Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Robert Bly is a poet and storyteller best known for his work in recent years leading men’s groups. His book Iron John explores male initiation as practiced in various cultures.
This is an excerpt from a conversation between Bly and Alexander Blair-Ewart, editor of Dimensions magazine in Toronto, Canada.
Bly: I think the greatest mistake in consciousness in this century is the belief that fathers are not important. Both men and women have accepted that. The men have accepted it more grudgingly, but nevertheless they’ve accepted it, so that when a man gets divorced, he may simply say, “Well, I’ll let her raise the children.”
Blair-Ewart: What is the result of this negation of the father?
Bly: When you look at gangs in the United States, you see young men who have no older men in their lives at all. Women are terrified of those young men, and justly. But I have been attacked over and over again for valuing the father. For example, Ms. magazine accused me of starting the Gulf War. Schwartzkopf and Bush and I started the Gulf War! They also said men are to have nothing to do with the raising of boys. What I say about the father in Iron John, they suggest, is destructive, because women are peaceful, and if they alone had raised the sons, then the sons would never go to war. And it’s only because of the fathers, who are all Pentagon murderers, that we have war. That’s an astounding idea, when you look at it.
If the fathers are continually sent out of the family, this will create more gang murders and more terror. For example, in New Guinea, they stopped initiation of young men among many of the tribes, and for the first time there are roving bands of two to three hundred young men. Something similar has happened in Kenya.
Blair-Ewart: When the young man is passing from boyhood into manhood, and starts to step away from the mother and to establish independence, the mother often won’t recognize that the son has the right to make that transition.
You might say that men want to have power between houses — that is to say, they like empires — but women like to have power over what is inside the house.
You might say that men want to have power between houses — that is to say, they like empires — but women like to have power over what is inside the house.
Bly: What can we say about that? First of all, women have been humiliated by the Catholic Church and by the Supreme Court and by the old economic marriage in which the man had all the economic power. This humiliation has been going on for hundreds or thousands of years. I think all men need to acknowledge that and say that it’s not hard for us to understand how that would drive a woman into her own consciousness, so that she expects very little from the men around her.
When some of the anger that couldn’t be expressed — for economic reasons perhaps, or physical fear — began to be expressed by large groups of women, a tremendous disturbance happened in those women, yet they feel it as a definite movement toward sanity and health. I think this ability to express anger and attack the patriarchy or men is the proper step to take in a movement away from centuries of timidity. But then an odd thing happens, in that the ability to see becomes disturbed. Is it that the woman is so deep inside her own consciousness that she cannot understand how different the boy is from her?
Blair-Ewart: And any mention at all of actual differences between men and women in the presence of a woman is denounced immediately as sexist or untrue.
Bly: That’s one possibility as to why women sometimes won’t let go of the son as he passes into manhood: it’s a genuine failure of vision. A second possibility is that, during all of those years when the woman had very little economic power, but to some extent had power to determine how things went in the house, a counterreaction took place: she didn’t want to lose the boy, or at least one of the boys. This is not a matter of vision; this is a matter of power. She doesn’t have power over the adult man, because he can leave at any moment. But she can have power over the boy, especially the favored boy. You might say that men want to have power between houses — that is to say, they like empires — but women like to have power over what is inside the house. The idea that women have no power impulse is crazy. This second explanation means that the mother holds on to the boy not because of a lack of vision, but because of the presence of unacknowledged power, the desire that the life of one of the boys will be altered according to the way she wants him to be altered.
The third possibility is a lack of knowledge. The old men in Australia spent two-thirds of their time initiating and working with the young men: there’s a tremendous amount of knowledge involved in helping a boy grow out of the female fetus that he was in the womb, outward to be a boy, to be a youth, and finally to be a man. Now both the men and the women have lost that knowledge. This loss of extremely important knowledge is like what happens in the primitive tribes that lose the knowledge of which herbs are useful for healing when the trees are cut down.
I think it’s more the third possibility. To change a boy, who is actually a female fetus in the womb — as you know, in the beginning all fetuses are female — to change that into a boy takes a fantastic knowledge on the part of the DNA, all of that knowledge we can’t even imagine. And then to change that boy into someone who learns to disidentify with the mother, which is very painful for him, takes vaster knowledge. He has to learn to give up Eden, which is the identification with his own mother, and then to identify with someone who seems to be a completely opposite gender — the father. So, if we agree with this idea, then I think that the women would have to say, “We need some humility in this situation.” And the men would have to say to themselves, “How did we lose this knowledge? Were we too busy making money? Did we expect the old men to do it? Do men gain this knowledge when they get to be about sixty or sixty-five? Is that why the grandfather is so important? When the grandfathers retire to Phoenix, Arizona, does that mean that the knowledge goes with them?”
Blair-Ewart: To go back to the herb metaphor, let’s say we have a bunch of herbs. We’ve heard that some of these herbs have the power to heal, but we don’t know which ones do what. How do we rediscover this knowledge?
Bly: Well, you have to try the herbs on yourself. That’s the only possibility. And that cannot be done in big groups. It’s no use to have two hundred people taking the same herb at the same time. Men need to be together in small groups, over a period of several years, where they can talk about what the absence of the herb meant to them, how a little bit of the herb they took at a certain age helped them. It’s a very slow process. And I don’t believe in any of these men’s groups taking place without sixty-, seventy-, or eighty-year-old men in them.
To give myself as an example, I was my mother’s son, and my mother couldn’t influence my father. The biggest shock of her life was when my mother realized that my father would not change his way of life for her sake. So she chose me. I was willing to change the course of my life for her. That separated me from my father and my brother, but it also pulled me into the whole world of feeling and poetry.
So there were great blessings given at the same time. But when I was forty-five, it was very clear to me that men didn’t trust me. The teaching that I do now I couldn’t do then, because the men would not trust what I said. I was still talking in the old way. But as I got older — I’m sixty-five now — a certain kind of knowledge came into me about what it is that young men need and how an older man can be generous to them and can help defend them.
Blair-Ewart: What effect has that more mature knowledge had on your experience of yourself?
Bly: When I began to receive some kind of old-man knowledge, two things happened. First, I had to give up the idea immediately that men and women are the same. The second thing that I felt was a tremendous compassion toward younger men, which I had always felt toward younger women. I was chosen, in a way, to hear my mother’s sufferings, which my father would not hear, so I always had a lot of compassion for young women and their suffering. But it wasn’t until I was sixty or so that I began to feel the same kind of compassion toward younger men. And as soon as that happened to me, I became a better father to my own son.
It’s possible that the loss of this knowledge is particularly true of North Americans. When we left Europe, one of the statements we made was that fathers are not important. The fatherland is not important; grandfathers are not important. First we said that politically and geographically, and then we began to absorb it all the way through our system.
Blair-Ewart: And yet, in Native American communities, the elder is highly respected.
Bly: Well, we just shot them like we shot anybody else. But I agree. Gary Snyder tells us that the Athabascan Indians say the brain is not finished until you’re fifty. So that’s why the old men and women talk first, and the younger men keep their mouths shut. Well, I think that’s true; I think the brain really isn’t finished until you’re fifty. I think the women who are thirty-five have to be humble enough to say to themselves, “I really don’t know what to do with these boys because I have an unfinished brain.” The men have to say that, too. The fathers have to say, “My brain is unfinished, and that’s one reason I can’t deal with the woman. It’s one reason I don’t know how to deal with my sons.” I like the tone of the whole thing, and Native Americans are the ones who know that best.
Blair-Ewart: I hear you saying that the man needs to have a respectful, compassionate regard for the woman, and at the same time have the capacity to disregard her opinions about what men and women actually are.
Bly: Not completely disregard the opinion, but to say, “I don’t know much about men, but I know that some of it is stored somewhere in my cells, maybe not available to me now. But it would be madness for me to accept the women’s opinions before I have gone to my own cells to find out what I think. So, I have to listen with honor to what she says, and then I have to use my own instincts on how I’m going to raise the boys.” There’s a lot of loneliness in that. Yet one image that’s very helpful is that when a man has a problem that he can’t solve — a conflict with a woman, or with a mother or father, or with a daughter or son — he can imagine an ancestor behind him, and step backward into that hollow tree of the ancestor and ask, “What do you think?” And wait until the answer comes. But we don’t do that. We get into the fight with the woman immediately. Isn’t that right? We’re trying to convince her, or we’re trying to fight off her argument. It’s too naked. There’s no protection. The whole line of defense for men is gone.
I don’t think that regaining the knowledge means demeaning women or excluding women. I don’t think of myself that way at all in the work I do. It has to do with reconciliation of men and women. And it has to do with imaginative work on the part of men. Imagining what one of your ancestors might have to say is an attempt to rebuild something. Because, at one time, you could have gone into the next room and said to your grandfather, “What do you think?”
Why don’t men take this step backward? Either the man is so threatened by what the woman says that he beats her, which is horrendous, or he goes forward and says, “The woman knows better than I do, so I will repeat feminist doctrine, and that way the women will approve of me and I won’t be in this terrible situation.” Neither makes any advance at all for the man, and certainly not for the woman.
Blair-Ewart: I wrote a piece called “Never Trust A Man Who Claims To Be A Feminist.” When you hear the feminist line come out of men, you know it’s bullshit. Men are very sensitive to other men’s bullshit, but they get away with it with women.
Bly: When I went to England four or five years ago, they said the only man they had in the men’s movement was John Rowan, who wrote a book called The Horned God. John Rowan is a man concerned about men, who has taken the feminist point of view. He described a ritual exercise that he had worked out. He gets together a group of about fifteen men and fifteen women. His partner, a woman, puts the fifteen women in a circle, then they hold out their hands toward each other and imagine female power and energy. Then John takes the men into another room, and he tells them, “I want you all to give up the male attitude toward work. Now, I want you to give up the male attitude toward emotions.” It goes on like this, and you give up the male attitude toward love, the male attitude toward spirit, all male aggression. Then you give up your testicles. Then you give up your penis. When they’ve done this exercise, he brings them back in and they crawl under the arms of the women and feel that the women have all the power, and here they are with no cock, balls, or anything.
He recommends this as an excellent exercise to introduce men to men’s work. How do you like that? Can you imagine a woman taking women off and saying, “I want you to give up the female attitude toward children, first. Second, I want you to give up the female attitude toward beauty. Now I want you to give up your breasts, and now I want you to give up your. . . .” No woman would say that. And yet, it’s perfectly obvious that the women doing this exercise with John approved of what he was doing.
So I think that’s one thing that we’re up against. If a woman cannot see how destructive that is to everything that would produce a decent relationship, if she doesn’t have vision enough to see that, then how can she say, “Am I doing that to my son? Am I asking him to give up his attitude toward his male work, and so on?” I think women have to ask themselves a lot of questions along that line.
Blair-Ewart: Women don’t want power over men. But almost all women can’t help trying to get it. I think that’s their way of finding out what you’re made of. And at the moment that you are clear about it, not in a violent or hostile way — “Listen, there are some things that you are just not going to get to do with me” — a smile comes to her face. It’s a relief, like a weight that you’ve lifted from their shoulders, because now they’re able to say, “OK, so you’re the boy, I’m the girl. Great.” And yet, the men in so many men’s groups don’t understand that.
Bly: That they could make any boundaries here.
Bly: If the patriarchy is disintegrating, along with its boundaries of male power — and I don’t think the women have brought that down; the Industrial Revolution brought it down — that means there’s a power vacuum. John Rowan is asking women to start expanding until they’re responsible for everything on the planet, and they’re responsible for all of these men. Wow! It’s damaging to women to give them no bounds at all to their expansion. I think all feminist men have to ask themselves, “Am I encouraging women to expand their powers to a point where it will be extremely destructive to them?”
Blair-Ewart: I watched the U.S. election very carefully. It seems to me that some kind of shift in the psyche of America has taken place.
Bly: Reagan and Bush put us to sleep. A lot of destructive things happen when you’re asleep, and being asleep allowed greed to move. So, what has happened is a terrible tragedy in the United States, an unbelievable amount of ground lost during those twelve years of sleep. People finally understood it. As in a fairy story, they took a sword and cut off the false tutor’s head. Everything that Reagan and Bush were teaching ended on election night.
What happens next? Well, it’s very interesting that Clinton made it clear at the convention that everything he got, he got from his mother and from other women. So he understands inclusivity; he understands something about the greatness of the female view of the world, about uniting people.
Then the more touching thing that happened was when he chose Gore, when they stood up there together, you saw a man with his first male friend. Bush couldn’t do that with Quayle at all. In fact, he chose an inferior. But Clinton chose a male with more of this knowledge that Gore had gotten from his father, and Gore’s father from his father. Then you saw Clinton and Gore get in a bus and travel around. So you’re watching something that’s amazing there. The New York Times said two weeks after the convention that an incredible amount of change had already taken place among men in the United States. It isn’t a fight between two machos now; it’s a fight between Iron John and John Wayne. Four years ago, men talking about their children who were nearly killed, talking about their mothers and alcoholism, would have been impossible at a political convention. But men have made enough change in four years so that these men were able to do this.
Gore said that Iron John had been tremendously helpful to him, especially with his son. So, you’re actually watching a change of consciousness here, with a good root in Clinton in the mother, and a good tutor in Gore going toward the father.
The Ally Press Center for Robert Bly (524 Orleans Street, St. Paul, MN 55107) maintains books and tapes by Bly, as well as schedules of readings and seminars.
Lately I find myself wondering more and more if The Sun isn’t primarily a men’s magazine that’s decided to let women participate. Today the May issue arrived, and I read Don Shewey’s “Stepbrothers: Gays and the Men’s Movement.” I was moved and delighted, and very glad The Sun had brought it to me. But after reading the conversation with Robert Bly that follows, I was furious. It’s not just that, as has been done for centuries, Robert Bly calls women who challenge the status quo crazy (“disturbed” is his word). It’s not just that interviewer Alexander Blair-Ewart makes the laughable assertion that “any mention . . . of actual differences between men and women . . . is denounced immediately as sexist.” (Wrong: what women denounce is the creation of false differences — e.g., that women possess lesser intellects than men — and the lie that actual differences render women incapable and undeserving of full participation in society.) It’s not just that Blair-Ewart implies that women really want to be dominated by men, or that he effectively calls us stupid (we aren’t sensitive to “men’s bullshit”?!). It’s not even that in one breath Bly talks about an emasculating exercise created by a man and in the next blames it on women, or that he implies that “too much” autonomy would be “damaging” for women and that it’s up to men to decide how much “expansion” to “give” us, or that he has the audacity to absolve fathers of all responsibility for their absenteeism, implying that women prefer to raise their children alone! For someone who claims compassion for women (at least, younger women), Bly sure does seem to want to keep us in our place.
Of course, I’m angry about all that. But what I want to know is why, as far as I can recall, the little space The Sun has given to discussion of women’s rights has been used to trash them. Camille Paglia and Robert Bly are the only two people you can find to talk about the women’s movement? Why not invite David Duke to tell us about civil rights? Here’s a little exercise: go through the Bly interview and substitute “blacks” for “women” and “whites” for “men” — you might think you’re in the Jim Crow South.
Bly may have some interesting things to say, yet I seriously doubt you’d have run his interview had it contained as much smug, patriarchal, anti-Asian, anti-black, anti-Semitic rhetoric. I’d like to know why you don’t have similar standards regarding sexism. Why is misogyny — a belief system as contemptible and malignant as racism — acceptable? Don’t The Sun and its readers deserve better?
As new ideas come forward about men and their natures, it causes a shaking of the ground, and I think all of this fear and upset needs to be set out clearly. I agree with much of Alison Luterman’s letter, including the African saying, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” But that sentence contradicts her earlier statement, “The male fetus is going to grow up to be a male child, and then a man, no matter what amount of struggling he does. Nature takes care of that.” Nature doesn’t take care of it. Many male children grow up to be boys and not adult men. They need help from many other people besides the mother and father, and that’s the point of the African saying. Luterman doesn’t seem to realize that African societies consider initiation rituals for women as essential as initiation rituals for men. The idea behind such rituals is not malignant and reactionary.
She’s also inaccurate when she says that running through Iron John there is “a contempt for soft men.” What I say is that “soft males” are “lovely, valuable people — I like them — they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living.” In my family, my brother was the hard male and I was the soft. However, both soft male and hard male are immature forms, and a third sort of man is essential.
Andrea Wolper tends to go into McCarthyite name-calling when new ideas about gender appear. Nowhere in Iron John or in my interview in The Sun do I “absolve fathers of all responsibility for their absenteeism.” I say exactly the opposite. Nowhere do I say that “women prefer to raise their children alone.” I say exactly the opposite, that women justly want help, which is sensible.
None of the letter-writers mentions my main point, which is that we’ve lost much knowledge about how to help girls become adult women and how to help boys become adult men, and we should admit this and look on the whole thing with a little humility. Vitriolic defense of old feminist positions is not necessarily helpful. Therapists, both male and female, are finding themselves having to rethink all kinds of assumptions about gender-conscious therapy as it relates to men. Here, too, the ground is shaking.
New ideas are needed from all sides. I hope we can all abandon our defensiveness and open ourselves to new ways of understanding gender.
Every time I read the words of Robert Bly I smell program. A prime example in his conversation with Alexander Blair-Ewart [“From Boys to Men,” May 1993] is Bly’s reference to Clinton and Gore. Clinton learned from his mother, Bly says, because she was all he had as a child. But he picks Gore, who had a strong father, as a running mate. Clinton had no father, but now he’s got a brother, Gore. Root plus branch equals tree, according to Bly. Get it?
Well, what have these guys done? Clinton is set to renew nuclear testing. He’s backed off from the gay fight, from the budget fight, from the health care fight. It seems like John Wayne is kicking the hell out of Iron Bill. It’s the first test of the new self-initiates against the old boy-killers, and Bill runs like hell — to whom? To David Gergen, image-smith of Reagan. Not to Gore, who must sit silent in the wings. Bill’s afraid Dole’s the only dick in town, and he’d better show his is just like Dole’s.
The trouble is that an announced change in consciousness (especially by the New York Times) will put you to sleep fast (in the veterinary sense). If you believe the announcement, you think your awareness and struggle with male versus female, or Iron John versus John Wayne, or earth versus bomb is over. Or, worse yet, that it is epic, titanic, a giant war for your soul that, once you’ve won, defines you as “conscious” and therefore immune from stupefying struggle.
I hear the talk; I sincerely see no sign in these men of the walk. To govern, Clinton has to use his four years to fight the boy-killers who brought us Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and Iraq. To hell with being the Republicans’ president too. In the same way, Bly ought to rise up and fight the girl-killers, rapists, and beaters, instead of nursing limp members. If they are men, they need no propping, no centering, but should center themselves in retrieving the balance with real women as assiduously as they pursue horns and hairier skin.
In “From Boys To Men,” Robert Bly said, “The old men in Australia spent two-thirds of their time initiating and working with the young men.” He neglected to say that one-third of the young men died in their initiation rites.
On the other hand, I applaud Don Shewey his questions in “Stepbrothers.” I applaud the forum you provide. What is possible when we acknowledge that there are more than two genders, that we can change genders in midstream, that we can raise our children as fluidly as their genderless souls require?
I hope to celebrate my old age, when I will be as gnarled as a tree, with my blossoms bearing male and female parts.
I was saddened and perturbed at Alexander Blair-Ewart’s statement in his conversation with Robert Bly that “any mention . . . of actual differences between men and women in the presence of a woman is denounced immediately as sexist or untrue.” I certainly do not feel that way. On the contrary, I celebrate the differences between the sexes and have supported my husband with all my heart in his pursuit of many of Bly’s teachings and ideas.
Couldn’t Blair-Ewart at least have said “some women”? He himself is contributing to the very kind of blanket generalizations that he seems to find so frustrating.
I disagree with Robert Bly’s fundamental idea [“From Boys to Men,” May 1993] that males must struggle to become men in some mysterious way that females do not. This idea has been around for a long time, and is the rationale used for fraternity hazings, boot camp, and a host of violent, inhuman rituals in which males in our society have been forced to participate “to make men out of them.” The rituals Bly offers are more benign than these, but the idea behind them is malignant and reactionary.
Somehow, there is this idea that women become women simply by virtue of going through puberty, but men must be toughened up. Bly says that it’s because the male fetus is first female in the womb, so the male must struggle to distinguish himself. But the male fetus is going to grow up to be a male child, and then a man, no matter what amount of struggling he does. Nature takes care of that. Men are as much a part of nature as women are.
Yes, men have been hurt, and forced — not by women, but by the Industrial Revolution and by classism — to take on jobs that take them away from their families. The lack of fathering in our society has greatly hurt both men and women. We need to work together to change this, to create flexible job situations, to get good national health insurance, and enable parents to spend more time with their families.
All the mothers I know would love a full partner in raising their children. There’s an African saying: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” All of us, men and women, are suffering not just from lack of fathering but from lack of community, and from an economic system that is not human oriented.
I think Bly’s thesis reinforces a kind of insecurity that many men in this culture experience about not being man enough. During wartime it’s sold to us that “real men” put on uniforms and fight and kill each other. In peacetime, being a “real man” has something to do with being a good provider and competing with other men in an unjust economic system. Who profits from making men prove over and over, in different but always exploitative contexts, that they have balls?
I read Bly’s book Iron John. Running through it is a contempt for soft men. Why can’t there be a range of masculine behaviors and ways of being for men? Men seem to me to come in as great a range of flavors and styles as women do, and neither sex has a monopoly on toughness, tenderness, tartness, sweetness, loneliness, or any other human quality. When did God die and appoint Robert Bly the arbiter of how a man should act, think, or relate to his mother?
And when Bly talks about separating from the mother, one sees an image of the witch-mother clinging to the pure, innocent boy-child as the noble band of elder men attempts to initiate him. Well, I’ve been teaching in the public schools in Oakland for the last few years. I go into classrooms with thirty-five children who are so starved for attention they’d hang on a coat rack if it looked like it would smile at them. The time to start fathering boys — and girls — is not at puberty, in rituals, or in adulthood with thirty-year-olds who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars to sit at the feet of a best-selling elder. That’s glamour. If you want to nurture the next generation, then change half the diapers, and help them learn to read and write and tie their shoes and wipe their noses and look both ways before crossing the street. Lobby for more money for schools, parks, playgrounds. This is not women’s work. It’s everyone’s work. Children aren’t property, to be fought over by the mother and father. They’re a huge responsibility — they’re everyone’s responsibility, whether they happen to be your offspring or not.
Bly is a poet, so of course he has a profound relationship to metaphor. But metaphors can be tricky; an idea clothed in flesh can seem more real than it actually is. Bly’s idea that men need to do these rituals in order to really become men is just that — an idea. There’s no basis for it except a feeling of emptiness and longing within many men (and many women), to which you could ascribe any one of a number of different meanings, causes, and cures. I’m not arguing with the feeling. But the place Bly takes it divides men and women at a point in our history when we need as never before to pull together.