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Robert Bly and the eternal stars

Robert Bly was a poet, I’ve mentioned him before; he was popular in the 1980s with his “Iron John” stories—his mythopoeic men’s movement. It already sounds slightly risible—after all, what is an “Iron John”; it sounds lavatorial—something to do with an outhouse, I’m not sure. Bly’s idea was to answer the feminist movement with a return to myth and fairytale—and his books were very successful, best-sellers. Bly himself was a miserable man from Minnesota, a melancholy Norwegian stranded in the prairies—later, these people, often staunch socialists, would punish themselves by inviting thousands of Somalis to live among them. Bly would like that—he was very into grief and melancholy; he thought it was good for men to feel blue and express their feelings.

He thought older men needed to become “male mothers”, mentors to young men—it makes me clench my teeth and hiss. Emotional wince. I don’t want a male mother, thanks. How about a male father? No—Bly would not have been popular if he said that, it would have contradicted feminism. Other things Bly was not keen on: Christianity—he went in for African myths and the like (it was a condition for his success). Alien myths—would he have loved a few Somali myths in Minnesota? Perhaps not. Anyway, the idea was that you went into your garage, with a drum and some African stories, and beat out a tattoo and rapped—related, as they said in the 1970s—about how hard it is to be a man.

“No. No he wouldn’t.”

As Mike Myers once put it in So I Married An Axe-Murderer, a film contemporaneous with the mythopoetic men’s movement (cue hand drums): “Woman. Woah-man. Woaaahhh-man.” The film is relevant because poor Myers ends up chased by his savage sister-in-law, an axe-murderer—perhaps, after his lucky escape, he could discuss his grief at a mythopoeic meet in a local garage. Myers would need a male-mother to mentor him, since in the film he plays the female role—the terrified ingenue who runs away from the axe-murderer; or it’s just symbolic for how men perceive marriage, I don’t know.

Bly gave up the family business—his brother carried on the family farm, and so remained in relation with his father, whereas Bly became a poet-teacher (mom’s favourite). So Bly’s masculinity is femininity—and his grief, partly grief for the fjords, is to do with his alienation from the paternal activity. In the clip that heads this page, Bly renounces the eternal stars—he speaks about the mortal stars that will eventually fall to mud. He claims to be happiest in the mud (though not on the farm)—well, no wonder he was miserable but successful; he gave up on the eternal stars—he became a Hollywood star, after a fashion; the best-seller, Bill Moyers special “man expert”. But guys, listen—don’t give up on the eternal stars, don’t give up on the Grail.


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