Desire and meaning

Jordan Peterson

Below are excerpts from two recent conversations with Jordan Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Intellectually, he is following a path laid out by Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell in an attempt to draw psychological truths from the wisdom traditions, otherwise known as major religions (before our culture turned the word “religion” into a political slur and before everything had to be interpreted politically). Peterson moves beyond that in the second conversation, which ought to be of particular interest to artists. I find his thoughts on this subject compelling because I think religious faith draws its vitality from non-conscious wellsprings, just as great art does—faith and creativity both attempt to tap into a larger mind, a larger awareness, than the ego-centric, rational consciousness with its attempt to grip the reins and remain in the saddle of daily experience. For most of my adult life, I would say I’ve been totally in agreement with what Peterson says here, and yet as I get older I worry about an unquestioning embrace of “meaning”. What he says about the fundamental need for meaning is absolutely true, though I think it’s missing an acknowledgement that it ought to be hedged with hesitancy and caution. (Maybe I can venture reluctantly into that in the next post. This subject is pushing me, again, to make sense of why I paint and to question whether or not it adds up, which makes me uncomfortably curious.)

The craving for meaning is fundamental, maybe more fundamental than the instinct to survive itself. It may, at least, be indispensable to that instinct, as Victor Frankl suggested in his account of his time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, where prisoners who had no framework of meaning died much more readily than those who had a way to make sense of their suffering. I think Donald Kuspit is pointing toward this in much of his published criticism by positing eros, desire, as fundamental in the production of art, and there is definitely an erotic element in nothing more than the energy of oil paint applied to canvas in a certain way. Eros is the affirmation of life over death; so by definition art is erotic. But he means more than that: he means great art springs from obscure desires which have physical origins. Agreed, though that doesn’t exhaust the origin of the impulse to make art. The Freudian scheme for understanding desire and the psyche seems narrow to me, as it did to Jung. Peterson recognizes the search for meaning as an attempt to fish for moments of perfect alignment between who you are and what you are experiencing: almost mini-enlightenments. For me, the pursuit of meaning is like moving blindly through a dark, unfamiliar house by touch, groping uncertainly forward until you come across a lamp—and suddenly you recognize somewhere you might live and thrive, even if you don’t fully understand where you are or why you are there. You recognize a home. That’s pretty much how it feels to come across a song or painting, or create one, that resonates with life—it’s a shelter for your soul, it has “meaning” for you, even though the melody or image doesn’t signify anything specific or even intelligible. Sexual desire can have little or nothing to do with this particular moment. The experience lights up a world and becomes something you can inhabit; it’s a world where all of its elements make sense and belong to whatever order governs it, and it opens up your ability to be awake to yourself and the world as a unified whole. I often return to a favorite movie or song the way someone heads home, once again, after a hard day at work.

Anyway, here are Peterson’s observations, and I’ll save my other thoughts about this for one of the next few posts. Here is an admirable sample of the way he thinks, which is a willingness to live with ambiguities and uncertainties about what he knows (negative capability in the phrase from John Keats):

I’m doing the lectures to figure out what I think (about religion). I’m restricting myself to what I think is psychologically valid rather than theologically relevant. I’m not denying the possibility of meaning in these Biblical texts beyond the psychological. But I don’t feel I have the expertise to comment on it beyond that. Human beings are capable of profound religious experiences, and we have ways to induce these experiences. There are common patterns of religious experiences across cultures, which can be invoked by pharmacological means, and the scientific findings are that people who have these experiences benefit extraordinarily from them. You can’t extrapolate from these experiences that God necessarily exists. But you have to proceed with the observation that the religious experience is built into human beings at a very deep level, even an evolutionary level.

I think it’s . . . reasonable to consider what someone believes in terms of how they act. I do my best to act as if there’s a sovereign moral entity at the root of being. And I think even if that’s true only in a psychological sense that doesn’t make it trivial. That was Carl Jung’s observation. He thought of internal psychological and physiological unity, a unified mind and body, is an approximation to the self and also to Christ, which I think is an extraordinarily interesting idea. From a psychological perspective you could think of Christ as the perfect man but he’s also represented as a union of the divine and human. People are a strange union of divine and human and the divine part is the fact that we have this capacity for transcendent experience and that we are actually conscious. And that our consciousness seems to have a world-creating form. Those are things I’m certain of, but what exactly that implies I can’t say because I can’t understand it. There is an indescribable relationship between consciousness and being and I don’t think materialist reductionists have dealt with that issue at all. There are philosophers like Heidegger who have dealt with it, and psychologists like Jung who have dealt with it. We have no idea how the brain produces consciousness and we have no idea what the relationship is between consciousness and the brain itself, and it’s something that perplexes even the physicists.

And here is part of his very long, recent conversation with Dave Rubin:

You say, “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

Meaning is what you have to buttress yourself against the tragedy of life. It’s like engagement. We’re having an engaging conversation. We’ll walk away from this thinking that is worthwhile. That means that despite the fact that you are a fragile, damaged, mortal creature, you found something to do that announced itself as worthwhile. That’s meaning. It’s an instinct. It’s a deep, deep instinct. It’s maybe the deepest instinct. It’s like a form of vision. It’s not a specified sense. Meaning tells you when you’re in the right place. The right place is between chaos and order. Those are real hemispheres. Your right hemisphere has evolved to deal with things you don’t understand. Let’s say that’s chaos. Your left is there to deal with things you do understand. You can’t just stay with things you understand because you already understand them. You can’t stay with the things you don’t understand because you’re lost. You need to be in the middle of those two. You can tell when you’re in the middle of those two. You can tell when you’re in the middle, because everything lines up. You’re engaged. It’s meaningful. That’s what you pursue. Expedience . . . gets you off the hook right now. You play that game across time it doesn’t work. It sends you down. You’re sacrificing the future for the present. Meaning doesn’t do that. Meaning says I’m here right now where I should be. You can’t tell why. It’s just that everything is right. You get this physiological sense. Right place, right time, right conversation. That usually means you’re both trying to expand the way you look at the world. You follow this meaningful path, that’s your buttress against the tragedy that results in resentment and malevolence. That’s the fundamental religious truth. It’s really true. Life is suffering. That’s true. The world is malevolent. Meaning is the antidote to that. It’s not some kind of fragile epiphenomenon. It’s the deepest thing.

There’s usually a feeling that goes along with that.

People say, well, meaning isn’t real. It’s the most real thing. This isn’t a metaphysical assumption I’m making. You feel it in your body. It’s not an idea. It’s a place. We’re in time and space. A place is also a time. Your brain is telling you that: you got it right. It’s going to fall apart, because it’s not going to be there all the time. You go see a great movie, if you’re completely engaged in it, there’s no other way to put it, you’re at the right place at the right time. The meaning is the signal of that. The purpose of profound religious contemplation, profound philosophical contemplation, is to learn how to be in the right place at the right time, all the time. Now you can’t. You’re not perfect. But you can be there a lot more, because you can practice it. You watch yourself during the day. You’re, “oh yeah, I was right there, doing this piece of work, or listening to that piece of music. I got that illuminated moment. I need to learn how to be there more often.” There’s this line from The Gospel of Thomas: “The kingdom of God is spread out before the eyes of men, but men do not see it.” That’s kind of what it’s referring to. There are times when you are in the right place, at the right time, and you don’t say (to yourself) I have to figure out how to do this more. You aren’t trained to even notice that. It isn’t something we talk about. You don’t ask what did I do right? There’s something about this that’s right. What do I need to do to do this more? Maybe it’s half an hour a week when you start noticing. With three months of practicing you get up to an hour a day. We don’t know what the upper limit of that is. You know if you’re in a crowd where the music is really kicking in. Now and then you’ll get a band that’s just something else, and it’ll just snap in and it’ll go from good to great. You get this intense feeling that everything is lined up and in the right place. That’s why people go to concerts. It’s like this vision of how life could be. Everything lines up harmoniously. Every level of being harmoniously lined up, like music, like a symphony. That’s what you want to aim at.

If I can take it to basketball. It’s what players mean when you’re in a zone. The ball just keeps going in. You don’t even realize it. Afterward they’ll say that was a seven-minute stretch? Wow.

That’s the Tao. That’s what Taoists talk about. The line between chaos and order. That’s why people watch sports. A lot of it is competition and victory but the serious thing is being in the zone with that player. In Harry Potter in the quidditch game, there’s the ordinary game and there’s the seeker game on top of it where the seekers are going after this golden thing flickering in front of them. If they get that thing they win. And the team wins. She got it exactly right, that little thing is actually an ancient alchemical symbol for the union of chaos and order. It’s called the “round chaos.” It’s unbelievably obscure. I learned it from reading Jung.

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