They want to be able to dismiss atheism. If you’ve read or heard Peterson, you know he has this style of defensive non-engagement with postmodernism. He wants to be able to dismiss and deny postmodernism, “It was a mistake!” Even worse, “It didn’t happen! It never happened!” How childish. How pathetic. He is denying time, duration, change, the continuity of thought, and he wants to go back (defensively) to a time before postmodernism and before atheism.

I don’t think the impulsive questions are bad, as starting points, as long as they aren’t used as blocking devices. The questions (What is the point of living [without God]? What is the meaning of life [without God]? Why be moral [without God]?) shouldn’t be used for saying, “Don’t go there!” We must stay with these questions, up to the point where we can ask, So, what is the point of living [with God]? What is the meaning of life [with God]? Why be moral [with God]? In my current state, I really don’t care about the atheism vs. theism debate. What I care about is maintaining free movement between them. I want to be able to move from within one into the other, and vice versa, but when I return to my initial position, I am not returning to the past. I am retaining my connection to the past from the present. That practice, the right to engage with that practice, is what I care about.

Reading “Beyond Order” (6)

Rule 10: Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship

This chapter is about marriage and the work it takes to maintain a marriage. A relationship is like an organism: It is organized, it has its own distinct aims, and it can be helped or hurt by external forces. Married people find themselves busy with work, busy with kids, drawn to solitary hobbies, or drawn to friends outside of the marriage. They might, as a result, neglect their marriage. Their neglect, moreover, could be combined with the belief that the state of their marriage cannot improve. They might not try to improve things partly because of that belief (“it cannot be done!”) and partly because making an attempt would place them in a vulnerable position.

As I was writing the previous paragraph I was reminded of those strings of letters and/or numbers that memory researchers give their research participants. The string of letters/numbers, in order to be kept in memory, must be rehearsed. Perhaps in its own way, a marriage needs to be rehearsed, repeated, attended to. We could also talk about this with respect to the rhythm of a marriage–or any other form of a romantic relationship. For a relationship to thrive, its rhythm has to be understood and preserved. Peterson doesn’t talk about the “rhythm” or the “organization” of the marriage, though his advice in this area seems sound. His exploration of marriage also leads to exploring other related topics, including negotiation, desire, principles (as in, living according to a shared set of principles), noticing the mystery of another person, and so forth. This chapter could be connected to Rules 7 and 8. It is connected to Rule 7, because marriage is a commitment and it’s a commitment that cultivates the person. We become who we are because of our sustained commitment to relationships. It is connected to Rule 8, because the attitude of creating one beautiful room in a home here takes the form of making time (once or twice a week) for one’s relationship.

We should be mindful that Peterson is providing philosophical justification for convention. We don’t have to choose between (a) being a free spirit (and creating a completely new lifestyle) or (b) mindlessly and habitually falling into convention. Peterson is showing his conservative readers to have a reflective and philosophical relationship with conservative and conventional decisions, including marriage. Even if we find his discussion limited, he is providing a starting point for a philosophical relationship with marriage. We can build on that, if we’re interested. The reason why I find his discussion unsatisfactory is because this level of emphasis on a convention like marriage excludes people who, for whatever reason, might not be interested in it, not to mention people for whom it’s not even an option.

Let me share something with you here:

Obligation has nothing to do with love, because loving is the exercise of freedom. Marriage, in comparison, is an economic deal, irrelevant to the heart. It wipes out all traces of sweetness. Its beginning resembles the beginning of a war. Marriage is a ravenous beast with many demands. First it wants a house, then a family, and having a family means participating in an orgy! A public orgy that destroys the human and its desire for a private love. Family, once established, demands protection. It doesn’t matter if you suffer, if your love is sacrificed in the process. Family is proclaimed as a treasure chest. A treasure chest filled with uncles, aunts, grandfathers, kids, and all the other things that demand protection. This is the demand of the society.

from Deal-e Gap, by Ali Abdolrezaei [my translation]

While Peterson presents marriage exclusively in light of our benefit (get married, it’s good for you! You’ll have an ally as you face the tragedies of life!), he is ignoring that marriage is in large part a social and public contract, which goes well beyond the two people involved in the marriage.

Let’s turn to the last two rules.

Rule 11: Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant; Rule 12: Be grateful in spite of your suffering

These chapters return to the importance of stories, the importance of telling and living stories. If I were to summarize Peterson’s methods for avoiding those three attitudes (resentfulness, deceit, and arrogance), I’d say it involves finding the right story and assigning the right role to yourself within that story. He treats stories like magical spells. By getting into a story, you’re casting a spell and transforming your relationship with reality. That’s why stories are so important. A story brings with it a set of possibilities, a horizon, a vision of the future. Peterson talks about why it’s important to think of ourselves as worthy of care (you’re someone who is worth receiving care) and trying to care for others when we can.

What I don’t understand is why telling a story cannot be accompanied with revising the story, based on our experience of reality. Our environments change, and we change, so why not consider the on-going changes to our stories? Peterson would say that the abstract nature of stories makes them applicable to wide range of concrete situations. Still, a wide range of application doesn’t mean universal application. It seems to me that a very likely source of resentment could be the mismatch between the story someone is trying to force upon their lives and their lived experience. Letting go of (the commitment to) the story, might free them from the source of their resentment. Similarly, deceit and arrogance might be partly associated with an attachment to a story.

In passing, there is an interesting insight in Chapter 11 about why children sometimes want to listen to the same stories again and again. Peterson thinks this can be because of their need to grasp a story at multiple levels of abstraction. This was thought-provoking. I don’t know if it accounts for all instances of children wanting to listen again to a story, but it’s a very interesting hypothesis.

I would object strongly to how Peterson handled veganism (or vegeterianism) in Chapter 11 and how he handled antinatalism (the ethical case for not having children) in Chapter 12. In both cases, he is not doing much other than aligning himself with convention and religion, the framework that gives the privileged position to humans and some natural right to humans to farm other animals. He expresses suspicion toward antinatalism, saying that there are dark motives behind it and that people who are defending antinatalism now will get more aggressive later and will wish to actively take human lives. These are mischaracterizations and reflect a failure to meet the arguments on rational grounds. I listened to the Peterson-Benatar debate and found Benatar to be clearly more effective (and less distracted by side-issues) in making his case for antinatalism.

In one of the last parts of the book, Peterson says that ultimately his position is motivated by love, that the actions he encourages in his readers, the mode of being he encourages, is that is in accordance with love–a love that is willing to ignore countervailing evidence and act (with hope) toward creating a better world. I am sympathetic to that. I also understand why, out of love, we might sometimes try to do more than we can, be more than what we are, to create a stronger effect. I wish Peterson best of luck! I don’t think he would watch my review series, but I hope his readers don’t get too annoyed with me and understand my critique as a sign of respect. The book is bad, and the reason it’s bad isn’t because of Peterson’s intelligence, knowledge, or writing ability (all of which are impressive). It’s because he is trying to do and be too much, stretching himself beyond what he can do. But, despite being bad, the book is worthy of critique (and in my mind, that is a compliment). As I said before, I enjoyed reading Chapters 8 and 9 (2 out of 12). I’ll say more about the book, if there are questions/comments. Otherwise, it’s time to move on to something else.

Reading “Beyond Order” (5)

In his discussion of Rule 6 (“Abandon ideology”), Peterson talks about field-testing various topics during his live talks, monitoring how his audiences responded to different topics. He writes that the topic of responsibility consistently induced a quiet attentiveness in the audience. I think his observation is part of the reason why there is so much repetition across the chapters of this book, and why so much of that repetition is about work and responsibility. Out of the six chapters I discussed in the previous posts, five of them were directly or closely related to responsibility and work, and now we are turning to yet another rule about that same theme.

Rule 7: Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.

I’d like to highlight parts of Peterson’s argument in this chapter. First, he writes that the mere act of commitment is more important than what you commit to. That’s because by making a commitment you set in motion your process of development with regard to a skill or an expertise. You’re putting yourself under pressure and constraint, which would help build your character.

I see his point, but at the same time I can think of several examples of commitment to plans that would be worse than not making any commitment at all. In my personal view, pursuing Islamic fundamentalism (in a social, cultural, scholarly, or any other form) is worse than leading a completely frivolous life. In fact, with those options alone, the life of frivolity is beautiful, maybe a rebellious choice, a choice that self-consciously aims to celebrate human freedom (from a pointless commitment). I am reminded of Anselm’s philosophical dialogues, where he addresses the correct and incorrect uses of will (i.e., the capacity for voluntary choice). To put it briefly, a correct exercise of will leads to its preservation (the ability to make future decisions), whereas the wrong exercise of will diminishes the capacity for future decisions. We should take this idea into account when making commitments. Peterson is correct that working on something is associated with becoming something, but that doesn’t mean that hard work on anything–or any method of becoming and cultivation–is unquestionably good. Similar to another (previous rule) about hard work, there is an implicit assumption of trust (in the organization, tradition, etc.) at work, and the strong sense of commitment is grounded in that trust. Is Peterson actually defending commitment and hard work, or is he defending trust in existing traditions?

With these considerations, we would have to revise Peterson’s Rule 7. Working hard on something shouldn’t be mindless. It should be accompanied by (at least) occasional reflections on whether it is worthwhile. There should be a place for rebellion and refusal.

Rule 8: Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.

I enjoyed this chapter (and the following chapter, Rule 9). So far, these were the only somewhat pleasant chapters of the book. In this chapter, he talks about the importance of art and poetry in bringing us into the present moment, in connecting us (or reconnecting us) to concrete experience, in helping us recognize the magic of being alive. There is a lot of beautiful poetry in the chapter, as well as autobiographical segments about his family life and his life as a professor (including one about furnishing his office at the university). I wish the whole book were written in this style, as an autobiography, free of advice, free of grandstanding, free of the amateur-theology-in-a-state-of-emergency that seems so difficult for Peterson to shake off.

What is puzzling about this chapter is that he prescribes a very specific relationship to the art, namely as a consumer. He doesn’t say: Become an artist; pursue some artistic and creative project, at least as a hobby; make a mess every once in a while. He says, instead: Buy a piece of art. Of course, we should support artists, as much as we can. But the consumerist relationship with art is limited. It is vain, distant, and easy. Isn’t making a mess an important part of having an active relationship with a creative domain? Rather than, “Buy a piece of art,” I could develop a relationship with an artist, maybe follow what they are up to, get to know them a little bit, and over time, buy several of their pieces. This is more active, in a personal way. Another way to be active is to attend a workshop, or a beginner’s class. This is not necessarily for the purpose of producing art, but for the purpose of developing a sensitivity. Some experience with painting, some experience with playing music, can change the way we see and listen. A similar sentiment applies to reading commentaries and criticism. A good commentary can reveal previously hidden aspect of a work of art, and seeking commentary and criticism is another way to be active! Although I enjoyed this chapter, I would encourage a more active relationship with artistic media.

Rule 9: If old memories still upset you, write them down carefully and completely.

This has been, in my view, the best chapter in the book so far. And I think it’s because Peterson was best equipped to write it. He talks about his clinical clients, and his examples rich and instructive. For the first time, after reading eight other chapters, I felt like I am reading a book that is offering me something, and I am glad I persevered in reading the book until this point (thanks to my prior commitment to review the book in full).

This chapter is about the past, trauma, and our ability to come into a new relationship with the past and our past trauma. With some work, Peterson urges us, we could go from a low-resolution representation of a past event to a high-resolution representation of the event. It might be more helpful to say that we’d be moving beyond a view of the past event that is very closely tied to a specific perspective and a specific embodiment. Let’s say I am still disturbed by the time my father slapped me across the face, when I was a kid. If I don’t re-examine it, with the aim of a better understanding of what actually happened, I’d stay with that perspective–the perspective of a small and relatively helpless body. If I do examine the memory, I can bring to mind the fact that my father was–at the time of the event–a very young guy. In fact, he was younger than my current age. If I am angry or upset at someone, it would be directed at a young guy, trying to raise a family working three jobs. Besides, presently I am not a kid! I am a middle-aged man. And in my day to day life, I am tolerant and patient with young men (including the young students I see in my classes). With these re-examinations, I am producing a new understanding of the event, bringing it under a better view, a view that liberates me. Peterson writes how after reviewing an event several times, the time it takes to describe it from beginning to end shortens, which can be a sign that it’s now under better control. I think his distinction between re-living an experience, on one hand, (just expressing an emotion once again), and on the other hand, achieving a new interpretation of the experience is important and very useful. We might be unable to change the past, but we can create a new discourse (a new frame) about past events, and that might be as consequential as changing the past.


Reading “Beyond Order” (4)

In this part, I will discuss Rules 4-6 of Jordan Peterson’s Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. Rule 4 says, “Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.” In simple language, this rule is about being a good worker, taking the initiative, figuring out where others have failed to take care of something and then claiming responsibility for it. When I am employed in an organization, I can either see what is expected of me and meet that expectation or I can actively search for things I could do, going beyond other people’s expectation, and, as a result, make myself (in Peterson’s words) “invaluable”. Peterson argues that taking the initiative isn’t just about career advancement and becoming valuable in the eyes of others. It’s also about living a meaningful life, since one source of meaning is the challenges we voluntarily meet. Even when we fail at these challenges, we learn from our failure and that is vastly better than not trying. Another aspect of being a conscientious worker is being able to delay gratification and think about long-term goals.

Like the other rules, this rule shouldn’t be taken as the only guide. Who would disagree with the statement, it’s better to be active than passive, or with, it’s better to be happy in the long run than to be happy in this moment. These are platitudes, which are dressed up with a little bit of Egyptian mythology and some anecdotes from Peterson’s clinical practice. But we don’t encounter questions in the treatment of this rule. We don’t read, “Why is it that most people are inclined toward passivity, despite knowing deep down that being active is better?” When we don’t address the root of a problem, the best we can achieve is a temporary burst of emotions–feeling motivated for a short while, and then losing that motivation. A student who procrastinates can just push her/himself with rules (“I must not abdicate responsibility!”) or can investigate her/his procrastination (“Why am I not inclined to work?”). A line of inquiry will lead us to new questions, while forcing ourselves with new list of rules is like casting a spell, again and again, that generates only sparks but no real consequence.

The emphasis on work and being a good worker reminded me of Andrew Taggart, the philosopher, and his critique of “Total Work” (Taggart, 2020). Work isn’t the only source of meaning, though it can present itself as such, and dictate its grammar of meaning in other areas of life (to the point where everything, including our holidays and romantic relationships, are expressed in the logic of work). There are other domains, where meeting a challenge or overcoming an obstacle–i.e., the grammar of work–isn’t an appropriate metaphor. We could think of friendship or leisurely activities. Another problem with this rule–or any rule that endorses working as hard as you can–is that it presupposes complete trust in the organization, where you work. I remember reading some statistics about income disparities between CEOs and average employees at major American companies. In 1965, the income of the CEOs were 20 times larger, whereas in recent years, their income was 350 times larger than that of the average employees. I am not saying that working hard is bad. I value it myself, but it is also good to be mindful of who benefits from your hard work. What breaks my heart the most, in academia, is the hard work of PhD students which benefits above all their supervisors. The PhD students are typically underpaid, overworked, overstressed, often facing a hopeless job market after graduating. Telling them they should do more, and always look for more things to do, would make me feel uneasy. Again, I am not against working hard, working with passionate, but this rule reminds me of Boxer (the horse) in George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Rule 5 offers a different perspective, “Do not do what you hate.” The concept “hate” isn’t adequately dissociated from unpleasant feelings. Should you quit doing what you find unpleasant? Is there a moral aspect to this rule? Is this rule about knowing yourself and your interests? Is this rule balancing the effect of Rule 4? We could interpret it that way, as in Don’t work for evil organizations. The text of this chapter is mostly devoted to a criticism of political correctness and its effect in organizations. We read about one of Peterson’s clients who had a difficult experience at work due to issues related to political correctness. He gives a series of advice based on the client’s case, but the advice is quite vague and doesn’t have anything to do with challenging the structure of an organization (we wouldn’t expect such advice from a psychologist or a self-help guru, who continues to shift the emphasis on the person). Toward the end of the chapter, we read that the client is still struggling to find a position after switching jobs three times. The main example of the chapter fails to support the message of Rule 5. There isn’t much else in this chapter. There certainly isn’t a discussion of personal interest and trying to learn about your unique aims in life as a person. Faced with a workplace that we have (for whatever vague reason) come to find troublesome, we are simply encouraged to be hopeful and courageous, and consider other jobs. Fine. Let’s move on to the next rule.

Rule 6 says, “Abandon ideologies”. What does Peterson mean by ideology? At some points, he appears to be referring to simplistic (“univariate”) frameworks. If I have a simplistic theory about the world, I am (according to this position) ideologically driven. What about simplistic theories that try to promote peace and love for the world, that encourage universal brotherhood/sisterhood among all humanity. Is that ideology? Or is ideology about drawing a clear and fixed boundary between what is good and what is evil? I think this is closer to what Peterson means by ideology: Lazy dichotomies that map onto good and evil. Unfortunately, he contributes to that lazy thinking whenever he talks about Marxism, postmodernism, anarchism, nihilism, or atheism. I find it especially troublesome that Peterson continues to assume (based on his interpretation of Nietzsche and Dostoevsky) that atheism necessarily leads to ideology, when we know that religion can be and has been weaponized by ideology. The presence of religion doesn’t guarantee the absence of ideology, just like the absence of religion doesn’t guarantee the emergence of ideology. If we accept such a simplistic relationship, we fall into ideology.

Could we say that ideology arises out of our desire to do more with a given theory? A theory that works in one place, for one set of phenomena, becomes an ideology if we try to forcibly extend its scope to everything else. A psychological theory, like Peterson’s theory about the experience of meaning, becomes ideological when it turns into a theory about almost everything, including ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, and religion. That ideological cheque will bounce, because it is overdrawn. This is an important point for those of us who are offering criticism of Peterson’s work. When we find fault with Peterson’s work, we are not necessarily saying that it contains falsehoods or vacuous statement. What we say is that it is being extended beyond its own domain. It is trying to do too much work, be the answer to too many problem, give us too many rules, and then hide behind the innocent-looking reasoning that, “I am just trying to encourage the young men,” which I think is an abdication of responsibility. It is easy to come up with a rule and say, “abandon ideology”, it is difficult to resist the temptation of ideology in action.

Reference:

OECD (2017). Understanding the socio-economic divide in Europe. https://www.oecd.org/els/soc/cope-divide-europe-2017-background-report.pdf (accessed on March 15, 2021)

Taggart, A. (2020). The spell of total work: A fairytale starring the mischievous magician, the clever ones, & a band of merry pranksters. Medium. https://andrewjtaggart.medium.com/the-spell-of-total-work-a-fairytale-27335997e502. (accessed on March 15, 2021)