06: Archetypes cont’d

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Bly’s book, Iron John, recreates a Grimm Brothers tale about a young boy who meets a wild hairy man—Iron John—who becomes the boy’s mentor and leads him through various stages of development via initiation into maturity. Bly’s main point is that contemporary men have become “soft” and disconnected from their inner wildness. Men have been disempowered in culture, television, literature, and are too often presented as bumbling fools: “When we walk into a contemporary house,” writes Bly, “it is often the mother who comes forward confidently. The father is somewhere else in the back, being inarticulate.”

A significant part of the problem identified by Bly is the nature of modern work, which since the Industrial Revolution has removed men ever further from their families, in particular their sons. This has prevented them from bonding with their sons and initiating them into manhood: as such, we have a whole society that has never entered full initiated maturity. The result is what Bly describes as the “sibling society,” in which immature men are suspicious of older men and authority, while at the same time being naïve about men their own age and women in general. The absence of sufficient father-son relationships is also described by Bly as the “father wound,” which we touched upon briefly in the previous chapter about fatherhood.

Bly claims that contemporary men can counter this problem by rediscovering the Wild Man (Iron John) within themselves. While the Wild Man is a psychological archetype, Bly also extends the metaphor to include wildness in nature, where he believes masculinity most naturally resides: “to receive initiation truly means to expand sideways into the glory of oaks, mountains, glaciers, horses, lions, grasses, waterfalls, deer. We need wilderness and extravagance. Whatever shuts a human being away from the waterfall and the tiger will kill him,” writes Bly, citing Francis of Assisi and Henry David Thoreau as two “nature mystics” who appropriately communed with the land and exuded wildness. Bly believes there is a uniqueness to masculinity which, while also accessible to women, is rendered most eloquently in men: “in the man’s heart there is a low string that makes his whole chest tremble when the qualities of the masculine are spoken of in the right way.”

It is important to remember that while the mythopoetic men’s movement was often perceived as the “spiritual men’s movement,” it is chiefly psychological: Bly claims archetypes dwell “at the bottom of [the] psyche,” among “other interior beings,” which runs counter to a commonly-held assumption that archetypes are spiritual in character. We will explore the nature of masculine spirituality in the next chapter, but it’s useful to note that Bly is curiously hostile to the spiritual in Iron John, basing much of his critique on re-asserting the masculine (in the stereotypical understand of the word). Bly prefers Old Testament Christianity, paganism and indigenous spirituality to contemporary or orthodox religious observance, which he perceives as being insufficiently masculine and wild.



Written by Joseph Gelfer

July 5, 2011 at 10:30 am

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