Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink

The Deluge (1840) by Francis Danby (Tate Gallery)

I breathe in, I breathe out
Got friends to call who let me talk about
What ain’t working, what’s still hurting
All the things I feel like cussing out
Now and then I let it go
I ride the waves I can’t control
If it’s working I don’t know
When I get done the thing may not float
But I’m learning how to build a better boat

Kenny Chesney, Better Boat (written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose)

From Jordan Peterson’s Biblical Series VI: The Psychology of the Flood – timely, I think:

We also tend to like to think that people’s problems are primarily psychological, but they’re not. One thing that you learn quite rapidly as a clinician is that most of the time people don’t come to you because they have a mental illness: they come to you because they have a complexity management problem. Their lives have got out of hand on them. They don’t know how to get them back under control. All sorts of things can do that. And then, of course, that can make you anxious or depressed. It can trigger all sorts of illnesses. But the fundamental problem is still that things have got beyond you. That actually has a psychophysiological cost that isn’t merely psychological. You have a limited amount of capacity—from a resource perspective—to deal with emergent complexity. There’s just not enough of you. You’ll exhaust your psychophysiological resources if you get into a situation that’s too complex. Well, that’s what the idea of chaos represents. It represents that underlying complexity that can manifest itself at any time. For example, you wake up in the morning and feel an ache of some sort. Perhaps it’s nothing, and you ignore it. It gets worse, and you end up going to the hospital. You find out, perhaps, that you have pancreatic cancer, and that you’re going to live for six months, and that’s the end of that. It’s at that moment that you break through the thin ice that everyone walks on and you see what’s underneath. What’s underneath is the ineradicable complexity of life. That’s chaos.

It’s taken people a long, long time to get a grip on this conceptual schema. Human beings have done it mostly with image and story before they’ve been able to do it in any articulated manner. There are a set of images that represent this underlying chaos. One of them is the dragon of chaos—precisely that. That’s the dragon that the hero goes out to confront; the symbol of the unknown; the thing that lurks underneath. It’s the thing that also guards treasure. In the unknown, there’s the possibility for treasure. Also, the water that was there at the beginning—that we talked about in the Mesopotamian creation myth—both the salt and the fresh water, is often a symbol of pre-cosmogonic chaos. Some of you have had this dream, I suspect. You’ll dream that you’re in a house that you know well. All of a sudden you discover a new room or a set of new rooms, or maybe a set of rooms in the basement. Often the rooms are not well organized, and they’re full of water. Those are very common things. What that means is that you’ve broken through the constraints of your conscious self-understanding to a new domain of possibility, but a new domain that needs a tremendous amount of work. It says, well, here’s a new part of you, but it’s not well developed. It’s flooded with chaos, essentially. It’s water, I think, because chaos is not only what you fall into when you’re not expecting it, but it’s also the unknown that you confront forthrightly and generate new things out of. Water is a symbol of life, especially in a desert. Of course, life is dependent of water. Water’s a natural symbol to utilize when you’re talking about something that’s life-giving but also potentially deadly. A little bit of water, that’s a drink. But a lot of water, that’s a shipwreck. Those are the extremes.

There are accounts that are sort of subtexts in Genesis, and elsewhere in the Old Testament, of God conquering a great monster, leviathan, or behemoth that has serpentile elements, and making the world as a consequence of that conflict. There’s this idea that the world-creating force—which we’ve talked about as the logos—is the thing that continually confronts chaos, and that one way of thinking about chaos is as a predatory, reptilian monster, and often one that lives in the depths or, perhaps, underwater. Part of that, I think, is because we actually use our predator detection circuit to do this sort of pre-cognitive process. The notion, fundamentally, is that anything that threatens instantaneously is something that your predatory detection circuit should be working with. It’s fast, low resolution, and it doesn’t have a lot of ideas—but it’s really, really fast. That also accounts for our capability and tendency to very rapidly treat people who upset our conceptual structures as enemies of the predatory variety. We can fall into that in no time flat. It’s the archetype. If something comes along to knock you for a loop, it’s a shark; it’s something that lurks under the water; it’s something that will pull you down; it’s an enemy. Usually you get prepared. That’s a reasonable defensive strategy, even though it also has its dangers and could sometimes be wrong.

The landscape within which we have to erect our stories is fundamentally one of an overarching chaos—a chaos that exceeds our capacity to comprehend, in any sense: individually, familial, socially, economically. We’re constantly threatened by the collapse of the structures that we inhabit. You own a house. How much time do you spend maintaining a house? Well, a lot. Why is that? It’s because the house falls apart, and that’s because you’re stupid. The house falls apart because you do repairs wrong, or you ignore things, right? I’m saying this, actually, for technical reasons. The house falls apart because you’re incompetent. But even if you’re competent, the house falls apart. It’s just entropy. Things have a proclivity to fall apart on their own, so you have to run like mad just to keep them doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And then, of course, that’s complicated by your own willful blindness and inadequacy as a repair person, refusal to attend, and all those other things. That’s a very classic idea, which we’ll return to.

One of the ideas that Mircea Eliade, a famous historian of religions, extracted from a very large corpus of flood myths was the idea that the earth is periodically flattened for two reasons: One is, things fall apart. Straight entropy. I don’t remember which law of thermodynamics that is, but it’s one of the big laws of thermodynamics. It’s one of the top three, man. Things fall apart of their own accord. That’s one of the things that we have to contend with. The rate at which things fall apart is sped by the sins of man. That’s the other idea. Everyone knows that. Your car breaks down on the highway, and you think, God, that’s so inconvenient. You shake your fist at the sky, and then there’s part of you, in the back of your mind, that goes, I knew that rattle that I wasn’t paying attention to actually signified something. I knew I should have paid attention to it. I didn’t, and now I’m in this situation.

Why do people go crazy during prolonged periods of isolation? (The current period of isolation being even worse, as many people spent it aggressively online, on platforms designed for self-destructive performances and idiot mobs.) How has nuking social structures constructed on mutual goodwill (political discourse, K-12 and higher education, workplace ethics, the poisoning of ordinary conversation by social media, family relations) impacted our ability to maintain sanity?

For Peterson, this is a problem of postmodernists tearing down narrative structures whose evolutionary purpose is to keep chaos at bay, which are critical for our survival individually and socially (or, in biblical terms, they have re-summoned the Flood):

Partly what you’re doing with your routine is establishing yourself as a credible, reliable, trustworthy, potentially interesting human being who isn’t going to do anything too erratic at any moment. Everyone else is tapping you into shape, making sure that that’s exactly what you are. That’s how you stay sane. People get isolated and start to drift if they don’t have a routine. They drift badly, because the world is too complicated for you to keep it organized all by yourself. You just cannot do it. So we outsource the problem of sanity. It’s very intelligent that we outsource the problem of sanity, because sanity is an impossibly complex problem. The way that we manage the incredibly complex is we have a very large number of brains working simultaneously on the problem, all the time. It’s like a stock market for sanity. I use that definition with purpose. The stock market does the same kind of impossible thing, right? It tries to price things, which is impossible. How many things are there? Like a billion. How in the world do you decide what the price is? You can’t decide what the price is—that’s why you have a stock market. In a stock market, as well as a free market, everyone’s voting on what the price of everything is, all the time. That’s the way we figure it out, because it’s technically impossible. That’s partly why the stock market explodes now and then, and there’s bubbles, and all of that sort of thing.

Anyways, the point is that things are chaotic. In Alice and Wonderland, when Alice goes down the rabbit hole—that’s the underworld. Now she’s gone into the substructure of being. She meets the Red Queen. The Red Queen is mother nature. Mother nature is running around, and she’s yelling “off with their heads! Off with their heads!” Which is, of course, what mother nature does. And she tells Alice, “in my kingdom you have to run as fast as you can just to stay in the same place.” That’s exactly right. In fact, evolutionary biologists and psychologists picked up on that phrase. They call it the Red Queen problem. The Red Queen problem is that everything’s after you all the time and you’re not smart enough to do anything about it, or enough about it. That’s a permanent, existential problem. How do you deal with that? You’ve got a biological structure. So your embodiment is part of the solution to the problem. And then you’re inculturated, and because you’re inculturated, you’re taught a lot of things that you need to know. But mostly what you’re taught is how to communicate with other people in an acceptable manner. Once you can communicate with people in an acceptable manner, then you can outsource your problems constantly, which you’re doing constantly.

We’re in this continual dynamic exchange of problem solving. So if you’re a socialized person, that’s what you get access to, and that’s something to know if you’re going to have kids. I mentioned this, I think, in a previous lecture. The purpose of being a parent for very young children is to make your children exceptionally socially desirable by the age of four. If you can do that, they’re set. Everyone wants them around. As soon as everybody wants them around, they want to play with them; they want to cooperate with them; they want to compete with them. The doors open, and they stay sane because they’ve got all sorts of people who actually like them, who are helping them out. So your goal is to make them as socially acceptable and desirable as you possibly can. That doesn’t mean you render them obedient without spirit. That’s a tyrant’s mode of enforcing social acceptability. It’s like, never do anything wrong. Well, that’s not any way to—I mean, that’s a good piece of advice, but it’s missing the other half, which is to do a bunch of things that are right so that people are thrilled to have you around. That’s what you want to do as a parent, as well as inculcating the order….

Every solution carries within it certain problems, because no solution is perfect. You have to keep things in balance. It’s one of the reasons that I’m really…Let’s call it irritated about the postmodernists. They keep yammering about the patriarchy, and it’s very, very annoying. It’s self-evident that social structures are tyrannical. It’s like, that’s not news, folks. That’s obvious. But that’s not all they are. It’s a reduction of the entire complex solution, let’s say, to a unidimensional problem. It’s just tyranny. It’s like, no. Actually, it’s not just tyranny. If you spent six months somewhere that was just tyranny, you’d know the difference very, very rapidly. That doesn’t mean that everyone doesn’t give up a pound or two—or ten, or twenty—of flesh to participate even in a society that’s as free as a Western society is. We all get crushed and moulded by the tyrannical force of social convention. But, at least in principle, the benefit is worth the cost. It’s also up to you to make sure you don’t sacrifice more to the group than you should. You can start to tell if you’re sacrificing more to the group than you should because you start to become resentful of other people. That’s part of the psychological mechanism that’s informing you of that. So it’s up to you to fight against the overarching pressure for conformity and to retain your individual logos, but that’s sort of your problem. The group wants you to behave. Now if you could behave and be creatively productive, so much the better, but that’s pretty damn rare. The group generally tends to settle just for behave. There’s a tyrannical element of that, but what the hell’s the alternative? Our society is based on consensus, and the consensus is based on a certain sacrifice of individuality, even though individuality is absolutely necessary as a revitalizing force for the society. It’s a very tough thing to manage properly.

The consolation, I guess, is that after the people who bring back the Flood from a psychological perspective are inundated and destroyed themselves by the chaos they’ve created, whomever and whatever survives will be in communion with the divine, with the hyper-functionality and goodwill that entails.

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