Robert Bly and Iron John

Robert Bly and Iron John

by Fred Pelka

“For generations our institutions, and our parents, have warned us and shamed us away from our wildness – Our intuition, exuberance, and tears. Now, soul and spirit suffer in great measure. At gatherings of men…the healing often begins with the telling of ancient stories of male initiation…”

So says a flyer for “Initiation in the Masculine Soul – A Day for Men,” featuring keynote speaker Robert Bly. For $100 ($85 if I register early) Bly, through the telling of myths and fairy tales, will take me “places that our parents never thought of.”

Bly romanticizes history,
trivializes sexist oppression
and lays the blame for
men’s “grief” on women

Robert Bly, acclaimed poet, winner of the National Book Award, and leader ofa burgeoning men’s movement, travels the country speaking to mostly white and almost entirely male audiences about “male grief and the myriad difficulties inherent in being a contemporary man. He commands a huge following and has been referred to as “this year’s Joseph Campbell,” especially since the broad- cast of the Bill Moyer’s PBS profile, “A Gathering of Men.”

Bly’s thought is set down in Iron John, A Book About Men, many weeks at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The book – an exegesis of one of Grimms’ fairy tales – “is the result,” according to the publisher, “of 10 year’s work with men to discover the truths about masculinity.”

“I want to make it clear…,” Bly says, “that this book does not seek to turn men against women.” Bly argues, however, that men need to turn away from women, to liberate their “mother-bound souls.” What Bly wants, in the words of Boston Globe reviewer Suzanne Gordon, is “a patriarchy that is kinder and gentler.” And in making his case for the sanctity of male bonding, Bly romanticizes history, trivializes sexist oppression and lays the blame for much of men’s “grief on women.

Bly begins Iron John with an examination of men in America, and he is straightaway disturbed by what he sees. “When I look out at an audience, perhaps half the young males are what I’d call soft.” “Soft” males are the “Sensitive New Age Guys” lampooned by Christine Lavin – men who cry freely and work at food coops, men who have, according to Bly, “renounced violence.” The problem, says Bly, is that these “soft” men have somehow surrendered their self-esteem, their playfulness and zest for life. They are afraid “to show a sword,” to stick up for themselves. They have lost touch with a host of inner characters – “The Warrior,” “The King” and especially “The Wild Man.” As a result, they are indecisive and subject to uniquely masculine strains of “anguish” and “grief.”

To explain all this, Bly describes how fathers traditionally distance themselves from their children, leaving boys to be raised by women. Much of the emotional resonance Bly generates among his audiences has to do with the anger and grief that come with having a distant or abandoning father. Bly often describes his own father’s alcoholism and frequently uses the jargon of the Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) movement.

Were Bly to leave it at that, his book would be little more than a plea for men to be better parents. Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop there. It isn’t just that fathers are absent, he says: The mothers who parent in their stead are incapable of providing their male children with that special “energy” that passes from father to son. Even worse, many mothers are conspiring and destructive to the sensitive male egos entrusted to their care. They are encouraged in this by manhating feminists. “The emphasis placed in recent decades on the inadequacy of men, and the evil of the patriarchal system, encourages mothers to discount grown men,” deflating their boys’ role models. “Between 20 and 30 percent of American boys,” according to Bly, “now live in a house with no father present, and the demons have full permission to rage.”

“Bly’s historical analysis and his descriptions of contemporary life,” says Gordon, in one of the few critical reviews of Iron John to appear in the mainstream press, “are difficult to reconcile with the realities women experience daily.” Gordon asks, “Who are these soft men?” noting the absence of “softness” among the decision makers in Washington and Baghdad, and no great diminution in the male violence that is so much a part of women’s lives. However “soft” they might be, men still hold the overwhelming preponderance of economic, social and political power, not only in American and Western society, but everywhere on earth. And “renouncing violence” doesn’t mean that “soft men” don’t continue to share in the benefits all men derive from living in a sexist culture.

Bly, however, doesn’t see it that way. “We now live in a system of industrial domination, which is not patriarchy.” Apparently, the feminists won without even knowing it. Bly adds that “When the mythological layer collapses, and the political kings fall, then the patriarchy, as a positive force, is over. The sun and the moon energies can no longer get down to earth.”

This statement is instructive in several ways. First, it tells us that, like most reactionaries, Bly has a romanticized vision of the past, of the once-upon-a-time when life was so much better than it is in the degenerate present. For Bly, this was the era of the positive patriarchy, of kings, when warriors fought for the higher causes of chivalry and blissful male bonding, when fathers worked with their sons and taught them how to hunt and farm far from the baleful influence of grasping mothers.

40-minute videotape. Available from Nick Kaufman
Productions, 14 Clyde St., Newtonville,
MA 02160; (617) 964-4466.
In contrast to Bly’s mytho-poetic analysis of men is
“Finding Our Way: Men Talk About Their Sexuality,”
a 40-minute video produced by Nicolas Kaufman,
Mark Lipman and Cooper Thompson.
Filmed discussions are by their nature suspect:
Can we really trust anyone to answer intimate questions
as if camera and microphone weren’t there?
And how much of what is edited out changes the
substance and feeling of the completed product,
the filmed discussion?
However you might answer these questions,
what is immediately evident in “Finding Our Way”
is the respect the producers have for their subjects.
From the beginning, the men who do the talking
control the agenda, and stake out whatever space
they need to tell their stories. When the producers
begin by asking, “What do you like about sex?”
one of the men responds, “That’s not the question 1
wanted to answer,” and then poses his own. There are
no leaders or gurus here, just an attempt to have an
honest conversation about a topic of fundamental
importance. “Wouldn’t it be great,” one man asks,
“to be able to just have sex, and not worry about dying…
1 don’t even have fantasies that are not safe sex anymore.”
Another man, who has spent his entire adult life
in the closet, confronts the pain his coming out has
caused his wife. “How can 1 live a free life, at the cost
of someone else’s?” he asks. It’s a question of
tremendous complexity. What fascinates as much as
the differences in perspective are the similarities in experience.
Several men recount their growing up with the Boy Scout
Manual, one man summarizing its single page of sex education
as “‘Don’t waste yourself…That was my total sex education.”
“Finding Our Way” is a thoughtful exploration of men’s feelings
and experiences, “a gathering of men” without hype and
without recourse to myth and historical romance.

– Fred Pelka

Second, the reference to “sun and moon energy” lets us know that Bly’s analysis is a mythological one, as is his understanding of history. He sees myth and fairy tales as unerring signposts on everyman’s psychological journey; metaphoric ciphers on how to live the good life. And so Bly often expresses himself in fairy tale terms, often with unintentional humor. “The Iron John story proposes that the golden ball lies within the magnetic field of the Wild Man, which is a very hard concept for us to grasp.” Indeed. Or as Jungian scholar Marie-Louise von Franz, often quoted by Bly, puts it: “Fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of collective unconscious psychic processes.”

But some fairy tales are purer and simpler and more unconscious than others. If we use myths to govern our social and personal lives, then the choice of which myth to use is of utmost importance. One has to examine the values represented by these myths, the purposes served, and who exactly benefits from the telling of any particular myth or story.

“Iron John” is taken from the Brothers Grimm, and speaks to Bly of a “third possibility for men,” somewhere beyond being too “soft” and too hard. “Though it was first set down by the Grimm brothers around 1820,” Bly tells us, “this story could be 10 or 20,000 years old,” which presumably gives it its Jungian legitimacy.

In fact, the Grimms’ Nursery and Household Tales are of dubious authenticity. Many scholars see the Tales, heavily edited by Wilhelm Grimm, as reflecting a moral code formulated not in pre-historic or even pre-industrial times, but rather in the context of the hypernationalistic middle class of 19th-century Germany. The Grimms, according to folklorist Ruth Bottigheimer, stress “diligent work, gender specific roles, a generally punitive stance towards girls and women, and a coherent world view conducing to stability in the social fabric.” Germanic scholar Maria Tatar recounts how the ideologists of the Third Reich hailed the collection, especially such anti-Semitic tales as “The Jew in the Thorn Bush,” as “a sacred book,” and how the Allies removed it from German classrooms during de-Nazification. Wilhelm Grimm himself was a member of the Christian-German Society, which Bottigheimer describes as “a reactionary group…its program was anti-Philistine, anti-Semitic, and anti-woman.”

Bly offers no reason, other than their supposed age, as to why he prefers the Household Tales for his analysis, but it is striking how much Bly’s own arguments resemble the Grimms in their attitude toward women. In the Brothers Grimm, mothers (especially stepmothers) are generally wicked, cruel and “unnatural.” In Bly, mothers co-opt their children into conspiracies, the aim of which is to isolate, sometimes even destroy, their fathers. “The mother looks to the son for emotional satisfaction, and her fantasies in this regard may have deepened in recent years.” (Bly is silent on just how he knows what women fantasize, or that “much of the rage” that feminists feel is really “disappointment over …their own fathers.”) “Your father is convinced that he is an inadequate human being,” he tells his all-male audiences. “Women have been telling him that for 30 or 40 years.” Consequently, boys end up being “bound” to their mothers, and “more than one American man today needs a sword to cut his adult soul away from his mother bound soul.” A boy raised by his mother “will probably see his own masculinity from the feminine point of view” – which is “fascinated with it,” but also “afraid of it.” “We are aware,” he adds, “of a disturbing rise in the number of sons who report sexual abuse by mothers, as well as by fathers, uncles and older brothers; but the culture still does not take seriously the damage caused by psychic incest between mother and son.”

There is much that is disturbing in this equation of “psychic incest” with sexual abuse: As if the alleged harmful effects of a female-headed household are somehow equivalent to rape by a parent or sibling. We see this same fuzzy language when Bly discusses “male mothers.” “You mean, ‘mentors?'” Moyers asks, the journalist refining the terminology of the poet. For Bly, “psychic incest” is equivalent to actual sexual abuse; a man spending time with a boy is equivalent to a woman giving birth; contemporary “male grief is equivalent to several millennia of women’s oppression. And though he mentions the sexual abuse of girls, Bly never admits that the vast majority of sexual and domestic violence is committed by men upon women and children, and that boy victims of incest and domestic violence are most often abused by other males.

Bly offers no evidence to support his contention that vast numbers of men suffer from a sort of post-female parenting syndrome. Instead, he tells us that certain dark “forces in contemporary society recently have encouraged women to be warriors, while discouraging warriorhood in boys and men.” Hasn’t the man ever heard of Rambo? Does he watch CNN? Even Moyers, in an interview uncritical to the point of being obsequious, stops Bly when he describes how his mother conspired to isolate his father.

“It seems to me,” says Moyers, “you and your mother didn’t push your father out; your father removed himself through alcoholism,” to which Bly replies, “It’s possible.” Rather than pursue this point, the interview breaks away to another fairy tale.

Most of the other myths and stories that Bly cites are as anti-female as the Brothers Grimm. Bly’s comments on “Zeus” and “Hermes energy,” for example, refer to a mythology in which women are seen as the root of all evil: The Pandora of Hesiod is analogous to Eve in the creation myths of the Bible. Women in Homer appear most often as temptresses like Helen, nags like Hera, dutiful (but conniving) wives like Penelope, or slaves, whores and victims. I need only remember the myths of the Thunder God’s many rapes to dampen any enthusiasm for “Zeus energy,” or that Odysseus, whose bonding with his son Telemachus is much praised by Bly, ordered the boy to butcher their female slaves as punishment for the crime of being raped.

It’s also difficult to follow the distinctions Bly makes between “The Warrior” and “The Soldier,” “The Wild Man” and “The Savage.” Bly says that healthy male aggression is unjustly condemned and that “The physical warrior disintegrated into the soldier when mechanized warfare came on.” Though Bly is vague on just who or what today’s “warrior” is supposed to conquer, he does give us the occasional clue. Bly sees the lover and the warrior “mingling,” and offers the axiom: “No sword, no eros.”

One wonders about Bly’s vision of classical and medieval warfare. Anyone who has read Thucydides’ account of the wars between Athens and Sparta, or Tacitus’ description of the mass rapes and murders committed by the Roman legions, can have little doubt that war, even among pagans, has always meant atrocity and murder. Similarly, Bly’s notion that aggression is somehow purified by a cause “beyond” oneself is simply wrong. It is always the religious and political zealots who make the most brutal soldiers, as has been demonstrated in every ideological struggle from the Thirty Years’ War to today’s purges, genocides and jihads.

It’s obvious that Bly’s notions of history come from poems and fairy tales, not always the most accurate of sources. At times his idea of what past life was like is ludicrous, even comical, and it is apparent that Bly is always talking about, and to, male elites. “We know from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and other Renaissance accounts, that it was not at all unusual for a young man at that time to take two or three years off, and spend it learning to be a lover. We spend those years in graduate school instead.” In Bly’s world view, war, warriors, kings, the patriarchy, all are sanitized and benevolent, painted in fairytale colors. Even illness and death are romanticized, as when Bly discusses how Keats died at age 26. Things are different, he says, “for those of us who have agreed to live longer,” as if Keat’s death of tuberculosis was a matter of choice, perhaps coming out of the poet’s desire to be poignant.

It is distressing, but not surprising, that Bly’s barely sublimated misogyny strikes such a chord among so many men. Bly and his followers celebrate their gathering to seek “a new vision” of masculinity. But Bly’s ideas of “masculine” and “feminine” are cut from the same old sexist cloth, and his anger and distrust of women seem hardly cause for celebration.

There is, indeed, a need for a pro-feminist men’s movement, for men to join in the struggle to end rape, domestic violence, and the political, sexual, social and economic oppression of women. But rather than move forward to a new definition of masculinity that does not include the oppression of half the human race, Bly would have men look backward, through the prism of myth, fairy tale and pop psychology, to recover the positive patriarchy and “the male mode of feeling,” to cut loose the inner life from the outer reality. At first glance Bly might appear apolitical, if elitist and obscure. In fact, he is riding the crest of a new wave of anti-feminist backlash.

As W.H. Auden, a poet Bly quotes, once wrote: “No fairy story ever claimed to be a description of the external world and no sane child ever believed that it was.”