Robert Bly: EIE
The Sibling Society by Robert Bly; pp. vii-xiii: It’s the worst of times; it’s the best of times. That’s how we feel as we navigate from a paternal society, now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way. People don’t bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be; we human beings limp along, running after our own fantasy. We can never catch up, and so we defeat ourselves by the simplest possible means: speed. Everywhere we go there’s a crowd, and the people all look alike.
We begin to live a lateral life, catch glimpses out of the corners of our eyes, keep the TV set at eye level, watch the scores move horizontally across the screen.
We see what’s coming out of the sideview mirror. It seems like intimacy; maybe not intimacy as much as proximity; maybe not proximity as much as sameness. Americans who are twenty years old see others who look like them in Czechoslovakia, Greece, China, France, Brazil, Germany, and Russia, wearing the same jeans, listening to the same music, speaking a universal language that computer literacy demands. Sometimes they feel more vitally connected to siblings elsewhere than to family members in the next room.
When we see the millions like ourselves all over the world, our eyes meet uniformity, resemblance, likenesses, rather than distinction and differences. Hope rises immediately for the long-desired possibility of community. And yet it would be foolish to overlook the serious implications of this glance to the side, this tilt of the head. “Mass society, with its demand for work without responsibility, creates a gigantic army of rival siblings,” in Alexander Mitscherlich’s words.
This book is not about siblings in a family; we’ll use the word sibling as a metaphor. We’ll try to make the phrase sibling society into a lens, bringing into focus certain tendencies, habits, and griefs we have all noticed. Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents—seeing that—have no desire to become adults. Few are able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane—tradition, religion, devotion. Even graduate students in science are said to share this problem. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky writes:
My students usually come with ego boundaries like exoskeletons. Most have no use for religion, precedents, or tradition. They want their rituals newly minted and shared horizontally within their age group, not vertically over time. The ones I train to become scientists go at it like warriors, overturning reigning paradigms, each discovery a murder of their scientific ancestors.
Perhaps one-third of our society has developed these new sibling qualities. The rest of us are walking in that direction. When we all arrive, there may be no public schools at all, nor past paradigms, because only people one’s own age will be worth listening to.
There is little in the sibling society to prevent a slide into primitivism, and into those regressions that fascism is so fond of. Eric Hoffer remarked:
Drastic change [has produced] this social primitivism . . . a new identity is found by embracing a mass movement . . . [the] mass movement absorbs and assimilates the individual . . . [who] is thereby reduced to an infantile state, for this is what a new birth really means: to become like a child. And children are primitive beings—they are credulous, follow a leader, and readily become members of a pack. . . . Finally, primitivism also follows when people seek a new identity by plunging into ceaseless action and hustling. It takes leisure to mature. People in a hurry can neither grow nor decay; they are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.
The society of half-adults, built on technology and affluence, is more highly developed here than in any other country on earth; but in other parts of the globe the same tendencies are growing fast. We can’t be definitive, but we can glance at some of its characteristics.
It is hard in a sibling society to decide what is real. We participate in more and more nonevents. A nonevent transpires when the organizer promises an important psychic or political event and then cheats people, providing material only tangentially related. An odd characteristic of the sibling society is that no one effectively objects. Some sort of trance takes over if enough people are watching an event simultaneously. It is a contemporary primitivism, “participation mystique,” a “mysterious participation of all the clan.”
Kierkegaard once, in trying to predict what the future society would be like, offered this metaphor: People will put up a poster soon saying Tonight John Erik will skate on thin ice at the very center of the pond. It’ll be very dangerous. Please come. Everyone comes, and John Erik skates about three inches from shore, and people say, “Look, he’s skating on thin ice at the very center of the pond!” A lecturer says: On Friday night we will have a revolution. When Friday night comes, the hall is filled, and the radical talks passionately and flamboyantly for an hour and a half; then he declares that a revolution took place here tonight. The audience pours out into the street, saying, “Tonight we had a revolution! Tonight we had a revolution!”
It’s hard for journalists or ordinary people to get away from envy when they look at a leader. Every detail of a president’s life is used to discredit him. President Clinton has his faults, but no other American president has been put in the stocks so soon and left there so long. Recent biographers of Franklin Roosevelt mention how careful journalists at that time were not to photograph him when he was moved from his car to a wheelchair. It wasn’t an attempt to hide failings, but to give him some place of dignity in his leadership.
The American Spectator carries ads offering pins that say “It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Hillary, Nix the Witch in ’96,” or a bumper sticker for $3 reading “Newt’s Mom Was Right.” Journalists and ordinary citizens join together in this mixture of envy and aggression. Adam Gopnick, in his piece on recent journalism, remarks:
In the past twenty years, the American press has undergone a transformation from an access culture to an aggression culture. . . . Aggression has become a kind of abstract form, practiced in a void of ideas, or even of ordinary sympathy. . . .
One sad result of this habit of envy and aggression is the utter discouragement and bitterness of voters, who move into an adolescent place in relation to the duties of citizenship.
It is hard to be as popular as we are supposed to be. The superego or Interior Judge has altered its requirements. An Interior Judge that once demanded high standards in art, in writing, and in ethics now requires early success, at twenty or twenty-two. Those insistences on early success have devastated the art world.
The French writer Giles Lipovetsky says, “The superego presents itself under the guise of demands for fame and success which, if they are not achieved, unleash an implacable storm of criticism against the ego.” The Interior Judge remains authoritarian and brutal, but it no longer asks the citizen to be honorable, disciplined, and noble; now it wants its owner to have public gratification. We could say the superego wants everyone to appear on talk shows, the very act that it would have forbidden as vulgar a hundred years ago.
The Interior Judge’s changed requirements, paradoxically, give the media much more power than they have ever had before; and the media’s accidental conferring of fame can become highly dangerous to the unwary. A[n] example is Robert O’Donnell, the man who became famous for bringing Baby Jessica out of the well in Midland, Texas. He enjoyed his fame in the beginning, being interviewed and feted; but later he, or more accurately his superego, could not reconcile himself to the loss of attention that followed. He lost his job and then his family; developed migraine headaches; and finally, [in 1995], killed himself.
Psychoanalysts describe the Interior Judge as they see it operating in youngsters now with terms such as “terroristic”; like a mad bomber, it can’t be talked out of its demands. People in cultures of the past, and still in many cultures today, were able to reason with their conscience, talk to it, get a relaxing of admonitions, a forgiveness of sins. But the new Interior Judge hijacks the teenager and shoots all potential rescuers. The hangdog look, the druggy and disheartened mood, the lack of grace in body movements, the stammering speech, are caused not by laziness or by being spoiled but by a constant humiliation administered by this new Judge.
Most adults have been slow to grasp how perfectionist the changed Interior Judge of their children is, and how savage. The Judge is more perfectionist than ever, but now there is not enough fame or popularity in the world to satisfy it. For parents to try to encourage the development of their children is natural, but now there is something desperate in it for both parents and children. If a teenager is not invited to the dance, she may try suicide. A high school boy, scoffed at, may retreat behind his computer for ten years.
That is how the picture looks among the advantaged. In the other half of society we see the absolute despair of young black men, who don’t need an Interior Judge to tell them they have no chance of finding a good-paying job, or any job. They have the longing and the wanting and no legal possibility of satisfying it. As we all know, one out of three young black men are in the criminal justice system in some form. Their despair is beginning to resonate through the entire culture; that is why suburban children want rap music.
In the past, an authoritarian Judge demanded obedience to parents, insisted on sexual “purity,” and, one could say, advocated high morals. The Interior Judge no longer uses Jesus or Gandhi to keep its bearings, but must shift instead to Barbra Streisand or Michael Jackson or a television anchor. For the one who fails to become successful and well loved, punishment is swift and thorough. Self-esteem receives a battering from inside, everyone feels insignificant and unseen, until, in desperation, we finally agree to go on a talk show and tell it all. Once that moment is over, and universal love has not poured over our heads following the program, we fall still farther. Sadly, longing for perfection in ourselves is, in the phrase of one observer, “perfectly compatible with indifference toward others.”
Why has the Interior Judge become so brutal and terroristic? We can say that advertising from a child’s earliest years has so influenced the greedy, desirous part of the child’s soul that the resisting force, the Judge, has to enlarge itself in order to combat the inflamed wanting. The Interior Judge, moreover, can no longer rely on outward authority in its battle against impulse. Having to resist without help from parents or teachers, it has to do it all alone, and so it naturally moves toward a primitive, humorless savagery, well expressed in grunge rock, action movies, and piercing of body parts.
The idea that our Interior Judge has changed its demands from requiring us to be good to requiring us to be famous is very sobering. If the superego, detached from verticality and stretched out across the horizontal plane, truly has changed, it means that consumer capitalism’s dependence on stimulating greed and desirousness has changed something fundamental inside the human being, a result that Freud never anticipated.
- book flap: In his phenomenal bestseller, Iron John, Robert Bly captivated the nation with the wisdom embedded in a thousand-year-old fairy tale, creating both a cultural movement and publishing history.
Now, in The Sibling Society, Bly turns to stories as unexpected as Jack and the Beanstalk and the Hindu tale of Ganesha to illustrate and illuminate the troubled soul of our nation itself. What he shows us is a culture where adults remain children, and where children have no desire to become adults—a nation of squabbling siblings.
Through his use of poetry and myth, Bly takes us beyond the sociological statistics and tired psychobabble to see our dilemma afresh. In this sibling culture that he describes, we tolerate no one above us and have no concern for anyone below us. Like sullen teenagers we live in our peer group, glancing side to side, rather than upward, for direction. We have brought down all forms of hierarchy because hierarchy is based on power, often abused. Yet with that leveling we have also destroyed any willingness to look up or down. Without that “vertical gaze,” as Bly calls it, we have no longing for the good, no deep understanding of evil. We shy away from great triumphs and deep sorrow. We have no elders and no children; no past and no future. What we are left with is spiritual flatness. The talk show replaces family. Instead of art we have the Internet. In the place of community we have the mall.
By drawing upon such magnificent spirits as Pablo Neruda, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, and Ortega y Gassett, Bly manages to show us the beautiful possibilities of human existence, even as he shows us the harshest truths. Still, his probing is deeper and more unsettling than the usual cultural criticism. He finds that our economy’s stimulation of adolescent envy and greed has changed us fundamentally. The Superego that once demanded high standards in our work and in our ethics no longer demands that we be good but merely “famous,” bathed in the warm glow of superficial attention. Driven by this insatiable need, and with no guidance toward the discipline required for genuine accomplishment, our young people are defeated before they begin.
It is the young and the disenfranchised who are most victimized by the sibling culture, our children and our elders and those marked as “not us” by race and economic circumstance. In a phrase common to the ancient stories Bly uses to illustrate his themes, it is these people whom we all too easily “throw out the window,” but it is also these disenfranchised who will be waiting for us on the road ahead to claim their due.
- pp. 3-4 (CHAPTER ONE—The Woodstock Moment): Michael Ventura has said that at some moment in 1956, when Elvis Presley let his pelvis move to the music on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey show, all the parents in the United States lost their children in a single night.
The first Woodstock thirteen years later signaled a change in American culture. Some unjust severity had been overcome or bypassed. Fundamentalist harshness, Marxist rigidity, the stiff ethic of high school superintendents, had passed away. People greeted each other, clothed or naked, in delight, feeling that a victory of humanness had taken place.
With the help of rock music, young men and women felt freed from a parental or institutional tyrant, the one with a thin nose, a black coat, and steel-rimmed glasses, the one who had told them in grade school to sit down, to behave, to repress sexual impulses, to hold their bodies stiffly, to salute the flag and stand up when a teacher enters the room. The popular heroes of the late 1950s, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, and Jack Kerouac, all took part in that struggle to loosen everyone up, and were loved for it by the older brothers and sisters of the Woodstock young. At Woodstock, the high school students won. What had they won? A battle against what Jules Henry in 1962 called “the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system.” That’s a mouthful, but it says it well.
All of us who lived in the 1950s saw so many lives destroyed by repression, by fear, by internalized superintendents, by shaming, by workaholism. By 1969, it felt as if human beings were able for the first time in history to choose their own roads, choose what to do with their own bodies, choose the visionary possibilities formerly shut off by that “control system.”
- pp. 6-7: All over the country, the old structures of the impulse-control system have loosened: the superego took its hands away from the throats of young people, or so it seemed, and the whole nation relaxed, felt less depression, endured less repression. The Beatles said something, happily, about living in a yellow submarine.
Yet something went wrong. How did we move from the optimistic, companionable, food-passing youngsters gathered on that field at Woodstock to the self-doubting, dark-hearted, turned-in, death-praising, indifferent, wised-up, deconstructionist audience that now attends a grunge music concert? That is the question we need to answer.
- pp. 8-11 (CHAPTER 2—Jack, the Beanstalk, and the Giant with a Large Appetite): In the days of King Alfred, there lived a poor woman, whose cottage was situated in a remote country village, a great many miles from London.
She had been a widow some years, and had an only child, named Jack, whom she indulged to a fault; the consequence of her blind partiality was, that Jack did not pay the least attention to any thing she said, but was indolent, careless, and extravagant. His follies were not owing to a bad disposition, but that his mother had never checked him. By degrees, she disposed of all she possessed—scarcely any thing remained but a cow.
The poor woman one day met Jack with tears in her eyes; her distress was great, and, for the first time in her life, she could not help reproaching him, saying, “Indeed, dear son, you have at last brought me to beggary and ruin; I have not money enough to purchase food for another day—nothing remains for me but to sell my cow. I am very sorry to part with her; it grieves me sadly, but we must not starve.”
For five minutes Jack felt a degree of remorse, but it was soon over, and he importuned his mother to let him sell the cow at the next village. As he was going along, he met a butcher, who enquired why he was driving the cow from home? Jack replied, it was his intention to sell it. The butcher held some curious beans in his hat; they were of various colors, and attracted Jack’s notice: this did not pass unnoticed by the butcher, who, knowing Jack’s easy temper, thought now was the time to take advantage of it, and determined not to let slip so good an opportunity, asked what was the price of the cow, offering at the same time all the beans in his hat for her. The silly boy could not express his pleasure at what he supposed so great an offer: the bargain was struck instantly, and the cow exchanged for a few paltry beans. Jack made the best of his way home, calling aloud to his mother before he reached the house, thinking to surprise her.
When she saw the beans, and heard Jack’s account, her patience quite forsook her, she kicked the beans away in a passion—they flew in all directions, some were scattered into the garden. The poor woman reflected on her great loss, and was quite in despair. Not having any thing to eat, they both went supperless to bed.
Jack awoke very early in the morning, and, seeing something uncommon from the window of his bedchamber, ran downstairs into the garden, where he soon discovered that some of the beans had taken root, and sprung up surprisingly: the stalks were of an immense thickness, and had so entwined, that they formed a ladder nearly like a chain in appearance.
Looking upwards, he could not discern the top, it appeared to be lost in the clouds: he tried it, found it firm, and not to be shaken. He quickly formed the resolution of endeavoring to climb up to the top, in order to seek his fortune, and ran to communicate his intention to his mother, not doubting but she would be equally pleased with himself. She declared he should not go; said he would break her heart, entreated, and threatened, but all in vain. Jack set out, and, after climbing for some hours, reached the top of the bean-stalk, fatigued and quite exhausted. Looking around, he found himself in a strange country: it appeared to be a desert, quite barren: not a tree, shrub, house, or living creature to be seen; here and there were scattered fragments of unhewn stone, and, at unequal distances, small heaps of earth were loosely thrown together. Jack seated himself pensively upon a block of stone, thought of his mother, and reflected with sorrow on his disobedience in climbing the bean-stalk against her inclination: he concluded that he must now die with hunger.
This tale sounds like the story of a contemporary mother with her teenage son who is “indolent, careless, and extravagant,” with no fatherly limitation on him. But it also has a third element: the overwhelming energy of the Giant, whose headlong greed eventually dominates the lives of both mother and son.
Something in this pattern of energies—a parent, a child, and a third presence in the house that seems barbarous—is familiar.
The physical landscape of the Giant’s territory suggests regression to a barbarous state, a time before sculpture or cities:
. . . it appeared to be a desert, quite barren: not a tree, shrub, house, or living creature to be seen; here and there were scattered fragments of unhewn stone, and, at unequal distances, small heaps of earth were loosely thrown together.
It’s clear that we are now in “the other world,” the place where all time is present time, where all historical periods exist together, and certain actions take place over and over.
The Giant, whom the boy is about to meet, will be a serious enemy. Sociologists, who ordinarily inhabit only the physical world, will probably bail out of the story at this point. Marxists will insist that the Giant is the patriarchy, or perhaps he represents all landlords. I enjoy saying that, too, but it isn’t quite appropriate here. We need to catch a glimpse of something the Marxists, for all their attentiveness, do not see. From the point of view of contemporary culture, we can speculate about why we have moved, in only thirty years, from the gladness of the “free” Woodstock to the terrorized schools full of guns.
“Jack and the Beanstalk” is one of those prophetic stories that appear, God knows from where, perhaps from residual memory of cultures in the past that have also suffered a falling back like ours.
- pp. 11-13: “Crone” is the mythological name for the old woman who has knowledge, in whose body the blood that once escaped as monthly flow has turned now into shrewdness, culture, wisdom, second sight. The Crone is familiar with death and doesn’t mind these “heaps of earth.”
However he walked on, hoping to see a house where he might beg something to eat and drink: presently an infirm looking woman appeared at a distance; as she approached, he saw that she was old, her skin much wrinkled, and her tattered garments proved poverty. She accosted Jack, inquiring how he came there; he related the circumstance of the bean-stalk. She then asked if he recollected his father? he replied he did not; and added, that there must be some mystery relating to him, for he had frequently asked his mother who his father was, but that she always burst into tears, and appeared violently agitated, nor did she recover herself for some days after; one thing, however, he could not avoid observing upon those occasions, which was, that she always carefully avoided answering him, and even seemed afraid of speaking, as if there were some secret connected with his father’s history which she must not disclose.
The old woman replied, “I will reveal the whole story, your mother must not; but, before I begin, I require a solemn promise on your part to do what I command: I am a fairy, and if you do not perform exactly what I desire, your mother and yourself shall both be destroyed.” Jack was frightened at the old woman’s menaces, and promises to fulfil her injunctions exactly, and the fairy thus addressed him:--“Your father was a rich man, his disposition remarkably benevolent; he was very good to the poor, and constantly relieving them. . . . Such a man was soon known and talked of. A Giant lived a great many miles off . . . he was in his heart envious, covetous, and cruel; but he had the art of concealing those vices.”
The old woman then tells Jack how the Giant managed by lies to inveigle himself in the father’s house; in fact, the Giant and his wife received a place to live.
One day a shipwreck off the coast drew all the servants out of the house to care for the survivors. The Giant chose that moment to act, and appeared in the library.
“The Giant then joined your father in the study, and appeared to be delighted—he really was so. Your father recommended a favorite book, and was handing it down: the Giant took the opportunity and stabbed him, he instantly fell dead; the Giant left the body, found the porter and nurse, and presently dispatched them. You were then only three months old; your mother had you in her arms in a remote part of the house, and was ignorant of what was going on. . . .”
She says that the Giant spared the boy’s life, and the mother’s, but made her swear to answer no questions on the matter, insisting on silence on this and other events. The mother and son escaped.
“Having gained your father’s confidence, he knew where to find all his treasure: he soon loaded himself and his wife, set the house on fire in several places, and when the servants returned the house was burnt down to the ground.”
The old woman explains to Jack that this is how Jack and his mother ended up living in a poor cottage. The old woman also mentions that it was she who secretly prompted Jack to take the beans in exchange for the cow, and she helped the beanstalk to grow high.
She closes her conversation with Jack by saying:
“I need not add, that I inspired you with a strong desire to ascend the ladder.”
Unknown to Jack at the start, there has always been some large and cruel being in his story, behind the scenes, although very much involved in everything that has happened.
We can say that during the Woodstock period, a large and cruel being lurked just out of sight, and those listening to Crosby, Stills, and Nash did not see him. Perhaps the obvious brutality of the Vietnam War occupied all our attention. We saw brutality every day on television, and it distracted us from the invisible being nearby. The savage acts taking place overseas with their napalm and Christmas bombings were so engrossing that people’s attention to dark things nearby faded; little energy was left to see beings close to us who were part shadow and part god. We recall how the invisible beings in The Iliad are both seen and unseen: they float down from mountain peaks and secretly aid either the Trojans or the Acheans.
Goya’s canvas The Giant offers an image of a “god” such as this. The bottom of the canvas shows refugees, huddled in caravans like displaced or fleeing gypsies; there’s a sense of suffering, hastily cooked meals, chaos, and poverty. Rising high above these preoccupied miniature people is an enormous being, two or three hundred feet tall, a giant that none of the human beings seem to notice. The painting hints at the human inability to see it even when it is close.
- pp. 14-15: AFTER THE CONVERSATION WITH THE CRONE, JACK WALKS ON.
He walked until after sunset, and soon, to his great joy, espied a large mansion. A plain looking woman was standing at the door, he accosted her, begging she would give him a morsel of bread and a night’s lodging. She expressed great surprise on seeing him, said it was quite uncommon to see a human being near their house, for it was well known that her husband was a large and powerful Giant, and that he would never eat anything but human flesh, if he could possibly get it; that he did not think anything of walking fifty miles to procure it, usually being out all day for that purpose.
This account terrified Jack, but still he hoped to elude the Giant, and therefore again he entreated the woman to take him in for one night only, and hide him in the oven. The good woman at last suffered herself to be persuaded, for she was of a compassionate disposition. She gave him plenty to eat and drink, and took him into the house. First they entered a large hall, magnificently furnished; they then passed through several spacious rooms, all in the same style of grandeur, though they appeared to be forsaken and desolate.
A long gallery was next; it was very dark, just light enough to shew that instead of a wall on one side, there was a grating of iron which parted off a dismal dungeon, from whence issued the groans of those poor victims whom the Giant reserved in confinement for his own voracious appetite. Poor Jack was half dead with fear, and would have given the world to be with his mother again, but that he feared could never be; for he gave himself up for lost, and now mistrusted the good woman. At the farther end of the gallery there was a winding staircase, which led them into a spacious kitchen; a very good fire was burning in the grate, and Jack, not seeing any thing to make him uncomfortable, soon forgot his fears, and was just beginning to enjoy himself, when he was aroused by a loud knocking at the street-door; the Giant’s wife ran to secure him in the oven, and then made what haste she could to let her husband in, and Jack heard him accost her in a voice like thunder, saying “Wife, I smell fresh meat.” “Oh! my dear,” she replied, “it is nothing but the people in the dungeon.” The Giant appeared to believe her, and walked down stairs into the very kitchen, where poor Jack was, who shook, trembled, and was more terrified than he had yet been.
At last the monster seated himself quietly by the fire-side, whilst his wife prepared supper. By degrees Jack recovered himself sufficiently to look at the Giant through a crevice; he was astonished to see how much he devoured, and thought he never would have done eating and drinking.
That’s the way the African people, and to some extent people the world over, think of the United States. We don’t have to assume that the Giant is the United States; and yet whatever meaning we get from this story will depend on how we understand the Giant.
Giants and witches populate many stories. Some giants are stupid but charming; those types, easily bamboozled because they are so tall, so far from the ground, can easily be deceived and manipulated by Tom Thumbs. In the Grimm Brothers story “The Raven,” we meet three giant brothers who are important for the traveler because they have maps somewhere in their house that show how to get to the Golden Castle of Stromberg. The Giants haven’t been asked about the maps for a long time. There’s something archaic about all giants, prehistoric, earlier than cities, perhaps even earlier than laid walls, a detail our story hints at with the mention of unhewn stones.
- pp. 17-19: Despite the controls that the church fathers laboriously laid out in their various councils to intensify the codes, and despite the various ideas of order that we make up in solitary rooms, we had better know, once we reach the top of the beanstalk, where the Giant’s cookie jar is, and we had better climb in. Then, from inside the cookie jar, we can sing a little: “Irene, goodnight.”
Our task in this chapter is to elaborate the picture of the Giant so we can see what we are facing in everyday life, and then to ask why facing that power is more difficult if the child is fatherless or motherless.
Brain researchers have established that each of us has a “tripartite brain”; each brain is really three brains. Like old Roman buildings whose foundations remain, even though covered by later cities, the earliest brains were not absorbed as we evolved, but added onto. The most primitive brain lies at the base of the skull and is a part of the brain stem: “This is the phylogenetically oldest part of the brain, its core or chassis, roughly corresponding to the basic structures of the reptile’s brain.” This brain, in human times, has become specialized for alarm, for response to fear, and for survival of the organism. Paul MacLean has said that the persistent trait of paranoia in us is probably caused by our inability to shut off the energy source to the reptile brain. MacLean, whose research is fundamental for this field, calls it the archicortex, or the reptile brain, and says of it that “when the psychiatrist bids the patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside . . . a crocodile.” The crocodile, if asked to express its troubles in words, cannot do so, and the “inability is beyond the help of language training.” When this brain is stimulated, it sets off alarms and prepares to face danger.
The second oldest brain is called the mesocortex. MacLean calls it the old mammalian brain, and says that “the reptilian brain and the greater part of the old mammalian brain are folded like two concentric rings.” The two infolded rings together form a large convolution, the so-called limbic lobe of the cerebellum. Limbic means “hemming in,” and the term was coined in 1878 by the great brain mapper Paul Broca. The limbic system, then, is made up of the two older brains—the reptilian and the primitive mammalian. The paleomammalian brain is an inheritance from the lower mammals. It can be compared to a rhinoceros or a horse.
Investigations of the last twenty years have shown that the lower mammalian brain plays a fundamental role in emotional behavior. . . . It has a greater capacity than the reptilian brain for learning new approaches and solutions to problems on the basis of immediate experience. But like the reptilian brain, it does not have the ability . . . to put its feelings into words.
The primary distinction between reptile species and mammal species is the warm blood of the latter. The old mammal brain has some qualities we associate with warm blood: passion, intensity, jealousy, wildness, erotic obsession, greediness, ferocity, loyalty over years, anger, and artistic madness.
In this discussion we will call the oldest brain the survival brain, with its Alarm System, and we will call the old mammal brain the Feeding, Sexuality, and Ferocity System. We make excuses for the old mammalian brain, and French courts provided lesser penalties at one time for “crimes of passion.”
- pp. 20-21: In late mammal times, the body evidently added a third brain. The development of the third brain, known as the neocortex, or new mammalian brain, may be connected to the invention of tools, or it may be a response to changed climatic conditions, or descent from trees. It takes the form of an outer eighth-inch of brain tissue laid over the surface of the old mammal brain. Its brain tissue is immensely elaborate and has millions of neurons per square inch. Observers speculate that it is capable through its circuitry of solving problems of immense complication. Some neurologists speculate that an intelligent person uses one-hundredth of its power; Einstein may have used one-fiftieth of its power. If the reptile brain is associated with cold, and the mammal brain with warmth, the third brain is associated with light. The parables of Christ and the advices of Buddha may involve instruction on how to transfer energy from the reptile brain to the mammal brain, and from the mammal brain to the new brain. The gold light around Buddha’s head or a medieval saint’s head may be an attempt to suggest the enormous light-giving power of the new brain.
When we enter the therapist’s office, we enter with a crocodile and rhinoceros. We prefer not to look behind us. Knowledge of these two old brains helps us to understand the sort of plane on which the Giant lives at the top of the beanstalk. We notice how fearful he is of any intrusion, and how enormous his appetite is.
- pp. 21-22: The source of our greediness and ferocity is known in other traditions as the nafs. In the Muslim and Sufi tradition, the word nafs simply means “soul.” There are four levels of the nafs: the lower nafs, which is the “bitter soul”; then the blaming nafs, which blames itself and others; then the inspired nafs, which begins to hear; and finally the nafs-at-rest. One hears the nafs-at-rest in much classical Persian music. The lower nafs, the greedy one, is called the “al-nafs al-amara,” or the bitter soul.
The term nafs, as understood today, refers primarily to the greedy soul. Another phrase used for it is the Commanding Soul, which implies that it is dictatorial and tyrannical. Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh of Iran, the head of the Nimatullahi Order of Sufis, says that the nafs basically commands its owner to do wrong.
The commanding nafs is that which has not passed through the crucible of aesthetic discipline, or shed the tough hide of existence. It actively resists all of God’s creation. This nafs is of a bestial character that harasses other created beings and consistently sings its own praises. It always follows its own desires and grazes on the field of material nature; it drinks from the spring of the passions and knows only how to sleep, eat, and gratify itself.
We can see how closely some of this description corresponds to ideas that Western scientists have worked out around the reptile brain and the old mammal brain. To say of the nafs that it “drinks from the spring of the passions” is precisely the way one would speak of the mammal brain. “It always follows its own desires” is right for the Feeding, Sexuality, and Ferocity System. It “knows only how to sleep, eat, and gratify itself.” The reference to its “bestial” character refers to the Sufi belief that what we have inherited from the centuries in which we were animals are the claws and the teeth.
But the Sufi visualization adds several new and valuable elements: “It constantly sings its own praises.” The nafs wants to be praised and respected as something more civilized than it really is. Movies and television series that come straight out of the nafs, such as Forrest Gump and Twin Peaks, present themselves as worthy of awards; and their writers insist their work is somehow an addition to high art.
The Sufis say that the nafs is utterly opposed to the spiritual intellect. Its main task is to move people toward selfishness and greed. Moreover, “the nafs itself claims to be God.”
Claiming that it is God, the nafs expresses no fear of God. If we assume that the nafs is acting among us in the West, the assumption throws some light on the Western insistence that one can snap one’s fingers at God, an attitude so astonishingly distinct from the attitudes of earlier generations.
The nafs may, for example, command one to be a worshiper, and ascetic, a servant or a Sufi, solely for the purpose of being accepted by people, of being respected and praised by others.
A certain Sufi master was devout in his behavior at prayers each day for years, always praying in the first row. One day, however, he arrived at the mosque late and had to pray from the back. He noticed that his nafs was irritated; soon the irritation penetrated his whole body. He realized it was the nafs who loved to pray in front, so it could feel the praise. After that he prayed “in secret.”
One of the latent vices and secret maladies of the nafs is its love of praise. Whoever imbibes a draught of it will move the seven heavens and the seven sublime realms for the very flutter of an eyelash. The symptom of this affliction is that when the nafs is deprived of praise, it falls into violence and laxity.
Dr. Nurbakhsh lists several other qualities of the nafs. It is ignorant; it is quickly weary of all things; it is alive to the passions; it is arrogant and egocentric.
It considers important the least thing it has done for anyone, remembering it for years afterwards, being overwhelmed by its own kindness. Yet however great the favors others do for it, it places no importance on them, forgetting them quickly.
The brilliance of this visualization is that it adds to the scientific visualization a kind of personality.
“The very constitution of the nafs is founded on breach of etiquette.” There’s something funny about imagining a force whose very essence lies in breaking etiquette. The idea, however, makes us rethink the darker side of the American “freedom of manners,” of which we were once so proud, but which is now shifting into gross rudeness between children and parents, between students and teachers, and even between people on the street, or people on the Internet.
The nafs is associated with the element of fire: “It is like a firebrand both in its display of beauty and in its hidden potential for destruction; though its color is attractive, it burns.”
Christianity puts some of its knowledge of the nafs onto Satan, into whom we place the hatred of God. That attribution is valuable, and yet we could say it projects the energy far out in the universe, wherever Satan is. The Sufis maintain that the nafs is inside everyone, available at every second, as near to us as our fingernails.
Finally, the Sufis say that the nafs in a person may lie for years as inactive as a snake or dragon frozen on a mountain.
- pp. 25-26: The Sufis say that approximately 97 percent of human beings in any nation are controlled by the nafs; every breath they take comes out of the nafs, all their acquiring and spending amounts to worship of the nafs, and their reason, or rational element, overwhelmed by the nafs, is reduced to making up excuses for people’s improper and embarrassing behavior. A few of the people in any nation, perhaps 2 percent, are, while possessed by the nafs, also aware of it; some of them try to appeal to the nafs of the other 97 percent. These people—politicians—can get the masses to do what they want them to do.
- pp. 26-28: Those awake are what Hebrew culture has always called the remnant. There are perhaps thirty-eight of them alive at any one time, none of them visible. They are probably people like Thomas Merton, sitting in a tiny cell somewhere writing about the connections between Buddhism and Christianity.
To these visions—the Western vision of the archaic brain and the Sufi vision of the nafs—we must add Freud’s vision of the id. Freud imagined an id, or more accurately an it (for in German the term is “Das Es”), which is a vast underlying unconscious, with immense powers of forgetting and chaos, which sets itself against the frail “I” and the insecure “super-I” or superego for control of the organism. The it or id usually wins. According to MacLean,
Considered in the light of Freudian psychology, the old brain would have many of the attributes of the unconscious id. One might argue, however, that the visceral brain is not at all unconscious (possibly not even in certain stages of sleep), but rather eludes the grasp of the intellect because its animalistic and primitive structure makes it impossible to communicate in verbal terms. Perhaps it were more proper to say, therefore, it was an animalistic and illiterate brain.
All three visions work together very well. The Sufis say that control of the nafs requires tremendous discipline and cunning. Freud is pessimistic about any long-term victory of the ego. The absence of an executive function to settle disputes among the archaic reptile brain, the old mammal brain, and the more recent neocortex sets the stage for a never-ending struggle among all three. The result is a chaotic confusion on the battlefield as the three brains fight every second for control of consciousness.
- pp. 31-38: Some English caretakers of elephants on the India subcontinent reported in July of 1995 that mother elephants in India were, for the first time, leaving baby elephants behind. So much forest cover has been destroyed that an elephant herd apparently feels anxiety in the long trek to the next forest cover; and mothers abandon baby elephants, who are then found wandering by themselves.
During our eighteenth century, the American father was thought of as the stone and roof-pillar of the family. The Puritan household in 1750 was set up so that it paralleled the Puritan State. Older men ran both. The service involved, for many fathers, more power than love; and it would be wrong to be sentimental or nostalgic about those families. We are talking not of the wisdom of father-power but merely of the extent of it. If we look at a family in, say, Salem, Massachusetts, in 1750, the father was the Navigator in social waters; he was the Moral Teacher and Spiritual Comforter; he was the Earner, who brought in the income and kept the family alive; he was the Hearer of Distress as well; cares were brought to the mother and then to him. People imagined the family as a Hebraic unit, as if the children were all children of God, and the house a tiny house of Abraham.
But this arrangement soon faltered. When the West opened up, fathers and prospective fathers headed there. Many factories opened in New England. The father’s eyes turned outward toward opportunity, factories, and long days; and the mother became the sole confidant of the children. Susan Juster and Maris Vinoskis say, “The transition from the father to the mother as the primary socializer and educator of young children was completed by the nineteenth century.”
For a time during the mid-nineteenth century, then, mothers become the sole center of the family. Many devotional meetings took place in the family, the heat of devotion entered the house, and the mothers taught inclusiveness, compassion, and self-restraint. We can feel the reality of such households in Mark Twain’s novels. Mother was the Navigator in social waters, the Moral Teacher and Spiritual Comforter, and the Hearer of Distress. In most families the husband remained the Earner.
The mother’s position changed again in the early twentieth century. She lost power when the selling industry succeeded in inserting itself between her and the children. She could no longer provide the emotional tone of the house, and pass on the tastes in books or music that her parents had given to her.
For centuries in the West, the young had learned music through hearing—even learning—folk ballads, Bach, Mozart, opera, polka tunes, dance music that the previous generations had loved. The music industry soon saw that huge profits would flow from urging each generation to have its own music. Media heroes such as Elvis, Prince, Michael Jackson, and Madonna became, through the very number of eyes trained on them, people with that mana that comes from the attention of millions. The parents didn’t stand a chance. These people were a thousand times more exciting than one’s parents. The siblings “understand” the new music; and soon that’s all they hear. Six- and seven-year-olds are now listening to rap music that spouts active hatred of women. In fact, our children get most of their values from music, videos, and films, and even though we regret that situation, we have not yet found a way to change it.
Mothers and fathers still do teach some values, such as empathy, discipline, helpfulness, honesty, and community responsibility, but by and large the parents are overwhelmed. Business’s maneuver to substitute themselves for the parents has worked. Like the German blitzkrieg, it took place so fact that no one could stop it. Most mothers remain in the house, but they have, like the fathers, the feeling that they are disposable.
Psychology has become a living, many-windowed submarine that enables psychologists to examine huge fish, sea vegetables, and half-blind worms on the floor beneath the unlit emotional sea; its discoveries have been one of the great glories of the twentieth century. And yet these discoveries have terrified parents by showing them how many mistakes they will certainly make. Parents felt a shock when they realized that the “bad kid” turned bad not because of some “seed” inside him but because the parent had fed him as a child from a stock of bad food that grandparents had cooked. Millions of parents now realize that to raise children without damaging them is impossible.
The sense that one could be responsible for “what is wrong” with one’s children, because of one’s own childhood, produces deep anxiety. Virtually every parent feels it now; but the great mass of parents had not felt this terror until this century.
Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American parenting went along on old tracks like those toy trains for which the crossings and tunnels and red-painted stations never changed. It was agreed that fathers shouted at regular times. If children, particularly sons, didn’t do their work, or were rude, they were beaten; that was understood. Sometimes fathers sexually abused the children; that may not have been understood, but it was not challenged. Children had nightmares regularly, and dreamt of killing their parents; that was understood. Having these parent tracks laid out is what Marion Woodman calls being an “unconscious father or an unconscious mother.” One didn’t think much about what to do.
Parents in general have become less unconscious, and that is a great blessing. And yet the doubt and guilt that parents feel have flowed in from the truth-telling of the great psychologists. No one is to blame here. Yet we know that the fear of doing wrong as a parent while still remaining a child oneself has been contributing to the fleeing of the fathers. Many mothers would flee, too, if they thought they could.
The English lawyer and writer Owen Barfield noticed a change in the English and American mind over the last eighty years. Some spot in the brain that used to hold the substance called responsibility now holds the substance called guilt:
Are people feeling guilty nowadays? Well, if I were asked to lay my finger on one of the most striking differences between the social climate of Europe and the West as it is today and as it was, say sixty years ago, I think I should have to specify the presence in it almost everywhere of a vague, uneasy feeling of guilt. There is an atmosphere of guilt. . . . Responsibility is food for the will, guilt is food for the feelings only . . . confused feelings of guilt tend to beget paralysis rather than energy.
Those who are old enough to remember the years between the wars will recall the skillful use ****** made of just that paralysis in the ‘30s, when even young people, who were in their cradles at the time it was signed, were somehow made to feel guilty about the unjust provisions of the Treaty of Versailles.
He then refers to the cross-blaming that goes on at all levels of our society:
Feelings of guilt tend to turn rather easily into feelings of hatred and contempt. We may feel a bit guilty ourselves, but we are very sure that a whole lot of other people are much more guilty, and probably ought to be destroyed.
In the sibling society we can see the deep bitterness between the right and left wings in the country, and the deep bitterness between men and women. Neither gender can stand the sense that it may be guilty of bad parenting, which it did without knowing any better.
In her essay “But Where Are the Men?” Ruth Sidel correctly links the phenomenon of fathers leaving the house with economic realities. Layoffs that began in the 1970s continue and sharply rise. The media concentrate on deadbeat dads—and that’s understandable—“and yet virtually no one blames an economic system that deprives millions of workers of jobs.”
American business made a decision some years ago to be “competitive” in the fast market as opposed to keeping promises to workers or supporting their communities. From 1973 to 1991, the average hourly wage for production and nonsupervisory workers steadily fell. “From 1980 to 1993, the Fortune 500 companies shed more than one quarter (4.4 million) of all the jobs they had previously provided. Meanwhile, during that same period, these companies increased their assets by 2.3 times, and their sales by 1.4 times.” The major CEOs increased their annual compensation by 6.11 times. We know all these figures, and they are heartbreaking. To fathers, and mothers, they are devastating.
We know that “the unskilled black man has little chance of obtaining a permanent job that would pay enough to support a family. He eventually becomes resigned to being unable to play the traditional father role, and rather than being faced with his own failure day after day, year after year, he often walks away.”
Unemployment among Native Americans—there are roughly one million—ranges between 45 and 55 percent, but it reaches 80 percent in some areas and in some seasons.
Andrew Kimbrell remarks that the purportedly “ ‘patriarchal’ industrial production system began by destroying fatherhood” in England through the form of enclosures, which amounted to abolishment of common pastures, ordered by the courts, that drove men into the factories. The patriarchal system’s destruction of fatherhood continues in the United States: here it is free hours that are “enclosed.” In 1935, the average working man had forty hours a week free, including Saturday and Sunday. By 1990, it was down to seventeen hours. The twenty-three lost hours of free time a week since 1935 are the very hours in which the father could be a nurturing father, and find some center in himself, and the very hours in which the mother could feel she actually has a husband.
Many judges, sociologists, and lawmakers moreover have regarded fathers as insignificant in the family structure throughout the last hundred years.
Decisions by judges to award custody to mothers both reflects the idea of the nonimportance of fathers and deepens it. At the same time, we know that many nineteenth-century fathers abandoned their families to go west, and many contemporary fathers abandon the family emotionally by working fourteen hours a day. For whatever reasons, fathers are becoming scarce: “Fathers are vanishing legally as well as physically. About one-third of all childbirths in the nation now occur out of marriage. In most of these cases, the place for the father’s name on the birth certificate is simply left blank.”
Katha Pollitt, an otherwise bright columnist, said: “Why not have a child of one’s own? Children are a joy; many men are not.”
Misguided government decisions contributed to the exile of fathers from distressed families. AFDC money was granted to single mothers only if no man was living in the house. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his famous book of 1965, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, warned that this practice was causing devastation in the black community; but he was mocked and demonized by observers on both the right and the left, by both blacks and whites. His warning that the fatherlessness would spread to the white community was correct. Fatherlessness now stands at 60 percent and rising in the black neighborhoods, and 35 percent and rising in white neighborhoods.
I think it is important to recognize that these mistakes in judgment do not amount to a conspiracy against men. It is simply that no one thought it out. The father seemed so pervasive, so constantly present, that no one grasped how swiftly that might change.
Our vision of the family as an ecological system remains now at about the same level as our vision of the natural system in the nineteenth century, when no one really understood the way all elements in a long-growth forest, for example, depend on each other. If human beings remove one element—pine trees or squirrels—out of a deep growth forest, much also changes. Seeding may depend on the squirrels. Some abusive fathers need to be taken out of the family, but there hasn’t been much discrimination between kinds of fathers. The solution some sociologists have proposed to solve the problem of anger by removing fathers has had a serious effect on human culture as a whole, an effect we now see in the aggression of fatherless gangs among the disadvantaged, and the presence of depressed and passive youngsters among the advantaged.
A similar mistake may now be in the making in relation to mothers. Alvin L. Schorr and Phyllis Moen, representing thousands of marriage counselors and sociologists, foolishly say: “The presence or absence of both parents per se makes little difference in the adequacy of child-rearing or the socialization of children.” Such nonsense means that mothers, too, are now considered non-essential. Throughout these last four decades, mothers have felt increasingly unvalued, both by the male culture and by some spokeswomen of the women’s movement, who could have been their champions; the morale of mothers is low.
- pp. 67-70: People are noticing that the Oedipus story is becoming less and less applicable in our present society. It doesn’t describe current father-son relations. Not only do young men not want to kill their father; many have never even met him. Father-longing is beginning to replace father-anger. That longing is palpable in maximum-security prisons, as well as in kindergartens, where small boys tend to hold onto the trouser legs of any man who enters the room and don’t want to let him go.
Father-hunger is often accompanied by a sense of the son’s increased responsibility for his mother: “You are the man of the house now.” Sons, in the absence of protective adult males, appoint themselves to be their mother’s guardian.
A myth still current in India describes this guardianship in story form: the son at the door of his mother’s chamber.
Once upon a time, the great Goddess Parvati, the Daughter of the Mountains, enjoyed her own sacred place inside her house. It was a bath and a bedroom and a place for her ceremonies. Nandin the bull guarded the door for her, particularly when she was bathing. One day her husband, Shiva, the Lord of the Dance, arrived unexpectedly from a long period of ascetic meditation in the mountains, pushed Nandin aside, and went into the room. The Daughter of the Mountains stood up embarrassed. Later she thought to herself, “I need a servant of my own, a man of some substance, who will obey me and no one else. I want a man who will not separate himself from me by more than the width of a hair.”
She said to Shiva, “I want a son.” And went on: “When you have conceived a child, you can return to your yoga, great lord. I will bring up the son and you can be a yogi. I yearn painfully for the kiss of a son’s mouth; and since you took me for your wife, you should give me a son. Your son will not desire marriage for himself, if you like, so you will not have grandsons and descendants.”
In the Bridhaddana Purana, Shiva says:
“Daughter of the mountain, I am not a householder, and I have no need for a son. This wicked group of gods gave you to me as a wife, but a wife is surely the greatest fetter for a man who is without passion. Besides, children are a noose and they are like the stake that keeps one from roaming. A householder needs a son and wealth; he needs a wife in order to obtain a son, and he needs sons in order to make offerings to the ancestors when he himself is dead. But if I do not die, goddess, why do I need a son? Where there is no disease, what’s the point of medicine? Come, you are a female and I am a male. Let us enjoy being the causes from which children arise, and let us rejoice in the pleasures between men and women, forgetting about children entirely.”
Parvati does not accept his answer, and she decides to create a son on her own. The next time she has her bath, she takes some rubbings from her skin, or, other versions say, unguents from the marriage bed, and creates a son. The Shiva Purana says:
As she was thinking in this way, she rubbed some of the dirt from her body and created a young man who possessed all good qualities: handsome, well-bodied, sturdy, well-adorned, and very brave and strong. She gave him many garments, many ornaments, many blessings. “You are my very own son. You belong to me as no one else does.”
After some time, Shiva returns from his meditation practice on a mountain. The Shiva Purana says:
Shiva, who indulges in every form of play and is expert in all, arrived at her door. Ganadhipa [Ganesha], not knowing he was the lord Shiva, said, “You cannot enter without my mother’s permission. She is taking her bath. Where are you going? You must leave.” And after he said this he picked up his staff and pushed Shiva back. Then Shiva, seeing all this, said, “You are such a fool! Don’t you know who I am? I am none other than Shiva!” But then Ganesha beat him with his staff, and Shiva, who is skilled in all forms of play, became enraged and said, “What a fool! Don’t you even know that I am Shiva, the husband of Parvati? Little boy, I am going into my house, why do you block my way?”
The Skanda Purana says:
Ganesha struck the great lord with his axe; but the great lord, raising his trident, struck off Ganesha’s head, which fell to the ground. When Parvati saw that her son had fallen to the ground in this way, she began to cry loudly. And when Ganesha collapsed on the ground there arose a great lamentation throughout the whole world.
The Shiva Purana says:
Astonished at this, Shiva took his son’s head in his hand and said sweetly to the goddess, “Do not cry, lovely Parvati, though you grieve for your son. No grief is greater than that for a son, but nothing so withers the soul. Stop your sorrowing. I will bring him back to life. Goddess, join his head onto his shoulders.” And so Parvati joined that head on as he had told her to do, but it did not join properly.
Shiva said to his attendants: “Go in the northern direction and whatever person you meet first, cut off his head and fit it onto this body.”
The attendants go north, and the first being they meet is an elephant. The attendants cut off the elephant’s head.
Shiva, using his magical powers, now joins the elephant head to the boy’s body, and after holy words and appropriate water and ritual, Ganesha comes to life as though “he had awakened from sleep.”
- pp. 73-77: When Parvati sees that her son has been restored to life, she . . . uses her power, and declares that Ganesha shall be raised to the level of a god and given important tasks. He becomes the god in charge of removing obstacles, so he is a god that helps all human endeavors. He is the God of Obstacles and of Categories. There is a statue of him in most Indian houses, for he is a favorite god. He helps all beginnings. Usually he has a paunchy stomach, suggesting how fond he is—being still a boy in some ways—of sweets. He has four arms, and sometimes his toenails are painted red. The elephant represents the great cosmos, the macrocosm, all that is beyond the moon and stars. The boy’s body represents the small cosmos, the microcosm. The statue, then, says that a human being has in his or her person the entire cosmos, with all its spiritual energies and powers.
The doorkeeper myth gives a place for the mother’s grieving. Every mother wants her son to receive a “new head,” and yet so much that was sweet and delicious in their past together is gone when the new head is placed. When the boy does receive a new head, he somehow is part of the universe in a deeper way than before. He has shifted from the maternal realm to the social world.
The Ganesha story is not to be taken literally. It does not say to fathers, “Cut off your son’s head.” It does not mean violence between father and son. One could say that the gods do things so that human beings do not have to. The story is about working through the father’s competitiveness with the son, and the son’s attachment to the mother, without anyone getting killed, and without the affectionate feelings being destroyed. The myth also recognizes that something is cut away, and a new identity or head has to be taken from the unknown world of wild/tame things.
Many a son in our culture feels he has been appointed to stand where he already is: at that dangerous, luminous, liminal, threshold place between the world and his mother’s bedroom, between the intruders and her bath, between the world of ten thousand things and her privacy. But we recognize too that the son’s sense that he has to guard his mother’s bedroom door is often a fantasy on the son’s part.
A child’s fantasies when living alone with his mother will be different from a child’s fantasies when two parents are present. There are boys in the United States who now find themselves standing at the entrance of their mother’s holy sanctum that is redolent with perfumes, silk clothes, mysterious laughter, and godly, attractive smells. The world outside is full of uncertainty around where the father is, who he is, and why he is not here.
If both parents are in the house, the boy still feels the mystery of the mother’s room, but he doesn’t have to do anything. It’s as if the father’s presence performs the protection. The son of the single mother receives a task he is too young to perform.
The fantasies around this task are highly disturbing to the young man. He has to protect the mother and take over the job the father would have had. In East of Eden James Dean played such a son, agonized over a “bad mother” who had vanished when he was young and who has now become the madam of a whorehouse. James Dean, alone, contacts and confronts the mother. This task is a little too complicated for a boy that age; moreover, the doorkeeping task inflates a son in a dangerous way, especially if he appoints himself a doorkeeper too early.
Even boys raised in two-parent homes remember the magical feeling of their mothers’ bedroom—a curved dressing table, a mirror facing the room, and on the dressing table arranged perhaps shepherd boy and girl figures, jewelry boxes holding pins, rings, brooches, and the perfume bottles, the powder boxes, the dozen scents all mingling together.
If the father dies and the mother remarries, the son accepts the task in a deeper way. One could say such a son is guarding the door behind which his real mother and father conceived him. It will be anguish for him to see a stepfather or boyfriend enter that sacred room—real or symbolic—where he was conceived.
In most houses (despite what Freud interpolates from the Oedipus story), the son isn’t lustful himself—he doesn’t want to sleep with his mother, which would violate his parents’ bedroom in a parallel way—but he does want to preserve the sanctity of that ritual place from any new intruder. There’s a lot of anguish and possibility of failure here, for son or daughter.
From the mother’s point of view, her bedroom is more than a bedroom. Like her bath, the bedroom is a ritual place where she guards the mysteries of the feminine. Those perfume bottles, and powder boxes, the mirrors, and the small shepherd and shepherdess figures in china or the New Age goddess emblems are representatives of the female divinities. Moreover, the bedroom is where she prepares to receive the future generations passing through her. Her room is the sacred place where the yang and yin forces, the overbright and the overshrouded, meet. A meeting place for such spacious forces needs to be honored with appropriate grace and some fierceness. If the father is gone, whom can she ask to do that but the son?
And how does life go for sons who are doorkeepers of their mother’s holy bedroom? In many single-mother houses—with no blame to the mother—the son can do nothing but pull the pillow over his head and live with the knowledge of his repeated failures to keep intruders out. In more familiar terms he feels himself to be “the man of the house,” a knight defending the castle, but he can’t get the drawbridge to stay up.
The mysterious mood of the mother-protecting son (who fails) is penetrating the entire culture, in ways we don’t understand.
A mother told me a story that suggests how deeply the son feels the doorkeeper impulse. She was very conscious of the way her son might feel about a man other than his own father in the house, and so for years she never met a lover in the apartment. She was very surprised when her son, at twelve, gave her as a birthday present a plaque that read:
Good Girls Go to Heaven.
Bad Girls Go Everywhere.
“Where shall I put this?” she asked. “You could hang it on your bedroom door,” he replied. A few months later he said in an affectionate way: “Are you gay, or just a nerd?” He must have had a longing to test his powers.
Young boys with an absent father tend to remain doorkeepers through the latency period from age five to ten, and many sons then enter adolescence with that curious flatness and hopelessness that we sense in so many young men. James Dean’s face looked as if he had failed at something that was dear to women; he is not James Cagney, who looked like a father-puncher, nor John Wayne, whom some women admired as they might admire a prize ram. James Dean carried the charm of a young man who had died—or fallen—in some fight for women. Trying to protect his mother’s sacred space was possibly his battle, and even the failure to do it successfully would register on his face as a radiance perceptible to some. Elvis Presley is a second example of a movie-star doorkeeper. He was a mother’s boy, but not the nice choirboy that white families knew. Rather, he was a doorkeeper who had learned sexual moves from rhythm-and-blues performers. He mimicked what went on in his mother’s room on the other side of the door. His hip movements, so wicked and boyish, resembled the deceiving partridge’s flapping walk to direct attention away from the eggs. He draws all attention to himself with his pelvic dance so that no one would think of going through the door.
It appears that no genuine father ever showed up on the doorstep and pushed Elvis away. He looks like a son who was never seen by an elder in a mentoring way. Certainly Colonel Tom Parker never saw who he was. Young women saw him; his mother saw him; but when you watch Elvis Presley, you’re looking at a boy that no older man ever blessed with his eyes. We remember the swingset he always kept at Graceland. Elvis’s daughter would swing in it, but the biographers say that when she wasn’t there, Elvis occasionally took shots at the swing set. In Elvis’s world, the missing father never came back from the war; Elvis kept holding the door of his mother’s bedroom until, numbing his pain with drugs, he died of his terminal adolescence—which to him felt like old age.
- pp. 79-80: When a young man in our culture arrives at the end of adolescence, the river of secularity typically carries him over the waterfall and he’s out in the big world. The speakers at his high school graduation will say, “The future belongs to you.” But the speaker doesn’t mention to whom the student belongs. He belongs to nothing; he belongs to the river; he belongs to the trash at the bottom of the waterfall. He belongs to light beer, and sitcoms about bars, and forgetting. In ten years his muscles will be looser than they were at graduation, and high school will be very nearly his last experience of form. Whether he graduated from an eastern college or not, went to law school or not, he will find around him a group centered on the acquisitive instinct, by which I mean that impulse toward taking and consuming. Our country has adopted that impulse instead of some religious or mythological theme as a unifying theme.
Many economic and industrial forces have worked to create the sibling society. The son who drifts along in the commercialized, secular society, with no help from elders or community, no help in preparing for adulthood, goes usually one of three ways.
First, he may become a materialist, whether living in a trailer house in Montana or in a yuppie apartment in SoHo, and, the hunger never satisfied, becomes the angry white male or the angry black male.
Second, he may become a lightheaded spirit boy, which so many did in the 1960s, sitting in a zendo, flying to India to see the Maharishi, climbing towers at night, eating leafy vegetables, trying to embody the purity his mother would have had, had he been a better—he thinks—doorkeeper. It may be the road of purity, but he never becomes grounded in his own body.
Third, he may go the way of the alienated, empty “microphone fiends.” For them, “everything has come under the anti-aura of the inauthentic, everything is already co-opted, already an act.” They sit in basements, or they play video games for hours. They hardly know who their parents are. “There is a tendency to keep everything at a distance, to treat everything ironically, with no investment in one’s investment.”
Again, the Ganesha story is not to be taken literally. It does not say to the father, “Cut off your son’s head.” Shiva is not human. The story says that if all goes well with a son, some large force will take off the son’s head and give him a new perspective that leads to depth.
The boy’s old head represented his infantile desirousness, his greediness for sweets, power, and maternal comfort.
Arthurian scholars speculate that when a young Celt presented himself to Arthur and was accepted into Arthur’s group, he was ritually asked, “What do you want from Arthur?” The ritual answer was “A haircut.” When, in the Mabinogion, Culwich, as the Celtic young man is named, enters Arthur’s court, he rides his horse directly into the castle; so we know that some socialization is in order. Similarly, Ganesha’s beheading resembles the cutting of an aspirant’s hair. Middle Ages monks received a “tonsure” to mark their entry into monastic life.
Of course, the advertising industry is utterly opposed to ending infantilism. The ad companies want the boy’s infantile desirousness to continue—he should keep his desire for fast food, for M&M’s, for CDs, for filled refrigerators.
- pp. 82-85: Businessmen don’t try to be fair to their employees, students take the easiest courses, then plagiarize and expect approval if they are caught, administrators constantly steal money meant for the poor and find that natural. Doctors diagnosing a problem don’t try to think their way through to the deeper life issues that cause illness, but administer the drug they have been told is appropriate.
In some punk rock now, as critics have reported, to play music without mistakes is seen as evidence of dishonesty and artificiality. Sloppy technique becomes evidence of honest expression.
As for artists, a learned discipline that might previously have led to a breakthrough is not attempted. Any one tradition is regarded as far too limiting. The artist then can become eclectic, imagine him- or herself as an honorary Native American, an honorary hippie, or an honorary Aborigine. A life of eclecticism usually means a life without the authentic. John Ashbery will provide fantasy poems, the Disney studios will provide fantasy deer, video games will provide fantasy death, and the Internet will provide fantasy friendship or fantasy sex.
It used to be the intent of those providing the first year of college to bring the students into a wholly new world. Often that happened. Sons of immigrants who had lived in a survival dog-eat-dog kind of frontier life found themselves suddenly amazed by philosophical talk, by religious passion, and sometimes simply by beauty. We can still feel that surprise in people like Sherwood Anderson, Kenneth Rexroth, and Willa Cather, who suddenly saw worlds, distances, horizons, and intensities of discipline of which their parents knew nothing. Gertrude Stein represented something like that in Paris, and passed on her surprise to Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man.
Now, as we know, colleges no longer provide such arrangements. Rexroth pointed out in the 1960s that our colleges and universities were becoming mere training grounds for corporations; they more and more resemble factories that turn out standardized parts, in this case standardized human beings. And since the 1960s, television has interposed itself between children and the world of depth so that the children receive so many snippets of philosophical thought, so many old rags used to wipe Michelangelo’s face, that nothing they meet in college amazes them.
Receiving a new world of meaning today would involve complicated experiences far beyond reading a book on acceptable virtues. The act of beheading is chosen to suggest the difficulty of the enterprise; and the elephant, the oldest domesticated creature that is yet wild, is chosen to suggest how deeply the whole body would be affected. The “body-soul” needs to be changed in order to receive what Joseph Campbell calls “the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos” that pour down toward human beings. Without gratitude to energies much greater than our own, there will be no new meanings. It could be said that we lack the imagination now to imagine any new power to whom we could be grateful. The procedure for young men and women would ask a reintroduction to the dangerous energies of nature, as some Native Americans still ask from their youth. The process is messy, and needs teachers, the out-of-doors, and lots of time.
We realize more and more that new meanings cannot be created entirely out of anger. Deconstructionist anger, postmodernist anger, some radical feminist anger such as Andrea Dworkin’s, does not, even though it produces excitement, produce genuine justice. The “inexhaustible energies of the cosmos” cannot be called down by anger. They are called by extremely elaborate practices and stories.
In the inner cities, beheading is taking place without restoration. The father, as the Shiva story makes clear, has to participate in the restoration. If we and the television anchors could grieve over the young men at twelve killing each other and bystanders—by stopping all activity for ten minutes every day—instead of mechanically adding the numbers up, we might come closer to new meanings. If we could feel the grief young girls experience now because the feminine is brutalized, courtesy gone, grace utterly absent in high schools, genuine beauty eradicated by haste and analysis, empathy evaporated in the brutal songs they hear, we would be closer to the cry of Parvati. If we could realize the massive disrespect for the feminine that takes place every day, we could help one another to go “north,” toward passion.
For grown men, serious change today usually means moving into expressiveness. It means leaving the tightly controlled, work-dominated, slavelike closed-mouthedness that has already destroyed their relationships with their families; it means they must move into expression of feeling, reconnection with nature, reconnection with the feminine, reconnection with the deeper side of masculinity.
In daily life, without realizing it, we often meet ordinary people who have received new ways of being. Some of those are Alcoholics Anonymous people. Almost to a person, they feel amazed and grateful everyday for losing their old family perspective, which was an alcoholic perspective probably going back five or six generations. Once a week, they stand up in the AA meetings and say, “I am John, and I have a new head.” Such people have to put it differently, lest they get inflated and find the old head fastened back on.
Our culture, particularly its rationalists among us, is so afraid of new meanings—or so full of despair at being unable to find them—that rationalist reporters make more and more fun of AA people. I bring this up to emphasize that a person with new meanings does not necessarily surface today as a great personality; he or she is more likely to live among the unseen. Perhaps this is because people either find a new perspective or they die.
When Mother Teresa went to New York after years of picking up the dying street people in Calcutta, she visited an elderly American woman in her Brooklyn apartment who was afraid to go out. Mother Teresa said, “Even in India I’ve never seen poverty like this.” We have double poverty, from lack of money and absence of what we could call vertical passion.
If a young man or woman does not lose the head ritually, and if the drops of blood, metaphorically, do not hit the ground, then the blood appears magnified somewhere else—hallucinated, gigantic, on the television and movie screens. We go into a theater and see exploding body parts flying at us, severed heads flying past the screen and out.
- pp. 53-56: As a species we are large brained and large skulled. We know that evolutionists envisage a long struggle between the movement toward a larger head and the limitations of the pelvis, whose bones limit the size of the head. The large head, as it is and has been, makes birth an intensely painful experience for the human female: “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children,” God said to Eve.
Despite that limitation, the human brain is large at birth, and the skull enlarges greatly after birth. At birth, the rhesus monkey, for example, has a brain that is already 65 percent of its final size; the chimpanzee brain is 40.5 percent of its final size; but the human baby’s brain is only 23 percent. That means that three-quarters of the skull growth takes place after birth. Another puzzling detail is that the skull sutures on a typical ape close within a year or two after birth, but the human skull sutures remain open until age thirty-five or so. There are several other puzzles, including the absence of brow ridges (which in the ape develop during the last month of gestation), the absence of body hair (which in the ape develops during the last month), and, strangely, that human babies are born with big toes not able to rotate, a trait that apes develop, again, in the last month.
These matters came into closer focus when a professor of human anatomy at Amsterdam, Louis Bolk, published a series of papers, collected in 1926, pointing out that the fully grown human being has an astonishing resemblance to the eighth-month fetus of a chimpanzee. He listed twenty-five traits of adult humans, including the flat face, that exist only in the fetal stage of apes.
During the final month in the womb, many finishing traits are experienced, among them the DNA order to start closing the skull sutures, thereby limiting the size of the adult skull. One way for human beings to achieve a head size larger than allowed by normal ape development would be to omit the last month, to allow the baby to be born early, slipping past several limitations. Many adult apes have a protruding or long jaw. The protrusion is tied into a skull frame that requires a relatively low dome. If the baby is born before the jaw lengthens, a high dome is more likely.
Louis Bolk suggested that this skipping of the final month is exactly what human beings do. It has certain benefits, such as open sutures and the possibility of a high forehead, and certain disadvantages, such as less mobile toes, a naked skin basically without hair, and so on. We can feel immediately that much is at stake here. Some loss of self-esteem is likely, as appeared also when Galileo suggested that the sun does not revolve around the earth. Bolk summarized his position in these words:
If I wished to express the basic principle of my ideas in a somewhat strongly worded sentence, I would say that man, in his bodily development, is a primate fetus that has become sexually mature [einen zur Geschlechstsreife gelangten Primatenfetus].
He expressed surprise that a fetuslike being could reproduce itself, but such a being is apparently what we are. We are a species that literally holds onto youth. The word neotony, which means something like that, was coined by J. Kallmann in 1905. By emerging from the womb early, human beings have a higher skull; and we notice that human beings of all races, as a result, have a curiously flat face, sometimes even a flat nose. These are traits of the chimpanzee fetus. Not all evolutionists accept Bolk’s theory, but it explains characteristics of the human baby that no other theory can explain. Among American scientists and writers who accept Bolk’s ideas are Stephen Jay Gould, who discusses the reality of neotony in Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and Paul Shepard. The Swiss writer Konrad Lorenz is an advocate as well.
Let’s summarize the main points of Bolk’s ideas.
One way to talk of the mystery of the large brain is to suppose that the human being at some point interrupted itself during its own womb development and emerged, unfinished, about a month early . . . The human skull, which is now born with the sutures still wide open, can continue to expand, providing space for an enlarging neocortex. In other words, the unfinished human has a greater chance of ingenious evolutionary adaptation to a changing environment than does a finished, or fine-tuned, fetus. We do notice that the human infant’s head is startlingly large compared with the rest of its body . . . Apparently the plan was that the new baby-person would solve with its immense neocortex some of the challenges that the well-developed ape, which fits into a niche in its environment, solves through its built-in instinctual responses: “Man is programmed to learn to behave, rather than to react via an imprinted determinative instinctual code.”
- pp. 58-60 (Chapter 3—Swimming Among the Half-Adults): Television is stealing the neocortex’s observation time and giving a little useless information in return. A child who watches three to four hours of television a day from the age of two loses thousands of hours of playtime, which means that he or she suffers a serious loss in the neocortex.
It is the neocortex, with its vast love of light, insects, and other creatures, that brings fieriness to the girl or boy; and that love is also liveliness and heat. In the industrial society, human beings are more deeply cold each year, dumber, and increasingly open to miscellaneous information produced by anonymous entities. Some schools now accept free computers, with the understanding that students will in turn accept commercials and newscasts prepared by the vendor.
When the neocortex cannot do its old work, a truly new element has entered human life. What if the neocortex no longer interacts with plants and animals but only plays with its own inventions? The neocortex of the Internet fanatic is no longer figuring out how to remain warm in this climate; he is not curious about mound-building ants or how past cultures did things. He is curious about his own curiosity. Deconstructionists no longer read Thomas Hardy to glimpse the ominous forces that distort human hopes; but instead the neocortex is curious about how far it can go in making up a language that will undermine all Hardy’s meanings. The neocortex becomes analytical about analysis, or inquisitive about inquisitiveness.
The too-early-born, helpless, and hairless human baby without its old instinctual patterns of adaptation requires a long time in which to be nourished and protected by family—and that is not happening. The extended family is gone for most; playtime outdoors has been replaced by television and computers indoors. Grown-up people have no time, and decline the hard work of parenting. Students in return decline the hard work of learning Latin or studying any literature or discipline that isn’t attached to the immediate moment. Millions of children and adults decline the hard work of figuring out how to give delight and entertainment to themselves and others, and do not immerse themselves in the details of nature. Some grade-school teachers say they have to force their second graders to go outdoors.
The experiment in which the new brain substitutes for the old instinctive patterns by its devoted study of plants, weather, snowflakes, beaver ponds, ant heaps, and birds is not working. If the new brain cannot do its work, which is to study animals, wind, thunder, stones, and feathers in detail, it cannot feel safe. Not feeling safe, the boy or girl feels utterly unable to confront the “ills that flesh is heir to,” and finds a way to numb the fearful mind and the emotions. Contemporary teenagers find themselves metaphorically moving back from the eighth month to the seventh month. The neocortex, as the inventors of LSD noticed, sees amazing things; but it doesn’t see the real things. Old and young become “acid heads” or “Internet heads.”
Built in to us is a tendency to regress in time of trouble. One regression—skipping the last month of pregnancy—does not make the other regression—into childishness or drugs—inevitable. And yet it is likely that, preserved somewhere inside the vast DNA information reservoir, is a knowledge that to regress in some way is human. As neotonous humans, we resemble a train stationed in Pittsburgh whose wheels are wild to get to New York, but before leaving, it backs up to Chicago. We see countryside going by as we back away from New York. In Chicago some trains break down and we never do begin the journey toward our goal. Some trains just continue to back up.
When we look at animals, we don’t feel that to regress is mouse-like, nor that to regress is wolverinelike. On the contrary, wolverines, mice, herons, and wolves seem to accept without difficulty the sacrifices required of them as parents. Among birds, sometimes the male sits on the eggs, sometimes the female. Among wolves, sometimes the male wolf endures the endless irritating play of the cubs, sometimes the female endures it; sometimes both become thin in their felt need to give food to the cubs first. Extreme conditions such as enforced zoo life can destroy such habits, but flight from parental maturity is rarely seen in the animal kingdom.
The strategy of putting the new brain in charge of checking out the environment paid dividends for a long time. So long as the neocortex could follow with its marvelous intensity the sensual and natural life all around it, ice floes and boa constrictors, the human child managed to become relatively adult. But today we are lying to ourselves about the renaissance the computer will bring. It will bring nothing. What it means is that the neocortex is finally eating itself.
- pp. 48-49: People of all ages are making decisions to avoid the difficulties of maturity. Freud maintained in Civilization and Its Discontents that human beings feel a deep hate and a deep love for civilization. Civilized behavior demands repression and restraint, in the face of which, of course, the instinctual energies know they will not be satisfied.
One way to outwit the demands that civilization makes is to set up a sibling society. To make all the necessary changes is hard, but once they are made, most of us can then avoid the painful tasks of the civilized adult. When enough people have slid backward into a sibling state of mind, society can no longer demand difficult and subtle work from its people—because the standards are no longer visible. Without the labor of artists, for example, to incorporate past achievements—in brushwork, in treatment of light, in depth of emotion, in mythological intensity—people with some talent can pretend to be genuine artists. Their choices seem to be to cannibalize ancient art, or to create absurdly ugly art that “makes a statement.” They don’t ask themselves or each other for depth or intensity, and most contemporary critics pretend not to miss them.
Another way of outwitting the demands of civilization is to make sex a plaything for regressed adults. Sex loses its grandeur and its fate. In past eras, some societies said: “If you agree to accept the painful labors of parenting implicit in pair-bonding, then you can have regular sexual release. Otherwise, no.” We know of successful cultures that have allowed great sexual freedom, but the youngsters are not abandoned after the initial sexuality; they have the support of the entire tribe, which knows how to bring about adult behavior.
The person who decides to omit the difficult labors of becoming civilized receives, in return, permission for narcissism, freedom from old discontents, and a ticket to the omnitheater where fantasies are being run. One could say that the greedy and lazy part of the soul obtains permission to do as it wishes. Thousands of other siblings in other countries will cover for that person, just as troops support each other in a retreat.
Emily Dickinson said:
I think the Hemlock likes to stand
Upon a Marge of Snow—
It suits his own Austerity—
And satisfies an awe.
The experience of austerity and the experience of maturity are connected.
That men are in essence boys has long been a theme with women, but the boyishness used to be endearing. Now it feels dangerous to those nearby. As the supply of adult men lessens, fewer daughters grow up experiencing the adult male presence, so they choose a mate without reference to any standard of maturity. Some women speak with surprise of a lover: “He looked so good at first—he let his feelings show, he didn’t have all these hard edges that the corporate clam-men have, he talked about his childhood, he made me feel needed, wasn’t afraid to say he is scared.” Then what? “All of a sudden he doesn’t do his share, he leaves his clothes everywhere. He quits his job because there’s ‘too much hassle,’ and he doesn’t try for another; if I tell him I’m feeling sad or lonely, his eyes look somewhere else in the room. Then I feel like a mother! An unsuccessful mother, at that. And as soon as that happens, he doesn’t make love much anymore: we end up as brother and sister. That’s it. It’s over.” Women are shocked to learn how many men are helpless, vulnerable, isolated, and depotentiated by longing.
Women, as well, are directed by society to be young, even immature, physically and emotionally. There are women who can offer advice in adulthood, but they are seldom visible.
- pp. 50-52: The German analyst Alexander Mitscherlich sensed that in North America the old love-hate relationship of son to father is fading. The typical American son’s attitude, he said, “includes a non-respect for the father which is associated with very little affect indeed.” “Very little affect indeed” describes unmistakably the emotional flatness we see now in young men.
A young man studying to be a doctor remarked that he had very little feeling for his father—he “didn’t know him”—and many of his friends were in the same boat. He complained that he couldn’t find his anger; and he wondered if the absence of his father made his anger remain unconscious. He added: “And when I do feel anger, there’s so much pressure from peers for it to be there that I don’t know if it is valid or not. My girlfriend chose the day of my graduation from medical school to tell me she was leaving me. She said many hurtful things to me; but all I could think to do was to comfort her.” His comforting was good, but something was missing from his response.
Sons who have a remote or absent father clearly can receive no modeling on how to deal appropriately with male anger, what it looks like, what it feels like, what it smells like, how to honor it, or let it go, or speak it without hurting someone. Such sons are usually so frightened of anger that they repress it entirely. Others, with no better modeling, become violent. Few sons in a city culture learn to fuse instinctive aggression with the pleasure of hard physical work. Few sons now share a toolbox with their father. The son experiences the father only in the world of longing.
When the son used to meet the father on top of the oedipal wall, their mutual anger sometimes had the sorry result of fistfights or even murder. But with many fathers absent, millions of males linger passively in a dangerous, frightening, and inarticulate fantasy world. Such a person is not free of aggression; he tends to radiate an aggression that is diffuse, nondirectional, inconsolable. The names of some rock bands describe this situation very well. They call themselves Suicidal Tendencies, Porno for Pyros, Crash Test Dummies, Revolting Cocks, Hole, Urge Overkill, and Arrested Development. Some of the late Kurt Cobain’s lyrics certainly reveal inconsolable anxiety. The Beatles’ affectionate lyrics are replaced by gangsta rap. The artist Bruce Nauman’s early images of woods and fields are replaced by dead horses and guns, and by video installations that pour out hostile words over and over to the museum-goer. Nauman’s 1984 neon sign says: “Play and Die,” “Suck and Die,” “Come and Die,” “Know and Die,” “Smell and Die,” “Fall and Die,” and so on.
- from Iron John: A Book About Men by Robert Bly; p. x (Preface): The thought in this book does not constitute a challenge to the women’s movement. The two movements are related to each other, but each moves on a separate timetable. The grief in men has been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth now that cannot be ignored.
The dark side of men is clear. Their mad exploitation of earth resources, devaluation and humiliation of women, and obsession with tribal warfare are undeniable. Genetic inheritance contributes to their obsessions, but also culture and environment. We have defective mythologies that ignore masculine depth of feeling, assign men a place in the sky instead of earth, teach obedience to the wrong powers, work to keep men boys, and entangle both men and women in systems of industrial domination that exclude both matriarchy and patriarchy.
Most of the language in this book speaks to heterosexual men but does not exclude homosexual men. It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that people ever used the term homosexual; before that time gay men were understood simply as a part of the large community of men. The mythology as I see it does not make a big distinction between homosexual and heterosexual men.
- p. 23: Many young Hollywood writers, rather than confront their fathers in Kansas, take revenge on the remote father by making all adult men look like fools.
- pp. 33-34: Alice Miller remarks that when abuse enters, when the parents do cruelties the child cannot imagine any parent doing, it takes either a grandiose road or a depressed road. If we take the grandiose road, we climb up above the wound and the shame. Perhaps we get good grades, become the one in the family hired to be cheerful, become a sort of doctor of our own suffering, take care of others. Something prodigious carries us away. We can be cheerful but not very human.
If we take the depressed road, we live inside the wound and the shame. We are actually closer to the wound than those on the grandiose path, but we are not necessarily more human. The victim is an imposing person, too. The victim accepts the crown of victimhood, becomes a prince or princess in another way. Sometimes men with no fathers take this road.
Each of us takes both of these roads, though we use one on Sundays and holidays, and the other on weekdays. Some take a third road: it is the road of paralysis, robot behavior, seriously pursued numbness—a hollow at the center, no affect, no emotion upward or downward, automaton life.