Do men need to descend to find themselves?

(sketch of “Iron Hans” (John) scene by Wanda Gag, 1936)

8 min read  |  One of the most influential recent books about exploring the problems and potential solutions for modern manhood is “Iron John: A Book About Men” by Robert Bly.  The book was published in 1990, was a New York Times bestseller, and is still in the Top 25 bestsellers at Amazon under Gender Studies.  What I found striking about the book, other than its provocative arguments drawn from a wide range of sources – poetry, mythology, literature, and modern cultural observations – is how little it seems to be on the minds of men now.

Why?  Either the book’s ideas no longer resonate with modern men, or we lost awareness of a flowering in the 1980s and 1990s of male writers trying to rediscover and reinvent manhood.

Bly interprets a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Iron John, as carrying important insights for what boys specifically need to come to terms with as they mature into men.  He writes,

…the next step in initiation for men is finding the rat’s hole.  The rat’s hole is the ‘dark way,’ the one that Williams or Haverford doesn’t prepare one for, the trip that the upwardly mobile man imagines that only lower-class men take, the way down and out. (p. 70)

Initiation itself may seem like an ancient concept.  To be sure, it’s required to join the ranks of a fraternity or gang.  But is it required for a boy to become a man, or a grown man to mature further?  Fascinating evidence from comparative mythology suggests that men in pre-industrial cultures, especially hunting and warrior societies, were initiated into manhood in their early or middle teens.  According to Joseph Campbell, in his conversations with Bill Moyers (“The Power of Myth,” televised and in book form; see episodes three and four), in these societies initiation rites were used by older men to inculcate teenagers into the norms and values of the tribe, to learn the skills and rituals of the hunt, and how to deal with the fear of death and sexual temptation.

These rituals have found their way into relatively modern myths, per Campbell, such as those of King Arthur and his knights and in the Bible.  In one, Sir Gawain, of King Arthur’s round table, encounters the challenges of the Green Knight.  This story is about facing death and sexual temptation.  Jesus also was tested in a similar way.  During his sojourn in the desert, which already was testing his hunger and spiritual strength, the Devil then appeared and tempted him to abuse the power of God and to worship the Devil in exchange for power over “all the kingdoms of the world.” (Matthew 4:1-11; see also Luke 4:1-13).  In these stories, the hero struggles but resists, and we can conclude that we too will be stronger if we learn to resist these temptations.

What about now?  Bly argues that modern initiation needs to include a descent or “going down”:

With initiators gone from our culture, we do not receive instruction on how to go down on our own.  We could use the phrase going into grief for the conscious act of descent, but one sometimes feels that in the United States a man is supposed to feel grief only at a funeral. (p. 75)

What does Bly mean by “descent”?  He describes two kinds.  One kind involves a dramatic fall that the Greeks referred to as katabasis:

When ‘katabasis’ happens, a man no longer feels like a special person.  He is not.  One day he is in college, being fed and housed – often on someone else’s money – protected by brick walls men long dead have built, and the next day he is homeless, walking the streets, looking for some way to get a meal and a bed. (p. 70)

It’s as if life itself somehow ‘discharges’ him.  There are many ways of being ‘discharged’: a serious accident, the loss of a job, the breaking of a long-standing friendship, a divorce, a ‘breakdown,’ an illness. (p. 71)

According to Bly, a key element of the initiation is for a man to turn towards the pain, rather than numb it or avoid it with alcohol, drugs, TV, or shallow relationships:

The descender makes an exit – from ordinary and respectable life – through the wound.  The wound is now thought of as a door.  If his father abandoned him, he now truly becomes abandoned; during this time he has no house, no mother, no woman.  If shame wounded him, through sexual abuse, physical beating, or by ingesting a shame-filled parent, this time he lives the shaming out – he associates with men and women who are chronically shamed, puts himself down and out where he will be shamed fifty times a day. (p. 72)

The way down and out doesn’t require poverty, homelessness, physical deprivation, dishwasher work, necessarily, but it does seem to require a fall from status, from a human being to a spider, from a middle-class person to a derelict.  The emphasis is on the consciousness of the fall. (p. 73)

I don’t always agree – these ideas are often lyrical and insightful, but sometimes strike me as jumping to conclusions, being based primarily on conjecture, or not considering a broad scope of evidence.  Keeping in mind that his book was published before our current flourishing of neuroscience, sociology, and psychology, I am very interested over the coming months to survey what modern science has to say to these claims.  At the very least, it’s like my book editor says of Bly, “This is an example of the poet pointing the way for scientists to follow.”

The second type of fall is milder, but also serves to transform.  Bly calls it “ashes” or “cinders” time, and Bly claims a man can go through this period of life while still staying married, holding down a job, and so on.

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I can relate, my above caveats about scientific data notwithstanding.  I know that when I suffered my first dark period fifteen years ago – clinically speaking, it was mild depression, enough to take antidepressants for a time – it was catalyzed by my mother’s death, the failure of my romantic relationships, and the realization that I was not intended to follow my chosen career path as a physician and researcher.  I did not handle it very skillfully.  I numbed myself mostly with alcohol, smoking, and unfulfilling relationships.  It took me almost ten years more to turn toward the pain, to open the “door,” as Bly puts it, and I did this by deciding to stay in a cabin for a week alone and write out all my memories and feelings about the time before and after my mother’s death.  It also required some acts of God:  meeting a woman I fell in love with, who was very loving and emotionally aware, and discovering yoga, meditation, and other practices that I never would have imagined myself trying based on my upbringing.

My mother was wonderfully loving and exuberant.  She was the emotional glue in my extended family, helping the brighter side of everyone shine a little more, and glossing over the rifts and grudges.  But when she got sick with metastatic cancer, she could no longer play her role and the family wounds began to fester.  I used my time in the cabin to write out all the details from every main character’s perspective – my parents, myself, my relatives.  In effect what I was doing was taking my first crack at fiction writing.

As a result, I discovered more about how to be kind to myself, my surviving family members, the memories of my mother, and had the extra bonus of learning that I loved writing.  Not everyone will feel that way about writing itself, of course, but this event was indeed cathartic for me.  But perhaps all that was just my experience and is not to be generalized?  If boys and men do need initiation, however, what forms are most efficacious for modernity?

I’ll close with more excerpts from Bly to ponder:

Ashes present a great diminishment away from the living tree with its huge crown and abundant shade.  The recognition of this diminishment is a proper experience for men who are over thirty.  If the man doesn’t experience the diminishment sharply, he will retain his inflation, and continue to identify himself with all in him that can fly:  his sexual drive, his mind, his refusal to commit himself, his addiction, his transcendence, his coolness.  The coolness of some American men means that they have skipped ashes. (p. 83)

Initiation asks the son to move his love energy away from the attractive mother to the relatively unattractive serpent father.  All that is ashes work.  When a man enters this stage he regards Descent as a holy thing, he increases his tolerance for ashes, eats dust as snakes do, increases his stomach for terrifying insights, deepens his ability to digest the evil facts of history, accepts the job of working seven years under the ground, leaves the granary at will through the rat’s hole, bites on cinders, learns to shudder, and follows the voice of the old mole below the ground.” (p. 91)

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