Homer and Hatred: On Jordan Peterson’s Mythology

Jordan Peterson is a Canadian psychologist, academic, and the author of two books. But the real heart of his work is a seemingly bottomless well of three-minute YouTube clips and the discourse this ouvre has sparked in alt-right breeding grounds like Reddit, 4Chan, 8Chan, Voat, Gab, and gaming sites like Twitch and Discord.

Peterson likes to present himself as a kind of shamanistic unifier in professor’s robes. His school of magic is Jungian analysis, a mode of psychotherapy that, broadly speaking, explores the deep ideas of the brain, and how they might be driven by ancient mythic archetypes. Every therapist scans a patient’s speech for truths the patient might not know, but for Peterson, such truths are rooted in a mutual unconscious that connects us like a psychic spider web, which began to form before the birth of Christ and has been adding to itself ever since. Our motivations may seem irresistible, yet ultimately unknowable to us, though Peterson can decipher them, of course.

A big thing Peterson talks about is the mythopoeic role of women in our psyches. Chaos, he explains, is, “the eternal feminine.” And, “The thing we do not understand is that chaos gave rise to culture. If the structure of culture is disrupted, unwittingly, chaos returns. We will do anything — anything — to defend ourselves against that return.” It’s a little unclear just whom he means by “we.”

For Peterson, the purpose of our politics and books and films and TV is to protect us from the feminine, which is a crazy and destabilizing energy. Certain culture is good for the brain and certain culture is bad, making you antisocial and destructive. Peterson loves both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, stories in which men save sleeping women with a kiss, and hates Frozen, a film in which Prince Hans turns out to be the bad guy. Frozen has “no understanding whatsoever of the underlying archetypal dynamics,” he explained in Time this year. We must tell the same ancient story over and over, Peterson says, or we will all go insane.

It seems he feels the effect of feminine chaos everywhere. On Joe Rogan’s podcast, he says today’s world could be “what a female totalitarianism would look like.” He calls for a return to  “mythology,” which will re-stabilize us in these times of great uncertainty. But for someone apparently obsessed with the power of myth, Peterson does not include a single collection of myths among the books he says are most important to him, a list of which appears on his web site. (For what it’s worth, here is the Peterson canon: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 and Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell, Crime and Punishment and Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Beyond Good and Evil by Friederich Nietzsche, Ordinary Men by Christopher Browning, The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski, The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang, The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksander Solzhenitzyn, Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, Modern Man in Search of a Soul by Carl Jung, Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson, A History of Religious Ideas by Mircea Eliade, Affective Neuroscience by Jaan Panskepp.)

People are always the same, he implies; women are always crazy and men are always trying to keep them in line. If we read myths through his quixotic Jungian lens, he says, we can learn to navigate the chaos — that is, the over-feminization — of our times. There is a larky whimsicality to this thought, an almost charming Da Vinci Code-style theory-of-everythingness, a yearning for magic answers.

By “mythology,” Peterson means the canon of western literature, especially the old stuff. Can mythology really be read through Peterson’s lens? Are women always chaos in, say, Homer? A decent place to find an answer to this question might be The Odyssey. I would begin with The Iliad, but there are not so many women in The Iliad, a book in which the vanity of men creates enough bedlam on its own.

The Odyssey turns out to be a bad tool for essentializing gender. Here are some facts about Penelope, Odysseus’s wife: She performs innumerable functions that are normally the providence of kings and achieves them without being “chaotic.” She smothers fights among her suitors, interrogates her visitors, and is compared to a lion, which is a metaphor, critic Helene Foley tells us, typically reserved for heroic men.

It’s not just women who are show diversity in the poem. The weapon Odysseus uses in his rampage at the end, the longbow nobody can string but him, has a double-life in the poem as a lyre, the musical instrument storytellers played in Homer’s time: “Odysseus strung the great bow. Then plucking it in his right hand he tested the bowstring and it gave him back an excellent sound like the voice of a swallow.” Nature, narrative, action, tools, and even intention are woven together, into one poetic substance. This multiplicity itself is a rebuke to Peterson’s essentializing vision, and puts a deeply non-Petersonian — one might say almost postmodern — irony in the marrow of the poem.

The Odyssey is a book of disguise and posturing and motion. Odysseus keeps changing his identity depending on the context. Penelope the queen acts like a king, the boy Telemachus acts like a man. Nothing is where it should be and the signifiers are floating on the never-ending sea. Once the suitors have been killed, Odysseus and Penelope must perform a series of artificial gestures before they can re-claim their bed together. Helene Foley speaks of how Odysseus must engage in a “long recourting” of his wife. He tells the bard to sing, so people will think they’re having a wedding, and will not know the suitors have been killed. It’s a pretty significant asterisk on Peterson’s notion of myth to say his system works on everything but Homer, but the dull way Peterson thinks about “meaning” makes him too impatient for exacting work of actual close reading.

Is there anything at all in the western canon that supports his big assertion that women are chaos and men are order? How about Macbeth? Yes, there are witches in Macbeth, who provoke at least two people — Macbeth and his wife — to do appalling things that might be referred to as “chaos.” The energy of the witches, the mist of treachery that suffuses all of Scotland in the play, might be attributed to those three evil women, if not to woman herself. Can we separate the energy of the witches from the evil they inspire in Lady Macbeth? This is probably in the eye of the beholder. My own reading of Lady Macbeth’s “Unsex Me Here” speech is that she hates herself the way the patriarchy wants her to, having internalized its message:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’

(Macbeth Act 1 Scene 5)

Lady Macbeth is praying to evil forces that she hopes will purge her sympathy for Duncan, the king she’s about to kill, who is both a man and a symbol of order. Another thing she wants to stop is “visitings of nature,” which suggests that nature would make her sympathetic, and keep her from killing Duncan. This is bad news for Peterson, who argues that women are everything he fears about nature. “The woman is the gatekeeper to reproductive success,” he said. “And you can’t get any more like nature than that, in fact it’s the very definition of nature.”

Lady Macbeth explicitly voices a hate for her own female anatomy — “blood” and “women’s breasts” — that might be culturally learned, or might be unique to her, we do not know, though it certainly looks cultural, especially since she calls her breasts “women’s breasts,” which suggests that she feels separate from them, and alienated from the physical reality of her own femininity. This is not a girl enduring adolescent transformation, it’s a woman who’s estranged from her own body. She probably learned to think this over time. She asks to not be able to see what she’s going to do — “…pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell / That my keen knife see not the wound it makes…” — so her “knife” won’t have to focus on its actions. Even objects are connected to her now; she’s like a Harraway-style cyborg. Sad and frightened now, she fears who she is trying to become.

Shakespeare sympathizes with Lady Macbeth; he hates the sin but loves the sinner, in the parlance of our time. And so, in the witchiest passage in all of Shakespeare — a man who, as much as any single person, is a cornerstone of western culture, the very edifice behind which Peterson wants to hide — I find it hard to associate women wholly with chaos. You don’t have to read Macbeth as I have. But you cannot change the way that Lady Macbeth explains herself as an aggregate of ingredients, which argues against the female essence Peterson describes.

If Peterson spent more time with literary texts instead of just throwing them into facile YouTube videos, he might know they do not act as bluntly as he wishes them to act. Literary texts are disco balls, spraying glittery bits of imagery and light in all directions. Peterson’s vision cannot resonate at the level of philosophy or literary criticism, where the rules are too demanding. Where Peterson excels is at the level of carnival-barker chicanery. He’s for people who want to hear that women are bad.

He says in in a video conversation with the podcast host Joe Rogan: “If the proper order of being is violated, then all hell will break loose… stay on the Goddamn path, because if you deviate… if you miss the mark, like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah did, and their sin was grievous, then you risk destruction.” His choice of Sodom and Gomorrah is a cliché of conservative thought. In this construction, the toxic radiance of liberals forces men to shoot up schools and plow their cars into peaceful demonstrations, because “chaos.”

But the past, as he conceives it, never actually existed; all the evidence proves him wrong. In Postmodernism and Consumer Society, Frederic Jameson says nostalgia isn’t a longing for an actual past, but for the media we experienced as children. An example: Star Wars, Jameson says, is not a fantasy of the future, but a longing by George Lucas for the Saturday morning serials of his childhood. This explains its sci-fi western flavor; it’s the future and the past, Buck Rodgers and The Searchers, rolled up into one. Peterson’s own longing, presented in his work as a desire for a mythopoeic unity, a mono-culture that could be dug up from the earth — Mother Earth — and resurrected like a sky-god re-installed in heaven, is in fact a memory of the culture of his youth. This is why his theories work much better when applied to 20th century offerings like Snow White than to Shakespeare or Homer. He has actually seen Snow White.

What this means is that Peterson is a product of the postmodernism he hates. His past is a sanitized and mediated fantasy lived through TV and the Internet — in other words, a simulacrum, that most postmodern of ideas — not a deep connection to a lost paternal plentitude, or the origins of western civilization. Every time he goes on Google, it shows him what he wants to see. He not only uses Youtube all the time, that is where he was created.

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