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The Strange World Of Iron John

I've started reading one of Hugo Schwyzer's favorite books, Iron John. My reaction to the first hundred or so pages is: this is frankly bizarre. Robert Bly lives in some strange parallel universe.

Our disagreement starts off at the level of methodology -- Bly is a poet, whereas I'm a social scientist. He draws his conclusions by weaving together mythology, taking themes from old fairy tales as important symbolic statements of the human condition, and connecting them to contemporary manhood through evocative tales from individuals he's met as well as actual poems (including his own). I was frustrated by his insistence on speaking in suggestive metaphor rather than operationalizable terms. And I wondered how much his perspective was skewed by interacting mostly with men who came to his workshops -- what we in the business like to call a "biased sample."

Bly's starting point is that men today lack good models for how to express their masculinity -- true, byt that's as far as our agreement goes. He says most are "soft" New Agey weiner men, while others may fall into destructive forms of masculinity like machismo or the detatched "1950s man." Bly longs for the days when men were closely involved in the upbringing of their sons, and elaborate initiation rituals drew boys into the special realm of men. There is a distinct Freudian theme, as boys are said to require a sharp break away from their mother-dominated feminine childhood world, but mothers are greedy for their sons' affections and want to instill in them the feminine worldview (which includes a negative assessment of the father). On the other hand, in the world where I live, the main problem on the gender front is the persistence of these dominating, macho forms of masculinity. Even those who are surficially weiner men often conceal an undercurrent of dominating entitlement.

The culprit here, in Bly's view, is not feminism precisely, but rather the lack of a corresponding men's movement to balance feminism and keep it on the female side of things. For all his idealization of traditional myth and ritual, Bly insists that past models of masculinity -- notably the "1950s man" -- were often damaging. We might render his historical outlook in Cultural Theory terms something like this. In the past, men adopted a Hierarchist role, using their power to dominate women, who wound up as Fatalists. With the advent of feminism, women revolted against this high-grid society and found their natural place as Egalitarians. They also swept men into the Egalitarian camp. The sensitive, consensus-oriented guys created by the triumph of feminism are a woman's dream boyfriend. But there's a deep lack at the center of their souls, because men are really cut out to be assertive and courageous Individualists.

Bly complicates this picture, and ultimately leads himself into some seeming contradictions, in his attempt to make it compatible with feminism. He continues to insist that men and women are fundamentally different, and that a man can only truly learn how to live from another man (where this leaves intersex and transgender people is unclear). And he points to a nebulously defined quality of assertiveness as the key element lacking from the lives of men raised by women. Yet he then turns around and claims that women, too, can and should be assertive (and all the other positive qualities that go with it). Indeed, he praises feminism for helping women to get in touch with their masculine side. So Bly leaves us with the structure of irreconcilable gender differences that can only be understood by people of one's own gender, but he is unwilling to provide much content for the difference by specifying what qualities it is that are uniquely masculine.

Since Bly is so fond of personal testimonies, I'll end with one of my own. Surficially, I should be a prime example of his gentle, consensus-minded, New Agey weiner man. I'll even admit to having some use for increased assertiveness -- though I read it as a case of inborn shyness, not existential angst about my unfulfilled manhood, and is certainly not related to some Oedipal conflict with my father. As it happens, I have become somewhat more assertive in the past year. The change was not, however, achieved through the acceptance and mentoring of older men. Rather, it was a woman -- my current girlfriend -- who catalyzed my increased assertiveness.


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