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  Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N3 (November 1991)

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Robert Bly. Iron John: A Book About Men.

Addison-Wesley, New York 1990.

Reviewed by Daniel Egger, Yale Law School

Iron John has a thesis: U.S. fathers fail to give their sons what they need to be men. Young men need initiation into adulthood, to be welcomed among the fathers of the world, or they rage and sulk alone through life.

Robert Bly was a Movement leader, and the war in Vietnam stands behind this book. Bly views the radical break in generations which characterized the Vietnam War at home as a consequence of the long-broken connection between fathers and sons. Modern history provided the dynamic, but the war brought a crisis. Distrust of the father, a quiet reality of U.S. life, became riotous rebellion as a consequence of the war, where all distrust proved justified. Bly says, "The older men in the American military establishment and government did betray the younger men in Vietnam, lying about the nature of the war, remaining in safe places themselves, after having asked the young men to be warriors and then in effect sending them out to be ordinary murderers." (at p.95) That rift has never been healed, or even acknowledged and mourned.

The story of the lives of U.S. men which Bly tells is easily recognizable. As men grow up, they seek without clear direction to do what society expects. They work dutifully, but even as they "succeed" they find feelings freezing up and vitality drifting away. Friendships fade and they slip into isolation. By the time they reach 45 or 50 they are numb inside. Children find them foolish and wives find them dull.

It doesn't matter that a man may have done everything "right." The John Wayne stories he told himself in his twenties about what it means to be a man, the understanding of toughness as stoicism and denial, just do not work for a lifetime. If he allows himself his feelings, they are: disappointment that he doesn't enjoy the anticipated pleasures of manhood, and anger that his father did not give him what he needed as a boy. He feels loss. In short, he grieves.

Bly has spent the last few years talking about this problem to groups of men. He offers them traditional initiatory solutions. The meetings are part poetry reading, part spiritual retreat, part group therapy. That his book has become a number-one best seller in the United States suggests he has indeed tapped a deep well of unspoken pain.

Bly's exposition in his book follows his technique in the face to face meetings. Bly tells a fairy tale, which like all fairy tales comes down to the present from an initiatory culture. He recounts a bit of the story, pauses to give an interpretation, quotes a poem on a related theme, talks about his own ideas, then returns to the tale again. It is a controlled meander, as if he wishes less to persuade than to sensitize his audience, and remind them to turn for verification to the inner world which has always been the true home of myth and poetry. Bly takes seriously the poet's traditional sacred responsibility as preserver and transmitter of the collective memory of spiritual experience.

Bly began to recognize the crippled inner life of men in U.S. culture when he was in his mid-40s. He had achieved success as a poet, but he had never written a word about his father. Bly began a process of self-investigation, supplemented by formalized discussions with other men, perhaps an outgrowth of veterans' rap groups. He concluded that in almost all cultures boys are taken from their parents and deliberately initiated into manhood by the older men of society. There men acquire roles which encompass the full range of men's inner experience.

The father cannot himself be the initiator; as Bly says, "it's too tense; after all you're both in love with the same woman." However, in "traditional" (for want of a better word) societies fathers do have a vital role to play, as protectors and educators of their children. Yet in our culture fathers fail even in this more limited role. Not that it is a personal failing on their part. Bly stresses that it is not a question of personal blame but that individual failings are part of a larger pattern. In the special mythology of the U.S., says Bly, all you need to do to become an American man is reject your father. In situation comedies, in popular media, fathers are portrayed as weak and ridiculous. In this atmosphere it is little wonder that older men lack the confidence, or even the knowledge needed, to be more generous.

In Bly's view their failure has to be seen to have its roots in the modern collapse of millenia-old ways of living and working. Bly dates the roots of the present grief to the rise of industrialization in the early nineteenth century. Once, young men could work alongside their fathers. This is the characteristic way fathers teach their sons; not face to face, but shoulder to shoulder. Now most sons hardly know what their fathers do at work. Fathers disappear early in the morning and return in the evening exhausted, irritable, frustrated from the demands and abuses of the workplace. They are even mean or drunk. Or they simply run away, and make their absence complete. Thus the father boys see is not so admirable, nor what one would want to emulate: he is almost pathetic.

Yet in our society, parents are often the only models boys have. Caring relations between men have broken down at every level, not just within the family. Men rarely rely on one another. Nor do older men feel an obligation to help and encourage younger men as they come along. On the contrary, competition rules almost every relation between men.

Most men have no successful initiatory experiences. The drill instructor is not a true initiator; he may train our bodies, but he cares nothing for the life of our soul. One relationship roughly analogous to that of initiator exists in our culture: the academic or corporate mentor. The relationship of student to mentor can be highly charged, unstable, and often ends in betrayal. Yet those who are lucky enough to find a mentor have found far more than most men.

It is interesting to examine the phenomenon of the counter-culture from the point of view of these ideas. Whether through long hair or search for alternative philosophies and states of consciousness, its male adherents acted out their rejection of the Fathers and everything they stood for. But driving that rejection was the grief of shattered illusions.

Interestingly, the most successful and permanent manifestation of counter-culture rejection of the ways of older men has proved to be feminism. Feminism'scritique of male aggression, misogyny, and the self-destructiveness of male roles has much to commend it, and many, if not most, younger men have found themselves drawn to its ideas. However, feminism represents an accurate critique of male roles in industrial capitalism but does not offer men a full alternative vision of manhood.

As Bly points out, men cannot be initiated by women. Bly talks about a phenomenon he encounters everywhere he goes the "soft man," who has rejected every aspect of the male roles which might be associated with violence and aggression. Bly points out how one-sided this response is. It leaves men ashamed of their natural strengths, their sexual hunger, their wildness, their necessary forcefulness. Caught in a web of guilt, U.S. men respond to inappropriate violation of their boundaries by being passive, or "nice." The result, a sense of playing a role to give women what they think they want, but without bringing any heart to it, may be poisonous to love.

Bly speaks over and over of how easily men can shame women and women men in our culture. It is for this reason that most meetings Bly conducts are for men only, so that men, free from fear of being belittled or misunderstood, can speak about their inner life to other men.

Bly and his gatherings have been misunderstood by many feminists, female and male, who believe he is advocating some kind of return to macho values. This is untrue. Bly wants to help men to thaw out, to feel what they are, in order that they may begin to look for more adaptive ways of being with one another, their wives, and their children.

In this respect, Bly is directly in the great healing tradition of the poets. As everybody knows, Dante awoke to find himself at midlife in a dark wood, not knowing where he was or where he was going. It was not Beatrice who helped him to find himself and reintegrate his fragmented being, but his mentor, Virgil. But his reunion with Beatrice did come, after the long journey.

There is a tragic irony to Bly's book which perhaps he himself has not fully considered. Unlike the meetings he has held around the country, where his own forceful presence brings emotion to the surface, the book is read and experienced in isolation. Bly identifies the need for direct, man to man acknowledgment of grief and loss. He makes a compassionate plea that older men take up the challenge of helping younger men by giving them personal recognition of their struggle. But his book merely describes such nourishment; it cannot provide it. In fact, as Bly well knows (since he has obviously sampled Gurdjieff Work and Jungian analytic practice, using an inconsistent hodgepodge of their techniques himself) all esoteric ideas depend for their efficacy upon personal transmission from the mouth of the teacher to the ear of the student. His book reads like an edited transcript of a face to face meeting, but it is impersonal and inert on the page. It is easy to picture thousands of men reading his book alone in their rooms, nodding in agreement, but unable to do anything on their own to ease their sadness or change the nature of their predicament. To acknowledge inner problems, but do nothing towards a cure, may even be counterproductive, as ideas powerful in the air become vulgarized and dated on the page.

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