On Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly.

(Originally published at The Spearhead, Nov. 2010)

Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly, like Robert Bly’s Iron John, is around twenty years old this year. It remains in print, and remains on the very short list of “men’s studies” books written by men who don’t identify themselves explicitly as pro-feminist  – though like Iron John, Fire in the Belly is far more friendly to feminism than many feminists would like to admit. Keen differentiates between two kinds of feminism, what he calls “prophetic” and “ideological” feminism. He feels that the difference between them is “largely a matter of mood, tone of voice, focus, emphasis, feeling-tone.” Ideological feminism, for Keen, is about blaming, scapegoating and maintaining a state of total war between the sexes; it’s what others have called “female supremacism.”

Some of the most helpful messages Keen imparts have to do with female power and the way that an internalized, idealized “WOMAN” can keep men in thrall. His estimation of this power is sometimes dead on, but at other times so overblown and mythic that it evokes Camille Paglia’s work.  The best advice he gives comes in a recounted story from his youth, wherein a man tells him that:

“there are two questions a man must ask himself: The first is ‘Where am I going?’ and the second is ‘Who will go with me?’ If you ever get these questions in the wrong order you are in trouble.”

This much is true. If a man doesn’t know who he is, and he looks to a woman to complete and define him, she will inevitably walk all over him and will probably never respect him. A man who looks for a mother will probably find one, and she will treat him like a little boy. Like Bly, Keen believes manhood requires a move away from the world of women. Keen wants men to spend time in the world of men and define themselves as men and as individuals before they can truly love an ordinary woman. This is probably a good idea, but it also has an upper-middle class air of self-indulgent escapism about it. Life requires most men to get to work. This pre-marriage escapism would have to occur at roughly the same age when men would theoretically be starting careers and families. To what ripe old age can a viable civilization afford to extend adolescence?

The notion of “prophetic feminism” flows from Keen’s vision for the future. Keen believes that we “urgently need new visions of manhood and womanhood,” and that “as men, our challenge is to grow beyond the myth of war and the warrior psyche and to create a new form of ecological economics that will preserve the earth household.” Although he doesn’t always seem sold on the idea himself, Keen envisions a peaceful future where men and women coexist harmoniously and men become “fierce gentlemen” whose manhood is defined by their commitment to certain “vocational passion” and a set of values and morals.  It is because of his “gentle and earthy” vision of the future that the book becomes less about manhood and more about adapting the culture of men to serve his own philosophical and political ideals. In this, Keen shares much in common with feminists, who also believe men must change to accommodate their comparably gilded and utopian future of gender-neutral peace and prosperity. If “ideological” feminists were able to put aside their parochial refusal to allow men to have any distinct and meaningful gender identity of their own, they’d be passing Fire in the Belly out to all of the males in their lives.

The first problem with Keen’s idea of where men are going is his unlikely interpretation of where they’ve been. Keen, like many of his contemporaries, believes that early humans were relatively peaceful goddess-worshippers. He blames much of the current state of masculinity on traits that were necessary to maintain the “warfare system.” While it is very reasonable to suggest that culturally constructed aspects of masculinity help to prepare men for the stress of combat and associated trauma, the notion that early humans lived in relative peace and harmony is not supported by evidence. In War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley makes a convincing case — using both archeological evidence from thousands of years ago and accounts from recent tribal societies — that early humans not only made war, but that they were also pretty darn good at it. Primitive peoples generally engaged in guerilla style warfare and wars of attrition that were often devastating to their comparatively small populations.

In a particularly striking disparity, Keen mentions the Tahitians as people who “encourage men to be gentle, easy, graceful, generous to strangers, slow to take offense, and unconcerned with defending masculine ‘honor’.” (Even Keen admits that people like this are rare.) Keeley, on the other hand, notes that:

“In Tahiti, a victorious warrior, given the opportunity, would pound his vanquished foe’s corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho.”

Grisly examples, based on hard archaeological evidence (like mass graves, decapitated heads, arrowheads in skulls, etc.) abound in War Before Civilization, and Keeley believably explains why some of his predecessors chose to de-emphasize this evidence and “pacify the past.” Keeley is careful to remind readers that humans are not necessarily destined to be warlike simply because peace between humans has been rare, but that lying about the past isn’t the way to solve problems in the present. However, in light of evidence provided by Keeley, a good chunk of Keen’s storyline about how the warfare system corrupted men and masculinity caves in on itself. Humans are violent for approximately the same reasons they’ve always been violent. For another outstanding refutation of the noble savage mythos, see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

The second problem with Keen’s call to reimagine a kinder, gentler, earthier man is that it fails to acknowledge the hard realities of cultural and demographic competition. This “reimagining masculinity” is, for the most part, a SWPL meme. The idea that well-off, highly educated, completely protected Westerners can set the moral bar for the world and that everyone else will leap to follow them is a hubristic fantasy. Asians and swarthier folk aren’t moved by the same guilt complexes (after all, according to the SWPL belief system, they didn’t ruin the planet and everything else). As Keen’s fierce gentlemen belly-ache about violence and social justice, hold spirited debates, buy recycled toilet paper and explore their personal woundologies — a poor kid in the ghetto is getting jumped into a gang, and that kid is going to rob his remodeled urban homestead and rape his narcissistic vegetarian wife. Both Keeley and Keen’s peaceable solutions, if put into practice on Earth, would require one world government and the forced redistribution of wealth by a near police state. The truth is that not everyone is going to sit around having spirited debates. The people who enjoy that have a natural aptitude for it. Not everyone is burning to explore their individuality and inner creativity. (Most people aren’t that creative or interesting.) Someone is still going to have to scrub the toilets and mow the lawns and build the buildings, and those people are going to want the same things average people have always wanted: food, shelter, stuff, entertainment and sex. The calm and sober delights of pampered patrician philosophers do not necessarily appeal to the conflict hungry, reality TV-loving rabble. As Gracchus said in Gladiator, “The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the senate; it’s the sand of the coliseum.”

Like all books explicitly about manhood, Fire in the Belly is really a philosophical treatise. The question “what kind of man shall I be” is a highly philosophical question, and your answer is going to draw on some of your most basic assumptions about the human nature,  politics, ethics and what makes life worth living. Keen is an engaging if sometimes uncomfortably confessional writer, but to sign on to his program, you have to agree that the world he envisions is possible and desirable. Twenty years on, it seems neither.