473. Peace (VII)
Updated: Jan 3, 2022
The late Robert Bly, who originated the mythopoetic men’s movement, once told a story of a young man who called up his father late one evening. The old man said, “Just a minute, I’ll get your mum.” The young man said, “Dad, hold on a sec, I just wanted to tell you that I’ve finally finished my degree, in the subject I always wanted to study, and it was all thanks to all those hours you worked when I was growing up—all those nights away from home. And I just wanted to say, well, thank you so much, dad—I love you.” There was a pause for a moment as the father drew in his breath before he said, “You been drinking, son?”
This is quite a good joke, and when Bly told the story he received warm laughter from his audience. The problem is that Bly did not leave the story there. No, he then went on to say that it was about time that men copied the young man and called their fathers to say “thank you” and “I love you.” Jesus Christ, no. Bly took the entirely wrong message from the joke. Insofar as the joke has a message it is that at least, in part, that it is difficult to be sincere—at worst you could come off as a maudlin drunk; and, indeed, many bad poets do come over as maudlin drunks—the poetry in greeting cards is bad poetry, it is maudlin and sentimental. “You drunk, son?”
Those who advocate fierce masculinity would say this is just unmanly behaviour—really ghey—and the father was right to cut the son short with the joke; all that gush is for women, and, as they say, in the real world women will be tolerated if they gush that way but not men. Further, they would point to the fact that Harvard-educated Bly wanted to put the “old masculinity” to bed, to reconcile men with what used to be called “the women’s movement”—and that meant men needed to become more like women, to become “male mothers” and “get in touch with their feminine side”. “Communist horseshit,” they might say—and they would be right.
However, there is another point that Bly missed. Love is real—as is love between men—but it is real only insofar as it is never mentioned, and in this respect it is the same as goodness. Of all the commodities, love is the easiest to debase—drop the word more than a handful of times, at the absolute most, and you have killed it. Hence Leonard Cohen was right to sing, “True love leaves no traces.” Jesus observed, when it comes to goodness, that the left hand must not know what the right is doing; a good act must be done in secret, so quickly you have not time to think about it, and then instantly forgotten—or else it too easily becomes vanity.
Hence the good man is a lonely man; he performs all his acts in secret—even from himself. The philosopher has his solitude—a dialogue with himself—and so is never lonely even when alone; he is repaid with wisdom. The good man is truly alone—hence the Jews speak of thirty-six righteous men who justify the world and who are unknown even to themselves; if they knew themselves to be good, they would no longer be so.
Love, being related to goodness, must also be invisible. Blake said: “Never seek to tell thy love, love that’s never told can be.” Bly said the opposite; he said: tell it, tell it, tell it. Do that and you will destroy it. Women—less spiritual than men—say they love each other all the time; and, in Britain, we call celebrities and actors “luvvies” because they always say, on set, “Oh, you alright, luv? Mwah. Mwah.” And, of course, in that world—on the stage, theatrical or political—there is very little love indeed.