12 Rules for Life: An antidote to Chaos. [Allen Lane, 2018, £20.00]
Unsurprisingly, the idea of tackling a book that has lobsters, the shire of Tolkien’s hobbits and the stumbling stability of chaos crop up in its earliest pages had me scratching my head, eyebrows raised, rather than eager to turn to the next page.
Here is a book that brooks no compromise but rather wipes the slate clean, lifts you shoulder high and has you confront the big issues that we all have to face but too often shade our eyes from: self-respect, responsible child rearing (no soft-soaping with Peterson, nor damaging over-protectiveness), education, sharing, setting your house in order before criticising the world, the pursuit of what is meaningful, truthfulness, having the humility in the face of people who may well know more than you do, and verbal precision. Also crucial to Peterson’s enterprise is a dry-eyed and mercifully objective take on the value and limitations of science, as well as on gender and its attendant complications, and narcissism. Most interesting though is his attitude to religion, which passes on the anti-God-squad dogma that has become so fashionable nowadays and instead takes an informed, objective and compassionate look at the great sacred texts but without ever promoting the idea of single-denominational worship. Peterson’s mode of prayer, such as it is, resides in the open air, under the stars, rather than within the walls of a church or a temple. The texts he calls on include Plato, Genesis, Lao Tzu, the Sermon on the Mount, Goethe, Yeats, and T. S. Eliot, always in a useful and revealing context. I read the heart-breaking account of his daughter’s battle with severe polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) and her heroic attitude to the trials, often excruciatingly painful, that recovery involved with tears running down my cheeks. As I read I listened to the uplifting conclusion to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, setting Goethe’s text (from Faust, Part Two), ‘all that passes away is merely a likeness; the inadequacy of earth finds fulfilment …’ I know that this will sound hopelessly sentimental to some but It was as if Peterson and Mahler had somehow found each other, Mahler’s unique brand of humanism having nearly always escaped a precise lens. Here it has found one. And that’s not all. For years I’ve cherished the idea of setting a children’s story to the slow movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. As I imagine it, in the early stages of the movement, a child contemplates nature, alone. Then, as the music gradually becomes more animated, he’s joined by a group of mates who rush, helter-skelter, to the edge of a sky-high ridge beyond which lies a blinding light. It’s a place that many have wondered about but as yet no one has had the courage to tackle its heights. This is where Peterson comes in: these fearless kids summon that courage, and up they run. When they get to the top Mahler provides the devastating soundtrack with his full-orchestra ‘Gates of Heaven’ outburst. What have they seen? The physical manifestation of J M W Turner’s dying words, ‘the sun is God’.