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Male and Masculine:
Right Thing, Wrong Level

An Interview with Robert A. Johnson

Copyright © 1998 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appears in Vol. 1 #3 (Summer/Fall 1998) of Men's Voices journal.
 Men's Voices: So men can find their voices and speak their truths


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Robert A. Johnson
Photo © Russ Hopkins

Book cover
Balancing Heaven and Earth: A Memoir.
by Robert A. Johnson
(with Jerry M. Ruhl)
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The Soul's Code
The Soulís Code
by James Hillman
(order on-line)
(order paperback on-line)
(Audio Tape)
Interview with James Hillman

He: Understanding Masculine Psychology
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Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche
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Lying With the Heavenly Woman: Understanding and Integrating the Feminine Archetypes in Men's Lives
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The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden : Understanding the Wounded Feeling Function in Masculine and Feminine Psychology
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Other books by Robert A. Johnson
available on-line

Robert A. Johnson is well-known for his books He, She, We, and my favorite book on the shadow, Understanding Your Own Shadow. His latest book is his memoirs, Balancing Heaven and Earth, co-authored with Jerry Ruhl, reviewed in the last issue of Men's Voices. He was one of the key facilitators at the Redwood Men's Center's 1998 retreat New Directions on Male Psychology. Men's Voices editor Bert H. Hoff interviewed him by phone just after that retreat.

Bert: When I read your memoirs Balancing Heaven and Earth I was struck by your imagery of the Golden World and the slender threads in our life that seem to guide our destinies and give us glimpses of this Golden World. I was struck by the similarities of those slender threads to what James Hillman in The Soul's Code calls the work of the daimons. Are you talking about the same thing?

Robert: Yes. We're all struggling around for terminology for this essentially mysterious thing. I liked The Soul's Code very much.

There's an inner intelligence, that used to be called God. That's probably the best we can do with it. Its work is borne out in our lives. I'm most aware of this inner intelligence, or authority, or guidance, in my own life. I call it "slender threads." It's certainly been powerful in my own life. I'm fully aware that without it my life would be unworkable.

Bert: I wonder if it isn't more of a poetic term, where one does not attempt to define it precisely, but to let it bypass the intellect and speak directly to the heart, to get a feeling for what it is.

You use the term in your book, "listening to the will of God." That's difficult for some of us to hear, because there's such an overlay of other concepts on that.

Robert: Yes. I tried to find other terms for it. Certainly, my book provides many examples of it. Socrates said that he had a daimon that sat on his left shoulder and talked to him. Socrates consulted him for everything he had to decide. That's another form of poetic language for it.

The English language is particularly poverty-stricken in terms for something like this. Feeling is our inferior function and our language is inferior in its ability having terms for these concepts.

Our language is superior for technical things, but inferior for things like this. For example, Sanskrit has 96 words for love. Persian has 80. Greek has three. We only have one. We labor heavily under that.

Bert: You say we have a vocation in life, and that our career is not our vocation. So following our slender threads or listening to our diamons leads us to our vocation in life?

Robert: That's right. Vocation is our best word for that slender thread or diamon. It's a word that I like, because it implies "voice." It implies that there is a guidance or a voice which is available.

Our vocation ought to be our profession, but it rarely is. It's a lucky man who earns his living at what is his life's vocation. That's hard to do in our society.

Bert: And you feel lucky in that regard?

Robert: Very much so. I count myself a happy man. I did what I wanted, and began to earn a living at it.

Bert: You began earning a living at your vocation despite your issues around money. You mention that your Dad kept leaving, and that he'd give you a dollar bill each time, saying that it would be the last time.

Robert: That's been a very difficult one for me. To equate money with vocation was a hard job for me, since the simple fact that Dad was leaving was enough to spoil it for me.

Bert: I think a lot of people may have that, for whatever reason, if they're doing something for others, like social service or counseling.

Robert: Money is a very strange thing. It becomes the tail wagging the dog.

Bert: One of the things that led you to a silver thread was having your glimpses of the Golden World, after your operation when you were a kid and in your wandering to the top of the hill in Portland after your first night working in the canning factory. A lot of us have not had a glimpse of that Golden World, or what we're shooting for. I was wondering if one could get to the same place with an epiphay experience or a peak experience. In Men's Work we might use poetry, drumming or ritual. Something that puts you into a different space.

Robert: All of those are different terminologies for the same experience. I think more people have had that intense glimpse into the Golden World than will consent to remember it. Virtually everybody, at some time or another, blunders into the Grail Castle. And it's so difficult, and poses such a severe crisis in your life, that most men tend to forget it.

Bert: I've thought about it for quite a while in my own life and in others' lives, and as I've seen my son and step-son grow. Doesn't that have something to do with our own culture, that we pooh-pooh something that might be called an out-of-body experience or an epiphany or breaktrough experience? We're taught that because it's not rational or intellectual or productive we should ignore it. There's something wrong with it, so we shouldn't talk to anybody about it.

Robert: Absolutely. That cripples people from the very beginning. Many more are called to the Grail Quest than will admit to it. That's the sadness of it. It keeps us from following this Quest.

Bert: You mean like the myth of Prometheus, or the Vision Quest, where the goal is to bring back a gift to share with the community?

Robert: That's true, and that's a loss for our society.

Another thing that our culture does wrongly is that we don't differentiate between the Golden World and falling in love with a girl. We tend to subsume all of this into sexuality.

Bert: That's fascinating! I'd only taken that halfway. So many men crave intimacy, but think of intimacy only in terms of sexuality, rather than the sensual or perhaps non-sexual. You're taking that idea one step further, that all of these other-world experiences are something we think we can only experience in the "little death."

Robert: We mix it all up. We've dumped it all into romantic love, and that is dominated by sexuality. Sex is great but it doesn't cover all the human experience that man is capable of.

Bert: The work 'numinous" is a relatively new word for me. But it's a beautiful word.

Robert: It is. It's needed. That, again, is part of the poverty of the English language.

I only just recently learned a differentiation which seems important to me. That's the difference between 'sensual' and 'sensuous.' 'Sensual' means beastly, or brutish. 'Sensuous' refers to the spirit that resides in matter. Realization of that differentiation gives me new power, or new clarity. If an experience is sensual, it is animal-like, or beastly. If it's sensuous, we're aware of the spirit that inhabits matter. There's a wonderful poetry in that.

The Universe Is a Green Dragon: A Cosmic Creation Story by Brian Swimme
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Bert: Are you aware of Brian Swimme's The Universe is Green Dragon? In a Socratic-like dialog the old man explains to the young man that the scientists believe the whole universe is held together by a strong attractive force. Why not call this force "love," rather than Einstein's unified force?

Robert: Love is a word that gets worn out, because our associations with it are so sentimental. I have several friends who are professors at Cal Tech. They sound more and more like mystics to me.

There's another differentiation that I think is very important. I've talked to lots of people about it, and I don't seem to get anywhere. That's the difference between "male" and "masculine," or "female" and "feminine."

Lying With the Heavenly Woman: Understanding and Integrating the Feminine Archetypes in Men's Lives
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Bert: That's a point that starts to come out in your book Lying with the Heavenly Woman. You talk about seven forms of feminine archetypes, and point out what a mistake it is to confuse the feminine archetype with the woman in front of you.

Robert: That's right. Most people don't, or can't, do that. That's a big mistake. It's a terrible hole in our Western tradition of sexual consciousness. They can't tell the difference between female and femininity. Once they start overlapping, it makes an ungodly mess.

Bert: There's a similar problem, I take it, when we confuse "male" and "masculine."

Robert: Yes. The description of a male is anatomical, physiological. The masculine consists of psychological characteristics. We make a terrible mess of things when we can't tell the difference between masculine characteristics and male characteristics. To make a parallel, primitives can't differentiate between "me" and "mine." We do all right with that one. We can tell "me" from "my house" and "my car." There's just as big a differentiation between "masculine" and "male," but we don't know about that.

Bert: Might one of the places where that comes up be with the masculine archetype or energy in a female?

Robert: That's right. They may consciously or unconsciously begin to act like males, to express their masculine energy.

Let's take this back to men, for your audience. A man is male and relates to the world as a male. His feminine characteristics he naively tries to put onto his mother or his wife. Mostly, the masculine or the feminine is an interior component to the personality. And a male has feminine abilities or traits. The male belongs on the outside, and the femininity is best experienced on the inside. But hardly anybody knows that. The worst example is a man exhibiting feminine characteristics, and being effeminate about it. The feminine characteristics in a male account for his gentleness or his receptiveness. Those are good characteristics.

Bert: And his intuitive sense, do you think?

Robert: Yes. I think that connects both. I think virtually all psychological problems consist of the right thing at the wrong level.

Bert: And might this be true on the social as well as the individual level?

Robert: Oh, yes. Right now India is reaching a level of government assertiveness or masculine in the outer world, so they're building an atom bomb. The right thing at the wrong moment.

Bert: You've had exposure to a number of cultures, Indian and European. Do you think our own culture contributes to this confusion between masculine and male and the male not being in touch with his own feminine?

Robert: Very much so. We're incredibly caught up in the effects of that. We've dumped a lot of things onto sexuality-good things-which don't fit there. They don't work, and then we wonder why. We put feminine characteristics onto woman, then ask, "Hey, what went wrong?"

Bert: Because no woman, no embodied woman, can fulfill the demands of the archetype.

Robert: That's right. Dr. Jung made an astoundingly thorough definition which virtually everybody walks by, even Jungians. He said that the anima, which is the feminine characteristic in the male, is designed to be the intermediary between the personality and the collective unconscious. It is our inner guide to the collective unconscious. We males automatically, almost universally, attempt to use the anima as the intermediary between us and the outer world. We ask somebody or some thing to provide the meaning in life. That's the right thing at the wrong level.

The Soul of Sex
by Thomas Moore
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Bert: In his new book The Soul of Sex, Thomas Moore talks about sex as one of our attempts to reach the eternal, the timeless space. His view of the soul is one of reaching for the Mystery. His theory is that we concretize it too much. We don't have a lot of sex in our society, but we have a focus on a whole lot of material things in life that are sexual. That seems to fit in with your point about our looking for some body or some thing to provide the meaning in life.

Robert: That's right. I agree with that.

Bert: Does Jung's idea of the anima as our connection to the collective unconscious fit in with his view that the soul in man is feminine?

Robert: That's right. But what do we do with that? Where do we go with that? Where does it belong? Does it belong inside? Males in general look for something outside-a woman, or a profession, or a new place, or a new car-for the information that helps us make sense of our lives.

Bert: How does that love song go, "You Complete Me?" The idea is that I have to look for something outside myself to complete myself, that I don't have all the tools inside.

Robert: Physically, that's true. But psychologically it isn't.

Bert: How does this fit into the idea of the patriarchy, and what we're being told now of the evils of the patriarchy?

Robert: The patriarchal society was an old way to solve this strange and curious thing. It worked well for a medieval mind. But it doesn't work well for a modern mind. We're not willing to do what a priest says or what a book says. The old patriarchal world said a male should be a male, and that's that. A female should be a female, and you don't stray outside that. The roles were carefully laid out. That still works in India. That's one reason they have so little trouble with marriages. Everything is laid out. All the men know what to do, and all the women know what to do.

Bert: In that culture there's a lot less focus on individuation, isn't there?

Robert: That's true.

Here's another differentiation that's helpful. The difference between individuation and individualism. Individuation is becoming who you are.

Bert: Becoming the authentic person you were intended to be, as James Hillman would put it in The Soul's Code. The authenticity of your own character.

Robert: Individualism is "me first."

Bert: "I don't know who I am, but me first, anyway."

Robert: There's a lot to be said for the medieval mentality. It works better in some respects than what we have now. Modern mentality is a kind of Promethian invention.

Bert: Which part of the Promethian myth are you relating to?

Robert: We stole the fire from the Gods.

Bert: And don't know what to do with it once we have it.

Robert: That's right. There's a severe punishment that goes with the theft.

Bert: Hubris.

Robert: All consciousness is a theft.

Bert: So it is to be carefully husbanded and revered.

Robert: That's the way the Greeks looked at it.

The Catholic Church is still trying to teach from the Book-we'll find out the law and the rest of you just follow it.

Bert: I think of another quality when I think of masculinity, Apollonian clarity. If we are adrift in a sea of chaos, the first thing we want to do is ring in a logical order and structure, to build islands of order in the sea of chaos. That would be another value to the patriarchy.

Robert: It's no good tossing out the patriarchy, because it's valuable. Again, it's a matter of the right thing, at the wrong level.

Bert: Gregory Max Vogt wrote a book Return to Father: Archetypal Dimensions of the Patriarchy. (order on-line) He writes of a need for a homologos patriarchy. He talks, for example, of the patriarch as the architect, the builder. It seems to me you and he are talking about the same thing, not to throw out the patriarchy, but to recognize its value and put it on its own proper level.

Robert: That's right. The patriarchy is not male. It becomes tyranny if the man thinks he has to be the leader as a matter of right.

Bert: In this era of new choices for women and women's liberation, I wonder if we aren't seeing women stepping into patriarchal power modes.

Robert: That's right. They're stepping into these roles as men are retreating and becoming wimpish. I grew up in a family like that. My mother ruled, and my father said, "yes." That's very common-almost a stereotype for post-World War II marriages. She was quick, sharp and decisive, and he was moody and depressed.

Bert: In your book you said one of the factors that was important to you in finding your Spirit was your Godfather.

Robert: Yes. That's a good subject. We need it. I wouldn't have made it without a Godfather and a Godmother.

Bert: I'm wondering how this fits in with a subject we hear a lot about these days, mentoring.

Robert: Yes, those are different terms for the same thing.

Bert: That's an issue that I see in Men's Work-40- or 50-year-old guys talking about not having had a father or a mentor in their own lives, and I wonder if they're mentoring younger men.

Robert: Not unless they've had a Godfather or mentor in their own lives.

Bert: You mean it's too hard to do, if you haven't been mentored in your own life?

Robert: But it's still a good idea. I'd like to go to somebody and consciously make such a agreement with a big, strong masculine guy who never gets tired. I'd say, "I'm not very good at physical masculinity. My body doesn't work very well. Will you carry that energy for me?" A form of hero-worship, only consciously done. To do that, one would have to find out what he wants, then ask someone else to be the outer carrier of that characteristic.

You may remember that in my book I mention going to a man and asking him if he would be a reincarnation of God for me. It's an Indian custom. You have the right to go to another person and ask him to be a reincarnation of God for you. You then treat the person that way, and he or she indeed becomes a presence of God on earth. I needed it. I asked for it, and I got it. One has to have the courage and the ability to ask.

Bert: On another subject, you were just up at this year's Redwood Men's Center conference on new directions in male psychology. How did that go?

Robert: Oh, beautifully. We had such a good time! There was a good quality of feeling, and a lot of intelligent, thoughtful discussion. That's what it was for, and it worked.

Bert: What did you have to say to the men?

Robert: I lectured on Goethe's Faust. We talked earlier about the medieval and the modern mind. Faust is the best road map for modern mentality that we have. But hardly anybody has read Faust. It's very complex. I like to talk about it, but I haven't yet been able to put it into simple terms.

Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche
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Bert: That's one of the things that I admire about your writing. I still hold up your book Owning Your Own Shadow as the one simple way to grasp the concept.

Robert: If I can't bring something down to pretty simple terminology, I don't yet have a good grasp of it.

Bert: You said something at the end of your book Balancing Heaven and Earth that fascinated me. You suggested that the Grail Myth came about because a new era was emerging, but people were only aware of the chaos at the end of the Middle Ages. The parallel for today is that all we see is disjointedness and chaos, but a new era is emerging.

Robert: The medieval world is vanishing, but it is not entirely gone. We still have laws, customs and expectations that reflect medieval thinking. The end of an era is a dangerous time. But it can also be a highly creative time.

Bert: And what do you see emerging?

Robert: If we do it right, a higher consciousness and spiritual awareness. If we do it wrong, chaos. What is coming up is issues of consciousness and levels.

Bert: And we're now aware of new levels of consciousness that we weren't aware of before?

Robert: No, we're not conscious of new levels, but of new information. We don't have an awareness of the appropriate level for it. So we're putting the right thing in the wrong place, and wondering why it doesn't work. A medieval description of marriage doesn't work any more. I want to write a book about levels, but I don't have the terminology for it.

Bert: No organizing myth or metaphor?

Robert: I can't find one. I'm living one out in my own life, but it's nothing I can talk about yet. Our culture has a need for it. I'm grappling for terms that will give us a collective ability to understand it.

Bert: I wonder how much this issue of new consciousness of levels is related to a lot of the collective unconscious now becoming manifest, coming into consciousness.

Robert: It happens whether we're ready for it or not. It's burgeoning out all over the place. And there's virtually no container for it.

Bert: Prometheus bringing back to the village the fire he stole from the Gods, and there being no container to hold it, without burning down the whole village?

Robert: Yes, that says the whole thing.

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