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

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).

  1. April 18, 2010 at 7:18 pm

    I certainly don’t seek to throw out personal experience: the issue on the table is an awareness of the forces shaping that experience. This requires self insight that a lot of people just don’t have. By sticking to the literature, this task is simplified to some degree. Certainly, though, it is possible (and desirable) to include personal experience, but the complications of this must be fully appreciated by all the stakeholders involved. In a world of sound bites, bullet points and instant insights, this is difficult, to say the least.

    If you want to see initiation as the same as development, that’s fine. But it’s important to remember that the way the movement literature refers to initiation (i.e. boys being initiated into the “tribal” values of “mature” men, often through a dangerous ritual) speaks to issues of power, identity control and physical extremism that are not necessarily present in common understandings of development. Your developmental interpretation is certainly valid, but it would be questionable to suggest that is the context in which initiation functions within the movement.

    The problem with “many (mostly younger) men are now just going through the same old thing” is that we never learn from mistakes. The (broken) wheel is continually reinvented. If we have any hope, each generation must build on the experiences of the previous, not repeat them. Think about slavery as an analogy: do we all have to work through the fact that it is wrong? Development is not simply a personal issue, but a collective and historic issue.

    I certainly have no desire to deny your experience with the movement on the ground, and am pleased to hear of the issues you speak of with Bly et al. It’s just a shame that these seemingly better aspects remain obscured by the way the movement leaders presented themselves to the outside world, the simplistic models of masculinity this presentation encouraged, and the fact that this partial picture is the one perpetuated by so many men who speak to these issues.

    You know, I actually hold experience in pretty high regard. I hope that before it’s too late I get to look Bly and Moore in the eye and FEEL what they were trying to do. The project they tried to achieve on the page failed, and I strongly believe this needs to be acknowledged before regular men can move on. However, I’m open to the possibility that they have something less tangible to offer: sometimes when we have these pre- or post-linguistic gifts we need to recognize them for what they are, and not try and force a square peg into a round hole. While the constructive aspect of this story may be hard to articulate, the deconstructive aspect is relatively easy, and it is this aspect that is crucial if genuine eyes-open development is to happen.

    Contrary to popular belief, I remain ultimately optimistic about these issues: figuring out how to navigate them is the tricky bit 🙂

    • April 18, 2010 at 10:36 pm

      Thanks, again, Joseph. It’s getting late here and I do want to get on with more of your book, so I have something intelligent to say tomorrow. But I did want to respond to a couple of words that grabbed my attention in your latest comment:

      “Broken” – I just don’t see the “wheel” as “broken” as you do. I do think it can be improved, built upon, evolved – no question here. But the wheel that was built by this movement did have some spin to it. It got some things started that were and are desperately needed. So, rather than throw out this wheel as broken I seek to build on it. And I hope we are dealing here with a spiral rather than a wheel. I’d rather see some elevation happening rather than just going ’round in circles with a fancier wheel!

      “Failed” – “the project they tried to achieve on the page failed”! But this is my whole point here; it’s not about what’s printed on the page. Yes, for your academic study that’s all you can rely on. But things don’t fail on the page. They fail (or succeed) in the actuation of what’s on that page. Grand designs often fail; but they get tweaked during implementation and then succeed. And even if they do fail, there is so much to learn in failure. Martín Prechtel would say there is great beauty in failure. As long as we are feeding the gods and goddesses (what he calls the holy), even in our failures, there is magnificence!

      And one area I think we heartily agree: “figuring out how to navigate [these issues]is the tricky bit.” And the task is worth it!

  2. April 16, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks for these thoughtful comments: the closest reading yet of this part of the book.

    You say that the book is based to a large extent on the primary and secondary sources with no real experience with either the movement or its leaders. Certainly, this study is a textual analysis of the movement, which is a perfectly valid method. It’s interesting that the two most sympathetic studies of the movement (by which I mean academic) are those involved in participant observation (Schwalbe’s “Unlocking the Iron Cage: The Men’s Movement, Gender Politics, and American Culture” and Magnuson’s “Changing Men, Transforming Culture: Inside the Men’s Movement”). These studies see plenty of men with “good intentions” that do not match the quite reasonable and critical readings of the movement leaders’ writing. However, as I mention in the book, good intentions often do not equate with good effects. I believe participant observation gives too much weight to good intentions at the expense of critiquing their negative effects. I have found this tension to operate elsewhere in my own work, which is why I opt for textual analysis, as it seems in many ways less compromised. And, of course, the “men on the ground” generally mobilize the writings of the movement leaders, which again makes them central.

    You are correct that Moore refers to all four archetypes, and not just the king and warrior. The big “however” is that far more attention is given to these two archetypes across the movement than the magician and lover, which is why I make them central. You mention Moore’s reference to the shadow, but this does not stand up to examination: it is a cursory awareness that breaks down when read closely (see pp. 24-5 and my reading of the King David story). You hit the nail on the head when you say, “It is meant to be instructive rather than conclusive”: this is back in the realm of good intentions. It might have been meant as instructive, but there are two problems here: first, I don’t think Moore et al have the competence to pull it off (that’s mean, I know, but I stand by it); second, even if they did pull it off, it certainly was read as conclusive by too many people. Either way, the net effect is poor.

    The Wild Man: Here I think it is important to unpack the difference between “wildness” as it may stand on its own, and then in respect to Bly’s context of the wild man. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with wildness in and of itself: to suggest otherwise would be a claim against nature (and I use “nature” in the ecological sense of the word, not what is “natural” about being a man). Bly’s Wild Man is clearly a combative metaphor, as demonstrated by my reference to folklorist Jack Zipes’ critique. The “vaguely pantheistic ultimate” can be at the core of Wildness, but it is not necessarily (for example, an atheist appreciate of awe in nature): given that it is never explicitly spelled out, it remains, at best, ambiguous.

    Initiation: references to primitive initiation rights abound in the movement’s literature. There may have been some “intention” (that old chestnut!) to mean something beyond this primitive context, but I don’t see it. One reads a fair bit along the lines of “we need something that fulfills the functions of primitive initiation in contemporary life”, but no substantial offerings: in the void left by no such offerings, folks on the ground take what they can get (i.e. the primitive). As I also mention in the book, initiation serves well to erase individual identity by co-opting youth into the values of society, rather than the ”intention” of bestowing “mature” identity upon them. Note also, the mantra-like references to “mature” speak to age-based power structures within the movement: a gerontocracy–if ever there was one–which I find most amusing coming from those who not many years previously rejected exactly such a system in and around the Summer of Love!

    I honor your reading and experience of the movement, but feel it is colored by your desire to see it in a good light. That said, you are spot on to say the movement should be seen as a stepping stone: The problem is that too many (mostly younger) men are now just going through the same old thing, rather than moving onto the new.

    • April 18, 2010 at 5:09 pm

      Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful reply, Joseph. I appreciate the time you have taken to engage in a discussion on this subject, first through your well researched book and second through your willingness to respond to my review of it.

      I certainly don’t want to get into a point by point debate on the issues we each are raising about the “movement.” Clearly you are coming at the subject with academic study as a primary motivation. As such I do understand that you have necessarily restricted your review to the literature. For me, while I understand the sociological benefit of such a study, I find it limited to an examination of only one dimension of the movement, maybe two given the secondary literature, critiques of the primary literature, and the reporting on the movement.

      You consider the actual experience of the movement, mine included, as “well intentioned” thereby tainted by the intention. But this argues to throw out all experience as suspect because of preconditioned expectations. Are we all to live in “ivory towers” and study the “plebes” as they go through attempts at growth with all the “good intentions” but expected failures which follow experimentation? I can not discard my experiences; they are what make me today!

      I suppose my experiences have also been tainted (I would prefer to say “influenced”) by an identification with the “gerontocracy” you mention. But humans, maybe especially men, must go through developmental stages through their whole lives. It is my hope that men will continue to develop, rather than stagnate into a comfort zone of one archetype or another! I certainly hope that the majority don’t get stuck in the warrior stage (although many have, judging by the rise again of the “militia movements” in this country!). Transitioning through developmental stages (however you wish to label them) is what I call initiation. For me, and I think for the movement in general, initiation involves a transcendence of self from one developmental stage to another. Some of these initiations can be formalized but often they are not.

      And what is wrong with “many (mostly younger) men are now just going through the same old thing”? Yes, by definition they need to; this is initiation. And for us “old men” of the gerontocracy of the movement, we too need to move on and grow and offer the next steps, the next levels of development.

      Joseph, you have said little about the Magician and Lover quadrants of development which Moore and Gillette (however incompetently) have explored, believing through your research that it is only the Warrior and King archetypes which are emphasized by the “movement.” This is where my experience disagrees substantially with your research. And this is not about good intention but about the magic and singing and praising and grieving and honoring and, yes, transcending our lower selves to reach for Higher Self which I experienced in Minnesota with Robert Bly, et al and a group of a hundred or so men gathered to do just that. We didn’t talk about war expect to grieve it and its consequences. We didn’t talk about kingliness except to explore it and our grandiosity, as identified by Heinz Kohut, and to understand both the positive and negative aspects of that grandiosity in the human psyche. We did sing, a lot, and read and write poetry, a lot, and listen to and tell beautiful stories. We did praise, a lot, each other, gods and goddesses, our wives and daughters, our sons and grandchildren.

      You won’t find much of this in the literature. It’s not easy to write about in any coherent and believable way. But it is real. It is transformative. It is what the movement is all about. If humanity is to survive and continue to evolve we must transcend our current stage of development. I look to the future with tremendous hope because people like Robert Bly have created a rock to step out on, and people like you, Joseph, are looking for something more, the next rock to step up on!

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