After writing Part 1 of this series, the idea of the fool and Peterson’s inadequate treatment of it stayed with me, and in my mind I continued searching for good examples that embody the idea of the fool. Then I remembered the character, Sabina, from Milan Kundera’s the Unbearable Lightness of Being, which is an excellent example. Another character from the same novel, Tomas, goes through the process of becoming the fool in the story. The very label, “the fool”, we should note, is given from the perspective that confronts the fool (from outside). An established order, especially one that wants us all to be serious, solemn, dutiful, destiny-oriented, and mission-oriented, will call us foolish if we behave in ways that are unrecognizable within the order, if we don’t recognize its values. Our indifference is detected as a threat.
Kundera’s novel is important in part because it offers us a way out of established orders and their aesthetics (which he calls kitsch). Incidentally, kitsch is an apt description of what Peterson tends to find beautiful and inspiring. How do we characterize the kitsch aesthetics? Kitsch tends to have a (serious) message, an agenda. It is interested in uniting us all under a common banner (e.g., “the hero myth”). Kitsch is tame, well-behaved, unthreatening, recognizable, like the canon in D played at a church wedding. Kitsch moves us within predicable and predetermined bounds, and that experience of within-bounds feeling comforts us and reassures us of our own morality. Most Hollywood romantic comedy is kitsch. Harry Potter is kitsch. Paulo Coelho’s novels are kitsch. Self-help is kitsch. Life coaching is kitsch. On the surface, kitsch appears to affirm life, but its affirmation is a betrayal of life. Kitsch turns everything into an instrument: work, artistic media, stories, and living itself.
Let’s get into Chapter 2.
Rule 2: Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that
The title of this chapter suggests that it is about planning, dedication, and commitment. That’s not the case. The chapter is about stories, how stories inform and inspire us, how we imitate them and see our lives and decisions through them. Peterson makes a persuasive case for the importance of stories in shaping our imagination. Recall the discussion of concepts in Chapter 1. When we point down and say, floor, we are establishing a common point of reference that selects an aspect of the material stuff under our feet. In a similar way, stories can simplify and organize our lives. In addition to their selectivity and order, stories carry dramaturgical force. That is to say, perceiving a moment in life (which might appear neutral) as a point in a story can create a sense of dramatic tension, a call to action, which gives us a role and moves us in a particular direction. For example, seeing a child (as a fact) doesn’t involve us, but seeing a child who is lost and is looking for the parent (as a segment of a story) has dramatic tension and reveals to us the necessity of action. Peterson argues that a story creates two kinds of harmony. First, it creates harmony among different drives within a person and, second, it creates harmony between people, assuming that they all recognize the same story and voluntarily participate in it.
At this point, he could have said the following. He could have said: Since stories are so formative in our lives, it would be good to learn as many of them as we can, to be reflective and critical of them, to examine what they reveal and what they mask (their unexamined fringes). He could have encouraged us to try to create and imagine new stories, variations on old stories, and (rather than shoving our lives into old stories) maintain a dialogue between the facts of our lives and the stories in our mind.
Rather than inviting a pluralistic approach to stories, Peterson focuses on the story that he believes to be at the center of all stories–the hero myth. He writes that the hero myth, in its most developed form, is about the hero of heroes (meta-hero) acting within the world of worlds (meta-world). In spite of variations in the story, the hero myth has invariable features. It involves an adventurous confrontation with the unknown (the mythological dragon), and gaining reward (the mythological gold-virgin), and the return home. Rather than saying that we can connect on the basis of our creative ability to tell new stories, Peterson argues that we should connect (or remain connected) on the basis of this one particular story, because it has worked for a long time (part of its work being associated with the shift from polytheism to monotheism). He celebrates J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series as a recent manifestation of the hero myth, and he analyzes the second book of the series, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pointing to elements of the story (Harry, the snake, Ginny, the Phoenix, etc.) and assigning mythological labels to them (hero, dragon, virgin/reward, hero’s rebirth after sacrifice, etc.).
I won’t argue against the psychological and social effects of the hero myth. Clearly, a lot of us find this type story appealing (J. K. Rowling’s popularity), and a lot of us unite with the recognition and celebration of this story (J. B. Peterson’s popularity). But what justifies the insistence on keeping the story and the single-minded devotion to this one story? Is the hero myth under threat by competing stories? Are all alternative stories bad, immoral, or insignificant? I cannot help but think that the (exclusive) insistence on the hero myth would be an act of violence against life. Perhaps not physical violence, but it would be narrative violence. Maybe I am missing the abstract (meta) form of Peterson’s story, a feature that allows it to absorb all stories within it. Even if all lives take the form of that single meta-narrative, I’d still like to live in a world where other/new stories are permitted, explored, and perhaps at times even facilitated.
There is another issue here regarding how Peterson treats stories. Here is a quote:
An unforgettable story advances our capacity to understand our behavior, beyond habit and expectation, toward an imaginative and then verbalized understanding. Such a story presents us in the most compelling manner with the ultimate adventure, the divine romance, and the eternal battle between good and evil. All this helps us clarify our understanding of moral and immoral attitude and action, personal and social.
He seems to have prior expectations from stories. It’s as if he already knows the message contained in an “unforgettable story”. He loved Harry Potter because he already knew it, its message, its point, and its effect on readers. That’s why I associate Peterson’s taste with kitsch. He doesn’t want to see monsters (i.e., genuinely new stories and characters). The only monsters he allows for are the ones guarding the princess and killed by the hero.
My objection here, similar to Chapter 1, is related to Peterson’s heaviness and inflexibility. This shows up in his writing style, too. When he writes statements like, “Try to make yourself interested in something you just do not care about and see how well that works”, without disagreeing with him, I just find him irritating. I don’t like when people talk (or write) to me with that tone, like an annoying, over-confident, over-serious uncle. Is that just a personal taste? I don’t want father figures, or uncle figures. Even if we enjoy having that kind of father/uncle figure, someone who tells the same story over and over and is totally content with it, we will eventually grow out of it (with some retrospective embarrassment). It is mutual respect that sustains durable, lasting relationships.