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The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine

An Interview with Robert Bly and Marion Woodman


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Robert Bly and Marion Woodman

The Maiden King
Read their book
The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine

based on "The Maiden Tsar," the tale used in this videotape series.
Audio book, too

Robert Bly and Marion Woodman undertook a national tour in November to talk about their new book The Maiden King: Reunion of Masculine and Feminine. Menís Voices publisher Bert H. Hoff and his wife Bernetta had the pleasure of talking to them about the themes in the book before they began this tour. Robertís prior books include The Sibling Society, and Marionís include Addiction to Perfection. They talk bout both of these books in the interview.

In the interview Robert and Marion refer to themes and images in the Russian fairy tale ďThe Maiden Tsar,Ē the central story in The Maiden King. Those of you who saw the Applewood videotape series On Men and Women will remember that Ivan is out fishing with his tutor when the Divine princess sails up, and tells him sheís loved him all her life. Ivanís step-mother tells the tutor to put a pin in his tunic to put him asleep when they sail out to meet her. On his quest to re-find her, he encounters three Baba Yaga, who long to gnaw the bones of young Russian lads. W hen he arrives at the house of the Wise Old Woman, she tells him, ďShe doesnít love you anymore.Ē The love is hidden in an egg in a duck in a hare in a coffer in an old oak tree. He carries the egg home, where the Wise Woman serves it to the Maiden Tsar and she remembers her love for him. Iíve left many rich details out of this summary of the story, but mentioned the ones that Robert and Marion allude to in this interview. Thereís a lot of richness in The Maiden King that they didnít have the time to get into here.


Bert: I noticed that in the pre-publication publicity for The Maiden King the subtitle was given as The Triumph of the Feminine. When it came out, the subtitle had been changed to Reunion of Masculine and Feminine. Whatís the story behind that?

Marion: Yes, it started out with that subtitle, but as we worked with it and went deeper into it, we realized that that wasnít the message we wanted to convey. ďTriumphĒ has such a connotation! But that wasnít where the story was taking us.

Bert: We have so much resistance to the ďinner work,Ē and we seem to relish conflict so much. I remember when Robert was going to give a talk with Deborah Tannen, the New York Times ballyhooed it as ďthe battle between the sexes.Ē

Robert: But it wasnít, of course. When it was men and women talking, they didnít want to report on that. Deborah is coming out with a new book The Argument Culture. We hear stories about it, but she will be bringing together facts and data about it.

Marion: I think that in our culture we are deathly afraid of intimacy and we engage in conflict to avoid it.

But thatís not what we do in our relationships. There, we do the deeper work, and work on creating and keeping intimacy. Or else we donít grow.

Bert: I wonder if we donít have a higher expectation of relationships than we did before. In 1900 people just worried about surviving, getting by and raising our kids.

Marion: And in 1900 there was more acceptance for finding intimacy outside the relationship. That was certainly true in Europe. Now we expect all of our intimacy needs to be met in the relationship.

Robert: So heís trying to project all of the Divine Feminine onto her in the relationship. But no human can hold all that.

Marion: I think that with the loss of interest in religion, we try to put these Divine characteristics onto ourselves and each other.

Robert: I joke that thatís less true for Catholics than for Protestants. We saw that when Ruth and I were in Spain last week. We went to go see a church with a statute of the Virgin. We took the bus and we went out quite a ways. When we got to the church the people said, ďSheís not here right now. Sheís over at another church for a few weeks.Ē We went there, and there were bouquets of flowers next to Her. They treated her as if she were a person.

Marion: And when we do that, we donít need to project the Divine onto each other.

Bert: I wonder of part of our thirst for conflict might be that our lives are so safe, so ordinary now. We donít risk death, fighting off wild animals. We donít struggle with starvation and illness like we used to. So we try to fill this need with risk-taking, body piercings, going in for ďextremeĒ sports and things like that.

Marion: But thatís not the same thing, of course. These things donít connect us with spirit, or with the mystery of life.

Robert: I remember hearing about a young girl who cut her arm. ďWhen I saw the blood running down my arm,Ē she said, ďI knew I was real.Ē

I think that what we need to feel real is to feel connected. We all hunger for that connectedness.

Bert: You mean connected with people, and animals, and with the universe?

Robert: Especially, connection with other people. We donít feel a real connectedness, so we seek it out by creating conflict. Itís another way of connecting with other people, but it isnít a very good one.

Bernetta: Iíve been thinking about Addiction to Perfection. The idea that struck me was there are lots of forms of addictions, from addiction to alcohol to addiction to exercise. I know I want to have a perfect, healthy body. But at heart, arenít all of these addictions a form of addiction to perfection? That we canít accept ourselves the way we are, and life the way it is?

Robert: Iíve just got to say that I admire that title, Addiction to Perfection.

Marion: I think youíre right, Bernetta. Thatís the pin that the tutor puts into Ivanís neck in the story, that puts him asleep when the Divine Feminine comes to him. Itís what makes us unconscious.

Robert: And we expect the world to be perfect. I remember a delightful story about the Sufi Abu Said, who lived about the 13th century. Women prepared their food in braziers. Abu was talking through a street on the village when a woman on a second floor threw the ashes from her brazier out the window and they landed on him. The disciples wanted to storm the house, break down the door, rush upstairs and take the woman to task for defiling the Master that way. Abu said, ďI search for fire, and I get ashes ...Ē and 5 disciples went into ecstasy.

Weíre missing that ecstasy in our lives now. We hunger for it, and try to fill it with material things.

Let me get to the central part of the story in The Maiden King. The surprising and astounding thing to me was when Ivan is told that the Divine Feminine doesnít love her any more. What does that mean, when we say that the Divine Feminine doesnít love you any more? What did that bring up for you, Bert and Bernetta?

Bert: Iíve had misgivings about some of the New Age stuff, the smiley faces and saying the right affirmations. I could relate to what you were saying about talking only about the good side of the Goddess, and not recognizing the Devouring Mother.

Bernetta: Itís like what we were talking about earlier, about addition to perfection, and not accepting life as it is. Not accepting sickness and death.

Marion: But thatís part of the birth-death cycle. Something has to die, to make room for what is being reborn. Weíre at that time of the year right now. Winter is coming on, and things are dying.

Robert: But that doesnít affect us now. We live in houses, and donít have to put up with winter.

Bert: Itís like what I was talking about earlier, about risk-taking and being alive. Our life is so safe now, we donít face dying. Malidoma Somť and James Hillman have talked about this. Malidoma tells of trying to explain the concept of insurance to his Dagara village elders. Now, if your house burns down, you donít ask what it means or why this happened now, you just figure out how to file an insurance claim and maybe even make a little extra money off of it.

Robert: But what if it was the flames of the Destructive Feminine that burned it down?

Marion: But those are two different worlds. One is in the realm of the soul.

Bert: And we get so caught up in the physical, because we donít want to deal with matters of the soul. But in so many respects our connection with the physical isnít real. I think about how we handle death. Death really isnít in our lives. The family doesnít lay out the body in the home any more. We send it off to a funeral home, where itís prettified and wrapped up in cellophane. When we think of scattering the ashes, we think of someone in a white robe daintily picking up a bit of ash and scattering it. Itís not like that. I remember taking my Dadís ashes up to the mountains to scatter them to the four winds. It wasnít a dainty little handful. There was a big plastic container of ashes, and you had to reach in with both hands to take double-handfuls, with bone chunks and all.

Bernetta: Thatís not the half of it! The wind was blowing. We did it at sunrise, and had our breakfast out. The ashes blew all over our tents, our sleeping bags, and the food we were going to eat. So in a sense we ate pieces of Hank for breakfast. Field mice were running around, and getting into our food. They ate some of him, too.

Later, Bert and his friend climbed up a mountain peak. I was slower, behind them. The biggest herd of elk Iíve ever seen came by, within a foot of me. Itís like they were saying ďgood-byeĒ to Hank.

Marion: Yes! Yes! Thatís that cycle of death giving birth to life!

Bernetta: Accepting life the way it is is difficult. I have a friend who is dying of cancer, and may not last the week. I was talking to her a while back, and she said, ďRemember, I will always be a part of you.Ē She said itís hard to leave her children. Luckily, theyíre pretty much grown now. She said, ďI have to remember, I will always be there. I will always be a part of them.Ē I love that taking it in.

Marion: Yes! Yes!

Bernetta: Thatís the thing that helps us get through these things, I think, is that taking it in. Although it isnít always easy.

Marion: I think thatís an important part of the book. I came to that recognition of that difference between the part of the step-mother and the so-called dark side of the Goddess. The step-mother is life in the service of death, and the Baba Yaga is death in the service of life. The one would kill lifeÖ

Robert: Without humor Ö

Marion: Without humor, and with no purpose except to kill it. She would pass judgment and out of power cut off the life-force. Sheíd cut it off out of power, because she needed the power because she needed to find her own identity in that control. But for Baba Yaga death happens in order to make new life. Thatís a law of life. Thatís how I perceive it.

Robert: Well, also Baba Yaga would be connected with something like flamenco dancing, in which you see the woman and the man with a tremendous amount of physical energy. They make gestures toward each other which are both loving and threatening. Theyíre a little like to cock birds circling each other.

Marion: Thereís nothing better than that for sexuality!

Robert: You can just feel that, that it is not just step-mother stuff. It has a great deal of humor, but also animal force.

Marion: A force for life!

Robert: Itís possible for death, too, to come into that environment. You remember that Lorca felt that that would come into gypsy songs sometimes. The word that is used in Spanish is duende. In a particular form of art, whether itís music or poetry or dancing, it gives you feeling that death is in the room, but you feel more energetic that youíve ever felt. Thatís called duende. Itís a beautiful thing to talk about.

Marion: Thatís that mystery that just comes in and opens up everything into a new dimension, even if it is death. Itís that edge, right on that razorís edge between life and death.

Robert: You also notice that this conflict that takes place between Baba Yaga and the people who come into her domain. Sheís always asking difficult questions. I donít know if you know Walter Ong. Heís down in St. Louis. He must be 85 now. He gave some of the first ideas about the medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan was a student of his. One of his books that isnít very well known is Fighting for Life. (Ong, Walter J., Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness) Itís a history of human beings fighting verbally. I wonít go into the whole thing, but there are interesting details about the old habit of really powerful verbal sparring between students and between students and teachers. This was a great part of the training in Tibetan monasteries. It began to disappear in the West when the state universities came. It was present in Oxford and Cambridge, and in all the medieval universities.

Marion: Why, Robert?

Robert: Well, one of the things is because they felt that people could get hurt feeling there. The more you went into state universities the more you went into universities for everyone. There as a sense that they should be protected. They should be shielded. If they went to all the trouble to go to the university they shouldnít be isolated, or left out, or defeated. You know, thatís happening with political correctness now. Itís incredible, because I had never really understood how much positive energy of learning could come out of powerful exchanges with aggression.

Marion: Yes, because otherwise youíre just being told what to think. Thereís no room for your own creativity and your own life-spark, to challenge the old order.

Robert: But itís also true that when the state universities came in was the time when more women were educated. The men wanted to protect the women. They didnít want the women to be talked to in that way.

Bernetta: Thatís fascinating! My ex-husband was a college professor. I noticed that they would weed out the out the professors who were controversial. They would not get tenure. And they were some of the best professors. I would think that that was exactly what the school needed, a person who that was giving a whole different side from what everybody else was, so the students could make up their own minds. They could argue back and forth. I wondered, is this an educational system, or is it an regurgitation system?

Robert: Exactly! This is a way to have small children and try to disguise them as adults. Protect the small children.

Marion: That is right!

Bernetta: It takes away all the energy. Things become sort of sluggish.

Robert: Thatís how poetry is reviewed in the United States now. Thereís almost no negative review of a book. They feel if youíre going to review it, you should say something positive about of it. Of course, that drives the young poets nuts! They look at a book and they know itís bad. Then some 50-year-old says, ďNo, itís very good.Ē

Bernetta: Thatís so interesting, because we just cut away education, by not having those differences of opinion.

Marion: I think that has something to do with Baba Yagaís question. ďDo you come here of your own free will, or do you come from compulsion?Ē

Robert: How do you connect it? Tell me.

Marion: Well, Iím thinking about those students that are silenced, and their compulsion to drive a thing to the edge where they are recognized. At that place, they could be destroyed, because who wants to be bothered with someoneís new ideas, and who are they to defy the authorities? But they take that chance. Some of them take that chance from their free will. Or they are compelled by that life-force within them, even when itís going to cost them their Ph.D. or first-class marks. They are compelled to stand up for their own truths. And if things go wrong, they have to ask themselves, ďWell, did I come here of my own free will, or did I come by compulsion?Ē I just find that such an important question in my own life now.

Robert: I also recognize that thatís what Freud did, when he brought up these things that no one wanted to talk about. And then Jung did the same thing to Freud. He talked about the things that Freud didnít want to talk about!

Bernetta: We all have things we donít want to talk about. There are things we donít talk about with family or friends because we know theyíre not going to like it. It cuts off communication.

Marion: That nakedness, though, is so important to honesty.

Bernetta: Exactly! Because you donít really get to know someone if you canít talk to them about things.

Marion: I think thatís essential to relationships, to love somebody enough that you can be honest with them.

Bernetta: Itís the hardest thing. Iíve grappled with that myself, too, to tell the truth. You can tell yourself a million time to do it, but itís that risk. They might not like hearing the truth.

Marion: You might not like hearing it, either. Thatís where I think the crone energy comes in. The old lady. She would tear him to shreds if he talked to her now. But she does make him face the truth.

Robert: You know, I want to come back to the end of the story, and what we were talking about earlier, about addiction to perfection. Toward the end of the story, it turns out that the crone says about the Goddess, ďshe doesnít love you anymore.Ē And then it comes out that the love has not been annihilated. If it was, we would all die. Itís been stored somewhere. Then the interesting thing is, where is it stored. One of us would say, ďitís stored in New Age books,Ē or ďitís stored in a library somewhere,Ē or ďitís stored somewhere in Afghanistan, where there are some wonderful old teachers.Ē But thatís not what the story tells us. The story says that itís stored inside manner. Itís stored in an egg which is stored in a duck, which is stored in a hare, which is stored in a wooden chest, which is stored in an old oak.

I was thinking about that this morning, not starting with the oak, but with the egg. Then you have something which Marion has often talked about. What does it mean that spirit is inside matter? What does it mean that matter is something that holds all of these things that we want? To me, there are amazing images there. If we want to find this love, we have to go into matter. Going into a computer is not going to do it.

Marion: No, itís the living matter.

Bernetta: Is it the going into yourself, your own living matter?

Robert: No, Iím not going to accept that, because it sounds like going into your own memories. Maybe youíre not thinking of that. Maybe youíre thinking of going into your own body.

Bert: Kinesthetic body work. Marion wonít do an Intensive, unless thereís a body-worker and a voice-worker there.

Marion: Thatís true, Bert. Because we have to deal with the whole person. You have to bring psyche and body together.

Robert: You know, when you talk about going into your own body, sometimes it feels a little elegant, but one of the poems thatís been one of the most important in the 20th century is where Beaudelaire described the maggots inside a dead dog. They made sounds almost like the shiftings of grains. Thatís matter!

Bert: That comes back to the addiction to perfection point we were talking about, because of the whole Western split, the Gnostic split, between spirit and matter. Matter is something that is dirty. If Iím perfect, I rise above all that.

Robert: Exactly. What would happen if you went to your therapist and the therapist, instead of saying for you to go home and study your dream, he said, ďI want you to go home and find a dead dog with maggots, and watch it for two hoursĒ?

Bernetta: Oh, God!

Robert: Did that get you, Bernetta? (chuckling)

Bernetta: Could you pick something else for me to look at?

Robert: No, itís got to be a dog, and maggots.

Bert: Well, the Tibetans went for air burial. And part of a young priestís training was to cut up a body and feed it to the birds.

Bernetta: Thatís hard for us to think about, in our culture.

Marion: But, you see, thatís that theme of deathís sacrifice to life. The whole last part of the story is one sacrifice after another. It connects right back to the Tree of Life.

Robert: I think I should bring that dead dog into my section of the book. Donít you think so, Marion?

Bernetta: All the reviewers would say, ďWhatís that dead dog doing in the book?Ē

Marion: I think we should take that dead dog with us on the road. (chuckling)

As I think about it, I think of the radiance of the cells, cells that are truly divine.

Robert: What are you thinking about, Bert?

Bert: Iím still caught up in that dead dog imagery. We are so totally isolated from life in so many ways. It comes back to what I was saying, that because we donít have much contact with life we do more risk-taking and body-piercing.

Marion: Which isnít real risk at all, Bert. It isnít real.

Robert: Even cutting your arm isnít a real risk.

Bernetta: The real risk is getting in there and seeing whatís there.

Marion: And the real risk is breaking up all your little boxes, and opening up your eyes to a whole new vision. It seems to me that thatís what Ivan is doing there, at the end of the story. He breaks up the coffin, then the hare, and so on, and each opens up a whole new possibility, until he ends up with a gorgeous egg. Which she eats.

Robert: Thatís the most mysterious thing in the book, that the love is contained inside an egg. Thatís understood as being contained in matter, and so on. And yet, the only way that she can get back the love she had, that the Divine has for the human being or that the Goddess has for the man, is to eat the egg. Thereís something very deep in that.

Marion: And he has to bring it back, Robert.

Robert: Thatís an example of the male and the female working together.

Marion: Oh, boy! Iíd say so! If you think of her as the Divine, and him as the human here, itís his human courage that steadfastness. I always imagine him carrying a raw egg back, and how hard that must be. That human frailty gets it back to her. And itís the old Wise Woman who cooks it, on her birthday.

Robert: Tell me, how do you understand the cooking? How does it strike you in the image part of your being, that she cooks it?

Marion: Cooking has to do with putting fire underneath the egg. In other words, itís the fire of passion or the fire of emotion. You work with your own living humanity, the pain of it and the joy of it, and all those human emotions that are the fire. The egg has to go through the fire.

Robert: Does that imply that the fire is basically divine? That the coolness in the earth is human, but if itís not met with divine fire itís not going to be cooked?

Marion: My answer, of course, would be that human emotion is divine. Those passions that we sometimes associate with darkness are carrying just as much divinity as darkness.

Robert: Let me ask you this. Iíve never asked you this. More and more, Iím getting depressed by the failures of pop-art. In what sense is great art ďcooked,Ē and pop-art is not? Pop-art seems to have a lot of feeling in it.

Marion: Iíll have to think on that one a bit.

Bert: I have an answer to thatÖ

Marion: Bert, what is it?

Bert: Itís sort of like my reaction to the ďtone poemĒ music of the 19th century. Great art expresses something, but it also connects with something. It has a context, a relation to Spirit. Itís not done just so I can do it. Itís not ďIím going to write a book Love Story and use a gimmick for a first line just so I can evoke an emotion in you and show that I can raise an emotion in you.Ē That doesnít connect to anything. It doesnít take you anywhere, once that emotion is raised.

Robert: Well, I donít know. Remember that night we had, called ďWe Are the WorldĒ? All the pop singers got together. They said that they are connecting to people all over the world.

Bert: Thereís something that scares me a whole lot about that. Remember the commercial ďIíd like to buy the world a Coke, and live in perfect harmonyĒ? The idea was that people all around the world could find a commonality. But as I thought about it more, I found it really frightening. Letís wipe out everybody elseís culture, and letís get everybody around the world to buy an American product, consume American products, and think like Americans.

Marion: It has to do with the transitory. You know, Cokes arenít actually eternal. Most of the themes in pop-art has to do with transitory images. Great art has to do with eternal imagery.

Robert: Hereís another question, thatís very much related to what Bert said. What is the relationship between global capitalism and pop-art?

Marion: What do you see, Robert?

Robert: I donít know. I just see them going together. Theyíre growing bigger, both of them.

Marion: People want the transitory. They want it cheaply, and fast. Let it be destroyed as quickly as it comes in, so we can make way for another fad.

Bernetta: Isnít that just another way of not facing reality?

Bert: I see another, more immediate connection. Right now, they will spend millions to make a 30-second commercial. Theyíll create a whole genre of art, like the Peter Max art of the 60s. Itís then used to sell things. Or the MTV images that come up way too fast, before the brain can absorb them, much less contemplate them. Itís like the corporate culture can take over pop-art to define for us what our standards and views on art are, because these are also the ones that will sell products.

Robert: Marion, itís interesting that you bring in spirit here, because this process in the story of going back from the egg to the duck to the hair to the coffir is very slow. Isnít that right?

Marion: Very slow.

Robert: And people hate psychoanalysis now, because itís too long, 20 years.

Marion: You see, itís all the quick fix, the fad. You will get this today, and get something else tomorrow. That is not what this story is about. This story is about a very slow, gentle, deep and fierce process. Itís a soul process.

Bernetta: He takes a long to time to get to the end ... well, youíre never ended with our journey.

Marion: And youíve got to be willing to work very hard.

Robert: It took us about seven years to do this story. (All chuckle.)

Marion: And itís a very extroverted culture now. Pop-art is very extroverted, as contrasted to the introversion of this story, or great art.

Bert: The story is very vague about time. You donít know if itís one year or twenty years between the first Baba Yaga and the second Baba Yaga.

Marion: Thereís no way of knowing that, Bert. Itís a timeless, spaceless world.

Bert: Iím coming back to Robertís imagery about the egg that holds the love being matter. But itís not just matter. Itís not a turnip or a stone. It has a spirit potential, it holds the potential for new life.

Marion: Thatís the whole point. It carries life within it. It has the possibility of everything new.

Bert: Depending on how itís prepared. How did he know to bake it, rather than boil it, fry it or scramble it?

Marion: The Old Woman prepared it in the story. He brings it home and gives it to her to cook.

Robert: When I was doing that, Marion, I got almost into a love affair with eggs. I said that this is unbelievable, the egg is connected with all of the past of the human race. I tried to put it into terms of their being some kind of a genetic connection between chickens and people. But also I noticed that my favorite thing is to boil it for four minutes, take the top off, and then eat it with a little spoon. I find myself admiring the sculptured interior of that egg.

Marion: I know. I have a completely different feeling about eggs, too, I must say. I really do see and experience eggs in a totally new way, with immense respect!

Bert: I didnít want to let you two go without asking about the Clinton matter, since itís on everybodyís minds. I saw both the Addiction to Perfection and The Sibling Society in the public reactions. I donít want to admit I have an addiction to perfection, so I will project it out to our leaders, and expect them to be perfect. And when a child reaches adolescence, heís hard on his parents when he discovers that they arenít perfect. Isnít the publicís reaction to Clinton just evidence that weíre a sibling society, as well as being addicted to perfection?

Robert: Oh, I think so.

Marion: I would agree with that, Bert.

Robert: Marion, that means that both you and I are prophets! (chuckling.)

We want our prophet pin pretty soon.

I think youíre right. I think American culture is the most childish culture in the world. Weíre the ones that do these things.

Marion: And this yearning for perfection is totally immature. It can only create a black, filthy shadow side. Everything that is not perfect has to be destroyed.

Robert: You know, Kenneth Starrís name has the word ďstarĒ in it. Heís been addiction to ďstar-perfectionĒ since he was very small.

Bert: Isnít it ourselves that were destroying?

Marion: Thatís what I feel, Bert. So long as weíre putting that projection on another person, we are putting it on ourselves. As within, so without. Somewhere within us there is someone putting those ferocious judgments on ourselves. e canít deal with it, so we project it out. But, ultimately, we go down under our own judgment.

Robert: Thatís scary, Marion. I hate that.

Marion: Thatís scary stuff! Thatís what causes compulsive behavior. We end up being a compulsive, addictive society.

Bert: As a sort of wrap-up question, Iíll just throw out a general question about where this work going, what do we need to be doing or not doing?

Robert: Thatís not a question, itís like an egg dropped on the floor! (Chuckles) Give us another one.

Marion: Oh, Robert, you do say it well!

Robert: I suppose youíre talking about what kind of fight are we in. We have a fight against people who donít want mythological information of any kid. Ted Hughes fought that fight, too.

Marion: But I thank that there are very many people who do respect mythology and do care about the spirit and the soul. Those people are interested in this kind of work.


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