I’ve recently been watching a lot of Jordan Peterson’s videos. I think he’s great even if some of his ideas fail to convince me. When he goes on about logos he loses me, his interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve seems far fetched and he sees symbolism in everything. Even so, I like the things he says about the way our senses become jaded and we end up barely noticing the actual physical world. Once our brain connections have been wired up it’s hard to regain that sense of newness we had when we were children. Habit and language make muffle everything until all we do is register something’s existence before we move on to the next only half-seen object. Andy Partridge from XTC wrote the song Wrapped in grey on a similar theme.
Of course, this may be how things are meant to be. After all, unless you have a very short memory you can’t keep saying ‘wow!’ to familiar things. But Peterson thinks the presence of children can help jaded adults look at things afresh. Children wander aimlessly around from one object to another, inspecting them with no specific goal. If we wander with them we first puzzle over what there is to see in a discarded chewing gum wrapper, a squashed snail or some moss wedged into a wall. But then we too start to look properly and sometimes are struck, as of old, by the stoniness of the stone or the dark green of the leaves. Peterson thinks that when we are really interested in something, or in love, we truly come into contact with the world.
All this reminded me of Aldous Huxley’s experiences in The Doors of Perception and Virginia Woolf’s Moments of Being. I also get a taste of it in this pop video. Maybe some Japanese people feel it when they are staring at cherry blossom. I feel it mildly for the first few moments when I step out of my silent house in the morning, my senses having been deprived of stimulus for the last few hours. Then I actually notice the sun or the cold, birds singing or the silence before the whole thing is smothered by my thinking. I notice the world around me especially when I’m recovering from a bad cold and when I stop what I’m doing for a moment on some quiet afternoon and just look about me, as I described in my last post. I think this is what Edgar Allan Poe was getting at in this passage from Man of the Crowd:
Not long ago, about the closing in of an evening in autumn, I sat at the large bow window of the D—- Coffee-House in London. For some months I had been ill in health, but was now convalescent, and, with returning strength, found myself in one of those happy moods which are so precisely the converse of ennui – moods of the keenest appetency, when the film from the mental vision departs and the intellect, electrified, surpasses as greatly its every-day condition, as does the vivid yet candid reason of Leibnitz, the mad and flimsy rhetoric of Gorgias. Merely to breathe was enjoyment; and I derived positive pleasure even from many of the legitimate sources of pain. I felt a calm but inquisitive interest in every thing. With a cigar in my mouth and a newspaper in my lap, I had been amusing myself for the greater part of the afternoon, now in poring over advertisements, now in observing the promiscuous company in the room, and now in peering through the smoky panes into the street.
This pleasant state of mind requires that you slow down, forget everything for a while and just take in the quietness around you.
Having said all that I think Jordan Peterson’s claim that objects can shine with a meaningful radiance is overblown. If I ever saw objects in that way I’m damned if I can remember it now. And yet, and yet…