Poet Robert Bly has for a number of years now worn another hat: Men’s Movement guru. Iron John was first published in 1990 and was a bestseller, a cultural phenomena. Women read Iron John openly, hoping to glean some insider information while men read the book furtively—at least at first. By the mid-1990s, one could observe men dressed in tatters of leather, middle-aged bellies flapping in the breeze, beating drums in circles in the parks of many major, and a few minor, American metropolises. And those were just the straight men…
Like all fads, the Men’s Movement has lost its shiny-because-grubby allure over the years, though it’s by no means gone away. Da Capo has reissued what has become a “classic” of sexual politics. The reissue features a new preface by Bly in which he states that Iron John “belongs to a simple literary genre,” the fairy tale. That’s not quite true: it belongs to a much more complex genre, depth psychology, which for most of the twentieth century has harvested fairy tales for their psychological nutrition. The founder of depth psychology was either (depending on whose history you read) Freud, whose brilliant analysis of the Oedipus story launched a century, or Carl Jung. It was Jung who first analyzed folk stories for their psychological content. His students, Marie-Luise Von Franz, James Hillman, and many others, developed depth psychology over the course of the twentieth century.
Bly is indebted to James Hillman, especially, for the structure and analytical content of Iron John. Hillman is himself a prolific author, perhaps best known for his bestselling The Soul’s Code but admired by students of depth psychology (or, as Hillman calls it, archetypal psychology) for his books on the phenomenology of emotion, his controversial essay on suicide, and for his work on narrative and nightmare.
Iron John’s thesis is provocative yet simple: fathers aren’t doing a very good job of raising their sons because they are “absent” and also because our culture has lost the use of ritual in marking off the phases of maturation. In keeping with twentieth-century ideas of cultural construction, Bly argues that the roles of “man” and “father” have changed significantly over the past few generations, especially since the end of World War II. It’s hard to assess this later claim; as the great historian Fernand Braudel said, History doesn’t begin for fifty years. It’s been just that since the end of the Second World War.
It’s much easier to check Bly’s claim that fathers in the second half of the twentieth century were “absent” because they worked such long hours. Men, and women, were often “absent” for most of the day since at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century. When those “dark satanic mills” kicked into high gear the children were often “absent” as well, as they were working long hours right along with their parents: but it wasn’t one big happy family working the power looms. Men, women and children all had separate tasks (women, with their long and slender fingers, worked the looms—at least until a shuttle nipped a finger off). Parents, and especially fathers, have long been absent from most children’s lives. We can listen to the angry-bee buzz of the religious right and convince ourselves, along with the very-leftist Bly, that there’s something critically wrong with our particular day and age. But there’s little new under the sun; humans have always been, in sum, pretty half-assed parents.
Where Bly clearly hits his mark is with his claim that we’ve lost all sense of maturation ritual. In our culture, puberty rites consist of obtaining a driver’s license and a cell phone. Forget vision questions; in fact, forget any type of prolonged solitude at all. The thing is, Bly never clearly articulates how one might go about initiating a boy-child: do you drop him off for a weekend alone in the woods? Make him walk the back roads between Boston and D.C. alone? Study for the SAT for days on end while sitting in a tree top? He’s better at recognizing that urban street gangs are groups of fatherless boys attempting to initiate themselves. The need for rites of passage clearly exists; what is not clear is just how we, as a culture, reinvent something that at best seems quaint and antiquated and at worst is labeled “pagan” and “satanic.”
This has made Iron John, twice in ten years, a frustrating read for me. His liquidescent prose and heartfelt analysis of the Iron John story are a delight to read and an inspiration. His commitment to grief, sorrow, sadness and melancholy are commendable and liberating. But just what is one supposed to do with this inspiration and liberation? Kill a small mammal, skin it, make a drum and join a Men’s group? Perhaps.
The answer, I think, lies outside of Bly’s book and in most of Hillman’s. Following Jung’s lead, Hillman suggests psychologizing. The soul, Hillman says, is largely ignored in our culture—and that’s bad, very bad. We pay a high price, in neuroses and physical ailments, for ignoring the soul. And, he continues, all the soul really wants is to talk. To converse with one’s soul sounds simple, and perhaps it is; Hillman suggests that one needs a powerful and disciplined imagination to, first, even notice the soul standing over there (in there, whatever: the geography of interior space, as you can read in Jung’s memoir, is confusing) and then, second, to engage it in conversation. As Hillman loves to remind us, it was Heraclitus who pointed out, some 2,500 years ago, that the soul is shy; like nature, she loves to hide.
I highly recommend Iron John but with a caveat: don’t stop there. Read Hillman’s Healing Fiction and his other work (A Blue Fire is a good place to start). If you must, dip into Thomas Moore (The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life), a sort of Reader’s Digest condenser and popularizer of Hillman’s ideas. Bly’s book is a great starting point for a foray into the rich ambiguities of depth psychology and the work of the soul.