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Possibly Important, Definitely Flawed
am 5. Januar 2000
Poet Robert Bly takes the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale of the wild man and his foster son and turns it into an extended metaphor for an archetypal initiation into manhood, asserting that modern men are victims of a culture that fails to connect boys with older male mentors. The book is a mix of amateur pop psychology, ecumenical syncretism of the Joseph Campbell variety, and a heavy dose of '80's-era political-correctness. Together with Sam Keen's "A Fire in the Belly" it was one of the bibles of the short-lived 'Men's Movement' of the early '90's.
A 'new' male model emerged in the '70's; 'sensitive guys', who painfully discovered that male sensitivity is not valued in this (or indeed any) culture, by either men OR women. The traditional male, confident, dominating and aggressive, continues to be the desired ideal. Why do so many men come down with sensitivity, and what can be done about it?
According to Bly, in halcyon days of yore boys were initiated into the true nature of manhood either deliberately by cultural rites or incidentally by working alongside their fathers. He blames the industrial revolution for causing a disconnection ("Iron John" contains a great deal of digressive social criticism and liberal finger-wagging) and asserts that modern men are now raised by women without the necessary immediacy of bonding with older males. The book is full of symbolism and poetry conveying a bleak picture of male emotional wounds.
Bly touches on issues many men obviously find important, but he offers no real solutions beyond the vaguely-sketched initiation process that emerges from his discursive interpretation of the title fairy tale. All men are victims in his view, especially those who think they aren't! He is fearful of offending feminists and tries to placate their presumed disapproval by qualifying his call for wildness with obsequious proclamations of allegience to feminist theory. He expends a good deal of blame on traditional conservative targets, and new-agers are also targets for scorn. If you find victimization theory attractive this book may have something to offer, but it's a view not exactly symbolic of strength and empowerment.