Early in Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson tells the story of someone he once talked to briefly.
The unnamed woman is in her early 20s. She is suffering from a bad case of what appears to be ennui. She hasn’t left her bed in months. The only thing keeping her going is her pet, a serval cat. She has a vague plan about going back to school and becoming a veterinarian.
This sounds like most people’s 20s at some point, but Peterson – a trained psychologist – wants to help guide her out of a rudderless existence. And then it happens.
“All was going well until the discussion twisted toward the political,” he writes.
At that point, she begins hectoring him about climate change and he gives up on making any sense of her. The discussion ends in acrimonious mutual misunderstanding. Peterson rubbishes her for the sin of feeling “moral superiority.”
Ostensibly, this example illustrates Rule No. 1 (or No. 13, if you’re a fan): “Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.”
More broadly, it reminds you of Peterson’s current role in the wider conversation. He tells people things; they yell at him; he ignores them; bros high five in the YouTube comments; he sells books; the woman may still be in bed; but how’s the cat?
I have not read Peterson’s first book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which he says in this follow-up has sold 4 million copies, not counting translations.
If the old rules are anything like the new rules, I am left wondering why 24 of them were required. God only needed 10, and that included a fair bit of overlap.
Peterson’s new rules aren’t the sort you tape to the mirror in your home gym. They’re heavier than that. Rule 3: “Do not hide unwanted things in the fog”; Rule 6: “Abandon ideology”; Rule 12: “Be grateful in spite of your suffering.”
This requires a lot of explaining, and even, God help us, some poetry. The ratio of sociology-term-paper-gobbledygook to English runs at roughly 2:1, yet we are introduced to “the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.” This is deep thinking slimmed down for people who aren’t totally sure whether Socrates was the toga guy or the gyro guy.
I began in the hope of being scandalized. To hear tell of it, Peterson trails controversy like tin cans trail cartoon newlyweds. The mention of his name makes publishing assistants tremble and weep. His army of pasty nerd-men is ready to leap to their feet at any moment shouting, “I’m Peterson!’; and “No, I’m Peterson!” Then you get to page 12 and hit this sentence: “The most phylogenetically ancient multicellular organisms … tend to be composed of relatively undifferentiated sensorimotor cells.”
And you know you are in for it.
Beyond Order is something between a textbook, a self-help book, a memoir, a self-help memoir, “The Golden Bough for Dummies,” a Coles Notes to the King James Bible and Harry Potter fan fiction.
At its worst, it is a slog and I unashamedly admit to skipping most of the part about Mesopotamian mythology, may the sea goddess Tiamat forgive me. At its best, when Peterson works in his Oliver Sacks mode, recalling lessons gleaned from treating real people with real problems in his clinical practice, it zips right along.
Just about the only sort of book Beyond Order never manages to be is the type the internet promised me – a scandalous one. Peterson takes a couple of lazy swipes at his critics on the left, but his heart isn’t in it. Even his name calling feels perfunctory.
Rather than scurrilous, there is something delightfully 21st century about a man who says he only recently overcame a serious drug addiction presuming to lecture the rest of us on how to maintain psychological balance in our lives. I mean, I like Naked Lunch a lot, but I’m not sure I’m ready for relationship tips from William Burroughs.
Then there are the rules, none of which – if actually read – could possibly budge the most sensitive Twitter outrage meter. Deal fair; try hard things; be nice to the people who love you; stop your whining.
Russia got Stalin and Dostoevsky. Who’s Canada’s most dangerous thinker? Professor Dad over here, yelling up the stairs about William Blake and the “overwhelming mystery of Being” and, hey, would it kill you kids to clean up after yourselves once in a while? Some of us have tenured jobs to go to.
This disconnect between the way Peterson is advertised and what he in fact writes is the most deflating thing here. If this is what the enemy looks like to you, you’re going to have to find a new war. This one is too boring to fight.
Peterson doesn’t make it easy on himself. When he is not being galactically vague, he insists on being lampoonably precise.
For instance, the 90-minute rule (a sub-section of Rule 10: “Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship”).
According to Peterson, successful couples should speak to each other about “practical and personal matters” for “about” 90 minutes each week.
It’s a strangely specific number at any time and especially so during the pandemic. Leaving aside dog walking and hiding in the bathroom, the current average spousal contact minimum is nearing 10,000 minutes a week.
On the one hand, this is self-evidently correct. You should talk to your husband or wife. That is a great rule for living.
On the other, this book is presumably written for people who find that information new and astonishing. If that’s the case, I urge them to get a turtle before they find a spouse. They have been given some rules, but might not be quite ready for the life part of the equation.
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