‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Peter Son and Peter Pan




1. Peterson
I'd like it to be a principle of mine not to dismiss people on grounds of mere hearsay. For example: I’d heard stuff about Ayn Rand that inclined me to disregard her as a stare-eyed loon eager to sacrifice society on the altar of selfishness. But I read Atlas Shrugged anyway. It did not change my mind about Rand, but at least I gave it a go.

Peterson is a different case. Before cracking the covers of his megaselling 12 Rules for Life: an Antidote to Chaos (2018) I assumed, I suppose, that he was a pretty hard right-wing ideologue peddling a set of boot-camp ‘stand up straight, work hard, follow the rules’ nostrums gussied-up with some pleasantly bonkers stuff about how we should dance the lobster quadrille to preserve our precious bodily fluids. Now I've read the book, and actually it isn’t like that. It’s not a very good book, I think, but it’s neither as noisome nor as ridiculous as some of the reviews of it make it seem. I mean, the lobster stuff is pretty daft, but that's only a small portion.

On a personal level Peterson, I’d wager, holds a number of right-of-centre political views, but soft-right rather than extremist I think, and (leftie though I be) I have no problem with that—indeed, I’m increasingly nostalgic for the days when ‘Conservative’ meant slightly-right-of-centre rather than the boiling-piss-for-blood hard-right parody the party has now become (I talk of the UK, of course; and Peterson is Canadian, so mutatis mutandi).

At any rate, there’s a common-sense-y small-c conservative thread running through his book, in its way as parodyable as the lobster gubbins: calling people ‘bucko’ and encouraging them to tidy their room, take charge of such to-hand business they can manage and leave the larger stuff alone for now. Peterson has a bad rep as an anti-trans activist, but there’s nothing in 12 Rules for Life that struck me as inherently trans-hostile—rather to the contrary, in fact: he says more than once that people who feel trapped by and miserable in their lives need to leverage their suffering so as to transform themselves, and so far from being gender essentialist one plank of his argument is that Jesus was androgynous.

After reading the book I googled some reviews, and one that rang true for me is SlateStarCodex’s ‘I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t hate 12 Rules for Life’ piece.
The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?

About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.

Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.

Prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:

First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.

Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.

Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
There’s something in this. Peterson is offering us guidelines to living a better life, being a better person, not in the self-help-book sense of ‘here are 12 tips and tricks to win friends and influence people!’ but in the more radical, older-fashioned sense of: I have uncovered the meaning of life, the truth that lies beneath all the epiphenomena of existence, and you'd best align yourself with it if you want a more meaningful and thus less unhappy life.

Peterson’s core ‘insight’ (excuse the scare-quotes) is that existence is a question of getting your individual yin and yang of chaos and order balanced:—too much order and you become stifled, conventional, tyrannised; too much chaos and life descends into misery, substance abuse, self-harm and so on. You need the right amount of chaos in your order, and the right amount of order in your chaos. That seems to me a sensible enough prescription—I mean, it’s as old as the hills, but nevertheless. I can well believe that many many folk, especially among his young bloke demographic, have been struck with the force of revelation reading Peterson’s version of it here, gorblimeyed up as it is not just with lots of clinical anecdotes about his patients, but also a mythographic overnarrative about swamps and dragons and heroes and the like. If the quality of life of some of Peterson’s readers has improved, such that they have become less miserable in themselves and kinder to others, then that's clearly a very good thing.

That’s not to say that I think this ‘insight’ is right, mind you. As it happens I don't. My particular issues with the order-chaos rebus are threefold. One is the way Peterson follows a straightforwardly and unashamedly gendered reading of how ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ figure in the world. Order for JP is masculine and chaos is feminine. I really don’t see that myself: a more interesting reading of this dyad, even granting Peterson his traditionalist small-c conservative priors, would be to code order as feminine, since it is women who have for the most part ordered and maintained the home (the ground zero of order, for JP) and brought order into the world in the form of new life, where chaos is much more the preserve of men, those war-making and destructive creatures: men punching a hole in the dry-wall because they've lost their temper; men going absolutely mental on a lads’ night out drinking themselves insensible and so on (what, as the poet insightfully asked, is a woman that you so chaotically forsake her? Order, I suppose). And actually I'd say an even better way of reading the dyad would be to decouple it from gender essentialism altogether, but I daresay that’s just me.

My second issue with the order/chaos yin-yang dyad is that, by definition, it skews orderly. Arranging ‘order’ and ‘chaos’ into this structure is to order order and chaos, doubling the former term and reducing the disorder of the latter. That’s a thumb in the balance, I think, and leads to a bias in favour of order, the straighten up, tidy your room, tradition is good stuff that bleeds into the postmodernism—Peterson doesn’t really know what this word means; what he’s cross about, I think, is a version of ‘relativism’—is bad, political correctness is Stalinism stuff. The book stops with its toes on the line of suit-and-tie, bring-back-national-service crustiness (and comes nowhere near the tribalism, racism, God-hates-gays nuttiness of today’s actual far right). But it’s a problem, I think. We may not want to live in the psychological chaos of van Gogh, even if that’s the price for producing van Gogh’s art, but we might want to live with just enough wildness, panache, enough essential-oil of rock-and-roll, to be able to produce something original, something not quite so bound by convention. Peterson, I suspect, prefers to balance his life slightly in favour of the order side of things, and I’d say the programme JP is advocating errs on that side of things too. If, instead of falling back on that old visual cliché, the yin-yang circle, Peterson had built his argument around something strictly chaotic in structure, like the plot of the Lorenz attractor for values r = 28, σ = 10, b = 8/3, I might have found his argument more conducive.



But that’s fine: to each his own.

This second issue reveals my predilections—biases, we might call them (we all have biases, of course). Because the yin-yang, chaos-order, exists in a balance. A tension, yes, but a balance. Balance is fine. Tension is good even. But it’s not enough, necessary but not sufficient. I prefer something with a bit of throughput, something in which contradictions sublate and we move on. Man, to quote Thom Gunn, you gotta go. Which is to say, as I ostentatiously flash the cloven hoof of my own assumptions, I prefer the dialectic to a yin-yang. You are welcome to side with Peterson on this, or to agree with me, or go your own sweet way. But it does bring me to my third issue with JP’s dyad.

I think it’s wrong.

I don’t mean wrong in its details, or in the evidence JP marshalls to support it; and there’s a manifest sense in which it would be wrong to call it wrong, if it works to help people improve their quality of life in a way that doesn’t negatively impact other people. There's evidence it has done this, and I'm certainly not here to sneer at that. Nonetheless, I think it is wrong, and in (at the risk of sounding pretentious) a profound way. And that’s what I’m going to talk about for the rest of this blogpost. If you were expecting a more in-depth review of Peterson, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

Permit me to nutshell it thus: I don’t think the key to existence is a balance of order and chaos. I think the key to existence, its profound mystery and the secret of living as such, is the brute fact that life comes out of death. It's simultaneously the most quotidian and the stone-cold strangest thing in the world: that my and my wife’s decaying flesh has created two new human beings full of vitality, who will (I earnestly pray) survive us. How does it come into the world, this newness? I will die and, I strongly suspect, my consciousness will extinguish when I do, but a bit of me will carry on—which is to say, I will die but the species will continue.

I think this startling truth is behind all the things that Peterson thinks ‘order/chaos’/ ‘masculine/feminine’ is behind—which is to say, I think he’s identified the wrong archetypal underpinning to existence. He thinks the serpent in the garden of Eden is feminine chaos. I’d say the latent point of the Eden myth is the tree of life, also known as the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (the same tree, I’d say), eating the fruit whereof entails expulsion from paradise into hardship and death in order that change, new life and rebirth can come into the world. That’s what the good (life) and evil (death) of the tree mean: that these two things are paradoxically, dialectically, new life. Peterson thinks the important thing about the myth of Christ is that he represents both male order and female chaos in one person (‘the most profound religious symbols rely for their power on this underlying fundamentally bipartisan conceptual subdivision … images of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and the Pietà both express the female/male duality as unity, as does the traditional insistence on the androgyny of Christ’ [Peterson, 41-2]). But I’d say the most important thing about the myth of Christ is that he dies and comes back to life—that, in other words, he’s the Green Man, the old year dying and being reborn, the fisher king, Osiris, and all those splendid types out of Frazer’s Golden Bough.

This is another personal crotchet of mine, I know; and you’re absolutely free to ignore it, or to disregard me as a crank. Having kids of my own has changed the way I think about this question, I must say. It has, for one thing, introduced me to a new sensation: the uncanny quality of children, their spooky Midwich Cuckoo-ness. They’re lovely, don’t get me wrong; and I love my kids very much. But every now and again it dawns on you, as they go about their kiddish play, that they will be living and loving and drinking wine in the sunshine when you yourself are cold and dead in the ground. That, indeed, this is the point of kids. Nothing is more horrific to contemplate than the thought of your kids predeceasing you of course (of course!). But still, unexpectedly, at odd moments, the realisation goes through you like a sword. This is what kids are for: to replace you. This is what kids mean: your death. The difference, I think, for me personally is that I’ve gone from registering this as a kind of uncanny affect to seeing it as something more profound: what religious people call a mystery. Which brings me to Peter Pan.


2. Peter Pan



I’ve changed my mind about Peter Pan. I used to think it was about death in a rather morbid, even a creepy way. I don’t think that any more. It’s interesting, actually, to compare/contrast Barrie's work with Carroll’s Alice novels, since those latter are amongst my very favourite books. I have friends who consider them equally morbid and creepy. I really don't. But in both cases the story concerns a child who is in some sense, and in Peter Pan’s case quite explicitly, fixed. Pan is the boy who will not grow up. In real life the way for a kind not to grow up is to die. Barrie was in many ways quite the oddball. Peter Pan is a kind of marmorealisation of nursery play, locking childhood adventure in the never-never of a glittery afterlife.

This, at any rate, is one of the perspectives of the critics. Or some of them. Here's Peter Coveney:
The justification of secular art is the responsibility it bears for the enrichment of human awareness. The cult of the child in certain authors at the end of the nineteenth century is a denial of this responsibility. Their awareness of childhood is no longer an interest in growth and integration, such as we found in The Prelude, but a means of detachment and retreat from the adult world. One feels their morbid withdrawal towards psychic death. The misery on the face of Carroll and Barrie was there because their response towards life had been subtly but irrevocably negated. Their photographs seem to look out at us from the nostalgic prisons they had created for themselves in the cult of Alice Liddell and Peter Pan. [Peter Coveney, The Image of Childhood: the Individual and Society: a Study of the Theme in English Literature (1957; 2nd ed 1967), 241]
Is this right, do you think? Is (say) Harry Potter better than The Famous Five because Rowling allows her kids to grow and mature? We want our children to grow up. It's the saddest thing in the world when they don't. Barrie knew this better than most.
When he was 6 years old, Barrie's next-older brother David (his mother's favourite) died two days before his 14th birthday in an ice-skating accident. This left his mother devastated, and Barrie tried to fill David's place in his mother's attentions, even wearing David's clothes and whistling in the manner that he did. One time Barrie entered her room, and heard her say ‘Is that you?’ ‘I thought it was the dead boy she was speaking to’, wrote Barrie in his biographical account of his mother, Margaret Ogilvy (1896), ‘and I said in a little lonely voice, “No, it's no’ him, it's just me”.’ Barrie's mother found comfort in the fact that her dead son would remain a boy forever, never to grow up and leave her. [Andrew Birkin, J. M. Barrie & the Lost Boys (Constable, 1979; revised edition, Yale University Press, 2004), 14]
The closest thing we have to an ‘Alice Liddell’ original for Peter Pan are three of the Llewelyn Davies boys: George, Peter and Michael. George died in the Trenches barely out of his teens, and little Michael (Barrie's favourite: he wrote to him every single day, which sounds ... weird and rather oppressive to me) drowned in suspicious, probably suicidal circumstances in 1921. Peter survived to the 1960s, but never outgrew the fame of his connection to Peter Pan, which he came to loathe. Depressed, ill, old, he drafted an account of his family history, cheerily titled Morgue, walked out of his house and threw himself under a tube train.

Barrie had no children of his own; his own marriage was almost certainly unconsummated. But more relevant, I think, than biographical data, is the larger context. One thing reading into the 18th and 19th-century grounds of Childrens’ Literature does for you is reveal how intertwined it is with death. Eric, or Little By Little. Alice. The Water Babies. Arguably this has to do with the way this mode of literature was born out of an age when children died as a matter of course. Maybe it’s as Coveney argued, that the superstars of this new mode like Kinglsey, Carroll and Barrie, were possessed by an unhealthy fascination with death.

We can, if we choose, read Peter as Death, coming to London children and whisking them away to become Lost Boys. We can read the whole play as morbid, in the manner that Coveney does, above. There’s certainly a lot of death in the play (and in Peter and Wendy, Barrie’s later novelisation): not just Tinkerbell dying and Hook killing his own men, but lots of throwaway references to kids chancing upon their dead fathers in the wood, or Peter tripping over the gravestones of former lost boys. Indeed the novel’s ending glosses the fact that Wendy grows up and has kids of her own with the sentence: ‘Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten.’ Ouch.

Morbid, though? I suppose I used to read the work that way myself, but now I’ve changed my mind. Peter is not death. He’s life (‘Pan, who and what art thou?’ Hook bellows to which Peter answers ‘at a venture’: ‘I'm youth, I'm joy, I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’) It’s not that there’s no death woven into the fantasy that is Peter Pan, because there surely is. It’s that I mistook who it was who dies.

Hint: it’s not the kids.
In his absence things are usually quiet on the island. The fairies take an hour longer in the morning, the beasts attend to their young, the redskins feed heavily for six days and nights, and when pirates and lost boys meet they merely bite their thumbs at each other. But with the coming of Peter, who hates lethargy, they are all under way again: if you put your ear to the ground now, you would hear the whole island seething with life. [Barrie Peter and Wendy, ch.5]
Why Peter Pan, though? Why does Peter & his crew of kids live under an oak tree? And why, when Wendy offers to kiss him, does Peter ‘drop an acorn button into her hand’? If Neverland is death and Peter the reaper, then how is Wendy able to return to London? Frazer knows the answers.


3. Boughs of Gold
The assertion ‘Frazer’s Golden Bough is a better book than Peterson’s 12 Rules’ has a ‘well, duh’ quality, I know. But there’s a particular sense in which I believe the statement to be true. I'd argue that Frazer, innocent of Jung and thus free of the woo-gravity of all that spiritus-mundi Aryanism, is able to articulate something both ubiquitous and profound that goes beyond the order/chaos balance rebus Peterson is selling us. It's the most fundamental of fundamental truths about human existence, as we find ourselves embodied on this planet. We live in a world that dies every year—we call this winter—and is reborn again in the spring. Our social existence, and therefore our culture, has grown up around our anxiety that spring might not come again, and our attempts to forestall that eventuality, to placate death and usher new life. And we have known, since the memory of humankind goeth not to the contrary, that this new life comes out of old life. It ought not to surprise us that fertility rituals and religions have sprung up to encourage this rebirth, nor that sacrifice is integral to the religious aspirations of homo sapiens, such that renewal becomes inconceivable without it. As I say: Green Man, Fisher King, Jesus Christ.

Art, culture, religion, is, collectively, humanity’s attempt to embody and plumb this strange mystery: that new life comes out of dying flesh, to restate it in the hope of actualising it, or to give voice to our fears (as in Eliot's The Waste Land) that it might fail us. We take it for granted, but fertility, speaking in terms of the intersection of biology and entropy, is a really very strange thing. It’s easy to die—so easy, indeed, that it’s within everyone's skillset eventually. Thousands do it every day. Facilis descensus Avernus, as the poet says. The hard part, as Vergil knew, isn’t the dying, but the coming back to life again. So how do we make life come, magically, out of this ubiquitous death? The sybil in Aeneid VI tells us: you need a special magical prop, a golden bough, not easy to come by. Hence Frazer’s title. Hence his argument, finding the consonances in all these global religions and rites, all spinning variants on the sacrifice of the holy king, who is the land, in order that the holy king, who is the land, can be reborn.

One of the stories Frazer tells concerns the druids. They too had a ‘golden bough’, a magical plant central to their ritual and religion with the power to bring back (as out of Bran’s cauldron) the dead to life again. This was mistletoe, harvested with a golden sickle—(James Hook waves his hook-hand: hello!)—from the sacred oak at a sacred time of year. Christmas is almost upon us, and folk will hang up mistletoe, and everybody knows what you’re supposed to do underneath the mistletoe: kiss one another! But few know why this is what you’re supposed to do under mistletoe—that this, like the maypole, or the Sheila-na-gig (or its bowdlerised form, horseshoes nailed to the tavern wall), is a folk memory of an ancient fertility ritual. Fertility, sex, is actually how we bring life out of death, after all.

So why is Peter called ‘Pan’? That's a powerful deity to invoke, as mythographers have noted since at least Richard Payne Knight published his Discourse on the Worship of Priapus in 1786. Knight explores a variety of fascinating highways and byways of the worship of Priapus, tracing its spectral presence in the Christian era (chapters include ‘Scotland, and its Phallic celebrations’; ‘Phallic figures on public buildings’; ‘Ireland, and its Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘Horseshoes nailed to stable doors, a remain of the Shelah-na-Gig’; ‘The ancient god Priapus becomes a saint in the Middle Ages’; ‘Robin Goodfellow’; ‘Easter, and hot-cross-buns’; ‘May-day festivities, and the May-pole’; ‘Bonfires’; ‘Lady Godiva, the Shrewsbury show, and the Guild festival at Preston’). The main thing Knight does is trace all this back to Pan. Originally ‘worship of generative and nutritive, powers of the Deity’ focused on animals, especially bulls. But:
The Greeks, as they advanced in the cultivation of the imitative arts, gradually changed the animal for the human form, preserving still the original character. The human head was at first added to the body of the bull; but afterwards the whole figure was made human, with some of the features, and general character of the animal, blended with it. Oftentimes, however, these mixed figures had a peculiar and proper meaning, like that of the Vatican Bronze; and were not intended as mere refinements of art. These mixed beings are derived from Pan, the principle of universal order; of whose personified image they partake. Pan is addressed in the Orphic Litanies as the first-begotten love, or creator incorporated in universal matter, and so forming the world.
The Greek ‘Pan’ means, ‘all’, of course.
According to Plutarch, the Jupiter Ammon of the Africans was the same as the Pan of the Greeks. This explains the reason why the Macedonian kings assumed the horns of that god. The case is, that Pan, or Ammon, being the universe, and Jupitera title of the Supreme God (as will be shown hereafter),the horns, the emblems of his power, seemed the properest symbols of that supreme and universal dominion to which they all, as well as Alexander, had the ambition to aspire.
See also: the horns on the brow of Moses. Knight’s Pan must be a ‘youth’, since he represents new life, the rebirth of the cosmos after the death of the year. Perhaps, prudes that we are (not despite but because of our culture’s vast surrounding wildernesses of plasticated porn and sexual explicitness) we are happiest thinking of this in more abstract terms, as ‘the piper at the gates of dawn’ rather than (to quote Knight one last time) ‘Pan pouring water upon the organ of generation; that is, invigorating the active creative power by the prolific element.’



Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, from whose Pan-encounter chapter ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ Floyd took their title, postdates the first appearance of Barrie’s Peter Pan by a couple of years, but Grahame had been meditating upon ‘Pan’ long before his fellow Scot. Grahame’s first book, Pagan Papers (1893) waxes numinous-lyrical on the actual presence, in today's world. of ‘the Rural Pan’. It's not an archetype that has disappeared, either; and I don't only mean in terms of repeated adaptations of Wind in the Willows or Peter Pan. The first Narnian encountered by any of the children in Lewis's could-hardly-be-more-Christian Lion/Witch/Wardrobe is the Pan-ish faun, Mr Tumnus; who beguiles Lucy back to his home where he drugs her with tea. Very odd. Two is the fact that Lyra's demon in Dark Materials is called 'Pan'. A series of books about, in the final analysis, killing God.

And that's the thing about Pan: he’s the only god to have died in our time. Gods don’t die; that’s what ‘immortal’ (a synonym for ‘god’) means—indeed, that’s pretty much all it means in the Greek and Roman pantheons, where gods are otherwise exactly as petty and moody and selfish as the worst of humanity. So what happened with Pan? Plutarch’s De defectu oraculorum (c. AD 100) relates how a sailor voyaging to Italy at some point during the time of the Emperor Tiberius (AD 14–37), and passing the island of Paxi, heard a voice booming across the water: ‘Thamus, art thou there? When you reach Palodes be sure to proclaim that the great god Pan is dead.’ Thamus did so, and the news was greeted from shore with groans and laments.

In Milton’s ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity’, the cry ‘Great Pan is dead’ becomes an ecstatic celebration of the Christian succession to diabolic Paganism. But one thing Barrie’s Peter Pan clearly isn’t, is an ecstatic celebration of Christianity. It is, however, a famous expression of the tendency of the young to laugh in the face of personal extinction. To die, Pan declares gloriously, would be an awfully big adventure.

And, manifestly, Pan came back in a big way in terms of culture of the end of the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries. That’s the mystery: the god dies in order for the god to be reborn. It’s fertility, it’s life, it’s vitality coming out of dying flesh.

This is the realisation that has come to me, belatedly enough, about Peter Pan. It’s about death, yes, but not the deaths of children. It’s about mine, sir—and yours, madam. Tinkerbell dies but she comes back to life. Wendy travels to the never-never land, and descends (like Aeneas) into the underworld under the (sacred!) oak of Pan, only to return to London and have children of her own. Do I say ‘only to’? I mean ‘in order to be able to’. And Mrs Darling dies, like Hook—dies and is forgotten. Barrie, it is clear, understood the great truth of children, and it’s this: they live, as we die. Their life is our death.

I love my children very much. It’s what you’d expect me to say, but it’s true: having kids was the best thing ever to happen to me. But anyone who has kids understands, on some level, that they will, inevitably, break your heart. That's the deal. Find your life-partner, the great love of your life, and you can at least hope to spend the rest of your life with him, or her. But that’s not how your love for kids goes. It’s baked-in to the business of having and raising kids that they will leave you. Of course you want them to. You don’t want to be old Mrs Skinner in The Simpsons with middle-aged Seymour still living at home under your thumb. Rationally you don’t want that, of course you don’t; but there’s a large part of love that isn’t rational, and if we think about it too long it’s liable to crush  us. We love them and they will leave us. They’re going to go and have their awfully big adventure—adulthood—and maybe find partners and have kids of their own, and occasionally give us a phone call when they remember, but otherwise go off. That’s their fate, we earnestly hope, as ours alas is to die and be forgotten. It’s the grain of things; grain in the sense of wood-grain, but also in the sense of seed—si le grain ne meurt, as Old Jean himself said: except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.

And this is where my own understanding of Peter Pan has switched about. When Peter claims that to die would be an awfully big adventure, the in-story logic of the phrase suggests he’s talking about his own death. But he’s not. He’s talking about his life, his adult life away from Neverland, which is to say Childhood's end and adulthood's beginning, and therefore about our death, us old men and women watching (or in the case of Hook, fighting) him. Pan lives under the sacred oak, and gives Wendy not a trivial kiss but a profound token of that magic life-out-of-death tree, an acorn. He is the Green Man and Neverland is prodigiously overfecund with golden boughs. That, after all, is what childhood is.
A million golden arrows were pointing out the island to the children, all directed by their friend the sun, who wanted them to be sure of their way before leaving them for the night. [Peter and Wendy, ch 4]
Or, at the risk of repeating myself:
Years rolled on again, and Wendy had a daughter. This ought not to be written in ink but in a golden splash.

She was called Jane, and she loved to hear of Peter, and Wendy told her all she could remember in the very nursery from which the famous flight had taken place. It was Jane's nursery now, for her father had bought it at the three per cents. from Wendy's father, who was no longer fond of stairs. Mrs. Darling was now dead and forgotten
Dead and forgotten. So it goes.


4. Envoi
I've come a long way from Peterson, I know. Of course he'll never read these words, but if he did I imagine he'd dislike my proposal that there's a dialectic, life/death → new life, behind our human existence and therefore behind our art and culture and religion. The dialectic, he might say, is Hegel and therefore Marx and therefore Stalinist commissars of political-correctness marching college professors into death-camps in their millions for refusing to use the state-ordered nomenclature. Still, I'd be prepared, if I believed I could generate even a tiny fraction of the sales of 12 Rules (LOL as if), to write this idea out at book length. It works on any level you choose. In terms of the hard-science of evolutionary biology, we humans are simply machines fashioned by DNA to make more DNA; devices to circumvent the entropic truth of death. It's not order and chaos in balance, but it is sex and therefore sexual selection as a shift to vault us out of the cul-de-sac of mortality. Elucidiating religion, culture, art and so on in these terms would be straightforward exercises. The hardest part would be the self-help angle; because, fundamentally, it's not a very comforting perspective on the universe. But the truth has no duty to be blithely comforting, and if there are few ‘tidy your room Bucko and you'll feel better about yourself’ catholicons, there would be at least the possibility of a more bracing stoicism. To write such a book could be an awfully big adventure.

10 comments:

  1. Adam, it seems to me that the strength of your account is its explanatory power and the extensibility (as computer programmers might put it) of that power into multiple domains. But, by contrast, while Peterson offers explanations, he always puts those in service to the counsel he gives. I don't think your model generates any obvious counsel. In fact, it seems to suggest that there’s not a whole lot any of us can do to change the Human Condition as you describe it, except perhaps have children, and even that might be recommended only to those among us who feel our mortality strongly and grieve it. For those who can readily accept that mortality, or who believe that one should absorb any pain that comes from the anticipation of death in order to avoid burdening the planet with more human beings, it’s not clear that your model gives us anything but explanation. What you call “bracing stoicism” seems to be to be a response to your model rather than an element of it. Another such response might be, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”

    To sum up, drawing on Scott Alexander: you’re an intellectual (intellectuals provide explanations) rather than a prophet (prophets give counsel). And more people will pay money for counsel than for explanations.

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    1. You're right, of course. Ah well: no multi-million-dollar bestselling self-book for me!

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    2. Although, I wonder if I disagree with the "burdening the planet" aspect. I see what you mean, but I don't think I'm just talking about having kids, something some people want to do and others, perfectly validly, don't. But I think we collectively probably do need to rediscover our global Green Man, and put more of an effort into husbanding our world, into ensuring that the spring is reborn out of the dead winter.

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    3. Now THERE'S a propheting angle! Massive sales do beckon. A brilliant essay, anyway, Adam.

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  2. I agree that if life has any meaning at all - other than its being “not-death” - it can only be to regenerate itself, but that doesn’t mean it should perpetuate itself. The key aspect, I think, of the DNA analogy you conclude with is not that we are constantly cloned as the march of the successive generations proceeds – if that were the case, then time itself and its passage would be irrelevant and perhaps even imperceptible – but that random (i.e., chaotic) mutations occur. Mutation makes all the difference because, by definition, it introduces small differences. And this may explain our reactions to how our children perform at life. If our children’s behaviour or creations are more efficient or if they’re better adapted to their (not our own steadily obsolescing) environment – if they’re “fitter”, to put it in classical Darwinian terms – than our own, we will applaud them; they’ll make us feel “proud” (whatever that means). But if they seem to us to be heading up a blind alley, or if they fail to hit some target that we’ve (often unconsciously) set, we’ll say we’re “disappointed in” or feel “let down by” them. Parents’ admonitions that their children’s performance is “not good enough” and that they “must do better” really mean they “must do at least as well as, and preferably even better than, me.”

    So where does this leave people who choose, quite validly, not to have children? In many cases, I think they choose to create, instead of new humans, new works of art. Is it mere coincidence that so many leading figures of the arts have, like Barrie and Dodgson, had no children of their own (or at best proved to be utterly inadequate parents)? Beethoven was childless (as were Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Bruckner … even Johann Strauss, Jr.). But take any successive two of Beethoven’s nine symphonies and you’ll hear they share many more stylistic traits than any two that are several opus numbers (= generations) apart. The Fifth and Sixth were composed simultaneously and, boy, can you tell. But the First and the Ninth? There the mutations of earlier mutations of even earlier mutations are clear to hear.

    Rambling? Me? The main tl;dr of this comment, then, would be that I think you’re right and that the T-bone-bothering terror of Toronto you’re ostensibly reviewing is wrong: the balance between order and chaos isn’t driven by gender at all but by evolution and mutation. That’s why no optimal balance can ever be pinned down; it’s constantly shifting. All that remains for us to do, as the great phenomenologist Bowie once put it, is “face the strange ch-ch-changes.”

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    1. I'd agree with you, broadly, Archie (indeed I think Peterson would too: he doesn't go into evolution in great detail but he does insist that his hard-learned lessons have been proofed by our evolutionary history, although he prefers to give agency to women in that regard: or to quote him "it is Nature as Woman who says 'well bucko, you're good enough for a friend but my experience of you so far has not indicated the suitability of your genetic material for continued propagation'." [41] Mutation is chaos, although mutation is winnowed pretty savagely by environment and selection pressures and so on. Are they "order"? Hmm.

      That said, I'm not sure about your "have kids or create art, pick one" idea. Oodles of the very greatest artists have had kids (maybe even Beethoven, if you believe the theory that his nephew Karl was actually his illegitimate son). Dickens had ten of the buggers! Of course I recognise what you're talking about: it's Woolf's line on the Ramsays in To The Lighthouse, that family life crowded out the possibility of great work, it's the pram in the hall. But Woolf was herself childless, which I think is behind her take, here. The pram in the hall really isn't such a big obstacle, I think. My productivity went up after we had kids for instance.

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  3. I've not read anything by Jordan, Adam, but I've seen the podcast Joe Rogan did with him and the somewhat different podcast he did with Nina Paley, the animator. And I decided that he's not at all the crazy rightwing loon some would have him be. He's not exactly my kinda' guy, but that's OK.

    As for what life is about, sometime late in my childhood, perhaps when I was in 6th grade, I posed the question: Where did the universe come from? How could something come from nothing. That's pretty close to your "life comes out of death", though not quite the same. I suppose we could discuss the difference, but would it worth it?

    As for Christ, he was at the center of an earlier metaphysical thought of mine, this when I was, say, seven years old. I figured that the world was just a great big movie being played for the entertainment of the Baby Jesus. What I couldn't figure out, though, is how it is that movies, after all, are only 2D visual objects, flat there on a screen, while the world clearly exists in three dimensions. (I doubt, though, that my seven year old self thought about spatial dimensions as such. More like flat vs. thick and solid-you-can-look-around-it.)

    And then, of course, there is Disney, whose works loomed large in my childhood, including, of course, the movie, Peter Pan. For that matter, the play was a special made-for-high-class-TV event as well, but that wasn't Disney. Disney's 3rd animated feature was Pinocchio, which gushes over with the thematic material you're exploring here. Fantasia was his second feature. There's the cycle of the seasons in the Nutcracker episode (centered on that sexy underwater Arabian dance), Mickey-child in Sorcerer's Apprentice (did you know that Uncle Walt voiced Mickey until the mid-1940s?), and the birth and death of life on earth in The Rite of Spring. And of course there's more. But I'll only mention the Pastoral Symphony episode, which depicts a day in the life of creatures on Olympus, and opens with a faun-child playing pan pipes and closes with the child Pegasus confidently flying about in the post-storm rainbow after having been pushed from the nest early in the film.

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  4. Hmmm. Have I read all or some (the Barrie section(s)?) of this before, or am I just having déjà vu?

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