Monday, January 26, 2009

W@H: Perspective

Father of mine Tell me where have you been You know I just closed my eyes My whole world disappeared Father of mine Take me back to the day Yeah when I was still your golden boy Back before you went away --Everclear, "Father of Mine" Where did we leave off? Ah, yes, absent fathers. The not-so-subtle misogyny of John Eldredge's god-as-father complex leads pretty easily in to a bigger problem. If fathers are failing, it's because they're not turning to a Heavenly Father. Without the Heavenly Father, we're all a bunch of blithering automatons whose only goal in life is to kill, rape, steal, watch porn, lie, and illegally download stuff. Oh, and we don't want to go to church and we want to beat our own children or withdraw from them or, um, whatever the one size fits all Father Wound is for that kid next door and the one down the block. Now, I've said that this is the place where Eldredge and Bly are pretty much in agreement. As much as I'd like to let Bly off the hook, as I rather like Bly, I have a hard time getting past the last page of his chapter on the father wound.
As we close this chapter on the King and the father, we recognize that we have hit something hard here. The sons and daughters in the United States still feel "too little father," and that is probably not going to get better. Fathers themselves have not changed so much; it is, rather, that they seem to us smaller, because we do not see behind or through them the Blessed or the Destructive King. The fathers seem opaque; the Sacred King seems farther away, and our eyesight is not too good. --Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (121-122)
Bly spends a lot of time working around this concept of the Sacred King. It forms the basis of his concept of masculinity. We all worship the father as the Sacred King, you see. As boys grow up they have to stop worshiping the Sacred King and be initiated to become men themselves. If they don't do this, they remain forever trapped in the state of adolescence. Or something. It's not really entirely clear to me. The thing is, Bly's reasoning goes to exactly the same place as Eldredge's. In fact, it goes there in the very next paragraph.
When the mythological layer collapses, and the political kings fall, then the patriarchy, as a positive force, is over. The sun and moon energies can no longer get down to earth. Ancient Celtic mythology has an image for the end of the patriarchy, and it is this: Eagles sit on the top branches of the sacred tree, with dead animals underneath their claws. Rotting bits of flesh fall down through the branches to the ground below, where the swine eat them. We are the swine. When all the meat that comes down from above is rotten, then neither the sons nor daughters receive the true meat. --Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (122)
If you can get past the aggravating comma splices in the first sentence (seriously, I'm guilty as hell of bad comma splices, but that's just too damn much), think about the nature of these two and a half paragraphs. The patriarchy disappears as a positive force and we all become swine. This isn't a misogynist statement as whatever Eldredge's equivalent statement would be. This is an anti-democratic statement. This is an indictment of the Enlightenment. "We got rid of the kings," Bly says. "We took away the power of the patriarchy. Now look at us, we're a bunch of swine rooting around for rotten meat." The follow-up thought is strangely amusing to me.
That doesn't imply that we need to build up the patriarchy again, but that we need to understand that we are starving. The more difficult it is to visit the King, the more hungry everyone is. The perceived absence of the father is actually the absence of the King. --Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book About Men (122)
It's actually hard to figure out here where Eldredge would end and Bly would begin. Replace "Sacred King" with "god" and you've got yourself a (somewhat more vivid and sensical) passage from Wild at Heart. We need more of the Sacred Father Figure. We can't see the Sacred Father Figure because our own fathers get in the way. We were much better off when fathers didn't get in the way and the Sacred Father Figure shone through. I would love for once to actually have it explained to me when, exactly, that was. I might be beating a dead horse to a red smear in the pavement here, but this period when there was a Sacred Father Figure and men perfectly capable of ushering their sons in to adulthood never happened. Bly acknowledges it when he says, "Fathers themselves have not changed much." In borrowing from Bly, Eldredge borrowed, whole cloth, Bly's misunderstanding of the nature of the relationship between fathers and sons.
Masculinity is an essence that is hard to articulate but that a boy naturallly craves as he craves food and water. It is something passed between men. "The traditional way of raising sons," notes Robert Bly, "which lasted for thousands and thousands of years, amounted to fathers and sons living in close -- murderously close -- proximity, while the father taught the son a trade, perhaps farming or carpentry or blacksmithing or tailoring." My father taught me to fish. We would spend long days together, out in a boat on a lake, trying to catch fish. I will never, ever forget his delight in me when I'd hook one. --John Eldredge, Wild at Heart (66) [emphasis his, also I don't understand what the deal is with Eldredge and his randomly emphasized words]
My father never taught me a trade. He's in banking and financial services. He always has been. I realized when I was pretty young that I didn't want to be like my father, at least not from an employment perspective. At a couple points in my life I have had to take jobs doing financial services. I hated it, got out as quickly as possible. My dad taught me how to play basketball. For my birthday one year he had a basketball hoop put up next to the driveway. My friends had hoops, too. They were adjustable and most of them had the net at nine or eight feet and maybe even had a youth-sized ball or smaller so they could learn to shoot better or, later, dunk. From the beginning my hoop was set to ten feet and I had a full size ball. My dad insisted that I learn how to play properly. He taught me how to shoot and dribble with my left hand and drilled it in to my brain that if I was on the left side of the hoop I needed to dribble and put in layups with that hand. I got my first real basketball when I got my basketball hoop. It was a Wilson leather ball. I know because it's still in my parents' garage. The little goosepimple nubs have completely worn off, the cover has frayed and it's more gray than any other color, but as I sit here I can still feel that old Wilson ball against my hands. I know what it feels like to pick it up, spin it against the palm of my hand, dribble it, put up a jump shot. I remember being out in the driveway when my dad would come home from work and even dressed like he just came from the office he'd take the ball and put up a hook shot. My dad always tried to teach me the hook shot. To this day I can't do it. I don't know why. My dad taught me how to play chess. He had an old wooden chessboard and a set of wood pieces his grandfather made. It didn't take me very long to beat him every time. I guess I just took to the game naturally. He encouraged me to join the chess team, later on he would take me to lessons with a chess master every week. On weekends when there were tournaments he would be at every one, whether it was in the next town over or the next state. He didn't have to do that, but he did. I can guarantee you that I didn't appreciate it at the time. I wanted to hang out with my friends, goof off, be away from my parents. And I didn't know then how valuable a weekend could be in the grind of life. I simply didn't know. This is not at all the point I was intending to make when I started this post, but its something that's central to the argument against both Eldredge and Bly. It's something that they just don't get, probably because they're too busy blaming their fathers for shit that they probably never intended to do. Children are horrible, selfish little creatures. They take without appreciation. They go running off to do things that are more important and leave their parents behind. I can think of dozens of times my father wanted to do something with me and I managed to turn it in to something selfish. I didn't know it then. I didn't know the sacrifice. I didn't know that all he wanted was to spend time with his son. I just didn't know. And, yeah, my father screwed up. He did some things I thought I'd be mad at him about forever. But in the end my dad is just a man. He did his absolute best to get by with what he had. He taught me how to shoot a basketball. He taught me how to play chess and was immensely proud of me when I got 10th in the state in 3rd grade, 13th in the state in 8th grade, won all four games at my junior high home tournament one year, and at all points in between, whether I won or just took home a participant ribbon. He also taught me how to balance a checkbook, the importance of voting, and to keep trying, even if it seems like the whole world is against me. So, no, my father never took me to the edge of the wilderness, set me loose, and said, "Kill a lion and come back a man." But he didn't need to. I don't need to know how to do that to survive in the society I live in. I wonder, in all their ceaseless blather about how their fathers hurt them, if Eldredge and Bly ever once sat down and thought about something else. I wonder if they realize how much their fathers did give them. More importantly, I wonder if they ever stopped to realize how much they hurt their own fathers in rejecting them. Maybe we don't need better fathers. Maybe we need better sons.


Anonymous said...

This is the first post of your series W@H that I agree with 100%. What you get is what you get, and you either make it enough, or you turn into someone like... well, someone like me.

I was always grateful to my old man for the fishing and baseball stuff, but once I decided I'd rather play Mortal Kombat II than go to the batting cages at Enchanted Castle, well, there went my baseball career. My call, not his, nobody was pissed and life went on.

I have a bigger point to make here... but I suck at words.

hapax said...

Maybe we don't need better fathers.

Maybe we need better sons.


You just made me sniffle.

And I don't even have father (or mother) issues.

peanutsnraisins said...

Maybe you’ve mentioned this before, I can’t remember, but this particular set of quotes from Bly/Eldredge really bore in on me just how ethnocentric they are.

“The traditional way of raising sons, which lasted for thousands and thousands of years, amounted to fathers and sons living in close … proximity, while the father taught the son a trade…”

But… that wasn’t true for “thousands and thousands of years”. It’s not even true today. The Na or Mosuo of China, the Maasai age sets, the Nair of Kerala- many of them manage to do just fine without biological fathers living in close proximity with their sons.

The entire concept of a “trade” is only even applicable to societies where resources and technology make it possible for people to specialize in particular activities. In societies where this isn’t true (and this has been most societies that have existed since human beings evolved), activities might be split up by age or sex, but everyone in those groups performs the same basic tasks.

Geds said...

It's something I've kind of talked around, but this is the first time it's been brought up specifically.

Either way, you're totally right. And it's probably going to be one of the things I try to hit when I reach the "damning them with their own words" portion of the broadcast, wherein they say something about the lack of father figures, then bring up non-Western cultures wherein there's way more of a "it takes a village" approach. The main problem from my end is that I'm a historian, not an anthropologist, so a lot of those distinctions just don't occur to me.

Either way, I mostly try to point out how their history is largely irrelevant or downright wrong. I appreciate useful comments on sociology and anthropology, since I do have those knowledge gaps. There's more than enough bizarre stuff in the masculinity movement to go around...