Robert Bly, the great American poet and writer who has died aged 94, set in train what seemed a whole new way of looking at and thinking about men, but is actually as old as the human species itself.
Robert Bly, the American poet, writer and crusader, who died this week, was a hero of mine. It might at first sight seem disproportionate when I assert that I would place him alongside Havel and Solzhenitsyn for public heroism in the age now coming to an end, for the foes of that duo seemed greater and more ominous, and what they fought for may have seemed more vital, more essential, than Bly’s battle for the maintenance of the dignity of men. But I do not believe so. Bly, who would have turned 95 this December 23rd, was every bit as courageous and significant as either of the others, and was perhaps not seen as such because he fought an enemy that was largely hidden, or disguised, or mistaken for something heroic in itself. He fought those who sought to lie about men — both from the benches of the Defence and those of the Prosecution: those who sought to sentimentalise men and fathers as those who demonised them, all the time delving into myth and history to the very source of the poetic to rehabilitate images of manhood and fatherhood in an era where the old concepts and notions had become worn out, to re-validate and redeem the most maligned ‘love unit’ in human culture — the father-son bond — and assist men of all ages to search for the Wild Man within.
Bly was a vital shaman of our civilisation in its most beleaguered period. His canon embraces spirituality, fatherhood, addiction, mythology, and the spaces between. He leaves us with the crisis he identified continuing to loom, but considerably better able to face it than we were before he arrived close to a century ago.
He is best known in the wider world for his 1990 book Iron John: A Book About Men, about male dangers and triumphs, embarking from the starting point of male initiation. Its structure comprises the stories of men built around the ‘amplification of a fairy tale’, a roller coaster ride through the groves of mythology and ancient religious life, in which Bly disentangles the modern misunderstandings of manhood in the language of myth and magic. Human beings, he noted, unlike animals, have tended to store their knowledge as to survival outside of themselves — mainly in stories. Fairy stories, he said, were the most fundamental gift to modern humanity from the pre-literate world. But most of them were about the female: Rapunzel, Cinderella, Snow White — precious few about men and boys. But Bly found one, the legend of Eisenhans, or Iron John, about a boy seeking a safe path to manhood, exploring his hungering to join the father/King in adulthood and his grieving after the mother/Queen he must become separated from in order to grow.
Eisenhans goes in search of danger, but soon comes to grief, losing his pet dog to a mysterious beast in the depths of a pond. This leads to the capture of the Wild Man, who is imprisoned by the King, who gives the key of the cage into the keeping of the Queen. The Wild Man persuades the little Prince to retrieve the key from under his mother’s pillow. In unlocking the cage, the boy pinches his finger and winces at the pain, but the Wild Man makes good his escape. The boy’s pain represents the grief of necessary separation from the mother as the boy moves into the father’s realm. Counter to much modern psychology, Bly suggests, the story intimates that an older male mentor — a ‘second King’ — is more vital here than the father, in guiding the young male into adulthood. The problem is that a girl looks upon the mother who rears her and says, ‘That’s what I’m going to be!’, whereas the boy looks upon his mother and says, ‘That’s not what I’m going to be!’, self-defining by a negative as he ventures out into the icy winds of adulthood.
Bly stressed that Iron John did not represent a challenge to the women’s movement, but was an attempt at a complementary vision of men. He did not doubt the long trials of womanhood, but interposed a missing, related story. ‘The grief of men,’ he wrote, ‘has been increasing steadily since the start of the Industrial Revolution and the grief has reached a depth now that cannot be ignored.’
But it was and still is. Bly leaves unfinished business: a world in which young men have been constructively confused and alienated from their own natures. This is down, he warned us, to ‘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.’
In 1996, the year my daughter was born, Bly published The Sibling Society, one of the most prophetic books of the last century. It is possibly the most useful single book you might read if you wish to understand why the world is as it is now — I mean this very day — a quarter-century later. I recall reading it on the London Tube in the weeks after my daughter was born, and being riveted by its descriptions of the imminent society of envious siblings ‘pummelling the chests of their fathers and calling them fascists’, as I was just beginning to run-in my own new greatcoat.
By way of a somewhat eccentric tribute to this magnificent thinker, talked and warrior, I am reproducing a number of things I myself have written, that I would not — could not — have written had he not existed and written the things he wrote. I do it for two reasons: to illustrate how his words, while often lyrical and vital, were always apropos, and to show how a writer of vision and mission, by spawning whole shoals of imitators and disciples, can ‘single-handedly’ change the thinking of a civilisation. I can think of no tribute I would wish for more in the days after my own death, than for other, younger writers to reproduce things they have written that started with a spark of mine. The point, I believe, is to demonstrate how a writer’s ‘psychological song’ can acquire immortality even while he is alive, by entering the minds of those desperate to understand what has been happening to them and their world, providing them with the foundational words from which they might build their own walls of thought in which to live more securely.
I recall that, when we were in school, it was the ‘done thing’ to inflate the gravitas of our English ‘compositions’ (otherwise, ‘essays’) with ‘appropriate quotations’ from literary sources. But these were rarely other than tangential to the content of our subject-matter, a mixture of ornament and showing off. This is not the function of the references in the following to the works of Robert Bly, for it is impossible to find a quotation of his that answers to such criteria. If he wrote a trivial or merely decorative sentence, I have yet to read it. Each articulated thought, each crafted phrase, was constructed so as to animate the past and present and illuminate the road ahead. This is by no means a common trait among modern writers, but it is consistently true of Robert Bly, a writer who contrived to build a new version of the world out of pieces that others had thrown away.
What follows is a series of articles and extracts, each one intimately connected to the thoughtstream that Robert Bly excavated with his bare hands from the side of a very old mountain. In some instances the texts have been abridged to minimise repetition (not entirely successfully), and for flow.
Thinking about male initiation
This article I wrote, based on an interview with Fr Richard Rohr, a writer and ‘disciple’ of Robert Bly, was published in The Voice Today in September 2005.
Father Richard Rohr came to Ireland last month to talk about male initiation. I had come across these ideas before, in Robert Bly’s book, Iron John, the seminal work on male initiation and the male search for the ‘Wild Man’. Fr Rohr’s concern is to integrate Bly’s thinking into the Christian tradition. He speaks of the urgent necessity of restoring male initiation to modern culture, proposing a target of five generations to achieve this. That none of us will be around to see such a movement succeed is but the first of many challenges in what Richard Rohr has to say.
These are deeply radical ideas. The response of many people, he conceded, will be along the lines of, ‘Why are we talking about this at all?’ The reason it is necessary, he maintains, is that young men are losing their way. Something is missing and we don’t know what it is. The answer might be that we have ceased to do something that once was taken for granted. We have a host of phenomena in the modern world, from binge drinking to male suicide, as evidence of that ‘something missing’.
Boys do not naturally become men in the way girls naturally become women: They have to be taught. Women, Fr Rohr points out, have a monthly reminder of their powerlessness and vulnerability; men must create this for themselves. Women, though menstruation, labour, childbirth, the menopause, have constant, staged reminders both of their place in the miracle of life and in the possibility of transformation. Women are grounded by their children, being constantly pulled into ‘the now’. Men don’t naturally take to responsibility. The young male, he says, mixing his metaphors, is a ‘loose cannon in the social fabric’.
Initiation, he says, is an ‘umbrella term to describe religion before all the great religions emerged’. Men were always more resistant to religious ideas and practices. In most European countries, he observes, men avoid the church, while women flock to it, or, rather, her. Many of the rituals of Christianity have their roots in early initiation procedures, including baptism and Confirmation, and, in other faiths, circumcision. Baptism was in traditional societies known as a drowning ceremony, in which total immersion was normal.
The Episcopal slap on the cheek, which pre-Vatican II Catholics remember from Confirmation, was a residue of intensely punishing encounters between the elders and the young, an essential part of initiation. Many of the surviving sites of pilgrimage and penance associated with Christianity, such as Lough Derg, Glendalough and Croagh Patrick, were once places of initiation. In these ancient rites, young men were taken from their families and communities, led into the wild and subjected to intense physical and mental challenges until they had crossed the line into manhood. These rituals were as lifelong reminders that life is a wounding experience. Young men might be required to fast, to pray, to lie naked in ashes as a reminder that they came from the earth and are bound to return. Sometimes young men were required to dig their own graves and lie in them for a night. In other societies, they were ‘whipped in sacred space’. These were, essentially, exercises in failure and humiliation, which were considered an essential preparation for life as an adult. The procedure would go on until the boy had ‘met God and found his name’, which is to say understood the nature of his relationship to the earth and the heavens. In some cultures, young men were at the end of initiation ceremonies given a tool of some kind, usually an axe, as a symbol of having attained manhood.
The assumption of initiation was that a man would always abuse power — unless he was initiated in powerlessness. A women present at Fr Rohr’s talk in the Milltown Institute suggested that women abuse power too. He did not demur, but observed that, for the first time in recorded history, young girls may require a similar process.
The core message we receive from traditional initiation, says Fr Richard, is: ‘Man has to bleed’. But it is not a gratuitous hurting, because at its core is a profound question: ‘What will you do with your wounds?’ We need to die before we can live — the Christian message in eight words. ‘These were not blessing ceremonies,”’ says Fr Richard, ‘but a walking through the mystery of death and resurrection’, an initiation, essentially, into the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection.’
Everything in male spirituality, he says, ‘pivots around the wound’. There is in western society, a ‘father wound’, created by the damage bequeathed by previous generations of fathers, but also a ‘father hunger’, which became evident earlier this year following the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. ‘There is an archetypal need for a Big Daddy’.
We are at a dangerous point in the human story. The suicide statistics, he agrees, are just one of many indicators of a crisis of meaning. Much of what passes for male anger, he says, is actually male sadness. Men are in deep, unacknowledged pain, and need to transform this pain to avoid transmitting it.
At the core of the problem is a breakdown in the vertical connection between elders and the young; and the Church, insists Fr Richard, must take its share of the responsibility. Modern religion is not sufficiently engaging to convey the requisite levels of meaning to the young. Sermons he describes as ‘low-risk encounters’: young men need rites of passage, he says, not lectures of passage.
The Great Father is Dead
An extract from my 2012 book Was it For This?, about Robert Bly’s illumination of Alexander Mitscherlichs’s warning about the coming calamity of the ‘sibling society’.
Robert Bly borrowed his concept of the ‘sibling society’ from Alexander Mitscherlich, who warned of the approach of a Peter Pan world where nobody would ever grow up, where adults regressed towards adolescence, and adolescents stayed where they were. This, argued Bly in his seminal Foreword to Mitscherlich’s book, Society Without the Father, and later developed in his own book The Sibling Society, is characterised by a turning away from the vertical plane, comprising tradition, service and devotion, in favour of the horizontal plane, with its self-referential culture of the young and the wanna-be young.
At the heart of this process is a vacuum left behind by the departed figure of what Bly called ‘The Great Father’. In the consciousness of humanity there are three layers of fatherhood: God the Father, the State Father and the Great Father. All three are now deceased, killed off by Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Gay Byrne, Mary Robinson and Nell McCafferty, and all the sundry other voices of post-1960s rebellion and protest. The trouble is that none of these has had even the most modest proposal about how to replace that which they destroyed. As Mitscherlich has written, the father as a force for good in society has been exiled, leaving behind ‘a gigantic army of rival, envious siblings’. Sibling society has no time for glory, effort, justice, greatness, duty, or patriotism, but is content with consumer durables, celebrity and shallow forms of freedom. Is this beginning to sound germane?
In a scintillating analysis, Bly outlined how the Industrial Revolution destroyed the four-million year-old Great Father, by removing him from the home and making his powers invisible, and then removing his political equivalent from the public square. It was not, Bly observed, a premeditated killing: ‘Industrial circumstances took the father to a place where his sons and daughters could no longer watch him minute by minute, or hour by hour, as he fumbled incompetently with hoes, bolts, saws, shed doors, plows, wagons. His incompetence left holes or gaps where the sons and daughters could do better’. For Bly, this absence in the domestic sphere was just the first in a series. But, here, prefiguring what would follow in the public sphere, there were three absences: the physical absence of the father from the vicinity of his children, the psychic absence of the father from the human heart, and the spiritual absence of the very idea of ‘father’, once represented by a Loving Father — ‘God’ — from the human being’s sense of his own soul. These absences were soon to be replicated at the level of political leadership.
If we are to take Bly’s prognosis seriously, what he described may be a self-accelerating condition, from which the means of salvation is cut off by virtue of the principal symptoms. The banishment of the father creates in the children a sense of rebelliousness that has no means of reconciling itself.
In the normal cycle, the revolt of the child is managed within a relationship rendered safe by the father’s firm guidance and resolve: The child imagines himself to have a genuine problem with the father, perhaps even, for a time, to hate him. The child says ‘I want’, ‘I want to’, and the father says ‘No’. The child says, ‘I hate you, I didn’t ask to be born’. But the steadfastness of the loving father allows this natural process to work itself out. In time, like Mark Twain, the child comes to wonder at how much his father’s thinking has advanced over the course of a few short years.
All true, human-centred societal growth, which is to say reliable change, demands a process of renunciation, which in turn requires a strong, safe, generous agent to act as buffer and punchbag. In other words, a person of benign authority. A good working definition of the word ‘authority’ might be: the capacity to endure unpopularity in the interests of good. But when the father is absent, this does not happen. Instead, the child’s emotions, deprived of a legitimate target, lack the safe provocation that nature intended. An essential element of the make-up of the Great Father was that he was prepared to be hated in the interests of doing what he had to do, a burden mothers could delegate, relying on the father to impose discipline, sometimes at the expense of his own ‘popularity’. The role of stoical authoritarian receptor for society’s anger has been decried and disposed of, and with it many of the positive values of father-organised society, like security, order and fair play.
In the post-father society, there is nothing at which to target our anger, which turns inward against ourselves. Moreover, since there is no longer a father there to withstand our anger, to stand rock solid while we pummel his coat, to calm us with a pat on the head and a stern admonition to go away and be better, our anger destroys everything regardless of virtue. Without the Great Father, we cannot tell right from wrong, good from bad, or truth from mere information. The only requirement of our appetite for destruction is that the object in our sights be the creation of the father, or have proved its merits through time.
The effect on males is worse than on females. With increasing industry and zeal, we build a society where fathers have no words to speak to their sons. Masculinity is demonised and our education system impresses upon adolescent males that their fathers are inappropriate role-models. The result, by Bly’s analysis, is the creation of generations of young men who are numb in the region of the heart. The umbilical cord has been severed, but no more than that. The father can find no way of protecting or guiding his son, who remains tied to his mother’s apron. Still, deeply aware of his maleness, he shies away from adopting the emotional life of the female, and chooses to have no emotions at all. Thus, the male becomes incapable of taking on the father role himself, and the cycle gathers speed.
The paradox of this situation is that men now stand where they would if they had retained the stature of the Great Father, but without any of the strength or resilience that allowed men to withstand the onslaughts our fathers met in the past. Today’s man stands accused, pummelled, denigrated, not on account of his greatness but because he is weak and refuses to carry the burden of society’s grievance. His position is understandable: You have taken my power away, and so cannot expect me to absorb your resentments. This double-bind is visible in the domestic arena, where the father carries the dilemma in his very gut: As a child of the 60s, his instinct is to spurn — forfeit — the authority which his own children still expect him to wield. It is also visible in the public arena, where the only successful leader is one who panders to the most immediate desires of the electorate, promising reduced taxes, increased public spending and solutions to everyone’s problems.
The Trouble With Knives
My column published in the Irish Times on July 13, 2012 followed a series of stabbings at a rock concert featuring techno band The Swedish House Mafia, in Dublin’s Phoenix Park.
Virtually all the reporting and analysis of last weekend’s events in the Phoenix Park have been brought to us by unshockable crime reporters and unreconstructed rock critics. Predictably, then, we have heard a great deal about, on one hand, the security and law-and-order dimensions, and, on the other, the particularities of electronic dance music and the putatively violent attendant dance culture.
We need to dig deeper. About three years ago I suggested that what we were calling the ‘economic crisis’ was something far worse: an anthropological calamity arising from a misunderstanding of desire. Having invested all hopes in the balloon-basket of materialism, (which had recently fallen out of the sky) we came face-to-face with a confusion centred on an inability to define what we want.
What we skirt over as ‘materialism’ denotes a core cultural misunderstanding that reduces human expectations to what is tangible and comprehensible. It is symptomatic of a culture that has lost its sense of the mysterious meaning of reality, and must therefore offer three-dimensional bait to keep the human mechanism ticking-over. At the heart of such a culture is a hole, from which rage emanates in the manner of lava. What emerged in the Phoenix Park last Saturday was an especially vivid manifestation of the rage that now defines our culture.
We have come to think of a ‘stabbing’ as exhibiting a narrow meaning related to the individual wielding the knife. Over 20 years ago, Robert Bly wrote in Iron John about the meanings of knives. He recalled that, in traditional societies over many millennia, knives were used in the initiation of young men. The community elders would take the initiate into the wilderness and subject him to a regime of trial and fasting lasting days. Around the campfire, the boy would hear the great myths and stories that men shared only among themselves. On the third night, the elders would pass around a bowl and, one by one, would cut their arms with a knife and bleed into it. When the bowl reached the boy, he drank the elders’ blood.
Nowadays we shudder and dismiss such rituals as backward and barbarous, but neglect to take account of the barbarisms that occur in our midst because we no longer honour the natures of men. The elimination from our culture of the teaching, benign-authoritarian father has left us with generations of young men who, as Bly observed, are ‘numb in the region of the heart’. Because young men are never allowed to come away from their mothers, they stand on the threshold of manhood but cannot enter. The umbilical cord has been severed, but no more. Still tied to their mothers’ apron strings, more and more of our young men carry knives to announce their manhood. With their fathers cast into silence, they are starved of the wisdoms and mythologies that might sustain a healthy male existence.
Adrift in the numbness that engulfs them, many of our young men now walk with an outward appearance of normality but inwardly lurching uncontrollably — from, for example, a learned piety to intense rage — all the time seeking something to provide some illusion of feeling while simultaneously keeping the numbness at bay.
The great pioneer sociologists believed that, when understanding social deviance, it is erroneous to focus solely on individual wrongdoing. When a person commits some act that scandalises society, they believed, he or she is — in part at least — acting out some repressed, unacknowledged sentiment of the tribe. This is supported by the coherence of certain dark statistics — murder, suicide, addiction — which tend to follow unique and consistent patterns within a given society, year on year. A century ago, the French sociologist Emile Durkheim argued that communities are psychic beings, with distinctive ways of thinking and feeling. The suicidal individual’s sadness, he wrote in On Suicide, comes not from ‘this or that incident in his life, but from the group to which he belongs’. He diagnosed a condition he called ‘anomie’, resulting from circumstances whereby the normative regulation of societal relationships by rules and values has collapsed causing individual feelings of despair, isolation and meaninglessness to erupt civic disorders. He defined the underlying collective condition as ‘the malady of infinite aspiration’ — wanting more and more of what has already failed to satisfy.
In due course, those responsible for the Phoenix Park stabbings will be paraded before us on their way into court. We will shake our heads and arrive at some narrow moralistic conclusion, in accordance with which the culprits will be sentenced. But if, as a society, we fail to see that it is we who made these young men what they are, we will have lost another opportunity to understand what has been happening to us. It is at least as mindless as what happened last weekend to talk of ‘testosterone-fuelled thugs’ gone mad in the park.
Jeremy Clarkson — Savage Man masquerades as Wild Man
I wrote this article in reaction to the firing of motoring pundit Jeremy Clarkson by the BBC. It was published in the Sunday Independent in March 2015.
People, for some reason, expect me to be a fan of Jeremy Clarkson. On the contrary: I regard him as an insufferable klutz, a loudmouth and a bully. Perhaps the misunderstanding arises from my having become known over the past two decades for writing about ‘men’ and ‘masculinity’, with Clarkson lately regarded as representing some kind of masculine archetype in modern popular culture.
This mistake more or less captures the core difficulty in talking about men in a era in which everything uttered about men or related subjects (women, for instance) needs to be said with a particular ideological context in mind. I’m thinking broadly of what is called feminism, though this is a word that nowadays also generates more confusion than it dissipates. Feminism has less and less to do with women, and more and more to do with attaining power for a few, only some of whom (the keynote insistence on gender quotas notwithstanding) happen to be women.
The best response to the latest Clarkson outrage was from his co-presenter James May: ‘Jeremy is a knob but I like him.’ Otherwise, the reaction to his suspension for punching a BBC producer was insanity all the way: the inevitable shrill condemnations in the high-pitched tones of the taste police, matched by declarations that Clarkson is ‘a bastion of light in a dark PC world’ and ludicrous demands that television viewers not be ‘punished’ or ‘made to suffer’ by virtue of being deprived of Top Gear.
I’ve long disliked Clarkson with a deep passion. Of course, for the avoidance of all possible doubt, I mean the created public persona of Jeremy Clarkson. Maybe there’s another Jeremy — a smart, tender, compassionate, sensitive, gentle soul — but, if there is, I don’t know him, and am therefore not referring to him. The Jeremy Clarkson we ‘know’ and discuss is a persona invented to create noise and make money, and as such has been successful beyond measure. In the end, it matters little or nothing whether the Jeremy we behold on TV is the ‘real’ Jeremy or not. If ‘unreal’, this unrealness is the realest thing he brings to the world.
I don’t want to get into the past controversies involving Clarkson. Obviously, some offer examples of ‘political correctness gone mad’, and normally, I would welcome and support any acts of iconoclasm in the face of such emblematic senselessness. But there is something about Clarkson’s personality that negates any such benefits. It’s not that I worry overmuch about what he might say about lorry drivers, Germans or politicians with pink ties. The problem is the cultural indulgence of his undergraduate outbursts and incorrigible yobbery, which has enabled him to grow wealthy from being crude, obvious and unfunny. As Clarkson himself would put it: ‘There are more important things to worry about than what some balding and irrelevant middle-aged man might have said on a crappy BBC2 motoring show.’
And it’s interesting that an institution as hidebound by political correctness as the BBC has given such a powerful and lucrative platform to someone like Clarkson. I don’t see this as a random thing. If a politician had been responsible for even one of a dozen outrages perpetrated by Clarkson, the corporation’s apparatchiks would have been the chief public prosecutors ensuring his (I’m assuming maleness in such offenders) banishment and defenestration. In an era when every utterance of every minor wannabe is prosecuted and punished by the Twitterati, Clarkson has a kind of immunity, an ordained anti-monk of un-PC.
Of course ‘PC’ is a loaded term capable of summoning up, to different ears, a modern form of courteousness or an insidious cult of censorship. It’s actually both: courtesy used as an instrument of control. The high priests of PC frequently proclaim their successes in eliminating racism, sexism and the like, but in truth all they’ve done is drive these impulses underground, into a kind of speakeasy culture of privatised hatred and crudity, all the more toxic for being suppressed. Men like Clarkson, being licensed to override the prohibitions, function as safety valves, releasing some of the pent-up pressure generated by this most contemporary of tyrannies. It’s a bit like the way parish priests used to operate back in the early dancehall days here at home, lambasting fornication from the pulpits of a Sunday morning and then sitting in the box office collecting ten shilling notes from the punters in return for admittance to the unacknowledged dens of iniquity known as ‘ballrooms’, wherein lay the promise of a jive, a ‘mineral’ and afterwards a ‘court’.
I became rather alarmed about a decade ago to find that my little daughter had developed a fondness for Top Gear, leading to no little trepidation as to her likely future taste in males. It began in Paris, I later learned, where we were visiting Eurodisney, when (aptly) her (male) cousins took control of the remote and wouldn’t allow her watch anything else. Mercifully, it later emerged that her favourite presenter was James May — actually pretty much the antithesis of Clarkson. May (and here I suspect I’m talking as much about the real James May as the TV personality) has wit, intelligence and above all irony, perhaps the most essential instrument of survival in the era we behold.
May and Clarkson can be seen as representing the dichotomy — outlined by Robert Bly in Iron John — between the ‘Wild Man’ and the ‘Savage Man’. For Bly, the two were opposites: one a benign archetype that every man must access; the other a weakling affecting hardness. The Wild Man has, through pain, discovered his own centre, the Savage Man is filled with rage because his heart is numb. According to Bly, the Wild Man’s primal qualities have been caged in the modern male by the processes of capitalism, industrialization and organised religion. Most men tend either to remain chained or burst out into savagery. This insight helps to explain why someone like Jeremy Clarkson is seen as an alpha male, a ‘real man’ standing up for lost masculine values, an idea so far off the mark it would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous. In truth, he’s a pussified yob-baiter hiding behind a macho persona.
It’s interesting that Clarkson was this week reportedly reduced to violence by the discovery that, after ‘a hard day’s filming’, he was expected to dine on soup and a cold meat platter rather than the steak and chips he’d been expecting. After a shift making bad jokes, the labourer craved his red meat but was sat before a Guardianista’s dinner of lettuce and salami.
There’s a world of distance between alpha-male masculinity and the macho man. A masculine man is steadfast and rooted, centred within himself. A macho man is emotionally and existentially incontinent, spewing his insecurities in every direction via the codes of aggression and narcissism. A real man could survive on lettuce for six months; a macho man needs a large steak in front of him, less to eat than to announce his manhood. A macho-man is a weak man pretending to be masculine — and is generally found to be someone who has spent too much time around women, trying to ingratiate himself and please them instead of burrowing into his own soul. Deprived of a convincing male mentor, he has never learned how to be a man, and so must project a fake masculinity to conceal his deficit of the real thing. An ‘alpha male’ is something different, being a man who has gained control over his masculinity and father energy, and is therefore able to instil confidence in others and offer himself as a potential leader if the effluent ever hits the extractor.
I think of men like Clarkson as, culturally speaking, the enemies of men because they sell out their sex by playing an easy and self-serving game for which many other men end up being penalised. Without such males, feminism would have a more difficult job purveying the kinds of untruths it has succeeded in making axiomatic in our culture. The young man of today, seeking a model for the path forward, is confronted by a pseudo divide between the New Man and the Macho Man — terms which correspond approximately to Bly’s notions of the ‘Savage’ and the ‘Wild’. Hence, at the point of entry into manhood, males are led to believe they must choose between troglodyte and wuss.
Feminism, in its obsession with the phantom enemy ‘patriarchy’, long ago launched a tactical war against masculinity, though not against the macho man — seeking sneakily to trade off a confusion between the two concepts. It’s the strong ‘silent’ Wild Man who represents the real threat to the agenda to utterly wussify society and silence for good the voice of fatherhood in the world. Clarkson is a ‘Savage Man’ who offers no threat to this agenda. On the contrary, by influencing and misleading young men into thinking loutishness is the way of the ‘real man’, his antics and pronouncement serve to vindicate the ‘toxic masculinity’ thesis so vital to the noxious radical feminist agenda.
Youth on the Couch
This article I wrote about the escalating trend towards tech-distraction was published by the Italian magazine, Traces, in December 2013.
I hear tell of some books published in Italy about the difficuties facing parents in the modern world in communicating with their teenage children. I gather that there is a big debate in the media about, in particular, 'fathers and sons', and about the seeming impossibility of communicating with a generation that seems to think differently about everything: education, friendship, communication, experience, life.
I know of this problem and do not believe it is any longer restricted to teenagers. Already a generation has started out into the world which is different in some way to those who went before. Something fundamental has changed in our cultures, which appears to be related to leaps in communication — what technology appears capable of delivering for us now compared to even two decades ago. There is a sense that everything has changed, that some kind of cleaver has come down hard upon our culture, severing the lines of connection to the past — even to parts of the present. More and more people appear to be imprisoned within technological compounds in which their immediate desires and requirements are gratified. But many worrying dimensions already suggest themselves. There appears already to be a concern about addiction — to the technologies themselves, or perhaps more likely to the reduced but still rewarding satisfactions which they provide for. There is a sense that people are slipping into an adjacent but unreal world, in which they can act out the fantasy of living while actually avoiding the reality.
The most interesting of the books is Gli Sdraiati, which means something like ‘the loungers’ or ‘the couch potatoes’ — a powerful depiction of a generation of teenagers who lie facing screens for most of their waking hours. Its author, a left-liberal ‘radical-chic’ columnist, Michele Serra describes his vain attempts to engage and interest his teenage son about things that he considers important — politics, sport, walking in the mountains — which he proposes to the total indifference of his son, who passes his days texting with friends, chatting on social networks, posting comments on YouTube, as he remains lying on the couch, apparently detached from even the idea that the real world might be escaping his attention. Serra does not stop at conventional moralistic ideas, like complaining that the web is bad or dangerous or distracting. He sees more fundamentally into what’s happening, into the failure of his own generation of parents to provide their children with a deep reason for existing. He observes in his son a desire to communicate with something outside himself, something he appears to be aware of and which suggests itself as more likely existing in the invisible world of cyberspace than the three-dimensional reality around him. As parents, Michele Serra says, his generation have failed to provide their children with a sufficiently persuasive reason for existing — still less a pattern to follow — which adequately meets their desires. Hence, his son — and, by implication, all our children — is left alone to search for it in the ether.
It is a frightening and yet beautiful theory. If accurate, it points to a massive and growing deficiency in our educative processes and methodologies.
For me, personally, this fear persisted for several years now as my daughter edged into adolescence and beyond. Like many parents, I had a sense of having to fight the world for her, and yet having very little power to offset or overcome the influences she was being exposed to. Because our family situation is a little unusual, the situation was even more precarious and unpredictable.But as time passed, things turned in an amazing way.
Róisín is now almost 18. It is, of course, risky for a father to pronounce on the progress of a child of his before a definitive tangible outcome can be declared. But, still, it is astonishing what has been happening. Firstly, Róisín is a thoroughly ‘modern’ girl, who likes books and fashion and rock ‘n’ roll. And yet, she appears to have adopted an almost ‘Luddite’ approach to the avalanche of technology which appears to have infatuated most of her generation. She uses phones and computers, but only in ways that suit her broader ambitions and activities. She writes on a typewriter and has already had some stories published. She prefers listening to music on vinyl. She had a Facebook account but closed it down after a bullying episode. She reads and writes and has opinions on everything, but seems immune to the modern disease of 'commenting' on everything for no apparent reason. It is as though she has considered the possibilities of the new technologies and rejected everything that does not serve her sense of what is real. It is amazing.
I cannot say exactly why this has happened. I cannot take the credit, certainly not for anything I did intentionally or strategically. I don’t think it works like that. I think what is important is that a child grows with a sense that there is really no ceiling above her head forcing her gaze downwards, causing her to stoop as she walks.
Fatherhood is not understood in our societies. Motherhood we get: nurturing, cuddling, feeding, changing. As fatherhood comes to be discussed as parenting in the modern world, it tends to be depicted as a kind of male mothering. In as far as we allow for a different role for the father, we seem to think of him as some kind of supervisor/coach, rather than the one who provides the existential accompaniment to the child in the initial walk towards the horizon. For this is what he does.
In the modern world, the culture — which is to say the bunker described by Pope Benediuct XVI in the Bundestag two years ago  — becomes the father, and teaches the child that there is nothing to know, nothing worth knowing, nothing we do not already know, if only yet in potential. So, in the end, nobody knows what is to be known and everything is reduced to appearances.
What space does the person inhabit? The breadth/height of a room? A car? A street?
What does this mean? Nobody knows anymore. The question no longer exists. How, then, can anyone hope to find the answer? Robert Bly, in speaking of the worker-teacher Great Father’, describes the child growing towards the infinite, like a flower or a tree, through the detail of reality. But if the father does not feel the infinite in himself, how can he infuse his child with an awareness of it? This is the problem Michele Serra has drawn our attention to.
I was lucky in that my father was much older than me and had his roots in a pre-industrial era. I ‘remember’ him teaching me and my sisters things without appearing to be teaching anything. He would have us hand in wrenches and sockets to him while he lay on the ground bleeding the brakes on his van, or clean the spark plugs in paraffin oil and pass them to him, one by one. I thought of these things as chores, but they were really lessons in the vitality of the particular.
This is what Robert Bly was getting at. It is not that teenagers have lost their sense of mystery, but that their parents have lost the method by which to guide them towards the Mystery, to indicate where it lies and reassure them that it is real.
Notes From the Sibling Society
This article of mine was published in First Things magazine in April 2018.
The ‘Snowflakes’ problem is not really a Snowflakes problem: It’s an absence not just of adulthood but, more specifically, of grown-ups. This disappearance of actually existing adults is the sole recent cultural change with any possibility of being germane to what is happening that can be objectively verified — and it can. There is no discernible reason why young people reared between the 1990s and the present should be dramatically different from previous generations of young people, certainly from those others who have resulted from the fatherlessness epidemic that has persisted since the mid-20th century. Even more improbable is that there should be some dramatic difference between the sensibilities and sensitivities of young people who end up in college and those who leave education early to earn an honest living. Yet something like this is what we are enjoined to believe by the idea that, for no diagnosed reason, the present generation of young people is more umbrageous and highly-strung than any that went before.
No. When young people demand to be protected from the content of prescribed texts, protest the invitation to their campuses of voluble ‘right-wingers’, or demand the demolition of campus monuments to national heroes, they are merely doing what young people have always done: testing the resolve of their elders and seeking the limits of their tolerance. The problem is not with the students, but with those who are supposed to be in authority over them, who cannot bear to see themselves as elders and by and large have no limits whatever.
Once upon a time, a university was run by men and women in grey suits who set out rules and boundaries for those in their charge. From their offices on the second floor, they looked out on the quadrangle and rapped terrifyingly on the window on observing misbehaviour or incivility. Now, it seems, they work with the curtains drawn while their students run amok down below. The reason is simple: virtually all those currently running universities in the Western world are products of the 1960s culture of peace, love, dope and anti-authoritarianism. They are, in the main, the worst kind of people to be running anything requiring even a modicum of authority, having themselves grown up thinking that youth values ought to trump experience, wisdom and tradition, and that anyone in a suit is a fascist. Their refusal to set limits is at the root of much of the madness currently gripping not merely academia but Western culture generally, from gender pronouns to micro-aggression obsession.
Young people attending supposed educational institutions seek to apply the most natural instinct of young people since the time of Cain and Abel, by pushing their elders until someone lets a roar of ‘Enough!’ But the ‘Enough!’ never comes, nor the rapping on the window, and so the young must choose between effecting a coup d’etat or plunging further and further into petulance, puerility and waywardness.
We are now approaching the full-blown stage of the condition first predicted in the early 1960s by Alexander Mitscherlich — the ‘sibling society’, elaborated by Robert Bly in his remarkable, prophetic 1996 book bearing that exact title. Bly painted a devastating portrait of cultures obsessed by youth, suspicious of forms of authority that might seek to deprive youth of its ‘freedoms’, intent upon destroying the heritage of what Mitscherlich called ‘vertical’ culture — that which has been handed on, generation to generation, since Time out of Mind.
The sibling society stands in contrast to that which preceded it: the father-organised society in which authority was unafraid to risk being despised by the young. A working definition of authority might be: the capacity to endure unpopularity in the interests of good, and a defining quality of fatherhood through the ages was a preparedness to be resented. The father was the guarantor and custodian of civilisation and even malcontented youth looked to him for guidance, free to remonstrate in the knowledge that affection would not be withdraw. The Sixties tore up that Oedipal contract and now the young look only sideways, and warily: the father is absent or suspect, the state has become a multi-breasted mother, and the hole in the human psyche where the father once manifested is invaded by demons. In these conditions, it has become unsafe, not to say unfashionable, to argue that there is an essence of good authority, the loss of which promises incalculable damage for the society we plan to bequeath to our children. Collective advancement requires individual renunciation, in turn requiring a strong, safe, generous agent to act as buffer and punchbag. Think of the contrast between the sobriety of our founding fathers and the affable acrobats who occupy the swivel chairs of office in the present. The so-called patriarchal society was tough, straight, straight-talking and demanding of its citizens, did not waste energy in communication, but made clear, in a minimalist way, what its expectations were. Now the state is ‘tolerant’, ‘inclusive’, indulgent, talkative, given to explaining itself in detail, as though mostly longing to be liked.
The role of stoical, authoritarian receptor for society's anger and outrage represented an imperative that has not been replaced, and so the rage of the young flies off in every direction, unfocussed and unfathomable — hate biting its own tail. Since there is no longer a father to stand rock solid while his children pummels his greatcoat, the rage threatens to pull everything down. Hence, the growing contempt for tradition, wisdom, truth, renunciation, learning; hence, the resultant hollowing-out of education systems, which no longer challenge or satisfy. Only Jordan Peterson, it seems, remains to calm the malcontents with a pat on the head and a stern admonition to go away and be better.
Since we are now a half-century on from 1968, it may be argued that the cadre of that time is no longer sitting at second floor desks but is more likely to be at home reading Richard Dawkins in an attempt to maintain the atheistic certitudes of its youth. And this is almost certainly true of the originators of the revolution. But, as someone who emerged from the generation after ’68, I am here to tell you that many of those who followed were even more suspicious of authority than their predecessors, because they carried —in addition to the naturalistic resentments of youth — an additional grievance arising from the fact that they had not been around when the fuse was lit. My own generation, born in the middle 1950s, ought now to be shouting from second floor windows things like ‘This is a university, godammit!’ and ‘Go clean your room!’ But my generation, the one that came of age in the 1970s, split into two, becoming either counter-revolutionary due to rumbling the lies of ’68 —cleaving to the music but jettisoning the rest — or settled into being ever more dumbly compliant with the terms of the revolution it inherited. Now in the final years of their half-century of cultural domination, these second-string beatniks are doubly dilapidated: In authority themselves, they continue to resent the very idea of authority, and cannot figure out why this doesn’t seem to work. They are sad, angry, directionless Peter Pan rebels, who extol the virtues of youth but hide away from the actually existing young, whom they hope will complete the revolution they started half a century ago, before the dreaded number 64 confronts them on a birthday cake. Hence the deafening silence from the second floor.