Remembering Robert Bly
Reading the carefully nuanced official NY Times obituarial ”take” on the poet Robert Bly’s life and his work brought home the vast gap between the appraisal liberal media can muster for a celebrity of a kind they cannot (or dare not) appreciate, and the truth as perceived among us who admired him. Like the difference of opinion between black people and white people concerning if abolitionist John Brown was hero or madman, or if civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr overreached when he denounced the Vietnam War and capitalism, opinions on Robert Bly’s controversial men’s movement mark a consciousness divide. The intellectual class (i.e., “journalists) speaks from within the science-based, left-brain paradigm, with its taken-for-granted categories that reduce the world to bite-size and manageable, as they must. They cannot officially appreciate an artist who stepped outside the category artists are restricted to in liberal reality. That is, an artist who, following inner guidance and not the opinion of the world, is not supposed to be.
Like Rev. MLK, Jr. outrageously denouncing war and capitalism, Robert Bly’s voice, likewise moral, did not confine itself within boundaries set by the proper domain of a poet, nor, moreover, by neoliberal fear and defensiveness. He walked his talk, and because of that, his voice, his willingness to bring a paradigmatically different kind of non-violent, grieving “father” energy into society reached souls and hearts, not just “heads,” of the people who were drawn to him. His voice – and this was its outrage – performed a religious function that unified, rather than preserving, emphasizing, or benefiting from social divisions.
As a writer, I straddle a no man’s land between categories: between spirituality and social conscience, religion and liberal secularism, essay and sermon. This self-made category has no name in liberal reality. It could be said of me as well, I am not supposed to be! However, my duty as I see it is exactly to keep the one who is not supposed to be, voiced. In so doing, I imagine I speak for the silenced soul that includes dark reality, that makes use of the sorrow -for which liberal reality has no use – to create beauty. For this the soul is marginalized and abandoned in the “Bud Lite” context that can bear only shallow positivity.
In that bereft-ness you and I are left to develop a personality pragmatically adapted to the soulless conditions in rationalist, materialist, heart-hardened society. This is socialization, the process (explained so well by Robert Bly in his A Little Book On the Human Shadow (1988) by which the soul’s multitudinous, erotic imagination, whole in the child, is repressed in order for the remaining shell to survive in existing social reality. For us, today, this means survival in the anti-social and addictive system that capitalism is. Seeing where capitalism is taking us I wonder: is it possible for the hearts that make us human to survive if we’re not being what we’re not supposed to be?
As someone who does not own a cell phone, I, like the sober person at a New Year’s Eve party, notice things! I observe people talk about their relationship to social media and their phones the way we can talk obsessively about food, alcohol (or, years ago, tobacco). Unasked, they will tell you about how they are limiting their time on Facebook, or they just got off it all together (implying Good riddance!), or they’ll say “Good for you!” if they discover you don’t have a mobile device. They do not mean it completely, and they cannot be believed, for they cannot, anymore, truly imagine being without their phones and screens.
There is something about the most taken-for-granted addictions that, in their addiction aspect, reveals the same inner struggle as narcotic or alcohol addiction. That is, a person’s ambivalent struggle with social media reveals nakedly the trap she’s in – held by her underlying belief in her badness. Because the active addict cannot admit it, the door to healing stays shut; for those who can see her true plight, there’s no way to oppose the defended inner reality of the addict – to counter her belief in her unwantedness – that doesn’t get you caught (like Brer Rabbit and the tar baby) in her reality.
Because of this power addiction has to corrupt love, the social consequences of socially acceptable addiction (overeating, fitness, screens, cars, speed, shopping, travel, work, etc., from which none of us entirely escape) are devastating. The back-and-forth pendulum of addiction is exhausting; it spends the energy that would otherwise go into the kinds of “superfluous” activities that speak well of human beings in a healthy society: idealism, creative work, reflective thinking, resistance to illegitimate authority. Although we can see genuine anguish in a friend who is addicted to overeating, on the other hand people do not want to be saved from their non-life-threatening addictions; tragically, such misery is tolerable and keeps one connected within neoliberal (anti-)social reality.
However, at a time of social emergency, with corruption and depravity among the wealthy and powerful rampant, with precarity for the poor and vulnerable increasing, with the rise of Christian fascism, with additional stresses of climate change and pandemic, the loss of social spirit is unaffordable. Recovery must be taken on, but how are we to begin?
In these dangerous times, unifying messages, such as drawing people idealistically together in the emerging New Age in the 60’s and 70’s, are rarely heard on the left. The inexplicable and powerful sense of community at Robert Bly’s Great Mother gatherings in the last 2 decades of the 20th century, that generated the “mytho-poetic” men’s movement, is worth considering. The unifying power did not come from the high ground of Bly’s being Harvard-educated National Book-award-winning white male poet. He could have been simply another well-defended neurotic egoist had he not, presumably at mid-life, in some sort of crisis of despair, taken up a path of spiritual recovery. Whether or not he joined a program, I don’t know. But through the power of imagination he arrived at the place of “grief” – that was his word of choice for what others might call confession, repentance or letting go. This step, the big one, gives a shock to the ego, and is transformative. Left alone, ego will never let go even when it is destroying the living body that hosts it ( just as out-of-control corporate capitalism destroys the host planet).
The power of discovering one’s grief cannot be overstated. It provides a standpoint outside the addictive system (that corporate consumer capitalism functionally is), an opening to energy from an “outside source.” Having found and grieved the deep “father wound” in himself, Bly went beyond the program goal of abstinence from alcohol (sobriety). He identified that woundedness as not unique to the alcoholic, but the wound of being human. Mytho-poetic recovery placed one in a reality alternate to the closed Liberal-Corporate Reality, in which we all must be resentful victims. Bly averred one’s true identity is both “I’m an alcoholic,” and “I am a King:” the human being who can open to spiritual reality through that lowly door of grief gains access to the center of moral authority, the power of repairing wounds to the social body.
Back when Orin was working on a teaching masters at Colgate University, a Marxist professor remarked in his hearing about Robert Bly’s having started “a safehouse for abused men.” As everyone knows, such resort to derision (and/or demonization) toward that which we cannot understand – “otherness -” is evidence of insecurity. Insecurity in educated liberal ( bourgeois) reality is intrinsic to it; to belong in neoliberal social, economic and academic reality and reap its tenured rewards, grief, or personal repentance – the opening to spiritual “otherness” – must be denied. That is, in regards to Being, liberal reality must keep relative that which is not relative, but Absolute (God).
Miraculously, in our class-stratified secular society, Bly reached the moral soul of an audience made up not of the downtrodden, but of those at the apex of privilege – that is, white middle-class males. The mysterious, enthusiastic community men attained at his workshops alarmed the intellectual class of liberals and feminists who could understand such a movement – that they knew of only through media representation – only as an effort to grab back patriarchal power, or Bly’s craving for self-glorification. Inexplicable and invisible to them, because the work was not driven by desire for fame or profits, was the sacrifice of his time, his energy, and his private peace to provide these safe spaces in which men could find their grief, overcoming massive fear and resistance.
Robert Bly’s take on recovery drew from sources that included Jungian archetypal psychology, social gospel, fairy tales, myth and poetry – all of which suggest poetic knowledge offers valid guidance for humans-with-souls. It directly countered official liberal social position on gender relations. That is, that men – with their “toxic masculinity” can redeem themselves only on feminism’s terms, by allying fully with the cause of women and their liberation from domination by men.
The approved liberal gender politics – absent inner change – (works) for men who would essentially not have to change themselves – a great relief for individuals who are defended against their grief (and other intolerable emotions). By defending against personal change, liberal men and women could keep a safe distance from the intensely painful wound of being human; they could, instead, simply talk a different talk. The strategy worked well, too, for pragmatic feminists who preferred to stick to “realizable” goals – raising the glass ceiling, equal pay for equal work, right to abortions, etc. rather than changing everything from the bottom up in line with being nurturers of life (that is, being mothers, personifiers of the Great Mother archetype). In other words, official liberal/feminist social/political position was/is essentially conservative. It switched deck chairs on the Titanic; by not addressing the full catastrophe of corporate capitalism it “saved ” us from making the change that is demanded by our threatened host planet (but not from having to defend abortion rights all over again!)
Robert Bly’s “mytho-poetic” men’s movement was actually in profound conversation with feminism. However, it subverted the pseudo-changes wrought by official feminism that never rocked the boat too much, by encouraging men’s change not because they are essentially “bad,” but because their human hurt, the wound, was seen. Being seen (recognized) feels like love and the effect, in fear-dominated, rationalist-defended liberal society, is revolutionary.
In contrast, when love is not driving the change, we’re left in the narcissistic system that can only see itself, not the other. “Good works” unaligned with neoliberal “progress,” such as the men’s movement, are invisible. We see only so far as the work fits a category we “get” superficially. Orin and I experience this frustration in Utica, when business at our hip little coffeeshop continually falls below the level that would make its survival less imperiled. We remind ourselves: our business is not supposed to be. However hip, its purpose and meaning fall outside the categories recognizable in neoliberal reality. It reminds people of something intrinsically good, but intrinsic goodness is only nice, not real. They must assign the indefinable quality to there being something – perhaps foolish, hippie idealism – about Orin and Kim. They cannot, must not understand our coffeeshop’s pleasing otherness as arising from something freely available to everyone – i.e., the wholeness of the creative reality in which each is included (wanted), the Cafe our contribution to William Blake’s “new Jerusalem.”
The dangerous appeal to eros
It goes without saying that people who have power to reach peoples’ emotions may abuse it. But the response to someone like Bly by those who have not personally experienced being seen is automatically defensive: Can the influencer be a charlatan? Can he – god forbid – be a demagogue – a Mussolini or a Hitler, even?
Qf course, there are dangers in being influenced. However, the danger for Orin and other men’s movement enthusiasts was not to society: he would not be joining some rightwing hate group defending white male privilege. Personally, Orin would follow a long, slow process of healing, the “end point” of which was not power, but – gasp! – being a poet! Not “political” in the ordinary sense, Orin’s (and my) anarchistic bottom-up non-aligned position may seem as dangerous to liberals as the men’s movement. For how are Trump and his fascist followers to be stopped if we don’t vote for Democrats?
What the question says is, “I am afraid.” The fear is sufficient to prevent the radical change required to meet challenges of social decay or climate catastrophe. In his book The Sibling Society, (1997) Bly prophetically foresaw that in a society in which, conveniently, moral authority and patriarchal authority are taken to be the same (bad) thing – “sibling rivalry” would come to dominate our politics. This belief, too, like shallow feminism, serves neoliberal reality. That is, those who question authority but never find it remain well within the bounds established in neoliberal corporate reality. This we witness in the ongoing futility in Washington where the intensity of the worst (the Christian fascists) challenges the timidity, passivity, and visionlessness of the “best.”
I don’t see a way out of siblingism except the way pointed to by Robert Bly, who was willing to step outside his “category” and be an imaginative medium for the Absolute. Being what he was not supposed to be, he allowed a vivifying beam from that other reality into our midst that alone can save individuals from the paralysis of unwantedness. For this he would be scorned, derided, demonized and marginalized in the liberal media whose task is to prevent any such unifying glimpse, any such relief for our hearts. His was a sacrifice nobody in her or his right mind wants to make. I understand.