The REAL reason Jordan Peterson is so dangerous

David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay E unibus pluram: television and US fiction, wrote that postmodern irony serves as a way of making us more at ease with our slavish attachments to the predictable cliches of visual culture, rather than helping us detach from it. As a result, a snotty, cynical attitude becomes a necessary part of the mass media culture, a way of feeling above the crowd, when we are merely absorbed by it.

Irony becomes an intellectual crutch, an end in itself, and culture comes to standstill. Foster Wallace admits that it was necessary for popular culture to break from the stifled past of precious and deceitful idealism. However, the same irony that deconstructed the suffocating lies of bourgeois conservatism, is now incapable of helping us create an alternative.

He said: ‘… irony, entertaining as it is, serves an exclusively negative function. It is critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.’

Foster Wallace goes on to say: ‘Anyone who has the gall to ask an ironist what he actually stand for ends up looking like a hysteric or a prig. And herein lies the oppressiveness of institutionalised irony, the too-successful rebel: the ability to interdict the question without attending to its content is tyranny. It is the new junta, using the very tool that exposed its enemy to insulate itself.’

Some might contest that not all irony is destructive, that it can actually be a very positive and progressive force. They would be right, of course. But even Christopher Hitchens, that fiery apostle of irony, noted the difference between his preferred, nuanced and contemplative irony, and the hip, nihilistic sneering of the current age. In the opening words of his Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote that there are many ways that the independent mind is patronised and misrepresented out of existence and one of them is to be given the title of ‘contrarian’. However, there is a more subtle form of attack:

‘To be called “satirical” or “ironic” is now to be patronised in a different way. The satirist is the fast-talking cynic and the ironist merely sarcastic or self-conscious and wised-up. When a precious and irreplaceable word like “irony” has become a lazy synonym for anomie, there is scant room for originality.’

The ubiquity of the jibe and the desire to tear down, to lash out at any form of enthusiasm and deeply held values, with a cocksure tone of superiority, then, is not only damaging to the culture. It also gives ammunition to the philistines, to those who are already suspicious of culture and the arts. The result is an unholy alliance of the hipster nihilist and the overly-proud Trumpian ignoramus.

And most worryingly, the only thing held to be of any sacred importance, is the conviction that nothing is sacred or important at all, and to reach for a positive value system is to be hopelessly childish, or worse, reactionary and nostalgic for an age of unified cultural hegemony.

Douglas Murray stumbled upon this in his 2016 book The Strange Death Of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, when diagnosing European intellectuals’ fevered reluctance to cultivate positive values in the face of an academic critique. Reflecting on his attendance at a fruitless and arcane philosophy conference, Murray wrote:

‘If there remains any overriding idea, it is that ideas are a problem. If there is any remaining commonly held value judgement, it is that value judgements are wrong. If there remains any remaining certainty it is a distrust of certainty. And if this does not add up to a philosophy, it certainly adds up to an attitude: shallow, unlikely to survive any sustained onslaught, but easy enough to adopt.’

Even before the television age, this broken, suspicious and contemptuous superiority can be traced as far back as the early 20th century, when the poetic guns of Ezra Pound were turned on the cosseted cynicism of his peers:

‘O generation of the thoroughly smug
/and thoroughly uncomfortable,
/I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
/I have seen them with untidy families,
/I have seen their smiles full of teeth/
and heard ungainly laughter.
/And I am happier than you are,
/And they were happier than I am;
/And the fish swim in the lake
/and do not even own clothing.’

Industrialisation had already disconnected Pound’s generation from the simple truth of crooked smiles and picnics in the sun. The pure dharma of a fish inhabiting his sea is lost on us, a generation of people born addicted to technology and convenience, sceptical of anything that reminds us of innocence and vulnerability.

This inherent distrust of meaning may be prevalent, essential even, in an age of mass communication, but it seems that Jordan Peterson, the now ubiquitous Jungian professor who for the last eighteen months has been telling us all to ‘tidy our rooms’ and ‘grow the hell up’, may have the escape route from this cycle of obedience and bafflement.

His new book 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos is at once merciless in its account of human frailty, and Romantically optimistic in its argument for living a wholesome, meaningful and dutiful life.

The foundation of Peterson’s synthesis of Jungian myth-reading and statistical psychology is his commitment to the idea that hierarchies are essential to life. Not only are they fundamental to our natural environment, but also our nervous systems are hard-wired to systems of dominance.

His use of the example of the lobster is much satirised but it comes from a hard science world-view, demonstrating that our neurological reward systems are evolutionarily linked to survival within dominance hierarchies. Lobsters, like humans, respond to status, and their brains release serotonin in a similar way to our own brains. When a lobster wins a fight, he becomes more brazen in his challenges of other lobsters. If he loses a fight, he becomes less prone to risking conflict. The difference is in serotonin levels.

The chemical induces a response, whereby the lobster becomes more erect, more courageous in exposing his vulnerabilities. Serotonin makes the lobster’s nervous system begin to predict success, rather than avoid failure. Peterson’s point is that a chemical used in modern anti-depression treatment, has the exact same effect on creatures from whom we departed evolutionarily over three million years ago. And just like humans recovering from depression, the lobster’s nervous system on serotonin creates a feedback loop for success.

This connection between humans and lobsters has profound implications for the way we see depression. Peterson shows that depression, rather than being a disease, like cancer or tuberculosis, is more like a psychological trap. The experience of failure, disposes us to expect more failure, and the experience of disappointment and fear means we fall quickly down the dominance hierarchy. Like the lobster, we start to slouch, and we begin to see hiding away from conflict as a guarantee of survival, as opposed to adopting a stance of readiness to fight, like the lobster whose serotonin disposes him to expect victory over his peers.

So not only are dominance hierarchies a fact of life, they are intimately linked to our experience of happiness and success. We will be happier the more status we enjoy. We can adapt ourselves to greater chances of fulfilment and success, if we reverse the negative psychological loops that drag us down into depressive thinking and the expectation of failure. Lobsters who have placed themselves lower down the dominance hierarchy can be made to act like dominant creatures when artificially given doses of serotonin. They become more erect, displaying the stance of dominance to their peers, and thus creating more of a chance of beating challengers.

Peterson’s critics accuse him of trying to use science to argue for a fatalistic view of injustice. However, Peterson is a scientist, and he demonstrates a nuanced understanding of evolution, as opposed to a ‘might-is right’, Victorian social-Darwinist view of human life. Nature, says Peterson, is neither romantic nor definitively cruel. It is both beautiful and destructive, and inequalities and suffering are as much a part of life as stunning sunsets or the mystery of childbirth.

Environments are not static. They too change, and some aspects of nature evolve more dynamically than others. The basic morphology of arms and hands stays the same but the actual length and shape of bones may change faster. Weather may change but climate stays the same. Evolution, says Peterson, ‘is chaos, within order, within chaos, within higher order.’ The old Victorian ideal of there being some clean, identifiable type of organism that will always survive, whose attributes lead to ever-increasing fitness to environment, is a myth. There is no template specified by the world, to which we are always moving towards. The templates themselves always change. All creatures are in a dance with nature. No one standing still will survive.

The way we have evolved to handle this flux between chaos and order is through the development of ‘culture’. Again, this is where Peterson comes up against his critics. Culture is not opposed to nature, he insists, but part of it.

‘There is little more natural than culture,’ write Peterson. ‘Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.’

This is important because many of the claims of modern activism and post-modernism are grounded in the idea that power is held unjustly as a product of oppression – whether it is the patriarchy, capitalism or some other conspiracy. For Peterson, dominance hierarchies are what create inequalities, and if we are to contend with them, we must first accept them as part of life.

He is not, as some have claimed, saying we should capitulate to existing hierarchies, or accept inequality as a given in all instances. Rather, that trying to fix cultural and biological problems through heavy-handed political solutions and ideological projects, is at best doomed, and at worst a highway to hell.

So rather than being some apologist for oppression, Peterson is at pains to insist that the only way to avoid the negative low-status loops of depression, and to avoid draining our our nervous systems of serotonin, is to reverse the chemical chain reaction. It is not the existence of hierarchies that is the problem, but our inability to face up to the facts of life, which causes depression. Just as negative loops are created by small events which lead to a cumulative experience of failure and low-self-esteem, so too can small, positive actions create positive feedback loops.

To be on the bottom of the dominance hierarchy, is to be in a constant state of reactivity. There are more threats, therefore serotonin is not very desirable. It is safer to hide, rather than be brave. 

Things can malfunction. Even when someone is relatively high in the hierarchy, the natural counters to chaos can go off, if certain key things are out of whack. This is why routine is so important. Without it, we live in a constant state of stress. Peterson says that when treating clients for depression, the first two things he asks about are sleep and eating. Without taking these into consideration first, depression, he says, is almost untreatable. The point is to manage mental healing, according to the way our nervous system actually works. Small steps like mastering sleep patterns and eating nutritional meals won’t make anxiety and depression disappear, but they can kick-start the nervous system into adapting itself for success. But we can’t do that if we are constantly blaming others, or raging against society as if it were a ‘rigged system’.

Peterson talks about agoraphobics, alcoholics and depressives as examples of people caught in a ‘positive feedback loop’ related to the parts of the brain associated with dominance and status. Alcohol may act as a counter to the negativity associated with low serotonin and low status, but the withdrawls become increasingly worse, meaning the alcoholic is caught in a loop of dependency to get that hit that counters to the feelings of low status. 

People who experience acute fear, may experience bursts of anxiety. This can then be triggered by the same situations where that fear was first experienced. The association then becomes more ingrained, so that eventually any instance of uncertainty can cause acute panic. The anxiety feeds on itself, so that the self shrinks and the dangerous world becomes ever larger. This is agoraphobia. Our anxiety systems tell us that anything we previously ran from must be dangerous. Anxiety creates more anxiety. Breathing becomes faster and shallower, and this leads to more fear, which just creates more anxiety. 

Depression makes us isolated and separated from friends and family. This makes us more useless and robs them of confidence, and then they become even more isolated and divorced from loved ones. It’s a vicious cycle. 

This is also the case with people who are bullied. They become more slouched and make less eye contact, meaning they become more likely to be bullied. The slide down the dominance hierarchy is fast and slick, once the positive feedback loop has been initiated. 

People who have gone through some experience that makes them wary of aggression may find it hard to release such emotions. This can make them more susceptible to bullying and tyrannical behaviour. Peterson says, ironically, that demonstrating a capacity for aggression makes it increasingly unlikely that you will have to use it. Failing to do so, makes you more likely to become a victim of it. 

Peterson says that in treating clients who believe that being harmless is the best way to survive, he invites them to see the link between their harmlessness and their resentments. It is only by admitting to and looking at their resentments that they are able to see what needs to be done to redress imbalances in their lives. Peterson also translates this to society-wide problems. Bureaucracies and tyrannies feed off people’s submission, the act of going along to get along. This creates festering resentment which can often become cruel and pathological. For Peterson, the only way to avoid this is for the individual to confront their resentments and stand up for themselves, and not allow such resentments to embed themselves. 

It is therefore necessary that we stand up for ourselves, show our teeth, and maintain strong boundaries. If we do not, we sink into a personal hell, but we are also contributing to the hell of those around us.

As much as all of this relates to Peterson’s clinical practice, it also helps us understand his politics. If we allow ourselves to fall into negative, reactive loops, then of course culture is going to appear to us oppressive, and our experiences will continue to confirm this. It is essential, according to Peterson, that we break this loop; not just for our own psychological health, but the for the health of culture and society as a whole. His admonitions about ‘taking responsibility’ or ‘tidying your room’, despite becoming memes and cliches in their own right, are actually grounded in a pragmatic view of how a healthy individual can build his or her relationship with their environment, with society, and with ‘Being’ itself.

Peterson can come off overly traditional. The sceptical mind may see the sense in what he is saying, but still feel resistant to the idea of ‘sucking it up’ and buying the apparent proposition that only conformism and traditional virtues are the key to a fulfilled life. However, beneath the apparent conformist orientation of Peterson’s idea of psychological health and society, there is something thrillingly subversive. We don’t ‘stand up straight with our shoulders back’ because he is telling us to. We do so because it empowers us, it puts us back in the existential cockpit. The message of responsibility that is much talked about in explaining Peterson’s appeal, is also a message of liberation.

We don’t eat good food because lifestyle columnists tell us to. We don’t stick to daily routines because we get brownie points from our elders or our peers. We do these things because they actually free us from being at the mercy of external forces, whether they are cultural, psychological or political.

That status and human happiness are intimately linked throws light on the high levels of depression in our consumerist culture. Feelings of despair and meaninglessness seem to be exacerbated by the dominant values of the contemporary economy, which encourages an almost pathological obsession with material success, gossip and self-esteem based on constant social comparison. 

A further offshoot from Peterson’s understanding of dominance hierarchies and the way serotonin creates feedback loops around failure and victory, is his insistence that we can only develop ourselves if we compare ourselves to who were in the past, rather than everyone else around us. We need our internal critic, because we need some standards in order to live a meaningful life. We need to be able to tell ourselves that some behaviours are preferable to others. However, as a clinical psychologist, Peterson recognises the dangers of this voice, and the role it can play in maintaining negative spirals towards nihilism and depression.

Comparing ourselves to unrealistic templates of success, or to peers whose lives bear no resemblance to the challenges of our own, can only make matters worse. This critical comparison is a recipe for serotonin drainage. However, realistic and nuanced comparisons are healthy, and can be motivating. It is this subtle difference between realistic and unrealistic standards of success and fulfilment, that seems to underpin Peterson’s concept of psychological health.

The effect of internet connectivity and mass media on our dominance hierarchy is extensive. Peterson notes that in the past a decent amount of talent might have propelled someone to the top of their local dominance hierarchy, and the path to further elevation for other competitors would have been relative clear. Today however, Peterson says, ‘our hierarchies of accomplishment are now dizzyingly vertical.’ Meaning, the competition for top dog in any sphere is now almost impossible to penetrate.

A good example of this can be found in the music industry. The best guitar player in a provincial city may be the biggest fish in a small pond, but this exceptional talent is no guarantee of industry success. Not even close. There is simply too much competition, to the point where talent becomes almost irrelevant. A traditional idea of success in the music industry can no longer be a sustainable ideal for anyone choosing to live this life. The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of limos and large hotel suites and long world tours filled with sex and luxurious decadence, just doesn’t happen anymore. The market is saturated and the demand is lower. The same is true for many other models of success across various industries.

The upshot of this is that most of us are destined to live near the very bottom of our dominance hierarchies, unless we alter our concept of what success is, and we start to judge success according to alternative metrics. One way of dealing with this, would be to adopt a cynical defensiveness, to subject the culture as a whole to a resentful and withering critique, and thus to sustain one’s psychological integrity through a manageable nihilism. This is close to what David Foster Wallace was warning us about in 1990. Sarcasm, paranoia and treating human relationships as if they are nothing but power plays, is the mark of this world view, and it appears to be the dominant tone of popular culture.

Another way of dealing with this challenge, one which has also gained a lot of sway in the prevailing culture, is the simplistic ‘positive thinking’ of new age spirituality. Peterson notes that delusional thinking was actually recommended for a time by professional social psychologists, given the fact that dominance hierarchies were becoming ever more vertical and difficult to ascend.

Peterson’s view is that we must reject the delusional wish-fulfilment of the new agers, as it means living our lives under a fog of lies. This can only lead to even greater levels of disillusionment and despair, and as a result is dangerous to society as a whole. However, being cynical about the very possibility of living a meaningful life, is no better, and no closer to truth. Peterson says, ‘Talking yourself into irrelevance is not a profound critique of Being. It’s a cheap trick of the rational mind.’

Neither of these half-baked solutions actually protects us from the downward spirals of negative feedback loops and depression. Peterson’s view is that we should actively embrace suffering. We must be mercilessly realistic with ourselves, before we can carve out a meaningful life. We must acknowledge the fact that life is often miserable and terrifying, and that we ourselves are prone to laziness and self-deception. Given these brutal facts of life, we can actually start to make a progress of sorts, we can see that small improvements, rather than perfectionist accomplishments, are more sustainable.

Peterson can often come off as deeply grim and pessimistic. However, his insistence that we face the suffering of human life is actually inspiring. Seeing the world this way frees us from black and white thinking about success and failure, and leaves us free to define our own ideal of success, and therefore to be in charge of what makes our lives meaningful. Instead of getting lost in outdated ideas of success and comparing ourselves to others, Peterson urges us to:

‘Dare, instead, to be dangerous. Dare to be truthful. Dare to articulate yourself, and express (or at least become aware of) what would really justify your life.’

Peterson takes this insight much further than success advice, however. He believes this  critical distinction between realistic and perfectionist ideas of success, is at the heart of difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The Old Testament God is a wide abstraction from the experience of dominance hierarchies. He is a terrifying judge, and he dishes out cosmic punishments and rewards. The New Testament God, however, as embodied in the ideal of Christ, is an abstraction of every individual’s choice to ‘live voluntarily.’

According to Peterson, this is the spirit of the West; a movement from top down commandments, towards nurturing the desire to do good because it is the most likely way of creating happiness on earth. The ideal found in Christ is a positive vision of the individual, someone who is not merely obedient, but who chooses good actively, because they have the breadth of vision to know it is the right thing in the long run, even in the light their own selfishness and moral limitations.

Peterson’s genius here is in uniting a knowledge of biological dominance hierarchies and Christian ethics. Even better, the resulting synthesis is supremely pragmatic and manages to be both scarily realist in its view of human nature, while also being life-affirming. We do not shy away from the inner critic, the voice which connects us to our evolutionary hierarchies. However, neither do we frame our lives as zero-sum games. We see our daily job as one of careful progress, rather than wholesale dominance, and thus we learn to find a deep meaning and self-respect in the small incremental victories we gain over the inevitable hardships of our lives. We can become resilient in the face of disaster, and competent when faced with chaos. Even death itself, viewed from this perspective, can bring a heightened sense of the beauty of our tiny lives.

xxx

The notion of sacrifice is intrinsic to Peterson’s view of personal development. The myths of Abraham and Christ, for Peterson, have deep evolutionary significance. The idea of sacrifice is intimately linked to the ‘discovery of the future’. That is, delaying sensual gratification in the present for survival in the future, is something that distinguishes humans, and allows us to main dominance in the evolutionary chain. On a tribal level too, delayed gratification is the necessary in the formation of what we now call ‘society’.

Biblical myths of sacrifice, for Peterson, demonstrate a cultural evolution in the understanding that I might delay my own needs being satisfied in the immediate present, so that my family, my tribe, and my nation, might survive in the long terms. The Adam and Eve story, Abraham’s call to kill his own son, and the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ of God’s son going to the cross, are all ways of dramatically articulating the importance of delayed gratification in the cultural evolution of humanity.

However, understanding sacrifice as merely bargaining with God would be too reductionist. Peterson is at his most insightful and penetrating in the discussion of the myth of Cain and Abel. Both these biblical brothers offer sincere sacrifices to God, but only one is favoured: Abel. Cain becomes resentful, enraged at not being given his due, and murderous of his own hero, Abel, who for an unknown reason is the object of God’s love.

It is better to please God, to offer sacrifice, rather than to indulge ourselves. For Peterson this is the pre-conceptual, emerging awareness that satisfaction of the sense is not always the best option, that it is worth the pay-off to take a hit now, for survival and happiness in the years to come. Some may argue, as Sam Harris does, that such interpretations of otherwise very brutal and primitive stories is too convenient. That there is no real method of measuring the veracity of such speculations, other than that they sound good.

However, there is evolutionary insight here. It is better to delay gratification, but as with the Cain and Abel story, this is no guarantee of utopian deliverance. God may always disappoint us. And thus we easily descend into war and bitterness, jealousy and rage. And for Peterson, it is this psychological insight, though played out in extreme and violent stories, that is important. Cain does everything right. He loves his brother, his hero, and he loves God. But when he doesn’t get what he feels he deserves, when he feels that the very real sacrifices he made are being punished, rather than rewarded, he murders his brother, tearing down his highest ideal, as a way of getting revenge on God.

Peterson points to the writings of school shooters and well-known psychopaths, to drive home his point. He quotes Eric Harris, the Columbine killer, whose last entries in his diary were curiously human, chillingly familiar in the contemplation of his own fragility, and in the one-pointed obsession with revenge. What’s common among these bloodthirsty killers is a distaste for Being itself, a desire to inflict punishment on the innocent, merely for existing. Such evil manifests, in Peterson’s words, ‘to protest the intolerable vagaries of Being.’ It’s one thing to undergo suffering, but to be subject of conscious, determined cruelty and malevolence can damage people for life. It was the sense that Cain was punished for his virtues that drove him to murderous rage.

Peterson’s claims about this phenomenon may not be decisive. His wisdom is built on experience as a clinician, but not a complete scientific proof. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves there is something terrifyingly resonant with this account of human evil. We claim not to be able to understand psychotic killers, school shooters and fanatical terrorists, but we understand them perfectly at the deepest level. We know the rage and fury that arises from the punishment of our virtues, from the arbitrariness of tragedy in the face of our most well-meaning and sincere sacrifices. When the best part of ourselves is met with contempt, ridicule or worse, indifference, we become mad. And if we undergo deliberate abuse by a loved one, it does not take much for us let go of our moral sense, and unleash a desire for revenge on God, or existence itself.

Peterson quotes Jung in saying that, ‘No tree can grow to heaven, unless its roots reach down to hell.’ Only when we explore the depths of our own malice, rage, resentment and capacity for evil, can we really make a sacrifice deep enough and large enough to counteract the suffering brought about by human evil. And it is this understanding of psychological development, that undergirds Peterson’s fascinating analysis of the story of Jesus Christ.

Unlike Cain, Jesus did not give into the temptations of the Devil. Peterson gives a psychological exposition of the ‘forty days and forty nights’ Christ spent in the desert. First the Lord is tempted to use his power to turn rocks into bread. Secondly, Satan urges him to throw himself off a cliff, and if he is the son of God, surely he will be saved by his divine father? Thirdly, Satan shows him the nations of the earth, which could be subject to Christ’s own supreme power, if only he chose to wield it. All of these sacrifices show Christ choosing to live well, to adopt a correct mentality towards life, rather than seeking immediate gratification.

Cain is contrasted with Christ. Cain descends into the wilderness of the soul. He feels exploited and oppressed. He gives into the temptations of the Devil and nurses a malice and rage against life itself, and plots revenge on God. Christ, on the other hand, goes into the desert for real, willingly, for 40 days and nights. Enough to really know the truth of himself and his fragility as a man. Jesus confronted his own gluttony, selfishness and desire for power, and only in doing so was he able to understand humanity’s capacity for sin.

It is only in our confrontation with evil, in owning our own ability to be jealous, greedy and lustful of earthly power, that we can hope to live well. Once we realise that we too have the same potential for evil as an Auschwitz guard or a school shooter, can we have the knowledge necessary to rise above the cycles of revenge and Machiavellian struggle that hold human beings in bondage and lead them into the depths of psychological hell.

For Peterson, Christ’s death on the cross is a symbol of a massive shift in cultural consciousness, an actual leap in evolution for humanity. It is the pre-conceptual understanding that it is better to live well, than to merely satisfy our desires in the present; and at the same time, that this right attitude, must be maintained in the face of the worst suffering. A failure to demonstrate this resilience in the face of despair and the temptations of power, leads us down the path of Cain, of resentment and rage.

What’s important here, is that Peterson is offering an unflinching view of intrinsic human evil, while rehabilitating our once commonly held belief in our own ability to transcend this ‘original sin’. There are some extremely learned and detailed digressions in Peterson’s book, on the critique of modernity by both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky. Both authors knew that the scientific refutation of Christianity’s metaphysical claims to fact, were bound to leave a vacuum in human civilisation. For Peterson, the great anxiety of our time is that in losing this framework for God, we lose the very thing that gave rise to scientific knowledge and human progress in the first place: the obligation to live for the the future, by sacrificing the now.

Peterson defines living meaningfully as ‘the development of character in the face of suffering.’ He says:

‘Expedience is the following of blind impulse. It’s short-term gain. It’s narrow, and selfish. It lies to get its way. It takes nothing into account. It’s immature and irresponsible. Meaning is its mature replacement. Meaning emerges when impulses are regulated, organised and unified. Meaning emerges between the interplay of the possibilities of the world and the value structure operating within that world. If the value structure is aimed at the betterment of Being, the meaning revealed will be life-sustaining. It will provide the antidote for chaos and suffering. It will make everything matter. It will make everything better.’

Many of the atheistic bent will remain determined to dismiss Peterson’s expositions of the gospels and mythical tradition, as unfalsifiable and arbitrary. However, Peterson is not just resuscitating the ideals of sacrifice and religious ethics, merely to make YouTube videos that make people feel better about themselves. If anything, his videos and interviews can be quite brutal in their insistence on the pervasiveness of human evil. He offers, however, both a connection to the past, and a way forward for people to maintain their own psychological integrity in the face of their own bitterness and resentment.

To adopt a new-age view of our own potential, or to fall into political ideology, is to be utopian and disingenuous about the human condition. However, to fall back on the crutch of hopelessness and cynicism about life and our place within it, is to open ourselves up to equally dangerous totalitarianisms. Peterson’s middle path is one of careful, realistic psychological progress in the face of undeniable suffering and the often arbitrary nature of tragedy. Cleaning our rooms, maintaining a schedule, living life in the service of a higher purpose that transcends sensual pleasure, these are the tiny rituals that stand between human fragility and violent hell. In a word, it is the act of giving life meaning, that saves us from turning descendinging into self-destruction.

xxx

 

David Foster Wallace saw no relief in the digitalisation of culture, from the captive passivity of image obsession, and the corresponding irony and sneering superiority that comes with it. We cling to postmodernism, to the fracturing of truth, because it serves a purpose, it helps us to feel aloof and detached, while we subconsciously give ourselves over to enraptured attention. Nothing about social media would have surprised Foster Wallace.

He speculated that the writers of the future might return to sincerity and reverence, away from nihilistic posturing, towards a sentimental naivety, open to accusations of anachronism and conservatism. Such accusations could be, and increasingly are, thrown at Peterson by postmodernists and atheist reductionists alike. For someone whose career is firmly based on the YouTube platform, his message is very much the antithesis of the values that dominate visual culture.

There’s something thrilling about Peterson’s call to ‘be dangerous’. It is not his wars against political correctness that make him a threat. Nor his merciless emphasis on humanity’s capacity for evil. Both of these are inconvenient to the wider agendas of the mass media. Peterson’s often surly and barbed pessimism is never going to sell Pepsi or beauty products. However, it is not these battles that make him such a threat to the dominant narratives of our time. It is, rather, his single-handed rehabilitation of meaning.

Peterson is often asked why he is popular. Why has this dry, rambling and frequently grave professor struck a chord with the young, and particularly young men? His answer is usually to say that young people secretly crave responsibility, because responsibility makes life meaningful, and gives them a reason to get up in the morning.

This is true, but perhaps it is not the whole story. Maybe the reason is that his revitalised conception of a meaningful life offers us an alternative to the nihilistic sarcasm and naive suggestibility that go hand in hand with popular culture. The person who lives meaningfully, who has chosen to take responsibility for their own capacity for evil and to live well in the face of such a terrifying fact, is almost immune to ideological suggestion and psychic manipulation.

For a long time, the most expedient way of guaranteeing one’s own resilience in the face of propaganda or consumer agendas, was cynicism. This explains the seductiveness of postmodernism. Now that this very cynicism and fracturing of truth threatens to become a kind of tyranny in itself, Peterson is offering a remarkably strong and simple alternative way of maintaining personal integrity.

Living meaningfully is to be truly self-dependent. We ‘volunteer’ our own suffering, we become the source of our own inspired purpose. Peterson puts great stock in the hero myth, whether it is Christ, Horus or Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The hero descends into darkness and discovers truth. The truth reinvigorates the nation state, replenishes the land. Unlike Joseph Campbell, however, there’s no easy fix for self-esteem here, no reassuring slogan such as ‘follow your bliss’. Rather, we make ourselves heros by resolving to make small, incremental steps towards the best possible scenario we can envision for our lives, and we do it knowing that tragedy and despair are inevitable and in fact part of the deal.

Peterson’s message puts us in mind of Blake’s Jerusalem:

‘Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
\

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

 

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land.’

An individual who resolves to become the source of their own sense of purpose and meaning, secured by discipline and honesty with his or herself, becomes impervious to suggestion, whether it is ideological manipulation, political demagoguery or consumer advertising. In a culture that is contemptuous of human will, and which equates freedom with self-indulgence, no message could be more thrillingly dangerous.

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The films of Peter Nestler

Last week, Close Up cinema in east London showed a retrospective of the German filmmaker Peter Nestler.

Nestler’s films are beyond documentaries. He is not engaging in mere journalism. Nor are these films essays, whereby Nestler expounds on working class life or the ravishing changes of industry.

Rather, Nestler is a kind of poet connecting the dots between environmental shifts and the resilience of human beings. Whether it is the innocence of schoolchildren, or the contemplative suffering of community elders, Nestler presents us with the enduring joy of the human heart.

Dike Sluice tells the story of a seaside village undergoing the changes brought by post war development, but from the point of the small river itself.

Through the slightly ironic monologue of the sluice, Nestler captures the fragility of man’s place in the wider ecology, and without preaching he emphasises the loss of that place through technological change. The film shows us what is being lost, without descending into polemic of Jeremiad.

In Up The Danube, we return to the subject of rivers. This time the beauty of the east European landscape is shown to us in grand, wide shots as a narrator tells the stories of uprisings, peasant revolts and battles that have shaped the personalities of culture.

Ordinary working people are seen going about their daily tasks, working the river as they have done for centuries. Children play on the banks. Castles and fortresses rise up from the lush greenery and pierce the grey, historic skies.

What results is a testament to the many thousands of years of suffering and bloodshed that have formed the beauty and peacefulness of the European countryside. Nature and culture don’t just exist side by side, they create each other and augment each other. Where there is beauty, there has been death. Where there is change, there is the durable consciousness of history.

A Working Men’s Club In Sheffield was the masterpiece of this programme. Shot in and around the Dial Working Men’s Club in Sheffield in 1965, we are transported to way of life that was already vanishing at the time of filming. This is a moving and at times breathtaking account of the vibrant community that surrounded the dark metalworks and factories of Sheffield before the collapse of British industry.

Nestler immerses himself in this community, resisting any temptation to sentimentalise working class life, or to rage about the injustices of the grinding toil at the heart of this way of life. As always, Nestler is interested in the personalities that create the world he is filming, whether it is the personality of the city or the people that populate it.

There is humour and joy, pathos and melancholy, but all presented in an intimate way, never distancing us from the subjects of the film, but bringing us closer to them, and to ourselves.

For all the hardship and graft, the lives of these talented and forgotten people were untouched by the homogeneity and toxic noise of brand coffee shops and pedestrian high streets. This is an England of a calm, dutiful work ethic, a witty, unselfconscious endurance.

Local people take to the stage throughout the film, each displaying their own talents for song or performance. The level of ability it striking. One man, perhaps a recent immigrant to England, has a voice like Frank Sinatra. A young couple sings a Bob Dylan song with aching promise, captured in the glamour of a 16mm glow. A pedal steel guitar player plays daring and rambunctious lines of music with the steady glance of a butcher cutting his daily meat.

All of this is spliced with shots of the dark furnaces of metal factories, or the smokey backstreets of city slums. The flower of the human soul bursts open wide despite the blackening creep of industrial life.

Instead of sitting round a TV showing Pop Idol, people lived their lives as actors upon a self-made stage. Obscured by class and back-breaking work, they nevertheless were able to walk with dignity. Today, working life is luxurious and dull in comparison, but one wonders whether we have the same room for personal flourishing and self-respect that people did 50 years ago.

Nestler achieves a masterful voice through remaining responsive to his subjects. He does not impose an auteuristic vision upon the world he strives to capture, but instead listens to that world, searching for the stories want to be told.

This is a director who makes films in the same way Woody Guthrie wrote songs. There is a humility and simplicity in his technique, a sense of service towards the human spirit for its own sake.

 

Liam Gallagher’s As You Were puts a much-needed stridency back into rock ‘n’ roll

It’s one thing to scatter new seeds, another thing completely to cultivate the land. With the tragic loss of Tom Petty, rock ‘n’ roll lost one its most important guardians. Thank God we still have Liam Gallagher.

From Wall Of Glass down to For What It’s Worth, we have a settling of scores, an uncompromising simplicity of purpose.

Wall Of Glass is a wailing, unapologetic explosion of masculine power. The song presents the chief emotion of the album. That being: ‘I’m at the top of my game, and more’s the pity for you.’

Many of the songs to follow have an enemy in their sights, and at all times it seems that enemy is an incarnation of the modern disease, the distracted, careerist, Blairite spreadsheet monkeys, with their green tea and hot yoga.

The thudding opening chords of Bold are refreshingly simple, carrying the opening line into a quiet euphoria. ‘Gonna take you off my list of to-dos…’ This is a mature and calm manifesto of the rebellious spirit. I ain’t dead yet.

Greedy Soul needs to be played live. Nevertheless, it’s an exhilarating rise in temperature, while maintaining the emotional voice of Bold.

Paper Crown is a child-like metaphor, but as the song progresses it becomes a deeper and more powerful image. What kind of paper is the crown made of? I can’t help thinking it’s yesterday’s newspaper, bringing you the hard truth you can’t bear to see.

Of course there are shades here of Dylan’s Queen Jane Approximately – where’s all your power now your beauty has faded? But it’s worse than that. It’s the vinegar-soaked paper of an old chip packet, the mistakes of the past that can’t be origami’d into something new.

The bridge is a direct lift from Lennon’s Jealous Guy, but adds a slight operatic and dreamy quality to an otherwise straight-shooting Ashcroft-eque indie ballad. My favourite line is: ‘The hounds of hell won’t lie down on the ashes of your Paper Crown’.

Musically, a change of gear occurs with Come Back To Me and Doesn’t Have To Be That Way. The first of these is a jumpy, britpop stadium anthem. In its heart it’s a seduction song in the vein of Hendrix’s Foxy Lady. This track has one of the few outright rock solos on it, but nothing proggy or masturbatory. The Gallagher tone is never compromised, and the piano driven coda adds a swaggering, Happy Mondays feel to the fade out.

Doesn’t Have To Be That Way has some surprising shades of Human League and eighties Bowie, with a powerful opening homage to Hacienda techno. This song is new territory for Gallagher, but you can tell he is having fun, stretching his vocals and allowing the snarl of his voice to ride a different kind of beat.

This song has the quality of many radio tunes of the nineties, songs that Oasis would have given a wide berth. The guitar solo is very Doorsy, a searing slide psychedelia adding a vintage seasoning to what is really a dance-floor pop track.

For all its ‘back-to-basics’ qualities, this is a fresh and creative album that doesn’t rest on cliches and ‘the right way’ to write a song. There is a stridency, and that, more than any other factor, is what Gallagher brings to the table.

Some musos will object to Gallagher’s branding of modern music as boring and ‘beige’, but he’s not saying there’s no talent, or that people don’t rock out. He’s pointing to the fact that what passes for a ‘good song’ these days is technical accomplishment, rather than a desire to drive home a point.

Go to any open mic in London, and you are likely to find many great writers and musicians, content only to sing to their own navels. The lyrics are merely brushstrokes in self-contained little masterpieces. Nothing grabs you by the throat.

The missing link in modern music is not the talent, not technique, not the ingenuity of the songs. It’s an attitude, a point-of-view, a desire to wrestle with the perceptions of the audience, to carve experience down to potent bullets of common human understanding.

Gallagher makes no excuses for the fact that he is not re-inventing the wheel. The tendency towards demanding innovation for innovation’s sake has led to the conflation of ‘difference’ with ‘originality’.

Just doing something new and different doesn’t mean you are creating a shift in the culture. And doing something familiar doesn’t mean you are resorting to cliches either.

Anyone can be different. Being original requires being in the right place at the right time with the right tools.

Liam Gallagher’s album is an opportunity for rock ‘n’ roll to regroup.

Strange Days: Revisiting a classic Doors album

 Edinburgh in mid-Autumn can be a cold, lonely and haunted place. The sky is blanketed by a faceless mask of cloud, and at night the orange streetlights reflect a dreary turmeric pall across the city.

And it’s windy. Irritating winds, that muffle your conversations and your thoughts. Winds that cocoon you in a morose isolation.

On Saturdays at my boarding school we were allowed ‘uptown’ for a couple of hours in the afternoons, and the typical day out would be a trip to HMV on Prince’s Street then a milkshake at MacDonalds, and then run home for a dinner of dry, chewy beef and roast potatoes. Maybe you could steal a brief conversation from a pretty girl if you sat at the right table.

All the while the breezy darkness was closing in on you. Time running out, and your rationing of privacy and freedom running out too.

On one of these horrible windy days, I walked up Cockburn Street to a newly opened Fopp. Having recently discovered The Doors, I spotted a cassette of Strange Days, which I immediately bought for £4.99.

I wish I still had this tape. In the coming weeks, huddled in my icy room with bear walls and linoleum flooring, I’d listen to Strange Days over and over again. The barren, banshee-like screaming organ lines were perfect for the strained whine of cassette, which added to the discomforting and exhilarating circus-gothic mood of the album.

September 1967, when this album was originally released, would have been the anxious comedown after the naked highs of the Summer of Love. The choice of title and the first track being all the more fascinating as a result.

Strange Days. An echoing Manzarek organ gives way to chiming guitar and a rolling jazz-march on the tom-toms. ‘Strange Days have tracked us down…’ This is not the manifesto of liberation, this is not a flower power declaration of intent. Morrison’s voice glides across the beat like a melted liquorice narcotic.

‘The hostess is grinning, her guests sleep from sinning.’ Free love anyone?

You have the feeling of falling into a death-trance, the clouded hangover vision of backstreet whorehouses and doss rooms, the lantern glow of chinatown. The word ‘strange’ repeats through the lyrics like a dance motif, a lyrical melody, and Morrison draws out is drawling vowels like he’s spinning silk.

The deep cuts are the best cuts. Love Me Two Times is on every good compilation, but Unhappy Girl is a lost masterpiece. Along with Lost Little Girl, this song paints a picture of broken innocence, urban corruptions chiselling away at the mind of the American prom queen.

Unlike Dylan’s Miss Lonely, however, Morrison’s lost girls are a little more knowing, a little more complicit in their own intoxicating demise. For Morrison, losing one’s virgin soul is not the stuff immortal tragedy, it doesn’t symbolise the unthinking hubris of a generation. It’s simply the seductive self-destruction of freedom. It’s human nature. There’s no shock of surprise realisation.

Perhaps the strange days are the days of aftermath, when the sexual revolution turns to the terror of unshackled desires and liberation becomes licentious hunger. ‘You’re charged in a prison of your own device.’

Strange Days is an album that proves psychedelia doesn’t need to be mass, sprawling guitar jams and self-indulgent riffs and muso compositions for the initiated. Strange Days is mostly made up of tight, well-written and crafted pop songs, with suggestive, imaginative lyrical flourishes and dynamic mixes of tenderness and explosiveness.

Whatever you feel about The Doors, they knew how to lay down a song. Their albums are always crafted, thematically complete and integrated works of art.

Strange Days is a kind of drug album – of its time, but the antithesis of the zeitgeist of that moment. The psychedelia exists in the open spaces of the chilly soundscapes, as well as in the open-ended lyrics, which point to unseen torment rather than laboured dread.

Minimalism is not a word associated with The Doors, but in terms of how the actual compositions relate to the overwhelming effect of the songs, it’s absolutely appropriate. The organ riffs are manic but never crammed with notes. The drumming is thunderous but equally capable of a calm, massaging accompaniment.

Krieger’s guitar takes flight when the moment calls for it, and yet he never takes centre-stage. The solos are more like country or early rock and roll solos than they are hard cock rock eruptions of sound.

Morrison’s vocal style here is studied and restrained. He is experimenting with mic technique, adopting a lullaby intimacy as a counterpoint to his trademark booze-soaked yawp.

Horse Latitudes is a poem about death, and again, human nature. The performance here still creeps me out, and acts as a kind of avant garde balance to the streamlined pop songwriting of the first side of the record.

Two back to back hidden beauties, My Eyes Have Seen You and Can’t See Your Face, are Morrison at his most uncomfortably voyeuristic.

My Eyes is a short precursor to LA Woman. It’s a song of lust and sex – go figure. But whereas The Stones’ Straycat Blues is a one-dimension and lovable testament to groupie orgies and sixties free love, Morrison’s imagery creates a cinematic noir around the urban, transactional awkwardness of sexual encounters.

‘Free from disguise,
Gazing on a city under television skies,
Television skies, television skies

Let them photograph your your soul,
Memorize your alleys on an endless roll,
endless roll, endless roll’

The city and the female form are deliberately and subtly conflated. As in LA Woman, the girl’s body is a fractured landscape, an untravelled world to be captured in time, in the ripeness of the dying moment. Imprisoned in the polished gloss of celluloid. 

‘Carnival dogs consume the lines’ – no idea what that means but it is wonderfully predatory and manic. Can’t See Your Face is a paranoid song, but the delivery from Morrison is liquid elegance, allowing his voice to easefully trip off the consonants with relish, despite the almost schizophrenic nature of the words – ‘I can’t seem to find the right lie’.

Both these songs revolve around love as a doomed photographic effort, the futility of seeking to apprehend the shadowed soul of another. As a result, both these masterpieces are songs about loneliness and despair, just as much as the more overt People Are Strange is.

Legend has it that The Doors recorded the music for When The Music’s Over without Morrison, the singer being somewhere on the Sunset Strip boozing and fucking.

The lyrical improvisations in the band’s epic rock crescendos like The End and Music’s Over, were made on top of crafted spaces left by the band. They weren’t winging it, in other words.

Densmore’s drumming in particular evolves itself around Morrison’s careful, cat-like phrases. The band know when to pull back, and to push behind Morrison when the eruptions of angst come.

A great example of this is the way Densmore’s rolls curl round Morrison’s delivery at:

‘The face in the mirror won’t stop
The girl in the window won’t drop
A feast of friends alive she cried,
Waiting for me outside’

‘I want to hear the scream of the butterfly’ is said to be a reference to Chang Tzu’s poem about a butterfly, the sound being the inaudible sound of the soul beyond the veil of death. Or something like that. In any case, that’s probably what Morrison was getting at.

As life-affirming as this tour de force is, Morrison’s Birth Of Tragedy philosophy always teetered on the edge of nihilism. At times it seemed the best he could hope for was one final burst of poetic thrills before death came stalking.

However, there’s something overtly Romantic – in the Keats/Shelley sense of the word, about Music’s Over. Life is not worth living without art. Without beauty and self-expression, we are reduced to boredom and selfishness. Our vision is impaired without the primal and ecstatic growth offered to us by the ritual of rock n roll.

Without this song there would be no Patti Smith’s Horses. The poetic improv about raping the earth, points to the idea that it is the communal ceremony of togetherness and erotic connection afforded us by rock n roll, which frees us from our own narcissism.

Throughout Morrison’s poems and lyrics there is this homage to the primal and primeval. Music’s Over, like The End, reaches an orgasm before sinking back into a melodic coda. But unlike The End, there is an uplifting sense of possibility; we’ve undergone a ritualised death, a bacchanalian form of worship that helps us expunge our inwardness and exorcise hopelessness.

In that dim, lifeless study over twenty years ago, I think I was captivated by this album because of its atmosphere. Paranoia and aloneness are woven delicately with strains of fragile melodies and bluesy vocal phrasings. Pain and joy wrapped together like lovers in a tantric statue.

I was also enthralled by Morrison’s observational writing, the way he could capture a soul, photograph it, with only a few lyric strokes.

These days, it’s not as cool to like The Doors as it is to profess love of The Velvet Underground. However, Strange Days is the best counterexample to the tired and typical charges thrown at Morrison and this band. There is nothing overblown, nothing extraneous. You’ll find no extra fat on the cinematic bones of these songs.

What stops The Doors, and this album, being more popular is the fact that despite all the noir and the sexual paranoia, the songwriting is optimistic and poetically earnest.

Nothing could be more uncool these days, of course. And yet nothing could be more needed than the poise, subtlety and life-affirming craft exhibited by The Doors on Strange Days.

Strange Days will be reissued on an anniversary double disc remaster on November 17. Pre-order your copy here

 

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Sixty Years at Tate Britain

Sixty Years at Tate Britain is a journey through the events of British post-war history, seen refracted in the prism of work by artists from 1960s to today.

The opening blurb tells us that each piece in the collection is a response to narratives and issues such as ‘immigration, feminism, racial and sexual identity, AIDS activism, music and club culture’.

The show is explicitly political, and political in a very particular, post-modern sense. The Britain presented here is not the Britain of Churchill, empire and high gothic ambition. Each piece appears to have been chosen for its explicitly non-historic, anti-patriotic sensibility.

Jon Savage’s Uninhabited London series is a strong example of the kind of searching, slightly nihilistic eye that this exhibition wants to celebrate.

His pictures show empty back streets, overpasses, rail bridges and derelict housing blocks, all in black and white and all of them devoid of human activity or the comfort of identity.

The photos were taken between 1977 and 2008, in and around North Kensington and west London, and they show a London still peppered with bomb sites, still reeling from the damage of war.

This could be East Germany as much as London. There is no civilisation here, but only concrete and the carcasses of Victorianism, the bland, hard edges of dreary development.

This is a London that is somewhat unrecognisable today. However, following the horrors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy in Kensington, you do catch yourself searching for anything that might resemble that building. There are skylines with high rise blocks, and the general texturelessness and loneliness of the landscapes presented here does speak to this recent trauma.

However, much of these areas have probably been gentrified now, and the London we see through Savage’s eyes is only one side of the city – there is no creativity, no bustling energy of optimism. All you are allowed to see is the forgotten, vacant lifelessness of desolate alleys and parking lots.

The pictures themselves, however, are clean, well composed, and show a technical control for depth of field that allows for maximum impact in conveying the shape and form of the city Savage was trying to present.

Cunt Scum (1977) by Gilbert and George, presents a similar face of London. We are still seeing a dour, post-war Britain, only this time with slightly more explicit political flavour.

Gilbert and George give us the prophetic images of what we will come to know as ‘Thatcherite Britain’. Working men in crowds, Bobbys on the beat, homelessness, inner city high rise developments.

The photographs used are not as technically pristine as Savage’s, but the over and under-exposed quality of the shots deliberately contrast the stark light and grim shadow of a Britain gutted of its identity.

If anyone still has doubts about the power of Abstract Expressionism, and the thrust of its techniques, they should look no further than Ataxia – Aids Is Fun (1993), by Derek Jarman.

Almost certainly the most moving of the works in this exhibition, Ataxia hits the viewer in the most vulnerable aspects of the subconscious. No amount of description and campaigning can compete with this image of the fragmentation of the nervous system caused by AIDS. It is a terrifying work, that leaves no one in any doubt about the meaning.

AIDS was not just a cull of gay men, it was, and still is, a tectonic natural disaster for every individual affected. This painting is hard to look at – violent, uncompromising and entirely precise.

Hommage a Chrysler Corp. (1957) by Richard Hamilton, is possibly the most technically impressive part of this show. A masterpiece of negative space, and a proto-Pop Art achievement, the work explores the sexuality of women and motorcars – a staple of pop culture already by the time it was painted.

In this painting you see so much of modernity captured in the slick curves and urbane textures – everything from Kerouac, to the Velvet Underground to Madonna’s aggressive slut-empowerment in the early 1990s.

As a primary source, this painting will communicate to future historians unspeakable truths about the post-war age in the west, so much more than the nihilistic trends that emerged from the 1960s.

Michael Fullerton’s portrait of disc jockey John Peel (2005) opens this patchy exhibition, and it’s a brilliantly understated and traditional work.

A reference to the portraits by Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century, this work captures the loveable paradox of Peel. He was on the frontlines of counterculture for the best part of four decades. However, he was a national treasure, as well-known and loved as the Queen herself, by the time he died.

Painting him in this way, allows the viewer to see Peel and all that he represents, through a lens of continuity and cultural endurance. The other works in this exhibition lack this sense of connection.

Peel’s love of the underground was not a post-modernist quest, but rather and desire to keep the tradition of British art alive and thriving. To be counter-culture, for Peel, was not to be anti-culture. He was a kind of spiritual patron, rather than an iconoclast or revolutionary. We see Peel here where he belongs, in the Pantheon of British creative innovators and leaders, not as some snotty champion of disaffection.

Fullerton’s portrait reminds one of Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington’s Oscar Wilde portrait (1884) also showing in the Tate. The same deep colours, the same ironic, but accessible creative expressions on the subjects.

There is a deliberate dislocation of Britain from its past in this exhibition which seems designed rather than simply observed.

Taken on their own, each piece has something important to say about this country. However, there is a disingenuous agenda in the collection, as if the only things relevant to post-war Britain were issues of immigration, sexual health, gay rights and feminism.

Britain is a divided nation, and in some sense that divide runs down the fracture between a historic past, and a post-Thatcherite economic identity.

Explicit in the form of this collection seems to be the assertion that nothing of Britain’s past is fit for purpose, nothing about the identity formed over centuries up until the 1960s speaks to the issues that face the country today.

Sixty Years presents a cultural orthodoxy which is itself archaic and mismatched to the reality of the times. The creative disgust of punk and post-modernism are far more connected to time and circumstance than their advocates would have us believe, and the idea of being liberated from the past is no longer the seductive, working class utopian vision it once was.

Far more powerful, would be an exhibition that tried to link the fractured world seen in the works of Savage and Gilbert and George, with the through-line of art history in Britain.

The moral eye of this exhibition is bankrupt, and the forms have become fetishes.

This dislocation was painfully available to us in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. Protestors and rabble rousers leaped upon the deaths of impoverished families, as if they were somehow catapulted back to 1981, to a world of miners strikes and the Falklands war.

In trying to present a distinctly modern Britain, this exhibition comes off as suspiciously nostalgic for a time when a clear, Marxist model of social forces was convenient and offered clarity in an era of confused, class emancipation.

Sixty Years goes out of its way to avoid any sense of continuity. For a worldview obsessed with identity, that very concept of identity itself seems incredibly impoverished. Beauty is seen as something representative of the evil establishment, a veneer of the old guard.

It may or may not be true that the classical beauty and Victorian baroque of British art is linked to its imperial past. However, what Sixty Years shows is that the fractured aesthetic of sex-club fetishism and class-war concretism is dangerously anachronistic and ill-fitted to meet the challenges of contemporary Britain.

Even seen as a retrospective, this exhibition is curiously limited, confined to one narrow view of Britain’s recent history. For all its celebrations of alienation and working class anxiety, the world view implicit here could only emerge from someone on the affluent sidelines of the culture, frustratedly clinging to an academic model of urban Britain that is simply not relevant any more.

Why ideas matter in a mechanised culture

An idea is the opposite of automatic thinking.

Human beings are clearly more than just higher order apes, and it is our capacity for ideas that helps us rise above the purely instinctual. Ideas are the opposite of inevitability.

The easiest place to see this is in our sexuality. Human sexuality has become so much more sophisticated than procreative instinct. It certainly emerges out of whatever imperatives exist in our biology, but the diversity and confusion, the whole range of sub-cultures from fashion photography to the nudes of Rubens, all the way up to the decadence of Oscar Wilde through to modern transsexuality, reveal that much more is going on than just a quest for survival.

There is something essential about being human that doesn’t fit into a simple reduction to the procreative instinct. There is something unique and beautiful about human beings that marks us out from the instinctual world completely.

Ideas are what create the space between our instinctual imperatives, and our free choices in the world. To create this space, an idea doesn’t need to be philosophical, or literary, or even conceived in language at all. An idea is simply that which stops us being prisoners of inevitability.

Great works of beauty, sweet melodies and even the heartfelt intimacy of a truly loving kiss, all these are forms of ideas, because they convey something to us that stops our instincts in their tracks.

Ideas don’t matter because they perform a function. They are not practical or utilitarian. Ideas matter because they take us out of the trap of automatic, reactive thinking, out of our programming.

To do this, an idea doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t need to be new, it just needs to be fresh, to create that space between you and your instincts. There is no way of preconceiving what such a thing might look like. The only way you can tell a powerful idea from a bad one, or from a lack of ideas completely, is whether or not it frees you from automatic thinking.

When George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, warning of the way political language degrades public dialogue and therefore human potential, he was not being a grammar nazi. Neither was he, as some have mistakenly thought, asking for constant originality in language. All language is a product of other language, just as all culture is a product of yet more culture.

Orwell’s concern in avoiding cliche was not about avoiding what had already been done, so much as avoiding anything that narrowed the scope of human thought, that trained the human mind to reduce the possibilities of individual potential.

Orwell’s project was to encourage fresh thinking, a way of using language that was the opposite of propaganda, or reactive, ideological behaviour.

Advertisers and PR managers and political spin doctors are heavily invested in automatic thinking. Orwell could see the dangers posed in an industrialised society, to language use, critical thinking and private agency – all the things he presumably thought democracy and egalitarianism were supposed to promote.

Today, Orwell’s fears are playing out for us, but not in the fascist nightmare of 1984. Rather, they are being manifest in the erosion of private reason, narrowing the space between our sense of who we are, and our instinctual and automatic biological programming.

Some may respond by saying, ‘of course ideas matter, you are not saying anything new’. But most probably what they mean by ‘ideas’ is just ‘clever solutions’. Ideas have been reduced to problem solving. What is generally meant by a ‘good idea’ in this sense is something like the Iphone, or the Uber taxi app or Elon Musk’s Tesla cars.

These are indeed the products and examples of good ideas, but they don’t embody the whole of what a good idea can be.

Far more powerful examples of ‘good ideas’ are Magna Carta, democratic sovereignty, or the truths conveyed in the famous soliloquy of Hamlet.

These are not necessarily ‘solutions’ in the local, technical sense of helping one get from A to B while overcoming an obstacle. They don’t necessarily offer mind-blowing answers, either.

Magna Carta was a revolutionary idea because it conceived of the state and justice system as more than the mere limbs of sovereign power. In Magna Carta we have the first instance of a state’s power being there to protect the people from the whims of a king, rather than just consolidating the entitlements of that office. This puts a space between the society, and its leader’s personal ambition.

Human instincts and biological programming seem to suggest hierarchies will always be the product of human relationship. Magna Carta marked a shift in human society by freeing us from that inevitability. Human civilisation stopped being the product of instinct, and became a way of distancing ourselves from it.

The dangers of a technologically driven society are that automation becomes not just function the culture, but the desirable end of it. Technology helps us satisfy our basic needs in constantly revolutionary ways. However, we forget that a great part of human progress is not just the fulfilment of our desires, but our ability to be free from them.

Ideas are not a form of technology. They are ways in which we create space between our evolutionary needs and our higher-order culture. If human life was about survival only, we would not have created religious culture, democratic societies and any heritage of beauty and art. We would not be obsessed with making a meaningful life, only a long one.

The dogma of the day is that humans are merely sophisticated apes, and our programming is so strong that we are bound to destroy ourselves; the cruel irony of our survival instincts being that they conflict with each other, and our desire for survival leads to a desire for power, which leads to a desire to destroy.

This view of human nature fits conveniently into the ideology of technology, because it means that a culture of automation is not foreign to us, it’s not troubling or dangerous, because our whole instinct is towards automation and complex problem solving. Technology is just the advancement of our instincts by other means.

Viewing ideas and civilisation in the way being laid out here, however, disturbs the convenience and comfort of this modern ideology.

The aim of human life is not to fulfil our animal needs, but to rise above them. Instinct and survival programming are strong, but this is not the complete picture of what humanity is, or is capable of.

Consumerism, technological thinking, marketing, Public Relations and political propaganda, are all mechanisms of automatic thinking. They are the enemies of ideas. So it follows that much of what we call modern culture is also the enemy of ideas. Much of what we see in the public sphere, from textureless glass-box buildings to monotonous popular music and simplistic debate in online media, reflect this anti-idea culture.

The way to fight this, is to insists on creative thinking, in constantly refreshing our capacity for ideas, clearing a space between our instinctual programming and our dreams for ourselves and each other. Technology is great, only if it is matched with equally strident experimentation and advancement in ideas.

If technology advances faster than our capacity for ideas, or worse, if it actively erodes our ability to develop them, then the Darwinist nihilists will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We fight this by resisting automation, inevitability and capitulation to instinct. This resistance is the secret behind the achievements of Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Steve Jobs. It’s also the secret to becoming a truly free human.

 

Bohemianism versus hipsterism and lifestyle marketing

Traditionally, bohemians are middle class. But they are not bourgeois, in the sense that they don’t define themselves by wealth. Bohemianism emerges from the middle classes who are disillusioned with economically-driven social values.

Today, bohemianism has been distorted by lifestyle marketing.

Bohemians made an artistic statement through their lifestyles. Hipsters, use lifestyle fashion to seem like they are making a statement through their lives.

The difference is in the substance. Not just your actions, but your values.

Part of the problem, if not the complete problem of modernity, is that consumerism, brand marketing and public relations have made what you say more important than what you do.

The real value of bohemianism is in the influence these kinds of lifestyles have had on the culture. You can’t impact history, by simply dressing a certain way.

By putting out into the culture that it is possible to live a certain way other than through commercialism or politics, that you can put individual values front and centre of your existence, certain groups of people in history have left a legacy of stories, art and values, that remind us that individual growth is as important, if not more so, than collective survival.

This is different from the right wing individualism that is so prevalent in American politics. It’s also wildly removed from the liberal, hummus-eating, Camden-condo lifestyle hipsterism you see everywhere online and with which London is packed right now.

How do we tell the difference between crude individualism and lifestyle fashion, and genuine bohemianism? The influence.

Influence as a cultural force can be defined as that which new generations can’t avoid, they have to confront the phenomenon, before they can be free of it. They both love it, and resent, and the struggle for a new creative influence comes from this need to master the influence and transcend it.

Neither selfish individualism, nor lifestyle hipsterism fall into this. The selfish right wing are concerned with short term pursuits, and they believe that a momentum of short term self-advancement keeps the culture alive. Any case of corporate malfeasance, or political corruption proves this wrong.

Hipsterism is a false individualism. It reduces freedom, emancipation and creativity to fashion statements, and therefore becomes competitive and ego-driven. It’s simply commercial values masquerading as bohemianism.

To repeat, bohemianism is when you display a fresh, non-commercial, non-economic way of living in the world. It’s got nothing to do with technology, fashion or whether you drink green tea or Italian coffee.

What matters is whether you are seeking to create a new way of living that sources its values from alternative places outside the dominant, contemporary culture.

In the nineteenth century, it was bohemian to be a socialist atheist, or a christian anarchist. Nowadays, these things have become mainstream, or simply uninteresting cliches.

If you were a member of the Bloomsbury group, drinking green tea and sowing your own dresses was bohemian. Nowadays it has become a fashion statement.

Being a bohemian is not about what you do, but what values you are manifesting in the world.

Bohemian values are not to be found in certain clothing styles, record collections, or political movements, which have themselves become fashion statements.

Marketing has turned everything into a fetish. Which means that the lifestyle affectations become ends in themselves, rather than means to ends.

The true value in bohemianism is in creating a legacy of independent thought. You don’t fall for branding, advertising or marketing.

Advertisers are expert at looking to what your values are, and convincing you that their product will bring you closer to those values.

But our values must always be ready to change, or if they are fundamental, we must always be prepared to re-examine why we hold to them.

The bohemian doesn’t wear her values as fashion statements. The only value that really matters is individual conscience, free of the manufacture of opinion that characterises modern democracies.

The fastest way to embody bohemianism in the modern Mactopia, is to be suspicious of all lifestyle, fashion and advertising.

Yes, it is a losing battle. The war has already been lost. But there is something curiously and quintessentially bohemian about fighting a losing battle. In some ways that just adds value to the fight.

The number one duty we have is to dig deep into our culture, into what has stood the test of time – the architecture, the philosophy, the ideas and concepts of beauty, that have lasted centuries.

Some say this is a reactionary philosophy. I say it is truly innovative. The purpose is not to use these resources for dictation on how to live, but to build up enough of an inner world of creative possibilities and imaginative sophistication so as to be resilient against the ephemeral culture of modernity.

I am not advocating an orthodoxy of values. Simply recommending a way of feeding the soul so that we can become truly independently minded, free from the influences of contemporary agendas.

Going back to the idea of influence; we do not revisit past culture to imitate it, but to be free of it, and retain all that is useful and valuable in it. Also we remain connected to aspects of who we are that have nothing to do with the short term interests of power and money in our immediate world.

Being free of these distractions and interests is really what being a bohemian is all about.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life (book review)

The greatest strength of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, by Martin Gayford is the way that Gayford distills the sweeping genius of Michelangelo into accessible, journalistic prose, a style of writing directed at the curious layman, rather than the pontificating specialist.

Like all young artists, Michelangelo faced severe, sometimes, physical resistance to his choice of career from his family the Buonarotti. Gayford demonstrates the timeless struggle of artist versus bourgeois security in a clear and contemporary way.

‘We read about the ‘rise of the artist’ in Renaissance Italy, but of course such changes are not homogenous, any more than the causes of racial and gender equality have been in our own times…. Not everyone was so admiring of artists and the arts. The Buonarotti brothers, it seems, saw nothing but painful social slippage. A clever boy who might have become a bishop was determined instead to become an artisan who worked with hands. They probably felt it was their duty to try to beat it out of him.’ (pg45)

Gayford is an aproachable storyteller, able to get out out of the way of the story, while at the same time succinctly brief us on the context and background of the drama of Renaissance life.

He brilliantly sets up Michelangelo’s place in his time, capturing the way the man was both a product of the society into which he was born, but how he fought against these circumstances. It is this paradox of inheriting the ambitions of his forerunners and his patrons, but not being content to follow their script that makes Michelangelo worth returning to for biographers.

‘One day when he was high up in the mountains above the town of Carrara, looking down at the peaks and valleys below and the Mediterranean in the distance beyond, “he formed the wish to make a colossus that would be visible to mariners from a afar.” In other words, Michelangelo wanted to carve a chunk of mountain into a human figure. One guesses, though the subject is not described, that he had in mind a naked male body.’ (pg 211)

Storytelling clarity and accessibility are pre-eminent in Gayford’s short discussion of Michelangelo’s early painting copy of an engraving by Martin Schongauer – The Temptation of St Anthony.

‘Schongauer’s St Anthony was a powerful example of a new medium which some people were probably already hanging on their walls as an affordable substitute for a picture. The thirteen-or-fourteen-year-old Michelangelo was therefore doing something shrewd and timely by transposing it into colour. It was also a bizarre phantasmagoria of an image which it is easy imagining appealing to a teenager. In modern terms, as art historian Keith Christiansen has put it, this is “a Star Wars picture.” “…a fastidious sense of line and form, a willingness to work ferociously hard to produce as sharply telling as possible and an overpowering urge to compete.”‘ (pg 59 and pg 61)

Michelangelo comes across as exactly the temperamental genius we always assume him to be. However, his irascibility, his grumpy egotism and aggressive ambitions, don’t take away from the essential lovability of the man. Gayford calls him a ‘….hugely talented, neurotic, complicated, curmudgeonly but ultimately engaging man…’

Gayford is never shy of demonstrating the man’s limitations emotionally, nor his lack of hygiene and his manifestly anti-social character. What’s strange, though, is that the overall result of Gayford’s portrait is not an artist whose arrogance and violent moods make us hate him, but a brilliant and sometimes unstable genius whose volatility was necessary to his achievements.

‘[Ascanio] Condivi reported some thoroughly insanitary habits: “When he was more robust he often slept in his clothes and in the boots he had always worn for reason of cramp, from which he has continually suffered, as much as for anything else. And sometimes he has been so long in taking them off that subsequently along with his boots he sloughed off his skin, like a snake’s.’ Vasari had little more information on that last, revolting, point. The buskins were dog skin, worn next to the skin, with which they bonded.’’’ (pg228)

Gayford points out that the more Michelangelo complained and threw tantrums against his family, friends and even his patrons, the more brilliant and historic the work he must have been working on.

This offers a point worth considering. Mood swings and aggressive paranoia do not, as we often lazily suppose, go hand in hand with creative ability. There are plenty of stable, compliant and socially adaptive people who are creative, and man great artists who are too.

However, visionary power, the ability and proclivity to see beyond your times, to entertain impossible feats and to have the obsessive, arrogant and hubristic determination to carry them out – these qualities seem necessary linked to some kind of peculiarly neurotic genius. Civilisation comes at a cost, and that cost is very often an epic and violent discontent, both within the artist, and his surroundings.

Michelangelo was a malcontent, oblivious social norms, gentilisms and social expectations. His only considerations of class seem purely egotistical, given his desire to elevate the status of his family name through his achievements.

Gayford illustrates this brilliantly by contrasting Michelangelo with Raphael:

‘Raphael’s art projected just this sense of mastery with ease, whereas Michelangelo expressed heroic effort and passionate vehemence. A sixteenth century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures looked like porters. Clearly, Raphael had the manners of a courier himself. It was rumoured that Leo X intended to make him a cardinal, but was prevented by Raphael’s early death. This, too, emphasizes the contrast: it is impossible to imagine Michelangelo as a prince of the Church – a hermit or a mystic, perhaps, but not a cardinal.’ (pg 257)
One of the mysteries of Michelangelo is how he was able to sustain his characteristic levels of physical and mental concentration. From an angle of pure physical labour, the Sistine Chapel is a superhuman accomplishment. And that’s before we consider the grandeur of the aesthetic achievement.

The decision by Michelangelo to include scenes from the gospel that had not been covered by the existing frescoes on the lower walls of the chapel, is probably the key to what makes the work truly great, rather than just a work of genius. As a simple depiction of the Apostles, the project could have had no particular interest to Michelangelo, it was a decorative assignment. But with a multidimensional creative design, suddenly the rolling and shifting challenges of cramming so much poetry into the limited designs of the architecture of the ceiling, must have given Michelangelo enough sense of shifting possibilities, to make it worth the blood and the sweat.

Gayford’s Michelangelo is gruff, anti-social, cruel and egotistical. Yes, he’s a product of his times. Yes, he’s a deranged genius. Yes, he’s a self-mythologiser, and all the things we have come to associate with the self-aggrandising Renaissance man. However, the sincerity of the man, and the limitless poetic ambition of imagination are what redeem him, and it is this crucial element in the Renaissance and in Michelangelo, that is often forgotten in the impersonal, critical hindsight art history that seeks to reduce individual greatness to impersonal forces.

Michelangelo: His Epic Life by Martin Gayford (Penguin) is available on Amazon