Our Lady and the Old Infant

The convener of one of the Jordan Peterson Facebook groups that I participate in has been pushing me for some time now to be more compassionate towards our professorial “father.” Or, as my friend puts it: “to take off your fencing gear and model the Nourishing Feminine.”

Okay, then, but I have to warn you. It is going to hurt.

What do I see when I look at Jordan Peterson with a mother’s eyes?

I should preface my reflections with the caveat that I speak here not just as the mother of a son, but also as an historian. Reading the textual accounts left by people about their thoughts and emotions is what I do in my scholarship. Just as Jordan has spent the past thirty years as a clinical psychologist, I have spent them as a reader of texts,* my goal as an author being to help the texts speak to audiences for whom they no longer mean anything. I have practiced listening to my texts just as Jordan has practiced listening to his patients, and I hope that I have been able to hear.

More to the point, I read very particular kinds of texts. Texts in which authors are commenting on the meaning of scripture in ways that even most modern Christians find difficult to hear, texts rich in interpretive layers, explicitly theorized as such. Medieval Christians read not just for the “letter” of the text—what the text says literally or historically—but also for the “spirit”—what Jordan might call the symbolism or psychology, but what they called the allegory or tropology. What Jordan critiques as the postmodernist insistence on the multiplicity of meanings in a text is in fact a bastardized modern version of medieval interpretive techniques. (I explain this lineage more fully here, if you don’t know this history.)

Even more to the point, what I read are texts about devotion, more particularly, texts about getting inside another person’s perspective in order to empathize with him or her, most particularly, texts about empathizing with Mary and Christ. Those who have been following my adventures with Milo may remember a post I published a year ago next week, cryptically entitled “Mother and Son.” Of course it was about Milo. It was the day the spineless cunts brought him down. Go, read it again. I’ll wait. The text is a passage from one of the commentaries on which I did my graduate work and which I wrote about in my first book. The text is a commentary on the Song of Songs, but in the commentary the speakers are identified as Mary and her Son.

I will tell you now what as a mother I see in Jordan.


I have two main pieces of evidence, one from his interview with Cathy Newman, the other from his new book.

You remember how the interview begins.
Newman: Jordan Peterson, you’ve said that men need to grow the hell up. Tell me why.
The answer that Jordan gives is one of the most impassioned in the whole encounter, going on for much longer than it seems (to me at least) that he needed to make his point:
Peterson: Well, because there’s nothing uglier than an old infant. There’s nothing good about it. People who don’t grow up don’t find the sort of meaning in their life that sustains them through difficult times. And they are certain to encounter difficult times. And they’re left bitter and resentful and without purpose and adrift and hostile and resentful and vengeful and arrogant and deceitful and of no use to themselves and no use to anyone else and no partner for a woman. There’s nothing in it that’s good. 
Note the cascade of adjectives. It is not just that men who don’t grow the hell up are unhappy. They become “bitter and resentful and without purpose and adrift and hostile and resentful and vengeful and arrogant and deceitful.” They become, as it were, monsters. Plus poor partners for women.

Call it feminine intuition, but this sounds to me like something somebody once said to him.

My second piece of evidence comes in the chapter where he is talking about why it is important not to bother children “when they are skateboarding.”

In this chapter, he talks about the way young men are affected by the female-dominance of institutions of higher education (on which I and Christina Hoff Sommers agree) and about the absurdity of blaming the “so-called oppression of the patriarchy” for the limitations that both women and men experience in realizing themselves.

“Why,” he asks, nay, cries out, “do we teach our young people that our incredible culture is the result of male oppression?”

Of course, he insists, culture is “symbolically, archetypal, mythically male,” but it is culture that has freed us over the millennia from the “filth, misery, disease, starvation, cruelty and ignorance that characterized the lives of both sexes, back before the twentieth century.” Again, I, Deirdre McCloskey, and Amy Wax would most vehemently agree, above all about the great boons of bourgeois culture to civilization.

Then he points to the way in which ideas like those on which modern feminism is based led to the atrocities of communism (again, on which I would most vehemently agree), while well-functioning societies depend on ideals of competence, ability, skill, intelligence and conscientiousness, not power.

So far, so good.

But then things take a somewhat different turn—to compassion, which Jordan characterizes as a vice, and the importance of being able to be disagreeable (as, for example, I am being in some of these posts about him). In his words:
Agreeable, compassionate, empathic, conflict-averse people (all those traits group together) let people walk on them, and they get bitter. They sacrifice themselves for others, sometimes excessively, and cannot comprehend why it is not reciprocated. Agreeable people are compliant, and this robs them of their independence. The danger associated with this can be amplified by high trait neuroticism. Agreeable people will go along with whoever makes a suggestion, instead of insisting, at least sometimes, on their own way. So, they lose their way, and become indecisive and too easily swayed. If they are, in addition, easily frightened and hurt, they have even less reason to strike out on their own, as doing so exposes them to threat and danger (at least in the short term**). That’s the pathway to dependent personality disorder, technically speaking. It might be regarded as the polar opposite of antisocial personalty disorder, the set of traits characteristic of delinquency in childhood and adolescence and criminality in adulthood. It would be lovely if the opposite of a criminal was a saint—but it’s not the case. The opposite of a criminal is an Oedipal mother, which is its own type of criminal.
Note, again the cascade of adjectives and how we get from compassion as something not necessarily good to compassion as positively criminal. Note, too, who ends up hurt most. And by whom.

What is the Oedipal mother like? Suffocating. She insists on keeping her child as an infant, making a devil’s bargain with him.
The deal is this: “Above all, never leave me. In return, I will do everything for you. As you age without maturing, you will become worthless and bitter, but you will never have to take any responsibility, and everything you do that’s wrong will always be someone else’s fault.”
It was this mother that, according to Jordan, was at the heart of the feminist movement, the goddess whom scholars like Marija Gimbutas and Merlin Stone claimed had been at the root of culture, the mythical “matriarchy” “where women held the dominant positions of power, respect and honor, where polyamory and promiscuity ruled, and where any certainty of paternity was absent.” (Sound familiar?) And it was this idea of the feminine against which—Jordan explains—Jung and Neumann vehemently fought:
For Neumann, and for Jung, consciousness—always symbolically masculine, even in women—struggles upward toward the light. Its development is painful and anxiety-provoking, as it carries with it the realization of vulnerability and death. It is constantly tempted to sink back down into dependency and unconsciousness, and to shed its existential burden. It is aided in that pathological desire by anything that opposes enlightenment, articulation, rationality, self-determination, strength and competence—by anything that shelters too much, and therefore smothers and devours. 
Women have to undergo this struggle, too, although in their case, as Jordan argues, the archetype is to be rescued by their masculine consciousness rather than to win the battle as feminine.

And then Jordan tells a story. You all know how much store Jordan places in stories, how he talks about the ways in which they bear unpicking, their layers upon layers of significance only gradually revealing themselves to the hero’s quest. It is a story about his mother, and about a time that she encountered him in the park, playing with some of the other children. It is worth quoting in full.
One day, when I was a kid, I was out playing softball with some friends. The teams were a mixture of boys and girls. We were all old enough so that the boys and girls were starting to be interested in one another in an unfamiliar way. Status was becoming more relevant and important. My friend Jake and I were about to come to blows, pushing each other around near the pitching mound, when my mom walked by. 
She was a fair distance away, about thirty yards, but I could immediately see by the change in her body language that she knew what was going on. Of course, the other kids saw her as well. She walked right by. I knew that hurt her. Part of her was worried that I would come home with a bloody nose and a black eye. It would have been easy enough for her just to yell, “Hey, you kids, quit that!” or even to come over and interfere.
But she didn’t. A few years later, when I was having teenage trouble with my dad, my mom said, “If it was too good at home, you’d never leave.”
My mom is a tender-hearted person. She’s empathetic, and cooperative, and agreeable. Sometimes she lets people push her around. When she went back to work after being at home with her young kids, she found it challenging to stand up to the men. Sometimes that made her resentful—something she also feels, sometimes, in relationship to my father, who is strongly inclined to do what he wants, when he wants to.
Despite all that, she’s no Oedipal mother. She fostered the independence of her children, even though doing so was often hard on her. She did the right thing, even though it causes her emotional distress.
Can you feel the pain in this story? Every time I read it, it hits me in wave after wave of sorrow, like a sword piercing through my soul. That poor boy, abandoned by his mother. She didn’t even stop.

“She walked right by.”

Don’t you dare tell me this didn’t hurt. Sure, Jordan acknowledges that it hurt her. But he says nothing about how much it hurt him.

Except he does, over and over and over again, every time he talks about how ugly it is to be an old infant.

His father was hard to live with? I am not surprised. The men in my family, particularly those of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations were, too. My guess, although this is more a cultural than a genealogical guess, is that Peterson’s people came from similar Scots-Irish (aka Calvinist Presbyterian) stock as my family. The kind of fighting stock that Jim Webb describes in Born Fighting. The kind of stock in which the fathers live in perpetual conflict with their sons, so as to toughen them up, make men of them. And in which the women—like, for example, my father’s mother—have to live with the tyranny of their husbands.

My aunt told me a story once about what happened the first Thanksgiving that my father was home from college. Dad had gone to the Rice Institute to pursue his dream of studying engineering and mathematics, but he was also on the football team, and his grades were suffering. I can’t quite remember how it went, but I think Dad told Grandfather about wanting to quit. There were harsh words. And somehow in the exchange, my Grandfather said or did something to my Grandmother, maybe even hit her.

So my father floored him.

My father also had a complicated relationship with women.

I didn’t know my grandmother well, she was dying of bone cancer for the last five or ten years of her life. My only memories of her are of her with her walker. She was beautiful even then, but frail. Nothing like the woman she must have been when my father and aunt were growing up, and she, having majored in Classics in college, was their Latin and English teacher in high school. I look like her in one of the photographs that we have. I suspect there is something of her in me. (There, I am crying again.) As there was of her in my father. As there is of him in my son.

I cannot imagine seeing my son suffering and not being there for him. I cannot imagine walking past the park and seeing him about to end up in a fight and not staying to witness him take on his enemies. Not to intervene—I do understand what Jordan is saying about letting children fight their own fights. I had my own fights to fight growing up, and I know how important it is to stand up to the bullies, even for girls. But there is a difference between fighting your children’s fights for them and not being there for them. It is a false dichotomy to say that the only choice is between being an Oedipal mother and leaving them utterly alone to fend for themselves.

There is the choice that Mary made.

The choice to suffer with them.

The choice to be there for them.

The choice to have true com-passion and being willing to share their pain.

How do you think Jesus would have felt if his mother had not been there to witness what happened to him? 
A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he shall lie between my breasts...A cluster of cypress my love is to me, in the vineyards of Engaddi (Song of Songs 1:11-13). If you know these things, if you consider them rightly, you will most certainly find them in me [Mary], at which you will be struck through (compungamini) with me, and you will be sweetly consoled with me. Think not only on that hour of day, on which I saw such a beloved one arrested by the impious and evilly treated—mocked, crowned with thorns, scourged, crucified, given gall and vinegar to drink, lanced, killed, and buried. For then, indeed, a sword pierced through my soul, but before it thus pierced through, it made a long passage through me.
For I was a prophetess, and because I was his mother, I knew that he would suffer these things. When, therefore, I cherished at my breast such a son, born of my own flesh, carried him in my arms, nursed him at my breasts, and yet, foreseeing all with a prophetic, nay, more than prophetic mind, had always before my eyes such a death as was to come for him, what kind, how great and how drawn out a passion of maternal grief do you think that I endured? This is why I say: A bundle of myrrh is my beloved to me, he shall lie between my breasts.
O sojourn, sweet indeed, and yet filled with unspeakable groanings! On the outside he was bound to these breasts and nursed by the same, while at the same time inwardly between these breasts, in a heart foreknowing the future, it was always clear what sort of death he was to die. But yet I knew that he would rise again.***
Amesbury Psalter, Oxford, All Souls College, MS 6, fol. 5, mid-thirteenth century

*Jordan and I are about the same age; he is only a few years older than I am.
**Some of my friends on Facebook are very upset with me about these Peterson posts. Just saying.
***Rupert of Deutz, Commentaria in Canticum Canticorum de Incarnatione Domini, I:31-32, trans. Rachel Fulton, From Judgment to Passion: Devotion to Christ and the Virgin Mary, 800-1200 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 328


Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Toronto: Random House Canada, 2018).

Popular posts from this blog

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

RFB Meets EMJ and OBS

Why I Love Milo

Joking Matters