Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Marion Woodman, Elinor Dickson, Robert Bly

This review first appeared in Id Magazine (Fall 1996).

Robert Bly
The Sibling Society

Marion Woodman and Elinor Dickson
Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness

New books by Robert Bly and Marion Woodman provide an interesting compare-and-contrast study. Woodman, the Canadian Jungian analyst, feminist, and author from London, Ontario, and Bly have shared the stage of various workshops for the personal development set. Woodman discusses the feminine, and Bly promotes the masculine. Now readers who peruse the latest offerings from two of the 1990s more creative thinkers can attempt to recreate the atmosphere of those workshops for themselves.

Bly, an American poet who first gained prominence for his principled stand against the Vietnam War, is probably best known for influencing men to retreat to the woods with a set of bongos and body paint. Bly's 1992 book, Iron John, became a surprising bestseller and brought the so-called Men's Movement into the media glare.

Iron John, of course, was also attacked for minimizing feminism's significant gains and achievements. In particular, many found Bly's suggestion that men return to a pre-patriarchal form of masculinity ridiculous in the extreme. Bly's new book, The Sibling Society, picks up where Iron John left off. However, this time Bly has been more careful to clarify his position.

"The anger against patriarchal structures," Bly writes, "is a just anger; its structure has damaged both women and men. The women's movement has in general been a vigorous and essential wave of energy, which has brought about deep changes, long overdue, in the relations between men and women. Patriarchal certainty is no longer so firmly implanted in the brain of every man, and patriarchal structures have dissolved in many fields, allowing women to move forward and take a place in the world."

Bly, however, is on guard against feminism's excesses, and it is here that the critics stumble. See for example the recent brutally inaccurate review of The Sibling Society in The Globe and Mail, which all but called Bly a Neanderthal. Bly's critics take him to be saying that we ought to return to the past, where fathers ruled the home and all was right in the land. Bly is not so simple. He strikes, instead, a cautionary note: he celebrates the progressive elements of feminism, while at the same reminding us to respect and honour men and women, their distinctiveness, and the complexity of their differences.

On this point, Woodman agrees. "Even now," Woodman writes (with co-author Elinor Dickson), "in the patriarchal excesses of militant feminism, we see yet another swing of the pendulum, the failure to find balance." Woodman's book is called Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness, and it is primarily concerned with how Goddess imagery can help save Western culture from its more outrageous bloodbaths. However, Woodman delivers a cautionary note to feminists who find little to like in men, comparing "militant feminism" with the dreaded "patriarchy" it claims to oppose.

Bly and Woodman each retreat from the male and female cultural powermongers and attempt to cultivate the creative middle ground. Woodman, for example, promotes "a new masculine consciousness that can pull the feminine out of the inertia of the mother, bringing a new assertiveness, a new perspective on life." This may sound like a bunch of gobbeldegook, and more than once I got lost in Woodman's book, feeling cast adrift in some netherland of her creation. But it also strikes me as a generous contribution to the stalemate which too often passes for the relationship between the sexes.

"Men have not escaped patriarchy's bludgeonings," Woodman writes at the beginning of a chapter on how a dream relationship to the Goddess can lead men into deeper relationship with themselves, others, and life itself. What is strange is that this needs to be said, and that it has the potential to be so explosive. Bly speculates in The Sibling Society that the reason that Iron John was so consistently misunderstood is because he wrote it for a literary audience, and many of his critics were sociologists.

Maybe that's true. Maybe there is a significant gap between those who can appreciate the wisdom of mythopoetics (the power of myth, metaphor, poetry) and those who prefer their knowledge of the world broken down into statistics, charts, graphs, historical patterns. But if this gap is so wide that we can no longer hear each other, then I think that it's time that we learned to bridge the crevice. There is a ringing need for new answers and new approaches, and Bly and Woodman offer some of the most original.

Bly's point is that patriarchy needed to be broken down, but that the culture that is slowly replacing patriarchy also has its destructive elements. Bly notes, for example, the rise in single-parent homes. Men are neglecting the role of fatherhood. Patriarchy overvalued the role of father, but now we have accommodated the absent father. Western culture has swung from one end of the pendulum to the other. It has created, Bly contends, a society where we parent each other: a sibling society, which has done away with the father figure and is now busy attacking motherhood (see, for example, the significant role attacks on welfare mothers played in electing the Harris government).

Bly makes his point by quoting sociological statistics; however, in the more interesting part of his book, he illustrates his thesis with examples from folklore.

When he talks about fatherless sons, for example, he provides some of the most interesting criticism you're ever likely to read about "Jack and the beanstalk."

For those familiar with Jungian psychology, Woodman's book will prove to be equally rewarding. For beginners, however, many of the passages may prove tough going. Also, I was particularly uncomfortable with her broad generalizations linking Jungian archetypes with quantum physics and chaos theory. It makes for interesting reading and dinner conversation. But is it true?

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