by David Tacey
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The devouring father and Jungian conservatism
It seems to me that some desperate compensatory mechanism has been triggered in the Western psyche, and that there is an element of real urgency about the return of the feminine. The progressive spirit in society is pushing us toward an “androgynous” psychological condition, undoubtedly because the unchecked masculine has ruled for so long, and its excesses and desecrations are now painfully apparent to any alert person. We best advance the spirit of the time by admitting the feminine into our lives and hearts, into our social structures and political institutions. But patriarchy is notoriously resistant to change, and in Greek mythology it is well represented by the figure of Chronos-Saturn, the recalcitrant and static ogre who devours his own offspring lest they pose a threat to his hegemonic rule. Direct combat may not be the answer; instead we must, like Zeus acting on Rhea’s plan, outwit the tyrant and trick him into releasing all the diverse and plural life-forms — the lost femininities and “alternative” masculinities — that he has systematically devoured. Chronos-Saturn will go on its consuming course, swallowing the feminine and converting all masculinities into a likeness of itself, unless we break the cycle of power, conquest, and domination.
Ever since Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men 1 burst upon the international scene, we have witnessed a veritable avalanche of Jungian or pseudo-Jungian texts which attempt to “solve” the crisis of masculinity. But although this new tradition of “mythopoetic” writing about men is often insightful, and always alert to the critical situation of contemporary masculinity, I find it largely unsatisfactory. To me, this new tradition is basically reactionary, conservative, and backward-looking. It asks how men can recover their former balance, not how they can discover a new, post-patriarchal equilibrium. It assumes that men must reconnect with masculine archetypes, and it invents terms like the “Deep Male” and the “Inner Warrior” to remythologise this new pact with masculinity. But the “therapeutic” fix-it mentality is in danger of losing sight of the biggest cultural issue of our time: patriarchal masculinity must be challenged and displaced by the rising feminine.
If men are “cured” of the crisis, and if Saturn is returned to rule, then we are actually in worse shape, collectively, than ever before. Patriarchy is not merely some abstract entity “out there”; it has provided the deepest emotional foundations for the construction of traditional masculinity. Men must be allowed to feel the pain of the disintegration of their former props and supports, and the collapse of patriarchy must be genuinely registered in every individual heart. We have too much therapy that wants to numb the pain, heal the wounds, “initiate” men into outmoded patriarchal constructs, bridge the (necessary) distance that separates sons from fathers. Because of all this “helpful” therapy and mythopoetic cushioning – Connell calls it “masculinity therapy”, where broken masculinity is dropped off for repair 2 — we are in danger of employing depth psychology to outwit the psyche, and to stifle its important transformations.
The question I have to pose is this: Is Jungian theory to be used to encourage change, or to escape from change? It has long seemed to me that Jung, like Freud, can be used either to move ahead with the times or to betray the zeitgeist in a nostalgic recovery of the past. Because of the illusory “stability” and purported “timelessness” of the archetypes, Jung has proved attractive to the conservative opponents of change, and the revolutionary possibilities of Jungian theory have been denied.
The theory of archetypes is often wheeled out by “concerned” humanists and therapists who have seen enough social change — and clinical casualties of change — and who want to turn the cultural clock back fifty or even a hundred years, to protect men from the chaos and suffering of modern times. Jungian archetypes are viewed, quite wrongly, as fixed and stable elements embedded in an unchanging eternal mind. Just when the foundations of patriarchy are shaking, and when the potentials for real change are greatest, some Jungians (qualified analysts, as well as others) churn out best-selling texts which promise stable “archetypes” (read “stereotypes”) of gendered identity. In popular Jungianism there is a hopelessly unrealistic view of psychological experience.
Popular Jungianism has degenerated into a new-age fantasy system, where everything we lack in society or personal experience is provided by the ever-reliable (and never rusting) “hard wiring” of the unconscious. Robert Bly, witnessing men turning ” soft” through their contact with the feminine, enjoins men to toughen up by going “down” into the unconscious and reawakening the so-called Hairy Wildman. Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette, noting that the stereotypical models for men are disintegrating and losing credibility, use the theory of archetypes to convince men that the reliable old models, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, can be found again in the deep unconscious. Handbooks and manuals (again designed to attract the “practical” male reader) are produced to lead men into a step-by-step recovery of the broken patriarchal models. 3 Guy Corneau and Alfred Collins, aware of the painful gap between fathers and sons, between old patriarch and rebellious youth, invent new archetypes such as “Fatherson”, and conjure up other Jungian magical tricks, to will all gaps and ruptures away. 4 Gregory Vogt insists that the Lost Son can, if he wants to, return to the bosom of the Great Father. 5 With the power of archetypes, reality can be refashioned, reshaped, to suit the desires of any fantasy agenda.
Contrary movements: embracing the father and killing the patriarch
According to Robert Bly and the mythopoetic circle, “What Men Really Want” is to become one with the father and to be “initiated” into the father’s world. They speak about this “initiation” as the fulfilment of desire, an almost intoxicating sense of belonging and deep reparation. But I read this cheap psychology as anti-psychological; it does not give men what they want at all, but merely caters to their regressive longing for an infantile and unconscious patriarchal paradise, replete with infantile idealisations of the father that any Freudian would immediately recognise. In times of epochal change and transformation, the sons must not simply repeat the traditional pattern and become part of the father’s tribe. The sons must strike out anew, rebuild the world and refashion its politics, and the most creative sons of all must “father” themselves, not simply engage in a conventional “Return to Father”, which only succeeds in propping up the ailing patriarchy. This is a lonely path, a courageous path, and it requires above all that men make a commitment to the creative spirit of the present and the dream of the future, not just to the spirit of the past.
At the other end of the spectrum, men engaged in the contrary discourse of what is called profeminist men’s studies plot ways to overthrow the patriarchy, defeat the father’s authority, and render impotent the Devouring Father of our culture. This primarily academic discourse, based in feminism, marxism, and revolutionary fervour, seeks to liberate men by killing off the father. For this intellectual tradition, no father equals freedom; whereas for the mythopoetic tribe, no father equals unbearable isolation and a psychological inferno. There is too much emphasis on direct confrontation, “revolutionary violence”, and on murdering the father, rather than on tricking him or displacing his authority. In the mythic pattern I am interested in, Saturn is not assassinated, but simply “stripped of his authority” “by Zeus’s force and deceitful cunning”.
Too many academic radicals want to kill the father — and what then? When the father is killed, we find that we unconsciously return to mother, to infantilism, satiety and self-destruction in the false paradise of the maternal source. The “defence of the feminine” in much so-called profeminist men’s studies is actually an unconscious idealisation of the mother and an identification with her archetypal world. In some profeminist writings, the penis is linked with rape, manhood is synonymous with violence, maleness is a violation of an innately feminine nature, and indeed masculinity itself is no more than an abominable fiction or construct that “progressive” politics must attempt to destroy. The Oedipus complex is no real solution to the crisis of masculinity because masculinity must never be fused with the mother. If such a fusion occurs, masculinity falls into the unconscious, and then we can expect compensatory eruptions and explosions of primal, and probably fascistic, masculinity. Ironically, the radical killing of the father could bring on a social-political regression more terrifying than any “backlash” idealisation of the masculine.
The Iron John tradition is virtually All-Phallus, while the contrary antimasculinist discourse is No-Phallus. Why can’t we have the phallus without appalling idealisations or guilt-ridden demonisations? We must unpack and disassemble patriarchy, while at the same time develop new meanings and metaphors for masculinity, which must never be constructed as the “enemy” of men or women. I earnestly believe that we need to find a “third way”, or a “middle path” between the extremes of patriarchal nostalgia (Iron John) and matriarchal identification (Oedipus). The zeitgeist urges us to defend the feminine, but the development of masculinity forces us to differentiate ourselves from the mother so that the feminine archetypes can be properly served and attended by a sensitive and invigorated consciousness. Paradoxically, the feminine spirit of our time demands that the masculine be further developed so that a higher consciousness can realise the enormity of the challenge of integrated (masculine and feminine) awareness. It is through paradox, and the constant consideration of contrary points of view, that we discover the middle way out of our cultural dilemmas.
Spirituality and politics: eternity and time
Spirituality has an innate tendency to want to escape from the bounds of the real, but if spirituality is to be authentic and socially transformative, this innate tendency has to be arrested and spirituality must be politicised and linked with the social and historical process. From an intellectual perspective, any human experience is the product of its culture, so that a universalising spiritual discourse lacks credibility if it fails to engage the field of social reality. If the popular, Jung-influenced spiritual discourses are not firmly grounded in the real, they can readily, and perhaps rightly, be dismissed by hostile critics as so much froth and bubble, having little or no political consequence.
A case in point is the work of well-known Jungian populariser, Robert Johnson, who is so enamoured of the timelessness of the archetypes that he writes as if politics, social structure, and the historical process did not exist. His “depth” and profundity carry him away from reality to a mythic realm where time is measured in bundles of eight hundred years or more. Hence Johnson can tell us that the twelfth century version of the Grail myth holds the “spiritual prescription for our own time”. With alarming naivete, Johnson writes about He, She, and We as if gendered experience had not changed since the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. 6 Johnson’s view is that the Man is essentially the provider, quester, hero, and “active partner”; whereas Woman is essentially nourisher, home-bound, domestic, and static.
I have sat in a crowded lecture hall and watched many spiritual seekers become entranced by Johnson’s droning mythopoetics, while a number of more politically alert listeners became visibly disturbed and downright angry at his social blindness and lack of political awareness. Watching these opposite responses in the room is like witnessing my own contradictory response to mythopoetics: one part of me amazed, another part appalled.
The opposite problems attend much radical, academic discourse. Here, life is lived on the fast-moving surface. Progressive intellectuals sometimes anticipate huge social changes from a national convention, or expect a three-day leading-edge conference to change the world. They write books complaining about the rate of change, with titles like Slow Motion or Backlash. 7
The problem with surface-level intellectual discourse is that it fails to see the extent to which the archetypes influence our lived experience. Much sociology of masculinity and gender theory strikes me as hopelessly inadequate; it calls for change and demands instantaneous release from stereotypes without even beginning to reckon with the powerful archetypes that regulate our lives, all the more powerful for not being seen by the intellectuals. Little wonder this facile sociology gets frustrated with the subjects it tackles, because it is made to see how hopeless its own methods are for accessing the core issues and getting to the root problems. It is astonishing how often we are told that masculinity is merely a construct of society, one that can be exploded simply if we stop believing in it. This is social positivism and extraverted awareness gone mad, completely unaware of its own limitations and arrogantly believing in the premises of its own social theory. How can theories of the human world dispense with or ignore the massive contributions of both Freud and Jung? Unless a depth dimension is taken into account, political and social science will remain frustrated and frustrating, a testimony only to the machinations of the hubristic intellect.
For their part, the Jungians — especially the popular Jungians — have an enormous amount to learn as well. I agree fully with James Hillman and Andrew Samuels that the Jungian understanding of the “inner world” has to be radically revisioned. For Hillman, the constant privileging of the “inner” has made the therapy-loving generations into political duds. 8Samuels argues insightfully that the inner life is not hermetically sealed off from culture or society, but our psyche is a “political psyche”, intimately part of, and a major player in, the world of political events.
Therapy culture and academic culture: men’s pain and men’s power
The wetness of contemporary men’s experience is repugnant to many dry intellectuals, who do not like crying, moist feelings, bleeding hearts, confessionals, or soul-searching. Academic men’s studies and the popular men’s movement, however, do have more in common than either would perhaps care to realise. Both groups inhabit a post-patriarchal world, and while therapy culture feels the legacy of an outworn patriarchy in the empty heart and suffering soul, academic culture thinks about how to overthrow the remaining structures of political patriarchy. Both cultures will have to come together in a future radicalising discourse.
Although they look at each other with some alarm and disdain, therapy and academic cultures have grasped opposite ends of the same historical situation. Therapy culture assumes that patriarchy as a identity support structure is dead, and it sets about to inculcate a “survival mentality” that will help individual men in the task of rebuilding their lives. However, therapy culture fails to see that political patriarchy is still very much alive, and that although men may feel themselves to be disenfranchised and emotionally adrift, they are still in charge of social authority. There is a dangerous split here between the internal psychic reality (where we are all made to feel “inferior” and powerless) and the external reality (where Chronos-Saturn continues to rule).
Academic culture grasps very well the continued hegemonic power of men, but is blind to the fact that many men are already suffering, as it were in advance (and ahead of the feminist schedule), the emotional fallout of the disintegration of patriarchy as a psychological and identity-forming reality. Academic culture cannot see what the crying men are getting at: their tears are viewed as crocodile tears, indulgent sensitive new age tears, which have no validity and merely mask the reality that men still hold the power.
We live in a complex time where we have to come to terms with the paradox of men’s power and men’s pain. In my life as an academic, I talk the language of men’s power on a daily basis. In my second life as a public speaker and participant in the therapy culture, I see men’s pain everywhere and feel a great deal of it myself. Both sides of contemporary men’s experience are real, and both have to be taken into account. We are not dealing here with a contradiction, but with a paradox, and only if the paradox is not understood is the link between pain and power lost. I would say that the ability to sustain this paradox, and the tension between power and pain, is what constitutes full psychological health in a postpatriarchal world.
The problem with the popular emphasis on “men’s healing” is that it forgets why men are wounded in the first place. Before we remake masculinity we must unmake it, and understand why it had to fall apart. In our remaking efforts, we must become self-critical and be careful to distinguish between new and old masculinities, to differentiate the new self-esteem from the old masculinist arrogance, to separate the new happiness from the old complacency, to tell the difference between human rights and patriarchal privileges. Instead of using Robert Bly’s Iron John as a textbook, or Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly, men’s forum team leaders should look at Lynne Segal’s Slow Motion, or Kenneth Clatterbaugh’s Contemporary Perspectives on Masculinity. 9
I think if men knew more about why they are suffering, if they understood better the cultural, political and historical reasons for their disorientation, the effects of this increase in knowledge could only be positive. The personal mess is not then so terribly personal, and creative insight, rather than guilt-feelings, could be better mobilised. Jung puts it very well: “if the connection between the personal problem and the larger contemporary events is discerned and understood, it brings release from the loneliness of the purely personal, and the subjective problem is magnified into a general question of our society. In this way the personal problem acquires a dignity it lacked hitherto”. 10 Ironically, for contemporary men to gain the larger, contextual view that Jung recommends, they need to read feminist and feminist-inspired writings, and not the popular Jungian material that wards off the social-political world.
We must, I believe, muddle away at getting both perspectives in our minds at the one time. Men’s pain and men’s power, spirituality and politics, feeling and reason: the claims of both sides must always be examined, balanced, and placed against each other.
David Tacey is a Senior lecturer in English at La Trobe University. His book Remaking Men will be published by Routledge in March 1997 in the UK and USA and by Penguin Australia in July 1997.
Notes and References