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An Interview with Robert Bly

Copyright © 1995 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appeared in the November 1995 issue of M.E.N. Magazine

Robert Bly
Robert Bly

The Maiden King
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Bert: You are best-known for Men's Work. Yet in 1973, long before Iron John and your interview with Keith Thompson, "What Do Men Really Want?," you had written an essay, "I Came Out of the Mother Naked," on the Great Mother, in your book Sleepers Joining Hands. To me, this is one of the best short, succinct summaries on the archetypal mother that I've read. I have commended it to many women as well as men. You've also been doing Great Mother conferences for well over a decade.

Robert: Yes, that essay has been used in many feminist courses. As you can tell by that essay, I have been interested in the Great Mother for years. Being a Protestant, I didn't learn much about that in church. I decided to have a conference, and I simply put out a poster, "First Annual Conference on the Great Mother." It was in 1964, out in Colorado. All sorts of weird, incredible people came.

I had several surprises. One was that I started it to talk about the Great Mother, but it turned out that what people wanted to talk about was themselves.

I began my teaching of fairy stories then. Up to that time, I didn't know anything about fairy stories. I got my first experience teaching fairy stories at the Great Mother conference. I did this for years, before I did any other kind of teaching. In June we completed the 21st conference, and we still use them. Two years ago, we concentrated on the story of Parsifal. We have a number of male as well as female teachers. Marion Woodman has worked there with me. My wife teaches with me sometimes, and Guatemalan shaman Martín Prechtel has been there the last couple of years.

Bert: How do you see the Great Mother work tying together with the Men's Work you're so well-known for?

Robert: As you probably know, I taught seminars for men and women throughout the '70s. I made my living that way, teaching at the Center for Healing Arts in Los Angeles for example, and at the C.G. Jung Society in San Francisco. The subject was problems in relationships or the spiritual path, as seen in fairy tales. Nobody paid any attention to that at all. Then I did one or two men's conferences, and everyone said, "Oh, my God, there's a men's movement, and you're the leader of it!"

Journalists never talked about my earlier teaching of men and women after that. It was more categorized for them if they imagined I spent my whole life teaching men. I like teaching men, but I like very much teaching both men and women.

Whatever we learn in Men's Work, we can bring to the necessary reconciliation between men and women. I've never been interested in separation of the genders.

Bert: You first started working with Marion at the Great Mother conferences?

Robert: That's right. I liked her books, and I invited her to come and teach.

Bert: What is it like to work with Marion?

Robert: We'll usually choose to work together using a story that neither one of us has done before. I may begin and give my interpretation of some of the images in the story, those I'm fairly confident of, then she begins and my mouth drops open. She's saying things that I never would have imagined. Part of that is because she's approaching it from a woman's point of view, and part of that is because she's extremely smart. It's a delight. I take notes.

Each five years or so we've taught together at Applewood, up in Toronto. Usually somewhere around 500 people come.

Bert: One of the things that people in our groups notice is that you seem to embody a fierce masculine energy. Marion doesn't have any difficulty meeting you eyeball-to-eyeball if you seem to be coming from different viewpoints. Her energy is equally strong, yet there's a gentle, feminine quality to it.

Robert: Yes, that's true. I've told her that I like very much all the thousands of years of subtle "receptive" feeling and thought that she brings to a discussion; but I admire also the way she drills down, right straight through rock, down to very harsh and painful truths. There's a truth-teller there. New Age thought primarily ascends. She doesn't-she drills. A lot of the New Age people find this extremely upsetting.

Bert: An interesting contrast to John Lee's The Flying Boy.

Robert: John has also learned to pierce down to the "lower depths." You can only fly so high.

Bert: He wouldn't have been able to write The Flying Boy if he hadn't.

Robert: That's right.

So those are the two movements, a movement up and a movement down. In contemporary life, we see men and women who don't look up or down, but keep a horizontal gaze. It's a sort of sibling gaze, no ancestors, no children.

Bert: What has come out of the Applewood videotapes?

Robert: I think people enjoy seeing a grown-up man and a grown-up woman up there who like each other. Of course the danger, then, is that the watchers will put the King and the Queen on us. So we have to warn them not to do that. We have to act like idiots once in a while to make sure they don't make that mistake. Otherwise, we get trapped in the King and Queen, or Father and Mother, as they become children.

The video is not perfectly filmed. We had very little time for the filming. I think the usual scale is 26 hours of taping for one hour of film. Bill Moyers uses about 12 hours of taping for one hour. I think we did about two to one. But the arguments were very alive.

When men and women watch the film together, they tend to talk and argue about it for three or four hours. I think that's very good. The video doesn't teach doctrine. It teaches, to some extent, how profoundly different men's and women's approaches are to a given issue. Also, the story used in that tape touches on a lot of terrible things that are happening here in the United States today, such as high school teachers putting pins, so to speak, in their students' necks to put them to sleep.

Bert: What do you see happening in the workshop here in Seattle in November?

Robert: I have no idea. But we have both learned a lot since the time we taught the story, which is called "The Maiden Czar" or "The Woman who was King." I think we'll be saying some things about the story that we didn't know when we filmed it. We'll also talk about new ideas we've run up against in the last year, as we always do.

Bert: It seems as if whenever my wife Bernetta and I see the tape, we see something new that maybe we weren't ready to see earlier. You're suggesting that your follow-up work is taking you into new places you weren't aware of when the tape was made.

Robert: The fifth tape has a lot to do with the Crone, the Wise Woman, who is disparaged so much in our culture today. I found an early version of "Jack and the Beanstalk" recently, in which he has a long conversation with the Crone before he gets to the giant's castle! That's omitted in almost all the later versions.

Marion and I wanted to talk about the Crone in the fifth section, but as it happened, the pain men and women experienced during the fourth section was so intense that they insisted on talking about that, and we never got to the Crone at all. We were well aware this was happening, but there was nothing we could do about it.

Men and women have to talk out, and talk through, the pain and anger that they feel in their ordinary mud-and-water lives before they are ready to talk about wise women or wise men. Wisdom is only genuine if the anger is worked through, and we have not yet worked through the anger between men and women.

Bert: When I was having a conversation with a friend the other day, we noted that there didn't seem to be any wise women or wise men around. Or else they're around and we don't respect any of the wisdom that comes with age.

Robert: That's right. We're in a sibling society, or a horizontal society, or a flat society, or a fatherless society, even a motherless society. More accurately, it's a society without elders. We're just in the process now of realizing just how much we have lost by killing the elders. We didn't kill them literally, as the young people in Cambodia did. They killed all the teachers, the journalists, the Ph.D. people, the priests. Cambodia is elderless in a different way than we are, but theirs and ours have much in common. I think there's a much deeper rage there, partly because the young ones have a rage against the elders, and then a subsequent rage and grief about the people who literally killed the elders. But when you're looking at young gang members, you're looking at people with no elders. So we either develop elders, or the amount of violence will increase year by year.

Bert: We seem to have a penchant for independence. "I've got to be me. I've got to do my own thing." This seems to go along with a built-in rebellion against authority.

Robert: There's a book called Habits of the Heart that came out a few years ago. Six sociologists interviewed a lot of Americans. The habit of the heart that they found was individualism. Men said, "I don't worry about the community. I focus my main effort into my career," and so on and so on. Some of the women said, "I don't think we should sacrifice as much for our children as our parents did. We have to look out for ourselves."

This individualism is not only a male matter. It's a female matter as well. Of course, the ultimate result is that we leave the children unparented. A man said to me, "Robert, you talk about the single-parent family a lot. I want to tell you we're on the way to the zero-parent family." I must say, the rage of the unparented is getting stronger and stronger. I admire very much the work that Michael Meade, Harris Breiman and Bob Roberts are doing, working with gang members and men in prison. They're the ones that need the eldering the most.

Bert: I wonder if this creation of a generation of unmentored, unparented kids isn't crossing class lines. Dr. Pepper Schwartz of the University of Washington recently came out with a book about the ideal relationships. An article in our local paper held her and her husband up as having an ideal relationship. He shares in household duties, and they're both equally respectful of each other's careers. They spend a lot of time together, for example, having dinner late after they both have had a long workday. What the article glosses over is that while they're working late and having dinner over here in Seattle, a nanny is taking care of their child at home on Bainbridge Island.

Robert: There's that individualism again, disguised as a "new relationship."

Bert: So what's the difference between a healthy individuation and a destructive, self-centered individualism?

Robert: Don't ask me! I don't know. I do know that as one gets older, one realizes that the time spent with your children is in many ways the most important time.

Bert: That's a realization that comes too late for many of us.

Robert: But there's still a lot that one can do with children. Children, even in their twenties and thirties, welcome interest by their parents in their ideas, their careers, their children. I think the most important task I have right now is to be a grandfather to my first grandson. I think that his mother knows, from being around others her age, how few grandparents are really in the picture, and how much a child needs a grandmother and grandfather.

Bert: There's so much geographic distance. You remember Malidoma Somé saying in Of Water and the Spirit that the grandparents are the ones who are the closest to the child.

Robert: Yes, Robert Johnson also says that. The new child has just come from the Other World, and the grandparents are going to be there soon, so they have a lot in common. The grandparent says to the child, "What's going on over there?"

Bert: Where do you see the work-conferences like the one here in November and the videotape series-taking us?

Robert: I don't really know. First of all, it's a question of learning, both for the teachers and the people there. Marion Woodman asks women in her workshops not to be unconscious mothers, simply passing on what you got from your mother and your grandmother. We have to ask men not to be unconscious fathers-not to pass on the shaming and the violence, or whatever it is, that they took in. There's a chance in this generation to become conscious mothers and conscious fathers. That's a tremendous possibility, a tremendous responsibility. For better or for worse, some of the unconscious matter is releasing its magnetic hold on this generation.

Second, that also means we can try to be a conscious wife or a conscious husband. The effort is to describe what it would be like to be in a relationship and be conscious, so that when you suddenly regress to 12 years old, the partner doesn't. 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 13 years old, the man automatically, through this entirely unconscious whirlwind of ancient hurricane material, immediately regresses to be 13 also. That's what usually destroys marriages, the two 13-year-olds. The adults are doing OK. There's a tremendous amount of material to be learned right there. One can learn to be a conscious partner, whether one is in a gay relationship or in a straight relationship. The whirlwind stuff works exactly the same.

The third thing, I would think, is to make sure that hope is kept alive. When some young men and women who are very discouraged about relationships see an adult man and an adult woman come together and learn from each other, a little more hope comes into them. I don't know if Marion sees this encouragement or not, but that seems to me to be one of the unexpected results of a conference like this. Sometimes afterwards, the weary and disappointed feel a little more hope in their relationships with the other gender.

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