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Wisdom Pages > On Being A Man

Keith Thompson talks with Robert Bly, the author of "Iron John" A book about men.
Page 1.

Something's been missing - or, to put it better: something has been present and unaccounted for; hidden; uncelebrated. We speak of the man, the male energy, the masculine. While the new age owes much to the the rise of the feminine, the murmur of one question has grown in volume: where are the men? Where is the masculine at its fullest potential -not the macho masculine but the deep energy that "gives rise to forceful action undertaken not without compassion but with resolve" as Robert Bly says. Keith Thompson sat down with Bly and pulled together this interview in which Bly reflects on the fundamental myth's of this question and man's need to take the next step toward wholeness. This may be the most passed - along item in recent memory. Since it 5 first appearance in New Age magazine last May, Thompson reports the response has been overwhelming - from women as well as men. So to those of you beyond the magazines reach here we pass on to you this moving conversation.

Robert Bly is one of America's leading poets. His continuing journal series The Fifties, The Sixties, The Seventies and now The Eighties has drawn critical acclaim. He is also a story teller and mythologist who appears at gatherings all over the country delivering his poetry readings accompanied by the dulcimer, often with masks as well. Keith Thompson has been a friend of Robert Bly for years and is West Coast editor of Re Vision. This interview is 1982.

A Little Book on the Human Shadow by Robert Bligh

Thompson: After exploring the way of the goddess and the matriarchy for many years, lately you've turned your attention to the pathways of male energy - the bond between fathers and sons, for example, and the initiation of young males. You're also writing a book relating some of the old fairy tales to men's growth. What's been going on with men?

Bly: No one knows! Historically, the male has changed considerably in the past thirty years. Back then there was a person we could call the "50s male, who was hard-working, responsible, fairly well disciplined: he didn't see women's souls very well, though he looked at their bodies a lot. Reagan has this personality. The '50's male was vulnerable to collective opinion: if you were a man, you were supposed to like football games, be aggressive, stick up for the United States, never cry, and always provide. But this image of the male lacked feminine space. It lacked some sense of flow; it lacked compassion in a way that lead directly to the unbalanced pursuit of the Vietnam "war, just as the lack of feminine space inside Reagan's head has lead to his callousness and brutality toward the poor in El Salvador, toward old people here, the unemployed, schoolchildren, and the poor in general. The '80's male had a clear vision of what a male is, but the vision involved massive inadequacies and flaws.

Then during the '60s, another sort of male appeared the waste and anguish of the Vietnam war made men question what an adult male really is. And the women's movement encouraged men to actually look at women, forcing them to become conscious of certain things that the '80's male tended to avoid. As men began to look at women and their concerns, some men began to see their feminine side and pay attention to it. That process continues to this day, arid I would say that most young males are involved in it to some extent.

Now, there's something wonderful about all this - the step of the male bringing forth his own feminine consciousness is an important one - and yet I have the sense there is something wrong. The male in the past twenty years has become more thoughtful, more gentle. But by this process has not become more free. Re's a nice boy who now not only pleases his mother but also the woman he is living with.

I see the phenomenon of what I would call the "soft male" all over the country today. Sometimes when I look out at my audiences, perhaps half the young males are what I'd call soft. They're lovely, valuable people - I like them - and they're not interested in harming the earth, or starting wars, or working for corporations. There's something favourable toward life in their whole general mood and style of living. But something's wrong. Many of these men are unhappy. There's not much energy in them. They are life preserving, but not exactly life-giving. And why is it you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy?. Here we have a finely tuned young man, ecologically superior to his father, sympathetic to the whole harmony of the universe, yet he himself has no energy to offer.

Thompson: It seems as if many of these soft young men have come to equate their own natural male energy with being macho. Even when masculine energy would clearly be life-giving, productive, of service to the community, many young males step back from it. Perhaps it's because back in the '60s, when we looked to ,the women's movement for leads as to how we should be, the new strong women wanted soft men.

Bly: I agree. That's how it felt. The women did play a part in this. I remember a bumper sticker at the time that read: "Women Say Yes TO Men Who Say No". We know it took a lot of courage to resist, or to go to Canada, just as it also took some courage to go to Vietnam. But the women were definitely saying that they preferred the softer receptive male, and they would reward him for being so: "We will sleep with you if you are not to aggressive and macho'?

So the development of men was disturbed a little there: non-receptive maleness was equated with violence and receptivity was rewarded.

Also, as you mention, some energetic women chose soft men to be their lovers - and in a way, perhaps, sons. These changes didn't happen by accident. Young men for various reasons wanted harder women, and women began to desire softer men. It seems like a nice arrangement, but it isn't working out.

Thompson: How so?.

Bly: Recently I taught a conference for men only at the Lama Community in New Mexico. About forty men came and we were together ten days. Each morning I talked about certain fairy tales relating to men's growth, and about the Greek gods that embody what the Greeks considered different kinds of male energy. We spent the afternoons being quiet or walking and doing body movement or dance, and then we'd come together in the late afternoon. Often the younger males would begin to talk and within five minutes they would be weeping. The amount of grief and anguish in the younger males was stounding! The river was deep.

Part of the grief was a remoteness from their fathers, which they felt keenly, but part, too, came from the trouble in their marriages or relationships. They had learned to be receptive, and it wasn't enough to carry their marriages. In every relationship, something fierce is needed once in a while: Both the man and the woman need to have it. He was nurturing but something else was required - for the relationship, for his life. The male was able to say, "I can feel your pain, and I consider your life as important as mine, and I will take care of you and comfort you'?

But he could not say what he wanted and stick by it: that was a different matter.

In The Odyssey, Hermes instructs Odysseus, when he is approaching a kind of matriarchal figure, that he is to lift and show Circe his sword. It was difficult for many of the younger males to distinguish between showing the sword and hurting someone. Do you understand me? They had learned so well not to hurt anyone that they couldn't even lift the sword, even to catch the light of the sun on it! Showing a sword doesn't mean fighting; there's something joyful in it.

Thompson: You seem to be suggesting that uniting with their feminine side has been an important stage for men on their path toward wholeness, but it's not the final one. What is required?.

Bly: One of the fairy tales I'm working on for my Fairy Tales For Men collection is a story called "Iron John'? Though it was first set down by the Grimm Brothers around 1820, this story could be ten or twenty thousand years old. It talks about a different development for men, a further stage than we've so far in the U.S.

Iron John: A Book about MenAs the story starts, something strange has been happening in a remote area near the kings castle: when hunters go into this area, they disappear and never come back. Three hunters have gone out and disappeared. People are getting the feeling that there's something weird about that part of the forest and they don't go there any more.

Then one day an unknown hunter shows up at the castle and says; "What can I do around here? I need something to do'? And he is told, "Well, there's a problem in the forest. People go out there and they don't come back. We've sent in groups of men to see about it and they disappear. Can you do something?"

Interestingly, this young man does not ask for a group to go with him - he goes into the forest alone, taking only his dog. As they wander about the forest, they come across a pond. Suddenly a hand reaches up from the pond, grabs the dog, and drags it down. The hunter is fond of the dog, and he's not willing to abandon it in this way. His response is neither to become hysterical, nor to abandon his dog. Instead, he does something sensible: he goes back to the castle, rounds up some men with buckets, and then they bucket out the pond. Lying at the bottom of the pond is a large man covered with hair all the way down to his feet, kind of reddish - he looks like rusty iron. So they capture him and bring him back to the castle, where the king puts him in an iron cage in the courtyard.

Now, lets stop the story here for a second. The implication is that when the male looks into his psyche, not being instructed what to look for, he may see beyond his feminine side, to the other side of the "deep pool'? What he finds at the bottom of his psyche - in this area that no one has visited in a long time - is an ancient male covered with hair. Now, in all of the mythologies, hair is heavily connected with the instinctive, the sexual, the primitive. What I'm proposing is that every modern male has, lying at the bottom of his psyche, a large primitive man covered with hair down to his feet. Making contact with this wild-man is the step the '70s male has not yet taken; this is the process that still hasn't taken place in contemporary culture. As the story suggests very delicately, there' s a little fear around this ancient man. After a man gets over his initial skittishness about expressing his feminine side, he finds it to be pretty wonderful. He gets to write poetry and go out and sit by the ocean, he doesn't have to be on top in sex anymore, he becomes empathetic - it's a beautiful new world. But Iron John, the man at the bottom of the lake, is quite a different matter. This figure is even more frightening than the interior female, who is scary enough. When a man succeeds in becoming conscious of his interior woman, he often feels warmer, more alive. But when he approaches what I'll call the "deep male;' that's a totally different situation.

Contact with Iron John requires the willingness to go down into the psyche and accept what's down there, including the sexual. For generations now the business community has warned men to keep away from Iron John, and the Christian Church is not to fond of him either. But it's possible that men once more are approaching the deep male.

Freud, Jung, and William Reich are three men who had the courage to go down into the pond and accept what is there, which includes the hair, the ancientness, the rustiness. The job of modern males is to follow them down. Some of that work has already been done, and in some psyches (or on some days in the whole culture) the Hairy Man or Iron John has been brought up and stands in a cage "in the courtyard'? This means he has been brought back into the civilised world, and to a place where young males can see him.

Now, lets get back to the story: One day the kings eight year old son is playing in the courtyard and he looses his golden ball. It rolls into the cage and the wild man grabs it. If the prince wants his ball back, he's going to have to go to this rusty, hairy man who's been lying at the bottom of the pond for a very long time, and ask for it. The plot begins to thicken.

Page 1 - Page 2 - Page 3

Fishpond




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