The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine,
An interview with Robert Bly
By Bill Bruzy
Robert Bly, winner of the National Book Award for poetry, is probably most well known for his groundbreaking book Iron John. Robert has illuminated masculine consciousness and men’s need to reconnect with themselves and their essential masculinity. His latest work, The Maiden King, is co-authored with Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and author of Leaving my Father’s House, and The Owl is the Bakers’ Daughter. This new book addresses the reunion of the masculine and feminine and the hunger we have for reconnection. Rich and evocative, reading this book is like having a thousand small lights go off inside the self, connecting dark passages in the deep of our being.
Robert and Marion are a natural alliance of Jungian and mythic, male and female. The authors present, in The Maiden King, a captivating journey into an old Russian story. The story is one of a young man betrayed by his stepmother and his tutor. He is sought by the divine feminine but is tricked into sleep by this shadowy pair of guardians. First he has to awaken and then he takes the mythic path to find and reconnect with the divine feminine who has left him behind while he was sleeping. In the course of his journey he has to encounter the shadow of the feminine, the Baba Yaga, who eats anyone who takes an adversarial position with her. As the book jacket says, this is a tale of digging down into the “deeper, messier mysteries of life.”
I recently had a chance to talk with Robert, by phone, just after the Christmas holiday.
Bill Bruzy Let’s start with an intriguing comment in the book. You said we’ve moved from a literal to a psychological understanding with the help of Freud. Now we are moving into a mythological understanding. So let’s frame your work in terms of that. What is mythological understanding as opposed to literal and psychological understanding?
RB Good question. When Marion and I gave ten talks in late November we told the Maiden King story together. So the literal part of it was we had to warn people that when, for example, we used the word ‘stepmother’ one is not literally to think of stepmothers.
‘Stepmother’ is a code word meaning the dark side of your own mother. This is a code word to describe a psychological situation in which the dark side of every human being, which one must give credit to Freud for bringing forward clearly, is looked at. So at that point we moved immediately to the psychological level.
John Lee and I were just talking about Christmas. Looked at from the literal point of view Christmas is a matter of giving and receiving gifts, reconstituting the family and so on. Psychologically though what happens at Christmas is the dark side of a lot of people’s personality often comes out. You know, the uncle gets drunk and ruins everything. The parents with their cunning psychological skills manage to destroy the marriages of all their children. (laughter) You know what I mean?
BB Don’t we all. So you didn’t do that this weekend did you?
RB No, no … we had it done to us! (laughter)
So you need everything Freud and Jung understood to see the psychological things that happen at Christmas. There’s a lot of ‘stepmother’ stuff in Christmas.
So in the workshops after we tell the story a few literal things come up. Then a lot of psychological things come up, including the psychological force that a false tutor has in your life. The stepmother and false tutor were the forces that put the young man to sleep so he missed his chance with the divine feminine.
People in the workshops have concerns about the psychology. Why does a false tutor betray you? Why does the false tutor and the dark side of your own mother make a unit so that your own openness to the ecstatic is blocked? Those are tremendous questions that psychology opens up.
So if it takes us a half-hour to tell the story it takes another half-hour to get the psychological material spoken. At that point a lot of people are really satisfied. They’re ready to stop right there. So then if we have another half-hour we begin to touch on the question of what is the knowledge that mythology gives?
Now, that is what really is in danger in our culture, mythological knowledge and also, of course, psychological knowledge. We know that global capitalism, brought inside, is trying to get rid of Freud and Jung and substitute pills for knowledge.
BB What a statement! But I think you’re right. So you are saying global capitalism is trying to pull us back to the more narrow literal understanding rather than moving us deeper into other, more comprehensive, types of understanding?
RB Yes. Global capitalism, when brought inside the psyche, does that. When it operates ‘out there’ in the world, it destroys the working class. There is a wonderful book by William Dryder called One World Ready or Not. He says the war between capital and labor is over. Capital won. Period. Anything as powerful as global capitalism doesn’t only operate in the exterior world though. The mood of global capitalism moves inside the psyche.
All the attacks on Freud and Jung say we don’t need therapy anymore, that therapy doesn’t do any good. Just take these pills. The whole advance psychology made in working through suffering, all of that is thrown away, and you simply try to give people a few pills for their depression. Psychological understanding is in a lot of danger now. HMO’s are going to refuse to handle it. We receive pop-psychology instead of deep-psychology. But the understanding that’s the most exposed to danger by internalized global capitalism is the mythological understanding.
We are dealing with areas of truth here and areas of truth go from fundamentalism or literalism, to psychological understanding and the next step is the mythological.
BB So how do these levels or styles of understanding play out in the story of The Maiden King?
RB The reunion of masculine and feminine is related to understanding the kind of sleep the boy in the story falls into. The sleep is induced by the false tutor in the male world and also the stepmother in the female world. They work together to put the young boy, or it could be a girl, to sleep. So we ask if that alone is understood, if we awaken, will that result in the reunion of masculine and feminine?
The story says no.
The story says there is a limit to how much you are able to achieve by waking out of sleep. It’s valuable for a therapist to remind you that you were in a trance in childhood, that in the first two years of your marriage you were in a trance, both of you were in a trance, imitating your parents trance. So the therapist tries to wake you up out of that trance.
BB So waking up from the trance is a step into a kind of awareness but there is a lot more distance to cover to reach unity?
RB The story says waking up is good but we know that at a point the divine feminine leaves a note for the young man. The note says your stepmother and tutor have betrayed you and my advice is to cut off your false tutor’s head and if you want to find me you’ll have to go off to another place to find me. I’m gone.
When the young man reads this note he takes his sword and cuts off the tutors head. I associate that awakening with the energy that comes with good psychological information. But the story doesn’t end there.
Men and women are hoping that men can come out of their trance. Men’s trance is a kind of obedience to conventional ideas of masculinity. The trance is the desire-for-warfare trance, the obsession with achievement. And men are hoping that the women come out of their trance. Women’s trance is a resentment and a female sort of relationship. Female relationships are brilliant in themselves but the women think that if they can teach men to do relationship of this kind it’ll solve things. That’s a trance too in a way.
Psychology, you know, is in many ways a feminine activity. You bring the male in and he is immediately fighting. He knows that he is going to be taught the feminine way of relationship, which is terrific. However there’s something in it slightly alien to the male and he knows that he’s in danger.
Men express this immediately by their fear when they enter a therapist’s office. I think psychology has to really admit sooner or later that it tries to solve problems in marriage by trying to get both male and female to adopt the feminine mode of relationship. Which, by the way, I feel blessed to have been taught.
Let’s go on. That’s as far as you go in psychology. It’s a good step. But in mythology we get to this point, see the male has been asleep now he’s awake. He knows that he has lost something. But the mythological says ‘I’ve got news for you.’ It says you are going to have to go to the underworld if the male and female are going to reunite. Whoa!
BB Waking up is not the end of the work, end of the road, to unity.
RB I think that’s right. The main thing is the problem of separation is solved in the underworld among the dead.
BB Not a Norman Vincent Pealish sort of thing!
RB You can immediately feel the shock of that. The whole concept of going to the underworld is a mythological piece. It is not a psychological piece. Psychology says, for example, that an overt depression is more thorough than a covert one. That’s an image of descent in psychology. What psychology says is right but the mythological says to grasp the deepest meaning of the descent into the underworld you have to accept the idea of huge powerful beings down there. It’s beyond psychological understanding. There is an enormous sister of the Virgin Mary who doesn’t have the Virgin’s compassion.
BB That’s the Baba Yaga, the Kali figure, the shadow of the feminine?
RB Yes, she likes to eat people. You know Goya’s picture of Saturn eating his own son. You know that one?
BB Goya’s picture? Yes. I studied Goya’s work. It’s fascinating but disturbing.
RB That is not a psychological picture. That is mythological. We were just in Madrid and went to the Prado and saw these works. You know you are not in psychology viewing those.
I think that’s why it’s fascinating. You’re looking at Goya’s work and see a scene of people and a giant being is standing twelve hundred feet tall in the midst of this and nobody seems to notice it. Or you’ve got three witches floating over a scene. Goya had that courage that’s asked for in this story, the courage to go into the mythological world.
So the story says the male and female will not be reunited in our culture until they are willing to go down and deal with the dead. We particularly need to deal with this enormous figure who is female but also devouring, who is feminine but also demands truth, not merely relationship but also truth.
BB So how does the audience react? This is powerful, disturbing. Do people get nervous, want to go home, get interested, what?
RB My guess is one out of ten feel how this is a big truth. ‘How come my priest doesn’t talk about that when he talks about the Virgin Mary?’ What about the Protestants? They could not only not take the Baba Yaga they couldn’t take the Virgin Mary either. I would say the Protestants underneath feel they have solved all this and don’t have to face it.
We have to take seriously the Virgin Mary and her sister. Of course then we’re immediately in a no-no land as far as a lot of politically correct women are concerned.
Let me ask you a question. How do you understand what I’ve just said?
BB Running a counseling center for men I get a lot of feedback from women. I hear a lot of women’s anger.
RB Well give me a story about it.
BB Okay, the last time was Christmas Eve. I was at a friend’s house. He’s an academic, art historian. One of his university colleagues, who I’d never met, was there. We were having a very pleasant conversation talking about travel. I’d just gotten back from Spain and North Africa. She loved the Mediterranean. We enjoyed each other’s company.
Then she asked me what I did besides writing and I told her I run the Austin Men’s Center. She got cold. The change was very sudden. I don’t think she thought she was being mean, but she dismissed all men with one sweeping gesture of condemnation of ‘men’s ego’s.’ All men were less than women because of ego. Period. This otherwise gracious and intelligent woman turned daggerlike and sharp in a microsecond.
You know I figured it was Christmas Eve and I wasn’t about to get into that conversation.
RB What the story says is what she was expressing. It was not so much women’s anger as an indulgence in adversarial thinking.
BB That’s interesting.
RB It’s interesting that what the sister of the Virgin Mary, the Baba Yaga being, cleanses people of, is adversarial thinking. That’s amazing because what psychological thinking does is allow us to have adversarial thinking.
As soon as that woman said to you, the egos of men are bigger and that’s all they’re interested in, that’s psychological language. It’s okay but it’s psychological and what’s more it’s turned to an adversarial position. Because it means that egos of women are not. That’s exactly where you get in trouble.
The mythological point of view can say that this sister of the Virgin Mary with her raucous humor and her knowledge that big seals eat little seals, lions eat gazelles, that if she weren’t in the world everyone would live to be four hundred years old. Her knowledge has a totally unexpected side to us. She eats anyone who thinks in an adversarial way.
She asks that question in the story, “did you come here from your own free will or did someone send you?” That’s a setup for adversarial thinking. So if you had such a big ego or whatever way she puts it, she eats you as long as you’re in that adversarial place.
This woman who said to you on Christmas Eve that men have such big egos and that’s the main problem they have, she was feeling no real grief when she said that. On the contrary she was feeling some kind of triumph. There was a solution here in which the woman can be a kind of Alexander the Great and be triumphant in every conversation.
But to Baba Yaga this means that she’s got to be eaten immediately. And in the course of her saying that to you Baba Yaga’s eating her. If there’s a man there who responds and says well men are much more fair than women, or whatever, to make the woman feel small, Baba Yaga eats him as well.
So the understanding here is men and women cannot become reunited unless they are willing to move to the mythological space. Which means going down into the underworld and dealing with this Goddess we have omitted for hundreds of years. Secondly, until you are willing to answer an adversarial question in such a way your voice is full of grief you can’t be uneaten.
The question came up in the groups we did and Marion said this reminds her a lot of addicts. The question the addict has to answer is, “did I come to this addiction of my own free will or did someone force me to it.” That’s a heavy, heavy question. And somehow the answer given in the story was he came two hundred percent of his own free will and three hundred percent because someone sent him. That avoids the adversarial because it didn’t add up to one hundred.
The longer we worked with this story, night after night, we realized the voice itself had to change when answering that kind of question. So there was the low, deep sound of grief in the voice.
BB So this is an energetic component of the mythological?
RB Yes, it has to be in the voice. So if men and women are in that voice they are no longer in the adversarial. Is that clear?
BB Yup. I see that as energetic, that the individuals are inhabiting themselves more completely at that point where the voice holds grief.
RB Yes and you’re not hiding. Women are not blaming men and men are not blaming women.
BB And there’s a humility in that too.
RB That’s right. It amazed me that the contrast between the psychological and the mythological would be that clear. And always we know the mythological includes invisible beings. The psychological includes the id, the superego and the ego but they’re not exactly invisible beings. They’re visualized qualities. But in the mythological you have to deal with these enormous beings.
So by the way I have to tell you the hunger for that knowledge of reunion of the masculine and feminine was huge. There was a deep longing that there be a reunion of the masculine and feminine, not that the women will triumph or the men will triumph.
When we were in Portland there were about 900 people. The hunger I felt in that room reminded me of the early Viet Nam readings I did. Wanting some kind of truth here, in that case about the war, in this case about the war between men and women. That was the thing we felt tremendously hopeful about, the positive hunger from both men and women, that something be said as to how men and women can come back together.
The answer given in mythology, going to the underworld, agreeing to live in a world the opposite of Walt Disney, agreeing that you deal with the mistress of the dead (or in the Mayan the Lords of Death) and then feel enough grief that you give up your adversarial thinking. That’s a big answer.
Bill Bruzy is a writer in Austin, Texas. He is also the owner/director of The Austin Men’s Center.