Rye and weeds: Solzhenitsyn and Jordan Peterson.

One afternoon not long ago, as I walked through a quiet residential neighbourhood near my home, I heard a vehicle coming up the hill behind me. It was a pickup truck which, just as I arrived at an uncontrolled intersection, made a left turn across my path.

Seeing that the pickup had plenty of room to pass in front of me, I stepped off the curb without breaking stride. Instead of continuing his turn, the driver stamped on the brakes, coming to a stop in the middle of the intersection. Maybe he hadn’t noticed me until then, or maybe he misjudged my walking speed.

No harm done. It happens to every driver – you start a maneuver, second-guess yourself, hit the brakes, and wind up in a more awkward position than if you’d just carried through. Continuing past the front of his truck, I glanced at the man behind the wheel, prepared to exchange a good-humoured shrug. He was a young blue-collar guy with a short-trimmed beard, one elbow propped in his open window.

“You ever hear of lookin’ both ways before crossing the street?” he said.

This was very vexing, as I not only had the right of way but had seen him clearly. “Nope, that’s a new one on me,” I muttered, keeping my face blank.

“It’s called situational awareness. Look into it,” he yelled, as I reached the opposite curb. I ignored him and kept walking.

A trivial encounter. What amazed me was how agitated I became immediately afterward. I gulped for air, my heart beat faster, my throat seized up. Regretting the clumsiness of my retort, I realized to my shame that even if I’d been able to think of some withering comment to put the pickup driver in his place, I would’ve been too tongue-tied to articulate it.

I lead a very stress-free life. I’m rarely forced to interact with people who challenge me. When I am confronted with an unexpected rebuke – even a trivial one, like this – I find it emotionally overwhelming.

By ducking confrontation I’ve saved myself some pain over the years. But it appears that I’ve lost the protective crust that should allow me to shrug off the gibes of random strangers.

Shuffling home I found myself sympathizing with the coddled college students of right-wing lore who, when confronted with an opinion that challenges their progressive beliefs, can do nothing but curl up in their safe spaces and weep.

***

I have a friend who, measured against the extremely woke crowd she pals around with, is something of a dangerous free-thinker. When she gets tired of watching her friends polish their halos she’ll come to me to vent; and when she’s had a snootful of my melancholy detachment she goes back to her friends and, I suppose, vents about me.

Although broad-minded by 2019 standards, my friend is still pretty credulous about the narratives she imbibes via social media. For instance, on several occasions she’s brought up Jordan Peterson as an exemplar of right-wing demagoguery. In her mind, Peterson is a hate preacher who endangers the mental health of trans people by rejecting the government’s authority to legislate which pronouns we use when discussing them.

When my friend brings up stuff like this, I purse my lips in an ambiguous way, and say nothing.

I don’t know much about Peterson. I’ve read a handful of reviews and an excerpt from his book, and I’ve seen his ideas discussed in various forums, most recently in Rod Dreher’s blog. Based on this limited information, I suspect I sympathize broadly with Peterson’s views, but I’m not interested enough to buy his book or download his podcasts.

Suppose I attempted to convince my friend that Peterson is not the dangerous avatar of unreason that she seems to think he is. As I see it this argument could have two possible outcomes:

I could fail to convince her, sparking a quarrel to no useful purpose; or,

I could succeed, making my life slightly easier (I would no longer have to bite my tongue when she slandered Peterson) but making her life slightly harder (she would now have to bite her tongue whenever her progressive friends slandered Peterson).

Since my friend is at least as sharp-witted as I am, I don’t have much confidence that I would win the argument anyway; and since I place more importance on our friendship than I do on making sure she holds what I deem to be the correct opinions, I’ve opted to evade the issue.

That’s what I tell myself. But you may conclude, having just read about my encounter with the rude pickup driver, that the above rationalizations are pure eyewash, and that the real reason I keep mum whenever my friend brings up Peterson is that I’m scared of conflict.

In any case, I’m probably not doing my friend any favours. If she ever runs into someone who takes issue with one of her snide comments about Peterson, or some other belief she holds because it is accepted unquestioningly among her progressive crowd, she’ll be unequipped to defend herself.

***

I know from Slate Star Codex‘s review of his book that Jordan Peterson, like me, is prone to quoting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. A big part of Peterson’s schtick is the importance of recognizing our own capacity for error; without checking, I can assert confidently that somewhere in Twelve Rules For Life is the famous line from The Gulag Archipelago about how the line separating good and evil passes through every human heart. Peterson emphasizes the need to earn wisdom through adversity; Solzhenitsyn, realizing that his capacity for good had been awakened by the hardships of his time in the Gulag, said, “Bless you, prison!”

Solzhenitsyn’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel The First Circle is set in the waning years of Stalin’s USSR, in a “special” prison where political prisoners with technical skills work on projects useful to state security – devising a scrambler for Stalin’s personal phone, for instance, or analyzing voice prints to identify a suspect from a wiretapped phone call.

By the brutal standards of the Gulag these prisoners are in clover. Instead of starving and swinging pickaxes in the far north, they pass their days indoors tinkering with vacuum tubes, and for supper it’s all the black bread they can eat. The book’s title derives from the not-so-bad First Circle of Hell, where Dante placed the pagan philosophers whose only sin was being ignorant of Christianity.

The First Circle doesn’t have a whole lot of plot; it’s mostly a series of interconnected vignettes set over a week or so in the prison and in nearby Moscow. The nearest thing to a central character is Gleb Nerzhin, whose philosophy and experiences roughly mirror those of the author, who was in just such a special prison after World War II, before doing harder time in a Kazakhstani mining camp.

Early in the book, Gleb chats with his young friend Ruska, who has absorbed the older prisoner’s cynical attitude. Gleb regrets the death of his friend’s idealism:

“This kind of scepticism, agnosticism, pessimism – whatever you call it – it all sounds very clever and ruthless, but you must understand that by its very nature it dooms us to futility. It’s not a guide to action, and people can’t just stand off, so they must have a set of positive beliefs to show them the way.”

“Even if they land in a swamp? Anything just to keep going, you mean?” Ruska asked angrily.

“Well, yes…damn it all!” said Gleb, a little unsure of himself. “Look, I think scepticism is very important – it’s a way of getting at people with one-track minds. But it can never give a man the feeling that he’s got firm ground under his feet. And perhaps it’s what we need – firm ground under our feet.”

In a recent essay about George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan I wondered,

If it’s true (as I’m far from the first to observe) that Social Justice is essentially a religious movement, with its own saints, sacred objects, and acts of devotion – and if that creed is in the process of supplanting or has already supplanted Christianity as the dominant creed in the West – then is it disrespectful and petty for a non-believer like me to publicly violate its taboos, in the same way it would be disrespectful and petty of me to disrupt a church service, profane a temple, or masturbate with an icon?

Likewise, if I run into someone who enjoys “firm ground under his feet” thanks to his simple and annoying faith in the words of Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, or Jordan Peterson, should I hold my tongue lest I accidentally lure him, by my cynicism, into the mire of uncertainty and self-doubt?

If I were a happy person I might say, “Pick away at your convictions one by one, until you’re left with nothing solid but an awareness of your own ignorance – and you’ll be happy like me!”

But I’m pretty miserable. I suspect my misery is unrelated to what I believe – that I was simply wired for anhedonia – but nevertheless I can’t with any credibility recommend myself as a positive example to anyone.

So perhaps I ought instead to tell the believers, “Try not to think too deeply about your convictions, in case they fall apart under close examination, leaving you with nothing but your unbearable self.”

But even that might draw the believers’ attention to the possibility that their convictions are shakier than they suspect. Maybe it would be best to keep my mouth shut altogether.

***

In Twelve Rules For Living (which, to repeat, I haven’t read) Peterson identifies one incontestable, unbanishable fact, “the reality of suffering”, from which he derives his whole moral code:

Each human being has an immense capacity for evil. Each human being understands, a priori, perhaps not what is good, but certainly what is not. And if there is something that is not good, then there is something that is good. If the worst sin is the torment of others, merely for the sake of the suffering produced – then the good is whatever is diametrically opposite to that. The good is whatever stops such things from happening. . . . Make that an axiom: to the best of my ability I will act in a manner that leads to the alleviation of unnecessary pain and suffering.

The “reality of suffering” – I guess that’s something solid to build on. But it doesn’t take long, piling your philosophy up brick by brick, before you find the structure sprawling onto unstable ground. The various functionaries of the Canadian justice and higher education systems against whom Peterson has waged rhetorical battle are convinced that by shutting down dissidents like him, they can protect trans people from unnecessary pain and suffering.

Solzhenitsyn’s stand-in Nerzhin struggles with such uncertainties. Later in The First Circle he befriends a fellow prisoner, a simple peasant named Spiridon, and listens in awe to his life story, an astounding sequence of misjudgements and reversals guided by no coherent principles besides his untutored sense of right and wrong. Nerzhin wonders whether Spiridon’s seemingly random choices belie “some universal system of philosophical scepticism”. He enquires gently:

“All these years you’ve been thrashing around trying to work things out, haven’t you? What I mean is, what’s your…” – he almost said “criterion” – “what’s your judgment of life in general? For instance, do you think there are people who do wicked things on purpose? Is there anybody who says to himself: ‘I’ll show everybody what for’? Do you think that’s likely? Perhaps everybody wants to do good – or they think they want to do good, but since none of us are blameless and we all make mistakes – and some of us are just crazy, anyway – we do all these bad things to each other. We tell ourselves we are doing good, but in fact it all comes out the other way. It’s all a bit like that saying of yours – you sow rye and weeds come up.”

Spiridon was looking hard at him, as though suspecting a trap. Nerzhin felt he was not expressing himself very well, but he went on:

“Now, suppose I think you’re making a mistake and I want to put you right, and I tell you what I think, but you don’t listen and even tell me to shut up? What should I do? Hit you over the head with a stick? That wouldn’t be so bad if I really were right, but suppose I only think I’m right? After all, things are always changing, aren’t they? What I mean is: if you can’t always be sure that you’re right, should you stick your nose into other people’s business? Is there any way for a man to know who is right and who is wrong?”

Later we will meet the prison’s Security Officer, Major Shikin, who demonstrates Nerzhin’s point about putting people right by hitting them with a stick:

If Shikin had been told – though he never was – that he was an object of hatred because he maltreated people, he would have been genuinely indignant. He had never found pleasure in any form of cruelty or thought that it was an end in itself. It was true that there were such people: he had seen them on the stage and in films. But they were sadists who loved to torture people, and had lost all human feeling. In any case they were always White Guardists or Fascists. Apart from doing his duty, Shikin was concerned only to prevent people committing wrongful acts or thinking harmful thoughts.

The canny old peasant Spiridon is untroubled by the paradox of well-meaning torturers like Major Shikin. To Nerzhin he cryptically sums up his philosophy:

“I can tell you,” Spiridon said, brightening up, and as readily as if he had been asked which of the warders had come on duty that morning. “I can tell you: wolf-hounds are right and cannibals are wrong.”

“What’s that again?” Nerzhin said, taken aback by the simplicity and force of Spiridon’s judgment.

“What I said was,” Spiridon repeated with stark conviction, turning his head towards Nerzhin and breathing hotly into his face from under his moustache: “the wolf-hounds are right and the cannibals wrong.” [1]

M.

1. The chapter ends on Spiridon’s words. My edition of The First Circle is haphazardly footnoted, and there’s nothing to explain whether the wolf-hounds and cannibals are common symbols in Russian culture, or whether Nerzhin is as bemused as we are by this nugget of homespun wisdom.

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