Friday, January 16, 2009
W@H: An Initiation to Where?
What man? Which man? Who's the man? When's a man a man? What makes a man a man? Am I a man? Yes. Technically I am. --Flight of the Conchords, "Think About It" The whole Father Wound thing inevitably creates a vacuum of masculinity in a society. Both Bly and Eldredge speak about it and lay the blame squarely on the heads of the men of the previous generation. So I'm going to play a little game I call Identify the Author. 1. As I've participated in men's gatherings since the early 1980s, I've heard one statement over and over from American males, which has been phrased in a hundred different ways: "There is not enough father." 2. Some fathers give a wound merely by their silence; they are present, yet absent to their sons. The silence is deafening. 3. Initiation, then, for young men amounts to helping them remember the wound, and by that we mean the soul wounds, or injuries to the emotional body. Sometimes the outward scars exist to remind us of the inward scars. 4. A man needs to know his name. He needs to know he's got what it takes. And I don't mean "know" in a modernistic, rationalistic sense. I don't mean that the thought has passed through your cerebral cortex and you've given it intellectual assent, the way you know about the Battle of Waterloo or the ozone layer... The progression is Bly, Eldredge, Bly, Eldredge. And I think it's kind of neat the way I basically picked the first three quotes at random, yet they can be seen as building on one another and leading to the grand conclusion that both Bly and Eldredge make: we need initiation rituals in our societies. Our boys have lost something and don't know how to be men, so the solution has to involve finding people to tell them that they're men. Now, let's leave aside for a moment the fact that it doesn't make any sense to suddenly have a bunch of lost, clueless "men" initiate boys in to manhood, so I'm not entirely sure where they're going to go to get these rituals started. It's like asking directions from someone who's holding their map upside-down. There's a much larger problem inherent in the structure of both Bly's and Eldredge's system. The set-up of manhood in both systems is a teleological question. They say, "Men should be like this," then point out all of the ways that they aren't. Bly will say something like, "It is interesting that we find very few examples of close or chummy father-son relationships in mythological literature," in the process of explaining how myth tells us how men should be without stopping to evaluate the irony of such a statement. If there aren't too many examples, maybe our myths record an existential angst that has existed throughout time and Bly is simply cherry-picking to sell us an answer to a question he's also trying to sell us. It's not exactly without precedence, as we see Columbine, NIU, and Virginia Tech as points on a graph of failed malehood and end up with a flurry of punditry and books built around specious evidence. Every time boys or men do something spectacularly stupid we get sociologists and psychologists coming out of the woodwork to ask the question, "What's wrong with men?" and promise the answers for $15.95 at your local Barnes & Noble. To that I've got two things to say. First, we're asking the wrong question. I think a much better question, if we're going to phrase any question in a, "What's wrong with [insert people group here]?" format is, "What's wrong with us?" Now, for those who are wondering, when I say "us," I mean, "people in modern societies." It strikes me that it's really easy to look at Columbine, NIU, and Virginia Tech, plot them on a line and say, "Aha! There's something wrong with boys!" because when a guy does something insane, a guy tends to do it in a spectacular, violent, and outwardly focused way. We notice those things. We put them on the evening news. We invite kooks to come out with their charts and graphs to explain what, exactly, went wrong. I would posit that whatever problems the male gender is having, the female gender is having it, too. However, girls act out in ways that are more inwardly violent and less likely to get on the evening news. It's one of those things that's as basic as suicide rates. Men are more likely to be reported as suicides while women are more likely to be reported as attempted suicides. It's not because men are better at it, it's because men have a tendency to put a gun in their mouth and pull the trigger while women have a tendency to OD on pills. Things are more likely to go wrong in the latter scenario (erm, from the perspective that not ending up dead is a bad outcome). Since there is no female version of Columbine/NIU/Virginia Tech, we tend to not plot points on a graph and ask, "What's wrong with girls?" However, I would posit that the large number of girls with anorexia/bulimia constitute a point on that graph. I would posit that the woman who is trying to slip cyanide in to her husband's morning coffee constitutes a point on that graph. I would posit that the woman who drives her car in to a lake and gets out, leaving her three children trapped and drowning in the backseat constitutes a point on that graph. Second, the reason we don't ask the question, "What's wrong with girls?" is because of a double-standard. We're not supposed to believe that girls are capable of doing violence. We're not supposed to believe that girls are not capable of ruining society. More importantly, we're not supposed to see that violence against the self is violence in exactly the same way that violence against the other is. It doesn't matter that an anorexic girl isn't bursting in to a room behind a hail of semi-automatic gunfire. She's still perpetrating violence and the fact that her only victim is herself doesn't make it any better. Much like I don't give a crap about the origins of the supposed Father Wound, I really don't care who's at fault for this societal double-standard. Is it men for ignoring and enslaving women throughout history? Is it the feminists for creating this unassailable image of women as omnicapable go-getters who really do have the strength and power to have it all? Is it all the pollutants in the groundwater? Is it TV? Is it Cosmopolitan and Seventeen and YM? The fact is, it doesn't matter. However, the myriad possible targets of blame on the merry-go-round of pointless accusation actually does point to what I think is the simplest answer to the question of what is wrong with us. We weren't meant to live this way. Seriously. That's an overly melodramatic and teleological sounding response. It also sounds a hell of a lot like something Eldredge or Bly would say. So I guess I need to explain. I'm 27, single, childless, work forty hours a week and have a round trip commute that lasts between forty minutes and an hour, so I have roughly 123 hours of free time in any given week. If I need food I make a five minute drive to the Jewel or Trader Joe's and buy whatever I need. If my pants rip or my socks get holes in them I can go to Kohl's and buy new ones. If I want a book I stop by Borders on the way home. All things being equal, I can expect to spend about another five decades on this planet. And I don't know exactly where I am on the continuum of quality of life for people living in modern societies, but I do know that I'm far from unique. Meanwhile, the human body reaches its peak somewhere around thirty, then begins to break down. This is, I would guess, an evolutionary feature in a species that generally didn't live much past thirty. Societal advancements in hygiene, quality of life and medicine prolong our lives to largely absurd points. I have no idea why I would want to live to ninety if I spent the last five years suffering from dementia and the ten before that barely able to walk. Yet our capabilities as a society have evolved at a far greater pace than our biologies as individuals. I also know that there is no possible way that I would be living the life I do if I were born at any other point in human history. Hell, I've already exceeded the life expectancy of people from several points of history and probably just about all pre-history. But more than that, chances are good that I would already have been married for ten years by now if I lived in, say, Medieval Europe, assuming I wasn't on a second or third wife already after the previous one(s) died during childbirth. Assuming I wasn't out fighting in wars for the king or duke or baron to whomever I owed fealty, I'd probably be working in a field somewhere from sun up to sundown six days a week and returning home to a wife who had to spend the entire day making clothing for the entire family and preparing any and all food from scratch without the benefit of a counter top food processor or a self-cleaning convection oven. Chances are, too, that I and all my family would be illiterate. Most people didn't have the time for such frivolous pursuits as learning to read. And they sure as shit didn't have time to sit around and ask questions like, "Am I a real man?" and, "Why doesn't my dad ever say he loves me?" You want to hear from Father Wounds? Ancient Roman children had a tendency to get names that basically translate in to "One" and "Two" because nobody bothered to give the kids real names. It's not because they didn't care, it's because they were pragmatic enough to realize that ol' One and Two there probably wouldn't live to be four. This, too, is why traditional societies tend to have initiation rights in to adulthood that contain naming ceremonies. So when John Eldredge says something like, "[t]he history of a man's relationship with God is the story of how God calls him out, takes him on a journey, and gives him his true name," (103) as part of his overall concept of initiation is completely out of context. It's also why I've found it so necessary to set a baseline of history v. Eldredge's fantasy history and beat that difference like a dead horse. See, an Eldredge or a Bly looks at the rituals and myths of the past and sees something like a naming ritual and thinks, "Ah, these ancient people had a wonderful way of making sure boys knew they were men," like they were all sitting around in a planning meeting one day and said, "You know why we're starving to death, none of our children are surviving until puberty, and we're constantly harassed by the jackasses in the next tribe over? It's because our dads never said, 'I love you,' and told us when we were real men." No. Just...no. Ancient myths are origin stories. They're designed to allow illiterate societies to pass on the information that's important to that society by word of mouth. The stuff that's important to ancient societies was pattern recognition, superstition, and the qualities the individual should espouse to help the tribe survive. Rituals were created as a way of preserving and passing down those necessary bits of information and marking the passage of time. Don't get me wrong, I love myth. I think the stories we tell ourselves have great power. However, I think that Bly and Eldredge's approach to informing modern societies through ancient myths are about as useful as a pilot getting on the PA before a trip from San Francisco to Miami and informing everyone he's just made his ritual pre-flight sacrifice to the four winds and that his co-pilot has cast the bones and the portents show they'll make it just fine.