Iron John, The Golden Ball, and Bly

Back to Iron John for a bit here. Bly is onto something here. He rambles for a while and provides (along with plenty of other folks) some misdiagnosis. Nevertheless, I really think that for men and boys, what he’s talking about here should NOT be brushed off.

Now back to the story. [The Brother’s Grimm fairy tale of Iron John.]

One day the King’s eight-year old son is playing in the courtyard with the golden ball he loves, and it rolls into the Wild Man’s cage. If the young boy wants the ball back, he’s going to have to approach the Hairy Man and ask him for it. But this going to be a problem.

The golden ball reminds us of that unity of personality we had as children-a kind of radiance, or wholeness, before we split into male and female, rich and poor, bad and good. The ball is golden, as the sun is, and round. Like the sun, it gives off a radiant energy from inside.

We notice that the boy is eight. All of us, whether boys or girls, lose something around the age of eight. If we still have the golden ball in kindergarten, we lose it in grade school. Whatever is still left we lose in high school. In “The From Prince,” the princess’s ball fell into a well. Whether we are male or female, once the golden ball is gone, we spend the rest of our lives trying to get it back.

The first stage in retrieving the ball, I think, is to accept-firmly, definitely-that the ball has been lost. Freud said: “What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.”

So where is the golden ball? Speaking metaphorically, we could say that the sixties culture told men they would find their golden ball in sensitivity, receptivity, cooperation, and nonagressiveness. But many men gave up all aggressiveness and still did not find the golden ball.

The Iron John story says that a man can’t expect to find the golden ball in the feminine realm, because that’s not where the ball is. A bridegroom secretly asks his wife to give him back the golden ball. I think she’d give it to him if she could, because most women in my experience do not try to block men’s growth. But she can’t give it to him, because she doesn’t have it. What’s more, she’s lost her own golden ball and can’t find that either.

Oversimplifying, we could say that the Fifties male always wants a woman to return his golden ball. The sixties and Seventies man, with equal lack of success, asks his interior feminine to return it.

-Robert Bly, Iron John, p.7

And a bit later:

Most men want some nice person to bring the ball back, but the story hints that we won’t find the golden ball in the force field of an Asian guru or even the force field of gentle Jesus. Our story is not anti-Christian but pre-Christian by a thousand years or so, and its message is still true-getting the golden ball back is incompatible with certain kinds of conventioal tameness and niceness.

The kind of wildness, or un-niceness, implied by the Wild Man image is not the same as macho energy, which men already know enough about. Wild Man energy, by contrast, leads to forceful action undertake, not with cruelty, but with resolve.

The Wild Man is not opposed to civilization; but he’s not completely contained by it either. The ethical superstructure of popular Christianity does not support the Wild Man, though there is some suggestion that Christ himself did.

So what is this? Just more of the usual psychology we hear? The man trying to find himself. The longing for significance. Broken as a child. Etc. Well, sure, I think you can analyze and boil it down to some of these things, but in doing so you soften the edges and get further away describing the real issue. The myth, the fairy tale here (discussed in more depth throughout the book) is actually more potent.

Bly is not a Christian and (as we discover later in on) he clearly doesn’t know much about it either. But he knows what he’s seen in America in the last 50 years. I don’t think you can blame him for being turned off by a one-dimensional “gentle Jesus”. We should be more turned off by that image too. Another thing I appreciate is that he repeatedly reminds us that being a “macho man” has almost nothing to do with the quest he’s talking about. The author of Wild at Heart (though he does give that qualification too) probably should have mentioned it about 100 more times than he does.

Bly must be in a funny place. He’s a contemporary liberal intellectual. The book was written in the late eighties and he frequently uses anecdotes to take pot shots at Ronald Reagan. BUT, he’s not dumb. He looks at the feminism of the 60’s and 70’s and says, “Yah know, there are some serious problems with this stuff. Especially for guys”. It’s not a PC message amongst his colleagues, so he can’t go more than a few paragraphs without softening it up so as not to offend his progressive friends.

He repeatedly notes that the idea he’s wrestling with in the book is hard to grasp. I think he’s completely right. There is still room for someone to do a more helpful job explaining this without veering off into the ditches on either side of the road.

Appreciating beauty = Recapturing the change

The bulk of the value in Owen Barfield’s Poetic diction lies in the very first section. This is killer stuff.

This, an introspective analysis of my experience obliges me to say that appreciation of poetry involves a ‘felt change of consciousness‘. The phrase must be take with some exactness. Appreciation takes place at the actual moment of change. It is not simply that the poet enables me to see with his eyes, and so to apprehend a larger and fuller world. He may indeed do this, as we shall see later; but the actual moment of the pleasure of appreciation depends upon something rarer and more transitory. It depends upon the change itself. If I pass a coil of wire between the poles of a magnet, I generate in it an electric current – but I only do so while the coill is positively moving across the lines of force. I may leave the coil at rest between the lines of force. I may leave the coil at rest between the two poles and in such a position that it is thoroughly permeated by the magnetic field; but in that case, no current will flow along the conductor. Current only flows when I am actually bringing the coil in or taking it away again. So it is with the poetic mood, which, like the dreams to which it has so often been compared, is kindled by the passage from one plane of consciousness to another. It lives during that moment of transition and then dies, and if it is to be repeated, some means must be found of renewing the transition itself.

Poetry, as a possession, as our own souls enriched, is another matter. But when it has entered as deeply as that into our being, we no longer concern ourselves with its diction. At this stage the diction has served its end and may be forgotten. For, if ever we go back to linger lovingly over the exquisite phrasing of some fragment of poesy whose essence has long been our own, and of which the spirit has become a part of our every waking moment, if we do this, is it not FOR THE VERY REASON that we want to renew the thrill which accompanied the first acquisition of the treasure? As our lips murmur the well-known – or it may be the long-forgotten – words, we are trying, whether deliberately or no, to cast ourselves back into the frame of mind which was ours BEFORE we had learnt the lesson. Why? Because we know instinctively that, if we are to feel pleasure, we must have change. Everlasting day can no more freshen the earth with dew than everlasting night, but the change from night to day and from day back again to night.

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, p.52

I think this describes really well what I experience as the appretiation of music, though I wouldn’t have been able to describe it before now. When I go to play or listen to a recording of a piece I love, I think in many ways I’m subconsciously imagining that I’m hearing it again for the first time. I’m trying to replay the original transitional experience. It’s that passing from naivety to awareness that generates all the energy. We’re always trying to recapture that.

The frustration of complexity and changing definitions

Here, Barfield uncovers a major sticky issue with language, communication, and logic that, I think, gets ignored ALL THE TIME across disciplines.

To anyone attempting to construct a metaphysic in strict accordance with the canons and categories of formal Logic, the fact that the meanings of words change, not only from age to age, but from context to context, is certainly interesting; but it is interesting solely because it is a nuisance.

Indeed. He goes on to give a fine example:

The financial mysteries of ‘inflation’ and ‘deflation’ may likewise be said to ‘interest’ the practicing merchant. But that interest is, for the most part, of a limited sort. Since money is the very basis of all his operations, he has, I think it can be said, an instinctive distaste for the mere possibility that money-units themselves should be found to have only an arbitrary ‘subjective’ value – that they should prove to be simply cross-sections of an endless process taking place in time. If that is true, all is lost. The dykes are opened. Like magic, he sees shrewd practical maxims turned into rarified academic theories, and a comparatively simple and intelligible system of acknowledged FACTS (‘the economic verities’) having to be rigged with all sorts of super-subtle reservations and ceteris paribus’s, before it will bear the faintest relation to contemporary realities.

The merchant cares about money. He cares about buying low and selling high. Supply, demand, and logistics are always on his mind. Now, introduce modern financial concepts like currency exchanges rates, fractional reserve banking, and hedge funds. All of these things server to undermine what “money” really is. They make something that was so tangible (an amount of $$$) and makes it remarkably complex and in some cases, seeminly meaningless. “rigged with all sorts of super-subtle reservations” is how Barfield puts it. This is enough to make one’s head explode.

So what do we do? We actually say “screw it” and stick with our simpler understanding of the subject. The merchant continues to talk supply and demand, buying and selling.

The educator continues to talk curriculum and classroom methods. Factoring in student personalities and temperaments, parental situations, learning disabilities, 2nd languages, etc. would paralyze us from moving forward in our area. The government makes well-intentioned laws that have the net affect of causing teacher’s heads to explode.

You can’t try to comprehend all the details. If you did that, creativity would grind to a halt and despair would set in. Many of the greatest accomplishments in human history have been made by hedgehogs who only stuck to one discipline, even to the exclusion of important related facts.

On the other hand, it can make even the most logical and well-argued proposition to be full of holes without the author even realizing it. Words don’t always mean what you think they do. By refusing to understand the context, you might be saying something other than you really mean. Everything is more complicated than you wish it were. Don’t be so mystified when the next person to look at your airtight theory is not so certain.

You see this in theology all the time. Use some verses from a contemporary bible translation like the ESV. Look up some passages in the Greek. Color it with some analysis of the Hebrew root. Quote Augustine talking about the passage in Latin. Quote Luther saying something about it in German. Throw in some commentary from a contemporary American philosopher that seems to support your conclusions. Cool! You’re done. Wait. Are you sure their all talking about the exactly the same thing you are? Seriously? It’s a grand nuisance and you shouldn’t waste your time trying to figure it all out all the time. But please keep it in mind.

What money is to the conservative economist, words are to the conservative philosopher. For the conception of money as a ‘symbol of barter’ and the conception of words as the ‘names of things’ are, both alike, not so much untrue as ‘out of date’…

-Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction, p.61

Beauty’s decoder-ring formed in childhood

Near the beginning of Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield quotes a remarkable passage from George Santayana:

Men are habitually insensible to beauty. Tomes of aesthetic criticism hang on a few moments of real delight and intuition. It is in rare and scattered instants that beauty smiles even on her adorers, who are reduced for habitual comfort to remembering her past favours. An aesthetic glow may pervade experience, but that circumstance is seldom remarked; it figures only as an influence working subterraneously on thoughts and judgements which in themselves take a cognitive or practical direction. Only when the aesthetic ingredient becomes predominant do we exclaim, How beautiful! Ordinarily the pleasures which formal perception gives remain an undistinguished part of our comfort or curiosity.

Taste is formed in those moments when aesthetic emotion is massive and distinct; preferences then grow conscious, judgements then put into words will reverberate through calmer hours; they will constitute prejudices, habits of apperception, secret standards for all other beauties. A period of life in which such intuitions have been frequent may amass tastes and ideals sufficient for the rest of our days. Youth in these matters governs maturity, and while men may develop their early impressions more systematically and find confirmations of them in various quarters, they will seldom look at the world afresh or use new categories in deciphering it. Half our standards come from our first masters, and the other half from our first loves. Never being so deeply stirred again, we remain persuaded that no objects save those we then discovered can have a true sublimity….Thus the volume and intensity of some appreciations, especially when nothing of the kind has preceded, makes them authoritative over our subsequent judgments. On those warm moments hang all our cold systematic opinions; and while the latter fill our days and shape our careers it is only the former that are crucial and alive.

Immediately after, Barfield exclaims, “Is there anybody so fortunate as to be able to dispute the truth in this passage?”. Who indeed.

Of course, this is a theory. My wife remarked that this idea doesn’t do much to explain why she likes some things and not others, at least in plenty of cases.

I on the other hand, found it to explain SO much.

Raising sons, even from the cubical

Despite the slough of mixed metaphors to wade through in Robert Bly’s Iron John, he hits the nail on the head I think with some of these observations.

Here, he talks about how the industrial revolution (and even more so the information revolution) functioned to estrange fathers and sons.

A single clear idea, well fed, moves like a contagious disease: “Physical work is wrong.” Many people besides [D.H. Lawrence] took up that idea, and in the next generation that split between fathers and sons deepened. A man takes up desk work in an office, becomes a father himself, but has no work to share with his son and cannot explain to the son what he’s doing. Lawrence’s father was able to take his son down in to the mines, just as my own father, who was a farmer, could take me out on the tractor, and show me around. I knew what he was doing all day and in all seasons of the year.

When the office work and the “information revolution” begin to dominate, the father-son bond disintegrates. If the father inhabits the house only for an hour or two in the evenings, then women’s values, marvelous as they are, will be the only values in the house. One could say that the father now loses is son five minutes after birth.

…the son does not actually see what his father does during the day and through all seasons of the year, a hole will appear in the son’s psyche, and the hole will fill with demons who tell him that his father’s work is evil and that the father is evil.

-Robert Bly, Iron John, p.20

I think I skirted by this trap for the most part. I remember often accompanying my father to the clinic where he was a veterinarian from about the time I was five. After we moved to take over the family farm (when I was 9), I worked beside him nearly every day, especially during the summer and on weekends. The work I do in my office all day could be completely mystifying to MY son though. I spent a lot more time with my children than an odd hour in the evenings, but I still think I should go out of my way to labour side by side with my boy (and hopefully boys at some point).

Plato, Tolkien, and incomplete theories

On a long drive last week, my wife and I read aloud to each other from a collection of essays titled The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy, edited by Gregory Bassham and Eric Bronson.

In the first essay, an interesting discussion of the nature of evil and ability of power to corrupt ensued.

Apparently, Plato also told a story about a magic ring that made you invisible. A farmer used the ring to sneak into the castle, seduce the queen and murder the king. There are plenty of parallels that can be applied (or not) to different themes and characters’ actions in the Lord of the Rings.

At the end though, the author of the essay (Eric Katz) just doesn’t get it. Check this out.

Here, he is questioning how it was that Sam was able to resist the evil of the One Ring, while Frodo (and plenty of other folks) were not:

Sam must remain true to himself, and the central mission in his life is to protect Frodo.

Sam though, is stymied in his attempt to follow the orcs into the Tower of Cirith Ungol, and eventually he stands alone on the high path that leads into Mordor. It is here that Same encounters his fundamental moral decision. He feels the power of the Ring, even though he is not wearing it, for “as it [the Ring] drew near the great furnaces where, in the deeps of tie, it had been shaped and forged, the Ring’s power grew, and it became more fell, untameable save by some mighty will”.

Sam now feels himself “enlarged, as if he were robed in a huge distorted shadow of himself, a vast and ominous threat halted upon the walls of Mordor”. The Ring tempts him, “gnawing at his will and reason,” and he sees a vision of himself as “Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dur.”

“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees ad brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.”

But Sam is equal to his test, and he knows that it is not for him to bear the Ring and challenge the Dark Lord. Tolkien explains that two things keep Sam safe from the seductive power of the Ring: his love for Frodo and his own sense of self.

“The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.”

Deep down in his heart, Sam knows who he is. As Galadriel knew to remain Galadriel and to reject the Ring. Sam knows that he can never be other than the plain commonsense hobbit, Samwise Gamgee, the small and caring gardener of the Shire. Fortified by his love for Frodo, he remains true to himself and rejects the power of the ring.

-Eric Katz, The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality

On and on, he keeps using that phrase “being true to yourself”.Gosh, how often do we hear this mush? It’s on every other kids TV show on PBS. It covers those cheesy motivational posters in the office.

Anyone who has read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy knows that he spends the whole first chapter showing the utter foolishness of “believing in yourself” and “being true to yourself”. The one who believes in himself the most is locked up in an insane asylum. Either that or he is a wicked tyrant.

Throughout Mr. Katz entire clever discussion (and he does ask many excellent questions), it is remarkably clear that he does not believe any such thing as The Fall ever happened. To him, there is no such thing as original sin, total depravity (or even partial depravity) or any of these other core Christian doctrines.

Tolkien was a thoroughly orthodox Christian. When you leave these key theologies out of the discussion, you are guaranteed to miss the point, and he does.

Sam is not true to himself. He is HUMBLE.

Fortunately, a later essay in the book touches on the same topic, this time heavily informed by Christianity:

The fall of Satan and the fall of Adam and Eve has a similar pattern, [Augustine] thinks: in both cases, there were good creatures who wanted to have more than their fair share of the good things in the world. This desire is the source of all evil, and when we freely give into it, evil is born.

As he says in another place, “Whence comes this turning away, unless man, to whom God is the only Good, replaces God with himself to be his own good, as God is the Good to Himself?”

Tolkien echoes this view in one of his letters. He says that the War of the Ring “is not basically about ‘freedom’, though that is naturally involved, It is about God, and His sole right to divine honour”.

Finally, addressing the issue of Sam:

Sam is also able to resist the temptation of the Ring because he knows that his humble garden is “all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command. Unlike corporate executives who try to steal from their stockholders and avoid responsibility for the consequences, Sam is content to tend his garden. He resists the desire to occupy a place that is not his own, and thus allows the lure of the One Ring to pass him by. How many of us could resist the same temptation?

-Scott A. Davison, Tolkien and the Nature of Evil

Secularism is so short on the tools needed to understand ourselves and other men. A classic example is psychologists going to great lengths to understand our social problems and motivations, all the while refusing to even consider the possibility that “Sin” might actually exist. It’s no wonder their conclusions are confusing and usually of little assistance.

Iron John

Currently reading Iron John by Robert Bly.

A few observations:

It’s about 85% modern psychoanalytical nonsense, dubious pagan metaphors and eastern spiritualist mush.

The remaining 15% however is brilliant.

Also, the fact that there is no acknowledgment of this work in the footnotes of John Eldridge’s Wild at Heart is completely dishonest. The latter is so like a Christianized version of the former (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse) that is seems obvious that one was largely based on the other. (Iron John is from 1990, Wild at Heart, 2003).

Things that go “drip” in the night

Deep in the dark of my house, when everyone is asleep, liquids begin to move. Puddles appear, streams flow, fluids mysteriously translocate. They take their place, waiting to be found early in the morning, just as I’m trying to get out the door to work.

  • Monday: Dog pee (and turds) all over the kitchen floor. Must have kept him inside too long.
  • Tuesday: The oil light comes on in my car. I quickly pull into a service station and add a quart.
  • Wednesday: One of the fittings on my recent toilet installation project downstairs is dripping. I use more teflon tape and reattach the hoses.
  • Thursday: The ghost in the shower makes a showing – dripping freezing water from the shower head on myself in the morning, and on the kids as they try to take a bath at night.
  • Friday: More urine. This time from the cat. The bathroom rug AND a bunch of toys downstairs. Out to the back yard for a hosedown. I would hose the cat too if he were within range.
  • Saturday: The night before my wife made some delicious peach and wine smoothies in the blender. We saved part of the batch in the fridge. To greet me at the dawn: an unbelievably sticky orange river through the kitchen. It turns out their is an o-ring seal on the bottom of the new blender that needs to stay screwed on tightly.

I am NOT making ANY of this up.

As I lay my head on the pillow, I’m afraid to close my eyes.

What will the morning bring?

Confusion about art

This is in the early part of Sayer’s essay “Toward a Christian Esthetic”:

I will go so far as to maintain that the extraordinary confusion of our minds about the nature and function of art is principally due to the fact that for nearly two thousand years, we have been trying to reconcile a pagan, or at any rate a Unitarian, esthetic with a Christian – that is, a Trinitarian and Incarnational – theology. Even that makes us out too intelligent. We have not tried to reconcile them. We have merely allowed them to exist side by side in our minds; and where the conflict between them became too noisy to be overlooked, we have tried to silence the clamor by main force, either by brutaly subjugating art to religion, or by shutting them up in spearate prison cells and forbidding them to hold any communication with each other.

-Dorothy Sayers, Toward a Christian Esthetic

She goes on to take a stab at defining what art looks at from a “trinitarian” standpoint. I won’t repeat the points here: it would take the space of the entire essay. It’s a good first start I think, but could use a lot of work (and better examples). She admits as such in the beginning. But as for a starting place, I think the diagnosis is correct: the church has never really wrestled with a theology of art. The pagan world has done that for us and we’ve been confused, stuck with their tools and ideas. We’re still confused about it right now.

When pleasure is king

Speaking of Plato’s lament over the entertainment-addicted society of his time, Sayer’s writes:

..there is an ominous likeness between this age and ours. We too have audiences and critics and newspapers assessing every play and book and novel in terms of its entertainment value, and a whole generation of young men and women who dream over novels and wallow in daydreaming at the cinema, and who seemed to be in a fair way of doping themselves into complete irresponsibility over the conduct of life until war came, as it did to Greece, to jerk them back to reality. Greek civilization was destroyed; ours is not yet destroyed. But it may be well to remember Plato’s warning:

“If you receive the pleasure-seasoned muse, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law and agreed principles”

-Dorothy Sayers, Toward a Christian Esthetic