Robert Bly: The Dude Abides

When Robert Bly was first plumbing the depths of the human psyche, the United States was getting itself deep into its own blood in Vietnam. The war had a young generation of artists responding with vehement protest. For Bly it was a perfect example of how lost this society had become. “Everything I was doing, it was dealing with Vietnam.” He quotes the fifteenth-century German mystic Jacob Boehme:

When we think of it with this knowledge, we see that we have been locked up,
and led blindfold, and it is the wise of
this world who have shut and locked us
up in their art and their rationality,
so that we have to see with their eyes.

Bly’s political work, he explained, didn’t come as much out of activism as out of reading Boehme and thinking along his lines. “Many of the poems from The Light Around the Body were written before the war. I think none of us set out to be antiwar writers. We started out reading poems by William Stafford, William Blake, Robinson Jeffers. I remember the first antiwar reading we had, at Reed College in Oregon. It was so remarkable to have writers opposing the war at that time. We were imitating the intensity of our teachers, in a way.”

So Bly the religious writer got up on his pulpit and cofounded American Writers Against the Vietnam War. He was a fiery presence on college campuses throughout the decade, and his journal, The Sixties, was a wellspring of dissent. “My poem ‘Counting Small Boned Bodies’ became one of the most famous poems, I guess, of the war.”

Let’s count the bodies over again.
If we could only make the bodies smaller,
The size of skulls,
We could make a whole plain white with skulls in the moonlight!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
Maybe we could get
A whole year’s kill in front of us on a desk!

If we could only make the bodies smaller,
We could fit
A body into a finger-ring, for a keepsake forever.

So saving our souls meant saving America’s soul. Bly has continued weaving that thread into his mantle to this day. Throughout the eighties and nineties, when he became more widely known for his work with men, Bly was a persistent political gadfly.

In 1997, Bly published the Sibling Society, a full-steam admonishment of a generation that had, in his mind, stopped growing up and stopped parenting its children. He said, “Culture is defined by what it says no to. Not by what it says yes to. So what’s happening in the sibling society is, we say no to almost nothing. We say yes to preteen sexuality, we say yes to watching television forty hours a day, we say yes to pot and smoking and drinking and spending your life in a stupor. We say yes to all those things. What do we say no to?”

Bly wrote sharply: “People don’t bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be; we human beings limp along, running after our own fantasy. Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents—seeing that—have no desire to become adults.…We are living among dispirited and agonized teenagers who can’t find any hope. Genuine work is disappearing, and we are becoming aware of a persistent infantilizing of men and women, a process already far advanced.

“The old tradition is that you cannot change a child into a grown-up without a lot of conversation with adults. In America, the typical time a man spends in conversation with the son or daughter is ten minutes a day. In Russia, the old Russia, it was two hours a day. So the question then is, who teaches the child how things get done in the world? Well, the answer is the television.”

The Sibling Society also attacked the status of marital relationships. “When a husband regresses to be a four-year-old, the wife will usually follow him and become four, too. Then there are endless arguments that come to nothing. If the wife regresses to thirteen years old, the man automatically, through this entirely unconscious whirlwind of ancient hurricane material, immediately regresses to be thirteen also. That’s what usually destroys marriages, the two thirteen-year-olds.”

Harsh stuff. But the prophet sees it all coming true. He jabs at a culture run by corporations and advertising. “I don’t see any movement at all to get rid of this television. The movement in the whole country is to have this comfort for three hours at night on the sofa, even if you’re being poisoned constantly. Americans are willing to accept that. Since that’s the case, we’re doomed to more bad presidents. It’s getting worse. Television is getting worse. I think that it’s a primary job of parents now to realize what Neal Postman says, that television is making childhood disappear. It’s giving children too much knowledge too quickly of all the corrupt sides of adult material. No one wants to become an adult, and it’s tying all that behavior into violence. The younger generation is not as full of energy and joy as people were in the sixties and seventies.”

Is there a way out?

“Thoreau is my teacher. The only thing we can do is learn to write poems, learn to write music, learn to paint so that the madness of art can come up and meet the madness of the television insanity. Because the world is mad, the only way through the world is to learn the arts and know the madness. But it’s not happening as much today. It’s very noticeable. I did this poem before the invasion of Iraq. Listen.”

Call and Answer

Tell me why it is we don’t lift our voices these days
And cry over what is happening.
Have you noticed
The plans are made for Iraq
and the ice cap is melting?
I say to myself: “Go on, cry.
What’s the sense
Of being an adult
and having no voice? Cry out!
See who will answer! This is Call and Answer!”

We will have to call
especially loud to reach
Our angels, who are hard of hearing;
they are hiding
In the jugs of silence filled during
our wars.

Have we agreed to so many wars
that we can’t
Escape from silence?
If we don’t lift our voices, we allow
Others (who are ourselves) to rob
the house.
How come we’ve listened to the
great criers—Neruda,
Akhmoatova, Thoreau,
Frederick Douglass—
and now
We’re silent as sparrows
in the little bushes?

Some masters say our life lasts only seven days.
Where are we in the week?
Is it Thursday yet?
Hurry, cry now! Soon Sunday night will come.

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