Bly: Men’s solitude

Robert Bly’s discursive book Iron John (Addison-Wesley, 1990) intended to identify a new mental and social model and updated myth for the modern male psychology, which Bly found confused and incoherent because of the degradation of traditional myths, social and technological changes, and shifting cultural values. Bly’s approach is through mythology, literature, and anthropological speculation; his explorations make a useful search for the place of people (in this case men) in the modern social world.

Bly concentrates on the Wild Man myths that have existed since antiquity (from Gilgamesh to Esau, to Persians and Greeks to Native Americans) and through the medieval Western mind (such as Merlin and the Fisher King) and up to the classic fairy tales as in Grimm, to modern poetry evoking symbols of sea, forest, walled garden, and to the literature of coming of age. The “Iron John” of the title is a classic fairy tale wherein a Wild Man instructs a boy in that which must be done in order to come of age. The Wild Man is distinct from the Savage Man of anthropology and modern urban disdain, and from the famous medieval Green Man who lived in the wild. And because the true Wild Man has examined the wound that is life and consciousness, he “resembles a Zen priest, a shaman, or a woodsman more than a savage,” says Bly.

In Bly, the Wild Man lives alone in the forest but emerges periodically to enliven village and social life with his moods, abandons, and freely expressed urges. In this respect, Bly’s Wild Man originates more in Pan and the satyrs than in Diogenes or the medieval forest hermits. But both the secular men of the village and the philosophers or religious men of the desert experienced the demons of sexual temptation, and learned how to address them. In the modern world, where the role of men as husbanders, farmers, craftsmen, and adventurers has been suppressed and channeled into urban, mechanized and institutionalized settings, men are robbed of nature, endure splitting families, and reduce their spirits to conventional channels of cultural expression culminating in violence, exploitation, pornography, and war — or its tamer media surrogates. (Bly concentrates on classical themes, however, not venturing into extrapolations like these.)

Bly does not pay much attention to the function of solitude, both in shaping the personality as a practice or in its expression as an avocation. Yet solitude, like the fabled walled garden, is a place of both respite and introversion. And because mythologically the garden is maintained by feminine deities such as Demeter but also seen as a fecund and fertile counterpart settings to the open lands of plains and valleyes, as nature circumscribed but crafted to complement the psychological needs of the individual, the garden is an appropriate symbol of solitude.

Bly translates a portion of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem wherein the world can be seen as that which is not the garden of self:

I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough
to make every moment holy.
I am too tiny in this world, and not tiny enough
just to lie before you like a thing,
shrewd and secretive.
I want my own will, and I want simply to be with
my will,
as it goes toward action,
and in the silent, sometimes hardly moving times
when something is coming near,
I want to be with those who know secret things
or else alone.