Jack Donovan | Revisiting Iron John
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Revisiting Iron John

On Robert Bly’s Iron John.

(First Posted to The Spearhead, Nov 2010)

Robert Bly’s Iron John touched off a national discussion about manhood when it camped on the New York Times Best Seller list for over 60 weeks, starting in 1990. The enduring popular caricature of the “men’s movement” — a bunch of guys sitting around a campfire banging on drums, trying to get in touch with their inner warrior — is likely the product of media coverage that followed in the wake of the book’s success. Men’s therapy groups heavily influenced by the Iron John, like the eyebrow-raising Mankind Project, continue to draw new recruits. Twenty years after its initial publication, it remains in print, and remains a relevant read for anyone trying to make sense of men’s movements and men’s psychology.

Iron John is peppered with meaningful insights, but it is also insufferably fruity. And therein lies the problem. But to be charitable, let’s start with the insights that still ring true.

Bly opens by correctly observing that men have become soft, gentle and too eager to please women.  While the less receptive, more traditional model of manhood is equated with violence, receptive manhood is rewarded in our “non-violent” post-feminist service economy. Sex realists and “game” enthusiasts today would be quick to point out that soft, “beta” men are often abandoned for harder “alphas,” but it is accurate to say that society in general rewards men who behave submissively in adulthood.

Bly is also spot-on in his explanation of the deterioration of relationships between young men and older men that gave men a sense of community among other men. Boys who spent time in their mother’s world sooner or later learned a trade from their father and went with men to do men’s work. Men’s groups, compared to groups for women, have become comparatively rare and are too often subject to female supervision. Due to changing economic circumstances, young men grew up seeing their fathers leave the house to go to work every day. Young men learned to relate more to their mothers, to see their mothers as whole people, to see things from their mother’s perspective. The grumpy, tired dads who came home at night became alien and suspicious. Bly writes, “one could say that many young men in the sixties tried to accept initiation from women. But only men can initiate men, as only women can initiate women.” As single motherhood has increased dramatically since then, this problem has become much more acute.  However, if the current mancession has a silver lining, it may be that many boys have ended up spending more time with dad than they would have otherwise during the last few years. It’s conceivable that a generation of boys will grow up seeing their mothers as frazzled, career-minded shrews, while dad seems unfairly hen-pecked, easy going and fun — if a little beaten and lost. It’s too soon to say.

In Bly’s scenario from another era — where dad was always gone and mom was always around and the son was allied with his mother against his father — the boy also learns to see his own masculinity from a woman’s perspective. This is profound and palpable in a great deal of writing about men, written by men. How many snide and dismissive editorials about men have been dashed off defensively by boys who felt alienated from or abandoned by their fathers, or who felt most allied with their mothers? These are the men, for the most part, who I think Bly is reaching out to with Iron John. It’s hard to imagine men who have strong bonds with their fathers — say, men who were heavily involved in sports or some sort of hobby with dad — having this sort of overwhelming distrust of the masculine.

Iron John also touches on the importance of katabasis for men, especially for upper class, middle class, and particularly verbal, intellectual or artistic men. Katabasis is basically a period of humbling or lost status. It literally means “to go down,” and it’s actually a favorite theme of mine in literature and film. In Captain’s Courageous, The Sea Wolf, and even Fight Club, men learn about manhood and become more grounded by losing their protected places in the world. Bly associates it with a kind of depression, and it could be a depression, but it could also be a more coincidental phenomenon that drives men downward when one would expect them to reach upward. Bly sniffs at the military often — we’ll get to that  – but he misses the appeal of boot camp, even the once famous allure of the French Foreign Legion. Disappear, give your identity to someone else for a while, start from the bottom.  This is a guy thing. There’s also an analog in some schools of martial arts, and it should be said that maybe getting in touch with one’s inner man or inner warrior would be more healthily pursued in that kind of environment than in a therapy camp.  Male initiation need not be so literal, so forced. If you surround yourself with men for a while and you are able to descend, be humble, and abandon your ego — it seems to happen naturally.

One of the biggest problems with Iron John is Bly’s palpable resistance to allow actual warriors to embody “warriorhood” in his scheme of things.  Warriors are men who make war. We don’t all have to be warriors, and we can all draw inspiration from the courage and heroism required of men who hunt, fight and kill that “most dangerous game.” But the story of Iron John is based on a Grimm fairy tale, and Bly will only allow fairy tale violence into his world. Iron John, who personifies Bly’s “wild man” is big and hairy and scary, but at heart he is really a gentle giant, and that seems to be what the tall poet Bly believes mature men should become. There is something dishonest and ahistorical about this view of man as a misunderstood softy — like the monster from Harry and the Hendersons. In Bly’s world, the boy goes into fairy tale battle, but one cannot reconcile this magic, ritual battle with the kind of Arthurian battle wherein knights are cut down “horse and man.” Indeed, the majority of Bly’s mythological references are strangely sanitized and benign. Homer is mentioned, but the central themes of rage, vengeance, bloodlust and the shockingly explicit gore of the Iliad are never considered.  Cú Chulainn is mentioned as a mythological hero properly welcomed home — Bly is right that this is missing from modern warfare — but he fails to mention how the story celebrates the hundreds and hundreds of men the hero kills, often brutally, in battle. Bly repeats an incredibly silly maxim, “never give a sword to a man who can’t dance” and this more or less captures his tone when it comes to actual warriors versus his new-agey “inner warrior.” It is terrifically disrespectful, vain and solipsistic to speak of warriors but somehow claim that spoiled middle aged men in therapy know more about “true warriorhood” than actual combat soldiers do. If you want to get a sense of what it is like to be a warrior, read War by Sebastian Junger (2010, Twelve).  If you want to approximate it and get in touch with your “inner warrior” without going to Afghanistan, take up a martial art and compete.  If you just want to read about it and be inspired by warriors, that’s OK too, but don’t make yourself ridiculous by running around calling yourself a “true warrior.”

This masculine tone-deafness, the reliance on a fairy tale reality, the fetishization of childlike innocence and deference to feminine imagery are problematic throughout the book. I called it insufferably fruity above, and as a writer who has been mocked for getting caught up in his own rhetoric I do not do this lightly or to make myself feel smart or witty. It’s a legitimate problem, and it’s part of the reason why, despite its success, the book and its message never connected with younger men or became a powerful force of lasting change. When you start going on to men about their “internal woman,” their “deep masculine” and the “nourishing dark,” you’re really not talking to average guys any more. For Bly, male mentors can’t simply be mentors or guides or surrogate fathers; they have to be “male mothers.” His focus on woundology is so heavy handed that parts of the book feel like a male version of The Vagina Monologues. Bly’s often overwhelming New-Ageyness is most prominent in the following passage:

“The younger body learns at what frequency the masculine body vibrates. It begins to grasp the song that adult male cells sing, and how the charming, elegant, lonely, courageous, half-shamed male molecules dance.”

After scraping the rainbows and magic dust from my eyes, I can extract something meaningful from that about young men needing to get a sense of how it feels to be a man by spending time with their elders. But c’mon, man…

Bly frames Iron John as a book primarily for men ready to do this kind of “inner work;” men around the age of 35. If you’re going to really change manhood, you have to reach out to young men, too. A movement for 35 year old men has no future. Group therapy culture can’t replace authentic, organic masculine experience. That’s a problem I still see with the men’s movement, though I think this is changing. A transformative movement that is going to appeal to young men has to have balls. Iron John contains some truth, and Bly is a natural storyteller, so the book is very well written in its own way.  Bly acknowledges some of his own weaknesses and that requires a certain courage and honesty. But ultimately, Iron John offers no path to power for men. At best, it outlines a way to make peace with a wounded male soul.