Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 3a, Death, Sacrifice and Femininity

Since my last update, I have come across two things in Maps of Meaning which seem to fully undermine the whole structure of Peterson’s thesis thus far. These are ‘The Terrible Mother’ and ‘goal-like’ behaviour which is instinctive. But, before we get there, I’m going to recap some main points and give the relevant expansions made.

The universe ― at least insofar as it means something to us; motivates us to act; is compelling, instead of just is ― can be understood, so Peterson argues, in a tripartite system: the Unknown (the Feminine, the Mother), the Known (the Masculine, the Father) and the Explorer (the Son ― not the daughter…). The Father (Known) represents the order, the predictable, tradition and culture. The other side of that coin is tyranny, a culture that is no longer fit for purpose and has become oppressive. The Mother (Unknown) is chaos, and may be seen as either hope and creativity or fear and destruction.

To stage a revolution against a tyrannical Father, the Son (explorer) must learn something new i.e. explore or conquer the Mother (leave the Freudian jokes to one side for a moment). One assumes, then, that by conquering the Mother they also turn the Mother into the Father. The Unknown into the Know. Change some part of chaos into tradition and understanding. What this means for the parents imagery used is something I want to challenge, so bear that in mind as we continue.

Most of the discussion has been about the Feminine, the Bringer of Life and Creativity as well as of Death. As often happens with Maps of Meaning, I have to sort of go backwards to make sense of Peterson’s writing. So, we’ll look at an example Peterson gives of a culture who sacrificed a large number of animals and then buried the blood-soaked sand to ensure the fertility of the land. This is a ritual that captures the idea of the cycle of life: that death can feed life; that life relies on death. Mind you, a murdered person buried under a patio is just death…

There are parts of the imagery that make sense of Femininity relating to nature, and nature to chaos. Women are the bearers of life, they carry and grow the seed of a new person. Fecundity, fertility, creation and life can all reasonably be argued to belong to the Feminine, especially through the eyes of ancient cultures.

If one also takes the whole cycle of life and death as a single entity, the symbol of life and creation must also be the symbol of death and destruction. The Ying and Yang as an inseparable whole that must be taken in its entirety. The imagery in myth, then, is not just of a Creative Feminine mother, but also of a Terrible Mother. The phrase that sticks out to me, particularly for having no biological analogue, is “the devouring womb”, which ingests and kills people so that it can bring forth new life. Unlike the fertility of the womb, I see no basis for the devouring capacity of the womb. As such, the basis for using Feminine images at all comes under question.

We now have these two challenges to Peterson’s work, all held in Peterson’s work. I now want to re-introduce you to Imre Lakatos, a philosopher of science. He developed a way of thinking about knowledge that stood as a rebuttal (or refinement) to Popperian Falsification, as is referred to as ‘Programmes of Research’. I have discussed his work before (1), but I’ll summarise it briefly. Programmes of Research lead to models that have a sort of anatomy: it has a body or core concept; it then has branches that support that core idea. For example, biological evolution is a core idea, supported by inheritance and natural selection. If something were to rebut natural selection ― say, microbial life whose anatomy is driven by random mutation with little natural selection happening ― then that branch can be refined or tied to another branch (specificity of selective pressures, for example). Where as Popperian Falsification would lead one to throw about the model, Lakatos sees this as an opportunity to refine the model.

A model such as the hypothetical one outlined would be considered ‘Progressive’, as it is being refined to account for more discoveries. Progressive Models are contrasted again ‘Degenerative’ ones, where the model becomes inelegant, littered with exceptions, excuses and discoveries that cannot be accounted for.

I wager that is what is happening here: Peterson has created a model which has to be Degenerated to work. For the parental relationship, where the Son overthrows the Tyrant Father by conquering the Mother, you are left with two options and neither of them make sense of the parental model. The Son is either turning his Mother (or parts of Her) into his Father by exploring them, and so changing the Unknown into the Know, the Chaos into the Familiar. Else, the Son is creating for himself entirely new parents: by vanquishing the Mother, the Son used her parts to create a new world or reality (in myth).

Neither of these make sense in a familial construct. Peterson clearly prefers the latter solution, citing stories of Gods, in particular of Heroes (Sons) who have Slain the Terrible Mother (dragon, I seem to recall) and used the body parts to create the world. The Tyrannical Father, steeped in the world and traditions that already exist, doesn’t want this New World made of a defeated Mother, so the Father and the Mother conspire to defeat the Son (obviously, before the Son’s victory and using the entrails of the Mother to paint the World). In this sense, the Mother was a progenitor, the New World comes from the defeated Chaos of the Mother. This often then needs an incestuous pantheon of gods, constantly creating excuses for the nonsense of the previous courtship and murder.

But, then, this doesn’t make sense of the Bible Myth. The progenitor there is God, and God is Masculine; the Father. He didn’t become the Father from being a Defeated Mother, and there was no Son to defeat Her. And so we need new excuses to make Peterson’s thesis work.

These sorts of Cosmogonies (origins of the Universe) in Mythology, where all springs forth from a battle between Gods, is not meant to be literally true; to account for the material processes. Instead, Peterson argues that they are to account for the “totality” of existence, including values, valence and affect; motivations and purpose. I disagree. They may reflect existing values and valences in a given culture, but they make no effort to understand the material at all. That is not the “totality”, it is the other thing. I also question, at this stage, the values.

As I said in a previous post, if these stories are not literally true and so there are no literal Gods who can write these myths and values down for us, then we created the values without the myths, and then built the myths as a primitive way of preserving them. But, that makes the myth the fridge that preserves the values we created, and not the oven they were baked into us in. And this brings us to instinct.

Peterson notes that we can observe goal-directed behaviour in animals and even very young children who we have good reason to believe lack the abstract thinking skills required to make the sorts of schema and narratives and myths needed to map values and affective valence. Again, we just make an excuse for this. Peterson (citing someone whose name I have forgotten) calls this “goal-like” behaviour and posits that it is built into our neurophysiology. That is to say that it is instinctual goal-like behaviour, and not real goals. Again, this distinction seems to fall on the wrong side of the Progressive/Degenerative divide of Lakatos’ Programmes of Research.

Returning to the sacrifices mentioned earlier, they may serve more purposes than just fertility. After all, a strictly rational person may wonder how many calories are lost in destroying edible animals against how many are gained in just the increase in fertility ― and is an animal, which will keep over winter, more valuable than the grains that can’t be harvested in winter. So, even within a world where Gods are appeased by sacrifice, the sacrifice is not solely rational. It may also be a rite passed down, bastardised and altered, but with an origin in abandoning possessions or ideas that are no longer fit for purpose.

Peterson tells a story that I think it worth repeating, but I won’t get entirely right from memory:

A man is walking down a road in hurry, to get somewhere. He sees a gnome playing drums on a hollow log with two leg bones, and it calls out to him “Why are you in such a hurry, after all, you may not ever get there” The man slows and talks to the gnome. The gnome asks the man if he is interested in buying a ruby, which he reveals: the largest ruby you have ever seen, weighing 50lbs (22.7 kg in real measurements). The man offers the gnome everything he has and promises to make monthly installments in the future, for the ruby. The gnome agrees, and the man takes the ruby and begins to carry it on his journey. It is heavy and the man eventually says to himself: “Why am I lugging this thing around? I have nowhere to go, as I have what I want” He sets up camp whether he is. A friend walks past and says: “I have just started a new business and need some help; I will pay you well, if you can come quickly right away.” The man replies “can you not see this valuable ruby? I can’t go anywhere quickly with it, and I must guard it.” The friend looks at him strangely and goes on his way. Later another friend comes and invites the man to a party. The man declines, as he must guard his jewel. The friend looks concerned, but goes on his way. The man stands there, wanting other people to admire his jewel, as no one else has a jewel like it. But they don’t, they walk past him, hurrying on with their day. Eventually an emaciated man, hunched over and carrying a boulder walks past and stops and looks at the man and says: “Why are you guarding that rock? Wouldn’t you rather have a jewel, like mine?” Confused, the man replies “But I have a jewel, you have a rock” “No. A gnome sold me this jewel and assured me it is the only one” They argued, then the gnome appears and says to them: “You both have rocks, and you’d know that if only you had bothered to put them down and observe for yourself! Oh, your hubris, your stupidity! But, I can give you what you really deserve. Would you like that?” Both men agree that they would, and so the gnome instructs them to throw their rocks to the ground. They do, and they break open and out pours white worms that devour the two men, leaving only two leg bones. The gnome takes the bones and returns to a hollow log and plays it like a drum

What’s the point in the story? I don’t know, but it was impactful enough to remain more or less in my memory. But, I think it is meant to be a story about the importance of evaluating your property (including beliefs and traditions) and be willing to sacrifice (get rid of) that which is not important to your goals anymore. And perhaps Peterson reiterates the point in a story (or proto-myth) just to bring home the importance of myth in preserving these sorts of moral lessons. We’ll come in a later post to the question of how to recognise this as a cautionary tale instead of an inspirational one.

Sacrifice, then, is an acting out of the ritual of… and this is where I struggle. Reflection? Do we have to kill something to “act out” a moral lesson that could just as easily be encapsulated in a garage sale or Spring cleaning? Are sacrifices meant to be a battle, where you take something old and defunkt and destroy it? This is to partake in the story of a Hero, the Divine Son, by battling the Old and making room for the new. Except, it’s never a battle. And it’s rarely something defunkt.

2 thoughts on “Maps of Meaning, discussion – Part 3a, Death, Sacrifice and Femininity”

  1. The issue of learning from myths is very interesting in that they use symbols and guideposts to tell us a story. The story appears to be about something else but it is a tool for self-teaching! These mythological symbols activate a part of our brain highly active in REM sleep and so we have a good idea – for many, many other reasons, too – that symbols we create to make meaning are our ‘natural’ language. Our natural language, to rephrase it, is the language of symbols, of representations. The really interesting part is that we are the myth makers, in that we have to provide the meaning to the symbols in order for the story to make, not necessarily a rational sense but, sense that is core to re-experiencing something in order to make better sense of it. Our dreams provide us the same opportunity to re-examine certain experiences we have had in the language of self-made meaningful symbols and by doing so in story form give our brains time to sort out the important from the unimportant, save what is useful, and discard (paring back certain connections while strengthening others while we sleep) what is not. This could be an emotional journey retaken to make symbolic ‘sense’ of what we have felt; dreams, for example, might make no rational sense a a story with a beginning, middle, and end but operate as a vehicle for us to re-experience something and give our biology some time to make ‘sense’ of it.

    Jung was the first author I know of who wrote about this connection between dreams and myth, what he called the private dream and the public dream, relying on the use of symbolic language to connect the two. The key insight was all about recognizing the role of symbols. But here’s the thing about myths (similar in this way to what defines ‘art’ versus ‘craft’): it is interactive because we have to provide our own meaning to the symbols of both the private and public dreams in order to create the ‘right’ grammar for us to make meaning, relying on using the language of symbols in both, and I suspect this is where Peterson sometimes gets it wrong.

    Peterson often brings his own version of meaning (or accepts the meaning other authors have expressed) and expects everyone to go along that this is the ‘correct’ version. Well, like you, I often find this reading to be somewhat dubious even though Peterson has the right idea that the meaning he brings to the symbol is often about an archetype, a recurring motif, but that doesn’t mean he has fully grasped and defined the motif itself. He presumes he has. He presumes he can use ‘authorities’ to back up this meaning. But in fact what he’s done no matter how he may have disguised it to the casual reader is just brought his own meaning that makes the best sense to him. That’s fine. But consider: the motif of the Joker for example, the archetype, might be better understood by some listeners in certain myths to define, say, an invitation to foolish behaviour but for good reasons, whereas in other myths the same motif, the same archetype of the Joker, might be better represented as the intent to trick, as a Trickster for selfish or greedy or naïve reasons. Neither archetype is the only ‘right’ meaning insofar as describing the archetype but both quite correct describing the motif, that as physicist Feynman rephrased as we should not allow ourselves to be so easily fooled, and we’re the easiest people in the world to fool.

    In the same way your dream language might be entirely different from mine in details and individual purpose, we share exactly the same ability to dream and speak our own dream language for the same reasons – to interact with the language of symbols and learn important stuff from them on how to live a wiser life. I know that’s the main intent of Peterson’s book and so I cut him some slack on how well, how accurately, he tries to do this. Should some readers benefit, and sales indicate this is probable, then more power to him, I say. Generally, he’s got the right idea.

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