Almost every conversation about Jordan Peterson starts and ends on his controversial politics. But to me, a storyteller, his politics are the least interesting thing about him.
As a writer, I am haunted by the tremendous impact that stories — particularly myths and folk tales — had on me as a child. That’s partly why I became fascinated with Jordan Peterson, long before he came to public attention and when he was still lecturing in small, shabby classrooms to handfuls of students.
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I discovered his “Maps of Meaning” lectures five years ago. I dipped into them and was hooked, watching hours of his talks one after the other. They thrilled me; not only was Peterson charismatic, witty and erudite, but he was addressing an issue that has obsessed me since a very young age: why do people believe what they believe, and how is this connected to narration and storytelling?
That may sound like a curiously innocent query, but the truth is that it has very dangerous implications. Each of us, after all, needs our beliefs emotionally. We often fiercely defend them, to the death in some cases. But if these convictions are merely part of a story — fundamentally flawed or incomplete — what value can we place on them? This, to me, explains a lot of the hostility to Peterson; he touches on nerves we find too uncomfortable to lay bare. He reminds us that our psychological houses are built on sand — that our most cherished beliefs are just stories, not absolute truths.
As Peterson’s fame started to grow, I had a chance to interview him on zoom and met him in person on several occasions. Our conversations were electrifying. I had never come across an interviewee so attentive, at both listening and speaking. Over almost four hours, he talked about his personal vulnerability (he cried more than once as we spoke ), about the inevitable political element of his work, but also religion — in particular Christ’s story and the motif of death and rebirth. He mentioned, for example, that one meaning of INRI — the Latin inscription on Christ’s cross — was “through fire all nature is renewed”, before explaining about the constant renewal of life through suffering and death.
He talked about how some of these mythological motifs appear in popular culture. Star Wars, for instance, has a lot in common with many of the other mass cultural phenomena of the last 50 years, including Harry Potter, ET and Sleeping Beauty — in particular, the prominence they give to death and rebirth.
But specific content aside, Peterson emphasises how the ideas that we seek to understand cannot actually be communicated in words; they have to be communicated in narratives, in stories. This is as true of the Bible as it is of The Little Mermaid, and is a truth known by every producer of every Marvel and DC movie. It is what lies underneath the action that produces the audience response — or lack of it.
The meaning of action is most clearly revealed in fairy tales and children’s stories. So Peterson focuses a lot of his attention on youth and adolescent popular culture. He briefly references these narrative mechanisms in Lesson Two of his new book, Beyond Order, but sadly not in sufficient depth to render them anything more than superficially intelligible. One has to watch the lectures for that.
Peterson’s central point is this: we do not know what we know. Just as the Old Testament carries ideas too complex to be expressed in words — his Biblical lectures explain how those mysterious verses actually tell the story of the emergence of individual conscience out of herd morality — fairy stories and great literary works translate into images and narratives that cannot simply be “told”, in the sense of “explaining”. They have to be shown. Hence the famous writing trope “show don’t tell”. And what better way to do that than in stories?
For example, in symbolic terms, Harry Potter is in almost every respect identical to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: the ingénue, an orphan who lives a meaningless life, in suburbia or Tatooine, who has a lost father who is a great magician, and who must face great danger and die and be reborn, rejuvenating the spirit of the dead father. Both narratives, of course, also have a lot in common with the story of Christ.
These are not just stories, but metaphors for what is happening in our individual psychologies: “determining to move forward and upward despite the horrors of life,” as Peterson puts it.
Crucially, you needn’t be aware of this psychological shift for it to happen. Indeed for Peterson, an artist may not even understand their own work: “if you can say what you’re doing, you’re not producing art,” he says. Did Shakespeare really understand the import of Hamlet or was he just channelling a larger force?
Either way, Peterson’s most important lesson still remains: that it is the job of the storyteller to provide a portal to a deeper-felt reality, rather than to relate — as is depressingly common today — an ideological or moral position. True art, poetry even, is trying to create something out of the partially lit darkness. Anything else is just posturing, propaganda or wish fulfilment.