In yesterday’s Blog Tag post I wrote that one book that had a big impact on me was Iron John – A Book About Men by Robert Bly. I read this as soon as it was published in 1990 while I was part of a men’s group in London and it was of those books that came along at just the right time as it spoke to me with an unfiltered directness. This is the part of Chapter One (The Pillow and the Key) that got me hooked from the start: “In the seventies, I began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the ‘soft male’. Sometimes, even today, when I look at an audience, perhaps half the young males are what I would call soft. They’re lovely, valuable people – I like them – they’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living. But many of these men are not happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them. They are life-preserving but not exactly life-giving. Ironically, you often see these men with strong women who positively radiate energy”.
I identified with this because I knew I was one of these unhappy ‘soft’ men. I was so worried about being associated with the negative values of masculinity that I couldn’t actually find many reasons to feel good about being male. I made friends with women more easily than with men and was praised for my non sexist (read – non threatening) character. Yet, as Bly understood, to deny one’s maleness is ultimately to deny oneself. His book was widely attacked and ridiculed for celebrating the domineering mode of male behaviour that has led to the repression of women but this kind of knee-erk reaction shows a fundamental misreading of Bly’s thesis. He was merely pointing out that simply asking men to be more in touch with their feminine side is not necessarily a healthy way forward. The book presents an affirmative definition of masculinity without this involving the devaluation or humiliation of women. Concepts like the ‘inner warrior’ and getting in touch with the ‘wild man’ are, Bly argues, essential in gaining a definition of manhood which is about strength and purpose rather than aggression and hostility.