Jim Proser’s new biography on Jordan Peterson portrays him as a Christlike figure plagued by personal demons. Yet the real devil here is in the details.
hat does one say about Jim Proser’s new biography of Jordan Peterson, Savage Messiah: How Dr. Jordan Peterson Is Saving Western Civilization? The first thing is that it’s not a biography, at least not in the modern sense of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson—a text that’s extensive leveraging of archival records, eye-witness accounts, and interviews effectively bestowed the genre with a veneer of objectivity that’s defined it ever since. By contrast, what Proser offers us here—as can be inferred from the title—is essentially a Christ allegory: one in which Peterson is portrayed as being the lone individual capable of saving “Judeo-Christian Enlightenment values” from the “vipers” of “postmodern neo-Marxism,” resurgent since the “anti-Western” movement of Occupy Wall Street. And should one dispute Peterson’s candidacy for comparison with Christ on the grounds that the latter was put to death for his sermons whereas the former has become rich off of them, Proser constantly reassures us of the mental anguish Peterson has endured on account of “neo-Marxist aggression,” which at one point, “literally surrounded him, invaded his classroom, threatened his career and the future stability of his family.”
Given the apocalyptic sense of importance Proser assigns to Peterson, many readers may be curious as to just who he is. In 2016, Peterson first attracted widespread notoriety for his publication of a video on YouTube, “Professor Against Political Correctness: Part 1.” The video, which featured Peterson’s voice—imagine Kermit the Frog trying to evince the air of a truth-telling patriarch—dubbed over a handful of black-and-white PowerPoint slides, was austere. It was also factually dubious: in it, for instance, Peterson—a Canadian, who currently teaches at the University of Toronto—confuses Canadian jurisdictions, waxing on about the threat posed to academic freedom by the Canadian government’s effort to legislatively protect gender-nonconforming individuals seemingly unaware that his own vocation falls under provincial mandate. Naturally, few noticed, and Peterson’s was able to parlay his burgeoning star as a professor capable of legitimating the intellectual pretensions of the alt-right into a best-selling book two years later, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. 12 Rules for Life, which builds on Peterson’s efforts to map Jungian archetypes onto neuroscience in his earlier book Maps of Meaning is—at bottom—a pop psychology book sprinkled with a few inchoate philosophy references (Peterson succeeds in misreading numerous thinkers throughout the book, including Heidegger and Derrida). However, by this point, the question of Peterson’s academic bona fides was largely a moot one. His nonstop polemicizing against the left—whose ideology he coined the neologism “postmodern neo-Marxism” to describe, sloppily compounding differences a more rigorous thinker would’ve bothered to delineate—supported by his nonstop lecture tours, had already resonated with a mass audience. 12 Rules was just the tour souvenir.
That Peterson’s elevation to fame occurred relatively recently poses a distinct problem to Proser as a biographer. Jordan Peterson is 57 years old—hardly an upstart. Yet as he was not a public figure prior to his fiftieth year, writing a genuinely comprehensive biography would’ve required undertaking substantial research to supplement Peterson’s own accounts (part of the appeal of Peterson’s books and lectures lies in the way he frequently recounts stories supplied from personal experience). But whether out of laziness (or whether out of a desire not to impinge upon the soupcon of prophecy Peterson has built up around himself), Proser instead elects to use the book’s first half to furnish his readers with an assemblage of chronologically organized anecdotes about Peterson’s life derived from none other than Peterson (and virtually all readily available elsewhere). The best thing that can be said about this part of the book is that—in so far as the events in question occurred prior to his transformation into the public intellectual par excellence of the Right—it’s impossible to say categorically that they’re wrong (though one does get the sense that taking them at face value would be a bit like seeing a long cut of Purple Rain and mistaking it for authentic biography). The worst thing that can be said is that Proser here does the exact opposite of what a biographer should do, inflating Peterson’s personal mythology rather than slicing through it.
The word “mythology” is not used here loosely. Peterson, who believes that the world is not “made of matter” but “out of what matters”—deep, bro—has in his past works compared his travails to those of mythological and religious figures. Given that Peterson makes clear in Maps of Meaning that he believes there is a symmetry between neurobiological structures and mythic archetypes, it can be argued that this is less preposterous than it seems (even as this argument itself is complicated by the fact that the mythological examples Peterson makes to use it are disproportionately Western). For Proser, however, it is not enough that Peterson simply be an avatar of common experience. Instead, his stress on Peterson’s world-historical confrontation with SJW’s (“social justice warriors”) infuses even his relaying of the events of Peterson’s early life. When Peterson refuses to go to church and rejects religion, he, “may have felt something like Dante’s Inferno.” When he experienced depression as a young man, he was, “Odysseus traveling through the land of the dead to learn of his future.” To top it all off, in Proser’s account, Peterson was dogged as a youth by none other than Satan (!) himself, who decided to, “be patient with the young man who was so bright and seemed so enthusiastic.” Not that his patience was infinite: after Peterson interrupts a “college drinking party” by shouting “about God and war and love and other things he didn’t know a lot about,” the, “Prince abandoned his drunken prospect to suffer in his well-deserved vomit.” These kinds of descriptions, coupled with the book’s title, make you wonder if Proser hasn’t forsaken the vocation to which he would’ve been best disposed: that of a metal lyricist.
Peterson’s reception during the early stages of his academic career, was, as Proser explains, not much different than the one he encountered assailing besotted college students with his philosophic theses at house parties. At least so far as his colleagues were concerned. After serving as an assistant professor at Harvard for five years, Peterson failed to acquire a tenured position there due to, in his own words, a lack of “presence of mind”—whatever that means. Even at the University of Toronto, a prestigious albeit considerably less prestigious institution, Peterson was nearly rejected by the psychology department’s search committee on the grounds that he was too “eccentric.” Throughout his description of these events, Proser is so committed to portraying Peterson as a concentrate of titanic significance that he fails to countenance the possibility that his academic work just might not be that good. But while hardly a model of intellectual rigor, what’s also clear from this part of the book is the way that Peterson’s indisputable skills as an orator furnished him with opportunities well above his academic station. At Harvard, he purportedly built up a “cult following” among his students—who also nominated him for the Levenson Teaching Award in 1998, which he subsequently won. And a few years into his stint at the University of Toronto, he landed a gig delivering lectures on Maps of Meaning for a publicly-funded broadcaster, TVOntario (which also invited him to frequently serve as in interlocutor on The Agenda with Steve Paikin). Predictably, Proser fails to notice the irony that—while Peterson frequently rails against the oppressive diktats thrust upon him by politically correct government apparatchiks—he is also a product of government, having received a quotient of support throughout his career denied to many of the “postmodern neo-Marxists” whom he regularly decries.
But if Proser’s goal is to honor Peterson’s work, his exaggeratedly hagiographic approach actually has the opposite effect. If Peterson’s brilliance is so self-evident, why is it necessary for Proser to—in arguably the most surreal moment in a book rife with them—cite student ratings on ratemyprofessor.com in order to attempt to discredit one of his ideological opponents?
It’s at this point in Proser’s book—as Peterson’s public visibility begins to increase—that it degenerates into deep nonsense. Absent extensive research, and unmoored from the coming-of-age narrative that undergirds its first half, the latter part of Savage Messiah is a mess of phrases copied verbatim from public websites, tidbits of Peterson’s lectures, and Proser’s crass polemicizing. Much of it is, moreover, factually inaccurate. The competition for the worst burst of prose in Savage Messiah is a fierce one. But in Proser’s description of the political ascent of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, we seem to have found a winner:
“Arriving just in time, young Justin ascended quickly to the leadership of the NDP. Then riding the wave of progressive outrage over the repeated defeat of their agenda and the rise of traditionalist voices like Jordan Peterson, he led the Liberal Party to a sweeping national victory in 2015. The Liberal Party went from third place with 36 seats to a dominating 184 seats, the largest increase by a party ever in a federal election. He was sworn in as prime minister of Canada on November 4, 2015.”
To be clear, the Liberal Party and NDP (“New Democratic Party,” though Proser elsewhere refers to it in the text as the “National Democratic Party”) are, in fact, completely different political organizations. Nor is this the only example of Proser sloppily conflating different political traditions: at another point, he declares that Sartre and French pro-fascist writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline as exponents of “different forms of Marxism” (though perhaps Céline is indicted here because he actually—unlike Peterson or Proser—took the time to read Capital). And for the coup de grace, we learn that “anti-fascist Antifa fighters” are none other than the modern-day version of “the violent Black Shirts, the voluntary, paramilitary wing of Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party of Italy.” Oh, and in case you wondering: the cause of “the violence of Antifa” is “possibly” the “theory of toxic masculinity.”
What’s disturbing about these kinds of claims—apart from the fact they made it by an actual copy editor—is that it’s not clear that describing them as “errors” fully does justice to the mind in question. Some may be oversights. But one also harbors the suspicion that Proser is so in the thrall of a conspiratorial vertigo that he thinks he’s offering up the unvarnished truth. This speaks to the fundamental flaw of Savage Messiah: that it never even momentarily allows the facts to stand alone. Of course, narrative structuration is the essence of biography, and it would be unreasonable to expect any author to not bring some kind of predisposition to a project dedicated to a figure as divisive as Peterson. But if Proser’s goal is to honor Peterson’s work, his exaggeratedly hagiographic approach actually has the opposite effect. If Peterson’s brilliance is so self-evident, why is it necessary for Proser to—in arguably the most surreal moment in a book rife with them—cite student ratings on ratemyprofessor.com in order to attempt to discredit one of his ideological opponents? Moreover, one gets the sense that Proser, who identifies openly as a follower of Peterson’s work, has not even fully assimilated it. Where Peterson, for instance, has criticized the adoption of identity politics by both the right and left—albeit been more severe in his condemnations of the latter—Proser is alarmed by an Amazon.com product review that refers to a two-decade-old journal as, “seeking to abolish the white race.” Likewise, where Peterson couches his misogyny in improperly applied statistical data, Proser—who’s elsewhere described women as having a “last f—able day”—is hardly so discreet. For him, should we examine the “subtext” of one of Peterson’s lectures, it is clear that it’s not “right-wing authoritarians, but women who most wanted to control speech.”
Savage Messiah is a colossal embarrassment. But if its most disquieting passages can credibly pass themselves off as analyses of Peterson’s work, is it solely Proser’s? Peterson’s has mastered the art of disavowal: of selectively deploying statistical data in order to infer bigotries he then can subsequently distance himself from. This book is just another example: as Proser explains in the book’s epilogue, Peterson gave it his assent—but never in a way that would impede him from later disowning its contents. Maybe, then, it’s not Peterson but, rather, Proser who manifests the archetypal traits of the Messiah. Jesus, after all, let himself be pinned down.
Conrad Bongard Hamilton is a PhD student based at Paris 8 University, currently pursuing research on non-human agency in the work of Karl Marx under the supervision of Catherine Malabou. He is a contributor to the text What is Post-Modern Conservatism, as well as the author of a forthcoming book, Dialectic of Escape: A Conceptual History of Video Games. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and a catalogue of his writings can be found on Academia.edu.