PROLOGUE: An Exercise in Sacred Space
Think about something tender. Think about something sacred. Think about something that makes you cry. Think about a romance that made you love every living creature, a loss you didn't think you could bear, a death that opened the bottomless pit of mortality below you.
Now imagine talking about it to someone you barely know standing in a noisy bar in Grand Central Station at rush hour.
That's what it's like trying to discuss what's called "the men's movement" in the media.
But a crowded bar in Grand Central Station is not the right place to talk publicly about love or inner life. You need sacred space
-- ritual space. "Change or transformation can happen only when a man or woman is in ritual space," poet Robert Bly elaborates in his bestseller,
Iron John. "A man or woman remains inside this heated space (as in Sufi ritual dance) for a relatively brief time, and then returns to ordinary consciousness." Just as the feminist movement emboldened women to do
consciousness-raising and ritualizing without men, men have discovered that they can only do certain kinds of soul work without women present to perform for or to try to please. Around the country, men are creating ritual space where they can enter and sustain a discourse on the male psyche, initiation, poetry, excess, desire, grief, shame, and the Three Stooges.
Women would probably be surprised at how little time is spent at these gatherings talking about them. The subtext of the question "Where are we at as men?" is not men's relationship to women but to the world. What can be done about the environment, the economy, education, AIDS? What can men do? How come good men don't seem to get things done these days, while the retrogressive Republican ideologues behind Reagan and Bush seem to have no trouble moving their agenda? One thing that can be said about
right-wing conservatives is that they're generally religious people or, at any rate, churchgoers, meaning that they recognize some transpersonal commitment. Many Americans (including many on the left) have no such navigational system, no attachment to something beyond material reality. It's unfashionable even to talk about God.
Robert Bly and the other teachers who lead men's gatherings hardly ever invoke the deity, and when they do, they talk about the gods. What they're doing is holy work nevertheless. Fortunately, they don't claim to have all the answers. "We're going to talk about the male psyche tonight, a subject about which we know almost nothing," I once heard Bly say at the beginning of a program. "We always say a few things that are true, but we don't know which ones they are."
WHO ARE THESE MEN?
It's a beautiful Saturday morning on the campus of the New Mexico School for the Deaf, and 500 men fighting spring fever are lining up to enter the James A. Little Theater through the stage door. In the hallway, a shirtless man is dancing wildly and whooping; from behind him wafts the rumble of drumming. As we get closer to the entrance, a sense of chaos radiates, ever-stronger, from the other side. A tunnel of pine branches has been constructed as a sort of ritual birth canal. Just before I stoop to go through, the gatekeeper (a balding man in a flannel shirt and jeans) leans to whisper in my ear, "Let your movements be a blessing."
In a flash I'm through. I stumble into bright lights, a thicket of drummers, men coming at me, the steady pulse of clapping. Where am I? Suddenly, there's Bly, in my face, his blue eyes going all googly behind his
steel-framed glasses, his long arms waving and wiggling like flapping wings. He's dancing like a big, silly
silver-haired walrus in Tom Wolfe-white trousers and a blue brocade vest. I lock into his gaze and go into my own basic boogaloo, and we dance together across what turns out to be the stage of the auditorium before he shakes my hand and points me down the stairs to the audience. Pleased to meet
I look back and notice that some guys accept the invitation to dance, but most just stagger offstage looking dazed. The house is already full of guys standing and clapping. Led by mythologist and frequent Bly collaborator Michael Meade, a fireball of energy who beats out the tempo on a cowbell, they're chanting "Go
back-back, go back-back, go back-back, go back!" At least half the men are locals; they're the ones with tans wearing shorts and greeting one another with hugs. The rest of us make small talk with the first friendly face or circulate like lone wolves looking to connect with that secret buddy in the crowd. I would venture to guess, though, that I'm not the only one wondering, "Who are these men?"
That's what everyone wants to know. What kind of men go to men's gatherings? And what goes on there? Looking to answer those questions, partly out of personal interest and partly out of journalistic curiosity, I've spent the last year attending men's gatherings of various descriptions, including three different conferences conducted by Bly, Meade, and psychologist James Hillman. The first was the event in Santa Fe, a
two-day seminar last April in Santa Fe sponsored by the C.G. Jung Society of New Mexico. For the First Multicultural Men's Conference, held in May in Buffalo Gap, West Virginia, those three guys invited three black teachers
-- playwright Joseph Walker, poet and essayist Haki Madhubuti (ne Don Luther Lee), and Burkina
Faso-born scholar Malidoma Some -- to spend a week sharing cabins in the woods with 50 black men and 50 white men. Early in November, Bly, Hillman, and Meade (sounds like the men's movement equivalent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, doesn't it?) took over the Manhattan Center ballroom on West 34th Street for another
two-day seminar sponsored by a local men's group, On the Common Ground.
The week in Buffalo Gap was a historic occasion beyond anyone's expectations, and it deserves its own
in-depth report. This article will focus on the two-day events in Santa Fe and New York in some detail, as a way to get beyond the media stereotypes to the substance of what Bly has called "men's work."
The media -- TV, magazines, newspapers -- have picked up the scent of something fresh and wild and intriguing going on with these men, but they don't know exactly how to deal with it. The usual media handles are missing; the men with the ideas don't consider themselves celebrities, so they've declined offers to go on Donahue and Oprah. Spiritual transformation cannot be televised. So the media basically make fun of the whole thing. Mock the leaders, mock their attire, mock their rituals, reduce their ideas to cartoon cliches, mock the cliches, ignore the content, chase the animal into a trap and kill it. How many articles have you read about "guys out in the woods banging on drums and dancing around fires" that make it all sound like the most ludicrous kind of pretentious,
self-indulgent, corny, macho bullshit behavior in the world?
The general impression seems to be summed up in one of Matt Groening's "Life in Hell" cartoons, an ad for "Akbar & Jeff's Wild Man Weekend," which advises participants to bring "1 loincloth (or
bikini-style underpants), 1 jar of warpaint (wife or girlfriend's lipstick OK), 1 large cigar, and $300." The schedule of activities includes nude jumping jacks at dawn, chest pounding, flower sniffing, and a lecture on "How to Fantasize About Sleeping with Lots of Attractive Women." It's a hilarious cartoon, and it perfectly illustrates that hip, sophisticated way we have of equating things with their marketing
-- dismissing a movie because of its trailer, judging candidates by the quality of their television commercials, discussing books on the basis of their reviews. Why not? You can learn a lot about animals by examining their shit. Not everything, though.
Here are some of the kinds of men people think go to men's gatherings: macho men wanting to be macho together; wimpy men wanting to be macho men; gay men wanting to fuck each other. These, of course, are categories (along with "yuppie" and "New Age devotee") that few
self-respecting middle-class American men would admit to belonging to. I've been to enough men's gatherings, though, to know that all these varieties are indeed likely to show up.
Here are some other varieties (none of them mutually exclusive). The isolated
-- these guys are hungry to be around other men, especially men who will talk more than
TV-talk (instant opinions, soundbites, punch lines). The wounded
-- wounded by divorce, alcoholism, substance abuse, medical mistreatment, bad luck. A surprising number of men turn out to have been sexually abused as children. Then there are the numb
-- they've got all the exterior signs of success (good career, happy home life) but they have no inner life. They've just turned 35 or 45 or 55 and they feel life is passing them by; they realize they've been sleeping and they need to wake up.
There's another bunch of guys heavily represented at men's gatherings who don't get mentioned much. They might be called "the responsible men." These are men who accept that almost any urgent problem facing the world today (homelessness, racism, destruction of the planet's natural resources, poor education, abuse of women and children) can be traced directly to the male sex
-- to the greed, low self-esteem, sexual insecurity, cynicism, and spiritual poverty of individual men. They accept that men, too, are victimized by patriarchal values. They accept that electoral politics and mass demonstrations are a limited solution at best. They accept that every man who has the strength, ability, education, and courage to do something to change the world for the better has a personal responsibility to do so.
They accept that the capacity to change has to be cultivated within oneself before it can be expressed outwardly, but then it must be expressed outwardly. They accept that
-- despite some women's fear and suspicion that male bonding is exclusionary, dangerous, and destructive
-- there is great creative potential in men working together for change. They accept that getting men to love, value, and honor the child within, the man within, the woman within is a giant step toward loving, valuing, and honoring men, women, and children outside. They don't necessarily know how to do that or even how to begin, but many of the men who show up at men's gatherings recognize that the work has to start somewhere and they're ready to do it.
At least that's the impression I get from the men I encounter at gatherings. The median age is early forties. (This men's work doesn't speak to young men as dramatically as it does to those who've been around the block and had the stuffing knocked out of them once or twice.) It doesn't surprise me that there are a lot of doctors,
health-care workers, and therapists around; soul work is essentially healing work. It also doesn't surprise me that there are few men of color. American society is ruled by straight white men, and that's the group within whom profound changes must take place before profound changes can be made in the world.
But finally, the most truthful answers to the question "Who are these men?" are specific ones. Among the men I meet in Santa Fe are: Steven, a divorced potter who lives in Taos; Jim, a schoolteacher from Michigan who lives on a Navajo reservation where his wife works as a doctor; Thomas, a gay priest from the Midwest who was forced to resign from his job after being outed by a fellow priest; and Scott, a farmer who grows alfalfa for cattle in Colorado.
In New York, I mostly hang out with Dirk, a cabinetmaker from Katonah whom I met at Buffalo Gap, and the three friends he's nudged into taking the workshop. Russell, a
red-haired, wise-cracking, emotionally free carpenter, has been on a spiritual journey for a couple of years since he took his wife and kids to North Dakota to spend with time with a Native shaman. Walter, a black social worker who trains
inner-city kids in workplace literacy skills, is drawn to the men's work specifically to get ideas about mentoring young black men. Meanwhile, Al, an
Italian-American lawyer from Westchester who probably spends most of his professional life playing it close to the vest, seems nervous, intrigued, and a little over his head in this hotbed of masculine expressiveness.
Talking to these men, I recognize in each of their stories reflections of my own quest to hitch the wagon of my talents, education, and good intentions to a larger purpose. And as a group, these individuals represent a perfect cross-section of the different degrees of readiness and apprehension with which people approach the men's work.
There's no question that most people are drawn to these events because they want to be around Robert Bly, who after decades of renown as a poet, translator, and antiwar activist has become the indisputable star of the men's consciousness movement. Though hardly the first to gain prominence writing about contemporary men, Bly has been leading men's conferences since 1981 and developing his ideas in print since his landmark 1982 interview with Keith Thompson called "What Men Really Want."
But Bly entered the mass American brain almost overnight when his interview with Bill Moyers,
A Gathering of Men, was broadcast on PBS in January of 1990. That documentary has become practically the Magna Carta of the men's spirituality movement; I once heard an elderly man say he'd watched the video three times in one week and found himself sobbing each time. In our
post-literate culture, any TV show reaches more people than any book. Still,
Iron John, Bly's unclassifiable volume of literary analysis, philosophy, and cultural criticism, was on the
New York Times hardcover best seller list for over a year.
It's funny what that "leader" business brings out in people, though, and it's fascinating to see how Bly deals with it. When someone steps into the spotlight and commands attention, two things tend to happen. That person instantly attracts resentment, suspicion, attitude. Especially among the intelligentsia, anything that smacks of spiritual or visionary leadership kicks off an allergic reaction to gurus. Notice how in recent years the word
guru, a beneficent Hindu term for teacher that literally refers to one who leads people "from the darkness to the light," has been transformed into a pejorative term, synonymous with charlatan. That probably has to do with the other strong reaction to leaders deeply embedded in the American character, which is the thirst for a savior, the willingness to surrender one's own flawed self to follow
note-for-note the program of someone who seems to know better.
Bly circumvents those knee-jerk reactions by being as off-putting and unpredictable as possible. Just when you're beginning to see him as a wise old man, he reveals a little boy's delight in dirty jokes. Just when you're admiring him as a repository of
guru-like wisdom, he makes some insulting remark about Tibetans. Just when you're ready to dismiss him as a gruff macho poseur, he whips out some delicate bit of verse or remarks knowingly about joy or ecstasy. Try to compliment him, and he'll either thank you or bite your head off. He's a trickster, a clown, a slippery devil.
I was very put off by him at first. Watching A Gathering of Men, I hated his voice with its combination of Midwestern
mushmouth, mean-father barking, and sarcastic mimicry. As a writer, I chafed at the vagueness of his language ("There's a lot of grief around men these days..."). Listening to an audiocassette (the
post-literate equivalent of the literary essay) called "The Naive Male," I found myself torn between agreeing with compelling and surprising truths and violently objecting to vast overgeneralizations and undue
put-downs. And I couldn't stand his habit of snapping "You understand me?" or "Is that clear?" to bully a response out of audiences.
When I finally got over my resistance to Bly and sat down with Iron John, I was pleased to discover that he not only practices that quality in Roland Barthes that Susan Sontag superbly describes as "a festive (rather than dogmatic or credulous) relation to ideas" but also encourages it in others. It's surely no accident that Bly begins many of his readings with a poem by Antonio Machado called "Walker," which deflects the guru worship of
would-be cult followers by declaring the non-existence of The Way: "We make the path by walking."
Women have a whole other set of fears about this men's work. Some women see the idea of a men's movement as a kind of nightmare, especially at this moment in the wake of the Clarence
Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. As one friend says over dinner, "Women feel totally oppressed by men, and the idea of them going off in the woods to worship maleness makes me very nervous." One of the most commonly heard sentiments was expressed in
Newsweek's cover story, "What Do Men Really Want?": "If
middle-class males have the lion's share of economic, political and sexual power in this country, why are many of them so unhappy?"
There's no denying the inequities between men and women in American society. But it's also a mistake not to notice that men are asking the same questions. "If men have all the power in the world, why do I feel so powerless?" A lot of the hostility between men and women stems from misunderstanding and miscommunication (as Deborah Tannen so lucidly lays out in
You Just Don't Understand). One thing that we fall into is making vast generalizations about men and women that quickly take the form of polar opposites. If men are powerful, women are powerless. Another way that works is that the categories become mutually exclusive. If men are competitive, then women are not and cannot be. Or that if women feel pain, men don't.
The media have stoked women's fears by portraying the men's movement as hordes of men gathering in packs trying to become the same man: a
wild-haired, chest-thumping, cigar-chomping, woman-crushing
he-man. And there are various factions of the men's movement that provide ammunition for that attack. There are groups of aggrieved men who want to circulate "The New Male Manifesto" and wear buttons that say "Save the Males." And there are numerous men's gatherings where the leaders put participants through paramilitary exercises with the idea of getting them to reclaim their abandoned masculinity, snap out of their passivity around women and authority figures, "get their balls back." I've been to one of those men's weekends that promises nothing less than "a 20th century initiation into manhood." Those gatherings sometimes do a lot of good, especially for men who've been walking around asleep for 40 years.
The danger of turning out these cookie-cutter "new warriors," of course, is that it locates the essence of a man on the outside
-- how he walks, how he talks, how he looks. And that's hardly an alternative to the philosophy of the ghetto or the Army that you can turn a boy into a man by giving him a gun.
To me the most impressive thing about the mythopoetic men's movement, as exemplified by Bly, Hillman, and Meade, is that it scrupulously avoids indoctrinating men with some
est-like formula of behavior. When Bly talks about men getting in touch with the "wild man" inside, he's not suggesting that corporate types go marching into business meetings with warpaint and a tomahawk any more than he's advocating taking teenagers from Crown Heights into Prospect Park, starving them for three days, and circumcising them without anesthetic.
I've noticed that many people have opinions about Robert Bly without knowing anything about the ideas he and others doing men's work disseminate. It doesn't surprise me. After all, more people have seen the parody of Bly on
Murphy Brown than the Moyers interview on PBS. More people have seen pictures of Bly in his trademark,
multicolor- striped vest than have bought Iron John. And I think it's safe to say that more people have bought the book than have read it. So I'll mention just a few of the key ideas that run through Bly's writing and speaking about men.
One is that many contemporary American men suffer from a lack of initiation
-- by which he means not just the brutal physical trials we usually associate with male initiation (fraternity hazing, army basic training) but also the emotional and spiritual instruction from elders required for men to grow into maturity as integrated individuals. Without initiation (whose ingredients include separation from the mother, symbolic wounding, an encounter with another reality, and being welcomed into a community of older men), a man often has no understanding of his capacity for pain, no concept of rites of passage or cycles of life. He remains a boy in an adult man's body, to whom life just seems like one blurry skidmark from graduation to the grave.
The behavior of uninitiated males, Bly contends, has given a bad name to masculinity, which is surrounded entirely by negative associations and held responsible for all the ills of the world. This situation has given rise to what he calls the "soft" or "naive" male who, in rejecting the aggressive and obnoxious male traits that women dislike, has also abandoned the forceful and heroic aspects of masculinity, to the detriment of society.
To analyze what's missing from contemporary men and to seek reparation, Bly turns to folk tales and myths from ancient cultures to find richer, deeper, more complex images of masculinity than those in today's pop culture, which glorifies the macho (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the
money-mad (Donald Trump) and ridicules almost every other kind of man as impotent, foolish, or wimpy. In stories, as in dreams, every character is you, so mythology offers men a variety of kings, magicians, warriors, lovers, and clowns to model. In particular, Bly has latched onto the Grimm Brothers' story "Iron John," whose central character is a wild hairy man whom Bly discusses as an initiatory figure, a source of spontaneity and natural wisdom through whom a young man gains tools with which to face the ups and downs of life.
To combat women's complaint that men have no feelings, Bly has proposed his own set of underrecognized male modes of feelings, and first among them is grief. Sometimes that grief is traceable to an absent father, a failed romance, a lost child, a shattered dream, but often, says Bly, "Men feel a very deep grief that has no cause." To honor that grief and not deny it, he stresses the need for periods of "dwelling in the ashes." As he pointed out to a Philadelphia radio interviewer, "Our agricultural system is a disaster, our relationship with children and the schools is a disaster, the relationship to the blacks is a disaster, to single women raising children, the whole thing
-- and we're hiring president after president who says, 'This is wonderful, and we're doing great.'"
Another masculine tradition Bly likes to emphasize comes from David Gilmore's anthropological study
Manhood in the Making. In most cultures, Bly reports, "A man is defined as a person who goes to the center of the village and speaks his mind. If you don't, you're considered a trash man." Bly himself doesn't hesitate to speak up
-- maybe you've noticed -- and he doesn't mince words. Last spring, at the height of patriotic revelry over the triumph of Operation Desert Storm, Bly repeatedly reviled the Gulf War as "shameful," the media coverage as "disgusting," and the display of yellow ribbons as "cowardly."
Appearing with Deborah Tannen at Cooper Union the night before the men's weekend, Bly wasted no time voicing his opinion on the Clarence
Thomas-Anita Hill affair. "She was obviously telling the truth," he said, to thunderous applause. "There's no greater reason for the men's movement than to look at this hearing," he continued. "Hatch, Simpson
-- these guys are fossilized fragments of the patriarchy disguised as Republicans. On the other side, we have the Democrats, who are nothing. Is that it for men in the United States??"
On the lecture circuit, Bly could make a fortune going around by himself preaching his Wild Man gospel. And he does do a fair share of solo poetry readings and "A Day for Men with Robert Bly" workshops. Most of the time, though, he travels with Meade, the
Seattle-based mythologist whom he met in 1979 through their shared love of Irish storytelling, and James Hillman, the renegade psychologist who was director of studies at the Jung Institute in Zurich after Jung's death and subsequently turned Jungian theory upside down with books like
Re-Visioning Psychology and The Dream and The
Other fellow travelers on this journey sometimes include Robert Moore, the
Southern-drawling psychologist best-known for his study of male archetypes
King, Warrior, Magician, Lover (co-authored with Douglas Gillette), and wilderness expert John Stokes, who earned his reputation as a tracker by undergoing wilderness training with native teachers in North America, Hawaii, and Australia. After the multicultural men's conference in West Virginia, Bly expanded the crew to include Haki Madhubuti, who offers poems and perceptions from his provocative studies of
African-American culture (most recently Black Men: Obsolete, Single,
Dangerous?), and Malidoma Some, who rivets men's gatherings with his recollections of his initiation as a member of the Dagara tribe.
Appearing with a posse serves two functions: it cuts the ego inflation and media attention that gravitates to lone superstars, and it gives the men who come to these conferences a living, breathing model of a community of men in which joking, grieving, disagreeing, being silly, and saying important things are not only possible but encouraged.
PLAYING IN THE BAND
Every men's gathering I've been to has had a touch of theatricality to it: there's generally a scenario, a script of sorts, often a star, some audience participation. The Bly, Hillman, and Meade weekends seem especially like theater, and by theater I mean the way the Greeks originally thought of it -- as an opportunity for the community of citizens to gather and, in a formal way, discuss the things that matter to them. Over the course of the weekend, the guys onstage read poems, tell stories, play music, lead songs and chants, ask questions, interact with the audience, tell jokes, and instigate anger and dancing, returning again and again to matters of importance to men in American society. It feels like nothing so much as a town meeting, only the community in question exists not on the map but in the hearts of men.
The theme for the weekend in Santa Fe is "The Community of Men and the Language of Desire," so the program begins with a round of poems about desire. Meade, a
round-faced Irishman with a Prince Valiant haircut, accompanies himself on Cuban tackhead conga, while Bly occasionally plucks at a bouzouki, which, he admits, is more of a stage prop than an instrument he knows how to play. It fascinates me that this branch of the men's movement revolves around poetry; going to poetry readings seems like the ultimate sissy pastime. I suppose only someone as big and gruff and eminent as Robert Bly could make the case for reclaiming eloquence and verbal decoration as male virtues. Throughout the weekend, the poems are not beside the point, not a lull or a diversion from the real stuff
-- they provide some of the major statements and images that recur in the discourse. Good stuff, too: Auden, Neruda, Garcia Lorca, William Stafford, Sharon Olds, Bly's own work (of course), a surprisingly wild piece from Carl Sandburg. "We didn't get that one in high school," notes Bly, "we just got the fog creeping in on fucking
After Meade reads the Blake poem that begins "Man was made for joy and woe," Bly asks him to repeat it, this time dedicated to Etheridge Knight, the black poet who died recently of cancer at the age of 55. Addicted to heroin after being wounded in the Korean War, Knight spent years going in and out of prison, where he started writing. Bly befriended him and coaxed him into the usually
all-white environment of men's gatherings. Knight made one of his last appearances at a reading with Bly in Indianapolis, looking every bit as sick as he was. A friend who was there told me that, after Knight left the stage, Bly bawled for two minutes before he could continue.
Today Bly reminisces a little about Knight and reads a wonderful, salty
self-interview poem called "Welcome Back, Mr. Knight, Love of My Life" ("How's your pussy problem?/Your
lady-on-top-smiling-like-God-titty- in-your-mouth problem?"). Hillman continues with more Knight, a litany of imprecations: fuck this, fuck that, "Fuck everything/I want my woman back so my soul can sing." "A Jungian theme song," Hillman suggests. "Fuck Scotty Peck," Bly throws in (a reference to the author of the
self-help best-seller The Road Not Travelled). This quickly becomes the
all-purpose expression of the weekend. When Meade says, "Women have access to a wide range of emotions and can switch from one to another
-- men are slower at it, so they get accused of not having feelings," someone in the audience calls out, "Fuck that!"
Some men's gatherings, even ones that revolve around celebrated guests, hew to a circular structure that encourages group intimacy, easy exchange of ideas, and socializing. Sooner or later, you pass a talisman or talking stick around the circle and say who you are and why you're here. Not at this event. It's strictly a frontal situation, The Big Guys onstage, the rest of us locked in theater seats with limited leg and elbow room. They talk, we listen. The number of people taking notes reinforces the
But if you're going to listen to three guys talk all weekend, this is a pretty good group. For one thing, they're all strikingly different from one another in looks, demeanor, and expertise. And in the course of the weekend each has a role to play, both in the sense of function and of character. Bly is the bard who looks inward for the truth of a situation, the grand old man whose seniority and temperament cast him as the master of ceremonies
-- he decides when it's time to move along. Meade is the communal storyteller who constantly monitors the temperature of the group feeling and tries to keep everyone happy (often smoothing the feathers Bly ruffles). And Hillman is the resident intellectual whose references to philosophy, psychology, and classical mythology create a challenging mental obstacle course along the path to the male psyche. Not just an academic but an original thinker, he gives each idea his own crazy spin; replace his tweedy wardrobe with a cape and staff, and you'd call him a sorceror or holy fool.
The camaraderie among them is also inspiring to observe, especially for men exploring how to do soul work in groups. Rather than sprawling across the stage, they huddle quite close together, almost in formation, like a
doo-wop group. (Each has his own microphone, though. The entire weekend is being recorded
-- of course! -- and you can order the tapes before the show and pick them up a
half-hour after it ends.) Actually, a jazz combo would probably be the better analogy. The three of them have played together a lot, but not so much that they've memorized the script. They like to keep things loose and surprise one another. So it seems as much for their own sake as for the audience's that they begin the conference in earnest with each making a statement
-- taking a solo, as it were, on the theme of Why I'm Doing This Men's Work.
Hillman addresses the social value of men's work head-on. "In the early '70s," he says, "you frequently heard this expression: 'Let me share this with you.' Now you hear 'I don't want to know about that' or 'I know.' It seems to me the one thing of uppermost importance now is that men meet to talk with each other about the contemporary world, from their hearts. If not, we turn all talk over to the media.
"What matters now is: where is the republic going? Have we crossed the border into empire, where all that's important is circuses, propaganda, and centurions? This is serious. The Jewish French philosopher Levinas says that the fundamental aspect of human life is ethics, and that ethics is constellated by a face. But in technological warfare, you see blips, not faces. We can't have an ethical reaction if we haven't see the faces of the enemy; we only see the commentators on CNN. So our reactions are paralyzed. Shame, paralysis, responsibility, anger
-- these things have to be expressed, and not privately. That's why I'm here: we have to express our feelings, so that we don't stop talking."
It's not surprising that Hillman should talk more about ideas than about himself, but he does say one thing you don't hear men say very often: "The ability to bring my intellect out into the public and share it is enjoyable
-- a blessing."
By contrast, Bly links his soul work directly to personal history. "In high school my emotions were a complete mystery to me," he says. "I went to my father and asked for protection, but he was wild and dangerous psychologically, and he said no. When my mother said yes, I went numb from my neck to my knees. To accept my mother's protection, I had to learn to think and feel like a woman
-- that was the deal. I decided to have no emotion at all, rather than have a woman's. I learned to fake it," he adds slyly, "by quoting poems from
"My mother didn't really protect me, though. A lot of stuff went on in the household that she ignored. So where's the protection going to come from? In my twenties, if a woman seemed strong, I'd enlist. Does that work, to let a woman protect you?" Men in the audience call out various answers (including, "She's the one who we need protection from"). "I found more and more I was receiving protection from men," Bly says, "especially when I started doing some work with Joseph Campbell. What I said interested him, and that interest was a blessing. It made me more able to be with other men. I get a blessing from these three men," he says, gesturing toward the others onstage.
"The other thing is this," he continues. "Every family gives you a wound. In mine, it was my father's alcoholism. Where does healing take place? In the family? Isn't that crazy? The wound has to be healed by the gender that gave it to you. Groups of men have done it for me. I urge you, when you leave here, to join a small group of six or seven men. It's a fundamental experience."
"Ho," someone calls out. I cringe a little inside. This is one of the things people make fun of about men's gatherings. "Ho!" is a Native American expression that can mean "Amen, brother" or "Good point"
-- it's the butch equivalent of a drag queen's snapthology. Acceptable in the ritual atmosphere of, say, a sweat lodge, it seems hokey in this setting. I think I'd prefer "Fuck that!"
"My father's been dead for 12 years," begins Michael Meade's narrative. "He died from depression and loss. He was a truck driver, and when I was a boy I became seriously curious about what was keeping my father alive. The best answer came one day when I found a violin stored away in the basement. He'd had it since he was a child. He'd never learned to play it, but he never got rid of it. That's what brings me to these things
-- I'm trying to avoid giving up my desires in life. Many men, when they take on the responsibility of family and work, they stop dancing. That feeling of being big inside goes away. It's the love of art, music, languages, the foolishness of our own desires that keeps us alive."
He pulls out a quote from Albert Camus: "Man's work is nothing but a slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those one or two images in whose presence his heart first opened." He reads it again to let it sink in.
"I'm here looking for more opportunities to do that, to go back," Meade says. "The other side of it is that I feel the eyes of my children watching me. I spend a lot of time with adolescents, and they're scared about what's going on in the world. They don't hear enough conversation among adults. What's needed to heal their confusion and despair is art and ritual. That's what's missing in our society, men displaying their beauty rather than force or brutality."
It's strange to hear this talk about male beauty in a room full of mostly heterosexual men. The word male is more commonly a prefix for domination, violence, and chauvinist pig. Having heard those words for years, flung like spears by angry feminists, many men have gotten used to ducking them, backing away from asserting their maleness lest it be labeled machismo, effectively neutering themselves so as not to be identified with the enemies of women. To hear male beauty spoken of is curious, confusing, intriguing, almost unbelievable.
Which is not to say that these leaders have found a miracle cure for homophobia. There's plenty of that around
-- not just fear of gay men but also men's fear of their own feelings of warmth or desire for other men. People frequently comment on the amount of hugging that goes on between men at these events; the
Boston Globe's coverage of one 1989 men's weekend revolved around the reporter's biggest fear: "Could he escape being hugged?" Bly and Meade always make a show of physical affection, but it's usually what I call "the straight men's hug"
-- their chests may be touching, but they're standing two feet apart so they form an
Part of this is just plain erotophobia. The Bly, Hillman, and Meade events are always more talk than action, because the leaders themselves are more in their heads than in their bodies. Toward the end of the New York weekend, one man calls out, "Where is the sex and lust in this story?" Meade replies, "Why are you expecting it? Was it in the brochure?" Hillman is more comfortable with physical stuff than Bly or Meade; he's given whole series of lectures on the asshole, and he's the only one who dares to bring up homophobia as a major obstacle to mentor relationships between older men and younger men.
But the fear of gay men is not to be discounted. My gaydar tells me that up to 30 per cent of the men in the Santa Fe and New York weekends are gay, bisexual, or undeclared. Gay men have some things to learn from these gatherings about overcoming passivity and asserting their purposefulness, and they have many things to teach: male display as a substitute for combat, expressing grief, celebrating diversity. For gay men, coming out is an initiation, sometimes benign, often brutal. They've already learned half the things Bly and Meade are trying to teach. But they're not encouraged to share their gifts, and most of the time their presence in the room goes completely unrecognized. At conferences all across the country, gay men have gone up afterwards to complain.
Bly and Meade try to be welcoming, bless their hearts, but gay culture is clearly alien and threatening to them; after all, Meade went to Catholic schools all his life, and Bly was a teenage mama's boy who wrote poetry and who was probably scared to death that people would think he was queer. So they can hardly be expected to speak for gay men; if anything, their jitteriness is a burning reminder of the need for gay men to tell their own stories and myths. At the same time, I suspect Bly and Meade purposely want to limit the amount of gay expression at their events for fear that too strong a gay presence will drive away the straight men who are terrified even to dip their toes into this kind of soul work.
That it's possible for these groups of ordinary men to talk about soul work or male beauty at all is a tribute to the character of Michael Meade. Unlike Bly and Hillman, Meade has practically no credentials to speak of
-- no titles, no degrees, no books. He's just a guy, a
working-class Irish Catholic kid from Queens who knows how to do this cool thing of playing a drum and telling stories at the same time. And he's become a populist hero. The men adore him. He's the perfect foil to Robert Bly. If Bly comes off as a lion, king of the jungle, Meade is more like a frog
-- homely, close to the ground, a proletarian prince. Anyone can relate to him. He's Everyman's brother. Any concern that this mythologizing and poetry reading is sissy stuff flies out the window when Meade opens his mouth. Blunt, direct,
street-smart, he sounds just like Columbo.
Meade exudes a distinct male authority that's comradely and unthreatening. And he's thoroughly grounded in the legends and mythology that have been his passion since he was 13. For instance, one key piece of research Meade has turned up in his
cross-cultural survey of masculine mythology is the universal principle that the Masai tribe of East Africa calls litima: "that violent emotion, peculiar to the masculine part of things, that is the source of quarrels, of ruthless competition, possessiveness,
power-drivenness, ambition and brutality" -- as Meade points out, "They're not pulling any punches here"
-- "but is also the source of independence, courage,
upstandingness, wildness as opposed to savagery, high emotions, ideals, of the movement toward individuation." And during the New York weekend, when Dirk's friend Walter challenges The Guys Onstage to come up with a model of mentoring that's not Eurocentric, it's Meade who has at his command African tales of knighthood in which smiths make powerful talismans with their own blood and Asian stories about princes who seek out wise old men.
Meade's main contribution to men's gatherings is, in a way, their most theatrical,
hard-to-describe, you-have-to-be-there element. Accompanying himself on drum, he tells stories
-- some of them five-minute "dilemma stories" that lead up to an
open-ended question, others elaborate hero's journeys that take all weekend to narrate
-- and then breaks them down for discussion, character by character, episode by episode, image by image. The theme of the seminar in New York is "Making a Hole in Denial," which Meade introduces with a story called "The King with the Cannibal Tastes."
The stories Meade tells serve two purposes. First they invite men to enter the realm of mythology, to relate to different characters as archetypes or aspects of themselves. It's Jung 101: "How am I like the king? What part of me does the Old Hag represent?" But discussing the stories is also a way to begin building trust in the room, to test the ability of the group to contain the emotions that might come up -- not unlike what goes on at an AA meeting. (If any one thing has laid the groundwork for a movement of men making time in their lives to explore emotional, psychological, and spiritual issues, it's been the proliferation of 12-step programs.)
As the weekend progresses, the safety of ritual space enables men to voice remarkably personal sentiments. "Someone sexually abused my young daughter," one man mourns, setting off a ripple of gasps and moans throughout the room. Another sprays the crowd with anger over his wife's infidelity as if his rival were among us. Bly himself reveals a touching fragility. "My favorite aunt died yesterday at the age of 94," he confesses. "I feel lonely." Perhaps the most unusual thing about these sharing sessions is that whatever feelings are aroused, men are invited not to fix them but just to feel them.
Tenderness is not the only way to build trust among men, though. Another of Bly and Meade's
tried-and-true theories is that a group of men can't truly bond until there's a possibility of violence that's averted.
One afternoon in Santa Fe, Bly is going on and on (a bit too much for my interest level) about what family therapist John Bradshaw calls "the inner child." It's a concept Bly values, but he suggests that there's danger in spending too much time coddling that part of ourselves, that the time comes when the inner child has to be killed so the adult male can emerge.
Suddenly, a flash of heat erupts in the room. "This talk about killing the inner child sounds like the craziest thing in the world to me," declares a man who identifies himself as a therapist and goes on to testify as to the usefulness of the inner child in his own life.
"I thought we were talking as human beings. You're talking as a therapist," Bly responds in a tone that makes it clear how fond he is of therapists.
"What we're talking about is an inner divine child," Meade explains, quickly trying to calm the waters. "When we metaphorically kill it, it can still come back as an image."
"We're not talking about the historical child but the divine child," Hillman chimes in. "The imagination doesn't spend enough time with the divine child because it's so wrapped up in 'My father didn't play ball enough with me.'"
"Something in this guy's smugness irritates me," Bly announces, zeroing in on the therapist. "The way he talks about his inner child sounds like the way England used to talk about India."
Whoa, Nellie! The feeling in the room turns combative. Tension rises. No one can believe Bly is singling someone out for attack. The dynamic is fascinating. Being tough with the guy, Bly openly challenges him to be tough right back. But the therapist gets intimidated and clams up. Urged on by others in the audience to defend himself, all he does is give Bly the finger.
This is felt throughout the room as an inadequate response.
"Power comes from hearing your own voice," Bly advises. "Get your adult masculinity into your voice."
"To feel you are powerless and we are powerful brings the child into the room," Hillman notes. "This constant talk about empowerment and identification with the inner child is what paralyzes the body politic, which doesn't vote."
Someone in the audience accuses the men onstage of pretending to ignore the power differential in the room. "You're on a higher platform," he points out, "and you're making definitions."
"That's what I'm getting paid to do," says Bly. "What would you rather I do?"
"Express your opinions without being judgmental."
"Impossible!" Bly snaps.
Expressing impatience with the spineless attitudes of sensitive-New-
Age-guys is what gets Bly labeled "arrogant." It's also one of his great gifts in life. He cuts through the bullshit, and he has fun doing it. "I understand that you have to get rid of the child inside you to become a man," says someone in the audience, "but it's the word killing that bothers me. How about transmute?"
"Aw, you're eating too much yoghurt," Bly snorts. "When you want a hamburger, you kill a cow. You don't transmute it."
Bly and Meade have their act together. They're like the rhythm section of this jazz band, relentlessly collaborative. But every so often throughout a weekend, they basically concede the floor to Hillman, who's more eccentric, a
one-man band who gives a dazzling, half-composed,
half-improvised rap on whatever topic seems pertinent to the occasion
-- mentoring, beauty, the cross-cultural associations of the word
I happen to think Hillman is brilliant, but I've noticed that he drives some Bly and Meade followers crazy. His patrician style of criticism strikes some men as "caustic," and his characteristically contrary thinking puts others' noses out of joint. In New York, when Meade launches into a prepared talk on the distinction between neurotic suffering and genuine suffering, Hillman summarily announces, "I'm not interested in suffering." And he takes a dim view of this "inner child" stuff. "By worshipping the inner child, we cling to the abuse of 20, 30, 40 years ago rather than attending to the abuse in our daily life."
What most enrages the Madison Avenue ad exec sitting near me in the New York seminar is that, unlike almost everyone else in the room, Hillman speaks with virtually no reference to his personal experience. I don't share that objection, but on the other hand whenever I feel overly intimidated by Hillman's erudition it does help to remember that he was born in Atlantic City and that his hobby is tap dancing.
In Santa Fe Hillman's moment of glory is his solo on the subject of needs, wants, and desires. He begins with three thoughts: 1) we take our needs literally; 2) we believe our needs can be fulfilled; and 3) we believe if they're fulfilled, they'll go away. "I'm suggesting that none of these is true," he says. "Needs are statements of the soul. You have to ask: what does the need need? Let need really come up. Say it aloud. Listen to it in your own body. Sing the blues. Complain. Feel the lack as a lack rather than focusing on what would fill it."
"Do that eeee thing," coaches Bly, sounding every bit like a groupie requesting his favorite song.
Hillman obliges by demonstrating the plaintive, whiny sound in need,
please, and weak. "That's not what a woman wants," he says. "A woman wants to be wanted, not needed. Need produces long marriages where the people need to be together but don't want to be." Need, he says, creates an infantile, passive feeling in the body, whereas want moves out to get something
-- a step in the right direction.
Toward desire, that is. Not sexual desire, or rather not just sexual desire. He's really talking about the kind of mysterious yearning that can never be fulfilled. "Desire is a potent thing we lose early," he says. "Think of those moments you had as a teenager
-- your yearning for fame, for glory, the princess, the castle. We are born with wings of desire, then they're blocked, secularized, humanized into needs. The more therapy helps you meet your needs, the more it blocks the realization of your desires."
Say what? Bly asks him to run that one by us again, and he obliges. "The more therapy helps you meet your needs, the more it blocks the realization of your desires. Then you end up with small triumphs, like going shopping."
Someone starts to ask "How do you..." and Hillman cuts him off. "Let's put aside
how-to questions for the moment. We have a huge addiction to
how-to in this country. The first how-to we need to learn is how to listen to an idea that throws your other ideas around."
MEN'S WORK: THREAT OR MENACE?
As Hillman points out, a lot of men come to these gatherings begging for instruction, hungry for tools: what can I do? how do I become a man? how can I fulfill my dreams, serve my community, change the world? And judging from the volume of business in books and tapes at conference bookstalls, a lot of men would happily embrace Robert Bly's Rules of Order. The instructions they get, though, are somewhat frustrating: Go inside. Work on yourself. Don't skip steps. Ground yourself in study, inner work, purification. Use your imagination. Don't ask for something unless you want it. Know what you want. Don't give your power away. Don't expect other people to do it for you.
At the first International Men's Conference in Austin last month, I had a conversation with an
African-American man from Houston named Abati Akinlana, whom I first met at the multicultural conference in West Virginia. He suggested that the ultimate effect of what's going on among men won't be the creation of a movement focused on memberships, legislative goals, and an articulated public policy agenda. Instead, the best way to think of it is as a revolution in consciousness. "This is the biggest threat to military madness," he said. "When Bush proposes something crazy like the Gulf War, the people won't let it happen. Men will stand up and say, 'This is bullshit.' But first they have to be able to say that to their parents, their wives, their bosses, whatever."
It has to be acknowledged, though, that American society does not want this consciousness to spread
-- perhaps precisely because it's an inquiry and not a movement, a process and not a product. Everything in America is about moving the merchandise. So get ready for the 15 minutes of Men.
Despite the best efforts of the media to create celebrities and promote a national men's movement, it remains largely a
grass-roots activity, and that in itself contains a political threat. During the New York weekend, I had a conversation with James Hillman in which he mentioned his theory that ordinary men are increasingly being marginalized in American society
-- alongside women, gays, and people of color -- so that the only political power resides with an elusive elite, Noam Chomsky's "government by conspiracy."
The media contributes to suppressing men's consciousness by its
anti-spiritual bias. The men's movement is seen as silly because the substance is edited out. It's seen as trendy and superficial because that's what can be shown on TV or described in Timenewsweekspeak
-- they get the soundbites but not the Yeats poems. Men's work is seen as apolitical because the politics are censored.
During the Gulf War, which got high approval ratings because the American public liked the coverage on CNN, Bly and Meade were among those repeatedly expressing opposition in impassioned, provocative terms. Bly wrote an editorial that among other things compared Bush's squandering the peace dividend on the
one-side bloodbath in Iraq to Agamemnon's sacrificing of his daughter; the
New York Times refused to publish it, though the Minneapolis Star Tribune
did. Bly says he gave an interview about his men's work to the
Los Angeles Times on the stipulation that half the article would talk about the war; when it came out, almost everything about the war had been cut. Making a rare talk show appearance on CNN just after the
cease-fire, Bly called the 60-mile corridor into Iraq (which allied forces described as "a turkey shoot...like shooting fish in a barrel") as "our My Lai." The interviewer changed the subject. "Are you just going to let that lie on the floor between us?" Bly asked. She said, "Yes."
Maybe Bly's remarks on the war were obvious. Maybe talk about censorship is paranoia. Nonetheless, there's a pattern to how the men's movement gets portrayed in the press. It's a pattern recognizable from the trivializing coverage -- not so long ago -- of feminism as a movement of "libbers" and "bra-burners," of man-haters and ugly women.
Robert Bly and his colleagues know what they're up against. It's why they keep going. In his closing remarks at the men's weekend in New York, Haki Madhubuti encourages idealistic thinking while acknowledging it isn't the safest or most popular path to tread, as the last few decades of American history have shown. At the risk of sounding like Oliver Stone, he puts the audience on notice that not everybody feels warm and fuzzy inside about the idea of men coming to consciousness. "There are people who have orders from on high to do you harm," he says. "You are a considerable foe. Many are prepared to eliminate you with extreme prejudice. Let them know they are in for a fight."
Village Voice, 1992