The Grief of Soft-males:a multi-generational problem
In Robert Bly’s book, Iron John:A Book about Men, he talks about the grief of males. This is a multi-generational problem that plagues our society. This grief stems from many factors, however the problem can be addressed through the conception of the “soft male”. Who is the soft male and how did he end up this way?
It all starts with history. Somewhere along each society’s history, the society’s members decided that older men in power and in charge were toxic and bad for society. Society decided that masculinity was something that needed to be rid of. Men decided that they were were better off being in touch with their feminine.
As men learned to cultivate their feminine side, they learned to be more sensitive and more gentle. They also learned to please the women in their lives. As a result this is what turned men into soft males.
Soft males are peace-loving people and are ones with a “gentle attitude towards life”. The observation that Robert Bly made about these men are that they lack energy. They’re life-preserving and not life-giving. It is to their own detriment they have failed to be life-giving. What exactly does this mean?
Men have learned to be too receptive. They have learned to listen, empathize and be gentle. However, they fail to have the resolve and learning to say what they want and accomplishing it. This is the source of the grief that Robert Bly has witnessed. Soft males feel the pain from powerlessness in their lives. They know how to be the listening ear and nurturing partner in a relationship, but lack the direction or confidence to lead the relationship.
Learning to Accept our Dark Side: Iron John/ the Wild Man
The story of Iron John, symbolizes a boy’s journey to becoming a man. Robert Bly describes Iron John as a creature at the bottom of the pool in the forest. In the story, several hunters have entered the forest and not returned because of this pool in the forest. Eventually the kingdom that is situated near the forest realizes there is something bad in the forest that needs to be avoided.
This “badness” associated with Iron John is part of the “deep male” psyche that men come in contact with during their life.When men do come into contact with it, they feel a certain risk with connecting to it. Men feel scared with connecting to this dark side within themselves. It is what Robert Bly calls the “nourishing dark”.
Not every man will have the courage of descending into this pool in the forest and finding Iron John. In the story, a man has to use buckets to draw the water out of the pool, and then descend into the bottom of the pool to find Iron John, or also what Robert Bly refers to as the Wild Man. The real-life parallel to this water-drawing bucket action could be a journey that takes years, or even decades.
The Iron John/Wild Man is looked down upon by the institutions of society. The education system, christian church and probably even the family household. In order to fully be in touch with this Iron John/Wild Man, it takes a certain courage and resolve.
Letting our Dark Side Out: Stealing the key to release Iron John/ Wild Man
Robert bly describes a golden ball that all children have. Once these children reach the age of eight this golden ball is lost. The symbolism of this golden ball is “a kind of radiance, or wholeness, before we split into male and female, rich and poor, bad and good.”. Once we’ve lost this ball, we spend the rest of our lives looking for this golden ball again.
This golden ball is something that Iron John is keeping. As we search for this ball, we find ourselves asking for this ball from Iron John several times in our life. We have this need to connect with our Wild man. And so when we do ask for this golden ball from the Wild Man, he reveals to us that there is a key.
Where is the key in this story? It is under the pillow of the queen of the kingdom, and in real life terms this means our very own mother. Our mother holds the key to us being in contact with the Wild Man/Iron John. And the only way to get this key is to steal it.
All mothers know instinctively that they hold this key. They have held the key the very first day that their sons were born. It is the job of the mother to keep the key and to civilize the boy, and to make sure the boy never gets in contact with the Wild Man/Iron John. Mothers know that once this key is given away they no longer have any possession over their boys. The boys will want to follow the Wild Man/Iron John and learn from him.
Leaving the Father and Mother: Trusting the Wild Man/Iron John
After we have stolen this key and let Iron John out, our first instinct as men is fear. We’re suddenly scared of what might happen. We’re suddenly scared that our parents will discover the theft of the key. This act of stealing the key can be seen as exuberant or restless behavior.
Robert Bly talks about Puritan culture and 19th century German parents that punished their children at the first sign of exuberance or restlessness. Perhaps the same can be said about our own upbringing. Our parents learn to civilize us whenever we do anything “cheeky” or “naughty”. Whenever we behave in a wild manner either at home or in public we are usually put in check by our parents. Therefore, it is natural when we symbolically steal the key that we instinctively feel that we’ll be punished in some manner.
So despite this fear of being punished, we still have to decide whether or not we did the right thing of letting iron john out. If we do, Robert Bly says as boys, we will initially perceive the Wild Man as a “primitive” creature, and that it is a false perception.
By trusting the Wild Man/Iron John we’ll learn to take the first step of following him into the forest. And this means also a break from the protection of our parents. This part of the Iron John story is where the boy will continue with his initiation.
Where do we take the first steps into male intiation? And How?
Growing up we know we have to make an effort to be initiated into adulthood. But where are the older men that will help us? Our modern societies are lacking the older men to help initiate us. With that said, do we actually need older men to help initiate us? And how did ancient societies initiate their younger men?
Robert Bly brings up several examples, and one of them is the African people known as Kikuya.
Every year, boys that are old enough are taken away from their mothers and brought to a distant village. The boys have to fast for three days and experiences great terror. On the third night, he is sitting with older men in a circle surrounding a fire. An old man then opens up a vein in his arm and lets a little blood trickle into a bowl. The same bowl is passed around to each older man for his blood until it reaches the boy. The boy is then invited to receive nourishment from the bowl.(drink from the bowl)
From this example, Robert Bly indicates that the boy learns that nourishment is not only from his mother, but also from older men. This act of nourishment also proves to the boy that he is finally welcome among the older men. The older men also continue by telling the boy myths,songs and stories that will teach him competitive and spiritual values.
Not such a bad story, and seems like an exotic excursion or experience one can book online nowadays. However this is an initiation practiced and best suited for a culture of the Kikuya. In our modern society which is much more sophisticated and globalized now, what initiation practices can really help men mature?
Robert Bly doesn’t exactly reveal an answer to such a question in the first chapter. However he does talk about the alternative for boys to spend more time with their fathers. And that it is a suitable alternative compared to the traditional initiation done by older men outside the household.
This is what Robert recommends to single mothers raising their sons: who feel like their sons need a male model. Let them spend way more time with their fathers. But the reality of today’s society doesn’t really allow this. Not every one of us is lucky enough to have our fathers around. And even if they’re around, where are they? Somewhere far away working.
Robert blames the Industrial Revolution for this circumstance. The Industrial Revolution demanded men to leave their homes to offices or factories to work. Fathers no longer taught their sons a certain trade or skill like farming, carpentering or tailoring. As a result this separated fathers from their sons for great lengths of time.
We can see the same situation now in modern society where fathers only get to spend a maximum of maybe 4-6 hours a day at home. How many of those hours are spent just with the son? Not many i would presume.
I would say the longing for the father is justified, and not something we should ignore. If we plan on being fully initiated as men, and if we have the opportunity, we should be spending more time with our fathers.
Who is the Absent Father and why do we need the Wild Man?
Many of us grow up not knowing who our father is. He spends most of his time at work and when he does return home: there is no actual quality time between the father and son. German psychologist Alexander Mitscherlich suggests that if a son doesn’t see his father at all, a hole will appear in his psyche. This will be filled with demons suggesting that the father’s work is evil and that the father is evil.
Robert Bly suggests that our longing for our father develops an unconscious intuition that our fathers are evil. This unconscious intuition is then projected towards other male figures of authority or power. Our mind develops this belief that there is no such thing as an authoritative positive male energy. And so any male figure in power or authority is treated with suspicion.
This core belief manifests itself through negative pop culture portrayals of father figures, personal acts of rebellion towards authority figures or professional sabotage towards industry leaders. There are many ways in which men project this unconscious intuition of the evil older man.
Together with this unconscious intuition, Bly also brings up the mother’s role in shaping the son’s perception of the father. Bly cites Jung’s and describes how boys will inherit their mother’s view on his father and on masculinity. As a result, the boy won’t develop a clear picture of who the father is. This development combined with the boys unconscious intuition breeds a negative view of the father.
Unfortunately not every one of us who holds this negative view can overcome it. Some of us may not want to. Some of us our fathers can just be really bad human beings and examples of masculinity. The first step that we can take is to accept that the negative view shaped by our mother and psyche is very biased. And once we do this we can begin spending time with our father to understand him better.
We shouldn’t turn away from our longing for our father or mentors. It is our right to connect with other men and our inner Wild Man as well.