A Book About Men
By Robert Bly
268 pages, $18.95
OVER THE past 25 years, feminism has profoundly affected the way men think about masculinity. Frequently, men's response to this radical political movement has taken the form of guilt, shame and even hostility. At the same time, however, many men have found in feminism a means to rethink their roles as men in American society and have learned about the oppressive nature of capitalism and patriarchy.
For these men, Robert Bly's religious mysticism in the guise of a progressive analysis of men and masculinity comes as a major disappointment.
For men who blame the women's movement for their confusion, however, and seek an easy return to the good old days with the good old boys, Bly's spiritualism provides a convenient, even compelling examination of atranshistorical, mythological and essential masculinity. For Bly, the male psyche, male spirit, inner masculine self, male principle, is "ancient," "timeless," "mythologized" and "instinctive."
Masculinity, then, is handed down from generation to generation not by a society which needs certain kinds of men, but by "the father (who) gives with his sperm . . . a sheathing, or envelope, or coating around the soul made of intensity, shrewdness, desire to penetrate, liveliness, impulse, daring."
Relying on, at times, an incredibly reductionist Freudian reading of a powerful Grimm Brothers fairy tale, "Iron Hans," Bly sets forth his ideas about male initiation and the eternal male essence.
The fairy tale, renamed "Iron John," by Bly, describes a young boy's confrontation with the hairy "Wild Man" who lives at the bottom of a lake. Through their relationship, Bly identifies the stages in male development as represented throughout ancient mythology. The loss of these male mythologies and the elimination of initiation rites identified with them precipitates men's incompleteness today.
Bly bemoans the inability of contemporary men to reach down to "the structure at the bottom of the male psyche (which) is still as firm as it was 20,000 years ago." And he blames "the strong or life-giving women who graduated from the '60s" for the overwhelming existence of what he calls "the soft male."
The soft male is a liability for society because "men and women alike once called on men to pierce the dangerous places (and) . . . all knew that if men did that well the women and children would sleep more safely." Echoing right-wing ideologues like Phyllis Schalfly who have suggested the same concern for the past 20 years, Bly points out that women cannot raise boys properly because boys "need more hardness than (a mother) could naturally give."
To retrieve their hardness, boys need to be reintroduced to the ancient initiation rites with, for example, their celebration of mutilation in the form of the eternal wound. Bly sees these rites as "still very much alive in our genetic structure" and believes they represent the only viable route to men's liberation.
Central to this initiation process resides the older male mentor who will lead young boys through these rites, fostering in them a more complete masculinity. Part of this initiation requires the young boy to get in touch with the "Wild Man," though Bly is never clear about who exactly this is.
Consistent with his psychoanalytic perspective, though, Bly cautions men from trying to become the Wild Man, which would end only "in early death and confusion for everyone." That is, men should identify with the spontaneous, exciting and even anarchist male self as long as they don't threaten social norms too much.
One social norm Bly seems quite concerned about preserving is heterosexuality. At the end of what Bly defines as a five-stage initiation lies "the marriage with the Holy Woman or the Queen." While this could be a man, Bly's ideas about the "eternal feminine" don't suggest so.
To ensure that we don't overstep the traditional boundaries that Bly believes in, the older male mentor can teach us how far to go and which innate masculine qualities to pursue. But, besides himself, Bly remains unclear about who these exceptional older male teachers might be. How they have managed to grow out of their oppressive roles as men or transcend modern masculinity remains a mystery in Bly's analysis.
What becomes clear, however, is that the one older male mentor available to do all of these wonderful things for all of us unfortunate boys is Bly himself. Bly fills the vacancy created by the absent father and, for the cost of admission into one of his men's retreats, we can be taught by the master how to get in touch with our long-lost archetypal, inherent masculinity.
Bly is the patriarch who will help us create the kinder and gentler patriarchy with him at the head of the table; a benign patriarch, no doubt, but the lord of the manor, nonetheless.
While Bly may be correct when he observes that "we have no ideas at all about how to produce men, and we let it all happen unconsciously while we look away to Wall Street and hope for the best," Bly's desire to return to yesteryear when men were leaders and women were led falls far short of the difficult task men face to re-imagine their masculinity.
The creation of a new, positive, even soft masculinity requires much more work than just reclaiming the old image of the warrior who is at once fierce and supportive. Bly's vision is too easy, too mystical, too fundamentally reactionary to bring us anywhere but backward to an image of masculinity which is not only old, but worn out.
We must envision a masculinity that moves forward, that creates its own language,its own metaphors, its own imagination. Men are not inherently warriors, or kings or lords; that's old language and, like Bly's analysis, it's authoritarian.