Interview with Robert Bly

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EU: You say SIBLING SOCIETY took three years to write and ten years out of your life. Why was it so difficult to write this book?

RB: This book is about the culture as a whole, about how the sibling society affects the lives of women as well as men and what's happening to children, for example, in early schools, what effect television has had on their brains, what the fatherless family means. These are sociological matters. Sociological prose is generally written without images in an exact form for an academic audience. So the problem became, How to write about these matters without using sociological jargon? How to write about facts like the decline of knowledge, while continuing to use images and poems and stories? I think that's why the book was difficult for me.

I would say, too, I began the book in a rather lighthearted way but by the time I had been writing for about a year and a half, I got a real ulcer. A Native American woman said to me, 'Well, the material you are writing about is very grievous, and you brought it down into your stomach, which was proper.' Twenty years ago, I would have brought it down into my head. I wouldn't have gotten an ulcer at all.

So then I had a second problem--what to do with all the grief I felt having studied this material. I am still involved in that.

EU: Your earlier work IRON JOHN drew a great deal of fire from a variety of critics. Do you expect this book to be as controversial as IRON JOHN?

RB: There are a number of faults with Iron John that people were right to point out. It wasn't written as a bible for the men's movement. It was just an expansion of a fairy story, and I didn't take into account a whole lot of things that I would have if I had thought it would be read that way.

The Sibling Society presents five hearth or fairy tales. People tend to take stories literally these days, so there may be some trouble there. The book may also offend people who want to feel that we are doing pretty well. I use the phrase 'sibling society' to suggest a culture fundamentally without fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, or ancestors. The thinking is horizontal. People who love horizontal thinking will not like the book. The sibling society is the flattening out of the previously democratic society. All of those on the left, as I am, have always vastly preferred the democratic society over the hierarchical society and still do, but the democratic culture doesn't exist without highly informed citizens capable of thinking well, and if you have schools in which 40 percent of the people coming out of them cannot make change for a dollar, you don't have a democracy. You have a sibling society.

What I am trying to do is bring people into grief in relation to the society we have. Ortega y Gasset said, 'The only real ideas are the ideas of the shipwrecked.' You have an utterly sincere glance when you look around after you are shipwrecked. You weep a long time on an island when you realize what's happened to you. I am saying that we are shipwrecked. That's what I want to achieve with this book. Sociological prose can tell you everything, but it can't point out the grief.

EU: In the book you say, 'One becomes an elder when one learns to think vertically.' What is vertical thinking?

RB: I did a special chapter of the book called 'What Is Vertical Thought?' that says basically that hierarchy, as in the Catholic Church, has to do with power, and vertical attention has to do with longing. What you feel in Japanese poetry is always entirely longing. There is no hierarchy in Japanese Buddhist poetry. You know, all of Japan once a year will get up on their rooftops, because that's the night that the shepherd boy from one side of the Milky Way gets to meet the weaver girl on the other side of the Milky Way. They all get up on their roofs and watch that night. So they long for 365 days and then on the 365th night, they see the result of that longing.

Vertical thought likes to imagine the vast distances between the stars. There's a quality we could call vertical attention, which is an attention upward toward ancestors, spiritual states, angels, gods. One could say the higher the spirit goes, the more deeply the soul sinks down into the waters of melancholy and tragedy. Drowning in that water is as sweet as rising. Rumi says:

EU: Are there any virtues in the sibling society? What is good about it?

RB: In a change so huge there is bound to be some good. If we call the young ones, say 10 to 30 years old, 'siblings,' we can see they tend to be naturally ecological. They regard whales and owls as siblings too. That's a great advance. Also siblings tend not to care much about boundaries and borders. Having worn each others' T-shirts, it's unlikely that they'd go to war over a border. In the society that has replaced the paternalistic society, women are able to develop their independent and social energies much more. That is good. During the patriarchal time, the men were always and invariably dominant, legally and socially in marriage, so now it's possible to remodel the entire house of marriage, put in new footings and new joists and a new sort of interior. That is exactly what some men and women are now doing. But at the same time the models of adulthood are disappearing fast. How can two people have a new marriage if neither of them is an adult? Finally, I think more and more people are recognizing how much adults and elders are actually needed. That's a gift of the sibling society.

EU: Still, the overarching message of your book is grievous alarm. Yet I find myself feeling hopeful. People are beginning to address these issues in unexpected ways, from a growing revival of interest in myth and poetry to the national debate over children's rights and welfare reform, and even a nascent truce in the gender wars. Perhaps revisiting the Grimms' fairy tales and other literature of the past is not exactly it, but they have much richness. You, I think, more than anyone in our time, have revealed to us some of the gifts of myth and poetry. How do you think mythopoetics can help move the sibling society toward adulthood?

RB: Poetry keeps longing alive. Some people can't go into church any longer to feel this longing, but they still have the longing, so what do they do? Well, one thing you can do is what people do in prison; they turn to poetry. You know there are wonderful stories of that longing when Russians were put in prison under Stalin. Such men might be in prison for five or ten years; they always looked forward to a new prisoner coming in order to find out what new poems he might know. Maybe they could get a new Pushkin, or a new Mandelstam, or a new Akhmatova.

I think that poetry is important when you are shipwrecked, when the ordinary structures that hold you up are gone.

There are very few adults in our culture able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane--tradition, religion, or devotion. The neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky remarked that this was true of his graduate students. He said, 'Most have no use for religion, precedents, or tradition. They want their rituals newly minted and shared horizontally within their age group, not vertically over time. The ones I train to become scientists go at it like warriors, overturning reigning paradigms, each discovery a murder of their scientific ancestors.'

Myth and poetry represent a reservoir of vertical thinking, which we could also call longing and gratitude to ancestors. We need that gratitude desperately. Vertical attention is not the same as, and doesn't evolve from nor imply, hierarchy. We could say that hierarchy is associated with power, and vertical attention with longing for the Divine Feminine, for the Divine Masculine, for what the Sufis call 'wine.' The Roman Catholic Church early on simply adapted the hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire and confused the whole thing. Vertical attention and hierarchy were so entangled, that when the French killed the king during the Revolution, they lost much of their vertical attention too. The French still offer Sartre and Derrida rather than Pascal.

If you want to know what it will be like when we are more deeply into the horizontal, simply go to one of the Indian casinos. The Native Americans, who stand for vertical thinking more than anyone else in our culture, have been setting up totally flat casinos for honkies.

EU: Would you speak a bit about the differences between adults and elders?

RB: We can learn a lot about these matters from the Native Americans. They have a fourfold view--first there is the child, then the adolescent (adolescents are in just as much trouble in Native America as they are in the white community), then they have the adult, and after the adult, the elder. The distance between the adolescent and the true adult is about five thousand miles, but the distance between the adult and the elder is almost as large. In the sibling society, both the adult and the elder get lost, and no one knows where they are. Sometimes at a men's gathering on the third or fourth day we may put the men over 55 in the front row. Some of them weep because they have never been honored ever in their life for being an elder. They are adults, but are they elders? We say to them, you have certain rights and also certain obligations. One obligation is if a young man asks you how you've kept your heart alive up to this age, you have to have an answer. We know that the man's heart is alive or he wouldn't be sitting there.

We know that the adult in a certain sense has an attitude toward life exactly opposite to the attitude of commercials. Commercials say, 'Your longing for 3.2 beer is very important. Your longing for skin that doesn't have any wrinkles in it, that's very, very, very important.' The adult says, 'No, I've got wrinkles, so what?' I saw Sophia Loren--the Italian woman with those wonderful cheekbones--in a movie the other day. She must have had 24 face-lifts, and she looks like an alien, as if she weren't from this world at all. Her Italian wrinkles would have been a thousand times more beautiful.

The older I get, the more beauty I see in the word renunciation. As a parent you have to do some renunciation. Before I was a parent I was struck by Rilke, who, as you know, didn't go to his daughter's wedding because he was writing a poem that day. That was the ideal for artistic behavior in 1950. That's the way I wanted to live. I wanted to spend all my time writing poetry. But when I had children I couldn't do that anymore. Adulthood has something to do with not choosing any of the pure points of view, but living about half of what you really want to live. I got about half the time I wanted to write poetry. I got about half the time I needed to be a father. So there is something in adulthood that has to do with accepting the half of things, allowing a renunciation of the other half, accepting half a basket instead of a full basket.

What can we say about the difference between the adult and the elder? What is an elder? Adolescents believe that the world belongs to the living, or more particularly to living people their age, so they feel within their rights if they destroy the canon or rewrite the fairy stories or act like Red Guards. An elder is someone who understands that the world belongs to the dead. The dead made this world. We didn't make it. They made the poetry and the songs and the customs. The ancestors are very much invested in the children, because the children are the ones who are going to continue the world that the ancestors made. When an elder turns to face the dead, that means he turns away from facing the future and his own retirement in Phoenix, let's say. He turns and finds himself facing the children. To me, the hope lies in adults forgetting about their retirement and turning toward the adolescents and helping pull the adolescents over that mysterious line drawn on the ground into adulthood. If we don't do that, the adolescents are going to stay exactly where they are for the next 30 or 40 years. Lately, to give a very small example, we've started saying to grown-ups who want to come to one of the seminars, whether for women and men, or those for men, 'You can't come unless you bring a younger person with you. Paying your money isn't enough.' We're starting that this year. It's a small step, but it means something.

In some Mayan villages they even have a stage beyond the elder that they call the Echo Person. They say that when an Echo Person, whether a man or a woman, speaks, the words echo both in this world and in the other world. That's why they are called Echo People. Mart?n Prechtel, who lived for 19 years in such a Mayan village, said that these old ones are really the outrageous ones. The adolescents can't match them at all. One old woman brought a hundred white pigeons into her little house. People thought about that for months, and then they all started bringing pigeons into their houses because--since she was in touch with the other world and this world--whatever she did had to be watched with great care.

EU: There are many who watch what you do with great care. What would you like your legacy to be?

RB: I don't know. I don't know that I want to answer that. I don't know about legacy, but I would like to give the gift of grief and a number of new poems and stories that people might not have read yet.

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