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Comments on “Numen, Old Men” – Part 1: The Mythopoetic Movement

April 16, 2010 5 comments

I’m closely and carefully reading Joseph Gelfer’s book on “Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy” because he offers a clear review of what has been going on with men and spirituality over the last couple of decades and maybe some hope for where we can go as men looking for progress rather than a regress to our baser and lower motivations and instincts. This will be a multi-part comment because there is a lot of material to cover.

As I reported at length yesterday I was directly involved to some degree in the “Mythopoetic Movement.” Dr. Gelfer’s second chapter (after an introductory chapter) is titled: “The Mythopoetic Movement: Getting it Wrong from the Start.”  You can imagine how this caught my attention!

The chapter covers much of my life in the 90s. He reviews the movement, the luminaries and their work. It is a good and fairly detailed review which covers much of the material, yes, some of the shortcomings, but I also think there is something which got lost in the research. I have a hunch that Dr. Gelfer’s research was based to a large extent on the primary and secondary sources with no real experience with either the movement or its leaders. Since I had some reasonable and positive experience of both my view is different. Here I’ll go into Dr. Gelfer’s review, findings, conclusions and then amplify these with my own thoughts.

Dr. Gelfer characterizes the movement using four major themes he culls from the literature: archetypes as identified by Jung and extensively researched and adapted by Robert Moore (a Jungian psychoanalyst) and Douglas Gillette (mythologist); wilderness (also called wildness) sometimes characterized by the Green Man and certainly by Iron John, probably the most notorious character in the movement and main character of the book by Robert Bly of the same title; fatherlessness as an explanation of why we are in this mess in the first place and why we need a movement; and initiation as a key missing component to the raising of American, possibly all of western, men.

He also claims that there is little if any spirituality in this movement. He defines spirituality across two pages in his book and finds one offered by Robert Forman “perfectly acceptable” as do I (Forman in Grassroots Spirituality: What It Is, Why It Is Here, Where It Is Going, 2004): “Grassroots Spirituality involves a vaguely pantheistic ultimate that is indwelling, sometimes bodily, as the deepest self and accessed through not-strictly-rational means of self transformation and group process that becomes the holistic organization for all life.”

With that definition and these themes in mind I’ll briefly summarize Dr. Gelfer’s critiques, offer my own thoughts and conclude with an overall impression of both the book, so far, and the movement, so far.

Archetypes: Dr. Gelfer focuses on the work of Moore and Gillette. I was fortunate enough to take a weekend workshop with Robert Moore before their four archetypal books were even publish. The first one, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine which summarized their model had just been published in 1990. Dr Gelfer spends most of his time examining the King and Warrior archetypes and claims that these represent a call for return to the patriarchy and also claims that these two are the chief focal points for the movement. And here I disagree based on my experience with Moore, the use of the archetypes with Bly and others and my own sense of the operation of these archetypes in my life. Moore and Gillette don’t focus on these two archetypes to the exclusion of the Magician and the Lover. And they don’t call for a return to these archetypes to define the Mature Masculine. Rather they call for a balance and a development. And they clearly point out the shadow side of each of the four archetypes and how they can operate destructively in men’s lives. They also use this archetypal model in a developmental sense claiming we are born as divine children in the King quadrant, move through adolescence and early manhood into the warrior quadrant, move on in our prime to our magician quadrant, as we mature and grow in wisdom we move on to our Lover quadrant, and then as senior men (maybe even grandfathers) we finally move back into the King quadrant where we are generative in our maturity. Obviously this is a simplistic model both of the masculine and the developmental stages we go through. It is meant to be instructive rather than conclusive. There is much more detail (five books worth!) that I can’t go into here, but I will conclude that the model has been very useful in my life as a guide to who I am, how I got here and where I am going. And while Moore & Gillette claim these archetypes are “hardwired” into our psyches I may not go quite that far. I believe we can rise above our development and the archetypes which instruct us but don’t necessarily limit us. And here I go back to the definition of spirituality as a means of self transformation, yes, even beyond archetypes.

Wilderness: Yes, Iron John was a wild man. Dr. Gelfer seems to believe this too is a call to return to strong patriarchy. There is certainly a lot about the mythopoetic movement that calls for a return to nature, a respect for nature and the natural. Clearly there is power in this. But there is also love. Rather than King and Warrior in the Wild Man I see Magician and Lover. When Robert Bly refers to the “soft male” he is referring, in my mind, to absent males who have abdicated, not their patriarchal role as King and Warrior, but their male role in the world as  leader and protector. And there is clearly, in my mind, a reverence here and a “vaguely pantheistic ultimate” at the core of this Wildness. I experienced the “Other” the “Ultimate” in my time within the movement, especially at the “Men’s Conferences” I attended. These were spiritual, transcendent experiences that are not easily found in the literature; but how do you write about the transcendent? Through poetry (of the Lover); through “not-strictly-rational” experiences (of the Magician). I agree with Dr. Gelfer that the Spiritual can be difficult to separate out within the movement’s literature; but it is there to be experienced.

Fatherlessness: This is an important theme in much of Robert Bly’s thought on our current predicament in the post-modern world. He believes absent fathers (boys no longer working side-by-side with their fathers) has meant we have been raised by our mothers to too great an extent and to our detriment. We have been raised without good male role-models; our fathers represent the closest we have to strong, if not positive, models. Here I can agree with some of Dr. Gelfer’s criticism. This theme almost sounds like a blame game; looking for excuses. I personally struggled with this thought and finally abandoned it; I grew up with a wonderful father and worked by his side on the family farm. Yes, this was then, and certainly is now, a rarity. And as I explored this concept of the absent father I reached too far thinking because my father was quiet and we didn’t have deep conversations this meant he was somehow “absent.” But now that I’m well into my own fatherhood and grandfatherhood I realize how important my father’s modeling was in my life. OK, so if I had a “present father” what about the men who did not? I think we find our models as we grow up. And these are choices we make as part of our developmental process. Which leads me to the next and final theme:

Initiation: Bly’s second major book (other than his works of poetry): The Sibling Society focuses especially on the situation in which we are a society of uninitiated adolescents. There are good arguments in this book that we adults (including governing officials) act as children too often. And this can be very scary! (I don’t want to get political here, but I believe we invaded Iraq in a childish and grandiose way resulting in a  country forever changed!).  As we grow up in western culture we do not have tests for maturity; we can test for academic achievement; we can test for attained levels of skill; but emotional and spiritual maturity are difficult to measure. It is precisely this emotional and spiritual attainment which Initiation seeks. It is much more than a rite of passage; it is a process of development for young people to move through. Dr. Gelfer seems to equate this call for Initiation with a return to primitive societies where boys are initiated into the tribe of men to take their rightful places as heads of families, patriarchal leaders. Again, this was not my experience. And I don’t think that is the point of identifying Initiation as a missing component in our society. In my mind we have no process for becoming emotionally mature, spiritual leaders. We need them. We need everyone to be emotionally mature and on a spiritual path of some kind, to access “through not-strictly-rational means of self transformation and group process”  the “holistic organization for all life.” How else will we ever advance Consciousness?

Dr. Gelfer has done a great job in outlining the mythopoetic men’s movement and pointing out some of its weaknesses. I don’t believe it was ever meant to be an end point, but rather a stepping stone, as it’s been for me. It doesn’t really have much life in it any longer, sad to say for young men wondering how to “grow themselves up.” But its leaders have been heroes for me: good models, good thinkers, good Warriors, Magicians, Lovers, Kings. And while I have moved on from some of the more simplistic elements of the movement I sense that I stand on a stronger base for having been part of it.

And, don’t get me wrong; I have very much enjoyed Joseph Gelfer’s book and continue to do so as I read through his critique of the various approaches to masculine spiritualities. And I very much look forward to his recommendations (stay tuned).