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The Sibling Society

Book Review by Bert H. Hoff

This article appeared in the July, 1996 issue of M.E.N. Magazine
Robert Bly, The Sibling Society. (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996)

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For some time, we have been hearing about Robert’s upcoming book The Sibling Society. He spoke about its major thesis at the conference on men, mothers and lovers in Spokane last fall, and again at the Bly/Woodman weekend that Seattle M.E.N. sponsored here last November. In brief, Robert maintains that we have neglected our elders and abandoned our children to become a horizontal, sibling society of adolescents attempting to raise each other. The thesis is startling. At these conferences, Robert offered bits of wisdom and references to studies that substantiate aspects of this thesis. Now that I have had a chance to absorb the book and see him develop the thesis fully, I can say I find his thesis not only startling, but frightening.

Robert says late in the book that he began it with a sense of lighthearted humor. The humor disappeared from him, and will disappear for the reader, well before the book’s conclusion.

Bly orchestrates his themes like the composer of a complex and intricate symphony. Seemingly disjointed ideas and images presented in the first part of the book are woven together into compelling themes that crescendo in the final chapters. Early in the book, for example, he presents a vignette of a school bus driver who asked her last rider to help close all the bus windows. The little girl closed one, then said, "I’ve done my job. Fuck you." The image stayed in my mind like a barely-heard theme in an early part of a Bach concerto. In a short little chapter about what happens when we teach our children that nothing works, the image so subtly and quietly developed in the early part of the book jumped to the fore to be a major imagery theme in my mind, adding depth and richness to the crescendo of the idea in that chapter.

Robert’s style is familiar to most readers of this magazine, I suspect. He opens with an ancient, more complete version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," which Robert used on the Friday night of his appearance here with Marion Woodman last fall. Throughout the book, he uses fairy tales to illustrate his points. He also relies on biological and sociological studies to present startling new ideas in fleshing out his main thesis. For example, he suggests that adolescence is shaped not just by the Superego, which he sees as a pinch-nosed, stern-faced man in a dark suit telling us what we can’t do, but by a Lofty Companion who exhorts and encourages us to our best efforts. To use another example, he talks of recent findings that the human fetus is exactly like a chimpanzee’s fetus one month before birth. The chimp stays in the womb to develop an elongated jaw and hair all over the body. We’re born prematurely, so the skull is not fused and there’s room for the brain to expand. He then discusses the possibility that we now are born two months early, and spend our entire lives in perpetual adolescence.

I won’t take the time here to try to describe the many ideas in this book in great detail. You already know a lot of the themes—for example, what happens when mothers as well as fathers only spend 10 minutes a day with their children, or children are raised by TV, MTV and movies instead of their parents. For one thing, I could not begin to do justice to Robert’s ideas. Instead, I’ll talk about specific aspects of the book as they relate to men’s issues.

Men who are looking to this book for Robert’s thoughts on new directions in the men’s movements or gender movements are bound to be disappointed initially, until the deeper message of the book sinks in. His chapter on the men’s movements and women’s movements is brief and cryptic. Robert is best known as a spokesman for the men’s movement. But Robert will be the first to tell you that he did not start out to be a leader of the men’s movement and, in fact, is uncomfortable with the mantle that has been placed upon his shoulders. The notoriety of Iron John puts a spotlight on only one aspect of Robert’s lifework. Most readers of Iron John are unaware that two decades earlier, in Sleepers Joining Hands, Robert wrote an essay on the Great Mother. Robert tells me that this essay is still used in women’s studies courses around the country. His work as National Book Award poet and as translator of poems by Kabir, Vallejo and Neruda, and his anti-Vietnam War protest days, inform his essay on the Great Mother. That, in turn, enriched his works on myths and men’s issues. All of this work is reflected in The Sibling Society.

Robert’s views on the men’s movements are infused throughout the book. For example, in his short section on the men’s movements, he says he regrets the term "mythopoetic" and likes to think, instead, of the "expressive men’s movement." One of the themes throughout The Sibling Society is that the members of a sibling society seek instant gratification and instant release, but lack expression and passion in their lives.

I will use one further example to illustrate this point. One of the words we use most often is "initiation." My first interview for M.E.N. Magazine was with Dr. Sam Osherson, author of Finding Our Fathers and Wrestling With Love. When I asked him about separation, initiation and return, his reply was that the "return" was problematical. Metaphorically, one might say that Robert has done his separation and initiation work in Iron John and his work in the men’s movements, and is now returning with his gift to the community. Robert talks about initiation throughout the book, but not just from the standpoint of why men need initiation. He talks about women’s initiation as well. But his perspective is broader—not just on why the individual needs initiation, but on the impact on society of lack of initiation.

One of the theses in Christina Hoff Sommers’ book, Who Stole Feminism, is that feminists have been out to "deconstruct" every aspect of our culture, from scientific advances to classical music, so that it can be rejected as hopelessly tainted by the patriarchy. Again, Robert, in his chapter on the dangers of teaching children that "nothing works," takes a broader perspective. Robert points out that the reason this "deconstruction" had such appeal and such success is that it reflects a much more general trend in a sibling society, not just to throw out the works of "dead white males," but to throw out all aspects of our culture. He characterizes the current mental environment of the sibling society as a sort of generalized ingratitude. He then presents the astounding thesis that we are, perhaps, a "colonized" society, and what we have done to Native Americans and other indigenous cultures has come home to roost in our society. When colonial administrators took over a land, their first task was to convince the people that "nothing in their culture works." The old stories had nothing to say, the shamans were "witch doctors," tribal governance by consensus was ineffective, and the elder system needed to be dismantled. We now have an entire generation of students who are living in an impoverished landscape, where elders are without power, the Christian religion has lost its power, and youth—of all races—tend to be rationalists and skeptics, afflicted by drug addiction and a general feeling of hopelessness. Perhaps we are the first society in civilization to have "colonized" itself.

The book does a superb job in laying out the problem. Does it offer hope for a solution? Only in a general sense. There is a chapter contrasting "vertical thought" to the "horizontal thought" of a sibling society and describing what vertical thought is. But he leaves it to us to find the way back to a world of vertical thought.

Will the book be a bestseller that reshapes the way that society thinks about itself, in the way that Iron John had such a profound impact on men? I think not, and I think Robert provides the reason in one of his early chapters. Robert speaks of the Sufi imagery of naifs, particularly the lower naifs of the bitter soul, the greedy ones. The term naifs as understood today refers primarily to the greedy soul. Another phrase used for it is the "commanding soul," tyrannical and dictatorial. The Sufis say that the naif is utterly opposed to the spiritual intellect. Its main task is to move people toward selfishness and greed. This, of course, describes the sibling society about which Robert writes. The Sufis add that at any given time in a society, 97 percent of the people are slaves of their naifs. Iron John spoke so powerfully to millions of men and rose to the top of the New York Times bestseller list because at some level, these men were open and ready to hear its message. If Robert’s thesis is correct that we are a sibling society, with so many of us governed by our naifs, the last thing that we’re open to hearing is that we are a sibling society.

This book may not be a popular book, but it will be a profoundly important book. Those who are able to swim against the social current of the sibling society and forsake instant gratification long enough to absorb the book’s message will find themselves looking at society—the community around them—through Robert’s new lens. My own experience is that a lot of thoughts and ideas that have been gnawing at my soul and disturbing me, perceptions of which I was only dimly aware, as if I were perceiving them dimly through a thick fog, suddenly emerged with crystal clarity—terrifying clarity. My hope is that enough people will read this book, re-vision the way they look at society, reclaim lost traditions, and re-value the gifts of our ancestors—the men and women who created our civilization—and will find a way to move from a sibling society to a mature, adult society.

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