I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. The second part of this chapter returns in part to the original thrust that it appeared to be about, but there’s some interesting twists and turns along the way.
As usual, Peterson’s style throughout this chapter is mixed with anecdotes, philosophy, and a deeper understanding of issues. It draws upon some ways art can be an antidote to alienation.
The Known and the Unknown
Here Peterson returns to the idea that the artist mediates between order and chaos, this time through the metaphor of the known and unknown.
Your world is known territory, surrounded by the relatively unknown, surrounded by the absolutely unknown—surrounded, even more distantly, by the absolutely unknowable.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
An artist does not stay even in the relatively unknown, but heads out at the very least into the absolutely unknown. As a novelist who writes primarily in the visionary and speculative genres, this is my pastime. I seek the limits of human experiences and try to push them past their breaking point, and I seek the limits of what could conceivably happen and ask what follows them.
There is some danger in living on this edge. I have come to conclusions about my fellow humans that I do not always like, especially given the tendency that I have to see my own vices. While I feel I do an okay job at mediating between my virtues and vices, the idea of moral hazard and failing is predominant in my work. Right now I’m working on several different pieces, and the universal theme across all of them is the generational consequence of moral failure.
Not that they’re all dismal. Sometimes moral failure leads to an exciting sci-fi adventure as people seek to fix the problems in a world that was broken even before we got there.
But there’s a limit to how far you can exist at the edge of the unknown.
On one hand, you run into things that you absolutely detest. The antagonist in my first novel is such a deeply antisocial and misanthropic wretch that I find it difficult to deal with how I even created him, especially because he is actually rather light on the character traits we’d normally associate with evil behavior.
In my youth, I was fascinated with the ideal of a Platonic society, as laid out in The Republic. On one hand, there was something extreme to Plato, and I was never fully happy with his ideals. He envisioned a utopia that seemed like it could plausibly be brought about by a sufficiently advanced mind, but the costs along the way were always too much for me.
Later I realized what a nightmare this would be. It was only after reading Karl Popper that I could figure out exactly what filled me with my initial discomfort.
The matter was two-fold. Plato made unfounded truth claims (such as his mysterious Platonic number), and also demanded that everything old be sacrificed for his new vision.
This is the opposite of how order and chaos become mediated through integration.
Essentially, Plato advocated for radical and far-reaching “reforms” that would have changed the world from its foundation.
And the problem there is that there’s a detachment from the known. A philosophy and an agenda devoid of truth ensues.
Artists must be contending with something they do not understand, or they are not artists. Instead, they are posers, or romantics (often romantic failures), or narcissists, or actors (and not in the creative sense).Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Plato is interesting precisely because he is an artist in the genuine sense.
While his truth claims are unfounded, this does not detract essentially from his central thesis, because he is creating something, namely a vision of a perfect world, which is definitively untrue. It exists in the absolutely unknown, as a mere speculation.
How great it is that we do not live in the world of the dreamers, though I myself often dream!
The Sacredness of Art
There is a firm distinction between the sacred and the profane. While Peterson does not dwell on the matter of the profane, he spends a lot of time on the idea of the sacred.
It is necessary that we begin by examining the profane, however, because I feel Peterson takes knowledge for granted which is rare in our age.
The profane is that which is susceptible to worldly influence. This does not inherently mean that it is bad. The perceived dualism between the world as evil and God as good is a misconception; uncorrupted parts of the world retain an element of God’s presence. While we have certainly been able to profane some things beyond any recognition of their original form, this is not universal.
However, the things of the world can be profane even before they become corrupt, because it is precisely the influence of the world (or perhaps the innate profanity of the world) that makes it susceptible to corruption.
The sacred is incorruptible, though it is not always clear that what we regard as sacred really is. The example that comes to mind are the tribulations that face the church in many Communist countries. They often faced (and currently face) mockery and ridicule, coupled with deliberate efforts to desecrate and deaden the spirit of both practitioners and their Scripture, meeting-places, and communities.
However, these things alone cannot fully remove the sacred and ineffable influence of God, try as man might. They, at most, merely weaken the interconnections between the world and the spirit. Where the connection is already weak, it may be severed. But the true believers?
I think of my forebears, the Tolstoyans, in their faithfulness in the Gulag. How sweet it is to have a connection to the sacred that flows from the spirit!
So it is with art, at least the art produced by genuine seekers.
We treat these objects as if they are sacred. [emphasis in original] At least that is what our actions in their vicinity suggest. We gaze at them in ignorance and wonder, and remember what we have forgotten; perceiving, ever so dimly, what we can no longer see (what we are perhaps no longer willing to see).Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
Art is a connection between the known and the unknown.
This seems sacred to us, because the divine is absolutely unknowable, though we can approximate it through devotion and contemplation directed at God.
However, not everything which seems sacred is sacred, and forgetting that can be gravely dangerous.
This is not the place for a lengthy discourse on discernment, however.
The important take-away here is that art is valued precisely because it connects us to something that we were once more keenly connected to, both in a childlike innocence and seeking for information in our environment and in more metaphysical ways. Though I would be cautious about saying that we are initially connected to God at birth or in the womb, in the sense that you’d have to be very careful about how and where you make that claim to be truthful and accurate, it certainly is the case that our connection to the mysterious dwindles as we age and the concerns of reality weigh more heavily upon our shoulders unless we take a serious effort to pursue it.
Art is often an expression of innocence, or at the very least an exercise in practicing our connection with the unknown. Although not all art serves God, it is a representation of the psyche’s function as it explores the interplay between known and unknown, order and chaos, profane and sacred. Barring the last case, the things that artists explore are typically not binary, and they can vary either in degree (e.g. slight order versus extreme chaos) or in direction (e.g. partially known, which is not simply more known or less unknown).
I know I am making a bold claim about the sacred and profane being one of the rare true binaries, but what we think of as “more sacred” or “more profane” simply holds more numinosity rather than a distinct element or degree of sacredness or profanity. We can think of numen of as spiritual weight, or the degree to which something has psychological pull. Here, something that is profane but entirely lacks numen avoids the label of profane in our daily lives. That which is profane and numinous holds more controlling power and therefore is considered “more profane” although we are merely more aware of its profanity.
But this is not the place for further discussion of that.
The Danger of Art
Other than that an artist may inadvertently or deliberately pursue the profane rather than the sacred, we don’t think of art as inherently dangerous.
We do not think of the tribulation of the (commercially) unsuccessful artist as danger, but as misfortune. They are surely pitiable, but they have chosen that path.
But this is not the case.
First, the artist who succeeds can achieve great things, but those who languish often find themselves frustrated in achieving their goal of discovery. They have submitted themselves to an act of sacrificing to the universe and the consequence of that can be quite dire.
Failing at exploring the unknown is a pathway to madness and bitterness. We do not select artists for their mental stability, and one reason for this is that a continued encounter with things beyond the individual can be quite disintegrating. The frustration of creating that which does not exist is an eternal millstone around the neck of the artist.
Further, artists separate themselves from society, not just in their hermetic pursuit of their craft but also through their visions and dreams taking them away from the “real” world. This does not mean that they cannot be rooted in reality, but they cannot be rooted in their social place/time. The irony is that those who tap into the zeitgeist find something which few recognize.
The price of being avant-garde is that you may run so far ahead of society that it never catches up to you.
And the consequence of this is that the artist is a reject.
Peterson recounts an anecdote about wanting to beautify his office. In passing, he mentions his plans to his superior, who tells him he cannot do what he has planned because then everyone else will want to do it.
Of course, this is an idiotic reason (why would everyone wanting to bring beauty be a bad thing?) but it is typical of a response to the artist.
What is the moral of the story? Make yourself colorful, stand out, and the lions will take you down.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The artist risks everything to tell their stories. When Carl Jung wrote the Liber Novus, he showed it to his friends and fellow psychoanalysts, who were fascinated by it.
However, there were those who believed that the work (no parts of which were publicly attributed to Jung during his lifetime) had to have come from the mind of a psychotic!
So it is that the artist can instill feelings of jealousy, fear, and envy. They may even have these feelings for themselves, if they are disintegrated.
The consequence of pursuing beauty is that you may leave behind the known world.
The known world is often a place that is not nice to be in. It is dirty, crude, profane, and often descends into madness and chaos that can approximate something like hell on earth.
All things being equal, however, the artist walks the boundaries between these two worlds. In ancient traditions, those gifted in the art of wordcraft were often considered sorcerers or oracles of the divine. At other times their society considered them blessed by muses or other supernatural forces.
This is natural, because art is definitively unnatural. It is one thing that separates us from lesser animals (as much as they may “paint” representations, they do not seem to do this for a transcendent purpose), and it is one thing that we need more than anything else.
Beauty leads you back to what you have lost.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order